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“I Want to Be a Scavenger”: A Conversation with Whit Stillman

The mise en scène:  8:00 p.m., Friday, October 6, 2017, at the Hyatt Regency, Huntington Beach, California, the site of JASNA’s AGM.  There Peter Graham interviewed the acclaimed director and screenwriter Whit Stillman before a showing of Love & Friendship, Stillman’s 2016 film version of Jane Austen’s edgy epistolary novella, Lady Susan, with a cast including Kate Beckinsale, Chloë Sevigny, and Stephen Fry. 

WhitStillman 2017AGM

Whit Stillman (left) and Peter Graham (right). Photo by William Haselden.

From his first film (Metropolitan) onward, through Barcelona, The Last Days of Disco, and Damsels in Distress, Whit Stillman’s latter-day comedies of manners have directly and indirectly displayed his affinity for Austen.  In the interview here transcribed Stillman discusses his evolution as an Austen reader, his fascination with the manners, morals, sense, and style of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature and culture, the rewards and challenges of cinematically adapting an epistolary novella as well as those of turning a movie into a book, and the roles of collaboration, serendipity, and improvisation in bringing a script to life on the screen.

Graham:  Our goal tonight, after I take the privilege of speaking for the group here assembled and thanking Nancy Gallagher and her amazing team for the opportunity to be here for this conversation, will be for Whit and me to spend some time speaking of his film, Love & Friendship—and also, perhaps less known to some of you, his novel of the same title, available at the Emporium. 

Stillman:  It’s a little different.  The title’s a little different.  The title is Love & Friendship, in Which Jane Austen’s Lady Susan Vernon is Entirely Vindicated.  So the book’s quite different from the film. 

Graham:  A way in which your book’s similar to Austen’s Lady Susan is its crucial dependence on a nephew for publication of the narrative. 

Stillman:  Yes. 

Graham:  As most of you know, Jane Austen’s Lady Susan languished unpublished for a long time.  Austen probably composed Lady Susan in the 1790s, at the end of her juvenilia period and before or concurrent with when she was drafting her first three novels. 

Stillman:  Can we start again? 

Graham:  Sure. 

Stillman:  I don’t really understand why everyone thinks that it has to be limited to that period, since the only manuscript we have was certainly copied no earlier than 1805, as the paper was from 1805.  So if she was copying it over when she was thirty or older, I think we can imagine that she did continue to work on it after when she was nineteen or twenty.  So that’s my two cents. 

Graham:  Fair enough.  In any case, we have to wait until 1871 for Lady Susan to see publication in James Edward Austen-Leigh’s memoir of his aunt.  There’s an artful echo of that situation in your book, with Lady Susan’s nephew as the vindicator of his aunt against the “spinster authoress.” 

Stillman:  Which Austen called herself.  Not “spinster,” but “authoress.” 

Graham:  Yes.  Anyway, there’s been a little talk already in the introduction about your early days as a Janeite.  I wonder if you might like to talk a bit about how Jane Austen has been important as an influence and an interest, starting with Metropolitan but throughout your film career. 

Stillman:  Yes, I think we were talking earlier today about the issue of when people read a book.  In some cases, people are assigned school books too early or they pick them up too early, and they form an opinion too soon.  So I sort of took a semester off from college sophomore year and left for Mexico, very depressed, just dumped by a girlfriend, that kind of thing.  Well, not even a girlfriend.  Pre-dumped. 

I was in a total funk, and there was a copy of Northanger Abbey, and I read it as a novel whose main purpose was to make fun of novels.  I just thought it was terrible, and told everyone how overrated and bad Jane Austen was.  Went on and did that for a long time. 

Well not that long, because my sister recommended Sense and Sensibility, and I read that and really liked it, and then Pride and Prejudice.  I really think Sense and Sensibility, while it may not be the greatest of the great five novels, is really good for someone who’s basically not a fiction-reading person.  Sense and Sensibility’s a great novel, because it clearly has ideas and can be read by an op-ed essay reader as a way in.  And then once you get to love Jane Austen, you want to read everything. 

Graham:  The gateway novel . . . 

Stillman:  When I was trying to write Metropolitan, there’s a wonderful bit of material I had from a friend who really helped me out, because he was very smart, very interesting, but he tended to get things wrong.  So he misread Lionel Trilling’s essay on Mansfield Park.  I was reading Mansfield Park and loving it, and he said, “Oh, Lionel Trilling said that no one today can like Mansfield Park because it’s about private theatricals, it’s very anachronistic, and Fanny Price is an innocent heroine.” 

