At long last, Whit Stillman has adapted a Jane Austen book. To be sure, he has touched on her work numerous times — particularly in his 1990 directorial debut Metropolitan, in which an argument about Mansfield Park gave us the immortal line “I don't read novels. I prefer good literary criticism” — but until now, he has worked only from his own original stories. But Love & Friendship is still distinctly his — from its playfully laid out and intricate social structures, to its verbose and often hilariously dead-serious characters, to the wry precision of the performances and the visual style. On the occasion of the new movie’s release, as well as a recent Criterion box set of his first three films, Stillman sat down with us to discuss Austen, his career, the importance of a good cast and more.
How did it feel to finally adapt Jane Austen?
This is my third attempt at any kind of adaptation. I had two commercial adaptation jobs before that didn’t go very well. In one, I was too in awe of the book, so I put in tons of voiceover narration. In the other, I threw away the second half, because it was unadaptable. I can’t tell you what these projects were: They had living authors who became a problem. They campaigned against what I was doing because it wasn’t exactly their book. In one case, it was a book that everyone wanted to adapt, and no one succeeded; it was funny as a book, but not as a movie. And sometimes I’d hand in really bad drafts just because I had to pay the school tuition or the rent. I really blew it, because I don’t really write that way, or that quickly.
I’d been approached before to do other Austen adaptations. At different times, I’ve had different theories about them. One theory was that any good filmmaker should be able to make a decent film out of good Austen, so there’s no need for me as an original scenarist to work on them. Then I saw that that’s not true. There really haven’t been that many good Austen adaptations. I really liked the Emma Thompson/Ang Lee Sense and Sensibility, and I think they did a very decent job with the Colin Firth TV Pride and Prejudice. But I thought it’d be really interesting to take something not finished, or not entire. The basic novella of Lady Susan is extraordinary in that it’s not a finished piece of work, but it has wonderful material. So I wouldn’t be subtracting from great Austen, but adding to partial Austen.
Given that it’s an epistolary novella, the humor in the book turns on words rather than incident. In her letters, Lady Susan will start off saying one thing and then undercut it. This seems difficult to pull off in a film. How did you go about preserving that spirit?
Do you really think it’s all that different in the film? My daughters, when they saw the film, said, “Oh, you put your favorite sayings in the movie.” Because they thought things like the whole “grand affair of education” line was some favorite saying of mine, when I’d just taken it from Jane Austen. I thought that we would take those fiendishly great little lines of hers and put them in, like “Facts are hard things.” Or “It’s a pity you had to marry Mr. Johnson. Too old to be governable, too young to die.” Or: “I hope that his next gouty attack ends more favorably.”
Your film is more overtly comic than Austen’s novella. For example, Tom Bennett’s broad performance as the rather clueless Sir James Martin introduces a totally modern, unpredictable element, without breaking the story or the fourth wall.
Well, there is this sort of Peter Sellers, Monty Python, John Cleese, modern British sketch-comedy tradition, and that has a history in British literature. Somebody who came after Jane Austen but has this comic sensibility is Thomas Love Peacock — this idea of people who get on their hobby horse, and who have this comic obsession.
But working with the cast really helps. We had this read-through of the script, a table-read, before we started shooting. And it wasn’t going well at all. Sometimes I’m not sure what the purpose of those table-reads are, but there’s always a purpose. And we had with us a face on a laptop: Tom Bennett, from Brighton. When we came to his scene, there was this enormous release of tension — this very comic performance. It rescued the table-read. I thought, “I’ve got to have more of this guy.” I also wrote stuff for Justin Edwards, who’s the other sketch-comedy guy.
We were always trimming, but I let some of their scenes run really long. I’m not sure the pea scene is working that well. I had to research the whole pea thing from the novel. Peas did in fact come in very late. They came in from Italy to France. There was a late 17th-century pea craze in France; it was a novelty vegetable. The laugh there comes later, though, in a scene I wrote for Justin Edwards, where he says to his wife that he finds Sir James’ conversation so stimulating, so interesting. That’s what people laugh at.
What about those initial posed introductions of the characters, with those silent-film-like intertitles? It adds an element of playfulness right at the outset.
Some people had said, “I can’t keep track of the characters. Can you put in something in the script to help us remember the characters as we read it?” So I put in a dramatis personae in the script, with phrases from Jane Austen describing the characters: “The very respectable Mr. Johnson,” and so on. We had a very complicated crane shot for our first shot, with everybody crying at Langford. And mirabile dictu, we get it on the third take. Suddenly, we have another hour and a half till lunch, so I decide to do these really dramatic portraits of everybody. I come into the editing room a few days later, the editor has put in this majestic Handel piece that we loved. (It’s not what we used in the end, we used Purcell.) And the characters coming down the stairs, with the music, and we see the portraits, and … she’s added the text of the descriptions of all the characters. And it just made it! It said, “This is the tone of the film. It’s a comedy, but we’re not saying it’s a comedy.”
