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Love & Friendship: Interview with Whit Stillman

27 May 2016 Nick Chen

Writer and director Whit Stillman's new film Love & Friendship is an adaption of Jane Austen's little-known posthumous novella Lady Susan, about the “the biggest flirt in all England”. We catch up to talk about being pigeonholed, working in Dunkin' Donuts, and why he prefers comedies.

Jane Austen has been on Whit Stillman’s radar since his filmmaking debut in 1990 with Metropolitan, in which Tom exclaims, “Mansfield Park? You’ve gotta be kidding!” Its most quoted exchange is impossible not to mention in regards to Stillman’s new comedy, Love & Friendship. Tom argues, “Nearly everything Jane Austen wrote is ridiculous from today’s perspective.” Instantly, Audrey counters, “Has it ever occurred to you that today looked at from Jane Austen’s perspective would look even worse?”
Metropolitan’s screenplay earned Stillman an Oscar nod, and further praise was rightfully bestowed upon Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco. What connected these films – the so-called “comedy of mannerlessness” trilogy – was the anachronistic humour of characters trapped in the wrong era. After a 13-year hiatus, Stillman’s glorious comeback, Damsels in Distress, was a college movie again looking towards the past. But now, he’s finally made a period film, and to use the relevant lingo, it’s the perfect marriage of Austen’s and Stillman’s sense and sensibilities.
Love & Friendship is Stillman’s adaptation of Lady Susan, a little-known novella by Austen published after her death. The knotty story centres on Kate Beckinsale as Lady Susan, a bitchy orchestrator deemed “the biggest flirt in all England”. She plans to snare for herself a wealthy husband (Xavier Samuel), while setting up her reluctant daughter (Morfydd Clark) with a rich, bumbling oaf (Tom Bennett). On the outside is a concerned sister-in-law (Emma Greenwell), a visiting partner in crime (Chloe Sevigny) and a cameo from Stephen Fry.
The film is razor-sharp and hilarious, moving so rapidly, a second viewing is required to catch the one-liners. Though there’s clear affection for the source material, it’s still very much a Whit Stillman movie, except now it really is the 18th century. It recalls Metropolitan when Tom admits he’s never read an Austen novel, and actually he sifts through literary criticism because “that way you get both the novelist’s idea as well as the critic’s thinking”. In that sense, Love & Friendship is the best of both worlds. To discuss it further, we met up with Stillman on a recent trip to London.
LONDON CALLING: Are you still writing screenplays in Dunkin’ Donuts?

WHIT STILLMAN: Yeah, if there’s a Dunkin’ Donuts available that has chairs. The bane of my existence now is corporate efficiency experts. They’ve taken the chairs and tables out of a lot of Dunkin’ Donuts. So I’m afraid that my production will slow down because I don’t want to stand up and type on my laptop. Still, in south Florida, they still have the nice Dunkin’ Donuts with a lot of tables. But I’m happy to write in upscale coffee places too. In Paris, I write in a very upscale café, because they don’t have Dunkin’ yet.
LC: A lot of your characters seem trapped in the wrong era. Is that still true in Love & Friendship?

WS: No, I think they’re in the right era. I think they’re fine. I’m not sure about “trapped in the wrong era” – it’s hard to say.
LC: There’s still a modern touch to it, with the Barry Lyndon-ish cues.

WS: Barry Lyndon was a challenge for us because we were shooting in the same area and we wanted to use some of the same music. We ended up changing that. But I don’t consider Barry Lyndon a comedy. I’ve seen people say it is, but not for me. I guess the 18th century was modern. Things became less modern as time went on. So as you go into the 19th century, you get into attitudes we really consider far away from where we are. And I think in a certain way, the end of the 18th century is closer to where we are.
LC: Out of all the Jane Austen stories, why did you pick Lady Susan? Is it because no one knows it?

WS: That was really good. I love the idea of adding to something that wasn’t quite there, pulling something up that was a little bit lost and obscure. But the thing is, although it was unread and unwieldy as a literary production and not fully completed, it has great material in it. Great characters, great material, a story that really works.
LC: I saw you recently do a Q&A at the Barbican, and you said your favourite part of filmmaking was cutting – which I’ve never heard someone say before. How was the cutting on Love & Friendship?

WS: Cutting is really important. Those portraits people like in the beginning were more of a postproduction idea. I started shooting the portraits at some point, but it wasn’t until I saw what the editor did with them that weekend that I saw it was something we’ve got to do everywhere – and it became a big part of the film.
Putting the text up on the screen, that came from editing. The problem with the end is they refer to the word “mien” – if people just hear it, they won’t know what it is, so I put the poem up on the screen. And then we had the idea – I can’t remember if it was the editor or me – of putting the letter they read earlier up on the screen too, with the punctuation.
LC: The punctuation bit was really popular at my screening, as was Tom Bennett. When you wrote and cast his character, did you have an inkling he would become a scene-stealer? Because I would guess you had a similar feeling when writing for Chris Eigeman in the 90s.

