Melissa Leilani Larson takes historical figures Jane and Emma from 1844 and creates a film that explores their friendship. Her film Jane and Emma shows how race is infused in a friendship and how listening plays a vital role in all of our lives.
ATM: Is this movie in any way like your relationship with God?
Melissa: Yes. My female friendships have been very important. Sometimes this has been the way I realized God is aware of me. Sometimes I feel like I am alone in the world. I remembered that I have very good friends that are there because God cares about me.
This is what is going on with Jane and Emma, it is that they have a connection to God. It is in this connection with God that they have a connection with each other. If people have this connection, then they will find the film relatable.
ATM: How many years did it take for this film to come about?
Melissa: There were a lot of meetings and a lot of people who have invested their time in this story. It was two years in February and then we shot in March. We are looking at about 2 ½ years. I have been working on the script for a long time. It is good though because there are a lot of independent films where people would just write a script fast and then go “Hey I wrote something.” They will go and shoot something. It has been nice to have the time to develop it even though there have been times where I would have liked to put it down.
ATM: Were there any implications about race in this script?
Melissa: They are historical figures. They are both real people who lived in Novo, Illinois. The film takes place in 1844. Jane Manning who is the protagonist is one of the first black Mormons of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. She joins the church in Connecticut. She and her family decided to travel from Connecticut to Illinois, which to me is not a big deal. To them, they went by sailboats. They got kicked off the boat in Buffalo, which is still 800 miles away. They decided to walk the rest of the way. It is a good testament of faith.
Race becomes an important part of the story. I worked closely with two black women and they are very close to Jane. She has become a historical icon for them. I am not black. I am Asian. Learning about Jane has been very important to me. They are both struggling with different things. Jane is trying to find a place this faith. She wants to be on the level with everyone else. Jane finds friends, but some are prejudice. It is difficult.
Emma is in this very weird place where her husband, Joseph Smith, is the founder of the Mormon church. He is a very complicated person. He is attractive to some people and repulsive to other people. She is dealing with this interesting thing where she has to share her husband. These two women find a connection together. This film takes place the night after Joseph Smith is murdered. Emma is in a state of distress. Jane is trying to be an anchor to her. Emma needs to learn to appreciate how hard it is to be black in America during 1844. People are going to see this in a modern context as well. There are some of the same problems with race, but we are dealing with it in the church in history. There are still problems today in our society that we did need to work out.
ATM: How do you think we should work out these differences in our society today?
Melissa: It is almost basic when I say it to you, but it is one of those things that people do not do, which is to just listen. These two women over the course of the film learn to listen to each other and feel the pain of the other. This is the starting place. A lot of the people that we have in our society both in the church and outside of the church, just like as Americans, we can really be roused up and we do not listen to the other person. Someone asked me, “What do you think is between these two women?” It starts with listening. This is what we need to do first. You cannot really appreciate what the other person is feeling until you are saying.
ATM: What is one of your best friend female friendships?
Melissa: My female best friend. It is funny because I never thought about it this way. My best friend is really awesome because we talk all the time. Sometimes it is just texting. I was in Salt Lake City. Two years ago, she got a job in California. She lives in LA. I used to go to her house all the time to hang out. She got a big fancy job. Now we do all our communicating on the phone. I do go out there and visit a lot. It was a really good excuse when we had a screening in LA to go see her.
Communication is just an important thing. She is one of the first people if not the first person I can call and say, “Oh my God, this happened and how do I deal.” She is really good at being calm when I am not. And say, “Okay, take a breath. I need you to think about this.” She is also the first person to tell me that I am crazy brilliant when I feel like the worst writer in the world. She is like, “No. No. You are good at this. Do not quit.” I get this from her in the way that she does not hesitate. I hope I can be this same kind of support to her. We are different. She is a mom and has kids. I am a single woman that is just working all the time. There are things that we like to do together. It is probably good that we have jobs and that she has a kid. Otherwise, we would probably just waste time.