Sundance 2016 | Whit Stillman on Jane Austen, Love and Friendship
Few filmmakers are more ideally suited to a Jane Austen adaptation than Whit Stillman, the modern master of characters who sound smarter than, perhaps, they really are… and who are constantly trapped by their own romantic ideals. Fortunately, the director of Metropolitan, Barcelona, The Last Days of Disco and Damsels in Distress has finally decided to transform one of Jane Austen’s stories to the big screen, and for some reason he’s chosen Lady Susan, a novella that hardly anyone has ever read.
The film version, newly retitled Love & Friendship, stars Kate Beckinsale as Lady Susan, a recent widow and notorious flirt who manipulates her way through polite society in 1795, conniving her own daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) into marrying an idiot named Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett) with the help of her American co-conspirator, Mrs. Johnson (Chloe Sevigny). Love & Friendship is one of the wittiest Jane Austen adaptations, and also one of the loosest: Lady Susan is so brief that Whit Stillman had to flesh out the characters quite a bit to make a proper film about it.
I caught up with Whit Stillman in Park City, Utah the night after Love & Friendship premiered to a packed, giggling audience. We spoke of the changes he made to Jane Austen’s story, why he picked such an obscure book in the first place, and why Sense and Sensibility is one of the only other Jane Austen adaptations he can tolerate. Enjoy our back-and-forth below.
Crave: Why Lady Susan, specifically? Were the other Jane Austen novels taken?
Whit Stillman: Well definitely. I mean, this is something that is sort of out of view and you can add something to it. It’s not reducing a masterpiece or doing something that’s already been done many times. This has sort of been left by the wayside and not put on the screen. And also as a writer/director, instead of reducing something that’s great to a 90-minute visual interpretation, this is sort of completing something; not exactly as she would, because I don’t know what she would have done, but she didn’t leave this – in my view – finished. It’s not a finished piece. So it’s short and there’s scope for us to do something with it, and add it to a library of your Jane Austen films that you might not already get.
Also, the really I think sensational charm of it is that I think it’s the funniest thing that she wrote. And it’s super, super funny, the original. I did a Q&A and I was saying it’s a rich chocolate cake, but it’s in this epistolary format so it’s like a wooden crate that you can only, with a knife, cut little slices and use them. Because with the epistolary form it’s so unwieldy. She abandoned it herself…
She did another novel like that though, right?
Her two first books started that way, so at the same time she was writing Lady Susan, or Love & Friendship as we call it… she never called it Susan, she actually had another project she called Susan. While she was writing Love & Friendship, […] she was also doing earlier versions of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice in the epistolary format. She called it Marianne and Elinor, was the earlier version of Sense and Sensibility. So she went from the character name titles to sententious nouns. And then First Impressions was the epistolary first draft of Pride and Prejudice. And this [Lady Susan] is the one that she didn’t take out of the epistolary, and we had to deal with that, and that’s why the adaptation took a long time.
I imagine part of the appeal is also that Kate Beckinsale’s character is also… a villain?
Would you call her a villain?
I’m not sure “villain” is quite… it doesn’t quite sum it up. She’s a typical anti-heroine. She’s an anti-heroine.
But I wonder if propriety, that sense of 19th century propriety…
This is actually slightly different from most Jane Austen. This is the very end of the 18th century. So this is 1795.
That was another charm of this project, that we could do pre-Regency.
But even so, that general era has a sense of propriety, and because everyone has to play nice there is a lot of room for gross manipulation.
Is that a gift, as a writer?
Well that character is fascinating and really fun to deal with. For the movie we had to broaden it out and have other things, because I think the novella – good and funny as it is – it’s too much one-note Lady Susan. We added other things to it, added other people more.
Was Sir Martin one of those additions, or is he that wacky in the novel?
He’s a little bit in the novel. I mean he’s there, Sir James Martin, but I had to do more with it and then cast Tom Bennett. Tom Bennett sort of created the character at the table read, so that character… I was so excited by it, I wrote a lot more scenes for him. So it’s a lot of new stuff but he existed, he exists in the novella as a silly guy, but he doesn’t really do much. He just exists as sort of a threat to Frederica.
Your other films have by and large been contemporary. The Last Days of Disco doesn’t even take place that far back…
Like there’s a title card in Metropolitan, “Not So Long Ago.” They’re all kind of “not so long ago” but they’re not “right now.”
