Interview

David Jenkins

Illustration

Lola Beltrán

Whit Stillman: ‘There would be a lot more Jane Austen movies if there were dollar signs’

The dean of American comedy cinema talks tackling (and acing) a lost Jane Austen classic.

Cinematic delights are rarely as absolute as Love & Friendship, the latest from American writer/director Whit Stillman. Characters in his previous comedies, such as 1990’s Metropolitan or 1994’s Barcelona, all seemed to exist out of their own time, but with this latest movie, an adaptation of one of Jane Austen’s juvenile novellas, people, place and time achieve a sublime connection.

LWLies: When you’re dealing with Jane Austen, do people immediately see dollar signs?

Stillman: If there were dollar signs, there would’ve been a lot more Jane Austen movies. There was a bit of an Austen adaptation period around ’95, but not a lot since then. I’m particularly fond of Sense and Sensibility as the opposite of what we do. It’s very romantic and we’re very comic. I think the films work together.

Could you do a purely romantic movie, without the comic?

I wouldn’t have done that film in the same way. I really admire what Ang Lee and Emma Thompson did with it. I was tangentially involved in that film. I had conversations with the producers, and I was incredibly impressed with how it turned out. I can’t say exactly how I was going to be involved. One of the great things about that story is the predicament of the girls. The structure of her narrative really works well.

How much interaction did you have with the official Jane Austen society?

Bits and pieces through Twitter. They’ve always been good and supportive. The Dutch Jane Austen Society came to our screening at the Rotterdam Film Festival and they loved it. It’s a different kind of thing. A lot of Jane Austen people just like the world. They seem pretty accepting, though they do turn against adaptations they don’t like. They don’t mind when people do a Jane Austen film like a Brontë film, which is what a lot of people said about Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice.

So the idea for the film came about many years ago.

Yes. I was having cocktails in London and I was chatting with a guy about this obscure, very funny, very unusual Jane Austen novella, and he was terribly encouraging. He was a neophyte who hadn’t done anything in film. He was a wannabe producer type, but he ended up marrying his American girlfriend, moving to New York and getting into renewable energy. So I was off the hook. But it was fun having someone who encouraged it. It was the project I would always return to between script deadlines and deliveries. There was no real pressure on this one. It was like a block of marble that had to be chipped away. It was helpful that you could come back to it and peel away some more text. It’s a goldmine of funny thoughts, senses and observations. There was a point where the manager I was with thought it was all set to go and the casting people thought it was a good idea. And then I was re-reading it and it just wasn’t ready.

We read that you inspected the original manuscript of ‘Lady Susan’?

I did it online. Everyone can. It’s the Morgan Library website. There was an exhibition of her manuscripts which I went to. That was years ago, but I loved it. I was actually looking for whether she had put a title on it. I wanted to change the title. I don’t believe it is on the manuscript. Her nephew is supposed to have added it. I understand why, as ‘Northanger Abbey’ was originally titled ‘Susan’, so it would’ve been strange if this was ‘Lady Susan’. Also, another justification for using her juvenile story title, ‘Love & Friendship’, was that many of her projects she started with a character title and then she switched to impressive nouns. ‘Sense & Sensibility’ started out as ‘Eleanor and Marianne’, ‘Pride & Prejudice’ started out as ‘First Impressions’.

Was the process of dramatising the book tough?

It seemed like a really tough task and it did take a lot of time. But basically there was an engine under the hood. When people work on material that doesn’t have an engine, it doesn’t have that tension to takes it to interesting places. And that’s what’s so frustrating about the film business: so many times you hear people saying that everyone’s done such good work, but in fact, it’s still dead.

Tags: Jane Austen

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