Wednesday 17 January 2018

Whit Stillman talks Love and Friendship, filming in Ireland, and how he likes women 'because I'm deranged'

Filmmaker Whit Stillman's adaptation of a lost Jane Austen novella was started in Paris and shot in Dublin, and features a fascinating female character in Lady Susan

Whit Stillman is no stranger to Dublin, and jumped at the chance to shoot 'Love and Friendship' in the city. Photo: Mark Condren.
Whit Stillman is no stranger to Dublin, and jumped at the chance to shoot 'Love and Friendship' in the city. Photo: Mark Condren.

Aine O'Connor

Since his first film, the almost cult Metropolitan in 1990, American writer-director Whit Stillman has made only five films and one TV pilot. His latest feature, Love & Friendship, is an adaptation of an early Jane Austen novella which was shot here in Ireland - a country with which he has a long and fond relationship. All of his work features wonderful female roles, and here he delivers another - Lady Susan. He clearly likes women. "Oh yes," he says in a voice reminiscent of John Malkovich. "I think it's because I'm deranged."

One of the women Whit Stillman has long admired is Jane Austen, although when he first read her work he was not a fan. Over the years, however, with further reading and research, he learned not only to love the work, but to greatly admire the woman. He feels that the romantic element of Austen's work has been exaggerated - and that she was saying so much more.

"Often it is adapted in pink with bows - they do Jane Austen as Barbara Cartland, but she was no Barbara Cartland," he says. "She was pretty clear-eyed about a lot of things."

Love & Friendship is a case in point. Based on a very early work which was published after Austen's death by her nephew, who called it Lady Susan, it is quite different in setting and tone from what might be considered more typical Austen fare.

"It's a lot racier," he agrees. "As she grew older she was a sort of thermometer of piety and respectability, she always had her own mind and sense of vision but she did become religious and more Victorian as time went on.

"Lady Susan was high spirits of younger years, and is also set in the 18th century - which was really different to the 19th. This is not long after Dangerous Liaisons, and it's a funny British Dangerous Liaisons - rather than a serious French one."

It also looks different. Stillman put award-winning Irish costume designer Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh in charge, and the costumes are gorgeous.

"This is the earliest Jane Austen period," he says. "It's before Regency, it's Georgian - and we tried to set it in the time when fashions were still really sharp, before it became that maternity dress look. It's so much sexier because they have their cleavage and the wonderful tailoring."

The film opens with the beautiful widow Lady Susan, played by Kate Beckinsale (below), leaving the home of the Manwaring family under a cloud of suspicion. Lord Manwaring is smitten with her, his wife, Lady Manwaring, is neither pleased nor quiet about her displeasure. Lady Susan, broke but with a lifestyle to uphold, moves to her in-laws', where she sets about targeting potential husbands for herself and her daughter.

Romance is a means to an end and much of the film, thanks to script and cast, is really funny - not least because Lady Susan is a great character.

"She's not up to any good," he admits. "I think that she is a scoundrel in an amusing way. She will say anything to anyone else to get an advantage, but to herself and her best friend she is totally honest."

So, while a scoundrel, she is likeable - sort of.

The Love & Friendship project began many years ago, almost for fun between other projects.

"It was something that I didn't take very seriously, it seemed like the unlikeliest of things I was working on," he says. "But it was never tainted with contracts and money - it was my pleasure thing, and that kept it nice. I wasn't sweating over deadlines."

Despite the leisurely creative pace a lot of the precise work didn't happen until the shoot began, and he explains: "I didn't start adapting this until we started shooting, and then I had all these ideas that I couldn't have until I was with the actors and seeing what they were doing."

He adds that the strict Irish crew shooting schedule worked in his favour, explaining: "A lot of the American producers complain about it - 'Oh, you have to start at 8am and you end at 7pm and you can't vary that', but I found it a godsend. That last hour really concentrates the mind! It meant that I could get up at 4am and write the scenes."

It worked so well that the shoot, which was meant to be 27 days, finished a day early, his personal best.

Stillman has been visiting Ireland since the '90s for work and had been very taken by Trinity College. He says: "I remember thinking 'this is the most amazing campus I've ever seen, and to have it in the centre of the city…'"

His eldest daughter had been wondering where to go to college and, after beginning a relationship with an Irishman, happened upon Trinity - and her thoughts echoed her father's. She read law in TCD and ended up staying in Dublin for 11 years. Whit visited often, so he knew exactly what to expect when it was suggested that Georgian Dublin and surroundings might prove an excellent location for Love & Friendship. He had been told that Irish crews were experienced in period drama and he was not disappointed - he is full of praise for both the crews, who he found almost created themselves through their network, and the Irish Film Board.

Born in Washington in 1952, he was raised between there and upstate New York. He experienced severe depression around the age of 12 - a depression that lifted when his parents divorced.

"It was a very strange thing... here are these divorced people worrying about their kids but, for me, it was a huge relief," he admits. "I was sad about being kicked out of the house I loved, but sometimes just direct sadness about something explicit is better than the weirdness of a family that's not working. And I'm not sure if that coincided with me being less crazy at the same time my parents were separating and divorcing, or if it was related somehow."

He did not especially enjoy his own time in college, studying history in Harvard, saying: "I wasn't right for Harvard. I did good things by leaving it - I learned Spanish in Mexico, which helped me a lot."

Since then he has travelled extensively and has lived mainly in Europe for many years. He met his wife in Barcelona in 1980 and they have two daughters - the eldest is now back living in New York and their youngest is a medical student in Florida.

He is a firm believer in writing what you know, saying: "I use personal things to get a feeling of authenticity and originality, so you delve into what you remember and what you went through."

Austen, he feels, expresses a universality of story and cites the many and varied adaptations that work - like Bridget Jones' Diary and Clueless - so making her relevant was not an issue. He is currently working on another personal first, a TV series for Amazon.

"I hope it works, it would be nice to create a world and just keep going with it and not have to reinvent it every time," he adds.

Love & Friendship is now showing nationwide.

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