Interview: Whit Stillman
Jane Austen delineated the genteel society of Georgian England with such surgical precision—and needlepoint wit—that few film directors have succeeded in blending their authorial voices with Austen’s without at least subtly vulgarizing her rarefied milieu and its strict moral code. The exceptions have been Roger Michell’s Persuasion (95), a one-off social realist experiment; Ang Lee’s spatially rigorous Sense and Sensibility (95), which has nonetheless dated; and Patricia Rozema’s austere but suggestive Mansfield Park (99).
Whit Stillman’s newly released Love & Friendship, which dramatizes Austen’s circa 1794 epistolary novella Lady Susan, may be regarded as the sharpest take on Austen by a bona fide auteur. Typically nonjudgmental, it drolly depicts the flirt’s progress of the eponymous widow (Kate Beckinsale), a freeloader and expert in politesse, who attempts to snare rich dimwit Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett) for the 16-year-old daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark), she has wantonly neglected, and a younger heir, Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel), for herself. Lady Susan sees no reason why maintaining an affair with her virile married lover should prove an impediment to her seduction, beautifully contrived with faux virtuousness, of the calf-like DeCourcy.
What makes Love & Friendship revelatory is the way it harmonizes with the world of the urban haute bourgeoisie Stillman insouciantly depicted in his Austen-imbued debut Metropolitan (90) and The Last Days of Disco (98), as well as that of the American expatriate experience in Barcelona (94) and the preppily feminine campus of the less naturalistic Damsels in Distress (11). United though they are by their posh—or posh-sounding—characters and gloriously self-conscious talk, Stillman’s films are governed more by how self-knowledge, or a lack thereof, determines his characters’ fates.
The following interview was culled from two conversations with Stillman—one in person, one on the phone—in the week before Love & Friendship’s New York release.
There had been a wave of Jane Austen TV adaptations in the 1970s and early ’80s, but it was the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice , written by Andrew Davies, that really popularized Austen on film.
Some development people have told me they started thinking about Jane Austen after seeing Metropolitan. When it came out, it wasn’t seen by all the world, but it did last several months in New York. That was 1990. I was offered the script for Sense and Sensibility in early ’94 but didn’t do it.
Metropolitan engages with Mansfield Park on an unusually sophisticated textual level.
There are two scenes that relate to that. There’s a debate among the characters about Mansfield Park and Lionel Trilling’s famous essay on Fanny Price as a virtuous heroine, and there is a parallel, of course, with Audrey Rouget [Carolyn Farina] playing a version of Fanny. The “indefensible” plot element in Mansfield Park was Fanny sticking up for her uncle’s rules about not allowing private theatricals at his house. Trilling starts off by saying we cannot possibly identify with this, and then he goes on to show that we can, but of course the Tom Townsend [Edward Clements] character in the movie gets the wrong end of the stick. In the film, we have a truth or dare game, in which people have to answer honestly any question they’re asked if they lose. I’ve seen the damage those games can do. Audrey doesn’t want to play that game and becomes very isolated in the group. There’s this big thing of who’s on Audrey’s side and who isn’t—it’s a little plot element from Austen’s novel.
Why has Jane Austen always appealed to you and not, say, Henry James or Edith Wharton?
I have no feeling for Edith Wharton and my feeling for Henry James is quite attenuated, so they mean nothing to me. I have lots of feeling for Jane Austen—her world, her entire point of view. It’s interesting and moving and I have an emotional or intellectual connection to it. I chose to make a film of Lady Susan because it is great material but has a sort of defective presentation, so I could help to present it dramatically.
Was it harder to extrapolate scenes and dialogue from an epistolary novel than it would have been from one with a conventional first- or third-person narration?
From the point of view of the writer, it’s technically much harder, but that might have been an attraction to me because I could make it my own in a way that I couldn’t have if I had just been turning dramatized scenes from a novel into dramatized scenes in a screenplay. So, yes, there’s a bigger challenge, but that might have been what was so liberating from the handcuffs of adapting scenes that had already been designed. Very few of the scenes in the film are described in the letters in the novella. Nearly everything had to be reimagined and I knew it was going to take a while to do it.
Did you write with the visual grammar in mind or did that evolve more when you were on the set?
I always worry a lot about how things are going to look, and it’s one of the problems I have engaging with scripts that come out of Hollywood development because I feel they often have no visual sense at all—it’s just people talking in boring rooms. Sometimes characters have to talk in rooms, but let them be interesting rooms.
The characters in Love & Friendship are constantly making significant entrances or hovering just beyond the doors they’ve entered. Is that determined solely by the primarily domestic settings of Austen’s world or do you attach psychological meanings to the crossing of thresholds and the entering of certain rooms?
