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Patt Morrison asks: 'Love & Friendship' director Whit Stillman

Patt Morrison asks: 'Love & Friendship' director Whit Stillman
A portrait of English writer Jane Austen. (Leemage / Getty Images/Universal Images Gr)

As wonderful as Jane Austen's most famous novels are, she left a tantalizing store of other works, and director Whit Stillman is partnering one of them around the dance floor. His film "Love & Friendship," which opens Friday, takes the Austen novella "Lady Susan," which is a collection of letters, and turns it not so much into a sentimental romantic comedy – the usual Austen treatment -- as a biting comedy of manners. It's a long way from Stillman's 1990s urban trilogy capped by "The Last Days of Disco." But, as with that film, Stillman also fleshes out "Love & Friendship" in book form, constructing an impassioned plea from the conniving Lady Susan's nephew to deodorize her scheming reputation, deserved though Jane Austen knows it to be.

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I think you're one of the bravest men I know.

How come?

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Anyone who undertakes Jane Austen with Jane Austen's fan base, which regards everything she wrote as holy writ – you're a brave man.

But I'm the ayatollah of the Jane Austen fan base! I want to lead the fan base, not be attacked and devoured by the fan base.

The original book, a novella really, was "Lady Susan," not published until 50 years after her death, and then by her nephew. Now "Love & Friendship" is the title of the book you have done of this.

And she used this title for what I consider an insignificant short story she wrote when she was 14 or 15. It's the story of Lady Susan Vernon and her world. The nephew adores his aunt, his lovely aunt, and writes a memoir of his aunt recounting the events in Jane Austen's novella from a different perspective. And he's rather scathing about the authoress – he calls her the "spinster authoress."

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Do you think the nephew is as taken in and hoodwinked by Lady Susan as she does to most men?

More than anyone! He's the most hoodwinked! I was sort of also sending up this thing -- you find in the world today – there are absolutely reprehensible people in the world today, and you find these people who manage to turn everything upside down so the reprehensible person is the victim and all these other people are the bad people.

I've seen this in private life, too, where it's not enough to injure people; you must insult them too.

You must malign them and misrepresent them. And there's a lot of this going on in private life; there's people who sort of deprive other people of inheritances, and always have a good reason for doing it.

And we actually find that in "Sense and Sensibility," the sister-in-law who persuades the elder brother not to honor his promise to Elinor and Marianne 's father to take care of them, which sets up the predicament in "Sense and Sensibility," which in my mind is the great romantic Jane Austen adaptation – the Emma Thompson/Ang Lee "Sense and Sensibility" is a film I adore.

It doesn't sound like you're making this as a romantic comedy – comedy, yes but the romance seems to take a back seat?

Yes -- there are weddings, though. We promise weddings.

So often, any film based on a Jane Austen work is immediately classified as a chick flick.

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I know, and this thing I've been fighting because I see some of the distributors who are more sort of broad-bore, not being specific about the film, just immediately do that in default mode. And I think it sells the film short because I think definitely Jane Austen fans and women who like other romantic stories will like this. But the unique charm and interest of this film is the sort of British sketch comedy side that I think many guys will like. I think it's sort of open to both sexes, this film. A lot of guys like Oscar Wilde plays and they like Monty Python and Ricky Gervais and comedy like that.

There's one male character who has larger role in your film than in Austen's book.

In the course of making the film, the Sir James Martin character became very big, because we had a wonderfully funny British actor playing him who sort of gave flesh on the bones of the character.

This was Tom –

Tom Bennett. And we were so thrilled with what Tom Bennett was doing, I started thinking of Tom Bennett – well, Sir James Martin – scenes. There's one new Sir James Martin scene after another. I was getting up at 4 a.m to write scenes, and it really does color the film; it does make it different from the Jane Austen novella.

You were drawn to this book a long time ago. This has been more than a dozen years in the works.

Yes, although I don't want it to seem like twelve years in the salt mines. Because I think the idea with this adaptation is, it's going to take a long time to peel away the layers of epistolary and the layers of excellent material just to get to the terrific material. I think it is a funny story, particularly for people who like reading completely ludicrous footnotes, because the greatest pleasure I had were very pompous and silly footnotes throughout. If anyone likes reading footnotes, this is definitely the book for them.

There have been a lot of films of Jane Austen's work, but most of them centering on the two best-known novels, "Pride and Prejudice" and "Sense and Sensibility." It's a little outside of that realm perhaps?

It's way outside. It hasn't been adapted before and it's not much read. And I only happened to discover it when I went back to reconsider "Northanger Abbey," and I found it in the back as a sort of appendix or DVD, deleted scenes, and it's not always very well treated by critics and commentators. But I think within it is some truly funny material.

When I read it, it was as if she was channeling Oscar Wilde 80 years ahead of time. Oscar Wilde was sort of my first love as a young reader. And then I went on to love Jane Austen's wonderful, this sort of comedy coming from her. I mean, all of her books are comic. Often the comic side gets dropped in the film or television adaptations. In this case it's a kind of comedy – it's a wicked comedy, and it seems very Wildean.

