Whit Stillman

“Do you mind if I have an orange? I’m trying to refrain from getting gout & thought some vitamin C might help.”

It’s not every day that you meet an award-winning director and he asks you to join him in eating a Satsuma, but Whit Stillman could never be described as ordinary. Known for his depiction of New York’s most elite clientele in a ‘Mansfield Park’ inspired ‘Metropolitan’, the director, producer and screenwriter visited Dublin recently to promote his latest film, ‘Love and Friendship’.

Adapted from Jane Austen’s early work in ‘Love and Freindship’ and ‘Lady Susan’, it spotlights the intelligence, wit, prowess and Machiavellian nature of a woman attempting to find a betrothal for herself and her daughter. It has been lauded by the New York Times as ‘a reminder that Austen was not only a brilliant architect of screen-friendly plots but also a very funny writer’ and by The Guardian as a tale that ‘takes some delicious modern liberties and brings the slightly inaccessible source material to the big screen with crowd-pleasing panache’.

However, Irish audiences may attain a particular kinship to the film as many of the most important scenes are framed by the backdrops of Dublin’s Parnell Square and IMMA. In addition, ‘Love and Friendship’ received €250,000 from the Irish Film Board and was produced by Katie Holly and Blinder Films. The film has opened within the top ten in the US box office and has grossed almost $3.5million thus far.

‘Love and Friendship’ is a further testament to the calibre and creativity of the Irish film industry. After ‘Brooklyn’, ‘Room’, ‘The Lobster’, ‘Viva’, ‘Sing Street’ and ‘Stutterer’ in this calendar year alone, it’s indisputable that our tiny island makes a monumental impact on a global industry and audience.

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 How would you describe yourself both personally and professionally?

That’s tough and possibly the toughest question I’ve ever been asked in my life [laughs]. How would I describe myself? To be honest, I really wouldn’t describe myself but if I was forced to do so, I would use the analogy that the adult is the child of the child. Which sounds like a paradox but as a child, we play, we imagine and if I had to describe myself, I would like to think that I am the kind of person who extends the imaginings of childhood into adulthood. I like to think that I carry that forward in both a personal and a professional capacity.

What element of childhood continues to have an impact on your work?

When I was younger, I was once told that I should be an architect but at the time, the only architecture that I was exposed to was modern architecture and I really disliked it. Thus, I decided that I didn’t want to be an architect and I never explored it any further. Taking a step back and looking at my work, an element of architecture exists. I describe working in film as being an architect of aesthetic social cohesion. In every movie, we believe that it is essential to weave in social fabric in an aesthetic and fictional way. That could be a dance sequence, music, art or any other discipline that has a way of bringing people together. Illustrating points of human contact and how that gives depth to a scene or narrative is very important to the films we make. So, even though I never ventured very far into the field of architecture, I guess you could say that I continue to be impacted by it [laughs]. 

Can you remember when you first became enamoured by the world of film?

At fifteen years of age, I found myself falling completely in love with ‘Society Girl’ which just happened to coincide with my reading of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s superbly romantic first novel, ‘This Side of Paradise’. The combination of the text and the visual brought about this tangible experience of what one could do with film and how you could move an audience. My desire to be a director was combustible.

 As regards to employment, the landscape of film is unpredictable. Often a project is not yet finished and the next contract is signed but you work quite differently and wait almost four years before releasing the next film. Why is that? 

Speaking once again of F. Scott Fitzgerald, I remember thinking about how in writing short stories, he described it as using up material that he should have been keeping for novels. I thought it was absolute nonsense, surely he could just make up some new stuff – what a cry baby! [laughs] However, now I realise his genius in that you only have a specific amount of personal material that is of interest to anyone – including yourself. Taking that time between films allowed me to excavate material that would pique my interest and that of an audience. I’m currently at a tough stage, as once again I am facing the blank page phase of creation. I’m working on a new series for Amazon and I have spent over eighteen months attempting to create a fictional world that you are interested in enough to pursue episode after episode.

How will you have to adapt your skillset to engage with a platform like Amazon, instead of more traditional outlets?

I’m not sure yet [laughs]. My prediction is that I will have to do the work twice over. My initial task will be attempting to find the story through scriptwriting, meandering between characters and the various social fabrics which we discussed earlier. Then I imagine that I will have to take that discovered narrative and re-write it so that it will fit within an episodic discipline.

Speaking of scriptwriting, with ‘Love and Friendship’, how did you balance your own artistic vision with the original material from Jane Austen’s ‘Lady Susan’?

I tried my utmost to be incredibly respectful to the source material but the screenplay required more than what was there. Jane Austen’s novella constitutes two thirds of the film and the other third is somewhat imagined but still it encapsulates the original text. It was important to us that the new edition didn’t violate the original work in any way but complemented it.

 Were you nervous about embellishing the work of Jane Austen?

