An Interview with Whit Stillman
From his first feature film—1990’s Metropolitan—through Barcelona (1994), The Last Days of Disco (1998), and 2011’s Damsels in Distress, Jane Austen’s influence on writer-director Whit Stillman has been obvious.
It’s there in his films’ fascination with the manners, aspirations, and behaviors of hermetic social circles; his characters’ tendency to constantly explain and justify their motivations; and a smart, precise gentility laid over their sometimes misguided (sometimes sharp-edged) quests for material solvency and romantic happiness.
Stillman has finally made an actual Jane Austen film, though keeping with his studied idiosyncrasies, it’s an adaptation of a little-known, previously un-adapted Austen novella: the epistolary Lady Susan, written early in the author’s career around 1794 but published posthumously in 1871. Stillman had been leisurely writing his adaptation for more than 15 years, finally getting it onto the screen now, retitled as Love & Friendship (though unrelated to the other early Austen epistolary novella of that name.)
Kate Beckinsale is terrific as Lady Susan Vernon, a society widow notorious for her
scandalous affairs and the hunt for a new husband. Her latest target is Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel), brother of Susan’s sister-in-law, Catherine (Emma Greenwell). As usual for Austen, the story contains several constantly-shifting romantic plots, with multiple suitors in orbit around Lady Susan, including the buffoonish Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett).
Susan’s management of past, present, and potential mates is supported by her American friend Alicia (Beckinsale’s The Last Days of Disco co-star Chloë Sevigny). The film’s fantastic cast also features Justin Edwards as Susan’s own brother, Jemma Redgrave and James Fleet as Catherine and Reginald’s parents, Stephen Fry as Alicia’s disapproving husband, Jenn Murray as the wife of one of Susan’s past (and future?) dalliances, and Morfydd Clark as her oft-mortified and forsaken daughter, Frederica.
Last month in Chicago I sat down with Stillman—a genuine cinematic hero of mine—to talk about his evolving relationship with Austen’s works and adapting Lady Susan into Love & Friendship—plus a few delightful, Stillman-esque detours into chatting about my shirt, the NFL Draft in Chicago that weekend, and the pros and cons of still using Blackberrys.
Love & Friendship is playing now in select theaters nationwide.
Are you tired of talking about Jane Austen yet?
Whit Stillman: Not at all. I can talk about Jane Austen until the cows come home.
What’s been your background with Austen’s works throughout your career?
Stillman: It relates to finding this material because I was depressed and lovelorn in the middle of my sophomore year of college, and I was about to drop out and go to Mexico for half a year and learn Spanish.
In that weird period, I picked up this book by an author I’d heard of named Jane Austen, and read it, and thought it was terrible, and told everyone she was over-rated, terrible, terrible. It was Northanger Abbey, a parody of Gothic novels, and I’d never read the Gothic novels she was making fun of. Fortunately my sister’s a very good reader, and so Sense and Sensibility eventually fell into my hands, I liked it, and I read Pride and Prejudice and loved it, read all of Austen, and loved it all.
Finally in 1999 or so, I’d been through all of Austen and decided to re-read Northanger Abbey and see if I still disliked it. After college, I’d worked in publishing and worked on books by Victoria Holt and other Gothic novelists, so I knew by then what they were. And that time I got it, I liked Northanger Abbey.
In the back of that edition of Northanger Abbey were various fragments of Austen’s work, including Lady Susan. So thanks to going back and re-evaluating Northanger Abbey I discovered something I liked much better, which was Lady Susan. The novella is a whole piece, but it’s unfinished in the sense that she would have done other drafts and finished out the conclusion better. She rounded out the ending, but it’s not fully thought through. It ends like a mini-bio for a movie studio.
Much has been made during your career of the Austen-like sensibilities of your own, personal films. Is that accurate?
Stillman: Oh definitely. It was totally an influence. Metropolitian actually has beats about Jane Austen. Some people have detected a Fanny Price nature to the Audrey Rouget character and her situation; for example Audrey’s objection to the True or Dare game.
(At this point Stillman randomly veered the conversation off into a discussion of my favorite pinstriped button-down shirt—of which he has one exactly the same, both of them given to us by our sisters; of his quest for a laundromat around Chicago’s Magnificent Mile; of the roving packs of geared-out NFL fans roaming Michigan Avenue; and of a weekend he once spent in Columbus, Ohio, during an Arnold Schwarzenegger body-building competition.)
