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Jerusha Hess on ‘Austenland,’ When Fandom Goes Too Far and Making a Movie for the Girls

Jerusha Hess on 'Austenland,' When Fandom Goes Too Far and Making a Movie for the Girls

It’s been nine years since screenwriter Jerusha Hess introduced the world to the now cult classic “Napoleon Dynamite.” Following the success and critical acclaim, she co-wrote two more features — “Nacho Libre” and “Gentlemen Broncos” — with her husband and writing partner Jared Hess. After this trio of “dude-centric” movies, she’s making her directional debut with “Austenland,” a movie that is positively for the ladies. Adapted from the novel by Shannon Hale, “Austenland” centers on a Jane Austen-obsessed woman (Keri Russell) who takes the trip of a lifetime to an Austen reenactment resort. Rounding out the cast are Jennifer Coolidge, JJ Feild, Bret McKenzie, James Callis, Georgia King and Jane Seymour. The film had its premiere at Sundance and is opening in theaters August 16. Indiewire recently sat down with Hess in New York to discuss “Austenland,” its place on Jane Austen fan culture and what girls can learn about love from the film.

What is your own experience with Jane Austen and being an Austenite? How did you get into that fandom?

I studied English at university and I read many of her works and watched many of the shows… I think even in high school I started watching the shows. It’s kind of what my mother pushed on me, like “You can only read Brontë and Louisa May Alcott,” you know? And I loved it. It’s funny and witty and charming. It’s kind of like the smart girl gets the cute guy — it’s not even the cute guy, the smart girl gets the bad boy and is able to change him. And about the fandom, I was never the crazy fan at all… I mean, I’ve dressed up in “Battlestar Galactica” clothes. I’ve been Starbuck before, I’ve never been Elizabeth Bennet. I think fandom is great, though. I think it’s super fun and it’s fun to get into something. As a creator of “Napoleon Dynamite” we’ve seen crazy fans.

Right, because that has become a cult classic.

It has. And it’s very charming. These people are very charming. And, you know, sometimes it goes too far when they put a tattoo on themselves. We just toed that line the whole time of “How can we make the fans love this movie, but also, kind of teasing it just a bit.” 

There has been this new genre emerging of the Jane Austen film, not just an adaptation of the novels, but a movie about women and Jane Austen and love. Why do you think the need for that genre has emerged?

It’s an enduring classic, and girls just keep going back to it. It’s the epitome of what we want. We want to be romanced like that. I don’t know how it’s become movies about Jane Austen.

Like “The Jane Austen Book Club” is about as meta as it gets…

Yes. I don’t know. I definitely am in that same club for sure. But [Austenland] is such a joke of a movie. It’s just silly. It could have been any fantasy camp. It’s “Westworld” for girls. It was done in the ’80s and it was called “Dirty Dancing.”

You were saying that girls look to Jane Austen to learn about love, and because they want to be romanced. What do you think the moral of “Austenland” is with regard to love and what to expect from love?” 

I think the moral — and I break this at the end — is “Girls, get your crap together, because it’s not real.” And that’s the whole thing, reality versus fantasy. [Keri Russell’s character Jane] had to figure it out herself and stand on her own two feet, and not be so dependent on this fake world, and at that point she finally can find love. Because she took it to the nth degree and she needed a reality check. I think, to my young daughter, I will say “Don’t go after the Mr. Nobley [J.J. Feild], I mean Mr. Darcy. Go for the Mr. Bingley.” You need to go for that sweet boy. He seemed more real, in that the girl didn’t have to change him.

What I like about Mr. Nobley is that he kind of rides the line between a Mr. Wickham and a Mr. Darcy — you think he’s the wrong one for her because he comes off as kind of curmudgeonly, but then he turns out to be the real life nice guy, which is what she thought Martin [Bret McKenzie] was. So, you’ve come from a trio of very dude-centric films, and now you’ve come to adapt “Austenland,” which is very chick-heavy. Was this the reason behind the women-only marketing campaign and the women-only screenings?

No, that was all Sony, that wasn’t my idea at all. I never came into it thinking “Oh, this is just a movie for women.” I just wanted to make a movie for myself. I was so sick of… I have a storage unit that is covered with “Gentlemen Broncos” testicles in jars. I mean, it’s floor to ceiling testicle jars. And I don’t know why we never threw them out. They’re leaking, and it’s just disgusting. I was like “I gotta get out of this.” I needed to feel my voice. And I feel like if I had made a movie with a male protagonist, people would have been like “Oh, well it’s not “Napoleon Dynamite.”

I needed to go somewhere really different than where I’ve gone before. And so I just wanted to make a movie for myself. And I wanted to make a fairy tale, because I think those make the best stories. I didn’t think “women only” ever, but obviously is it for women. I’m not ashamed to say that. This is a movie for the girls. I made it for my friends, I made it for my mom, I made it for myself. It’s a movie that’s full of pink feathers and hot servants in faux tans. But it’s super bawdy, and not raunchy in a sexual way, but it’s bathroom humor. It’s got some “boy” in there as well. It’s got some based humor that boys typically like.