And then I was furious with Lionel Trilling until I actually read the essay, and the essay just sets that up as the strawman.  Well not a strawman, exactly, but as the premise that he’s going to knock down.  So it gave me something for a conversation between these two young people in Metropolitan.

And then I started thinking further, you know.  The idea that you cannot have an innocent, virtuous heroine today sort of made me think, “Well, yes there can be one.”  And so my Audrey character became a kind of Fanny Price.  And I was wondering what, today, could be similar to the private theatricals in Mansfield Park.  I remembered a situation when people played the truth game, where if you lose, if the coin drops through the tissue paper you’re punching holes in with lit cigarettes . . .  I’m not sure how many people have seen Metropolitan . . . 

So in Metropolitan, we used the truth game as something like, “Oh, they’re just asking questions that people have to answer truthfully.  What’s wrong with that? What harm can be done with that?”  What harm can there be in private theatricals?  These things can be harmful, actually.  Because I had that experience [with the truth game].  It really busted up a whole group of people when someone answered a question honestly, which you shouldn’t do. 

I had such a hard time writing the screenplay for my first film.  So I’d stop to take a break and read Pride and Prejudice.  I’d just read a couple of pages to sort of cleanse the palate.  And be inspired.  So Jane Austen’s really important for Metropolitan

Then with The Last Days of Disco, the casting of Kate Beckinsale came because of her role in Cold Comfort Farm, where she was essentially playing a latter-day Emma character. 

Graham:  Yes, from the novel where Stella Gibbons has her protagonist Flora Poste be the fixer-upper of a country neighborhood.  And where the epigraph, “Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery,” comes from the last chapter of Mansfield Park

So Jane Austen has inspired you.  But, in a way, with Lady Susan, it was the limitations of her epistolary form that served as something of a temptation to make a film, right? 

Stillman:  Yes.  Actually, at that period, I had another Jane Austen idea I was really excited about.  It would have been a sort of concoction in a way, a new Jane Austen, and it would have been more like the other stories.  That was sort of my big idea, which I’m keeping secret, because I think it’s an idea that could be stolen by all these people. 

And I’d still love to do that.  But I went back to read Northanger Abbey and loved it.  I’d worked in publishing on a lot of other things, including editing a Victoria Holt novel.  So I knew what Austen was making fun of, and I got the joke finally. 

In that edition of Northanger Abbey they had Lady Susan.  And it didn’t seem like a slam dunk for a movie.  But I was thinking that Oscar Wilde plays were then being well adapted into movies, the kind that, if I wanted to take my younger daughter to a movie on a Sunday afternoon, we’d go to.  So I started thinking, well, maybe Lady Susan could be kind of a play.  Do a little play of Lady Susan.  And then if the play worked, we could do an adaptation as a movie. 

I started speaking to a theatrical producer, a young fellow, sort of a Scottish Hugh Grant fellow, who had a two-person theater.  I showed him Lady Susan, and I’m like, “Could this ever be a play or a movie or anything like that?”  And he said, “Yeah, this would be good.”  When I started working on it, he kept saying, “But what about Frederica?”  His thing was that Frederica had to become really important, because she’s the only sympathetic character. 

And so in my novel Love & Friendship, at various points, the character of the nephew keeps going back to “But what about Frederica?”  Because the Scottish theatrical producer sort of tortured me with this question, and I just couldn’t think of things for Frederica when I was working on the play.  It was finally when we were shooting material for Sir James Martin that I started thinking about scenes for Frederica, too.  So it was like a bonanza. 

Graham:  I imagine a lot of us who know your other films wondered, when we saw Love & Friendship, whether your use of Kate Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny as frenemies in The Last Days of Disco had suggested to you reuniting them years later as friends and allies in Lady Susan.  Had that casting occurred to you from the get-go?  Or did it come gradually? 

Stillman:  One of the things that gave me confidence that there was a potential film—well, never confidence—what gave me hope that there would be a potential film in Lady Susan was the fact that Kate Beckinsale could play her so well.  It would be such a good role for Kate Beckinsale.  But when I first started thinking about it, just shortly after Disco, Kate Beckinsale was twenty-six or twenty-seven or something.  I don’t know what she was then, twenty-eight? 

And so I said, “Well, this is somebody who an actress like Kate Beckinsale could bring to life.”  At that point, I was working with Castle Rock, and Hugh Grant was there, and his girlfriend was Elizabeth Hurley, who’s a very impressive woman.  She’s a very smart producer.  Really great talking to her.  And her career was pretty good then.  That was before she made the comedy Austin Powers.  I mentioned it to her, and she was very interested.  So there’s a long casting thing—like, I knew this would be a project to develop for many years between paying jobs.  I’d just do it in secret on my own between things that I was commissioned to do. 

