Whit Stillman brings Austen to big screen in ‘Love & Friendship’

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Writer/director Whit Stillman with his “Love & Friendship” star Kate Beckinsale at the Los Angeles premiere of the film. | Chris PIzzello/Invision/AP photo

Whit Stillman’s reason for turning Jane Austen’s novella “Lady Susan” into his new film “Love & Friendship” (opening May 20) was simple.

“What attracted me to the material?” Stillman says. “The fact it hadn’t been done before.

“Also, of course, there was the fact that the original material written by Austen was very funny. . . . Plus, I really felt that by turning it into a film, we could make it more accessible to audiences — allowing them to enjoy this very layered storytelling by Jane Austen.”

Having the opportunity to turn a little-known Austen work into a movie had great appeal to Stillman, best known for such films as “Metropolitan” — for which he scored an Oscar nomination for the screenplay — as well as the later “The Last Days of Disco.”

“I also wanted to make a film that would differ from so many remakes of the Jane Austen books we know so well, like ‘Sense and Sensibility’ or ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ ” he says. “So many of them generally go down the romance road.”

The writer-director is a huge Austen fan, describing her as “one of our truly great writers.”

Asked why he thinks she has maintained such universal popularity with contemporary audiences, Stillman says, “A lot of people are deceived about what’s happening with Jane Austen. She was long dismissed. . . . In fact, I was dismissive of her back when I read ‘Northanger Abbey’ when I was too young to get her.

“There’s a deep character story in her books, which makes her work very good for adaptation to film. I love all of her texts, the dialogue, the perspective she has. But I think there must be some sort of deep story genius that Austen delivers. With some authors, you want to change a lot of what it was originally, to bring it to the screen. With Austen’s books, you don’t want to change what it is.”

In “Love & Friendship,” a circuitous tale about the impoverished widow Lady Susan’s campaign to find husbands for herself and her daughter, much attention is paid to women’s dependence in the 18th and early 19th centuries on successful marriages.

Stillman says he’s spoken with audience members seeing the film, and, “People tell me, ‘Could there be any characters today like the ones in Austen novels?’ ”

With obvious sarcasm, Stillman says, “Oh, no! There’s no such thing as people who marry for money in our present world! That would never happen today! I’m sure Melania would have loved The Donald if he was impoverished!

“Think about how many Lady Susans there are in Palm Beach today or Beverly Hills or any place where they have a ‘Real Housewives’ show on Bravo.”

“Love & Friendship” reunited Stillman with Kate Beckinsale (who plays Lady Susan) and Chloe Sevigny (her best friend, Alicia Johnson), 20 years after the actresses starred in his “The Last Days of Disco.”

“They were super-young then, so they’re still young now and just the right ages to play their characters in this film,” Stillman says. “But working with them again, two decades after that last film, was like having both the cake — and the icing!”

An intriguing aspect of “Love & Friendship” — set in London and the English countryside — was that movie was shot entirely in Dublin and the Irish countryside.

“Going to Ireland was an easy choice,” Stillman says. “It’s where you’d want to go to find a place that still looks like the world of the 18th Century English aristocracy.

“London today has turned into a prosperous, international metropolis. But it’s very far from the 18th Century now. Dublin, on the other hand, was the second-leading city of the British empire in that period. It was very prosperous back then, if not so much afterwards.

“So therefore it was the perfect backlot for an 18th Century film.”

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