'I loved the locations, they were perfect for us' - director Whit Stillman talks filming Love & Friendship in Ireland
Considering the slew of on-screen adaptations of Jane Austen’s work, you’d be forgiven for not getting overly excited by the news that another is on its way.
With Love & Friendship, however, the acclaimed US filmmaker Whit Stillman has created a film that goes some way toward correcting the record of stodgy, by-the-numbers Austen adaptations.
Stillman may be separated from Austen by 200 years, but both are known for their sly observations of high society, and her material proves to be a dream fit for the writer and director of Metropolitan, The Last Days of Disco and Damsels in Distress.
Rather than the familiar classics, Stillman chose to take on a little-known epistolary novella called Lady Susan, which follows an irresistibly devious anti-heroine – a young widow and “the most accomplished flirt in all England” – as she attempts to marry off her daughter Frederica and salvage her own reputation after being accused of an affair.
Love & Friendship was filmed entirely on location in Ireland, and the likes of Russborough House, Newbridge House, and the cobbled streets of Georgian Dublin provide a perfect backdrop for the brisk comedy.
Stillman’s love of Ireland is deep-rooted; as well as visits to promote his work, his eldest daughter studied at Trinity College and lived in Dublin for 11 years, working in law. When he was told it would be more cost- and time-effective to shoot here, he was delighted. “It was incredibly good. The Irish Film Board was really, really great, and the crew was really expert on what they were doing and on the period details,” he says fondly. “I loved the locations, they were perfect for us. I think Russborough House is one of the most beautiful houses in the world.”
Indeed, he was so impressed with the building’s façade that he used the front and back of the stately home as the exterior for two different residences. “I find that in some of the standard English Austen adaptations, the houses seem too grand, and that sort of takes away the plausibility and the humanity,” he observes, explaining that he even made some of the homes appear smaller.
Although Stillman now professes himself a Jane Austen buff, he admits his first impression of her work wasn’t so favourable. “I was very foolish. I was 18-years-old, I was in this funk at college, I was about to take time off and go to Mexico and learn to speak Spanish. I was really down, I’d been dumped by a girl and I picked up this novel Northanger Abbey by the celebrated Jane Austen.
“I thought it was terrible. I told everybody that Jane Austen was really bad, that she was so overrated and how could people like her? Fortunately, my sister clued me in that I should read something else, so I read Sense & Sensibility and Pride & Prejudice and loved them.”
Many years later, Stillman was living in Paris, and came across Northanger Abbey once again. He decided to give it another go, and loved it. Stowed away in the back of the book was Lady Susan.
“I thought it was just incredibly funny and very Oscar Wildean. Some of her funniest, best sentences and paragraphs were in this,” he says.
At the time, Stillman had been in talks to develop a number of films, but project after project fell through, leading to a period of 12 years in which he wrote many draft scripts that never made it on screen.
“There were all these doors slamming, and I was left with this little bit of fluff, and it was that that really grew. It became my really fun project when I wasn’t working, and it really helped me not having this as part of the whole industry process.”
Although Stillman is famed for his hyper-verbose comedies of manners, the task of embodying Austen’s voice proved to be a challenge.
“It was a problem. One of the good things about adapting something that’s really well-written is that you don’t start with a blank page. You start with a big block of literary clay and you get to take little pieces away from the clay so it has a form, but it’s not really alive yet. You have to have new things to make it come alive.”
The book, written entirely in letters, can make for a difficult reading experience, and the skill of Stillman’s treatment can’t be over-estimated. Austen abandoned Lady Susan without giving it a proper ending or title, and it wasn’t even published until more than 50 years after her death.
Most films with a monstrous, calculating heroine will inevitably force her through a process of redemption, something Stillman was thankfully uninterested in doing. He adds a delightful surprise to finish the story off, and has even written a companion novel, Love & Friendship: In Which Jane Austen’s Lady Susan Vernon Is Entirely Vindicated.
Beckinsale’s Susan is a joy to watch, and even a bit sympathetic, in spite of her constant scheming and manipulation. “Facts are horrid things,” she sighs ruefully.
“She’s honest with herself and with her friend,” says Stillman. “They say these dreadful things to each other, and I find that refreshing, because most of the people I know who are hurting other people are also inventing lies to justify it, so they’re adding insult to injury. She doesn’t do that.”
Stillman also fleshed out some of the story’s smaller characters, such as the hilariously oblivious Sir James Martin and Stephen Fry’s gouty old Mr Johnson, to add more broadly humorous scenes.
“I saw it as an incredible opportunity to show the comic Jane Austen that always gets cut out of the usual Austen adaptations, the ones that are done as romantic women’s films and no guys can come and watch them,” he says.
“Some of them are made that way, but they’re all sold that way. In her writing, it’s very silly comedy, and I think Austen is just as much for men as for women. I don’t think that’s true of all the Austens. I think this is the most guy-friendly Austen adaptation, and I’m going to stand on that!”
Love & Friendship is out now in selected cinemas