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Love & Friendship sees Jane Austen find a perfect modern counterpart in expert social chronicler Whit Stillman, himself once dubbed the "Jane Austen of New York filmmakers" by Margaret Pomeranz. Adapted from her unfinished epistolary novella Lady Susan, Stillman's latest film reunites his Last Days of Disco co-stars Kate Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny, transplanting them from the mean streets of New York to the opulent manors of 18th-century British high society.
Far from the dutiful, buttoned-up stuffiness you might expect from an Austen adaptation, Love & Friendship is delightfully outrageous, with a buoyant style and devilish wit that recalls the great comedies of Hollywood's Golden Age. At its core is a cracking lead performance by Kate Beckinsale as attractive young widow Lady Susan, "the most accomplished flirt in all of England", an expert manipulator of uncommon charm.
Where in the world are you at the moment?
I'm living in Paris, so that's where I am. I used to sell Spanish films to SBS.
Oh, great! Back when you were a foreign sales agent?
Yeah, that's how I broke into film. I wanted to make films, but my first way in was to sell Spanish films, and SBS was one of our best customers.
Of course. So I saw Love & Friendship a few weeks ago at the Sydney Film Festival...
How did that go?
It was great! It was in a grand old art deco cinema, one of Sydney's oldest theatres, with a packed audience who clearly loved the film. How does it feel to have the film so well received?
It's been great, because I think it's the second time I've had a film that sort of pulls itself, it sort of has its own velocity. So my first film Metropolitan, and then this film.
What in particular drew you to Lady Susan?
Well, I'd always been interested in Jane Austen and I did the first three films, they were the only things in my life that were a bit cinematic, I thought. So, I thought I'd just write tonnes of original scripts and stories, and then went in sort of using experiences I knew about, and moments I'd lived, that seemed of some interest cinematically. But after the three films I sort of realised I'd come to the end of the road. I was looking for things to adapt and work on and I had, you know, different projects, different stories. I was living in Paris and trying to set them up out of England, and a lot of those things are difficult where there are a lot of people involved and you've sort of optioned a novel and it has to be done within two years or you lose the rights or have to buy the book.
In that period of sort of struggling within the film system, even if it were the UK film system, I discovered Lady Susan. I thought, "This is wonderful, this hasn't been done, I didn't know about this. It's really funny, it's her sort of channeling Oscar Wilde." It seemed like a really unlikely project, it was not fully completed in her terms, and you know, sure, an epistolary. But I showed it around to theatrical friends to see if there was a dramatisable story in there, and they thought it was promising. So I started working on it, a little with the idea that it would take a long time to see if it could be dramatised into a film. And, immediately I discovered there was another competing project, which terrified me because I've had that before with Last Days of Disco, there had been a film called 54 that was our nemesis.
Oh, I've seen it. It's nothing on Last Days of Disco.
We were worried about them coming out first, so we had to rush everything, which was a struggle, and I didn't want to get into that situation. Anyway, so fortunately that project seemed not to move forward or disappear and I was left with almost unlimited time to go back and forth on the script, working on it, and it seemed in pretty good shape right before I cut the green light to do Damsels in Distress. But I put it aside to do Damsels and went back to it and brought it out at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. And then it started getting some real momentum, we started casting very good people, and casting people in London, and also in Los Angeles. And then I had the opportunity to do this pilot for Amazon. But that was good because it gave me the chance to work with Chloe Sevigny, and ask her to be in the film, and see other people through the casting for The Cosmopolitans. We found Emma Greenwell, who plays Catherine, and finally the film was up and running.
One of the casting coups was getting Xavier Samuel, because one of the things I've found and a lot of other directors have found, it's very hard finding good romantic leading men. It's really difficult – I think Woody Allen has talked a lot about this. Xavier was the only person I thought who could play Reginald De Courcy, and that was an important milestone for us.
So Kate Beckinsale's Lady Susan kind of reminded me of Claudette Colbert in The Palm Beach Story, or The Smiling Lieutenant, even, this kind of diabolical but very likable villain.
I can't remember The Smiling Lieutenant, is that Lubitsch?
Yes, Lubitsch, it's one of his early musicals with Maurice Chevalier.
Aha. I think I've seen it. Yeah, definitely, I love that character in The Palm Beach Story. Yes, it's true that Preston Sturges liked that kind of character, didn't he? Because Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve is a bad person also.
Yes, but very likable in the same charming way that Lady Susan is in your film. Do you think there could have been a Golden Age of Hollywood version of Love & Friendship?
I don't know, I suppose so. They would normally put this kind of story in a present-day setting. I'm not sure what they would have done with a period setting. But actually, Kate and I are both very interested in doing a '30s flavoured film, so I think you're right that those could be inspirations.
