Filmmaker Whit Stillman is a modern master of comedies of manners, from “Metropolitan” to “Damsels in Distress” — funny films that hinge on the unique personalities and behaviors of their indelible characters, which makes it a bit of a surprise that his Sundance premiere, “Love & Friendship,” is his first attempt to adapt the work of another famous humorist known for her character work: Jane Austen.
With “Love & Friendship,” Stillman takes on Austen’s novella “Lady Susan,” arguably her least well-known work, and infuses it with quick wit and snappy storytelling. The film is also a reunion of sorts, with his “Last Days of Disco” leading ladies Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny again playing best friends in the feature, as Beckinsale takes on the Lady Susan role, with Sevigny serving as her wry American pal Lady Alicia. As is the case with all of Austen’s stories, “Love & Friendship” centers on a group of loosely-related Regency era society movers and shakers who are continually tossed together by various romantic intrigues and upheavals. The lovely Lady Susan, a first-class flirt, is at the center of it all, half-bent on snagging a new husband for herself even as her charming daughter Frederica (Morfyyd Clark) is lining up her own suitors.
The film has already been snapped up by Amazon and Roadside Attractions, with both a theatrical and a streaming release in the works.
Stillman sat down with Indiewire at the festival to talk about why it took so long to make the film, why Jane Austen is such a perfect fit for his sensibilities and why he wants to make a James Bond film.
This is your third deal with Amazon and you seem very pleased with it. How has that relationship progressed?
It started very early. Roy Price was starting on some studios and they were going to crowd-source — I’m not sure I can talk about this, I think it’s okay — films from new filmmakers, and they wanted to give them material they could adapt. Roy had a very good idea that “Metropolitan” would provide a template for ensemble pieces, and so they bought the optioned remake rights for “Metropolitan,” but then there were certain guild complications and they didn’t want to do it.
They did the deal and then we knew each other and I was doing “Damsels” when they started approaching me about doing a comedy show and they came with the specific idea of “Paris” [which became television series “The Cosmopolitans”].
The first episode “The Cosmopolitans” has been up on Amazon for awhile. What is happening with that?
[It] is still up, it’s still streaming for free here in the states. They commissioned me to do six scripts.
I didn’t want to give them an outline for what would happen. I don’t like to write that way. I really resist doing treatments or outlines or summaries of what I’m gonna write because, for me, it kills any good stuff coming out if I have planned it in advance. I didn’t want to give an outline so they said, “Okay, green light it, but we’ll give you a commission to write six scripts,” but I was going off to do “Love & Friendship.”
In 10 days, I’ll hopefully be deep in those scripts. I’ve done stuff, but I’ll do it full time once the festival launches in Rotterdam, a week from Monday.
Even just this year at Sundance, both Amazon and Netflix are making big buys; it’s a very new world of distribution possibilities. Is that exciting for you? You’ve never been one to stick to the studio system.
I like working with people who want to do things the best way, the right way, and are really great to work with. I had a good relationship, that I hope I still have, with Castle Rock. They were just great to work with, and I find that Amazon has that same spirit and that same feeling. These have been really important companies for me.
“Lady Susan” is a really great fit for your sensibilities.
I know, it’s incredible.
How long have you wanted to do this novella as a film?
I went back to try to check when my first correspondence about it was, and that was back in 2004, but I have a feeling I might have been thinking about it even earlier, like 2003 or so.
But it’s nice to really be able to keep it secret, because I became very disillusioned with the whole thing, when you have a deal to write something and they announce it in Variety at Cannes or at the Berlin market, and so I was just thinking, “I’m not gonna mention this to anyone.” First, I didn’t want people to steal the idea. There was a competing project at one point and it terrified me, so I kept totally silent about it.
I put it aside and did something else…and went back to it and finally had it ready to show at Cannes at 2013. And then casting problems came up and it was helpful for us because it allowed us to elongate the casting, elongate the financing. It’s been pretty good.
I had 10 years where things didn’t work out, so I’m happy to have a couple years where things work out.
The film is a great reunion with you and Kate and Chloe. Was that a sort of a cherry on top, or was that always your hope with casting?
The combination was sort of an idea like 18 months before. Kate was always in my mind for Lady Susan, although all kind of industry considerations and core considerations came between us. Often there’s sort of a heroic person who’s involved. We had a heroic agent involved at UTA, Shani Rosenzweig. She’s a really good agent, and Kate’s agent saw it was totally logical, and really fought for it, and if someone’s good like that, it really helps things. And we’ve had a lot of people who were really good to us. Stephanie Ritz at WME has two actresses, she has both Emma Greenwell and Chloe.
