Writer-director Whit Stillman talks shop, “Love & Friendship”

May 19, 2016, 11:24 p.m.

Whit Stillman works at a slow pace, but the quality of his products are always worth the wait. Today, his newest film “Love & Friendship” (a Jane Austen rom-com that’s like a night at the cinematic opera) opens in Bay Area theatres with the trademark pizazz and style that has distinguished his four other films: “Metropolitan” (1990),  “Barcelona” (1994), “Last Days of Disco” (1998) and my current favorite of his, the ripping college satire “Damsels in Distress” (2011). Along with an Amazon TV pilot (“The Cosmopolitans,” from 2014), each of these works possesses an intelligence and straight-angled polish that is a rarity among today’s independent cinema scene. Stillman is a man of many angles and edges: the verbosity of Salinger, the social insight of Lubitsch and the subdued comic sensibility of an “Arrested Development” episode.

His fifth film, “Love & Friendship,” is based upon the little-known Jane Austen novella “Lady Susan” (1805; published in 1871). It’s a deliciously genteel story about the titular social climber (Kate Beckinsale), a recently widowed high-society lady who wants her daughter to learn the ins and outs of English aristocratic society so that she may have an advantage. Together with her American best girl friend (Chlöe Sevigny, “Boys Don’t Cry”), Lady Susan schemes to gain the upper-hand on the dullard gents around her, including a ridiculously stupid, John Cleese-like suitor (Tom Bennett — the film’s MVP). Mannered shenanigans ensue.

The Daily recently sat down with Mr. Stillman to discuss his experiences with Jane Austen, college and the creative process.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): How and when did you first encounter Jane Austen’s works?

Whit Stillman (WS): When I was a sophomore in college, I was in a total funk. I’d been dumped by this girl and was seriously considering dropping out. I was thinking I could go to Cuernavaca, Mexico to learn Spanish and to live with my aunt and cousins. While I was in this weird limbo, I saw a copy of her novel “Northanger Abbey” lying around. I read it. And I hated it.

I told all of my friends that Jane Austen was a bad writer. That she was “overrated,” “terrible,” “couldn’t understand why anybody liked her.” It was the danger of starting with the wrong book and reading the wrong period. It happens a lot, especially with movies; you can see a movie in the wrong cast of mind, hate it and later decide to like it.

So then, five years later, my sister pushed me towards good literature. Thanks to her, I read “Sense & Sensibility” and “Pride & Prejudice” and fell in love with Jane Austen. Then, when I finally went back to “Northanger Abbey” many years later, as part of the edition, it had “Lady Susan,” which I read and also loved. And that’s when I started thinking about this project.

TSD: What qualities of her writing do you admire the most?

WS: There are just so many. For one, she’s completely unpretentious and quick. I don’t like description; she almost never describes. She just shows it happening. In her world, you’re very into characters, story, comedy and romance, caring deeply about all of them.

Also, I just love her worldview. The word “moralistic” is, of course, pejorative — it has bad connotations. But there’s a moral perspective in her works. They say comedy of manners was originally “comedy of morals.” And that sense of morals is very important; it’s the biggest issues we face, it’s our identities and our futures. Which romantic solution is there for you in life?

Jane Austen, then, is focused like a laser on that romantic solution. That’s why her stories can be well-adapted in many ways, regardless of environment or time period.

TSD: What liberties have you found setting your story in the 18th century, as opposed to the more contemporary times you’ve set your previous films in? What freedoms did you have working in that era?

WS: So, the story is set in the 1790s, which is much earlier than most Jane Austen stories. I like the period of “Love & Friendship” a lot. I find it’s a great bit great escapism to go into a period and another society which I find has more connections, texture and coherence than today’s society. They were more atomized, too. Alienation is a greater problem today than it was back then. They had other problems back then, of course, but not alienation of our kind.

TSD: There’s often talk about your films resembling Austen novels. But despite those similarities, I’d imagine it’s a different beast having to actually adapt an Austen novel. How did your style mesh with hers? What parts in her style, for instance, could never be in yours?

WS: There was no problem at all incorporating her material into mine. And that, in itself, was the problem. Because I found so much of what she wrote so insightful, so cleverly phrased and so funny, the bigger problem was not using material. That’s why I was attracted to writing and publishing a novelization of the film — so I could use more of the material. People’s posteriors will tolerate a longer period of time reading a book than watching a movie. A movie should really be 90 minutes, but a book can have more.

TSD: What’s been your experience with young college-age students who watch your films? How do they typically react?

WS: Well, my two favorite screenings of my second film “Barcelona” were in university settings — one at Yale, one at Oxford. In the case of “Damsels in Distress,” my daughters — one in college, one who’d recently finished university — had seen it. My daughters’ friends actually didn’t like “Damsels,” but they’re very serious types who I don’t think are big into comedies.

But what I noticed was that although older people kid the film for not being realistic or whatever their problem was, the reviewers and critics from both high school and college publications really liked the movie. We got tons of support from universities. I loved that; it was very encouraging. It’s that situation where some 45-year-old is saying, “Bah, this has nothing to do with kids today,” and then the actual kids today, the people writing in newspapers, were saying, “We really like this; it’s so fun.” They saw that it was escapism. Did you see “Damsels in Distress”?

TSD: I did, and I totally loved it. Precisely for that same reason: It’s cheerfully a lite-fantasy spin on real situations.

WS: Yeah, it’s my favorite! It’s escapist. We want to get out of reality!

TSD: What qualities do you pride most in actors? What makes Taylor Nichols or Chris Eigeman the quintessential Stillman actor?

WS: That’s a fascinating question. Wow. It’s, I think, this magic in my performers, where they transform and transmute the original material into something else. They do a bit of alchemy on it. They give it a special texture, characterization and precision in timing. But I don’t know; I’ll need to stew over that question some more. Too tough to answer.

TSD: Your first three films are all based on experiences that you’ve had in real life. Are there any periods in your life that you haven’t explored yet that you’d love to turn into a Stillman film?

WS: Well, I’d run out of stories that were interesting when I made the first three films. There was a period of time where I was reading other material to adapt things and work on other subject matter. But while I was playing around with that, I was living life. After “Last Days of Disco” in ’98, I was living in Paris, meeting so many strange characters there. I had a marriage that fell apart, so I was once again in the social world. Those experiences made it into “The Cosmopolitans.” But there’s only so much Paris material, so for the rest of “The Cosmopolitans,” I kind of need to find other material. I’m writing those episodes now, and I need to find more stuff to have in it. I’ve been commissioned to write six scripts for “The Cosmopolitans,” and I hope the scripts will go well and they’ll like it.

“Love & Friendship” opens in Palo Alto on Friday, May 20 at the CineArts Theater.

Contact Carlos Valladares at cvall96 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Carlos Valladares is a senior double-majoring in Film and American Studies. He loves the Beatles and jazz, dogs and dance. Were he stranded on a desert island, he'd be sure to take some food— and also, copies of "A Hard Day's Night," "The Young Girls of Rochefort," "Nashville," "Killer of Sheep," and anything by Studio Ghibli. You can follow his film writings at http://letterboxd.com/cvall96/. He was born and raised in South Central Los Angeles.

Login or create an account