So time goes on, and we finally brought it out and started casting.  It was 2013.  Sienna Miller read for it, and she was really good.  Then there’s something with Kate’s agent, and Kate’s very interested.  But the sales agents were saying, “You have to announce the casting before the Berlin film market to get the film financing.” 

So we announced the casting of Sienna Miller before we really engaged with Kate again.  And Sienna Miller really was attached to it for quite a while.  Then I was seeing Chloë for this pilot we did for Amazon called The Cosmopolitans.  Has anyone seen The Cosmopolitans?  A couple.  Two people. 

Really you called me out.  So Chloë’s in that, and I talked to her about playing Alicia.  And so it was actually Sienna Miller and Chloë Sevigny.  Then I saw Sienna Miller at a film party, and I was really excited because we’d just heard that Stephen Fry accepted to do a cameo as Mr. Johnson.  For me, that was like the magic moment.  You’re making a film, and Stephen Fry has given his seal of approval.  And so I went up to Sienna and said, “Oh, Stephen Fry’s going to be in the film.”  And she was just like, blank.  She had no idea who I was anymore, what the project was.  I kind of got a bad feeling from that.  Then it’s me and her agent in the back, and, you know, she wants to make a film with someone else. 

So she dropped out, and thank heavens that happened, because I called up Kate’s agent, who is—people say that she’s the only person in the agency who reads.  Thank heavens for that.  This agent was strongly for the project, and Kate was strongly for it.  So suddenly turned out to be Kate and Chloë. 

Originally, Chloë was just going to try to play as English, and then I ran old files I had, from my film Damsels in Distress, where we had someone with a bad English accent and explain at the end of the film that she’s putting on a fake accent.  We got so much criticism from people who don’t wait until the end of the film to see that. 

And so I said, oh my God, they’re just going to tear us apart if we have an American actress doing a British accent.  But it just seemed really great, all the material we have from that period.  There really were American Tories who were exiled in the period of Love & Friendship [the early years of post-Revolution America].  Some of those exiles were really quite aristocratic.  They went to Eton and Oxford.  The family, for example, of the pre-Revolutionary provincial Governor of of New York, James De Lancey.  And so we made Chloë into a De Lancey. 

Graham:  Well, as a native of Connecticut I very much enjoyed Mr. Johnson’s threatening Alicia with the hazards of Hartford life! 

Stillman:  Making Connecticut the punchline for a joke that people actually laughed at was really great. 

Graham:  That’s just one of your adaptations that I think is really felicitous.  Speaking for myself and also for many others who love Austen’s books as books, we tend not to like it when filmmakers who are doing period versions of her texts leave things out.  I dislike it even more when they add things.  Nonetheless, I think what you added really enriched Love & Friendship.  The Ten or, as Sir James Martin thinks, Twelve Commandments for instance.  Or Sir James and his dinnertime discovery of peas. 

So I wonder if you could talk a bit about how these additions got into the movie.  Were they there from the get-go, or did they evolve following casting and rehearsal? 

Stillman:  Well, I think one of the attractions of working on Lady Susan—and I play with the title because there was no title on the manuscript.  It was the title given by her nephew.  And the original title of Northanger Abbey had been Susan.  Just as Austen changed her titles—like Elinor and Marianne becoming Sense and Sensibility and Susan becoming Northanger Abbey—it seemed in keeping with Jane Austen’s process that a work that she had left more like a first draft wasn’t titled.  She hadn’t gone through her whole process, or she might have given it a title closer to ours.  And she had given the title Susan to another work. 

I didn’t realize how many people liked Austen’s “Love and Freindship” [the short juvenile piece].  I thought I could filch the title and put it on the film. 

So one of the attractions of working on Lady Susan or whatever you call it was that it hadn’t been through Jane Austen’s whole process.  She would have probably dramatized it just as she changed the epistolary versions of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice into their final form.  I’d been offered full novels to adapt before.  I thought, “I don’t want to reduce a masterpiece that you can appreciate any sense of into a ninety-minute classic comic book.  Why not take something that is still in this preliminary form and sort of fill it out or add to it?” 

But filling out the epistolary novella was really challenging, and initially I didn’t do that, because I had no confidence in speaking in the eighteenth-century voice, in Jane Austen’s voice or whatever.  And finally, those additions are not in Jane Austen’s voice.  They really are sort of from the world of the British comic actors who arrived in Dublin to work on this film and sort of inspired us to add material that is not Jane Austen’s material but goes really well with it.  Much of what we had at first was just dialogue between Alicia and Lady Susan.  That’s wonderful material, but it becomes kind of worrisome if everything is them planning what they’re going to do, and then gloating about their success or expressing their annoyance. 

