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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The Depp Effect
For all the rejection, Emily kept dreaming big. She got the crackpot idea, for instance, that Johnny Depp, the most famous actor on earth, would be ideal for a certain cameo role in Lucky Them. No budget, no director, a revolving cast of actors—and a fool’s dream of landing Jack Sparrow. Through Joanne Woodward, who is listed as an executive producer on the film, Emily was at least permitted to meet with Depp’s people in Los Angeles; people who treated her politely and seemed to take her quite seriously—but who knows what they were really thinking?
Whatever happened with other actors, she did have, irrevocably, Thomas Haden Church. Among a certain contingent of viewers, Church is known as the Sandman in Spider-Man 3 (2007), or as Lowell Mather on the TV show Wings. But he earned an Oscar nomination for playing Jack, a washed-up TV actor, in Alexander Payne’s brilliant Sideways (2004). Sideways is about people fumbling through life, about sputtering dreams and quiet crises—themes that also resound through Lucky Them. The point of Ellie and Charlie is to endure with wit and grace, and Church liked that. “We’ve had a seven-year, I’d say, bromance, artistically,” Emily says. “He would spur me on when I was at a low with the film, because he liked the part so much. He’d say, ‘C’mon, you’re the lead producer, get this going, woman.’ I’d think, OK, I guess I am the lead producer.”
Even with Church’s encouragement and some Woodward-Newman wind in her sails, Emily found that getting Lucky Them aloft seemed as impossible as ever. “I never lost belief in what I was doing—I got tired,” she says. “But as soon as I stopped grieving over every rejection, everything that didn’t work out—I guess that was about three years ago—it started moving quicker. They say you have to get that Zen thing going where you just say, ‘What’s next, what’s next, what’s next?’”
One important “next” happened when Emily bumped into Philip Seymour Hoffman at his Ides of March premiere in 2011. He asked the dreaded question: “How’s the movie?” Wachtel told him she had only $1 million to show for all her meetings, all her effort—not nearly enough. “And he said, ‘You’ve gotta go. You’re done.’ And I said, ‘But we need more.’ And he said, ‘Doesn’t matter, you gotta go.’ He really kicked this thing into gear.”
The next big “next” was a director named Colin Trevorrow reading and loving the script. Trevorrow’s first feature, Safety Not Guaranteed (2012), is little known outside the film community but admired within it; indeed, it won him the plumb job of directing Jurassic World, executive produced by Steven Spielberg, now in preproduction. Trevorrow tried to woo other directors for Lucky Them, without success. And then it struck him. Megan Griffiths. The youngish Seattle director’s track record was similarly obscure, but those familiar with her work (Eden, about a woman kidnapped into sex slavery, drew particular notice) regarded her as a fully emerged talent ready for bigger films. Emily loved her almost from the moment they met in 2012—even when Megan suggested changing Lucky Them from a New York story to a Seattle one—and not just because she lives there and has an eager crew at hand. The change made sense because Lucky Them is a music movie and Seattle is a music town, home to Pearl Jam and Macklemore and Sub Pop Records (slogan: “We’re not the best, but we’re pretty good”). The growing legend of Matthew Smith was highly credible in the Seattle milieu.
After hiring Megan, the film fell together quickly, beginning with a first-rate cast of veterans like Platt (Frost/Nixon) and newcomers like Eggold, Nina Arianda (a Tony winner for Broadway’s Venus in Fur), and Ahna O’Reilly (The Help). When shooting began in January of last year, a gentle magic descended on the set, as if Emily’s whole crazy plan had been preordained. “It was amazing to see her vision come to life,” Peer Pedersen says. “And it did so effortlessly. This is a movie that feels comfortable in its own skin.” Toni Collette, among the most respected of film actresses, has called the experience of making Lucky Them “joyous, focused, passionate and exciting.” Adam Gibbs described the on-set atmosphere as “familial.”
There was one missing piece, though. Whatever happened to Johnny Depp? Emily had been careful to keep in touch with Depp’s office, but no sign of the actor’s participation issued forth. Even a late letter from Joanne Woodward seemed to go unheeded. “So we were shooting and I kept saying I want Johnny Depp to do his part,” Emily remembers. “Everyone was telling me, ‘You’re crazy, it’s not gonna happen, live in reality.’”
On the set, two weeks before wrapping, Emily received an out-of-the-blue e-mail from Depp’s sister and manager, Christi Dembrowski. “She said, ‘My brother’s really excited to do this.” Emily stood there, in Washington State, freezing, lucky. She turned to Adam Gibbs, standing beside her, and said, “This is the biggest thing that’s ever happened to me.” Adam said, “This is the biggest thing that’s ever happened to me, and I’m just standing next to you.”
They filmed Depp, who proved thoughtful and engaged, on a desolate street in Tacoma. Emily says, “Somehow there never was a question in my mind that he wouldn’t do it, but every time I see the movie—and I’ve seen the movie so often—I’m like, ‘I can’t believe he did it.’ We wrapped early that day, and there was a double rainbow in the sky. I just thought, ‘This is the best day ever.’”
Lucky Them premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September to a standing ovation. Shortly thereafter, IFC Films bought North American distribution rights and will soon bring the film to theaters near us. Emily may have had luck, here and there, between stretches of crap and nothingness, but her story goes to prove that luck isn’t just luck. It’s imagination and willpower, too. “The thing that gets you into this business, the dream thing, the dream of making your movie—you have to hold onto that through all that bad stuff,” Emily says. “And if you stick around, sooner or later you’re going to see the whole show.”