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Whit Stillman interview: ‘I don’t think Jane Austen was feminist’

May 26, 2016

FilmInterview | by Dominic Preston


Love and Friendship Whit Stillman

Whit Stillman’s slim filmography belies the depth of his contributions to cinema. His latest, Love & Friendship, is just his fifth feature film across a career that started in 1990 with Metropolitan, but it sits firmly in the established Stillman oeuvre – period trappings aside.

Love & Friendship is Stillman’s take on an oft-forgotten Jane Austen novella, originally titled Lady Susan, starring Kate Beckinsale as a scheming and manipulative – if charming – widow out to set up husbands for herself and her daughter. To call it the funniest Austen adaptation yet sounds like faint praise, but it is genuinely hilarious, rich performances and lush period detailing elevating a script already packed with witty wordplay. It’s one of 2016’s finest films so far, and we jumped at the chance to sit down with Stillman and unpick just how it came about.

How did you first come across the Lady Susan novella, and why did you decide to adapt it?

I first came across it because I was an idiot–[drops spoon]–I’m still an idiot, but I was particularly idiotic at age eighteen. I read Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen, the first Jane Austen I read, and I hated it. I said it was terrible, that Jane Austen was terrible and overrated, and how could people like her? Then, five years later or so, I read the good Jane Austens, and I went back to it when I was first back in Europe, living here. I saw an edition and picked it up and said, ‘I’m going to give this another chance, I’m sure I’ll like it now.’ And I did like it.

And in that edition they had Lady Susan, and I said, ‘This is terrific, this is Jane Austen doing Oscar Wilde comedy.’ The idea of doing it as a film wasn’t immediate, it was kind of slowly spinning. I had another very serious Jane Austen project, very worthy, that I do hope to do one day, but what sort of kept my imagination going was this kind of Oscar Wilde-ian comedy. Then I started getting serious about turning it into a script.

At what point did you decide to change the name?

Right away. The thing that sort of liberated it for me was changing the name. I mean, there were a couple of people who gave me static about that, I don’t really care. For me, it made it kind of my project, it made it something better, something more commercial, something more film, something more Jane Austen. ‘Lady Susan’ as far as we know is not her title, and ‘Love and Freindship’ [sic] is the title of something she used, and she made that title for a really insignificant short story. I’m very happy to have made that change. For me it was liberating.

At one point did you decide you wanted Kate Beckinsale to play Lady Susan?

Well, it was kind of crazy because I decided right away that I wanted her, but there were all kinds of barriers or problems, or stupidity on my part. She actually didn’t come in until very late–Chloe [Sevigny] was actually in the movie well before Kate was. But when I first read the piece I said, ‘Man, this would be great for Kate Beckinsale.’ But at that point she was a child, I mean, she was still I think in her 20s when I first saw this. I think the person who I thought about this for was Elizabeth Hurley. When I found this, Elizabeth Hurley was doing stuff with the company I work with, Castle Rock, and I think Elizabeth and I actually exchanged emails. But then it was so many years later that I finished this that it became an age range for Chloe and Kate to play.

Love and Friendship Whit Stillman 2

You mentioned the Oscar Wilde-ian comedy to the film. Would you see there’s a comedic side to Jane Austen that’s been overlooked a lot in the past?

Definitely. I think the people who really appreciate Jane Austen as a writer, for her writing, realise who she is, and they identify that. Her two most prominent champions, originally, were Sir Walter Scott and the Prince Regent. So to essentially have the leading writer of your country and the ruler of the country as your greatest champions isn’t bad.

So this idea of the way Jane Austen films are made and marketed as if they’re ‘women’s pictures’ is not appealing to me. I’m trying my darndest to tell people that this is just as much a guys’ film as a women’s film, and that guys will like this a lot, and they shouldn’t be put off by period or Jane Austen. I mean, I wouldn’t go to see a lot of those other films either, I wouldn’t see a lot of period things on TV. Unless it’s done in a particular way, I’m not that interested. So I don’t like it when people automatically assume–it’s just this marketing for ‘chick lit’ or whatever that’s ridiculous. Guys should love this film.

Would you say that Love & Friendship is a feminist film?

No. I don’t think Jane Austen was feminist. I don’t think you can use those concepts, I don’t think that was her battle exactly. I think it’s just humanity–most intelligent, humorous kind of humanity–in all its glory, and to peg it one way or another would be wrong.

Because the Lady Susan character is both sympathetic and in some ways unpleasant…

Well, people say that Lady Susan Vernon comes off quite a bit better in our film than she does in the novel. She’s a little harder. I think in the film we like Lady Susan more than Jane Austen likes her. In the book Jane Austen doesn’t like her, I don’t think.

There’ll certainly be people who read the film as showing her as just a product of her environment, acting in morally questionable ways, but just as a response to a world that put women like her in that position.

Yeah. There are all kinds of excuses for people to be bad. As we know. So I don’t want to get involved with it. To explain is to justify.

Love & Friendship is out in UK cinemas from May 27th, and you can read the Candid review here.

Words by Dominic Preston