Sitting down at a Dallas hotel to talk about his new film “Love & Friendship,” an adaptation of Jane Austen’s early epistolary novel “Lady Susan” that had screened the previous evening at the USA Film Festival, Whit Stillman admitted he was not always a fan of the English writer.
“I read ‘Northanger Abbey’ when I was eighteen, a sophomore in college about to drop out and go on a funk and learn Spanish in Mexico,” Stillman recalled. “And part of my funk was picking up this Jane Austen—I’d heard a lot about Jane Austen—and I hated it. I told everyone that she was terrible, she’s overrated. What did people see in her?
“And then I went on with some book publishing. I edited Gothic novels, like Victoria Holt. And meanwhile I started reading Jane Austen and loved it. And many years later I went back to reread ‘Northanger Abbey’ and this time I liked it. She makes fun of Gothic novels the whole way through, and I knew Gothic novels and how to make fun of them.
“And in the back of the edition of ‘Northanger Abbey,’ Penguin in its wisdom had put ‘Lady Susan,’ so I found ‘Lady Susan’ thanks to my aversion for ‘Northanger Abbey.’ And soon after I read it, I started thinking about the possibilities for adaptation.”
But, he added, “I didn’t like the title at all. I’m very tiresome about how I dislike the title. It’s not her title. She actually called ‘Northanger Abbey,’ ‘Susan.’ Later her nephew put it on her book. She’d generally moved away from the name titles. A first draft would have a character name, and the final version that was published was ‘Sense and Sensibility,’ ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ ‘Persuasion,’ ‘Love & Friendship.’ So I thought we were making it more Austenian.
“It was also more fun to work on it, because it made it kind of a secret project, kind of our own creation, not exactly what her novella was. I didn’t think [the new title] had anything to do with the story to begin with, but once I finished the film, I thought, yes, it is kind of [about] love and friendship.”
The narrative focuses on an impecunious—and highly manipulative—widow who is searching for another husband, as well as one for her daughter, recently tossed out of a posh boarding school. Lady Susan is played by Kate Beckinsale and her equally duplicitous confidante by Chloe Sevigny; they’d previously co-starred in Stillman’s “The Last Days of Disco” (1998), and were relatively easy to cast. But the actors surrounding them—especially the men—weren’t so easy to find.
“Normally you look and look, and then you find the right person,” Stillman explained, “like James Fleet, who plays Sir Reginald [the father of the handsome young man, the brother of Susan’s sister-in-law, whom she pursues]. He was just transcendent, and the other people were just normal. Then Xavier Samuel [who plays the handsome young man] came in, and he was wonderful.
“Then for Sir James Martin [a doltish suitor for the hand of Susan’s daughter, played by Morfydd Clark], I had three people who were possible. One…came from that kind of silly family and had all those mannerisms. Then there was a guy who was atypical, more working-class but a super-funny comic. And then there was Tom Bennett. He came like a Dickens character—he’d been appearing in some play of the period, with side whiskers, and he looked like something out of Mr. Pickwick. He made the rewritten audition scene, which was still kind of weak comically, work—the whole thing about church and hill, which is pretty lame. So I started writing whatever scene I could for him, and he really changed the project.”
Bennett didn’t engage in improvisation during shooting, Stillman said, but he added, “He came to the screening at the Rotterdam Film Festival, and after the screening he came out in costume as Sir James Martin, and he definitely improv’d very well there—according to him, he didn’t really know what a movie was…and he had a lot of fun with the name Rotter-dam. He’s a very good comedian, and was adding a lot, but with the lines.
“One of the last people cast,” Stillman added, was Justin Edwards, who plays Charles Vernon, the very obliging husband of Catherine Vernon [Susan’s sister-in-law]. He added that other touch of British sketch comedy. Those guys sort of humanized it and gave it another dimension.”
“Love & Friendship” tells a story with plenty of narrative twists and many dialogue scenes, but Stillman observed, “I think it’s the fastest-paced movie I’ve had… I truly had gotten a taste for it from my Amazon pilot. They told me that I needed to make every scene go faster. Push, push, push. I learned that from writing the scenes for that show. And also compression, compression, compression, edit, edit, edit.”
Stillman expressed concern about one of the posters for the film—one prepared for the British release. “[It’s] very down-market, explicitly [directed to] a female audience. [It] makes it look like a schlocky romantic film, like a Jane Austen ‘Dynasty’ episode.
“Guys actually enjoy this film. It’s not just a girl thing,” Stillman noted with a grin.