Flipping the Scripts
From thrillers to Hallmark, Emily Moss Wilson is making it in the movie business.
In the summer of 2017, Emily Moss Wilson ’05 found herself in a New York City boardroom with Lifetime network executives looking for someone to direct happy holiday movies. Given her background in thrillers, she had to work to convince them that she understood “nobody’s gonna get murdered.”
Wilson wrote and directed her first thriller in 2014. Drink is a short, eerie film about a mother whose life is changed after a night in an old motel room; it has more than 5 million views on YouTube. In 2016, Wilson directed Nanny Seduction, a low-budget Lifetime thriller released the next year. “FEMALE DIRECTORS OFTEN HAVE TO JUMP THROUGH A LOT MORE HOOPS TO PROVE THEY CAN DO THE JOB.”
Emily Moss Wilson
“FEMALE DIRECTORS OFTEN HAVE TO JUMP THROUGH A LOT MORE HOOPS TO PROVE THEY CAN DO THE JOB.”
“The X-Files and The Twilight Zone and Hitchcock — they were really big influences for me,” Wilson said.
In spite of her thriller-heavy past, she landed a holiday movie project for Lifetime. Wilson directed Christmas in Mississippi, the first of what would be six holiday movies in five years for the cable channel. She directed Christmas in Tune with Reba McEntire in 2021; for the 2022 holidays, she directed A Christmas Open House for Discovery+ and co-wrote and directed My Southern Family Christmas, set in her native Louisiana, for Hallmark.
“I think it’s nice to be able to hire somebody that has lived through Southern Christmases. We understand the no-snow Christmases,” she said. Her production team worked “extra hard to really put the colors of Christmas, the reds and the greens and just the textures, in the scene as opposed to being able to rely on white snow everywhere.”
Directing and Writing
Wilson acknowledged the tropes that run rampant in TV holiday movies: hometown sweethearts, mistaken identities and “Christmas conflict,” such as an ice sculpture competition. But she said cliches aren’t confined to the holiday genre.
“It’s kind of the same way people get excited to see horror movies. There’s an unspoken set of rules and expectations when you go to see a horror movie. Even when it’s cheesy, that’s what you’ve come to see,” Wilson said. “Through directing, I just constantly kind of refresh the themes and try to make them better, try to make them more grounded — just kind of put my thumbprint on it where I can.”
For Christmas in Mississippi, adding a thumbprint meant incorporating a tradition she learned from extended family who grew up on the Gulf Coast. They had a box inscribed with “Some have chimneys, but all have locks. The key to entry is in this box.” Inside was a brass key.
“It’s Santa’s key,” Wilson said. “The lore is that if you put this in your mailbox, Santa will take it and use it on Christmas Eve to get into all the houses of Gulfport, Mississippi, because not everybody has chimneys to go down.” The tradition made it into the movie — and into Wilson’s home. “We actually now have the box from the movie, and my kids love to do it at Christmas.”
“She always tries to find ways to deliver the best possible moment on screen no matter how big or small,” said Daniel Lewis, who first worked with Wilson on Nanny Seduction. They have since done five more movies together, with Lewis producing and Wilson directing.
In addition to directing, the film, television and digital media alumna also writes scripts. She got her break by filling in for a lead writer, Marcy Holland, on a Lifetime project. They began by co-writing scripts, but in 2019, Holland was swamped with work and suggested that Wilson write the next film.
“2019 was my first experience with writing two of them — from square one, an idea to first draft — by myself. And then I ended up directing both of those that year,” Wilson said. “From that, I started getting these little writing gigs. … It’s helped me grow my confidence in my abilities.”
Wilson now has writing credits not only on holiday movies and thrillers, but also on romantic comedies and dramas.
About a year before the pandemic, Wilson moved from Hollywood back to her hometown of Lake Charles, Louisiana, with her husband, Greg, and their son, Walt, born in late 2015. The family welcomed another son, Max, in late 2019.
Working in the movie industry outside of Hollywood has its pros and cons, said Wilson, who enjoyed the ease of bumping into colleagues and mentors at places like the grocery store or a coffee shop in Los Angeles — not to mention the convenience of living near a major airport.
“There’s kind of that buzzy, networking, in-person energy that I was really sad to lose,” Wilson said of her move. But in Louisiana, she said, she enjoys not talking shop every day. “We knew that we wanted to buy a house that we could afford, be near grandparents while the kids were little.”
Wilson’s origin story starts like that of most movie characters — with great conflict, what she calls a “battle between art and science.” The family business is medicine, but Wilson’s pull toward the theatrical began during childhood as she directed her cousins and the neighborhood kids in skits and songs.
She found her affinity for film in high school, where she made movies in English and speech classes. “I remember a friend in high school got the very first nonlinear editing software on this computer,” Wilson said. “You could actually craft the story through editing and move little pieces around.” Moments like these motivated her to pursue film in college.
She chose TCU because she knew she would get her hands on the equipment faster at a smaller school. She was an early member of the Student Filmmakers Association, an outlet for students to pitch, write, cast, produce and direct movies in collaboration with peers and faculty. Wilson worked on five original film projects during her time at TCU.
In 2005, shortly after graduating, Wilson traveled to Italy with a class offered by the film, television and digital media department. There, she helped produce a short film the students made while abroad.
“She was always soaking everything up,” said Charles LaMendola, associate professor of professional practice in film, television and digital media, who led the trip with two other professors. “Whatever she was doing, she was learning from the experience.”
After graduation, Wilson moved to Los Angeles and spent four years with 20th Century Fox in a variety of roles, from assisting a TV development executive to working on a Wolverine movie.
In 2009, she married Greg Wilson, then director of development and producer for director Garry Marshall, and began a freelance career. Working as script coordinator for Marshall on his films Valentine’s Day and New Year’s Eve, both with all-star casts, gave her a directing mentor.
Wilson participated in the Half Foundation Directing Program, which paired her with Jamie Lee Curtis on Scream Queens. Curtis, a photography buff, “just had an eye. She obviously knows how to work with actors,” Wilson said.
Wilson was named an emerging female director by the WeForShe DirectHer Program in 2019; the program pairs up-and-coming female directors with established female directors on episodic TV shows.
According to research from San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film, only 17 percent of the directors for 2021’s top grossing films were female.
“Female directors often have to jump through a lot more hoops to prove they can do the job. Multiple directing programs, endless shadowing assignments,” Wilson said. She added that instead of keeping women “in a perpetual state of preparing,” mentoring programs should lead to jobs.
Wilson returned to TCU in early 2022 to deliver a talk to film, television and digital media students in the Schieffer College of Communication. “She walked into the building, and it was like 2004. She hadn’t changed a lick,” LaMendola said.
“The fact that I was sitting there, being the one to impart some knowledge and wisdom, it felt very cool. It felt very full circle,” Wilson said.
Currently she’s working on a few scripts of her own. One is based on the true story of her in-laws’ honeymoon in the ’70s, a road trip movie she likened to Little Miss Sunshine or Juno in tone.
Wilson said she would love to return to her darker roots. “Because I’m so in the world of Christmas, day in and day out, my escape is like the opposite. I just need something that kind of puts me on the edge for a second,” she said. “I’m dying to do a thriller.”
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