There’s a foal being born…

Exactly. And all that physical humor. When boys see it they’re always surprised, like “Woah, I didn’t expect that. I didn’t expect to laugh the whole time.” And Jennifer Coolidge!

Oh, she was so funny! And I liked that her character had no concept of Austen, didn’t know what “Pride and Prejudice” was, and showed up to Austenland because she wanted to be romanced. With a character like that, were you trying to appeal to people who haven’t really been immersed in Austen, haven’t read any of the books, but were interested?

Totally. She’s the everyman who’s just there for the boys. And you don’t have to know any of the manners and the history. She’s just there for huge laughs. And she gets a boy too. I mean, they all get boys. Such a summer camp fairy tale.

Speaking of boys, Mr. Nobley is more than just an object for the women — like “Who’s going to win him?” — because when he pursues Jane [Keri’s character], he asserts himself. He’s like, “Well, this is my fantasy too, you know. You’re seeing it too much from your perspective. What if you’re perfect for me too?” Were you trying to teach men anything in this film, knowing that men would probably come being a little skeptical or getting dragged by their girlfriends?

I think that’s more for the girls. Yeah, it also says that it’s okay for this masculine man to be into the history and be into this, because he’s just as into it as Jane is. He’s embarrassed at first, but he lets himself slip into that role and he loves it. But it’s also the ultimate wish fulfillment that a boy is fantasizing about you just as much as you are about him.

And that’s not seen at all in romantic comedies. It’s just the girl’s perspective. The girl is the one who wants a man, the girl is the one who dreads being single. 

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

What was the research process like for the film? Did you have your cast read any Jane Austen?

I think they all quickly watched Colin Firth’s version again. Keri reread some Austen novels in pieces to just refresh her memory. And I did, of course, and I watched every adaptation known to man and [read] all the books. And that’s how I got familiar with J.J. Feild, from Mr. Tilney [in “Northanger Abbey”]. We wanted to be educated enough so that we could mess it up.

Right, and that’s a lot of what Jennifer’s character is about. She’s sort of playing the well-meaning ditz but she needs to know, as an actor, everything that’s right about Regency culture to get it all wrong.

In rehearsals, we had this historian come and teach us about manners and decorum and about the history of the time and it was so dull we were like [mimics snickering] “We got it! We got it! We’re ready to go!” I guess I really don’t want to live in this time where it’s like, all day you would sew. I’m like, oh yeah, that is the joke. That it’s kind of dull.

You have a mixed cast, some from a background of period pieces, like J.J. Field, and some people you think of as more modern actors, like Jennifer Coolidge and Bret McKenzie from “Flight of the Conchords.” How did you assemble this group of people?

It was a real hot mess — it was great. It was me calling friends in the end, like, “Will you be in this?” And of course Jennifer always had to be in it. She didn’t believe me that I was making this movie. Her agents would never get back to me, I think they thought it was fake, until she was like “What? You’re really doing a movie? I didn’t believe you.” And I was like “Well, Jennifer, I’ve been trying for a while. I’ve been trying to get your people for a while.”

Keri I had known, and she’s just so sweet and in “Waitress” she was just so earnest and sweet and simple, she seems like she could be every girl. Even though she’s gorgeous and no one is that girl, you think “I could be her.” And then we had an English casting director who hooked us up with these English people who have done it. Georgia King had been in a Dickens “Little Dorrit” production. James Callis has done theater in England, and then “Battlestar Galactica,” of course. He was in “Bridget Jones’s Diary.” So I knew he was going to be funny. You have to mix it. It’s a British film. It’s about a bunch of Brits and then these unknowing Americans that come to it so you sort of have to play with that.

So, you are really experienced with fan culture.

Not as much as [producer] Stephenie [Meyer].

What were you trying to say to Jane Austen fans? The movie opens with a scene in Keri’s room, and it’s bedecked with letters spelling Mr. Darcy on the wall, a life-size cut out of Colin Firth, and at first you see that and go “Woah!” but also you don’t want to alienate someone whose room might really be like that.

You don’t want to go too far. And it’s not that her room was bad. But she was alienating friends and not moving on emotionally and intimately in her life with relationships. She was just stuck. She had a real case of arrested development. And that’s the problem. It’s not how many teacups you have shadowboxed in your house. That’s fine.

I mean, I went in that room for the first time and I was like “Oh my gosh, I could live here!” It was so cute, and I was like, “Who wouldn’t want that as their own little private space?” It’s so sweet and beautiful. And that was just a means to get her to be like “Oh, if I change my room that means I’m changed inside.” But it was just inside she needed to open herself up, move on, and have healthy relationships. So, you know, to the fans: dress up. Do whatever you want. These girls don’t dress up every day. They don’t go to their jobs like that. It’s just what they do in their spare time.

It’s their release. 

Exactly. I did it with “Battlestar.” I had an arrested development party where we all dressed up as characters. It’s fun. It’s fun and we all need a little outlet, and I hope the fans still love it even though we are kind of saying “Tsk tsk” to the overly enthusiastic…

Don’t go too far.

Exactly. And it’s for every fan. It’s not just the Jane Austen fans. It’s for anything that goes too far.

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