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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Art Imitating Life?
Emily grew up in Westport, the third and youngest daughter of Sylvia, a magazine writer and editor who later went into advertising, and Jesse Wachtel, an importer of Italian shoes who created the brands Nickels, Jazz and Via Spiga. With her father often abroad, Emily made a best friend of a girl whose successful father also spent much time away: Clea Newman, the third and youngest daughter of Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman. Emily and Clea have lived parallel lives ever since. They went to the same prep school (the Hun School of Princeton), the same college (Sarah Lawrence), and, loosely speaking, they work today at the same Westport-based charity—SeriousFun Children’s Network, which runs Paul Newman’s Hole in the Wall Gang camps for ailing kids. Clea calls in “Tenacious E” whenever SeriousFun needs help booking A-list celebrities for its gala events.
Some years ago, when Emily completed a draft of Lucky Them, Paul Newman agreed to look it over. “Paul read it within twenty-four hours,” Emily says. “He was so sweet about it. He called the next morning and said, ‘I think you have a real shot with this thing.’ And then he gave me his notes.” Newman recognized that Lucky Them was in some sense autobiographical and encouraged Emily to explore those elements. Emily is loath to commit self-analysis in interviews—the movie should speak for itself—but she does allow that the missing Matthew owes something to her busy father’s long absences from home.
And Lucas? Lucas speaks directly to Emily’s love of music and, well, musicians. “Ten years I was an unemployed actress in New York, listening to a lot of live music. You know, when you go hear music—it takes you out of what you’re doing and makes you think your life is better than it is,” Emily says. “And then I had a romance with a younger musician as I went off to supposedly star in a television show. Of course that didn’t happen. Meanwhile, this kid that I’d been dating became the biggest star.” One naturally wants to know who it is. But here, too, Emily is reticent, fending off names of New York singer-songwriters like so many gnats. Life is life, art is art.
Still: “Ellie Klug” is the name Emily used for herself a few years ago when writing columns for Fairfield Weekly. Ellie and Emily are not wholly divisible. In Toni Collette’s nuanced portrayal of Ellie, we see a talented woman with nothing but dead air in front of her. She’s stalled, in love and in life. The Kinks’ “Where Have All the Good Times Gone?” might well have been her theme. How can Ellie proceed? How can Emily proceed? Just as Ellie Klug confronts her past through journalism, Emily Wachtel confronts her past through filmmaking. Perhaps this is why, as Jake Robards puts it, “Failure was not an option for Emily. It just wasn’t.”
Yet there were times when failure seemed inevitable. As the project languished, actors unattached themselves, presumed director Huck Botko left to do other, more viable projects, and potential financiers kept saying no, no, no. What else? “Somebody promised $750,000, then pulled out. He was a billionaire. We had a three-hour lunch with him. Bailed. I had an instinct about it, but everybody kept saying, don’t worry, don’t worry, he wouldn’t give you his word if…” she trails off. Emily suffered personal losses, too, along the way: her father died in 2006 and Paul Newman, her most important booster, in 2008. (She did take solace in learning that Newman had said, a week before his death, “She’s going to get it done, isn’t she?”—confident to the end. Emily has dedicated the film to him.)
Meanwhile people would ask, year after year, with a creeping sense of indulgence, “How’s the movie coming?”
“People thought I was crazy,” Emily confesses. “I’d talk about this movie, and it was like they were thinking, ‘Really? Where?’ And then, when it finally happened, a friend of mine said, ‘I just have to tell you, I thought you might have been slightly batshit.’ I said, ‘You and a lot of other people.’”