Whit Stillman loves powerful women

Interview: Whit Stillman on Love & Friendship

The American filmmaker creates a fine comic weave using Jane Austen’s material, Kate Beckinsale’s sharp talents and his unique sense and sensibility for social satire

By Katherine Monk

“I really enjoy dominant, manipulative women. I find them very entertaining,” says Whit Stillman, his tone so matter-of-fact, it almost makes you laugh.

Then again, that’s his charm. The director of Metropolitan, Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco built a reputation as a cunning social satirist in the ‘90s for plucking the veil off human vanity to show us the pimples of truth. He also showed a preference for using powerful, insightful and somewhat self-absorbed females as the dainty hand behind his narrative tatting.

It’s the reason why his latest endeavor, Love & Friendship, feels like such a natural stitch in Stillman’s oeuvre: It’s based on the work of Jane Austen, the godmother of social satire, a pioneer of female representation and one of Stillman’s longtime heroes.

“I love Jane Austen. And I had been reading Austen that hadn’t been turned into films yet, and I saw this [novella Lady Susan] and it just seemed so funny, and I had this crazy idea to start developing it,” says Stillman.

At the time, Stillman was still on his unplanned hiatus from filmmaking—the result of moving to Paris after wrapping his “trilogy of mannerlessness” with The Last Days of Disco in 1998. He thought it would be easy to develop scripts in Europe. He was wrong. For years, his career sat idle on the tracks until 2011, when he fired up the creative boiler with Damsels in Distress, a college-set comedy starring Greta Gerwig.

Stillman didn’t talk about the Austen idea back then. He cared about the project too much. He didn’t want to rush it.

“It was written in this 18th century epistolary form of letters to each other, and it was so un-dramatized. But everything they were saying in the letters seemed so funny — and so [the screenwriting process] was turning these letters into conversations and scenes and action, and I decided that this should be a project that shouldn’t be rushed,” he says.

“I should take my own time. And so, over years… I worked on this. Finally, it seemed good enough to take out and show people. But this was early work for Austen. She wrote it when she was young and kept working on theme for many years, but at the same time, she’s writing the first versions of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice — they were all in this epistolary form and she changed them into modern novels and published. But this one, Lady Susan, she kept in original manuscript form, and her nephew published it several years later. It was quite a find, because I think it’s very funny material. I think all her material is funny, but the emphasis here is different.”

I think it’s very funny material. I think all [Austen] material is funny…

Featuring Kate Beckinsale as the central plot-mover Lady Susan, Love & Friendship features zippy repartee, stunning period recreations, pitch-perfect performances and gently subversive class commentary as we watch a wily widow attempt to secure a future for herself and her daughter by manipulating the gullible boys and men around her.

“I think we are a little softer on Lady Susan than the novella. I think the novella is a little cooler towards her than we are… I think we give a pass to this kind of reprobate character because we are sort of amused by her and enjoy the eccentricity. Although her intentions are dishonorable, the results are quite positive for almost all the characters.”

There’s no doubt Love & Friendship flirts with tragedy as Lady Susan plays puppeteer with the male libido, but thanks to Beckinsale’s performance and Stillman’s gentle tone, even the most egocentric actions land softly as comedy.

“Sometimes, it’s better not to be fully aware of what’s going on. I think that because it’s funny and sort of cheerful, and there’s a bit of a wink, people can access this Lady Susan character… even if she is manipulative.”

For Stillman, the Harvard grad who worked as a journalist before making Metropolitan at the age of 37, dominant, over-bearing women are what make the world go around.

“You know, sometimes it’s good to be manipulated. It’s good to have someone lay down the rails that we’re going to roll on.”

I tell Stillman he must have a happy and successful marriage and the 63-year-old laughs. “I wouldn’t want to wade so far into it… but I do appreciate people who know what they want.”

Certainly, Lady Susan knows what she wants, and watching her plot and cajole her way to success is a giddy pleasure.

“I’m interested in observing how people are so easily swayed — the eagerness of people to accept a lie,” says Stillman.

Humans are experts at selective denial, but the truth eventually wriggles free at some point, and that’s where Stillman tends to set up his camera – capturing the awkward moment of self-knowledge as it crawls up the pant-leg of each character to deliver a sting.

I’m interested in observing how people are so easily swayed — the eagerness of people to accept a lie…

The resulting social embarrassment has been characterized as “a comedy of manners,” but Stillman hates that term. He’ll accept “comedy of mannerlessness” to describe his Metropolitan-Barcelona-Last Days of Disco trilogy, but these days, he says the whole definition of the word “manners” has been distorted.

“The word manners has changed meaning in our times. It’s associated with Emily Post and which fork to use and how to fold a napkin,” says Stillman.

“Stephen Fry, in an interview he gave for our film, talked about the root of that — which is the Latin word mores, or morals. So they are really comedies of morals, and that, I understand.”

Stillman says he sees his films as “identity comedies” – “people are trying to form their identity, and part of their identity is their romantic identity, like the partner they chose to be with.”

The fact that Stillman even approaches characters as layered, multi-dimensional and flawed makes him a bit of a throwback in these days of franchises, logos and merchandizing licenses. It’s also what makes Love & Friendship feel so fresh as it recaptures the first wave of American independent cinema that brought Stillman his first brush of fame in the 1990s.

“I was inspired to create by the whole independent film scene. John Sayles did the Seacaucus Seven, Jim Jarmusch did Stranger Than Paradise, Spike Lee did She’s Gotta Have It. In Spain, there was Fernando Trueba, and in Glasgow, you had Bill Forsyth. I feel part of that tradition,” he says.

“These little films created a space for me to work in, and not just me, but the people who came after. Like when I was dead in the water in terms of my career, the fact that these guys had done Mumblecore films successfully with very limited resources inspired me to do Damsels in Distress… and work with people like Greta Gerwig.”

Stillman says it’s hard to keep at it, but it’s important to assert a different worldview when the status quo has become so cruel, so cold, and so grotesquely violent.

“I don’t see it. I can’t watch the violence,” says Stillman. “We did a bit of violence in Barcelona, there was a shooting… and I’m looking at some scripts now with some violence, but I don’t like to show too much. It’s there and the consequences are there but I don’t like to wallow in it or be too graphic.”

Stillman says he’s still scarred by some of the graphic gore he’s witnessed over the years.

“I will never watch any movie by Gaspar Noé. I found Irreversible to be a horror. A true horror. I lasted five minutes and decided I never wanted to see anything like it again. So I am really disqualified for being on any festival jury – you see 18 films and four of them will be horrifying,” he says.

I will never watch any movie by Gaspar Noé. I found Irreversible to be a horror. A true horror.

“And two-thirds of the way through Goodfellas, the line was crossed. I felt something I didn’t ever want to experience again. Then, in Silence of the Lambs… I spent most of my time lurking in the restrooms. So, I can’t do it. And even when I had this period where I wasn’t doing much of anything, I’d be offered scripts, but they were too R-rated for me.”

Somewhat ironically, Kate Beckinsale has anchored ultra-violent genre franchises such Underworld and Van Helsing, but Stillman says she was always the first choice for Lady Susan.

“Colin Jones in London said the right person to cast as Lady Susan is Kate Beckinsale, and having cast Kate Beckinsale in Last Days of Disco, I was pleased with his judgment,” says Stillman.

“She was well-prepared for Last Days of Disco, and even more prepared and more brilliant now. I sometimes gave her revised dialogue in the makeup chair and she had command of it by the time we hit the set. She’s a total pro – and because of her, we even finished a day early.”

Love & Friendship opens across 900 screens in North America Friday.

THE EX-PRESS, May 26, 2016


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