How was the adaptation process for you, especially working from an epistolary novella?
Stillman: We had to kinda keep the letters out of the movie, though there are a couple big letters scenes. But we couldn’t have people just writing and reading letters. Which was part of the reason I didn’t do this as a straight-ahead project, but just did it in a very relaxed and happy way over a decade; work on it, put it aside, come back to it.
The first thing was to do a long rough dramatization of everything and then not look at the novel anymore, but just look at the scenes I’d written. So sometimes I’d take two or three letters and shuffle them together to make different scenes.
For example, I had to invent the Mrs. Cross character because Alicia can’t always be with Lady Susan geographically, so I gave a lot of the material to Mrs. Cross, who becomes her own character with her own story. And so the different threads of a film like this come about. You have to have a character for a certain reason, to support the material, and then that character develops his or her own story.
Does writing a literary adaptation put you in a very different creative headspace than working on a more personal film?
Stillman: For one thing, there’s not that horrible period where you have nothing, or just bad stuff. The creation of a film starts with an idea, a notion of a time period or characters, and you get really excited about the idea, and sell it to others if you need their support to write the script. You can’t wait to get started, and then you try to start, and you struggle with the blank page, and you get some ideas, and they’re bad ideas, and you write bad stuff. It’s really bad.
For me, there’s a bad year of getting started on something. You write bad stuff and it’s awkward to throw it out, and you wait around to get some good ideas that maybe do come or don’t come. Until eventually you get the voice and autonomy of the characters, the characters have personality, and they sort of pick up the weight and put it on their shoulders. That’s when it becomes a little more fun.
If you’re adapting something that’s good already, you don’t have that horrible thing. But you have other problems, like the problem of making it your own, of having it take flight a little bit, because an adaptation can be a little bit leaden.
With me, this didn’t really take flight with certain characters until super late. I had a British theatrical producer [Trevor Brown] who was going to help me turn it into a movie, but he went off to do better things over time. But he kept saying, “Oh, Frederica is the key, there has to be more Frederica,” but I just couldn’t think of much stuff for Frederica. And then I thought, maybe Frederica doesn’t have to be that big in the story; maybe she’s sort of the McGuffin, the pot of gold, the treasure that’s stolen or given away.
It was only when the script started to catch fire and change with the Sir James Martin stuff that I also started to get good Frederica ideas, like her visit to the church to discuss the Fourth Commandment with the young curate. So Frederica started getting scenes, and Charles Vernon started getting some. So finishing this adaptation of the existing work and starting to have characters come alive and actors come on board at the last minute, it started to change.
With Sir James Martin, Tom Bennett is so great, so funny, but how do you gage and guide that sort of silly comedic performance to make sure it works within the overall tone of the film?
Stillman: The only struggle was when we added sound to the dancing scene. It makes me slightly queasy that maybe we’re pushing Sir James too hard by adding his laughter to the dancing scene, but it seems to be working. I think it’s okay—in that scene we’re really pulling the Sir James lever hard, but then he goes away for a while. But that was a point where I felt we might have been pushing the “funny Sir James” stuff too far, by corning up the dancing scene by having his giddy laughter in there. But I think by the final film we’d turned it down.
Lady Susan herself seems to be one of Austen’s most uncharacteristically unsympathetic protagonists.
Stillman: She’s an evil character, but I’m not sure evil and unsympathetic are always the same. She’s funny and honest, which makes her evil a little more engaging. In the film we can make her even more engaging.
She seems to share with some qualities with characters in your other films.
Stillman: It’s true there is a through line. Someone was talking about the Chris Eigeman in the first three films and this character. There is pattern in the films with these sort of egotistical, extraverted group-leader characters. That would include Violet Wister in Damsels and Lady Susan Vernon in Love & Friendship. You have to have a sparkplug character who makes things happen.
They also seem to share a habit of constantly explaining their motivations, rationalizing their sometimes dubious behavior.
Stillman: To thine own self be true. Actually I think their charm is self-awareness. Even if they’re doing bad stuff, they’re honest and self-aware about it. That’s one of the things I find really bad, is when people not only do injuries to others, but then lie about the others to justify it. It’s bad enough just being bad to someone, but then lying about it. That is a real pattern.
(As the interview wound down, we chatted about the fact we both still use Blackberrys, and then Stillman politely walked me to the elevator. He really does have impeccable manners.)