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Interview: Whit Stillman on LOVE & FRIENDSHIP

Whit Stillman’s first feature, Metropolitan, debuted in 1990. While it may have garnered an academy award nomination for Best Original Screenplay, the director waited four years before making his follow up Barcelona. Following the success of those films as well as The Last Days of Disco, Stillman now has quite the following among the intellectual community. His latest film Love & Friendship is adapted from Jane Austen’s Lady Susan and is surely the director’s most charming film to date. We spoke with Stillman when he was in Toronto promoting the film about Jane Austen, novelizations, and the future of his series The Cosmopolitans.

Scene Creek: There is a conversation in Metropolitan about Jane Austin’s Mansfield Park and your other films are often discussed in association with Austen. She’s always bee present in your films, but when did you decide to adapt one of her works?

Whit Stillman: I was first approached in around ’93 or ’94 to direct a Jane Austen adaptation. I had serious conversations with them about their script. Then I had two more serious conversations at the end of the ’90s or early 2000s. For one reason or another, although some of the ideas we discussed I saw in the final films, those didn’t happen. Meanwhile, in the same period as the second of the two possibilities, I found this novella of hers. I first read one of her novels, Northanger Abbey, when I was eighteen and I hated it. I told everyone how much I hated it and how overrated she was, blah blah blah. I read everything else and realized I liked Jane Austen. I went back to Northanger Abbey to see why I didn’t like it. I liked it the second time. I read it because it parodies gothic novels. I’d edited those at Doubleday so I knew what gothic novels meant. I didn’t know what they were before, so I didn’t know what she was parodying or what the hijinks were about. In that edition they had Lady Susan. I read that and thought it was really funny. It wasn’t entirely completed and has a bad title. So I could kind of try to transform it into something that could be more accessible as a film. It just became this fun project to work on when I wasn’t getting paid for something else.

SC: Lady Susan is written as a series of letters. Did that make it more or less difficult to adapt?

WS: It made it hugely more difficult to adapt, but I think sometimes the real barrier can put you in a better place once you solve it. The temptation in a lot of adaptations is just to take the modern novel with dialogue scenes and put the dialogue scenes into the script. In this case it had to be totally reconceived in order to have dialogue scenes, in order to have scenes. Occasionally in the epistolary novel she describes a scene in the letter. You could see her going towards modern novel writing in the course of a letter. A letter became a little bit more of a novel with Sir James Martin arriving and acting this way and all that. A lot of the times it’s just words and correspondence back and forth. So you have to take the points of view represented by these letters and put them in a space where people can talk to each other, in order for information to be exchanged. That’s why we added the Mrs. Cross character as Lady Susan’s companion. She needed a companion she could talk to because Alicia was in London and she was in Churchill, they couldn’t talk. There’s one scene where Alicia driving through stops and meets Lady Susan and they talk. Then there’s another case where Lady Susan goes to London because of Frederica’s problem in school and sees her friend. So there’s a constant challenge of putting people in physical proximity so they could talk to each other.

SC: When the film premiered at Sundance many people were asking you how you made Jane Austen funny. You had replied that you didn’t. Why do you think people don’t associate Jane Austen with humour?

WS: When they adapt Jane Austen the target audience is the romance market. So they always skew it more towards romance. I think generally it doesn’t fall into the hands of people whose passion is comedy, it falls into the hands of people whose passion is quality literature and period. Also, this is her funniest piece. So while everything she writes is funny and she has a humourous point of view – sometimes a humorous point of view in texts does not necessarily become comedy in a film because the point of view is kind of eliminated, so the comedy is underplayed in the adaptations. In this case, comedy is really the heart of it. It’s the only piece of her adult fiction where it’s really about the comedy, rather than anything else. It’s really about silly, really funny stuff. I always liked the adaptation of Sense and Sensibility and I always say that Sense and Sensibility is the really great romantic Jane Austen adaptation, we hope to do the good comic Jane Austen adaptation. Then people tell me that Sense and Sensibility is quite funny. I don’t remember the funny stuff; I remember the sweeping romantic stuff that I like very much and the predicaments of the characters.

