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The Marriage Plot: Whit Stillman on Love & Friendship

Chloë Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale in Love & Friendship (Photo by Ross McDonnell, courtesy of Amazon Studios)

In several ways, Love & Friendship has Whit Stillman coming full circle to his 1990 debut Metropolitan, which includes a heated discussion of Jane Austen’s merits. “I love anachronism, and this was the chance to film, essentially, a costume picture set in the present day or recent past,” he told Betsy Sussler in a 1991 BOMB interview. With this Ireland-shot adaptation of Jane Austen’s comparatively obscure epistolary novella Lady Susan, he finally discards the husk of the present, indulging his sentiment expressed on Twitter last summer that “The 18th century just keeps getting better & better.”

The puckish opening introduces the characters via iris-focused portraits and florid captions. Our anti-heroine is Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale), described with some understatement as “a beautiful young widow in straitened circumstances.” An inveterate schemer and cheerful adultress, Lady Susan lives as a permanent visitor, traveling from one country house invitation to another; when the film begins, she’s abruptly left the estate of Langford, where her affair with Lord Manwaring (Lochlann O’Mearain) has caused too much comment. With her shy daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) in tow, she retreats to Parklands, the estate of her brother Charles Vernon (Justin Edwards), where she promptly sets about the attempted seduction of his brother-in-law Reginald (Xavier Samuel) and the snaring of a mate for her little-loved child.

Throughout, Lady Susan periodically confides in her American expat friend Alicia Johnson (Chloë Sevigny), thus reuniting Beckinsale with her The Last Days of Disco co-star. That 1998 film preceded a long silence for Stillman, for whom it’d be another 13 years until he returned with 2011’s Damsels in Distress. In between, Stillman labored on a number of unrealized projects (including a comedy set in ‘60s Jamaica), but he returned with his characteristic anachronisms in place. If Love & Friendship represents the culmination of a long-deferred dream, it’s also recognizably a Stillman film, with reams of arch dialogue shot cleanly and crisply, taking comfort in its period surroundings. The film opens May 13 from Amazon Studios. 

It seemed to me that there were several appealing components about this book for you. One was that you have expressed a fondness for Jane Austen, who’s discussed in Metropolitan. There is the name brand value attached to Austen, which would presumably make financing easier. And Ireland is known for being quite aggressive with its film tax credits and subsidies. The Irish have been a very important location for period and Jane Austen films for a long time. It’s kind of a more accurate place to shoot in some ways, because London has grown into a huge metropolis, while Dublin still has some of its 18th-century atmosphere. The castles and great houses are very close to the beautiful Georgian streets and squares of Dublin. It’s like a wonderful back lot for English period productions.

I also have a longtime connection to Dublin. It started with really enjoying going over to promo my films, becoming friends with producers there and really liking everyone. And then, my daughter was there for 11 years. She studied at Trinity College Dublin, stayed there, became a solicitor and is very active there. So I would come through whenever I could. I’d go through Dublin on my trips to Europe, where I’d go somewhere else near, but I’d go through to see my daughter. And I’d speak to the people at the Irish Film Board. I think I started speaking with the Irish Film Board in Los Angeles. I was going through Dublin on other business in July 2010. I stopped and saw my daughter, and I was in touch with the IFB. They had a locations guy pick me up at the airport and take me right to the key scenic streets of Dublin, just to see the great locations. And actually, we shot on one of those streets — the street that has Lady Susan’s townhouse in the film, it’s Upper Seymour Street in the Austen, where you see carriages crossing back and forth and all that. That is the North Great George Street, which is one of the first streets I saw back in 2010.

When I came back in 2013, I went to Cannes to talk to people about setting up the film, getting financing, getting a sales agent, and then I went on to London. I talked to production managers about shooting around London and the south of England. They started telling me about how hard and expensive it is with the massive traffic problems and very expensive locations and big distances to get to the kind of train we would need from central London.

I had very good casting readings in London [and] hired a great casting guy, Colin Jones. He’s one of the key factors. He said, “You know, the right person for this part is Kate Beckinsale.” And then I went to Dublin and, again, the IFB had me picked up at the airport by a locations manager, a brilliant locations guy named Colm Nolan. And he took me right away to Newbridge House. [That] was three of our locations. It was the Edward Street townhouse; it was the interior of Parklands, the DeCourcy’s residence; it was the courtyard and the tavern of the Hurst & Willford Inn.