They also accumulate so rapidly. It’s clear pretty quickly that we’re not supposed to get them all. The complicated nature of these relationships is part of the comedy.
Yeah, you’re not supposed to remember who all those people are. At some point, on the DVD maybe, if people lose track of a character, they can go back. But our idea was that no one is going to follow everything that we’re saying. It’s the experience of that moment reading the titles, which tells you how it is. One of my favorites is “the young curate of Churchill Parish.” That really sets a world. Because, okay, there’s Churchill, and then there’s the young curate of the chapel. And he’s this little minor character.
All these interconnections, and this world where everyone knows each other — it’s very much in keeping with your other films.
It’s a thing we like in period films and Austen: the idea of a whole society that has texture, a unity of connections. People know each other, and have opinions about each other. My big depressing concern coming out of university was that there were no connections anymore. I can read Tolstoy and see that everyone in St. Petersburg or Moscow seems to know each other. There was none of that in New York back then. The films are kind of a search for the group, the context, the social texture.
I parachuted into New York with my mother after my parents got separated and divorced. It was a horrible year. I had this period of being a student radical. I’m very left, but I tend to react against extremes. My brother was extremely lefty, and he put all his crazy Stalinist friends on top of us, and we were getting a little uncomfortable. And through these dances, I had people who I was introduced to. I did have an SDS button under my lapel, and someone thought that was very un-self-aware of me. But I was totally self-aware of my hypocrisy, and at a certain point I had to accept that I was going to these parties and enjoying them, and I couldn’t maintain this extreme political position against them. So I adopted a non-political position. Although I remained a Fourierist. [Laughs]
Do you consider yourself political?
I try not to be. I really think it’s bad to be unfair in films. It’s sort of interesting with Damsels in Distress because there’s this final conversation where Greta Gerwig as Violet is speaking for eccentricity, and Annaleigh Tipton as Lily is speaking for normality and conformity. A lot of people think I’m on Lily’s side … but I actually hate that character. I just hate her! I try to be fair to her, but I hate her. But it’s also true: The world really does need normal people. What I don’t like is what goes with that — which is conformity.
The notion of belonging to a place — a city or a country or an estate or a club or circle — seems to be very important in all your films. Including Love & Friendship, which is a departure from the book.
It’s a great thing about film, where you can make things very physical and geographical and architectural. When I see scripts developed by the Hollywood machine, they don’t seem to have given the slightest thought to how things will look. We’ve been very fortunate in that sense. Metropolitan has its visual dimension. And Barcelona, of course, with that beautiful city. Yes, there’s tons of focus on dialogue and music, but it also has to look like something. I really feel nauseous if there’s any ugly frame. It’s sort of challenging to see what the foreign distributors want on the poster. “Okay, we make a 90-minute film in which every frame looks, I think, great, and you’re going to advertise it to all the world with this hideous poster?”
I love how dumb the men often are in Love & Friendship. You started your career making movies about men, but it seems the last several films have really had women at their heart, and now the men are basically dolts.
I was over in Paris and took my daughters to see Elf. I fell in love with the innocent Will Ferrell. I’d love to do something with him; I’ve met him, he’s absolutely delightful. And I thought, well, I’d never be offered to do a Will Ferrell film, but I could do my own Will Ferrell stuff. That was very much on my mind with Damsels in Distress. Americans love stupid humor, the British don’t mind it either. I’ve noticed the French really like it, too. Damsels did incredibly well in France. The whole fraternity in Damsels, I was thrilled whenever we got those guys.
It is a shift for me. There have been a few shifts. Maybe it’s not that bad having 12 years of agony and unemployment. [Laughs] I remember when people tried to sell one of my films, they’d say, “It’s somewhere between Woody Allen and Rohmer.” Kind of true, but not. I can see that Woody Allen breaks naturalism; he’s not wedded to naturalism. He’ll do crazy funny things. In our films, it’s humorous and a teeny bit stylized, but stylized within naturalism. In Damsels, we broke out of that. Frankly, that interests me more — to have it a little bit stylized, a little bit unrealistic.
Your approach to editing is quite striking. Your characters have this very composed manner, but what adds a dose of realism is that you often cut into a scene late and cut out early — so that the conversations are often in medias res, and we get the sense that we really have walked in on life proceeding, like we’re catching a documentary glimpse of it.
Absolutely. It makes things much more interesting if the audience has to fill in some of the blanks. It keeps them on their toes. You get a lot of grief from development people about this: “Well, people won’t understand what’s happening in the scene.” But if you found some way to explain it at the beginning of the scene, then the rest of the scene would be completely boring. Nunnally Johnson, the screenwriter and later producer, would say that the most boring lady at a party is the one who tells you everything. Don’t tell people everything; let them figure it out.
The Criterion set of your first three films released the other day has interviews from the time of Metropolitan. You actually brought a book called How to Direct a Film to set with you.