You try to do everything you can to keep things visual and moving. People exist in spaces and you have to use the spaces available. It’s very convenient—and kind of wonderful—to have the kind of amazing interior spaces we had to work in, because you can walk from room to room to room and even bring the outside in with the views through the windows. We tried to have as much movement as possible to keep things on their toes. The pacing has a sort of tricked-up threat-tension, but I’m not sure how much of it is real and how much of it comes from a confection of film techniques. I found the baroque music tracks that we used, combined with the velocity of the performances, gave the film a greater sense of speed than it might have had intrinsically.
For Catherine Vernon [Emma Greenwell] and her mother, Lady DeCourcy [Jemma Redgrave], the fact that this female scoundrel, Lady Susan Vernon, might be taking Catherine’s younger brother Reginald to the altar is about as serious a threat as they could have other than dismemberment and death. We as an audience don’t feel that, of course, so tricks and techniques had to be used to build this threat-tension. We have characters going this way and horses going that way and birds calling out and the dark sky. To have this serious stuff—the worrying about the danger this dastardly woman poses to Reginald’s future—counterpoints the silliness of the comedy. Masculine words like “dastardly” and “scoundrel” suit Lady Susan. She’s a cad.
Lady Susan was presumably influenced by Choderlos de Laclos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses, which was published 12 years earlier, in 1782. You can see the Marquise de Merteuil in Lady Vernon and Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park, too. They are the only wicked women in the Austen canon.
I think Lady Susan Vernon is closer to Jane Austen in her own letters than to her novels. A lot of people who love Austen read her letters and think, “Oh my gosh, she’s kind of tough. She’s not very nice.” [Laughs.] In a way, I think there’s a Lady Susan in many people who are manipulative and get everything they want through mild or severe deception.
I wonder, too, if she was an alter ego for Jane Austen.
I think that kind of character is an alter ego for a lot of writers. Because what is a writer doing? Deceiving and manipulating and tricking and using language to weave a web.
She has much more agency than passive Austen heroines like Fanny Price and Anne Elliot [Persuasion]. Emma Woodhouse, whom Kate Beckinsale played in the 1996 TV production of Emma, is a well-meaning rather than a self-seeking matchmaker like Lady Susan, but she’s equally wrongheaded.
Yeah, there are a lot of similarities between Lady Susan and Emma and Kate’s characters in Cold Comfort Farm  and The Last Days of Disco—she’s done one after the other—as well as Greta Gerwig’s character, Violet, in Damsels in Distress. What seems odd to me, though it’s helpful with Love & Friendship, is that people are reacting better to the self-interested plotter than they reacted to the idealistic group leader Violet in Damsels.
It’s partially because Beckinsale is now at the right age to project that kind of soigné, bitchy demeanor and make it enjoyable.
We enjoy it coming from her but might not enjoy it coming from someone else?
Yes. Another pleasure of the film is watching the effect on characters of incidents that happen offscreen. For example, Lady Susan’s unseen tryst with Lord Manwaring [Lochlann O’Mearáin] allows you to customize your own kind of Lubitsch Touch. Playing into that is Beckinsale’s performance, which is maybe her sexiest because it is one of her most discreet.
Yes, she’s a beautiful woman on-screen who really wants to be with a man and you can see that. And if guys in the audience are vicariously identifying with Manwaring, they’re thinking, “Oh… not bad!”
You gave him no lines and show him sparingly, which strengthens his status as the film’s male love object.
There’s one shot that’s super-romantic where Lady Susan and Alicia [Chloë Sevigny] are in the carriage, and the Mozart music comes up, and they look out and see Manwaring waiting for her. That day I tried to get one more shot of him standing in the dark, though it turned out we didn’t need it. It was the same day we did the Steadicam shot—where the aristocrat comes up and addresses Lady Susan when she’s walking with Alicia in the arcades, and she tells him she’ll have him whipped for speaking to her and then says to Alicia, “I’d never speak to someone I don’t know that way”—and did a trick shot of the interior of the carriage, which is too small to shoot from inside. We had two big guys jumping up and down on the carriage to make it look like it was moving.
Lady Susan has developed a way of saying almost exactly the opposite of what she means in order to get what she wants. You sense it’s become an automatic habit with her.
Yes. When she and Mrs. Cross [Kelly Campbell] approach Churchill [Charles and Catherine Vernon’s residence], she says, “What a bore,” and then to Catherine Vernon, it’s “your delightful country retreat,” and then to Alicia, it’s “the place I most detest in the world, a country village.” It’s whatever works with her audience.
This adult wit makes me wonder if you were influenced by screwball comedy.
I like 1930s comedy, but I wouldn’t say screwball comedies specifically. As with film noir, there are some films that I just consider classics but that aren’t really genre films. I mean, is The Shop Around the Corner a screwball comedy? I don’t think so. Is The Palm Beach Story a screwball comedy? Maybe, but I don’t know. I think it’s interesting that critics regard Bringing Up Baby as a great comedy, but I really can’t stand it. I think it’s a dreadful film—painful—and not funny in the least.
