Whit Stillman is an American-born filmmaker currently living in Paris. Three of his earlier films—Metropolitan, Barcelona, and The Last Days of Disco—were recently released onto Blu-ray by the Criterion Collection. And his latest feature, Love & Friendship, opens at Boston-area movie theaters this Friday (it’s an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Lady Susan). We spoke to Mr. Stillman at the Eliot Hotel following the film’s area premiere.
STILLMAN: The facial hair deal that’s going on is cool. I was casting in Paris in 2014, and every single man had a beard, or something like one. So now I can not shave for several days, and only my girlfriend minds. What I tell her is that I can have a much closer shave after two or three days of not shaving. It’s for her pleasure. The thing is, if you let it grow really long, then it gets soft, and girlfriends don’t mind. But if it’s two days’ stubble? Oof. They’re like little javelins. Anyway, don’t put that in the article.
DIG: I’ll take this, and I’ll take the things that were said about [name of a prominent young English actress redacted] at the Q&A last night, and I can dump it all.
Can you even imagine? [An audience member] saw this film [Love & Friendship] where Kate Beckinsale plays Lady Susan, and he asks [during the Q&A] why I didn’t cast [Prominent English Actress]? I mean [Prominent English Actress] is too young, isn’t she?
It doesn’t matter if she’s literally too young, because she definitely looks too young.
Kate does too, but Kate’s exactly as described in the novel: “A young mother of 35 who looks ten years younger.” That’s Kate.
This is more stuff I can’t include in the article.
Did you ever see Barcelona? There’s a big thing about shaving in that movie. So you can include the shaving stuff. I had finally shaved last night before the screening and then shaved again for a photograph this morning. I hate shaving twice within 12 hours. Better to let it grow—36 hours, even 24 hours, is better.
Last time you were in town was for a Harvard Film Archive retrospective timed to the release of Damsels in Distress. During our interview back then we talked about a different monologue in Barcelona—the one about the pros of “dating plain people”—because it recurred in Damsels.
You’re sitting pretty if you’re well shaved and dating plain people. Unfortunately I made the other choice. My girlfriend is really pretty. But I do get dumped pretty frequently. I made The Cosmopolitans about a relationship I had in France. Did you ever see that, the pilot?
I have not.
It’s amazing how few people have seen it.
It was on Amazon, right?
It was one of those free things they do. A battle of the bands-style [competition] with five [television] pilots. We didn’t get the green light then because I couldn’t tell them the whole story for the series. I wanted to write the scripts, rather than just have an outline. But they got some deal with Geico … now I get to write the scripts.
It’s something you’re continuing to work on?
Yeah. I just switched some of my ideas over the weekend. First I had vague ideas about going in one direction, but then I had this super-exciting idea … and the super-exciting idea is just not writing itself at all. So I think I’m going back to my own sort of typical material, rather than the exciting idea.
Does that happen to you often?
Yes [emphatically]. Part of the 12-year drought [Ed. note: Stillman did not release any films between Disco in ’98 and Damsels in ’11] was spent trying to do material that other people did not think was my area, or trying to do material that actually was not my area. Sometimes something’s not your area, and other times it’s because everyone’s convinced you do one type of thing, so you never get to do anything else.
But I always say I’m in favor of typecasting actors, so the fact that I myself have been typecast is the petard self-hoisting. Do you remember that expression—”hoist by his own petard?” It’s one of my favorite expressions. I think it means you’re preparing a … I don’t know … I’ve got to look into it. I always thought it meant you were blown up by your own firecracker. But it must mean something else.
We’ll look into that.¹
It must mean when you’re on a ship, and you have those things that balance, and you’re trying to pull something up, but you end up pulling yourself up instead. I don’t know. We’ll figure it out. But see, I did this novel, and one of the joys for me of the novel—
Your Last Days of Disco novel?
No, the Lady Susan novel. The new one.
You wrote a novelization of your latest film.
I did a novel—well, a “novelization” [spoken with grave disdain], I don’t know—I did a novel version.
Excuse me, I apologize. So it’s the novel version…
The novel version of a film that was based on a novella. Exactly. This is a good interview, this is enjoyable. But the problem is that when it’s more enjoyable for us, then it’s less enjoyable for the reader.
I’m not sure that’s true. I’ll take out all the “uhs” and the “ahs” and the conversation about [Prominent English Actress] and it’ll read pretty well.
You can call her “a prominent young British actress.”
I like that. A blind item.
For me the joy of doing the Love & Friendship novel was my very foolish narrator. He’s pedantic and has lots of footnotes. So I got to do the etymologies—he loves etymologies, for all kinds of things. He didn’t get to “hoisted by his own petard,” though.
I can ask you more professional questions now, if you’d like.
“Whit Stillman: Self-hoisted by Petard.” I think that’s a solid headline.
Just to be up front, I haven’t read the Austen text that you’re film is based on. I was hoping you could introduce it.
Good! It appalls me when people think it’s a good idea to read something before seeing a film adaptation. I just got an email from a woman who is reading Lady Susan before seeing the film, and I said, “Oh no, don’t do that.” I think it’s great to read it afterwards. What were you going to ask?
Just if you could introduce your relationship with the material.
