Whit Stillman – Love & Friendship

May 27, 2016 by  
Filed under Interviews

Best known for the 1990 dramedy “Metropolitan” and 1998 dramedy “The Last Days of Disco,” filmmaker Whit Stillman reemerged onto the scene five years ago with “Damsels in Distress” after staying out of the spotlight for more than a decade. In his new film “Love & Friendship,” which is adapted from Jane Austen’s novella “Lady Susan,” Stillman, 64, reunites with “Disco” actresses Kate Beckinsale and Chole Sevigny to bring a little-known Austen story to the big screen. The narrative follows Lady Susan Vernon (Beckinsale), a scheming widow who tasks herself in securing a husband for both her and her daughter.

During an interview with Stillman, we talked about why this Austen novel feels different from her other works and how he accidentally discovered the story when he revisited one of Austen’s books he didn’t find too appealing.

What attracted you to a story like Jane Austen’s “Lady Susan?” It isn’t very well known, so what did you see in it as a storyteller?

I wanted to do this particularly because it was really funny and it allowed me to finish something she hadn’t completed all her work on. In addition to the movie, we also have a novel coming out based on the movie story as opposed to the original story.

What did you have to do as a writer to capture Jane Austen’s style and finish what she didn’t?

The film is very respectful to Jane Austen’s original story. The funny lines are genuinely her funny lines. I added some other characters [not in the original story] because there sort of had to be. Actors who were particularly funny, their parts got really big. The novel that I wrote is a further extrapolation of that. I was respectful to what I thought was funny and tried not to have too much repetition.

Is the different type of humor in “Lady Susan” what makes it stand out from Austen’s other works?

Yeah, I think it’s the humor and also the storyline. It’s kind of daring and amoral. This was influenced by the fact that she was young and didn’t have her sort of serious writer persona yet. She was having fun with it. It’s different material.

What’s the first Jane Austen novel you read?

I was 18 and I read her first novel “Northanger Abby.” I didn’t like it. Then I started reading her really good books five years later. I read everything – “Sense and Sensibility,” “Pride and Prejudice,” everything. Then I went back and read “Northanger Abby” to reevaluate it and I liked it fine. But then I found “Lady Susan” in the same edition. So, thanks to not liking “Northanger Abby” I finally discovered “Lady Susan.”

“Lady Susan” was not on my mandatory reading list in high school like “Pride and Prejudice” and “Sense and Sensibility.” For those people who have not read the story, should they do that before going into the film?

No, definitely not. They should see the film first and then buy the novel. I think it’s a mistake to read the book first before watching the movie. A movie is a lighter affair. It’s kind of like a soufflé. If you like [the movie] and want to go deeper and profounder and spend more time with something, then read the book.

This being your first period piece, were there any concerns going into the project in anticipation to how different the genre was from the films you’ve done in the past?

I guess the biggest thing I was concerned with is if we had enough money in our budget to make it look really good. Those parts of the budget that had to be increased were increased. The costume designer said that she had such a small budget to work with, but we had actually raised it.

I’m assuming costuming is one of the most important elements of a period piece since you want it to look authentic and not cheap, right?

Yeah, costumes are super important, particularly in this type of movie. In addition to the dresses that were made by our wardrobe department, we went into some wonderful costume houses in London. To see some of the costumes from some of your favorite productions hanging there is quite fascinating.

Talk about casting Kate Beckinsale in the lead role. What did she bring to Lady Susan?

She was very good when I worked with her on “The Last Days of Disco.” Now, she’s super sharp and professional. She’s really serious. She really prepares. When she came on set, she would fire off her scenes really, really well. We shot the movie ahead of schedule, which is very unusual.

What have you learn about yourself as a director from “Metropolitan” till now? Is there something that you see in yourself today that you didn’t back then?

I was ignorant when I started “Metropolitan.” I had a book called “How to Direct a Movie” and had only gotten up to Chapter 9. So, I’ve sort of figured things out a little bit since then. I’m getting used to stuff and getting more of a formula. I think [directing] is an evenly balanced thing where you’re learning more stuff and getting more experience, but you’re also probably picking up bad habits. What I have learned is that you have to have self-confidence. If someone comes to you with an idea that you don’t think is good, generally, you should stick to your guns. If it looks like a problem on set, it’s going to be an even bigger problem in the editing room.

How many chapters did that book have, out of curiosity?

I think it must’ve had about 18 chapters, so there you go. I’m only halfway through.

Damsels in Distress

May 3, 2012 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Greta Gerwig, Adma Brody, Analeigh Tipton
Directed by: Whit Stillman (“The Last Days of Disco”)
Written by: Whit Stillman (“The Last Days of Disco”)

“There’s no logic to the algebra of love,” says one of the female characters in “Damsels in Distress,” an extremely dry and self-aware indie romantic comedy by director/writer Whit Stillman (“The Last Days of Disco”). The line is an example of the satirical and nonsensical dialogue aimed at exploring the pretentious nature of the new generation of overly quirky college students. At times, Stillman’s smart-alecky script makes you almost believe that what the characters are saying in this odd film makes complete sense. Mostly, however, “Damsels in Distress,” like its cast of female talent, never realizes its full potential.

The film stars indie darling Greta Gerwig (“Hannah Takes the Stairs,” “Greenberg”) as Violet, the leader of a college clique of progressive young women who take it upon themselves to help fellow coeds realize they don’t know much about the opposite sex or life in general. Volunteers at the campus Suicide Prevention Center, Violet, along with her cohorts Heather (Carrie MacLemore), Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), and new recruit Lily (Analeigh Tipton), maneuver their way across the social landscape to demonstrate how much more intelligent they are in comparison to the sea of inferior (and stinky) men in their midst.

It’s hilarious to think these girls really are helping the world in their own peculiar way, which is why Stillman’s screenplay is the type of writing that is both unique and aggravating. These are the type of neurotic girls most neurotic boys would love to hang around. The problem is, none of them are based in anything that could be described as realism. They are cute, bourgey caricatures and nothing more. There is a false sense of depth to them that may only be transparent to those who do not fall for their girlish charms.

It’s unfortunate since Stillman, who returns to filmmaking after a more than a decade, has a very specific and uncommon voice in the industry. Most film directors simply don’t have the backbone to make these types of movies (someone like filmmaker Todd Solondz would be an exception).  Still, as happy-go-lucky as a story like this can be, it can also cross that fine line into annoyance. “Damsels in Distress” fits in well with Stillman’s other “comedies of mannerlessness” from the 90s (“Metropolitan,” “Barcelona,” and “Disco”), but unless you fully commit yourself to this small army of arrogant personalities, it won’t be much fun even as a curiosity piece.