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01/29/2016 11:12 am ET

With 'Love & Friendship,' Whit Stillman Trades Jane Austen Debates For A 'Lady Susan' Adaptation

Starring Kate Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny, the film debuted at Sundance.
Jeff Vespa via Getty Images

Whit Stillman is a Sundance success story. His debut movie, "Metropolitan," soared out of the 1990 festival toward critical glory, an Oscar nomination for its screenplay and a 25th anniversary re-release. Stillman's fifth film, "Love & Friendship," took him back to Sundance this week, where it earned glowing reviews. 

Based on the lesser-known epistolatory Jane Austen novella Lady Susan,  published 54 years after Austen's death, "Love & Friendship" makes an antihero of the conniving title character (Kate Beckinsale). During a time when women had little agency, Susan is a widow willing to manipulate her way into suitable marriages for herself and her daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark), to whom she's never displayed proper affection. With biting humor, Stillman makes "Love & Friendship" an accessible battle of the aristocratic sexes and a delight for Austen acolytes who've awaited a Lady Susan adaptation. The Huffington Post sat down with Stillman at Sundance to talk about his Austen adoration, what his Austen-debating "Metropolitan" characters would think and the one mistake he made with "The Last Days of Disco."

How do you feel about people saying, “Finally, the Jane Austen movie we knew Whit Stillman would make one day”? 

I agree with them. That’s how I feel.

Audrey and the other characters in “Metropolitan” debated Austen’s work. Have you had your eyes on a literal adaptation of her stories ever since?

A really good producer approached me in 1994, when I was finishing “Barcelona,” to direct a Jane Austen piece. It was a particular idea, but I can’t talk about it precisely. I had just finished “Barcelona” and I was about to start on the script for “The Last Days of Disco,” and I thought maybe I should write original stories. I felt that a lot of directors could turn a great Jane Austen novel into a good film. And then, over the years, I found that’s not necessarily the case.

I also found in Lady Susan that here’s a piece that’s Jane Austen and it’s really great and really funny, but it needs some additional things. So instead of taking something big and important and reducing it to a 90- or 100-minute visual version, I could take something that was brilliant but small and unworkable. It’s almost hard to read because of the letters back and forth and the repetition and all that, so to take this wonderful Jane Austen material and put it in a form people could appreciate, as a writer as well as director, was a real positive challenge. I know what it’s like to adapt a great book that everybody loves, and all these producers love it too, and you write a draft of an adaptation and it turns out the part of the book you loved and cared about is not what interested them, and you have all these discussions about why you have to put in this and you have to put in that. And this is just a better dynamic. 

Because it’s a lesser-known work of hers? 

Well, the fact that it's something that’s both great and totally inaccessible. It’s great, but how do you get at it? It has funny material, cheek by jowl -- one funny line after another, but it’s kind of wasted in the format it’s written in. That was her decision, too. She stopped writing in this epistolary format, with the letters between each other. It just didn’t work for her. It was just a great opportunity, really. It didn’t have the downside, as far as I can see, and it had tons of upside.

Given how difficult it is, how much of the dialogue is culled from the novel? 

Tons. Tons. It’s difficult to read that way because you kind of need space. Even if it’s incredibly funny -- if it’s one funny, manipulative thing after another -- it’s a lot. And this has more setting and it’s spaced out with other stuff.

Did you find it easy to write a period piece, specifically an aristocratic British one?

Yes, I’m totally immersed in that period. That’s what I read all the time. That’s my favorite era. It’s my whole life. I discovered it in university. There was a charismatic teacher, Dr. Walter Jackson Bate, who’s the expert in Samuel Johnson, and it was the Age of Johnson, a literature course, and I fell in love with it. And Jane Austen adored Dr. Johnson and is kind of the expression of his point of view in fiction. It’s totally consonant with my lifelong interest, and recently I’ve been reading tons about the politics of the era, which includes the American War of Independence and the exiles being sent back to England and what happened to them and how important that was. That became the Chloë Sevigny character in “Love & Friendship.”

Sundance

When you think of a Sundance movie, "Love & Friendship" isn't what comes to mind. How do you ensure the subtle sight gags and more ironic banter play for an audience that's not as attuned to this sort of film? I think British humor can be lost on certain American audiences, in general.

I just try to make something that seems funny and accessible to me. What frustrates me a lot about some aspects of filmmaking is people thinking everyone is really dumb and that we have to make everything really obvious. I think so far people seem to be getting all of that, so it hasn’t been a problem, really. Maybe there’s an audience that won’t get it, but I think the audience that won’t get it won’t come anyway. Maybe someone who just likes “Underworld” and wants to see Kate in black latex will struggle, but I hope we’ll win them over.

The movie has parallels to discussions we've had about gender for as long as Austen was writing. One character says male infidelity is biology while female infidelity is unimaginable. Did you intend any postmodern parallels to today's culture?

No, not at all. I just don’t think there’s that much separation. You can go back and read that stuff in the 18th century and there are all kinds of insights going on. People have either forgotten or are not that aware that all this stuff was being discussed and debated.

It’s also a reminder that some things haven't changed. We still talk about women that way. 

Well, I think that’s changed. He’d be given a very rough time if he said that now.

