Writer/director Robin Swicord‘s “The Jane Austen Book Club” centers on six Californians who start a club to discuss the works of 19th century English writer Jane Austen. Based on the best-selling novel by Karen Joy Fowler, the friends (played by Amy Brenneman, Maria Bello, Maggie Grace, Kathy Baker and Emily Brunt) who live in present-day Sacramento, have each been hurt in some way and are perplexed by love. As the book club continues further into Austen’s books, the lives of each member in the book club is also revealed with striking parallels. “The Jane Austen Book Club” is the first directorial feature for veteran screenwriter Swicord. She was nominated in 1995 for best screenplay (based on material previously produced or published) for “Little Women,” and won the Satellite Awards’ outstanding screenplay, adapted prize for “Memoirs of a Geisha.” Sony Pictures Classics opens the film in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, September 21.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking and how has that evolved during your career?
I always wrote as a child, and I loved movies, but I didn’t understand that movies were written, or even made–I knew that authors wrote books, but who made movies? Films seemed just to appear on screen as if by magic. In college I began taking photographs, and I was exposed for the first time to the idea of filmmaking. Everything that fascinated me–clothing design, architecture, painting, music, acting, theatre, story-telling, characters, photography, comic books and cartoons–seemed to be combined in one activity. I found my way to filmmaking through theatre to playwrighting, and from there to writing screenplays, then to producing my own work, and finally, after pushing against closed doors for almost fifteen years, a venerated producer, John Calley, gave me a chance to direct my own screenplay in “The Jane Austen Book Club.”
Are there still other aspects of filmmaking you’d like to explore?
I love every aspect of writing and directing, and now I just want to keep making films and developing my skills. I occasionally enjoy teaching others about screenwriting. Sometime I might like to write something that would share what I’ve learned about screenwriting.
How did the idea for “The Jane Austen Book Club” come about?
My producer John Calley read the novel “The Jane Austen Book Club” and brought it to me because he had read a screenplay of mine called “The Jane Prize” about a dysfunctional family of Jane Austen scholars. At first, I wasn’t sure that I should take on another Austen-related project, but as I got to know John Calley, I didn’t want to miss the chance to work with him. We share a similar sensibility and humor, so whenever we’re together we have a great time. I wasn’t sure which project (“Jane Prize” or “Book Club”) had the best shot at being made at Sony, so I just decided to trust fate, write both, and see which made it to the finish line first.
What were some of the biggest challenges in making the film?
Any writer/director who sets out to make an ensemble film with extended scenes, overlapping dialogue and a loose visual style is working in the shadow of the great American director Robert Altman. While we were shooting “The Jane Austen Book Club,” Altman passed away. On set I called the cast and crew together and we observed a minute of respectful silence. I suggested that everyone think about the films Altman had given us–without him, a film like “The Jane Austen Book Club” might never have come into existence. After we resumed work, one of our three camera operators took me aside to thank me, and said that he had worked as a camera operator on two of Altman’s films. So I felt even more connected to that wonderful director because he left behind a lineage of collaborators.
In making my first film as a writer-director, I didn’t try to imitate Altman’s approach–I found my own style in conceiving the look of the film and organizing my tasks and setting the tone of work with the crew and cast. I wanted to make a movie that felt like a true reflection of our lives as we experience things now in 2007. I was fortunate in having collaborators like my production designer Rusty Smith, the costume designer Johnetta Boone, and director of photography John Toon.
We all very quickly came to the same understanding about the look and feel of the film, and set out to accomplish our shared goals within the challenge of our small budget and limited schedule–under $6 million total, with only 30 days of shooting in 37 locations, with six principal actors and three cameras capturing ensemble performances. We worked in an organized way, rather efficiently, but always with a sense of play. The actors and I rehearsed, using games and improvisation, and some days even sacrificed an hour of filming to rehearse on set before we called in the crew and commenced work together. I knew myself to be a “guide on the side” rather than the typical fantasy of a director, the puppet-master pulling the strings. My own style leaned toward play and whispered reminders, but I was free to create that atmosphere because I was always well-prepared with a “Plan B” that I had worked out beforehand. I think I worked that way because of my background as a screenwriter–first you outline, then you put the outline away and write, trying to experience the movie in your head as it comes to you, rather than slavishly following the plan you laid out beforehand.
How did the financing and casting come together?
John Calley secured the financing for the film–we were a negative pick-up by Sony Classics. Their early commitment to distribute the film allowed John Calley and producer Julie Lynn to secure a bank loan. I always felt the support and partnership of Sony Classics, even though they were not technically involved in making the film with us on a daily basis. We stayed in touch about casting choices and so forth, but I always knew I had the freedom to cast the people I wanted and to choose my collaborators. Even though this was an indie film, we didn’t face a lot of the usual struggles, because Michael Barker and Tom Bernard at Sony Classics gave us such an early commitment.
John Calley brought me Maria Bello–the three of us had a coffee at a little corner shop in Venice, California, and Maria and I hit it off. After a number of dramatic roles, Maria had been hoping to play a lighter, more comic part–good timing for this project. Maria was my dream Jocelyn. As soon as John Calley suggested her, I couldn’t imagine anyone else in the role. The cast came together quickly, but in a thoughtful way–I met everyone, spent time with each actor, and consciously thought about whether everyone in the ensemble would be a good “play mate”. I sought out actors who had a background in theatre, television and film, because I knew actors experienced in theatre and television would come to work prepared and be able to work at our fast pace.I was hoping to make an ensemble of players who would quickly coalesce and begin to have fun. I believed that a sense of play would be contagious, and show up on screen in the actors’ performances.
What are some of your creative influences?
I have the autodidact’s interest in a wide range of things, from biography to literature and the visual arts and even science and medicine . Sometimes I don’t even know that I am being influenced–I tend to follow my interests, tolerate my obsessions, and move on to a new subject, and only later realize that I have incorporated an influence into what I am writing or the images I am imagining.
What other stories would you like to explore and what is your next project?
I don’t know what film I would like to make next. I love all kinds of stories. I enjoyed making a comedy–we made ourselves laugh a lot this year. But I also would like to make a more dramatic and emotional film. I don’t understand exactly how I choose the projects that I write. Like many other writers and directors, I tend to find my next project by instinct. First I realize I can’t stop thinking about a story, and then slowly (sometimes with a feeling of dread!) I realize that I am going to have to write it.
How do you define “independent film?”
When I first started working in film, “indie” films were made for under a million dollars and they were sometimes shot on 16mm, even 16mm black and white stock! But as the business changed and the large studios consolidated under corporate ownership, independent financiers slowly began to proliferate. Now I suppose an indie film is any film that is financed by someone other than the large corporate studios–even though at this writing filmmakers still need distribution from the major entertainment corporations. But we all know that that might change because of the new technologies that will allow us to distribute our films more directly to the audience.
What are some of your favorite films?
There are some films I return to again and again, classic films like “The Heiress,” “The Lady Eve,” “All About Eve,” “Some Like It Hot,” anything directed by Hitchcock or written I.A.L. Diamond & Billy Wilder. I watch “Groundhog Day” every year. I love the economy of Hitchcock and the insightful human touches in “Diamond & Wilder.” I also love films that are highly cinematic–action films like “The Bourne Identity”; gorgeous melodramas like “The English Patient”; even quirky comedies like “Two Days In Paris,” which was shot in an unconventional style.
What advice would you give to emerging filmmakers?
The only advice I have for emerging filmmakers is this: Do something creative every day.