Russborough House just knocked me out. We finally could only use it for some exteriors, because it’s too far away from our good crew circle of travel time. We just used it for one day of the spectacular first scene, where there was a big crane shot and they leave Langford. I kept seeing locations to get the exterior of Parklands, but I was just in love with the architecture of Russborough House. When I went back at the end of postproduction to get an establishing shot of Parklands, I actually took the back side of Russborough House. And since there was a carriage man giving kids carriage rides for 10 Euros a throw, we actually hired the carriage to cross in front of the camera to get that big-budget effect. So that was sensational, the whole experience with the Irish Film Board and those locations and the crew. The crew was really sensational. They know how to do period films really well.

If I was going to adapt anything that I felt close to, that I felt identified with humor and the point of view of the author, you couldn’t be any better than Jane Austen. I discussed with people other Jane Austen projects that people had cooking. This [book was] kind of great because no one was going to do this, really. As I knew, this is sort of a forgotten piece that no one cared about, but I thought it was really funny and that I could sort of rescue it from some obscurity. Of course, real Jane Austen fans have read it and like it. Almost always, funny, witty Jane Austen gets short shrift, and it’s just about the romance and the marriages. In this case, it’s really about the humor.

You weren’t really tied to the dialogue because there really is hardly any, which gave you an opportunity to write in this idiom. It’s an odd thing. How to describe it? It’s this block of delicious butter, and then you just can take little knife-fulls to spread it on some sort of structural bread — or another, much better metaphor. There’s just so much funny material, but in this congealed block form. Maybe like taking small wedges of delicious cheese that you couldn’t just eat right through because it’d be too much. It’s very funny material, but it had to be winnowed out thoroughly, and then structured as a story with new characters added, with new semi-worlds and locations added. But on the other hand, a lot that’s in this film is there in the book. She didn’t finish it, really, and we could add to it in a way that was positive to make a more completed piece.

Can you tell me a little bit about specifically shooting at Newbridge? I would imagine that there are certain restrictions and things to keep in mind so that the space is maintained. I really liked that, because I’m not a brutalist. We don’t want to be brutalist filmmakers; we like to really respect the locations and really be careful. And we try to find locations that are pretty well decorated in period. The production designer, Anna Rackard, who does a lot of these great period films, was terrific about renting absolutely beautiful things and bringing them in. But we’re mostly just slightly adapting to things, you know? You cannot touch the harpsichord. You cannot open the harpsichord. That’s fine with me! We’ll work with that. For a long time, you couldn’t shoot locations in Ireland because there’s a legend that Stanley Kubrick destroyed a historic building when he was shooting Barry Lyndon. I’m not sure if that’s true, but apparently, there’s a real resentment of film crews being irresponsible. So, we were super-careful and it all went well.

You’ve had this unusual career trajectory. You mean being unemployed?

Well, yeah, the 13-year gap. You came back with Damsels, and now you have an ongoing relationship with Amazon, which is producing your series The Cosmopolitans. Does it feel to you that you’ve had to become more actively involved on the production side of things and learn new things, in order to get back into feature productions? That’s really true; it’s a little variation on that. So Metropolitan is really just me with a really talented production manager. [Producer] Peter Wentworth came in, but I had to start it, and I had to finish it. I had a lot of pressure on me; Peter helped a lot and [actor] Brian Leder helped a lot, but the beginning and end, I had to do it. Barcelona, Castle Rock gave us the money. We went over and did it on our own. So I had to do that work and the person who I thought was going to help produce couldn’t come. Castle Rock, all they did was send in an accountant from London — and thank god they did, because he really helped us out. So that was on my own ticket, those two films.

The third film was bigger budget, more of a studio thing. It was the smallest budget of a studio film you could do, I suppose. Well, not really, because we had so many extras and things like that. So Disco was my most expensive film. It was Warner Brothers — every union, top dollar. Cecilia [Kate Roque], the producer, and Edmon Roch, the co-producer, had to do tons of heavy lifting. And then, I can’t remember who it was, but one of the advisors — a lawyer, an agent or someone like that — said, “Oh, Whit, now you’ve got to be in the normal industry. You’ve got to do it the industry way.”

For me, that was like a death sentence. I mean, it was unemployment time, because the moment I shifted from being a filmmaker who’s going to get his project done to being someone who has a project that someone is developing and there’s a book and there’s an option and there’s the studio and there’s another producer and we’re collaborating and we both are interested in this project, so we’re going to do it together and we’re going to get this other company involved and get all these people involved — that was, for me, just totally fatal. I’d get script assignments and nothing would happen. A lot of this was out of London. I couldn’t get anywhere getting the films up and running. I never got BBC Films or Film4 or the UK Film Council to back anything.