Did you invent Mrs. Cross, Lady Susan’s poorer companion, to introduce a class element—or more to emphasize Lady Susan’s hypocrisy?
At first she started out as a structuring mechanism because there’s a lot of information Lady Susan and Alicia had to impart to one another, but I couldn’t have them within earshot of each other all the time. The letters in the novella needed to come alive somehow so there had to be a lot of dialogue. I invented Mrs. Cross to do the listening, which Alicia would have done, to remarks that Lady Susan makes in a letter to Alicia. Once you have the need for a character for some purpose, the character takes on its own life. Mrs. Cross becomes a sycophant endorsing everything Lady Susan says. I wasn’t really thinking of class, but maybe there’s a class element to her.
What prompted you to lay occasional fragments of the letters over the images?
That came very late in the editing process. There are letters in the film, but we were trying to keep them out because there were too many. Then we had to get three significant letters back in.
Was it to acknowledge the epistolary format of the novel and its literariness?
No, I was trying to make a joke. It actually started out from me wanting to spell out the word “mien,” because I had that rather thin piece of business [at a wedding reception] when Charles Vernon [Justin Edwards] is talking to Sir Reginald DeCourcy [James Fleet], who doesn’t understand the difference between “mien” and “mean,” and Vernon says he can get him a citation to explain it. I thought that without putting it up on screen no one would hear or understand what was said. So we put the poem it comes from up on the screen just so people could see “mien.” That gave us the idea of doing it with the letters, too.
You use another formal device in introducing the characters in static poses with comical captions—they have a trompe-l’oeil effect.
That came out of the editing, too. We had done the first part of the shoot, all the stuff at Newbridge House [County Dublin, Ireland] and other stuff in London, and we had one day at Russborough House [County Wicklow]. It was beyond our production circumference and we had to pay overtime and extra money so I only wanted to be there for one day. Snow was forecast and we had a typical moment of filmmaking panic when the assistant director said, “Oh, we can’t risk it. We better cancel this day.” One thing I’ve learned in filmmaking—and maybe I’ll unlearn it in the future—is unless it’s absolutely certain you’re going to have a disaster, just go ahead. So we did, and it was a little scary because there were moments in the day when there was snow over everything, though being in Ireland it melted in 10 seconds so we were home free. A certain amount of time had been left for this complicated crane shot at the beginning of the film where we’re at Langford [the Manwaring residence], and Lady Susan and Frederica come out of the house and get into a carriage. Manwaring chases after them, and Lady Manwaring [Jenn Murray] and Sir James Martin run out as the carriage departs. We got it on the third take and so we had an hour and a half until lunch. I had all the actors there looking great, so I said, “Okay, we’re going to do these really super pictures of you all and I want you to look dramatic.”
I went into the editing room two days later and the editor Sophie Corra had put on Handel’s “Sarabande” from Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. So we had this majestic music and these majestic shots, which we turned into portraits with captions. When we were seeking money to make the film, an agent had told me that to make the story more comprehensible to financiers, it would help to explain who all the characters were. So I did a cast of characters and took phrases and descriptions from the Austen novella. Sophie had seen that material and put it in the captions and I really liked what she did. We didn’t have portrait shots of Chloë and Stephen Fry [who plays Mr. Johnson, Alicia’s husband] because they had already left, so we took single shots of them listening in dramatic moments of a scene. They were terrible because we hadn’t intended to use them that way, but I remembered Scorsese had used old-fashioned iris shots in The Age of Innocence and so we used irises to improve those portraits.
Characters were often introduced like that in silent and 1930s movies.
Also the montage at the end of this film, where you identify the character with the actor, is very ’30s cinema. I’ve always loved that. People have asked me, “Where are your deleted scenes?” And I’ve had to say, “We don’t have any because the parts we liked from them are in the montage at the end and the rest we don’t want to show.”
Have you ever thought of devising a completely new story with original characters set in the Austen milieu, or would that be taking too much of a liberty?
No, I’d never do that. It just doesn’t interest me. If I’m going to write an original story, I want to set it in a time I know.
At this point, you’ve made five films that are consistent in tone and class settings and in their use of highly articulate dialogue. Did you decide long ago to commit only to films that wouldn’t compromise your standards or interests?
That wasn’t my original ambition. It’s something that’s come to be, but I was up for other projects for a long time. I was keen to get any job that was worthwhile for many, many years, but it never came together in the right way. I directed an episode of Homicide [“The Heart of a Saturday Night,” 96] and some TV commercials. Now I don’t have that much working life left. I’m at a point where there’s a ticking clock and don’t want to waste any time. So I want to work on different things, provided they’re valuable to me.
Love & Friendship is currently in theaters. Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan, Barcelona, and The Last Days of Disco have just been released by Criterion on a three Blu-ray special edition collector’s set.