One of my favorite films at this year’s Sundance Film Festival was writer-director Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship. The film reunites Stillman with his The Last Days of Disco stars Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny, and it’s based on the Jane Austen novella, Lady Susa. Set in the 1790s, the film centers on beautiful widow Lady Susan Vernon (Beckinsale) who has come to the estate of her in-laws to wait out rumors about her romances circulating through society. While there, she decides to secure a husband for herself and her rather reluctant debutante daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark). Love & Friendship also stars Xavier Samuel, Emma Greenwell, Tom Bennett and Stephen Fry.
Unlike a lot of protagonists in Austen novels, what’s great about Lady Susan is that she’s a selfish and scheming woman who subverts the standards of the romantic novel. Combine her attitude with Beckinsale’s fantastic performance and Stillman’s exceptional dialogue, and you’re left with a really fun movie that is sure to please both fans of Stillman and Austen.
Shortly before the world premiere at Sundance, I sat down with Stillman for an exclusive interview. He talked about his history with Sundance, how he’s been trying to make Love & Friendship for a long time, his first cut, getting the financing together, his relationship with Amazon, the status of his Amazon series The Cosmopolitans, Criterion’s upcoming Barcelona Blu-ray and a box set of his first three films, and a lot more. Check out what he had to say below and make sure to see Love & Friendship when Roadside Attractions releases it later this year in theaters. You can also read Matt’s review here.
Collider: Starting with the most basic thing, when did you know you were getting into Sundance?
WHIT STILLMAN: They saw it the Monday after Halloween. And it was really quick. A week or two into November.
It was real fast.
STILLMAN: Real fast, it seemed to me.
I apologize for not knowing, but how many of your other films have played Sundance?
STILLMAN: This is my second film here. So, I had Metropolitan premiered here 26 years ago exactly today and now, this film.
What do you remember about premiering back then?
STILLMAN: I remember everything. Sundance had only established itself as a big thing the year before with Sex, Lies and Videotape. So there was a really good session in 1989. We were the year after the cool class. Metropolitan did really well in the festival that year. I guess it did the best of all the films in the festival, but it sort of didn’t help us in a way. What everyone said was, “It’s not Sex, Lies and Videotape.” That was the definitive word on it, so no one wanted to buy it because it wasn’t that film. I think I only sold Canada out of here. So we had to sort of struggle to get into the New Directors/New Films in New York and the Directors Fortnight in Cannes to really launch the film.
It’s sort of radical to think about Sundance then and now. What does it mean for you after this much time, making a few films, to be back at Sundance with a big premiere and a big theater.
STILLMAN: Well, I had a few other stops between then and now. I was here in ‘95 on the jury, and Tom DeCillo’s Living in Oblivion played here. There were other good films we gave awards to. Then I came back with Metropolitan as a retrospective in 2010 with all the actors, which was very fun. So I’d seen the evolution. It was quite surprised about how much it had grown between ‘90 and ‘95. The indie film boom, a little bit.
It used to be all these movies that played between 1990 and 2010, a lot of them were lost in the wilderness. Now, almost all of them can do VOD, so in terms of indie filmmaking getting your work seen —
STILLMAN: I would say on the other side of the equation that there were really some massive sales and massive enthusiasm for some films that were given big releases. And I’m not really sure that happens in quite the same way, small films getting big releases. Maybe it still does, I don’t know.
It’s very selective. For example, Sleeping with Other People.
STILLMAN: But that must be a pretty expensive film. It’s a Will Ferrell production, no?
Maybe it was 5 or 10 million, I don’t really know. The point is though, big hit out of Sundance, and doesn’t do anything at the box office. Another film that really performed was Brooklyn, which is now up for best picture. But I suppose we’re getting off here. I want to talk about your film. You’ve been working on this project for a very long time.
STILLMAN: It’s the off and on project. This is my back pocket project, the thing that gave me a lot of pleasure. I worked on it by myself, then there was a young producer in London who began to help, but I stayed working on this. Essentially alone all these years, I would show it to certain casting agents, and they really liked it but I couldn’t help but think it wasn’t quite ready. Cannes 2013, that was where I really presented it. The time the Amazon pilot bought us was really helpful in terms of setting up production, getting the different financing pieces together, all that. And then, when we started doing the casting and dealing with the actors doing scenes, I’d gotten into the habit of doing more new writing and new material and changing stuff as we shot or got close to shooting. So something I’ve felt I’ve learned with The Cosmopolitans shoot is using some agility and changing things quickly. That’s something I found really useful on this shoot too. The gestation of The Cosmopolitans and this are slightly different from my other films. The script would be done and I’d be cutting it, but I wasn’t always writing new material.
