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.