You really do love Jane Austen now, but tell us about your famously bad "first date" with her, to put it that way.

I was an unprepossessing suitor because I was in a total funk, age 18, midway through my sophomore year, about to drop out of college to go to stay with my cousins in Mexico and learn Spanish.

I picked up a copy of "Northanger Abbey" and read it -- didn't like it, and didn't get it. And told everyone that Jane Austen was terrible, widely overrated, how could people praise her, etc. etc., the typical thing.

And then, finally, four or five years later I read "Sense and Sensibility" and "Pride and Prejudice" – probably my kind elder sister recommending them again. And then I went back to read "Northanger Abbey" at the end of the '90s, and I understood the parody, I understood what was happening in "Northanger Abbey," and liked it.

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But what I really loved was finding "Lady Susan" as something that was sort of an undiscovered treasure trove that I could try to mine for gems and put the gems in a film script.

Is this your way of atoning to Jane for that long-ago dissing of her?

Yes, that's partly it. that's very well put.

What is it about her writing that resonates now beyond that rom-com realm?

I think her perspective is very sane and very healthy and helpful. There are other authors I really admire and enjoy reading their books, but they sort of make you think in bad ways, not constructive ways, like Fitzgerald makes you romantic, and if you're a romantic, then you get depressed and discouraged. Balzac makes you avaricious; you want to acquire a fortune!

And Tolstoi makes you strange in terms of theological views.

And so Jane Austen not only is it delightfully entertaining and perceptive, but she sort of makes you a better person, I think. She's a really good character and she transmutes good character. She has a very profound and beautiful regard on the world, and on characters in life. And it's entertaining and admirable at the same time.

Lady Susan in the book is not Elinor in "Sense and Sensibility," this proper woman who's shocked by others' misdeeds. Today would she be a sort of "Real Housewife of the Home Counties"?

Oh yes, I think she'd be someone in Palm Beach who has landed her billionaire. People still do, I believe, marry for money and connive at interrelationships where they're going to prosper.

Now in most of Jane Austen, we think that virtue is rewarded and cynical misconduct is punished, but that's not the case for Lady Susan, is it?

No, that's not the case. I think reprobates don't always get their comeuppance. In defense of the Lady Susan Vernon character, she's out for herself, and to a lesser extent out for her family, which I don't think is very selfless, but the results she gets all end up quite positive.

In this film you have a couple of actresses you used for "The Last Days of Disco," Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny. Do you like to work with the same people?

Yes, exactly, I love that. The cinema I particularly love is the cinema of the golden age of the studios in the 1930s. One of the really nice things about it was the way teams of actors and directors and crew people worked together again and again.

Kate Beckinsale is just fantastic as Lady Susan Vernon, and Chloe Sevigny is wonderful as her coconspirator, Alicia Johnson.

And you make her an American.

Yes, I do. There wasn't that much about her background in the novella. The story lien we have is that Alicia Johnson was originally Alicia Delancey of the American Delancey family. She's one of the many prosperous, rather distinguished Tory exiles who returned to London.

You did a novelized version of "The Last Days of Disco," and now you have for this one as well. Is that the future for filmmaking, that you have companion pieces for people to read?

I hope it's not a trend. I hope there can be sort of our unique thing, our unique folly!

Jane Austen is a literary engine, an economic engine. I've heard there's a Jane Austen reality camp, and Jane Austen merchandise –

I think a lot of us who love her books hate all of that a little bit. I didn't see that film about "Austenland" or whatever it was – maybe it was very good,

But just the whole idea of exploiting her that way, I don't really like at all.

I think it sort of cheapens things and distracts from what the real attraction is. I think it's a bit worrisome when something becomes an amusement park ride.

If you were to make this as a contemporarily film, with all the bed-hopping, this would be an R-rated film.

Oh, heaven forfend! I'm so proud of my PG rating. It's my first PG rating – I'm really happy to get it.

You clutched your heart when I mentioned an R rating.

I had an experience with an R rating. I very foolishly put in scandalous images that weren't very important in our film "The Last Days of Disco," because everyone told me about all the scandalous things that went on in those days, although I never saw it, to be honest. I never saw the scandalous things.

And I saw that my daughter's young friends were not allowed to go see it because it was R rated. Our film was really directed at 15-year-old girls to give them good advice about what not to do socially. And so it pained me to have the R rating and have it omit the audience that way.

Will your name appear side by side with Jane Austen's on the cover of "Love & Friendship"?

Here -- we have it so my name is rather small, which is good. And so it has my name, "Love & Friendship, in which Jane Austen's Lady Susan Vernon is entirely vindicated."

Your name and Jane Austen's on the same book cover – isn't that a bit of a thrill of immortality?

I don't think so. I think her name is immortal, but I don't think mine is.

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