For people who don’t know much about the movie and the story, can you give a log line?
STILLMAN: I can. It’s derived from something Jane Austen wrote when she was quite young, when she was about 18. We feel as though she might have been revising until she was 28 because that’s the manuscript that we have. She probably was preparing for publication at some point, but followed other things for a while – who knows if she would have published it, but she was struck down with the cancer. It seems to us that it was sort of too funny and too silly and too malicious for her adult self to really want to spend more time with; she went into a more pious, moralistic education mode in her romantic stories. This is really comic and kind of immoral in a lot of aspects, in the original material. This is about Lady Susan Vernon, a beautiful, brilliant, charming, and principled woman, and Kate Beckinsale plays her. She has a best friend who is Alicia Johnson, married to the very respectable Mr. Johnson, who’s played by Stephen Fry; Chloe [Sevigny] plays Alicia Johnson. Chloe and I have some Connecticut background. With me, its like 100 years ago, and for her, its more recent, and we thought it would be funny to have her character be an American Tory exile after the Revolution. The prosperous Americans who sided with the crown, they were essentially exiled back to England. Some went to Halifax, Nova Scotia, the Carribbean, and some went back to London. Lady Susan has a daughter, Federico, who is really quite young, a 17-year-old schoolgirl, and her mother intends to find a rich husband for her daughter. On the hunt, she finds this man, the brother of her sister in law, Reginald DeCoursey, who she looks over and has fall in love with her. All those elements going towards the conclusion.
I have not read the novel.
STILLMAN: Nor should you, because I am going to save you that trouble. Because I’m writing the novel of our movie.
From what she wrote to what people are going to see on screen, how much is what she wrote?
STILLMAN: Tons. It’s tons of what she wrote. I love Jane Austen. There’s tons of Jane Austen material, but I had to add some extra characters.
How long was your first cut versus what people are going to see?
STILLMAN: I have a really good relationship with the editor, and I was cutting as we were shooting, and cutting scenes we didn’t think were necessary. It was always very short. It was a really tight, short shoot and a really tight film. If you’ve got a light comedy, you don’t want to go too long.
Talk about landing funding for this film. Was it an easy financing thing or a constant struggle?
STILLMAN: It seemed deceptively easy at the start. Immediately, we had a really good company who was really keen on it, and I think, frankly, they made a mistake by not pursuing it. They became very difficult in regards to the star casting, very opinionated, and so we were sort of left, after quite a number of months, having to piece it together ourselves. But all these things that seem frustrating at the time turn out to be silver lining land. It gave us tons of time to do the casting. The Cosmopolitans came up and Colin Jones, who had been working on the casting for Love & Friendship, also signed on to do the European casting of The Cosmopolitans. Through the European casting of that we found some of the people we needed [for Love & Friendship]. The lovely Emma Greenwell, who plays the moral antithesis, the heroine – in a normal story, she’d be the heroine and Lady Susan would be the anti-heroine. I saw her for The Cosmopolitans casting and then asked if she could read for Love & Friendship. At the same time, I saw that the best place to shoot the film was in Dublin for many reasons: authentic 18th century British houses, small-scale Georgian towns, etc. The enthusiasm from the Irish Film Board – they were incredibly helpful. Also, there were great crews who are always doing these period films, know how to work economically. I think the film looks massively more expensive than the budget. We pieced it together using both the European Artistic film co-production model and the American indie film model. We had a really good French co-producer that brought in the Arte network, a lot of contribution from France, a lot of contribution from Ireland, and lot of contribution from the Netherlands. And then I called up my Metropolitan investors. And my Metropolitan investors came to the rescue; it was really heroic. They all came in with substantial investments. I think that people working on the production were amazed to see the money just flow right in.
This is not the norm.
STILLMAN: It was really inspiring. That money flowing in was friend money from the states and some from Europe. Hard is the non-friend money from these other entities.
Right now, does someone have the American rights?
STILLMAN: Yes, so it’s a combo deal. Ted Hope came to Cannes and saw the promo there and we started negotiating with them. We had a lot of offers in Cannes; they wanted to buy it from the promo. And Amazon kind of just wanted to take it off the table. My investors think I should have held out for Sundance, but I just thought, I have to cover my budget and my friends. I wanted to work with Amazon, that’s a good thing. I’ve been slow on The Cosmopolitans scripts because of [Love & Friendship]. They really like Roadside, and Roadside really liked it, so they agreed to come in with Amazon and do it jointly. Roadside really wants to make it a big deal theatrical release. The theory some people have is that they had a good release with Love & Mercy last year and that they could save money on the first half of the title because it’s Love & Friendship. And they could recycle all that “Love &”.