I've heard you describe your films as "comedies of identities" rather than "comedies of manners"...
Well yes, so a lot of the films were crossroads films, where people were at some sort of crossroads in their life, and I suppose it's true of Lady Susan too, since she's left without a home and without a husband and without money, and she must find some way forward for herself and Frederica. But in the other cases, it has been people when they're sort of forming their identities through romance and through group affiliation. They're all crossroad moments, like, "Who are my real friends?" and "Who do I want to be with?"
I think in romantic films, or films with a romantic element, what's interesting is how people define themselves by whom they choose to be with. You see it a lot in geography, a lot of the stories of the expats in Europe, there's some sort of romantic story behind their being in Europe. There's some love affair or aspiration of a romantic relationship which has brought them out of their element.
Your films have really wonderful soundtracks. I know you've worked with the same composer in all your films, Mark Suozzo. Could you tell me a bit about your process of working with him?
Well he's a wonderful collaborator, and sometimes we have other collaborators involved. So this time we had Benjamin Esdraffo, as well as a whole long list of great composers of the past, and with Last Days of Disco he had to put up with a lot of disco music. One of the things Mark did in Last Days of Disco, I'm not sure if everyone's aware of it, is that he took a song called "Doctor's Orders" by Carol Douglas, and we were using it at the beginning of the movie. So it starts with her actual song, and then it becomes score – he made this seamless bridge in the music and then it goes back to her song, but it intertwines with the film's score. So he's incredibly capable musically and in this project he was musical director.
I think one of the things we do differently than other people is generally we have all the music in a preliminary form while we're editing, we don't edit and then add music. We add music as we're editing and edit to the music. Everything is coordinated and synced. You can see it with the front credits in Love & Friendship, that every line is coordinated with the music, with the graphics as they appear. I found it incredibly important in editing, in the flow of a movie, that the music and the cuts synchronise. And then Mark is amenable to that, I mean I think there are composers who just get a finished film and then compose the music to go with that. I think it must be a very scary process for the director at the last minute, you know, finding out what the music is.
With regards to the titles, you worked with Teddy Blanks, is that right?
Yes, this is the third time I've worked with Teddy. He's been great doing the graphics. Do you know about him?
Yes, I've seen his work in Alex Ross Perry's films, he does his titles as well.
Oh really? Teddy's a multi-talent, he's all over the place, I hope he sticks with the graphics and doesn't go off and do too many other things.
So, back to Lady Susan, it's not one of Jane Austen's best known works. I thought that was a good way of escaping the trap of having to "do justice" to a much loved classic...
Yes, that's another positive aspect. It definitely needed some rounding out and fiddling with it, because it wasn't all there. You know, in an epistolary novel you only have what people write to each other. And if people don't write letters, and maybe Sir James Martin couldn't write letters, they don't fully exist as a character. So Sir James Martin isn't quite fully described, what exactly he's saying and doing is left to us to fill in. Similarly, the conversations between Reginald and Lady Susan when she's seducing him. It's described that she's walking around in the gardens with him, but it's not specified what they say. While the dialogues between the female characters, the female leads, both on the scandalous side of Alicia and Lady Susan, and the virtuous side of Lady De Courcy and Catherine, those come from the letters, and it's kind of like shuffling a deck of cards with several letters forming several scenes.
You turned it into a novel after you completed filming, is that correct?
Yes, I had the contract to do the novel very early, and I was supposed to prepare it from the script before I started shooting and let them have it so they could bring it out in good time. But I didn't, I was too busy before I shot, so I started working on it after picture lock. And I was glad I did, because the Sir James Martin character had become very important, there were a lot of new scenes. And this sort of Martin voice got into my head. So it's all written from the point of view of Sir James Martin's nephew, Rufus Martin-Colonna, and he's quite peculiar in his point of view. He's defending his aunt and uncle and turning everything around. So it's a bit of a game, the novel, but it worked out and it's considered funny and people enjoy it. He's quite a comical character.
And to satisfy anyone who's worried about losing everything in the Jane Austen original, we include that, we include the full text of the Jane Austen original, as a sort of appendix, as a block of evidence which he comments on. So if people want to see the difference between the film's story, or the Rufus Martin-Colonna story, and the actual spinster authoress story, it's all there to be found. It's a two-for-one, it's actually a three-for-one offer. The novel's a very good deal. It's published, I think the edition you'll get in Australia is from Jane Austen's publishers, so the John Murray press were the publishers for her last books and they're also the publisher for our novel.
Thank you, it's such an honour speaking with you.
Thanks for taking the time.
Watch 'Love And Friendship' at SBS on Demand