Graham:  The wicked words of transgressive females . . . 

Stillman:  If it had just been that the whole time, we really needed to add something.  At least one of the advantages of working on something for a long time, and being immersed in the eighteenth-century environment and everything from the time, was that when it came time to direct these funny actors, we could come up with new material and shoot it then. 

Graham:  Inspired improvisation, then. 

Stillman:  Because there’s a lot of worry about period language, we had experts who write about Dr. Johnson, who are immersed in the English of the period, going over the script.  Many times, they’d tell me things like, “That’s impossible for the eighteenth century.”  And now we have scholarly texts, the scholarly texts of Lady Susan, and I find half the things they told me were impossible for the eighteenth century were in her manuscript. 

So I was just struck by so many of the expressions used, which seem so contemporary and so fresh.  And there were some—like an expert said, “People didn’t use ‘pea-brained’ or ‘a pea’s brain’ in the period.”  I said, “Of course they didn’t use it, but it still makes sense.” If you want to insult someone, you call them a pea brain, and it doesn’t matter what century you’re in. 

Graham:  Sort of building on what we were talking about a just few minutes ago:  in the same way that you sensed the limitations of the epistolary form and extended Austen’s novella into a film, you must have sensed some limitations or dissatisfaction with telling the whole story through film, because you then turned to fiction yourself.  I wonder if you might like to talk about that a bit.  Why did you make a film and then write a novel covering the same ground? 

Stillman:  Well, I think that, like a lot of people, when young I had higher aspirations.  I wanted to be a novelist.  At university this was my concern.  I loved Fitzgerald, and before I discovered Jane Austen, I wanted to write fiction.  And I found it so horrible, so hard, so lonely, so challenging.  I was writing these very short, funny things.  I remember watching a building being built in New York.  I was writing a short story.  One building would go up after another before I finished a tiny short story.  This whole building.  It was really demoralizing. 

And so I felt that getting into audiovisual media, film, TV. . . .  I actually was in university when there were wonderful comedies on television—The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, Sanford and Son.  So I wanted to work on wonderful comedies like that or something.  But I forwarded my résumé to Doubleday’s division in L.A., in the film business.  And so very slowly, I saw indie cinema that was happening, with John Sayles, who had been writing short stories, then doing a film like Return of the Secaucus Seven.  Jim Jarmusch did a very funny comedy with just no budget at all.  It’s like the funniest film you could make with nothing, Stranger than Paradise.  And Spike Lee did She’s Gotta Have It

So, oh my gosh, if you’re a failed short story writer, you can actually try to do film.  And then I had the screenplay for Metropolitan.  Having turned it into a novel, I sent it to a literary agent, who I thought I was friendly with, and she just snottily threw it away like that.  And I made Metropolitan, and someone read that I was interested in writing novels, and a publisher approached me, and I had a contract to write Metropolitan as a novel. 

But I dawdled and was under contract to finish the Barcelona script and then film Barcelona.  They were pressuring me to novelize Metropolitan quickly, and I knew it couldn’t be quick.  Then with The Last Days of Disco, I said, “Well, finally, I can do it.” 

Everyone said that we couldn’t bring the novel out in time for the movie coming out, but there was one literary editor, Jonathan Glass at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and he said, “I like the script, and it could be a good novel.  And I don’t want it to come out at the same time.  I want you to take time with it, make a literary novel, bring it out years later.  But not too much later.”  So the same pressure to finish it.  The novel version of The Last Days of Disco came out in 2000, two years after the film.  And now I know why people don’t publish novels based on films two years after.  Because no editor is going to assign it for review.  You get bundled into the kind of joint review of five novels.  And they can love it and say great things, and if there were ever a paperback edition, you’d get a great quote for the paperback edition, but it’s not going to impact sales. 

So this time, I really wanted the book to come out close to the movie.  And I actually sent the script because I was thinking that there are people like you in the world, and like a lot of us, even some people who are not here, who would be interested in reading Lady Susan in dramatized form. 

And that’s what I had, a dramatized Lady Susan.  And so Little, Brown agreed to publish that, whether the film was made or not.  But they did want the manuscript before we started shooting, so they could come out at the same time.  I just couldn’t do that, because so many things were happening. 

