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Douglas McGrath’s first shock came, the writer/director remembers, when he heard that Emma Thompson was writing a screenplay of Jane Austen’s Emma. Since McGrath was in the process of adapting the same novel by the suddenly trendy 19th-century novelist, that was scary. The report on Thompson’s undertaking soon turned out to be wrong; she actually wrote (and subsequently starred in) Sense and Sensibility. Then McGrath found out about another Emma script, as well as Clueless, the Amy Heckerling film that updates Emma to contemporary L.A. “I didn’t know whether to be worried or not,” says McGrath, in Washington for a round of promotional interviews.

Now that Emma is about to be released, McGrath is still not sure if he should worry. The flood of Austen-derived films guarantees his movie a certain amount of attention, but may also provide for some unflattering comparisons, especially since McGrath’s Emma is considerably more self-conscious than Sense and Sensibility. “I don’t know if [the Austen boom] will help us with the critics, but I think it will help with the audiences,” the director muses.

McGrath himself has savored the work of his fellow Austen adapters. “I saw Clueless after shooting. I really enjoyed it.” As for the glossy Sense and Sensibility, “I kind of fell for the whole thing.” The only big-screen Austen adaptation McGrath hasn’t seen is Persuasion, the most traditional one.

One peer who appreciates McGrath’s break with tradition is Trainspotting director Danny Boyle, although he forecasts that the arch Emma will not be received kindly in Austen’s homeland. “I think Emma will get slaughtered in Britain,” he says. “Because of our sacred relationship with Jane. That film, more than any of the British attempts, actually does do something slightly different with it. I think it’s very interesting. It’s a very modern portrayal of that girl, as modern in its tone as Clueless. And I think the British will find that deeply upsetting,” he laughs, clearly relishing the potential discomfort.

While Emma may offend the more hidebound Austen acolytes, it may also benefit from the presence of Gwyneth Paltrow, who has been anointed as a star despite few starring roles. Paltrow is all over the glossy entertainment and fashion magazines at the moment, and the early word on her performance in Emma is positive. Boyle calls hers “one of the best English accents I’ve heard an American do.”

McGrath didn’t cast Paltrow to attract American audiences to a film that’s populated principally by such British and Australian actors as Toni Collette, Greta Scacchi, Juliet Stevenson, Ewan McGregor, Jeremy Northam, and Sophie Thompson (the latter the sister of the Sense and Sensibility writer/star). “You’d think so, but no,” he says. Instead, “I was just knocked out by her reading. She’s exactly how I saw the part.”

The director admits that he had few prospects for the role. “It was really important that she be the right age,” he decided. “Then you think, ‘Who is Emma?’ The names are frightening. Shannen Doherty is Emma? Drew Barrymore? I don’t think so.”

Though a Texas native, McGrath is a longtime New Yorker, and began his writing career with a slot at Saturday Night Live in 1980. “I couldn’t believe it,” he recalls of getting the coveted job. It was only later that he discovered that “essentially everyone except the guy who brought you up in the elevator had left.” The stars, the writers, even producer Lorne Michaels (who subsequently returned) had quit the show.

During the following season, McGrath labored to make what he calls “90 of the worst minutes on television.” The reviews were terrible, he says, and the audience wasn’t pleased either. “People got mad if you told them where you worked.”

During that season, staff writers were constantly disappearing. “It’s like we’re working in a show in an Agatha Christie novel,” one colleague joked. “We just had a terrible year. But it was a fascinating year for me,” says McGrath. There was even a Writer’s Guild strike. “My whole [TV writing] career was compressed into a year.”

Under the SNL system, writers had full responsibility for supervising all the details of the skits they wrote, and for making last-minute changes during the two or three days the skits were rehearsed. “That experience really helped with Emma,” the writer says. “You have the same kind of time pressure. You learn to look at something and say, ‘This is vital, this is not.’”

After his own firing from SNL, McGrath turned to writing screenplays on spec, which led to a dispiriting pattern: Studio executives would ask for changes that the writer thought ill-advised, “on the verge of bankruptcy” he’d make the changes, and then the studios would reject the scripts anyway. “I found it too discouraging,” remembers McGrath, who began writing a satirical column about the Bush presidency, “White House Diary,” for The Nation. “One day the phone rang and it was Robert Redford,” a fan of the column.

The Redford connection got McGrath a small part in Quiz Show, and encouraged him to become a director. He collaborated on two short films, the first one for SNL, that began his cinematic education. “We knew nothing going on that set,” he says. “And when I say nothing, I mean less than nothing.”

McGrath subsequently co-scripted Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway and wrote the disastrous remake of Born Yesterday and two plays. He also directed a 20-minute film for Disney. “I really learned a lot,” he recalls. “I learned how much can be done in a day,” vital knowledge for Emma, his first feature. “I just cut 20 pages” of Emma’s 114-page script. “You usually have more than you need,” he says, noting that the film’s first cut, at more than two hours and 10 minutes, was still too long.

Even if Emma establishes McGrath as a successful director, he discloses, humility is just a remote-control button away. Comedy Central has been showing SNL episodes from the 1980 season, and McGrath recently sat down to watch an episode containing one of his own bits that he remembered as being particularly good. “One sketch after the next was horrible, including my little jewel of a sketch,” he shudders. “I was in such horror watching it.”—Mark Jenkins