I conducted this interview with Whit Stillman in June 2015 at the Midnight Sun Film Festival before the final mix/edit of his new film, LOVE AND FRIENDSHIP, had been completed. Therefore the content of the interview is predominantly about the pre-production process.
Neil McGlone: Why the choice of LOVE & FRIENDSHIP as the title when this is an adaptation of Lady Susan and there is already another novel by her?
Whit Stillman: I think it’s a little ridiculous that people say that Love and Friendship is an interesting Jane Austen work. She wrote it when she was 15 and it’s pretty hard to get through, I found. I think it was a good title on something she wrote as a child that was inconsequential. I’ve always been sort of fascinated by the story of the remake of HERE COMES MR JORDAN (1941) where they use HEAVEN CAN WAIT (1978), which is a much better title. Titles are separate from works and there are good titles and there are bad titles. I really hate the title Lady Susan. I think it’s a really bad title and it was not a Jane Austen title. It was just by accident labeled that way by her nephew when he published the untitled manuscript. She had moved away mostly from name titles to noun titles, so Love and Friendship is a more mature Austenian title. Eleanor and Mary Anne, which she wrote at the same time, pretty close to what’s called Lady Susan, became Sense & Sensibility, First Impressions became Pride & Prejudice. Then she wrote Persuasion. I was left with something she hadn’t finished in a sense that she got to the end of it, but as a writer I think fellow writers could judge this. This is not a finished piece, this is a first draft of something. Not a first draft, maybe a second draft but it’s in the process of being made into something. When she made her works there was certain paths she took and we saw that with those two other epistolary first drafts she did which were First Impressions and Eleanor and Mary Anne. She changed the titles and she made them modern dramatised novels, not epistolary novels. That’s sort of what we did with it too, so I feel it’s very Austenian to use that title and also I had to listen to a Spanish distributor who I like very much rant for a half hour about how he detests films with English name titles. He says it’s just impossible. I think it was Agnes Brown or something like that, that he had to distribute and he was furious. So after that I didn’t want to be whipped by him.
NM: Didn’t Austen write them for a bit of fun and to read to the family?
WS: Yeah, well, a lot of what she did was that. She also sort of kept in that spirit when the first novels came out that friends would come in the novels like any writer a little bit but it started out they were doing the amateur theatricals and she was writing these things and probably reading them or having them read in her family. It’s said that she was sort of 18-20 when she was writing this because she was born in 1775, this is dated to 1795 but the copy we have is something she wrote, a corrected copy, a fair copy I guess they call it, around 1805. I don’t know if it’s really, I mean, I think she could have been writing this during her 20’s too. I think she did maybe the bulk of it when she was 19 or 20.
NM: Where did your interest in Austen first begin? She’s clearly referenced in METROPOLITAN (1990) and I’m pretty sure she’s referenced in at least two others as well, but not all four movies.
WS: The only one I recall is METROPOLITAN.
NM: There’s definitely a line in DAMSELS IN DISTRESS (2011) or in BARCELONA (1994). There’s definitely a reference to Austen.
WS: There is on the blackboard about the decadence in literature. Her name is on the blackboard. That’s true. In reading experiences, I had that reading experience with F. Scott Fitzgerald when I was 15 and I was trying to date a girl who was very much a part of that world. And so that just absolutely clicked immediately and it’s just sort of catnip for 15 year olds, that novel. Jane Austen had been recommended and I picked up the wrong novel at the wrong age. I was a depressed sophomore in university about to drop out and go to Mexico. Another heartbreak too, now that I’m thinking about it. I picked up or was offered Northhanger Abbey. I read it and I thought oh my god this Jane Austen is bad. I completely got the wrong angle of it and I took it by the wrong leg or whatever you say. So I didn’t like it at all and then after college an uncle recommended Evelyn Waugh and I read Decline and Fall and hated that and told them how terrible it was. And both those writers became my favourite writers in my 20’s when I got something else. So I read Pride and Prejudice and loved it and then I finally went back to Northhanger Abbey and liked it very much. I could see what it was. It was the first one she offered to publishers and she was mocking the Mrs. Radcliffe’s gothic fictions and so it’s sort of 1/3 a nice little Jane Austenian story of love and friendship and then 2/3 satire of gothic novels and so it’s not full on great Jane Austen. But it still has its value and I haven’t gone back and reread the Waugh, but I’ve read everything else by Waugh and love Waugh. He’s on the blackboard too in DAMSELS IN DISTRESS.
NM: Certainly she’s somebody that’s very much stayed with you for quite a number of years. She’s always been there.
WS: Another writer from that period, not that much later, who made a big impression on me at the age was Thomas Love-Peacock.
WS: Nightmare Abbey. He was a friend of Shelley and Byron, I believe. He was humorous and wrote these humorous philosophical novels mocking different philosophical points of view.
NM: In 2003, you attempted to adapt two unfinished Austen novels, The Watsons and Sandition into a single script.
WS: Man, you found that.
NM: Yeah, I did.
WS: That’s supposed to be a secret.
NM: It was entitled Winchester Races. What happened with that? Or can you not speak about it?
WS: I can’t speak about it.