WS: Yeah! When I was writing the script for Metropolitan before it was cast, we were really hopeful about the Chris Eigeman part, Nick Smith. Then Chris plays it really well, and it becomes that when I’m writing other scripts, I’m really writing the Chris Eigeman parts. So I’m writing this Des character in Last Days of Disco and everyone’s pressuring me to put a movie star in the part. I’m listening to movie stars audition, but in my head, it’s the Chris Eigeman part. And he really played that well.
Tom Bennett did Sir James Martin really, really well, and I started writing all these other scenes for him. I don’t think I’d have written all those scenes if the actor hadn’t created the part for me. So I half-created it in the script, but then he took the script and did this thing that I had no idea what he was doing. But I liked it.
LC: Speaking of Disco, this is your second time with Kate Beckinsale and she delivers your dialogue so well. Because otherwise she’s known for those vampire films.

WS: She’s super-smart. She has all that family acting coming down genetically and socially, because her stepfather is a director and her mother is an actress and her late father was a really good comic actor. She’s Oxford, and speaks French and Russian. She’s just a crackerjack. I’m not sure what it is about these brunettes, but both she and Chris Eigeman have that gift. The Kate Beckinsale part is also kind of the Chris Eigeman part, but female with long hair.
LC: You seem to have an affinity with Europe, whereas Woody Allen, another New Yorker, makes his worst films in Europe. Why does your work translate so well?

WS: I’m married to Europe. My first wife was from Spain, and the second one that I was involved with is from France. So I’m over here for long-term romance. I’m not just over here because there’s a subsidy fund. In fact, the plight of my filmmaking career is: whatever country I’m in, Woody Allen was there two years before and took all the money and then changed the rules. So a foreign director can no longer take advantage of the rules. So I hope he doesn’t come to Ireland, or else I’m in big trouble. Don’t tell Woody about Ireland!
LC: You entered filmmaking quite late with Metropolitan, but it’s really well-formed, as if you spent a long time shaping your ideas. Is the 13-year hiatus you had later helping you now?

WS: I think it is. For instance, this script comes out of the break. Other scripts came out of the break that I haven’t done. I’m a real believer in trunk material – things you work on over time, and you let them age and ripen and grow, and you reconsider things. Filmmakers who are writers, their first three films are sometimes more interesting than their later films because they normally were working on those scripts before they became a known part of the industry. Once you become part of the industry, you’re expected to turn out a film more quickly, and all these other people are involved.
LC: Do you have plans for those? I know about Dancing Mood.

WS: Yeah, I’d like to do Dancing Mood, and I’d like to do the Cosmopolitans series with Amazon. But I’m really stymied in the script for The Cosmopolitans because I want to change the direction, and I’m just not sure how good that would be.
LC: Are you interested in doing non-comedies? Because Dancing Mood and Red Azalea don’t sound like traditional “Whit Stillman” movies.

WS: Dancing Mood has to be a comedy, ultimately. I’m a little worried…
LC: Are you pigeonholed when it comes to funding?

WS: Yeah, I’m definitely pigeonholed. We had this incredible run on Rotten Tomatoes where it was a 100% positive rating, and I knew that had to end.
LC: The review that ruined the 100% rating is still quite positive. It calls it intelligent and nuanced, but too dry.

WS: I heard the guy complained that I just make films about upper-class white people or something like that. I thought it was funny because when I wasn’t making films, it was because I was trying to make other subjects.
One of the big projects I had was with the Cultural Revolution in China, and the other one was about young people in a black church in Jamaica. One was about all kinds of crazy characters. The Little Green Men project was… they’re not white; they’re green men! But the industry didn’t want me to do those things.
In fact, I remember the guy at the UK Film Council who turned down what was then called Creation, the Jamaican film. He said, “How can this New York preppy do a black Jamaican film?” That was why I was turned down.
LC: But why does Love & Friendship have such wide appeal, when Damsels in Distress – which is clearly by the same director – has proven so divisive?

WS: I’m really puzzled by it. I think Damsels went against ingrained ideas people had. Some people didn’t give it a chance to go on this journey. They dismissed it right away. Also, I think there’s an odd problem with virtuous characters. The Greta Gerwig character in Damsels is really virtuous, but I’m not sure if people like that, or if their and my idea of virtue is really different. So it’s odd that Love & Friendship, this film with this amoral opportunistic character, is doing really well, and the sweet Greta Gerwig character in Damsels is hated and considered really terrible.
LC: Do you see still yourself as an influence on younger filmmakers? Because in the 90s, Noah Baumbach sort of stole Chris Eigeman from you.

WS: I would say there’s an affinity group, but it’s a back-and-forth thing. I was really semi-saved by mumblecore because it gave me an avenue of coming back and making a really cheap film using mumblecore assets, like the crews and knowing a star like Greta Gerwig.
I really like a lot of Wes Anderson’s films. I think he’s really brilliant. I think we’re both really impressed with JD Salinger, and I think he’s going for it more directly. It’s nicer now, I think, than it was in the early 90s. In the early 90s, it was all Quentin Tarantino and guns, all that Oliver Stone, Quentin Tarantino kind of stuff. I much preferred comedies – they’re softer. The Duplass brothers, Joe Swanberg, all these people are really good. I really feel solidarity with them.
Love & Friendship opens in cinemas on 27 May 2016

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