And that was really good, as it turned out, because we had the whole experience of writing the new scenes, and Sir James Martin becoming a fully realized character thanks to the actor Tom Bennett.  He just helped create this wonderful character.  And then the research with the literary nephew defending his aunt and praising his aunt.  And then the idea that Sir James Martin marries Lady Susan, who bears a baby.  Sir James could have a sister, and his sister could have a son.  And that son could adore his aunt, Aunt Susan. 

So that is the product we have here. [Whit brandishes the hardback copy of Love & Friendship.]  What I liked about it was that once you’re sort of there, you can kind of go off and extrapolate.  I didn’t want to just turn the movie into a novel.  No, it has to be something else.  It has to develop. 

And so I can say this is a really Austenian book, because there is Jane Austen within it, and actually it includes the whole text of Lady Susan in beautiful, beautiful print—spacious, large print for those of us who can’t see so well anymore.  Full table of contents.  A lot of footnotes, and annotated. 

But it’s a later period, so the nephew . . .  I’m not sure if people know about Dr. Johnson and his club and the revered General Paoli, the heroic Corsican fighters for freedom and democracy.  In General Paoli’s retinue, there was a colonel, Colonel Colonna, who in my novel married Juliana Martin, Sir James Martin’s sister, and had a son named Rufus Martin-Colonna—a much longer name because it’s his full Corsican aristocratic name.  It’s very long.

But he called himself Rufus Martin-Colonna, and he is the narrator of this vindication of his Aunt Susan.  And he has his own adventure.  So he becomes a little bit—I’m not sure if people know Thomas Love Peacock, but maybe a comic character from him or from early Dickens.  So since this is happening much later than Jane Austen, it’s getting into a different kind of literature.  And I’m not sure if people will like all that, but . . . 

Anyway, we’re going to have a signing.  We have two beautiful editions available there.  This is the original one with the artwork by Pierre Le-Tan, the great French artist.  And then another one with film art for the paperback edition.  That’s the plug. 

Graham:  One of the things that I enjoyed about your book is that it’s a novel about a novella by Jane Austen, purportedly written by someone far too dim to understand Austen’s wickedly witty text. 

Stillman:  The idea is that the spinster authoress is a social climber who’s trying to curry favor with the DeCourcy family.  She’s doing their bidding to malign their foe, Lady Susan.  I’ve seen this so much:  you know someone who’s a total reprobate, who’s just totally bad, and you can always find someone who will defend them and say people who describe them honestly are actually bad people.  It happens all the time, and sometimes in our politics. 

Graham:  That brings me to a question about Lady Susan the character.  What emerges really well from the letters—Lady Susan’s own letters and those of the people who write about her—is her verbal brilliance, her social powers, her ability to adapt, to manipulate, and to control situations. 

But what you don’t get from the printed page—something that emerges so wonderfully from your film and Kate Beckinsale’s performance—is the human warmth and charm that make Lady Susan even more seductive.  And when you think of this character, you’ve got somebody who’s really not like anyone else in the Austen canon:  a mature woman with pretty much all the assets except money and a husband.  She’s beautiful.  She’s intelligent.  She’s forthright.  She’s ruthless.  She gets her way. 

Stillman:  All the tools to get someone else’s assets. 

Graham:  Yes, exactly.  Yet she’s divorced from the virtues in which Jane Austen believes.  And having created this rather magnificent creature, Austen never goes there again.  I wonder why.  Do you have any thoughts as to why she wouldn’t?  Was Austen afraid of her own talent for moral nihilism?  Is this the reason that she didn’t revise the manuscript for publication?  She could write that robust way in private, but not for public consumption?  Does Lady Susan embody a lingering eighteenth-century sensibility that faded out of Austen’s writing as the nineteenth century proceeded?  What do you think? 

Stillman:  We can’t add to Jane Austen canon directly, in the sense that Jane Austen could write a new, greater Jane Austen work.  So she left this manuscript, which is just wonderful but incomplete, not fully realized, with wonderful things in it.  But she could write something even greater. 

So I think she wanted to spend her efforts writing something truly great, rather than something that she might not have felt that close to, sort of morally, ethically, that just, in that form, there were flashes of brilliance without being fully realized.  She didn’t have to go through the rubbish heap of her early drafts that she left.  But I do.  Because there’s no other thing.  So I want to be a scavenger.  I want to find things that are Austenian and find ways to bring that to the screen.

I like what you said about her moral perspective—I think she had increasing moral concerns.  She became more evangelical in her religious faith, and Mansfield Park was the direction she was going in.  And Persuasion.  So that’s it.

At some point, do we open it up to questions?  Are we at that point?

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It was, and so a question-and-answer period followed.

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