You’re right, someone would be gutted for saying that in public now, but it’s still an underlying mentality. The double standard in gender and marriage is very much alive. Would you agree?

Yeah. But I don’t like to violate periods, so I don’t like to update. I think some Jane Austen adaptations make a huge mistake updating something that wasn’t true to her spirit. I really would be surprised if anyone wants an exact, exact adaptation of Lady Susan, but I love her and I love her point of view. I felt that if changes were needed I could add things or make changes without violating her spirit at all. I’m purely hopeful that the Jane Austen enthusiasts will really like this because it’s really made with Jane Austen in my heart. I think a lot of them actually recognize that “Metropolitan” is made that way too. So a lot of the Jane Austen fans embraced “Metropolitan” as another quasi Jane Austen-associated film. I hope they’ll like this very sincere attempt to make this novella come to life. 

What do you think Audrey from "Metropolitan" would think of “Love & Friendship”? Or Lady Susan?

I think, in Frederica, she would find an identification. Depending on Audrey’s age, I think with either Catherine Vernon or Frederica, she’d find an identification character, and she’d be pretty fearful of Lady Susan and her charms.

There’s both an ironizing and a romanticizing of …

Oh, I’m glad you get that. 

… the privileged upper-class.

Oh, that. 

Where did you think I was going?

I just thought of the love dynamic because I think there is romanticization as well as comedy. It’s not just the comedy.

Your films are often about the upper class, or the upper-class adjacent. They tend to both poke fun at and, in a way, idealize that culture.  

I disagree with that. I think that’s being seen through the prism of “Metropolitan.” "Metropolitan" is about a certain class, but I don’t see it as romanticizing it. I mean, I romanticize everything because I like to have a romantic view of life. But I don’t want to romanticize one thing more than another because I think that, existing within that world a little bit, I can see a lot of real problems. I think we discuss some of those problems. But the problems I see aren’t the problems you usually see in other movies that are made by other people being very exterior and knocking people from a distance.

I remember going to one party of this preppy, bourgeois crowd and there was some obnoxious character there, really bad news, and saying, “Oh my God, so the caricature you always see in films actually exists." I think in most films you always have those people portrayed in that terrible way, so I thought, “Oh, it’s just all made up by Hollywood.” I said, “Oh no, this guy actually is that way."

What is the caricature you’re thinking of? 

Well, it’s sort of the pretty murderer character. That guy.

The American Psycho type?

I don’t think it was American Psycho. It was before your time. There was this preppy murder case in Central Park, and he was kind of really, really bad news. But I think very often they just do this short-hand dismissal and maligning of a world. I really like treating people as individuals, and anything that’s not treating them as individuals isn’t right. So there are bad preppies and bad priests and bad humanitarians. Any group can have its bad apple.

You’re also working on a novel tie-in. In a way, you're rewriting Lady Susan. Where did that inspiration come from?

I love writing novels, but I’m very fearful about writing something from absolute scratch. I kind of don’t have the time to write something from scratch. I think when my knees completely give out and I can’t make films anymore, I would try to write novels from scratch. But you get these literary projects because before a movie is a film it’s a literary endeavor. And you think, well, this literary endeavor could become another literary endeavor. It could be in the form of a novel. So I did that with “Last Days of Disco,” and it turned out, in a way, satisfactory to me. I made one big mistake in that, and I don’t want to repeat that one mistake I made.

What is that mistake?

For some reason, I had the idea that every bit of dialogue that was in the movie had to be in the novel. It was a crazy idea and it really handcuffed me in a certain part. I saw in the novel, about two-fifths of the way through, there was a dip of interest. And then I saw the movie again, and I saw that three-fifths of the way through there’s a dip in drama and interest. I was following too closely. So this one is very different, in that way. It’s called Love and Friendship: In Which Lady Susan Vernon Is Entirely Vindicated. It’s her nephew revisiting all the events from her point of view and justifying her. It really is a departure.

Why can you start a screenplay from scratch but not a novel?

I can. The thing is, for me to start a screenplay from scratch is just so much time. Before I can do a screenplay, I have to have the characters and scenes and material, and it just takes me so much time. If I can get a situation where I already have the characters and I already have the world and all that, then I can be much more productive. If I have to invent a whole new world each time, that’s what takes me forever. Because the first ideas are terrible. They’re all terrible. You have this horrible year or more of terrible ideas, so if you already have some good ideas for characters, why not just go with your good ideas and assume you have more good ideas?

In adapting an Austen novel, for example, do you still experience that year of agony? 

Yes, until it was a script that I liked, it was the whole agony process.

How many drafts do you go through? 

Unlimited. The little kilobytes are cheaper these days.

How different would “Love & Friendship” look if your first crack at these characters had been what we see today? 

It would have just been solid dialogue between Lady Susan and [Alicia, the Chloë Sevigny character]. It was just tons and tons of dialogue between the main characters. People liked reading the script long before I was ready to consider filming it, so my daughter, who’s very critical and a very good reader, really enjoyed reading it and she channeled Lady Susan a little bit. But that was words on a page and it wouldn’t have made a movie. It had to go through the transformation it took to be a movie script.

"Love & Friendship" will bow on Amazon later this year, with a theatrical release via Roadside Attractions also planned.

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