That’s funny. I’m a big believer in partnering up with the best person even if it means less money because in the long run, Amazon and Netflix are going hard at filmmakers because they are really pushing into feature films. Having a partner like Amazon is not a bad thing.
STILLMAN: I don’t think I should mention [Amazon and Netflix] in the same breath, I really think they’re doing things quite different. [Amazon is] giving much more theatrical space. I’m not sure that’s true with Netflix in every case. I can’t talk about their model, but I think the Amazon model and the Roadside Attractions input is really different. It’s really been great with the re-release of Metropolitan because I get to see my distributor friends and I get to ask them whom they like and they say “Roadside Attractions.” They love Roadside Attractions. So I get that word from above and from the ground.
What’s up with The Cosmopolitans?
STILLMAN: I explained to Amazon that I don’t like outlining or projecting what something’s going to be. I like to allow a story to arise as I’m writing scripts. I find it horrible when I try to think of something for the plot without really being on the ground and seeing where it goes. I was really resistant to do the mini-bible. So I gave them something, but I really didn’t want to do it that way. They also knew about the film, so they commissioned six scripts for the first season that they were going to let me postpone until I finished this film, which is now. So in ten days, we’ll be full on with that. It’s been really good because I think I was waiting for the idea I really want, and I think I have that now. It’s not exactly Paris, it’s a European idea. So it will be Chloe and Adam Brody. We’ll keep the pilot, that’s part of the story, but we’ll be going a different place with it.
I have to ask. How much with what’s going on in Europe right now, how much does that play into what you’re thinking about? If I remember correctly, there was some talk in the pilot of issues.
STILLMAN: There really isn’t that much. The dilemma would be: do we insert things in the pilot? I prefer thinking of the pilot as its own Saturday afternoon/Saturday evening piece. I think it’s a little irrational to think that these are people not doing anything because we’re showing them Saturday afternoon and Saturday night.
There are a shitload of people in Paris doing exactly what you’re portraying in that show.
STILLMAN: Yeah, seven days, 24/7. But in this case, it was Saturday. So give me a break if they’re not in their offices.
That never entered into my thought process?
STILLMAN: That’s because you’re a rational person with a sense humor. (laughs)
I often wonder when I go to a coffee shop in L.A., Tuesday at noon to rush in to get a cup of coffee and there are 50 people just hanging out, I wonder what life are they living. I have to talk to you about the Criterion news. I am overjoyed that Barcelona is finally going to get a Blu-Ray release, with a box set of the first three films, talk a little about how that came about and your involvement in the box.
STILLMAN: Well, I’ve always really wanted them to do Barcelona and I dreamed of having a box set. They haven’t been against it at all, but I knew that the Warners had a different policy toward licensing out than other studios. Barcelona was put on a list that allowed Criterion to license it out. We’re both so thrilled that Warners let it through.
How much is there new assets that people have never seen? How much is it that will be released on Blu-Ray?
STILLMAN: I’m not sure how many rabbits they can pull out of a hat. I’m not sure if it’s a Warners edition or New Line Edition. I guess it was Warners, which was a pretty good edition: a good commentary track, a lot of add-ons, etc. So, I mean, they’re cooking up all kinds of stuff, but I’m not sure what will finally get in. They’ve commissioned an essay and they’re licensing some exciting things but I’m not sure what the final mix will be.
How long ago did you know the box set was coming before it was announced to the public?
STILLMAN: You’re questioning my Twitter discipline. Almost a year or nine months? People were whining and complaining about it so I let a few things go. I think there was a Los Angeles screening of Metropolitan where I was asked about it and I said something because I think by then it was close enough. I thought they would be announcing it in November.
I got the email about a week ago, and they said it was coming out in April.
STILLMAN: Yeah, that was really tight. My friend in Paris was working on the drawings and they announced it like a day after they got the drawings. They must have been waiting on those drawings.
Are there other feature ideas that have been percolating with you, or is it, “I’m totally devoting to The Cosmopolitans?”
STILLMAN: I definitely have other projects I want to do. I’m totally devoted to The Cosmopolitans but it’s in their hands, they have to decide if they want to do it or not. We have to assemble all the people. But I do have my projects so I’ve got plenty of stuff to do.
Love & Friendship is expected to see release through Amazon and Roadside Attractions later in 2016.