So what’s it like having to deal with, for example, costumes?
Well it would have been really horrifying if didn’t get the chance to be working in a town with really, really gifted people at reasonable budget levels, ready to work miracles with costumes. So first they have a wonderful resource in beautiful costumes from costume houses in London, so we did a lot of fittings for the actors in London, but then what really amazed me was that they made new beautiful dresses in Dublin. They had seamstresses going 24/7 to create these dresses, and so Kate and Chloe are in some fabulous fashions.
Chloe Sevigny’s character in the book, it’s my understanding that she isn’t an American?
No but she’s sort of under-described and I really wanted Chloe to be in it, and I was totally immersed in the period, reading history and biography about our war of independence. So I was reading tons and I found it really fascinating to read about the British side of it, their version of it, what was going on there with the Parliamentary debates.
You know, a lot of people were on our side. Essentially it was a civil war between the Whig Party and the Tory Party that became violent in the United States and was non-violent in Britain. But the Whigs were on our side and the Americans didn’t call themselves “patriots” and stuff like that, they called themselves Whigs. It was Whigs vs. Tories and the Tories lost, the loyalists, and some of the well-connected and prosperous ones went back to London.
And also, trying to work out of London I started to have a sense of the difference between America and London, sort of the way they see us and all that. There’s a lot of, I felt, okay, here’s Chloe. Can I write her this part? This part is underwritten, what could we do could be kind of funny with this? Let’s have her a Tory exile. We have all the jokes about uncouth Americans and ungrateful children and being sent back to Connecticut. You know, making Connecticut a punchline, what we can do all the time is making Connecticut a punchline, being sent back to Connecticut. So Chloe and I both share some sort of Connecticut background. With me it’s very far back, with her it’s contemporary. She grew up in Connecticut.
So it seemed like a good thing to do, and then we wouldn’t have to worry at all about a British accent and all that stuff, so it also got over all that. I hate having to worry about accents if it’s not necessary, and so it just adds a quality to everything.
And we’ve had a British press screening.
How was it?
Sensational! I mean, better than last night. Sensational. So that was a big test for me, because we really tried to make… I mean, although we didn’t exactly shoot there, so much of this came out of London. So I went over the script with experts in 18th century language and had people vetting it, people coming to screenings.
Did you have Jane Austen experts come in and give you there approval.
Yeah. Yeah. [Points to himself and laughs.]
Yeah, okay, fine, you point to yourself. But I have a friend, he’s a film critic, and he says that there’s a great irony in that you have to be fiercely faithful to stuff like Harry Potter and Jem and the Holograms, but once you get into a classic novel you’re free to change things and there aren’t as many complaints. Have you noticed that? You can change older books but god help you if the Dementors fly in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
I haven’t noticed that.
I wondered if there were hardcore Jane Austen fans who would be like, “How dare you?!”
Well, I think it’s actually not, because I actually… there are very few other Jane Austens I can watch.
Other movie versions?
Yeah, very few I can tolerate watching.
I don’t want to get you in trouble, but which ones are okay?
The thing I really admire, and it’s something that I was talking to them about early on, and one of the things is that they had an early script of Sense and Sensibility that didn’t have the predicament. So it was an adaptation of… I shouldn’t get into this, but anyway, the one I really like is Sense and Sensibility. That really is wonderful, and I think some of the TV ones are good too, but that is the film version, really. I felt that we could be the funny, try to make a really great, funny Jane Austen and have that be the really great, romantic Jane Austen.
And there’s another quality about that adaptation, is that of her great novels, Sense and Sensibility is the one that’s not such a masterpiece. It’s not SO magnificent. It’s not flawless. It’s sort of written at the same time, it’s one of her young things. So I think that freed them up in the adaptation too, to do different things, and so that’s a beautiful job and I hope this will be the comic answer film.
I’m excited about Barcelona coming out on Criterion.
Do you think we’ll get Damsels in Distress as well on Criterion at some point?
Yes, I hope so. I hope so. But I’m afraid that… I mean, Sony Classics, Sony keeps it for a long time. So they don’t let it go for quite a few years I think.
So hopefully someday?
Yeah, yeah, yeah, I want them all there.
Top Photo Courtesy of Sundance Institute
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.