Although Love & Friendship benefits from Austen’s sharp satire and clever observations, this is still very much a Stillman film, reveling in the humour of what he calls, “upper class twits.” Stillman discusses setting the tone, the importance of words, and the music in the film.
Love & Friendship, Whit Stillman’s screen adaptation of Jane Austen’s comic juvenilia novella, Lady Susan, is an absolute delight. Kate Beckinsale corruscates as the brilliantly scheming Lady Susan, a widow with no fortune, forced to trespass on the kindness of others as she sets up her daughter (and possibly herself) with a wealthy husband. Beckinsale was born to play this role, lobbing witticisms and social judgements with speed and verbal dexterity. If there’s any justice in the world, she’s already got Best Actress locked down, and it’s only May.
Although Love & Friendship benefits from Austen’s sharp satire and clever observations, this is still very much a Stillman film, reveling in the humour of what he calls, “upper class twits.” After premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in January, it opened the San Francisco International Film Festival in April, where I sat down with Stillman to discuss the film.
7R: There’s a lot of verbal and visual wit in Love and Friendship. It announces itself at the beginning the way you show the titles. How did you think about creating that tone from the start?
WS: It’s amazing how important something is in the film that wasn’t anticipated and wasn’t in the script. It wasn’t in the script in that form. We had a script we were showing around. People said, “You know, it’s hard to keep track of all these characters. You really should have things in the front matter to help people.” So I put together a cast of characters, a dramatis personae, in the reading script, in which I took Jane Austen’s little phrases about people like “Sir James Martin: A bit of a ‘rattle’” and his function. I’d written that in the reader’s copy. It wasn’t in the script the actors were working with.
I was at that location to do the big first shot with the crane, one of those complicated shots that could take forever to get. A lot of time had been alotted for it. Then, we got it in the third take. It was like, “fantastic, we’re done.” It was two hours to lunch. We had all the actors there looking great, and so I thought, “let’s get more stuff. We’re here. Let’s get portraits of each one.” So I went and got Manwaring, Lady Manwaring, Sir James Martin — got them all. Two days later, I go to the editing room, and I see this magnificent opening with the crane shot: Susan comes out of a mansion, and then the majestic music, it’s super dramatic, and then BOOM, Lord Manwaring, a divinely handsome man, and Boom Boom Boom, all these portraits.
What happened was the editor just gets the material, doesn’t know exactly what I’m doing. She took the personae descriptions from the reading copy, not from the shooting script, and put them in there with the great music. I was like, “OK, this is great. Let’s do this everywhere.” So every new location we went to, we did those shots for everyone.
7R: The other time you have text onscreen is when you’re reading the letters. Was that scripted?
WS: I think that came in another back drawer way. I had the joke towards the end about “mien”, the ancient, anachronist word for visage, and I had this whole material for Sir Reginald DeCourcey in conversation with Charles Vernon. I thought, “No one is going to know this word they said unless they see it.” So we put the poem up on the screen while he’s reciting it.
When we’d done that, I said, “Let’s try that with the letter, too.” There are little things about that that are funny, like the punctuation. And then, also, when [Sir Reginald Decourcy] reads that [his son] is having conversations with Lady Susan, conversations which are “long”, and we see “long”, which is a very short word actually. That was funny.
It’s good you point this out. Those were the two moments when you see this is really a comedy. You see the point of view. And you see it’s not going to be a classic Austen adaptation. It’s going to be a different kind of fish.
7R: Can you tell me how you conceived of the sound and score?
WS: I love Baroque music. Baroque is earlier than this period, but I think it’s OK to use things up through this period. So there’s a lot of earlier music and some contemporary music.
It’s a struggle to find all the right music that will work. The editor Sophie Corra is very good with it. She and I worked a lot to get a lot of pieces. I’d try to find stuff I loved and see if it would work. A music expert, a friend of our co-producer in Paris, he came in, and we had lunch with him. We showed him the cut we had. He sent us just tons of different music. He’s an expert on French music. So we listened to all that. A lot of the French music got in. He’s actually started a foundation that tries to get French music exposed more. So we had all these pieces from period.
We had a composer in Paris, Benjamin [Esdraffo], who did the title, the harp theme, at the very beginning, and another piece. And my composer friend Mark Suozzo, who’s the musical director and is responsible for all the music, he wrote some pieces. Then, we showed Mark the final edited film with all these different pieces from all the different composers, including him and Benjamin. It’s great cooperating again with Mark Suozzo. We’ve done every project together — five features and a TV pilot.
7R: There’s a lot of great gags where you’re juxtaposing sound offscreen. The scene with pouring the tea and the wailing in the background they’re just completely ignoring.
WT: I hope people take it in the right spirit. There’s a lot of cruelty in the movie.
7R: How do you think about expanding this novella in the spirit of Jane Austen’s witticisms?
WT: I didn’t want to force it. People originally said, “Oh, Frederica has to be bigger. More Frederica. Frederica is the key.” Initially, I didn’t really get any ideas for Frederica. I didn’t think she needed to be the key. She was the MacGuffin, the objective, the plaything, the badminton shuttlecock. But she didn’t have to be that enormous in the story.
Then the Sir James Martin character and the Charles Vernon character started getting bigger and giving a male counterpoint to the women. At the end of the day, I did find quite a lot of material for Frederica, so her part did get bigger. I really liked the actress. Whenever possible, I would just shoot her reading Cooper’s poems by the fire. We used every single one of those shots. Here we are in the corridor waiting for one of the leading actors, we’re all set up, waiting for them to get their hair down. Walk up and down the corridor. Every little shot we shot that way got in the film.
7R: The dialogue moves at such a quick pace, witticism after witticism. How does that affect how you’re cutting and letting the scenes play out?
WS: In our first film, Metropolitan, I remember the editor commenting on the first cast and crew screening. He said, “All the laughs were on the reaction shots.” There were no laughs on the lines, only on the reaction shots. It’s very weird laughs when they come. In the pea scene, which I thought was just hilarious when I thought of it, people don’t actually laugh during the pea scene. They laugh when Charles Vernon says how interesting Sir James’ conversation is. That’s where the laugh comes in.
There’s something that kills me, which is I added something in the sound edit that killed a laugh. In the wedding sequence, I used to have Catherine Vernon talking to the curate, and he says “That would be the ninth [commandment]”. That used to always get a laugh. Then I added her saying, “what about bearing false witness?” and that just killed the laugh. If I could possibly get rid of that line in the movie, I would. One of the things about putting these movies together is once you put it together, you don’t want to pick it apart.