Whit Stillman’s Long-Awaited Jane Austen Adaptation Is Here
The cult director of contemporary and contemporary-ish Austen-inflected fare discusses Love & Friendship, his adaptation of a little-known comedy of manners, bowing at Sundance this weekend.
With Love & Friendship, Whit Stillman, the director of Metropolitan, The Last Days of Disco,and other contemporary (or near contemporary) tales of America’s so-called urban haute bourgeoisie, steps back 200 years, crosses the Atlantic, and takes on a formidable collaborator: Jane Austen. The movie is based on a posthumously published, little-read Austen work called Lady Susan,whose heroine, played by Kate Beckinsale, is a Georgian-era mantrap—intelligent, irresistible, and entirely unencumbered by scruples. (In a Last Days of Disco mini-reunion, Chloë Sevignyplays Lady Susan’s conniving American sidekick, Alicia Johnson.) On the eve of the film’s January 23 premiere at Sundance, Stillman—who also has a deal with Little, Brown for a tie-in novel, due out in August—chatted with V.F. about his undying ardor for all things Austen and how Love & Friendship, gearing up for a spring 2016 release, finds fresh comedy amid the corsets and carriages.
Vanity Fair: In Metropolitan, there’s an exchange between Audrey and Tom in which she says, “What Jane Austen novels have you read?” And he answers, “None.” I’m guessing you’re with Audrey on that one.
Whit Stillman: Well, I’m sort of with both of them, because I do have the habit of not reading things and of talking about things I haven’t read. I actually was wrong-footed with Jane Austen. In college, I made the mistake of reading her too early, with the wrong book. So I started, sophomore year, with Northanger Abbey. And I didn’t like it at all. I didn’t get it. And I would loudly tell people that she was overrated and bad for a long time. Until, after college, my sister said, “You better read Pride and Prejudice.” I did, and it changed me.
VF Did you become an Austen devotee?
Absolutely. I mean, I read tons of Jane Austen. I read a lot of the biographies and the later books. I find it fascinating. The first thing I fell for was 18th-century British literature, Dr. Johnson and Alexander Pope. And she’s very much a Johnsonian. So if you sort of want Samuel Johnson in fiction, it’s Jane Austen.
VF We’re all recovering English majors at heart, aren’t we?
I was actually a history major playing hooky in the English department.
Would you say that, in your career, you’ve been inspired as much by great novelists as by great filmmakers?
Well, yeah. There are three fiction writers who were really important for the films—Fitzgerald, Austen, and Salinger. And I think it was kind of a gift that Salinger wouldn’t let his books be adapted, because we sort of had to do our own Salinger films without using his stories.
With each of the pictures you’ve done, do you find yourself going back and looking at certain favorite books by these writers?
Well, it did help me a lot. I remember dipping into Austen while I was writing theMetropolitan script. I was reading her sort of as a palate cleanser while I was trying to write. I tend to like authors where you read a paragraph and you like it so much you sort of think about it—so I don’t progress too far in terms of page-turning plot.
That brings up a question. You’re a master of dialogue and don’t need any help in that area. But with Love & Friendship, because there was source material, you must have ended up leaning on Austen for dialogue. How did that work out?
Yeah. It’s really rich in Austen dialogue. The problem was that she was still writing in the 18th-century epistolary form—letters between characters. And we were trying to change the letters into scenes and dialogue. And that’s one reason why it was very helpful to me that I didn’t have any deal with this project—it was just on my own. I didn’t tell anyone about it and just worked on it when I didn’t have to work on other things. To make it playable took years and years.
So when did you start working on it?
I was writing to someone about it in 2004, but I think our conversations about it must have been earlier. So it’s been a long time. But it was never like, “Oh, I’m so frustrated. I’m not getting this done.” I was waiting for it to be ready.
There’s something of the period piece in all of your movies, even though they’re set in the present or the near present. What was it like to leap back 200 years for Love & Friendship?
It was pretty liberating. I mean, I just love the period. And almost all my reading for pleasure is in that period. It really seemed like, “This is fun. This is really, really, really a good period to be working in.”
What drew you to Lady Susan?
It’s really about an extravagant, really funny character. And kind of wicked. We just had a lot of fun with the character. Austen got more devout and religious as her life went on. So when she was guidingPride and Prejudice through the publishing process, she thought it was too light and airy and silly. She wanted to write something more serious. So she wrote Mansfield Park. So that’s her cast of mind later on, and it explains why she didn’t rush to publish Lady Susan while she was alive. This is something she’d left in its first or second draft. It’s very funny, but she would have done more to complete it. And that’s why we felt that if we changed things, if we amplified things, if we added characters that we needed to make it a film, we were part of her process of finishing it rather than taking one of her masterpieces and reducing it to a 90-minute film. I mean, we’re adding a new volume to the Jane Austen library.
Why did you end up swapping the title with an earlier work of juvenilia, Love & Friendship?
She had no title on it. I’ve seen the manuscript. It’s in the Morgan Library. Her nephew, when he published it in 1871, put the title Lady Susan on it. Austen had sort of shifted as she went along from character names to imposing noun names for titles. Sense and Sensibility was supposed to be called Elinor and Marianne. So we took the title from a juvenile short story to give it that Austen sound.
Is there something different about Lady Susan that makes it stand out from the more familiar, beloved Austen novels?
It’s very different. I mean, it’s really this funny, extravagant, manipulative character. It’s comedy. It’s sort of her channeling Oscar Wilde or Evelyn Waugh, more than what people would associate with Sense and Sensibility, for example.
Is it a more “modern” Austen?
Well, I’m sort of anti-modern. So I think it’s what it is. People were very funny in the past, too. And it is a lot funnier than almost anything else written in the 18th century. There’s great comedy written in the 18th century. But this—this is particularly good comedy.
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