HL Celebrity Interview: Whit Stillman Talks On the Making of Love & Friendship, Euro Art and Jane Austen

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Love & Friendship, the newest film release from Director Whit Stillman, is charming audiences on both side of the pond as the critics are calling the Jane Austen adaptation, one of the best, hysterical, an unconventional comedy.

Having the opportunity to interview The Last Days of Disco Director, at the recent Los Angeles media day I found him very nice, generous, well educated (Harvard), articulate, and has impeccable manners. He is enjoyable.

Our interview, at The Four Seasons, at Beverly Hills, began with a quick volley as we talked about the film, he offered coffee (Dunkin Donuts) which must be his favorite. He was polite, poured, prepared and served mine

Before our interview began he quizzed me on my recent screening. Below is an excerpt of our interview.

Janet Walker: Congratulations of the film.

Whit Stillman: Thanks.

JW: I really enjoyed it.

WS: Oh good. Did you see it in on a screener or in a screening room?

JW: I saw it in a screening room. I usually sit in the front row so I saw it and I like that.

WS: And was that long ago?

JW: No, no, no.

WS: Were there other people?

JW: Yes. I think there were other people in the room, but I'm usually alone in the front row. I like to enjoy the film without seeing everyone else's reaction.

The Gold of Jane Austen

JW: Tell me a little bit, we talked in the round table about certain aspects of the film; so tell me a little bit more I know it was a labor of love, that it started over a decade ago so tell me so tell me about the moment and if it started over a decade ago, Why?

WS: Um. Well, there is not much good material that I find. And there's not much material that suits a particular filmmaker or screen writer and this case was sort of ideal for me. Because It gave me a whole kind of world that hadn't been exposed before and there is gold in these hills that had to be extracted and presented correctly.

So there is a good job to be done but what was within it was very valuable. So I was just thinking, I probably said this in the other room, I think it came up in another conversation that actually I think there is sort of more gem like lapidary material just perfectly funny well-constructed sentences than in this than any other Jane Austen.

So she was struggling with the whole structure of the nature of it and decided not to publish it and the big picture she was having all kinds of problems but maybe at the same time what she could do perfectly were these sentences and paragraphs of Lady Susan and the people as they wrote each other letters. So it is very valuable material.

And fortunately it was sort of not attractive looking to people so it was lying in plain sight and no one, well there was actually another London based Lady Susan adaptation being done when I started and I was really depressed and I went to the producer and, I hadn't read it and I don't want to read it, I don't want to read other people's work, but I went to the producer and said: "'Couldn't we join forces?"' Because I didn't want another situation like in The Last Days of Disco there was the other movie 54 that sort of dogged us. And um the guy was very obnoxious and went out of business so I never heard more about that. And I just worked on it quietly without telling anyone about it.

JW: Now, you said the letters were there lying in plain sight so what sort of research did you find?

WS: The novella. What happened was she had written this it is believed from analysis of use of language in about 1794-95 or about when she was 18-20 and copied it out in clear copy in about 1804-05 and by then she was thirty.

Amazing. They keep saying she was 18-20, but I think it is very possible she kept working on it. It reflects more maturity. But she never published it in her lifetime. Susan was the first title she had for Northhanger Abby, so I don't think Lady Susan was her title.

Her nephew, her literary nephew published a novel on his aunt 50 years after her death, 1871. In a second edition he decided to published some works that she had left unpublished, like fragments or this Lady Susan, he put that title on. There were other members of the family that felt it shouldn't be published. There was some discussion (inter family). He decided to go ahead with it. It appeared in 1871, I think by then the other books were established classics. The conversations and Lady Susan were just for the total aficionados and professors and that kind of thing. And it wasn't that highly regarded.

JW: And you think it wasn't highly regarded due to it the content. It's almost an indictment on the structure of society.

WS: I think it is more the form. So all these letters, [he picks up the novel he also wrote to accompany the film] back and forth. So it is wordy and shows the tedious of it. In this novel I did our version of the text is in the front and in the back is her full version.

Hoist By Your Own Petard, Euro Pudding, and a Golden Summer

JW: So okay. So you got it done, you said it was a labor of love, a decade latter you have this project you feel is ready and you're shopping it because you need money. That's the whole idea the nuts and bolts of building the film after the screenplay is you've got the business end of it. So talk about that.

WS: One thing I find in life "hoist by your own petard" [from Shakespeare meaning to be foiled by your own plans] when I have a strong opinion of something and then I tell everyone my strong opinion and then life experiences subvert that and then I say "'I'm wrong."'

In so, one of the things I used to make fun of, not make fun of, but be very cynical about were these European Productions with a tiny bit of money from everywhere. Like 20 people or ten and you see there is this actor in a film because there is money from Italy, and there is this actor in the film because there is money from Hollande. And the word for that was "Euro Pudding."

So we had the opportunity to do some European content stuff and Barcelona but Castro [Films] was financing and those were giddy times and we were getting it for much less than Castro Films and they weren't worried about the money. So we didn't try to get all the things we needed to get a European production film but it was fine for us in that film.

But in this film we really had to play every little different nationally card we could. Huge support from the Irish Film Board which was good because in any case Dublin was the place to shoot this film because it was the backlot of 18th century England. And also skilled crews and all so we did have the I [Ireland] on. The producer had a friend in Holland and the friend knew the funding people so they came in with some money so we have a cinematographer from Holland.

We did the film processing, the color timing, in Amsterdam and in France I had this great experience, I felt like Damsels in Distress was not sufficiently appreciated in the United States I like it better but in France they really loved it. They were really nice to it and at the same time they also published my first novel, The Last Days of Disco novel, and that did really well. It won an award.

So I felt, and they re-released Metropolitan and I felt like I had a Golden Summer in France and it helped because we got a really good co-producer from France and the people that helped me release Damsels, like the cinema owner, has a distribution company, the picked up the distribution in France they got the TV company, Arte, the German France TV Network, backed it, so we were doing the editing in Paris, which is good for me because I live there, so the sound mix in Paris by Sophie Corra who had edited Cosmopolitans for me in Paris so it was familiar terrain.

It wasn't an official English co-production, we didn't have money from England but we did have the sales agents in England and casting directors and costume houses in London.

I guess we were a European Co-Production but not Euro Pudding. I shouldn't have been so cynical about those kinds of things because it turned out to be very good for us.

Bidding War and Buyers

JW: You showed it at Cannes or a snippet was shown at Cannes – Talk about that.

WS: Protagonist [Films] did promos for all their films and hired a cinema as they do in the film market and they invited film distributors and film buyers to come and see them.

Ted Hope from Amazon and other American Distributors liked it also. And a bidding war started and part of the Amazon thing was that we would have a cinema release. We were selling the rights to Amazon to have a cinema release and then the British Distributor also saw the pomo there and wanted to buy it. So that was very good

I think the film lived up to the promo, I think the film is more comical than the promo, but the film lived up to the promo.

Not one to rest on his laurels Stillman is off working on other projects. His slate is full as he bartered his skill as a screenwriter to leverage financial support for Love & Friendship. When that obligation is met, he may or may not be back to wearing his usual three hats in production.

Love & Friendship a fun unconventional comedy starring Kate Beckinsale, Chloe Sevigny, Stephen Fry, Jemma Redgrave, Tom Bennett, Xavier Samuel, Morfydd Clark, Emma Greenwell, Justin Edwards and Jenn Murray.

Love & Friendship is showing everywhere. Check your local listings.

Images courtesy of Whit Stillman courtesy of Bernard Walsh, Amazon Studio and Roadside Attractions and used with permission.