Back in the early 90s, Whit Stillman was one of the burning lights of the American independent film industry. After the likes of Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee, and Steven Soderbergh had established a market for low budget character pieces of quality, Stillman created a little storm with his first feature Metropolitan. The bitterly funny and endlessly witty tale of pretentious young Manhattan folk scored Stillman a well-earned Oscar nomination for his screenplay. He would go on to write/direct Barcelona and Last Days Of Disco in the decade and while all three of those have gone on to be enshrined in The Criterion Collection, his talky human tales didn’t exactly dominate the box office once the Quentin Tarantinos and Robert Rodriguezes of the world turned the indie filmmaking scene into a shooting gallery.
Stillman essentially disappeared from the industry for a decade after that, toiling away on frustratingly uncompleted projects until he finally returned in 2011 with Damsels In Distress. Now the dapper gentleman is back with possibly his biggest movie to date, the Jane Austen adaptation Love & Friendship. Based on an obscure and incomplete manuscript by the author, the film is more of a collaboration between Stillman and Austen than a straight adaptation. It spins a yarn about Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale, never better) a manipulative, narcissistic, and erudite widow who runs rampant through a community bending everyone to her will. In other words, she’s a perfect heroine for Stillman’s distinct brand of classy caustic character comedy. Austen fits the American like a glove.
With Love & Friendship opening in Toronto this week, we got a chance to pick Stillman’s brain about his interest in Austen, reuniting the leads from Last Days Of Disco, his spin-off novel, and his concerns about the plagiarism potential of giving his signature over to the Criterion Collection. It’s a chat as irreverent and intelligent as you’d hope from the great Whit Stillman. Enjoy.
With some filmmakers, I’d be surprised to learn that they were filming a Jane Austen adaptation. But with you, I almost felt like “What took so long?” So can I assume this is something that you’ve had in mind for a while?
Whit: I was actually first offered a really good Jane Austen project back in 1993 or maybe 1994. I was then in between finishing Barcelona and starting Last Days Of Disco. We had some really productive conversations about it, but I was committed to focusing on original work at the time. There were a couple of other Jane Austen projects that producers talked to me about over the years. They are the only projects producers talk to me about. But I was sort of disheartened. I didn’t find it exciting turn a great Jane Austen novel into a 90-minute film. I felt like, I love the novel, so I don’t need to make a movie. In this case it was perfect for me because there was enough that was not done in the original source material that she never really completed. That gave me enough room to add something as a writer. Also, I think if you’re a big Jane Austen fan, which I am, then you want more Jane Austen material. So she left this very good material in an inaccessible anachronistic epistolary form that’s tough to get through. I thought that I could add this story to the Jane Austen film shelf and it turned out really well. But it sort of started as a joke vacation project. It started as a lark, really. And then the lark became a serious thing that worked.
Do you think the reason that you were able to make it work was because you treated it as a lark?
Whit: No, I was always pretty serious about it. Then for about ten or twelve years, I essentially wasn’t doing anything. I got plugged into this system of being a commissioned screenwriter writing scripts that I would theoretically later direct, but there were always many people involved that slowed things down. This was something that I always saw could be a good movie and it was very do-able and very attractive as far as the humour of the material. I think it’s very important for independent filmmakers to think of do-able projects and how to move forward with something that can actually get made.
One thing that really like about the Lady Susan character is that she’s really horrible, but this isn’t a story that’s in any way about forcing redemption on her. If anything she’s rewarded for remaining despicable.
Whit: She wins. Well, I’d say her daughter wins 100% and she wins 95%. Actually that was one of the turning points for me that made it a go project. I got the idea for how to complete the story. She had sort of completed it, but not really. So that was one of the twenty-five turning points behind the project.
Were you consciously trying to do a Last Days Of Disco reunion between Kate Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny when casting them?
Whit: Definitely. We thought of that casting idea. Chloë was attached to the project first, but Kate was always intended to play Lady Susan. That clarified my thinking as far as my collaborators. So the casting guy very apologetically said some English equivalent of “I’m not trying to suck up to you, but I actually think Kate Beckinsale would be perfect for this part.” Then the foreign sales agent also thought she was perfect for the part and that made me realize that these people understood the material.
I’d almost forgotten how good she could be in that sort of role.
Whit: I hadn’t forgotten. It loomed very large for me. I first saw her in Cold Comfort Farm playing a Jane Austen derived character and then I went and saw a mini-series she did that adapted Emma. Charlotte who she plays in Last Days Of Disco was sort of a Lady Susan character. It’s the same dominant woman who tries to change the world.
Where did you find Tom Bennett? I honestly felt ill at times from laughing and cringing because he was so excruciatingly embarrassing.
Whit: (Laughs) I hadn’t heard that before. He’s a good Basil Fawlty walking into our film. He was great. It was one of the only times where I was casting a part with three great people. Normally when you cast, you meet all these great people and you’re honoured because of the work but there’s no magic because they aren’t quite tuned into the character or something. Then you usually get an audition where you’re like, “OK. This is exactly right.” With Tom Bennett, he sort of came in dressed with whiskers in period. I think he was doing a Dickens show or something, but he had such a cheerful silliness. I surprised the casting person because they brought in someone who was actually Sir James Martin, sociologically, his background, everything. But I went with Tom and he turned out to be exactly the right guy. He saved our read-through. He was on Skype and we were having a very troublesome, scary, bad read-through, before we shot and then he just lightened it up through his laptop. He was so strong, I started writing extra scenes for him. I told people there will be a dancing scene in the film, for the trailer. It was very cynical, something to knock off. But then once we had Tom and he had become so important, the scene was worth the effort.
