An Evening with Whit Stillman

November 7, 2016 – On an evening filled with the sights and sounds of a torrential downpour, nearly 100 members of JASNA-NY Metro and guests convened at The General Society of Mechanics and Tradesman of the City of New York to spend the evening of October 30 in the company of one of my favorite directors, the witty and self-deprecating Whit Stillman, who directed and adapted Lady Susan, turning it into the film Love and Friendship. Kerri Spennicchia, the Program Chair, worked closely with Mr. Stillman to bring this evening to fruition, and for numerous Janeites, this was one of the highlights of 2016!

Throughout the conversation, Mr. Stillman came across as humble, insightful, and extremely knowledgeable about Austen’s life and work. He also displayed a keen understanding of the subtle nuances cleverly dispersed throughout Austen’s novels which allowed him to artfully “translate” Austen for his modern-day audiences.

Mr. Stillman’s book, Love & Friendship: In Which Jane Austen’s Lady Susan Vernon Is Entirely Vindicated, is a Victorian novel with a male narrator. “Since Jane had a dim nephew that wrote a defensive novel about her, why not have Lady Susan’s nephew write a novel defending her?” asserted Stillman.

He shared with us part of a 13 year journey as he sought to make a film based on Austen’s unnamed epistolary novella into a full feature movie, finally having the opportunity to film over a twenty-six day period that allowed him to flesh out Austen’s Lady Susan Vernon character and her supporting cast in a way that would resonate with 21st century audiences.

Translating an epistolary novella into a film had its challenges, but it appeared that Mr. Stillman had a good understanding of these obstacles before the screenplay was even written. In an epistolary story, such as Lady Susan, the characters aren’t spending time together in their letters. So he had to think long and hard about how to take the best parts of this novella and turn them into a screenplay that would serve Austen’s story in a manner befitting of her work. Chloë Sevigny’s character, Alicia Johnson, was changed into a Tory exile by Stillman so that her British accent wouldn’t be criticized. She transformed into Lady Susan’s American friend who finds herself constantly dealing with the protagonist’s latest schemes and as a result, threats from her husband to remove her to Connecticut if she persists in her association with Lady Susan.

Whit Stillman signing books
Mr. Stillman described how there was the possibility of a Christian investor for the film, therefore he thought about what he could add to the film that would be considered “good.” The inclusion of the Bible and the Ten Commandments, which he revised for the film into the “unforgettable” Twelve Commandments, felt well-suited to the film, as they are so well-known throughout the world. Mr. Stillman estimates that the final product is about two-thirds Jane Austen and one-third his creation.

Taking us back to his earlier years with Austen, he told the audience how he was offered to direct what eventually became Emma Thompson’s 1995 adaptation of Sense and Sensibility after Rob Reiner turned down the opportunity. He believes Ang Lee did a beautiful job executing the film.

The conversation concluded with a few hints at Mr. Stillman’s future plans regarding future Austen adaptations, including a possible remake of Mansfield Park.

Claudine Pepe

Photos courtesy of Claudine Pepe