I was very nervous as the primary challenge was to develop something out of nothing. The original text was written in instalments, comprised of letters to and from the protagonists. Thus, our understanding of the rest of the cast is limited to just a few passing mentions in the letters. I attempted to take small details from those documents and grow personalities, characteristics and subplots whilst simultaneously remaining respectful to the original work.

This developed in interesting ways as for example, friends and colleagues would mention that I needed to give a bigger role to Lady Susan’s daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) but in the initial writing that was very difficult and it wasn’t until I developed the comic role of Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett) that I could envision Frederica’s responses and ultimate distaste for him.

When I saw the film, I was particularly struck by how different the women and men were represented on-screen. Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny proffer the most intelligent and witty dialogue whilst the men are seen to be somewhat ridiculous, regardless of their age or social standing. Was that important to you?

Absolutely. The original text was comprised of letters, predominantly written by women to women. There are scandalous letters from Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) to her friend Ms Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny) and then there are angst-ridden letters between Catherine DeCourcy Vernon (Emma Greenwell) to her mother Lady DeCourcy (Jemma Redgrave). This rich and detailed conversation couldn’t help but imprint on the film and although there are wonderful moments with periphery characters, it is because of the letters, which are penned by women, which allow the female protagonists to ultimately shine on-screen.

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The costuming had a huge impact on the visibility of women on-screen, what direction did you give to Eimer Ní Mhaoldomhnaigh?

Eimer is an incredible costumier and together we did a lot of research surrounding the costumes tied to Jane Austen’s work. Our primary aim was to ensure that the actors looked well on-screen in the costumes. When I made ‘Last Days of Disco’, we chose costumes from those very last days as they were the most aesthically pleasing. It was the same with ‘Love and Friendship’, we deliberately selected fashions and silhouettes from the inaugural days of the Austen era. We felt the Regency era wasn’t as palatable and we preferred the tailored and bright palettes of the decades that came before it. Eimer was magnificent at bringing those images to life and it really elevated every element of the film.

I was surprised by how often I laughed at the film and initially, I was concerned that the comedy would turn into a parody of sorts. How did you avoid that?

Tom Bennett’s role of Sir James Martin was essential and offered the audience an alternate perspective as to what a Jane Austen adaption can and should look like. The novels themselves fuse comedy and a seriousness that is rooted within the era, but often when they are adapted on-screen, they focus on romanticism and a woman’s ambition to find love, rather than the complexities that surround the leading female character. Sir James Martin’s character ensures that ‘Love and Friendship’ stays on that comic plain but he’s supported by Stephen Fry and Jenn Murray.

I thought Chloe Sevigny really complimented Sir James Martin’s exaggerated silliness. Her dialogue was not as plentiful as Kate Beckinsale’s but she has a multitude of subtle looks to camera, raised eyebrows and nonchalant shrugs that brought humour to very serious scenes.

I’m so glad that you appreciate that because I have always found that Chloe effortlessly helped all of the scenes. She has a wonderful presence and I’m not sure if people really appreciate how important the listener and not just the instigator is in comedy. Chloe is the definitive listener in ‘Love and Friendship’ and many scenes would not be as potent without her.

The film centres on the friendship of two women and a number of ancillary characters but were you concerned about your ability as a male director to lead such a female-dominated film?

It wasn’t until it came time to promote the film you realised that because there were so many strong and powerful women in the cast, it was believed that we should market it by using strong pink colours on the poster and illustrate it akin to a Barbara Cartland romance novel. As a society, we have this one-dimensional view as to what interests women and what gains their attention. I was very much against that idea and wanted the imagery and marketing materials to illustrate the complexity of the female characters. I hope and I think that we achieved that but it took time and lengthy discussion to ensure that the film was presented in its current format.

The film is produced by Katie Holly of Blinder Films but it was created in conjunction with the Irish Film Board. How important was that relationship to the realisation of ‘Love and Friendship’?

The Irish Film Board is the reason why ‘Love and Friendship’ exists. They seduced me into thinking that Dublin and Ireland was the only possible location for the film. The first location scout took place in 2010 and coincided with the shooting of ‘Damsels in Distress’. A location manager for the Irish Film Board showed me the Parnell Square and various other city centre streets which could be of use. They then invited me to the Galway Film Fleadh and then introduced me to Katie Holly and Kieron Walsh of Blinder Films. Three years later, Katie and Kieron came to me and presented the most exquisite stately homes and locations which would ground the film in authenticity and beauty. There was no possible way that I could say no and honestly, it would probably be a completely different movie without Blinder Films and the Irish Film Board. 

 As regards to your career, what do you envision it might entail over the next decade?

 Firstly, I hope that ‘Love and Friendship’ is well received as it’s psychologically uplifting but apart from that, I hope that I’m fortunate to continue to work in the industry, to continue to be healthy and to continue to live [laughs].

‘Love and Friendship’ opened in Irish cinemas on Friday May 27th.

Written by

Sinéad Burke is an academic and a writer with an obsessive interest in fashion, education and 'Extraordinary Women'. She is an ambassador for the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the National Women's Council of Ireland.

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