On an evening filled with the sights and sounds of a torrential downpour, nearly 100 members of the JASNA NY Metro group convened at The General Society of Mechanics and Tradesman of the City of New York to spend the evening in the company of one of my favorite directors, Whit Stillman. Kerri Spennicchia, the Program Coordinator of our JASNA group, worked closely with Mr. Stillman to bring this evening to fruition, and for numerous Janeites, myself included, this was one of the highlights of 2016!
As someone who has enjoyed Mr. Stillman’s films since the early 1990’s, it’s a tremendous thrill to see that even as I typed this interview, he was tweeting throughout the blogosphere about the reception that his latest film, “Love and Friendship,” has been receiving throughout Europe, as moviegoers in Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Germany, and Austria had the opportunity to view, what I believe, is Mr. Stillman’s finest piece of filmmaking to date.
Ms. Spennicchia sat front and center with Mr. Stillman, and interviewed him for approximately 60 minutes, asking him questions based on her own inquiries, as well as the inquiries of our group’s members. Mr. Stillman came across as humble, insightful, and extremely knowledgeable about not only Austen’s life and work, he also displayed a keen understanding of the subtle nuances cleverly dispersed throughout Austen’s novels, which allows him to artfully “translate” Austen for his modern-day audiences.
Mr. Stillman called his book, “Love and Friendship,” a Victorian novel with a male narrator, not a Jane Austen novel. “Since Jane had a dim nephew that wrote a defensive novel about her, why not have Lady Susan’s nephew write a novel defending her?” asserted Stillman.
He shared with us part of thirteen year journey as he sought to make a film based on Austen’s unnamed epistolary novella into a full feature movie over a twenty-six day period that would allow him to flesh out Austen’s Lady Susan Vernon character and her supporting cast in a way that would resonate with 21st Century audiences.
“I wanted to be a novelist. I tried, but I didn’t have the stamina or dedication to work alone.” Whit Stillman
The title of the film, Love & Friendship, which is a departure from the title that scholars adopted for Austen’s unnamed juvenile manuscript, Lady Susan, was selected for its international appeal and its greater affability with males viewers. Stillman suggested that Love & Friendship can be thought of as the Oscar Wilde of adaptations, and he believed early on that the role should be played by Kate Beckinsale, who he worked with earlier in his career, during the filming of “The Last Days of Disco.”
Translating an epistolary novella into a film had its challenges, but it appeared that Mr. Stillman had a good understanding of these obstacles before the screenplay was even written. In an epistolary story, such as Lady Susan, the characters aren’t spending time together in their letters; there’s no kissing, there’s no touching, and there certainly isn’t any sparkling dialogue. Instead, there are loads of character monologues, which now must be written into scenes containing multiple characters. So Stillman had to think long and hard about how to take the best parts of this novella and turn them into a screenplay that would serve Austen’s story in a manner befitting of her work.
He also created additional characters for the film that would bring certain aspects of this epistolary story to life. For instance, Lady Susan’s companion, Mrs. Cross, who acts mainly as a sycophant, serves to generate some of the dialogue in the story, as well as certain exchanges between the characters. Chloë Sevigny’s character, Alicia Johnson, was changed into a Tory exile by Stillman so that her British accent wouldn’t be criticized. She is Lady Susan’s American friend who finds herself constantly dealing with the protagonist’s latest schemes and as a result, threats from her husband to remove her to Connecticut if she persists in her association with Lady Susan.
The infamous Churchill scene was actually the audition scene for casting purposes, as the director underwent quite a search for the role of Sir James Martin. Luckily, Tom Bennett was a perfect fit for this role and has just recently won a London Critics Circle Film Awards, along with Kate Beckinsale for their roles in the film. Love & Friendship has been nominated for many awards and has received some wonderful recognition this year.
Mr. Stillman described how there was also the possibility of a Christian investor for the film, therefore he thought about what he could add to the film that would be considered “good.” The inclusion of the Bible and the Ten Commandments, which he revised for the film into the “unforgettable” Twelve Commandments, felt well-suited to the film, as they are so well-known throughout the world. Mr. Stillman estimates that the final creation of his work is about 2/3 Jane Austen and 1/3 his creations. Luck also played a role in some aspects of the film, as he told us for example that the editor captions that introduce the characters throughout the film turned out as the result of a happy accident.
Ms. Spennicchia and Mr. Stillman discussed their ideas about what may have inspired Austen to write Lady Susan, which includes the possibility that Eliza Comtesse de Feuillide, née Hancock, was the inspiration for quite a few of Austen’s works, including Lady Susan, Henry and Eliza, and Mansfield Park. She may have also been the model for the character of Mary Crawford. Eliza was not only Austen’s cousin, she also later became her sister-in-law after she married Jane’s beloved brother, Henry. Spennicchia and Stillman also discussed how Les Liaisons dangereuses, a French epistolary novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, along with the writing style of Fanny Burney, may have also influenced Austen’s novella, Lady Susan.
“A procrastinating writer is the least busy person in the room.” Whit Stillman
Taking us back to his earlier years with Austen, he told the audience how was offered to direct what eventually became Emma Thompson’s 1995 adaptation of Sense & Sensibility, after Rob Reiner turned down the opportunity. He believes Ang Lee did a beautiful job executing the film, and I couldn’t agree more with him. Yet, Stillman wasn’t an ardent admirer of Austen’s story about the Dashwood sisters, as he said that the novel didn’t really impact him when he first read it, but upon a subsequent reading, he found himself enjoying the story in a new way. He recommends Sense and Sensibility as a good entry novel into Austen, particularly for nonfiction readers, while also expressing that, “It’s a shame kids are forced to read the classics and get turned off by them.” As an educator, that’s a sentiment I have also struggled with nearly my entire career.
The interview was concluded with a brief conversation about Mr. Stillman’s future plans regarding future Austen adaptations, which I was thrilled to hear him say may include a remake of Mansfield Park. If that announcement is ever made, I’ll need my smelling salts for sure! In the meantime, I highly recommend a DVD viewing of Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship for your next Austen-fix.
Love & Friendship earned $133,513 from four theaters during its opening weekend in May 2016. Currently, the film has grossed over $20 million worldwide, against an estimated production budget of $3 million. Check out the trailer below for a taste of this delicious adaptation:
I am offering a giveaway of a Blu-ray DVD of Love & Friendship, which has been autographed by Whit Stillman, to one Just Jane 1813 reader. Please leave a comment on the post below no later midnight, Eastern Time on February 26th and the winner will be announced on this blog on February 27, 2017. This giveaway is open to international winners too!!
Thank you, Mr. Stillman, for spending a wonderful evening with us. If you’re headed to the JASNA AGM this year, Mr. Stillman is attending and will be one of the plenary speakers at this event. There will be a session titled: Lady Susan’s Closeup: An Interview with Whit Stillman and Special Screening of Love & Friendship with Peter Graham from Virginia Tech, VA.
Love & Friendship can be purchased on DVD and viewed through Amazon Prime.