With her glamorous looks and A-list friends, Emily Wachtel seemed to have it all. But for years she chased an elusive dream of taking Hollywood by storm. Thanks to persistence and good fortune, her time in the spotlight has come
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I thought I was going to grow up and be a movie star,” Emily Wachtel was saying one bitterly cold night at a Greenwich Starbucks. “Like everybody who goes into this business, I started with a dream. Or maybe it was a delusion.”
Emily played a nurse in Regarding Henry (1991) and a bartender in Empire Falls (2005). She played hairdressers, airport counter girls and random shoppers; she played bit parts on TV series that never evolved into promised bigger parts. Twice, she sold a reality show in which she was to star, and twice the project evaporated before the check arrived in her mailbox. The late Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, an old friend, would say, “Why don’t you have your own show yet? What’s going on with you?” She passed from her twenties to forties wondering why good jobs didn’t fall her way when names like Sanford Meisner, the legendary acting teacher of Robert Duvall and Diane Keaton, had praised her talent. She smiles. “He used to say, ‘Where’s the girl with the big hair and the potty mouth?’”
All these years later, at Starbucks, Emily’s hair is glamorously brunette with golden highlights and her mouth is poetically, offbeatly, comic. Everything rolls out with a nice little spin on it. “I have such a high tolerance for coffee that when I drink it, it makes me tired,” she says. “Am I, like, talking too much? Don’t let me say ‘like’ or ‘um.’ God help me if I do that. I’ll sound just like Gisele Bündchen.” It’s the sort of breezy, lively talk that makes one glad she stumbled into writing. Not that writing has been a whole lot easier. The charming new movie she co-wrote and produced, Lucky Them, starring Toni Collette (The Sixth Sense), Thomas Haden Church (Sideways) and Ryan Eggold (TV’s The Blacklist), emerged in her consciousness eleven years ago. Little about that elephantine gestation was pleasant. “It was like getting hit in the knees with a hockey stick all along the way.” Really? “No. It was like running a marathon on your elbows.”
Knocking on Hollywood’s Door
To anyone who wants to make an indie film: Emily Wachtel’s journey will either kill your dream right now or inspire you to persevere to the point of madness. But let’s begin with the result. Lucky Them is the story of a world-weary Seattle rock journalist, Ellie Klug, assigned to track down an old boyfriend, the cult rock hero Matthew Smith. Ten years earlier Smith abruptly quit the music scene—and perhaps his life too, in the grand tradition of Northwestern rockers Kurt Cobain and Elliott Smith. We don’t know for sure, though; the man is simply gone. Ellie (played by Collette) drinks too much and sleeps around too much, largely to avoid confronting old ghosts like Matthew Smith. The past is past—isn’t it? Not if you’re Ellie’s boss Giles (played by Oliver Platt), who is under pressure to reverse Stax magazine’s waning fortunes in the digital age. Thus, he demands a Matthew Smith exposé or Ellie’s head.
That’s the basic premise. Ellie hits the road with Charlie (Thomas Haden Church), a wealthy man at loose ends who wants to try his hand at making documentary films; as potential mates they seem wildly unsuited to each other, but as odd-couple searchers they sparkle. Church, so put-offish at first glance, turns out to be the most appealing eccentric on film in recent memory, tossing out left-field observations like, “There’s a crispness to my writing that I enjoy.” Meanwhile, Ellie is pursued by a talented young musician named Lucas Stone (Eggold) whom she treats rather shabbily, so wary is she of giving her heart to another Matthew Smith. Indeed, when it seems to her that Lucas’s ship of fame has landed (and his interest in her is therefore doomed), she hops into bed with another guy. It’s a symptom of the damage she must overcome.
“We call our movie an unromantic comedy,” Emily says, a touch darkly. “It’s not a romantic comedy, it’s unromantic. The other writer [Huck Botko] and I decided that if we were going to go down doing a romantic comedy, we were going to go down in flames.” You might not agree that Lucky Them is unromantic; but certainly, it feels truer to life than the typical Hollywood romantic comedy.
The film, due out in May, has Greenwich fingerprints all over it. Emily lives in Stamford, but does her writing in Greenwich Avenue coffee shops. You might even spot her with Eggold—who takes the train out from New York—at CFCF Roastery & Café, laying out scenes for a new project of theirs. (Much like Lucas Stone, Eggold is verging on stardom. “Everybody says he has movie-star quality,” Emily notes. “Plus, he’s a doll.”) Adam Gibbs, a producer of Lucky Them, grew up in Greenwich and graduated from Brunswick in 2004. Peer Pedersen, an executive producer with whom Gibbs often teams (the duo plans to shoot a script of Pedersen’s this year), graduated from Brunswick in 2005. Gibbs and Pedersen are cementing Brunswick’s reputation for turning out film people: major writer-directors Rod Lurie (The Contender) and Neil Burger (The Illusionist) are early ’80s graduates.
The actor Jake Robards, who has a small role in Lucky Them, was born in Greenwich in 1974, attended Greenwich Country Day, and recently moved back to town. Jake, son of the late Jason Robards, read every draft of Lucky Them through the years. “People outside the business have no concept of how hard it is to make an independent film,” he says. “They say, ‘You were in the same place five years ago! You’re never making a movie.’” Nobody has faith in yet another unknown with movie dreams, he says, observing that his friend Michael Sucsy spent eight years trying to get a film made. It turned out to be the multiple Emmy-winning Grey Gardens. “As for Emily, I think she willed Lucky Them into being. She believed in it, even when nobody else believed.”