I only got to chapter nine!
If you had to write such a book today, what would you put in it?
Tough question. I’m not sure how much progress there can be. Well, the first day or two of shooting Metropolitan … I certainly wouldn’t make those mistakes again. In this one shot, there are these huge backs in the foreground, all talking about Tom Townsend before he arrives, and then finally, all the way in the background, this tiny door opens and this tiny guy comes in through the tiny door! We tried to hide that. That was a mistake.
So much of directing is knowing when something’s not right and having the courage to change it. When we were making super-low-budget films with no glare of publicity or scrutiny, we could recast if someone turned out not to be right. I’ve sometimes had to do recasting at lunchtime. Often it starts with the actor causing problems, and then you have to try to persuade them to stick with the film. And then you realize that, okay, they’re actually bad. And maybe that’s what they know; they knew they were bad before you did.
One time, I was really terrified because I thought everyone had been friends from school. So I saw the potential replacement actor at lunch, and I said, “I know you guys were friends, and I know it’s a tough situation, but I’d be really grateful if you’d take the part.” He says, “No, actually, we’re not friends. I hate him. He was really mean to us at school. I only stayed on the show we did together because he was mean to us and I thought he was trying to get me to leave.” So, as soon as I go to premieres and see the actors, I have to hide. But I don’t think it’s in anyone’s interest to go on with something that isn’t working. The thing is you have to do it really fast, before the shoot is over.
That’s also why when we cast, we try to audition everyone. You see 20 actors, and they’re good actors, you know they’re good, but then actor 21 comes in, and it’s incredible. James Fleet [who plays Reginald DeCourcy in Love & Friendship] comes in … and you think, “My god, that’s the one.”
You’re in pretty good company with great directors who have recast films. Woody Allen reshot September with a different cast. Kubrick recast Jennifer Jason Leigh and Harvey Keitel on Eyes Wide Shut. Terrence Malick just cuts the actors out of the movie, it seems, and doesn’t even bother to recast.
I really hate it when they announce the cast before you start shooting. I don’t think they should do that. I hate it when agents do that. I don’t think it should be announced until after you finish. Why embarrass someone if it doesn’t work out?
Actually, you know the story about Kubrick and Barcelona? He cast Thomas Gibson in Eyes Wide Shut after seeing him in Barcelona. I think he had really touched an expat core. Kubrick talked about Barcelona a lot, and there’s a shot of Tom Cruise in a car or cab that’s just like Taylor Nichols in a car or cab.
There are also elements of Eyes Wide Shut that remind me of Metropolitan: the sexual jealousy, the brief little mental projections about the women that these cloistered men have.
There was a period when my career was basically dead — one of many times — and I’d be talking to someone like John Calley, who was head of Sony Pictures back then. And he’d say, “Stanley Kubrick’s just been talking about you. He wants to know about your cinematographer.” I’d get that from a lot of people. And now with Love & Friendship, I’ve basically gotten a chance to make Barry Lyndon, which is a film I adore. [Laughs]
You seem very drawn to the closing days of these worlds. Your first three films, the word “last” is often part of the setting — “the last days of disco” or “the last decade of the Cold War,” etc. Even in Love & Friendship: We sense that this class system is doomed, in part because of how ossified it’s become. Is there a romance for you in that?
Yes, I do think that if you want to show people with a romantic sensibility, they have to feel like it’s the end of something. I find very seductive the romantic point of view of Fitzgerald, but I have to temper it with some humor or distance or coolness. What I love about Jane Austen is that she’s healthy. There are a lot of writers who I love, but when I read them, they make me crazier. Salinger makes me crazier. Fitzgerald makes me crazier. Balzac makes me more evil. But Jane Austen makes you smarter and better.
Do you consider yourself a nostalgic person — always looking back on what just happened?
Oh yeah. Nostalgia for now. I feel that. And it’s only going to get worse. I’m also totally nostalgic for the 18th century. And this is really the 18th century of Austen, so this is set in the 1790s, while most of her stuff is Regency. I read about this period obsessively. That’s how I got all the Tory exile stuff with Chloë Sevigny’s character, because I read so much about the U.S. War of Independence and of Tory exiles and about the terror of going back.
Do you have a favorite decade, or favorite period?
I adore the end of the 18th century. Actually, with music it tends to be earlier: I really like Baroque music, which is what’s mostly in the film. But I really think the last half of the 18th century was a really wonderful time if they weren’t chopping off your head. So I guess it depends on where you are. Then the 1920s I think were really cool — that Fitzgerald period. And one of the reasons why I like films from the 1930s is because somehow they were infused by the 1920s. They didn’t want to get too far into the Depression or politics, so the '20s kind of continued in Hollywood. I like the '80s. I like the clothing. I think people were optimistic and on the up and up. And of course I liked the New Wave styles, which were really cool.