SC: This is the second time you’re writing a novel in conjunction with a film. Your Love & Friendship book is not a novelization per se, is that correct?

Yeah, this novelization formula we try to avoid. It’s adapted from, it’s based on, but a novelization implies something with low aspirations and something that’s crass. The reason why it took two years for the Disco novel was that the editors really wanted it to be a serious work, they wanted it to be literary and not just quickly summarizing the film in that form. They wanted it to be really considered work. This is kind of disaster from a queer point of view for me. Your momentum is so fragile. It’s all so easy to go astray and to waste your time on things that don’t go forward. To take two years off and to work on various things like a novel is very dangerous for your trajectory in film terms. For this, they’re sort of similar and different. Both of them have first person narrators who have inside information on the stories. The Last Days of Disco novel is more serious, this is more silly. This is more comedy and that is more sincerity.

SC: It seems that you have not made a film that was set in the present. You specifically date films like Metropolitan and Last Days of Disco. A film like Damsels in Distress seems to take place in an undisclosed time; the film doesn’t show any modern technology, yet seems to take place at some point in the past decade. Even your Amazon series The Cosmopolitans has only one usage of a cellphone, and it one that is not modern. Now you’re finally making a period film. Do you consciously avoiding films that take place in the present?

WS: Yes, I do. I don’t know how to dramatically construct today. Today is just today. When I look at something dramatically, I look through rose coloured glasses. I don’t want to see thing’s without rose coloured glasses. Everything has to be better than it seems because it is just not dramatic and not interested for me to just go out on the street. What’s the name of this street here?

SC: Dundas.

WS: Yeah, it’s Dundas Street in this day and this is the way it looks. I don’t care. It’s not entertaining to me. Some additional information, the period thing in the first three films and in Cosmopolitans is the same deal. It’s looking back a little bit, constructing something from either very many years or a few years. Damsels is a bit weirder, because it’s sort of in the present but the girls are trying to recreate the past, so they’re doing a retro utopia they’re trying to create. So they’re in the late fifties early sixties in their minds and trying to recreate that world. It’s happenstance that there’s so little technology in the film. There is a cellphone at the end. There were laptop scenes, there was even a close-up of him writing the “Decline of Decadence” essay on his laptop, but we didn’t need the scenes. All the scenes with laptops were cut out. It wasn’t initially intentional. In Cosmopolitans, when I was having those experiences that are portrayed in the show, I was doing the thing with the texts; using the little phones with the text messages, SMS and all that. I like period very much, it’s more romantic to do the past. So much of drama and literature is excluding things. There’s just too much information that’s not interesting. So you get rid of all that so you just stick to the stuff that is interesting and makes sense to you.

SC: What’s happening with The Cosmopolitans?

WS: For various reasons I can’t write one of these series bibles or summaries. I can’t write the whole plot in advance and tell them what it’s going to be. I know from the past that if I do that it will be the worst disaster. So I have to write the scripts to know what the story is going to be. They very kindly gave me a commission to write six scripts. Then I have the film and the novel I wrote, so I couldn’t do them right away. I’m doing them now and I hope it’s going to be better. I’ve got more different ideas. It’s going to go in a bit of a different place, but I’m using all the characters – well not all of them – but I’m using that milieu to start the continuation and then it’s going to go elsewhere. But there’s no commitment to shoot it. I’ve got to write something that they’re convinced they want to do.

SC: But it’s very possible we’ll see more?

WS: I think it’s more likely than not likely.


Love & Friendship is now playing.

Matt Hoffman

Matthew Hoffman is a Toronto-based cinephile who especially enjoys French films and actresses over the age of 50; including but not limited to: Isabelle Huppert, Meryl Streep, and Jacki Weaver.