A great producer, Jeremy Thomas, was going to do my Jamaican project. We found some really great people, but then got turned down by all of the three British financing entities. And I thought, “That’s fine. They don’t do it, we’ll find private investors.” But that wasn’t the thinking there, so he dropped the project. I had the title Creation, and he took that title for the film he was going to do, which was that Darwin movie [with] Paul Bettany and his wife. They took my title. I mean, he claims that I’d already let the title go, but I wasn’t that sure of it. I was thinking of another title. He’s probably right, but still, it seems like, “Okay, you jerk me around, and then you drop my project for no reason. And then you take the title to the other film you’re going to do. Okay, good.”

So the answer is that you’ve been involved heavily with the production logistics on your first two films, so that’s been a component throughout? Yeah, my first two films. Sending a script into a company [for] a deal with a big distributor, that never worked for me. [When] I told the Castle Rock people the idea for Damsels in Distress, they were really keen on it. And then, I was really inspired by what the guys were doing in mumblecore, in terms of production, in terms of, “Okay, we’re going to do a film. We don’t care how little the money is, we’re just going to do it.” And so, when they started talking at Castle Rock about all the usual things I’d been through in London — about star casting, about getting this and that elements and foreign sales and pre-sales — I said, “Actually, we could do this film for $500,000.” And in the wonderful way that Martin Shafer at Castle Rock had, he kept increasing the budget. He said, “$500,000, I can sign a check for that. Or my partners and I,” because there are five Castle Rock partners and they did really well with Seinfeld and things like that. So okay, we’ll just get some people to sign some checks.

And then, he kept increasing the budget and saying, “If we did it in a state where they have the tax rebate, we could get that money back.” So, they were increasing how much money we had. Then it turns out that we couldn’t do it for more than $500,000 because if you start going above a certain level, everything gets really expensive. So, you have to think, “It’s an under-a-million-dollar film.” That has to be in your head. Okay, maybe in post, with music, with too many weeks of editing, it’ll go over. But Damsels was conceived as an under-a-million-dollar film, and it didn’t go that much over. I mean, the numbers you see [in the press], [they bear] no relation. I don’t think anyone’s ever honest about our budget, as far as I can see. It’s either exaggerated or minimized.

You’re very clean and not very fussy with your blocking and framing, but I get the sense that you are pretty clear about where everybody should be moving at all times. How do you work on that? I was reading an interview with the cinematographer on this film, Richard [Van Oosterhout]. He has a preference for not doing storyboards, for getting to the location with the actors and seeing what he’s going to do, and I feel the same way. Generally, also, in small budget, you don’t quite know what you need. You can’t control your environment, you have to adapt to what’s there. So, storyboards don’t make much sense — although someone can teach me otherwise; I’m totally ignorant. I really care about the frame and how things look, and I just can’t bear to have anything which I consider an ugly composition or a frame in a film, for even a second. You can’t always follow that aspiration, but try to. So, it means I don’t really like Steadicam. I don’t know. I’m embarrassed to talk about this kind of thing because I’m sure someone knows better than me and can educate me: “Oh, you’re being stupid. Don’t say that.”

I do like shooting RAW very much. I like the digital world because it gives you a lot of chances to do good things in editing, to pull back and push in and reframe and fix some problems. I really love the camera we had. We shot ARRI RAW for this film, and I thought it was wonderful. I also like the Red we used for Damsels, but this is really beautiful.

In period pieces of this kind, there’s always generally some kind of upstairs-downstairs thing happening — servants seen but unheard in the background, maids spying through keyholes, that kind of thing. How do you work with that part of the screenplay? You know what that was? It’s because so many times, the hair, makeup and costumes were so complicated, we’d often be fully lit and waiting on set for all the complicated jobs that had to be done in hair and makeup. So, there we are, we’ve got these great extras, we’ve got this great location. So, I just started shooting all that stuff, and it was really, clearly helpful when we came to edit the film. I’m grateful to the hair department for being such perfectionists, that we got time to shoot all this other stuff. Because I always feel that there you are, you’re ready to shoot, you shouldn’t wait. You should shoot something. And I think we used just about everything, I mean, my gosh.

Do you remember how many shooting days you had? Sure do. Thank you for asking that, because it was 27 days, and we finished in under 26.

Oh, boy. Not bad. Metropolitan was 30 days, Barcelona was a certain amount of chaos, and I don’t know what the story was with Disco. But with Damsels, it was 27 days, and Martin Shafer really wanted me to take in a 28th day and do other stuff, which is good, because there’s a scene I wrote explaining Rose’s accent that I hadn’t gotten around to, so we got that in and some other things. So, there’s something about 30 days and under that, for me, really is good. Also, no overtime. That was part of the deal with the Irish crew, and it’s part of the deal with our budget in Damsels. I like that. It’s like, okay, it’s only this number of days, and we’re not doing overtime. Everyone gets a chance to get some sleep and some rest and recover their batteries.

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