There's a lot of Jane Austen in 'Love & Friendship' but even more Whit Stillman

There's a lot of Jane Austen in 'Love & Friendship' but even more Whit Stillman

Whit Stillman

Reading the back matter to an edition of Jane Austen's “Northanger Abbey,” I stumbled across her concluded-but-unfinished novella “Lady Susan” — the title her nephew gave the story when he published it half a century after her death.

At first glance, “Lady Susan” seemed slight and awkward, but it had a quality of anarchic Oscar Wildean humor and a sensational lead female role that a favorite actress could have played brilliantly — had she been 10 years older.

Austen had left Lady Susan Vernon's story in the 18th century epistolary form in which she had also started “Sense and Sensibility” and “Pride and Prejudice.” In adapting an epistolary work, the initial barrier is geography — characters writing each other letters are normally far apart, those in comedies within earshot. However, the letter form also provides a wealth of first-person thought and declarations, which with Austen is apt to be funny and insightful. The back and forth of several letters, cut up and shuffled, became dialogue scenes between the epistolary principals — talking that advanced narrative, sometimes in leaps, but that more often consisted of the amoral Susan and her friend Alicia's plotting before and gloating after their plots were sprung. While the script, especially Austen's pre-Wildean flights of humor, started to become entertaining as a document to be read, as a potential film it still lacked the spark of life.

Many saw the amorality, conniving and heartless commentary of the two principals as an insurmountable barrier. The solution proposed was to build up Susan's mistreated daughter, Frederica, as the story's true heroine, which smelled of formula — besides which I then had no good ideas for her beyond what was in the original. Also, I thought 1988's delightful “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” was a good precedent for how such conniving characters could be enjoyed.

I had already flopped trying to adapt a book I loved, the earlier drafts stillborn and the option running out before any later drafts. I did not know how long it would take to start bringing this story to life and did not want to get again in the bind of turning drafts in before ready. “Love & Friendship” — the Austenian title filched from one of her childhood stories — became the "secret" project I could work on only between other gigs and assignments, so in patches often years apart.

That Austen had not truly completed the story as she did the novels she herself had prepared for publication allowed room for extrapolation that adapting her masterpieces might not have. As Lady Susan and her friend Alicia could not be contrived to meet whenever opportune, a new character, Mrs. Cross, Susan's impoverished friend-companion-maid, came into being. Then Mrs. Cross' own character and story emerged as an abject sycophant who will be ill-used by her friend-mistress.

For the plot, the very silly Sir James Martin was an important character who did not fully exist in the epistolary sense — he wrote no letter and perhaps would have been incapable of doing so. In the course of auditions, one often gets sick of scenes; the original one of Sir James' arrival at Churchill started to seem very forced; another was written but still seemed thin.

Then at the table reading in Dublin just before the shoot — not going very well, as the script was still too limited to dialogue scenes repeating a few themes, funny and Austenian as those were —
Tom Bennett, the actor playing Sir James, appearing on a laptop screen via Skype, made the material absolutely delightful.

Tom's Sir James Martin inspired an explosion of new scenes involving tiny round peas, numerous biblical commandments and a comic focus for the dancing scene that we had promised financiers we would shoot "for the trailer." And the emergence of Sir James seemed to unlock many more scenes for Frederica, Reginald, the young curate at the Churchill church and the benevolent Charles Vernon. With Alicia Johnson becoming an American Tory exile, we got to find out whether “Hartford, Connecticut" could work as a punchline. A third of the script was now new material, balancing the Austen original.

Most fortunate was that the brilliant actress who inspired my first hopes was now of an age to play Susan. The intense "development" part of the process was her excellent emails questioning the chronology, geography, logic and pertinence of various scenes, helping to simplify and speed the narrative.

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