NM: In Suzanne Pucci’s book Jane Austen and Company, she compares your film METROPOLITAN to Austen’s novels and those by Henry James. She says the film tracks “the Austen phenomenon beyond Austen, into what is called the “post-heritage” film, a kind of historical costume drama that uses the past in a deliberate or explicit way to explore current issues in cultural politics. Had you ever heard that?
WS: I think I did see something. That particular sentence I don’t know about. But I think I did read some of that and it seemed perfectly fine. It was nice getting included.
NM: What can you tell us about when you first started considering doing this? In terms of when you started?
WS: The serious push to do it was, well I knew I was interested in doing it when it was still a project in the long term future. When I happened to go through Dublin to visit my daughter on my way to Spain for other business, I made contact with the Irish Film Board and met with them in Los Angeles and I was put into contact with them in Dublin and they had a locations man pick me up at the airport and show me good locations for the period in Dublin. They suggested on my way back because I was going through Dublin twice to and from Spain so I could see my daughter. They said why don’t you stay longer and have a detour to the Galway Film Festival. There they introduced me to a young producer named Katie Holly. So already I knew Katie Holly and I’d seen locations and gotten the vibe from Ireland in 2010 and after DAMSELS had come out and everything in the Cannes of 2013. And I went to Cannes in 2013 to start talking to distributors and meeting people. I met with Katie there, I met with British producers, various people. I went to London and talked to locations people, talked to producers and productions managers and then I went to Dublin and did more location scouting, which was fantastic. It was Katie and the Film Board who fixed me up with a really good locations manager who became our locations manager. And I saw almost all the locations we used in the film on that trip. And it sort of solidified the idea because I was debating whether do we shoot this in South England or do we shoot this in Ireland. My daughter was coming back to the States to go to law school in the United States. She’s an Irish solicitor and she wanted to get her credentials reaffirmed for New York state and so Katie and I started talking then. I started casting in June 2013. I met Colin Jones and various casting people in London. Colin Jones, the first person he suggested was Kate Beckinsale, which is nice. And the whole process began. But it wasn’t getting very earnestly because I had other stuff to do, Amazon called me. That summer they called me about THE COSMOPOLITANS (2014) and so I started writing and shot THE COSMOPOLITANS. But this was going on at the same time.
NM: I’m sure it’s probably cheaper to shoot in Ireland than it is in England, for tax reasons and everything else as well?
WS: There are all kinds of reasons. I think the main thing is you just get really good locations that are really convenient and authentic because it’s the landed English aristocracy implanted there. The locations are very inexpensive compared to London. It’s better to say the locations are very expensive outside of London. The whole ease of shooting was great and they don’t have a big homegrown industry. In London there’s tons of stuff going on and so they’re really doing a lot of stuff to encourage production to come in.
NM: The film reunites Chloë Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale from LAST DAYS OF DISCO (1996), but I understand Sienna Miller was originally cast?
WS: It was announced, so that’s public knowledge. It didn’t work out with her and it was great that Kate was available.
NM: The production of the film was Irish/French/Dutch, is that correct?
WS: Yes. And also American. I mean, I had to round up American investors. And other private European investors who came in.
NM: I know you’re certainly not alone in as much as US directors often now have to go to Europe in order to get financing for their movies because US companies are not always there or willing to put up the full money for a project. Is that fair to say?
WS: It turns out that it was helpful having this co-production structure, but most of the equity, the private money is US investors, or they live in Europe but work for a US firm or something like that. This story should be shot in the Anglo world and I sort of feel we were shooting in Anglo Ireland rather than South England. One of the locations we were at they had portraits on the walls of the Midford family because they were cousins of the Midfords and so there were all kinds of. These were English castles and great houses. I do care about authenticity and the cast is English.
NM: This is your first period film in as much as it’s period costume rather than your other films which have tended to be of a certain period as well. Have you always had a desire to make a kind of period costume drama as well or is that not something you’ve had before or it just happened this one came along?
WS: Well, I’m in talks about other Jane Austen projects. Among the few other projects I’m offered are Jane Austen projects. And has been for a long time. And so I’ve been involved with them but one reason or another they didn’t happen. But I wasn’t that keen on them because I love the novels and the scripts would always be less than the novels.
NM: You’re a bit of a fan of Ang Lee’s SENSE AND SENSIBILITY (1995)?
WS: Exactly. Yes. I had a conversation with a producer about the first script which I thought the fascinating pathos of that was in the first two chapters that sets up the predicament of these girls and why they’re in the situation of being gentile but with no money. I think the first script I saw started just dramatising the dialogue scenes and I think I had a conversation with a producer about how the (something) was really good and it would be really good for the movie and she did say that this probably would have happened anyway. They brought that into the final script and I think it’s really well done. I think it’s a beautiful film. Whenever there are these things, I don’t see these things as competing projects. I see okay they covered that base really well so the romantic beautiful visual lush version of Jane Austen is absolutely there and there’s a lot of funny stuff and sweet stuff in it too. And we’re doing something else really. What this film is is much more sort of Oscar Wilde funny dialogue , sharp talky and so I guess it can’t really be as big box office as SENSE AND SENSIBILITY was, but I think it will really please people who want a particular thing.