To be able to put them into a period piece, with all the Regency era costumes and details, must have been a real pleasure.
I was working with really dedicated artists doing period, so whatever’s in the film is authentic. Maybe it looks modern to us but they’re only doing things for real, and then we had tons of research.
One of the great things about doing period — and it can open you up to criticism — people can fall into the trap of thinking that everything in the past is haughty or one way or another, when in fact there’s all kinds of variety of how things look and there’s some really stunningly beautiful things. There’s a lot of hideous stuff, but we’re not actually putting that in the film.
You introduce your characters in such a fun way, using on-screen chyrons to tell us about their personalities and place in the world, while they’re also mugging on screen.
That was so much fun doing that. When I started shooting that, I said, “Here we are, let’s do this.” The editor took that and, in the script, I’d done dramatis personae with little descriptions of the characters, and so she had taken that and created something.
Within just 10 seconds, you get so much information about the characters. It’s clear from those opening shots that Sir James is going to be a real standout.
That’s a super interesting thing, and something I would love to explore. There was something in Jane Austen about Sir James Martin. He’s a character in the piece — and not every character in the movie is in the novella — but he was there and he had a few scenes and three really good actors were really good for it, but Tom [Bennett], who actually sort of looked a little less like what you’d imagine, was so charming and sweet and funny.
Looking at the auditions again and again, I got sick of the way I’d written the big scene where he arrives and it didn’t seem that funny what I was doing. So I went back and he did the “Churchill” and “modern agriculture methods” at the table reading, and he was incredibly funny and I was looking for what things I could do with him. He came for a costume fitting and I saw how few days we had him for and I thought, “Oh, I should explain how Lady Susan got the money.” We had an hour left, we’d finished our day an hour early, and he was on set, [but] if he shoots it, we’d have to pay him $3,000. I think we wanted to spend the money.
I [also] had the idea of these random peas in a plate and soccer balls and I wrote that scene. I already had a 10 Commandments scene and the producer said, “What about 12 Commandments?” I said, “Sir James!” and 12 Commandments was just an extrapolation of that.
It does seem as things are working out for you in a way they weren’t for awhile there. You seem very happy.
It makes my daughters happy, too.
Between this and your Criterion box set, things really are picking back up for you.
It’s incredible, when things start moving, they start moving. It’s a long-term dream to have the [Criterion] three set. Even when I was making the deals, I tried to get a contract so if the films were from different companies they would allow them to come together on home video at some point. We all wanted to have them release “Barcelona” and do a three set, but Warner, they had a policy of not licensing out things, so they had to convince them to let things go.
It’s remarkable how fickle the business can be, even to someone like you, who is so well-known and who has such a unique point of view.
Yeah, I didn’t realize how bad things were in the period I wasn’t making anything, because I thought I was very productive. For me, the big challenge is writing scripts that you think are decent, and I was writing scripts that were decent. It was just, underlying rights to it were lost or there’s some complication with a producer and all this stuff that had nothing to do with the script or me were stopping the projects. There were some things that were due to me that made it stop too, so it wasn’t just other people it was also me stopping things from happening.
Was there ever a point where you thought you weren’t going to do this anymore?
No, I think one of the saving illusions of the film business is everything seems like it’s about to happen. It’s always about to happen. It’s only looking back that you see the wasteland.
I’ve always felt that seeing the projects that people did before anyone wanted their work [is important]. Generally, I like people’s trunk projects, the things they were working on before anyone knew who they were. I think when people run out of their trunk items and they start doing stuff just to do a film next year, the quality goes down, the interest goes down. Maybe it feels commercial or something.
The good thing about the 10 or 12 years, whatever it was, I made a lot of trunk items, a lot of material that’s variously useful, so I have some things I can go back to.
The last few years at Sundance, there have been a lot of directors who debut something and who are very young and are doing very original things, and then they get picked to direct a huge superhero movie.
I know, and I hope that’ll happen to me. I’m not young, but… You know I could take the [James] Bonds in a totally new direction. They’re biased against Americans to direct the Bonds, but I think they should give me a break. I’ll take the Bonds to a much better place.
“Love & Friendship” premiered this week at the Sundance Film Festival. It will be released by Amazon and Roadside Attractions later this year.
READ MORE: Whit Stillman’s ‘Metropolitan’ 25 Years Later: How it Become a Surprise Indie Hit