This is something racy that Jane Austen wrote before she finished her major novels. She was writing first versions of Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and what I call Love & Friendship around the same time in the 1790s. I’m using the title Love & Friendship for this tale. She used Love & Freindship [sic] for an earlier tale, and her nephew titled Lady Susan [after Austen had passed away.] In my mind, this is now Love & Friendship, and we’re just not going to talk about the misspelled story written by a 14-year-old.
This one’s a bit amoral in its suggestions, although the film has a PG. It’s about this very charming and very dominant character named Lady Susan Vernon. Her best friend is the equally icy Alicia Johnson, who’s married to the very respectable Mr. Johnson. Alicia Johnson is played by Chloe Sevigny, and has become a Tory exile from Hartford, Connecticut. Her husband threatens her with the fact that his business in “the Connecticut” is becoming so extensive that she’ll have to return to Hartford. Which she doesn’t want to do. In the original novel, the threat was to settle in a country village in England. What’s interesting about the Austen original is that it’s really funny. She didn’t complete it, so in our own way, we’ve rounded it out. Certainly not the way she would’ve done it—but the way that a huge Jane Austen fan would’ve done it, if he found himself making a film. It’s strangely like a precursor of an Oscar Wilde play.
I’ve always felt that so much of early Hollywood sound cinema—particularly comedies, but not exclusively—has its roots in a fusion between Wilde and Austen.
Yeah. 30s talk comedies are very Wildean. And even non-comedies, like Lubitsch’s Lady Windermere’s Fan. I was taking my daughter and her friend to see a film, and it was only when I got to the cinema that I saw it was a silent film. I thought, since they were 12 or 13, that they wouldn’t want to see a silent film. But they said “no, we’ll stay.” And we all loved it.
Austen’s original [Lady Susan] is her strangely channeling Wilde 80 or 90 years ahead of time. It’s also very appealing material, in that it’s guy-appealing. Not that women won’t also like it, but so much of the promotion for these films now is channeled toward the women’s audience. [Imitating a nervous producer.] “The women have got to come to see it.” And I’ve been really struggling with the British distribution, because they’ve mucked up all the promotion with these super-feminizing [materials] that distort and misrepresent the film. Because this is a Jane Austen story that really appeals to guys. In making the film, it went more that way, because we have these British sketch comedy actors coming into it, like Tom Bennett and Justin Edwards and Stephen Fry. So I think our challenge in marketing is not to attract the female audience to the Jane Austen film—I think they’re going to come, and I think they’re going to like it—but to attract their boyfriends, their husbands, and their sons. Because it’s a hoot, you know?
I think that the very concept of a cinema that exists simultaneously for both genders has been lost.
Exactly. I think that’d be a great article—how marketing people have really harmed cinema. The thing is, if you disagree with someone who’s doing bad marketing, then their fallback position is that you’re the aesthete artiste and you’ll never really like any marketing. But the thing is, I see the good marketing. What Roadside Attractions has done with the poster and the trailer is really good. They’ve gotten the essence of the film. Maybe they make it look a little “gorgeous,” which is fine.
Last night you mentioned you had taken a text written for a wedding in Boston, for use at the end of the script. I was curious about the provenance.
It’s a poem. I think his name is Henry Knox. He became General Knox. Fort Knox is named after him. So Knox was a sort of semi-orphan who interned at a book shop in Boston. And he became the owner of that book shop at a very young age. It was a very successful, and quite successful in Boston. [It was the London Book-Shop.] The big clients of the shop were British officers who were based here, but Knox was a very devoted Son of Liberty. He was Whig, rather than Tory. And he fell in love with a girl who was the daughter … she was a flower of the Tory aristocracy. So her family—which had a very funny name, you should look it up, it was like Fluker or Flucker, you know, a very embarrassing surname from our point-of-view today [Ed. note: it is Flucker]—was very wealthy, and very well connected in the colonial government. I’m not sure if there was already a break in the family when she had married him, but very quickly after the wedding, her family had to go into exile in Halifax, because the Tories left Boston first.
In this wedding was this poem. I was reading a biography of Knox, and I had to have some poem for the wedding scene. I can’t write poetry, I can’t write 18th century poetry, I can’t write love poetry. So I thought, I’ll just take this poem that was used as a toast for Knox and loyalists. It turns out to be poetical, because Alicia Johnson has become a Tory exile, just like the family of that girl. And it gave us hilarious “mien” jokes. Connecticut as a punchline and jokes about mien—you don’t get those much.
What’s the value of historical research on a project like this?
What I do is I look at all the availability. Like, if we say the film is 1793, then what kind of things could they wear? If it was 1798, what could they wear? If it was 1802, what could they wear? Austen started the composition in 1793, and she did the final clear version in 1805. There’s nothing in the novella to tell you when it is set … so we just went through and looked for something that would make our movie look good. But it’s all verifiable.
On The Last Days of Disco, I made it the last days of disco so that the clothes would look better. I went through the fashion magazines of those years just taking the things that looked good. There would be nine choices of bad disco clothes, but we’d just choose the one that looked cool. So we cheated that way—but it’s all authentic. It’s just like the characters have very precise good taste.
¹“Hoist with his own petard” is a Shakespearean idiom that indeed refers to one who blows himself up with a bomb of his own making.
LOVE & FRIENDSHIP. RATED PG. OPENS FRI 5.20 AT COOLIDGE CORNER THEATRE, AMC BOSTON COMMON, KENDALL SQUARE CINEMA, AND WEST NEWTON CINEMA.