Indie Film Director Whit Stillman Talks Austen, Adaptations, and Why Cinema Still Matters

Whit Stillman on the set of Damsels in Distress

Photo ourtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

To commemorate the 25th anniversary of Metropolitan, Whit Stillman’s acclaimed 1990 film about a clique of urbane college preps in Manhattan, The Wexner Center in Columbus is featuring a retrospective of his work March 4 – 19, which includes a visit from Stillman this weekend. Wexner center members and OSU students get a special treat on March 5: an exclusive sneak peek at Stillman’s highly anticipated Jane Austen adaptation, Love & Friendship, starring Kate Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny. The rest of us have to wait (but us Stillman fans are used to that) for the film’s official release on May 13. In April, The Criterion Collection will release a box set of Stillman’s beloved trilogy of films, Metropolitan, Barcelona, and The Last Days of Disco. We caught up with him en route to Columbus.

Production still of Metropolitan
Production still of Metropolitan

Image courtesy of New Line Cinema

Your films all have a sort of costume drama sensibility, but without the costumes, and now you’ve made a costume drama, period dress and all.
Love & Friendship doesn’t loom as a costume drama, because it’s a pretty funny comedy, so it’s really not what you might anticipate. It’s not Downtown Abbey in any way, shape or form. There are a lot of very good English comic actors who have done the supporting parts and really shine.

The movie is based on one of Austen’s more obscure works, a novella of letters called Lady Susan, which wasn’t published until after her death. What attracted you?
I love Jane Austen. I sort of wanted something of my own to work on between paid script writing assignments. It’s good that I had so much time with no producer or studio executive wanting delivery quickly because it’s an incredibly funny novella she wrote, but hard to read and hard to dramatize. It’s an epistolary form from the 18th century and there are all these very funny ideas and lines buried within. It’s kind of an inaccessible format and it was a long process of adaptation.

What is it about Austen that keeps her in the cultural consciousness? She’s having a moment, again. The action movie Pride + Prejudice + Zombies came out in February, best selling author (and Cincinnati native), Curtis Sittenfeld’s new book Eligible (out in April) is a modern day retelling of Pride and Prejudice, set here in Cincinnati, and Love & Friendship comes out in May.
If you love an author, you have your own reason for loving them, which are not everyone else’s reasons for loving them. There is very little done with Austen that I really care about. I loved Ang Lee and Emma Thompson’s film, Sense and Sensibility. I thought that was beautiful. I think the Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle mini series of Pride and Prejudice was very commendable. I see Love & Friendship as really special and I’m not interested at all in any other stuff. Just not interested. I think they did a good job with Bridget Jones’s Diary, but I think it sort of cheapens Austen. A lot of the stuff, ok, they reuse one of her plots, but it’s not really the essence of the author. I find it really kind of offensive, when all of the critics, the coolest thing they thought to say when Sense and Sensibility and Clueless came out at the same time [in 1995], was that the really interesting Jane Austen was Clueless, which I don’t think is true at all. I mean it’s a perfectly fine movie, but I think when someone does a beautiful adaptation [likeSense and Sensibility] you shouldn’t snob it just to be post modern and clever.

In the 25 years since Metropolitan came out, what’s changed for you as far as getting movies made?
I had a very easy time of it in the ’90s because I had Castle Rock backing me. And I sort of lost my way when I was trying to work for other people in London and elsewhere. And then Castle Rock came back to do Damsels in Distress, which was essentially the partners of Castle Rock doing it as an independent production. I’ve had a really good relationship with Amazon. [In addition to Love & Friendship] I’m also doing The Cosmopolitans, which is a series we’re still working on. We did Love & Friendship on our own, but then Roadside Attractions and Amazon studios have jointly taken it on to bring to the screen. So that’s now a very good relationship with Amazon Studios.

So why not bypass theatrical release altogether and just stream on Amazon? Transparent has been one of the most talked about shows. It seems like an easier way to find an audience.
I really care about cinema and this movie is really a cinematic experience. This film will not have any of the charm, watched home alone, that it will in the movie theater. It’s really funny and it’s kind of a group experience. I’m really happy that Roadside Attractions is giving Love & Friendship the full, classic, cinematic treatment. It’s a cinematic movie. It should be seen on a big screen. I’m not a binge TV watcher. I don’t have a lot of time, and I like movies. I do like the idea of The Cosmopolitans, going forward, but it’s not going to be voluminous, it’s going to be very small and short. It’s not going to be 26 hours or something like that.

Director Steven Soderbergh kind of dramatically “retired” from the movie business a few years ago, staying movies weren’t culturally relevant anymore. It sounds like you disagree.
Steve’s working in a different business than I am. He’s working in mass cinema. His films are big audience films. I think the small audience films are still surviving.

So what’s next for you?
I’ve been working on a novel. I did this crazy thing with The Last Days of Disco, which turned out to be really interesting for me. I did a novel based on the story but sort of extending it. That was an interesting experience as a writer. And now I’ve done it again. I’ve just finished the novel of Love & Friendship, which Little Brown is bringing out the same time the film comes out. It’s quite different from both the Jane Austen novel and the movie. It’s sort of an anti-story, opposite of everything. The story turned upside down. But then I have to get back to The Cosmopolitan scripts I owe Amazon. I do hope that show goes on. I love having the chance to tell a story long form.

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