I feel like, based on your shared sensibilities, you almost were required to work with Stephen Fry at one point. So, how’d you find it?
Whit: (Laughs) Thank you for saying that. I love him and when he accepted the part after reading the script, it was one of those 25 turning points where we knew we had to do it. He is one of the smartest, most erudite, most charming people that I’ve ever met. And also one of the tallest. He towered over me. He’s just amazing and one of the reasons that we were able to finish the shoot early was because we only had one day with him to do his scenes. We called it Stephen Fryday, because it was Friday the 13th.
Did he know your work?
Whit: He seemed to. I stupidly cut him off when he was talking about Metropolitan during the EPK. I should have let him go, it would have been a great thing for the Criterion Collection.
Speaking of which, it was nice to see that box set finally come out.
Whit: Yeah, it’s really dangerous because they got my signature for when Metropolitan came out. I wish they’d get my signature for each one. I haven’t even seen what’s on Barcelona. I am careful to make sure that it’s different than the signature that’s on my cheques. It’s my fake Criterion legible signature.
Having just gone through those movies again, this isn’t so much a question as a request, but could you please write something for Chris Eigeman again?
Whit: I don’t know. He’s sort of gone off and is doing his own thing as a director. I tried to get him into Damsels In Distress, it just didn’t work. You don’t like Taylor Nichols?
No he’s great. There’s just something about your words in Chris’ mouth that’s special.
Whit: Yeah, I don’t know if Chris…the thing is that he sort of played the same character three times and that character isn’t at all him. He’s not like that. So I wonder if that maybe makes him uncomfortable or something. He doesn’t want to do that all of his life. He’s sensational at it, but I just don’t think he wants to do that anymore.
I always wondered, have you ever done dialogue polishes on movies that we wouldn’t necessarily know about?
Whit: When I was starving, I so much wanted to do that. I made a lot of career mistakes, maybe some that long term aren’t mistakes. But I was sort of socially in a bubble in New York. I didn’t want to go Hollywood and I was married to a Spanish woman, so we were going back to Spain regularly. I sort of wanted to keep my friends in New York forever. And then when I was desperate for work, I asked my agents how I could get those assignments. They said that they usually come up when you’ve worked with people before. So since I wasn’t working with anyone on adaptations or big industry projects, no one asked. I think I would have liked to have done it.
Were there any scripts that you lost during that period that you don’t own anymore and wish you could get back?
Whit: A lot of things. A lot of things. I can’t really talk about them. There’s one thing that I definitely want to do that’s set in Jamaica in the early 60s. There’s a lot of stuff that I’ve written that I want to do. Well not a lot, but some stuff that’s dead in the water.
How did you find working with Amazon on The Cosmopolitans?
It was good, but it’s funny. Everyone always talks about the incredible creative freedom at Amazon and all that stuff. I was very happy with the pilot I did for them, but for me it was just the opposite. I never had such supervision. I never had such total attention paid to evvvvvverything. But the result was good. I was a little worried that those three people were going to be there during the sh00t, but it turned out to be incredibly helpful because they spotted problems for me and helped with solutions. So the executives were really good. I think they pressed too hard to be fast and quick and cut out dialogue. I think it would have been better with an extra 30 seconds of dialogue. I was really happy with it, but it’s just really short.
Are you interested in trying to do TV?
Whit: Well, I want to do that. I have a commission to write six more scripts for them. I better get on it. In fact I need to go right now. Actually, I did work on it this morning, even though it’s the Sabbath.
Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone about that.
Whit: No, no, you can write on the Sabbath. It’s ok.
Oh and I wanted to ask about the book tied into Love & Friendship that’s coming out?
Whit: Oh yeah. That was a happy accident. I don’t think I’ve ever written anything so quickly. I’m kind of a slow writer as has been discussed and shown. This was something that I was supposed to write before we started shooting, but I didn’t. I’m really glad I didn’t because Sir James Martin was created during the shoot thanks largely to Tom Bennett. Then the idea for this book is a little bit Martin-esque. It’s about his nephew who had a literary bent and writes this defense of his aunt. So the title is Love & Friendship In Which Jane Austen’s Lady Susan Is Entirely Vindicated. So everything is turned around very improbably.
Is it written in the style of Austen?
Whit: No, it’s written in the style of a very pretentious and foolish fellow in the 1850s. So my advisor who advised on the script and the film kindly advised me on the novel as well.
Were you happy with how it turned out?
Whit: I think I’m happy. I just saw the first copy in a radio station in Minnesota. I see that they didn’t correct a design error in the dedication, which seems like an obvious error. But I think that will make the first edition a collector’s item (Laughs).
Did you have literary aspirations before?
Whit: Totally. The only reason that I got into audio/visual media is because I didn’t feel like I had the courage and gumption to be a novelist. I wanted to be F. Scott Fitzgerald. But I had such trouble writing when I was in college, that I thought it might be easier to do TV or movies. But it took me forever. I don’t think I finished the script for Metropolitan until I was 36 and we shot it when I was 37. I started really late. Indie cinema didn’t really exist when I got out of college, so it was worth the wait.