Emily Anderson: An Emotionally Driven Filmmaker

Winner of a Suffolk County Film Commission Grant
Emily Anderson on location in Iceland while filming near the Eyjafjallajokull volcano, which erupted in 2010 Tyler Haft

Emily Anderson’s goal is to move to Hollywood and be the first woman to direct a James Bond film. Geographically, she is slightly more than halfway there, having relocated from the south coast of England to New York City just after 9/11. 

She is on her way to her goal creatively as well. Her first narrative film, “Only the Wind Is Listening,” a 12-minute short set in Montauk, where she has lived for 10 years, premiered at the 2018 Hamptons International Film Festival and won the Suffolk County Film Commission Next Exposure Grant.

“I’m from a place in England that’s like Montauk, with slightly odd, crazy weather,” she said during a recent conversation outside the Springs General Store. “Everyone asks why I love Montauk so much, and I think it’s because it just feels like home. I love the people, I love the weather, the amazing seasons, and the atmosphere the people bring.”

The road to Montauk led through New York City, where she has a residence in Chinatown and has worked as a creative director for Ogilvy Entertainment for five years. After earning a degree in sculpture from the Glasgow School of Art — “I thought I was going to be the next Anish Kapoor” — she first came to New York on a 90-day tourist visa. 

“I just fell in love so hard with New York. I was obsessed with art.” That obsession led to internships at two nonprofit art venues, WhiteBox and Franklin Furnace.

Through those internships, she met Martin C. Liu, the president of WhiteBox’s board, who introduced her to East Hampton, and the artist Dennis Oppenheim, for whom she worked as a studio assistant in exchange for a room at his TriBeCa loft.

“I was moving from being an artist to being more of a designer, building websites and branding, so I welcomed a chance not to have to struggle with rent while I worked out who I really was.” She also spent time with Oppenheim and his wife, Amy, at their house in Springs. 

She discovered Montauk, “and life was never the same. I picked up surfing again. I made new friends. I still get emotional when the train pulls into the station and the conductor calls out, ‘Montauk, last stop!’ ”

In 2013, the day she got her green card, she went to an interview at Ogilvy for a position as a creative director and within a year received an opportunity to direct her first film. “My whole life changed that day. It went really, really well, so from then on I was a director.”

“The Gift of Light” is a four-minute story filmed in Thanh Son, Vietnam, a rural village without electricity. The sponsor was Philips, which brought electricity there in various forms. But, as with her subsequent films for Ogilvy, the people of the village tell their stories so well and so movingly that the client becomes incidental.

“My strength is that I can see where the story is,” Ms. Anderson said. “I know how to edit a film to get people to feel things, even if it’s a commercial or branded content. I’m especially proud of the films I’ve made in foreign languages, because for the viewer to feel passion for the characters, or be moved in any way, I think is amazing.”

One of her favorites is “A Good Heart,” the story of Tommaso, an Italian boy with a hole in his heart who was saved by a cardiologist using imaging technology at Policlinico San Donato near Milan. She has made films on location in Japan, Hawaii, Australia, and throughout the United States.

Ms. Anderson usually writes her films, starting with a treatment, then conducting pre-interviews by phone. “Then I rewrite the treatment based on what I’ve learned from talking to people. And then I shoot it.” Writing the short documentaries gave her the confidence to write “Only the Wind Is Listening.”

“My life has been talking to people, figuring out their stories, then helping them tell them. With ‘Only the Wind Is Listening’ I realized if I’m going to write it I’ll have to follow through and shoot it. Otherwise I won’t know if it’s any good or not.”

She felt that submitting her film to the festival was a long shot. “The day I got the email saying my film had been accepted, all the months of pain and suffering for me and everybody around me that went into making the film were worth it.” 

“Winning the Suffolk Film Commission Prize was huge, just for confidence. Despite my other film work, I felt like a total beginner making my first narrative film, so it gave me the confidence to put it in other film festivals. I want it to be a calling card.”

“Only the Wind Is Listening” is moody and suspenseful, cutting between the lonely lives of a fisherman and a writer whose paths cross dramatically during an unforgiving Montauk winter. The ending is deliberately ambiguous. “In my commercial work, you have to put a bow on it, maybe it’s a logo or a call to action, but I wanted you to leave my narrative film wondering what’s next.”

Meanwhile, she is writing another short film, also based in Montauk, about the joy of walking in nature. “I’m very goal-oriented, so I love to finish everything I start. I feel very comfortable making short films and short documentaries, so I don’t feel ready to write a feature screenplay yet.” 

In addition to her film work, Ms. Anderson and Yasha Wallin, a writer and close friend, decided in 2015 to publish The Usual, a free newspaper. “We knew there were so many amazing people living in Montauk. We needed a way to meet them and tell their stories.” The two women had worked together at galleries in New York and had created magazines and artists’ books.

They published the six advertisement-free issues on newsprint over three summers. “Instagram was coming up, and we wanted to make something that was the antithesis of online social media.” The Usual featured photo and written essays, profiles, studio visits, recipes, and interviews, some of which Ms. Anderson recorded with her iPhone. 

Her many subjects, “some famous, some not so famous,” ranged from the playwright Edward Albee to Jimmy Goldberg, a commercial fisherman who also builds and fixes surfboards. Several of The Usual’s filmed interviews and information about the content of the out-of-print issues can be found at theusualmontauk.com. 

In all her work, her rapport with her subjects is as obvious as her sharp visual sense. Ms. Anderson is so personable, versatile, and apparently fearless — she learned to surf in Indonesia and Mexico and worked winters as a ski guide in France — directing a James Bond film might not be such a stretch.

Jennifer Ferrin plays a writer enduring a cold and lonely Montauk winter in Emily Anderson’s film “Only the Wind Is Listening.”