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Quendrith Johnson is filmfestivals.com Los Angeles Correspondent covering everything happening in film in Hollywood... Well, the most interesting things, anyway.
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Kate Beckinsale Is For Fangirls Too In Love And Friendship, Whit Stillman’s A+ Austen Romp

By Quendrith Johnson, Los Angeles Correspondent

“It is a truth universally acknowledged” that Jane Austen (1775-1817) will be source material in the foreseeable forever, but it is actually surprising that director Whit Stillman (Last Days of Disco, Metropolitan) has so nailed her work in his new film “Love & Friendship,” that lead Kate Beckinsale should be Oscar-worthy for 2016. 

And while giddy Fanboys still own Beckinsale for her sleek, sexy turn in the “Underworld” franchise, she is now property of Fangirls too. With her head-spinning role as Lady Susan Vernon, she creates a designing widow built on stellar speeches. 

Based on Austen’s lesser known novella “Lady Susan,” basically a collection of letters outlining a virago and manor marriage-wrecker, Stillman has culled a character for Beckinsale that is not only a must-see but a must-see-again. (He also wrote a companion book “Love & Friendship, In Which Lady Susan Vernon IS Entirely Vindicated,” just to drive the point home for readers.) This is a tale spun from whip-smart mannered language and overlapping laugh-lines.

Chloe Sevigny (Mrs. Alicia Johnson) is also fantastic as the American ex-pat “exile” and coconspirator in manipulating the hapless gentleman in this romp. Tom Bennett is a scene stealer too, as Sir James Martin, an affable oaf with a substation income to be “divided” wisely by the seemingly powerless women of this period who turn out to be power-brokers. A shotgun marriage of Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions, this film is set for a May 13 release, and Stillman literally raised completion funding himself with some of the same investors from his Academy-Award nominated cult hit "Metropolitan." For now, here’s Kate Beckinsale and Whit Stillman on which roles Kate loves most, shooting in 27 days, how real-life over-the-top women are just over-the-top. Plus a bonus item: why Whit Stillman hates Stanley Kubrick. 

KATE BECKINSALE: Before we started shooting, I kept harassing Whit for a locked in shooting draft. Because I had that notion of, you know, when you rehearse a play, quite often like Shakespeare, you tend knowing the lines. He was very coy about that. Then I realized he likes to change it up on the day. So that can be quite challenging on this than it can be on some.  It’s a great, big speech, that gets moved around, it’s like a mental agility test. By the end I was pretty sure I didn’t have Alzheimer’s.

I really am attracted to characters that people don’t write that often, which are women who are — not necessarily someone you’d want to go on holiday with for two weeks — but that you are fascinated watching because they are difficult and tricky to watch. Lady Susan is just ruthless. They need someone to cheer them up. Whit is very good at writing this. He’s very allergic to Acting with a capital “A.” So he picked actors that are nuanced. Even the broader parts of the movie, Tom Bennett. He arrived with a complete character. Whit is very dignified and rather diffident and acutely aware of nuance and stuff like that. He can be quite brutal in his direction sometimes. He’s not shy of saying ‘I really don’t like that.’ But he says it so eloquently, and he’s usually right, so… we were pretty much on the same page.

We were shooting in Dublin, February and March. Make-up was about 30 seconds, and hair was a bit longer. It was actually getting dressed that took the longest. Underneath, it was really cold, we all had thermal underwear, long leggings, so you really were like this stiff snowman baby kind of wheeled out of your trailer like Hannibal Lecter on that thing (a stretcher).

When I was sent the script, I remembered when I had done Emma, there was a fashion at that time of people writing in the style of Jane Austen, and I thought that’s what Whit had done. But it seemed atypical of a romantic literature heroine. I kept thinking ‘when is she going to get punished, when is she going to die?’ But in fact, she sort of gets every single thing she wants. I was sort of thrilled by that. Then reading the novella afterward, (Lady Susan) was even more extreme with her daughter, and we had to tone it down a little bit.

It’s my absolutely favorite thing (sharp comedic roles), then the thing I was doing as an experiment (“Underworld”) took off. I think people are used to seeing me with a machine gun. So it’s been an interesting journey, like a little bird in a birdbath, back to normal.

I’m definitely not like Lady Susan, she’s not interested in being a parent. Not a natural mother. Her daughter, if anything, is more of an inconvenience. I think if Lady Susan were transplanted to now, she would not be rushing to have a child. She's got a fairly strong narcissistic streak which makes her entertaining, but not an ideal parent. I think, in terms of not judging her, as a woman it was a very constraining period of time especially if you’re an intelligent woman. You’re not expected to get a deep education, nor a fulfilling career, and your whole livelihood depends on marrying a man who has money, so that’s a very different situation. So, it seems to me, Jane Austen must have expressed some of her frustration through writing this kind of larger than life character. Which makes it seem very progressive now, but it speaks a bit to what she was facing.

(Drops her phone) I have two phones, like a drug dealer. One’s for England, one’s for here. 

I was always worried about the other people in the scenes, especially in the interior scenes. There were quite a few days, it was actually me banging on for 30 minutes, then the other person would have one line. And then I’d go off again. I thought ‘one of these actors is going to fall asleep,’ I’d be embarrassed, but they weren’t. It was lovely to have a chance to have a relationship with Chloe that wasn’t me bullying her and being mean, like we were in Last Days of Disco (also directed by Stillman). I love to see female relationships I like that, it’s not that common, but they just completely approve of each other. They approve of each other; they’re not in competition. The real love story is us, our friendship. There’s a complete lack of judgement and acceptance. Chloe’s character says so many times ‘well, nobody deserves you,’ as if it’s a fact. There’s something nice about seeing that female friendship, although they’re plotting terrible things and not being very nice. I love seeing that.

Whit Stillman, Being Himself & The Film’s Director-Auteur-Novelist

WHIT STILLMAN: [He begins our interview with a this curveball…] You look like my sister. Hello, sister, hello Linda. [The redirect question was “how did you handle so much dialogue?”]

Well there’s was a lot more dialogue, before. This is a very relaxed adaptation. It was very relaxed, but a very long process. Like taking everything from (Jane Austen’s) letters, like a deck of cards. I did a very long version, and trying not to go back to the novella, just working from the script. Before it was close to being a film script, it was a reading experience. In the adaptations a lot of the comedy tends to get lost or left, but I think there must be some kind of deep character story in Austen that must be good to adapt (to any time period). Because when I read the novella, I thought it was really funny, like an Oscar Wilde play, but I wasn’t sure there was a good story. But I think that if people keep bringing it forward, changing the time period into a “Clueless” or a “Bridget Jones Diary,” there must be a deep story dynamic.

Kate can do this funny, egoistical over-the-top character. The first thing I saw her in was “Cold Comfort Farm” (adapted from the book) by Stella Gibbons. Kate was great in the movie. It’s sort of based on the novel “Emma.” Lady Susan is sort of malicious Emma. 

I find dominant women characters over-the-top really funny. I mean I know some women like that. Then I realize they are just over-the-top. Lady Susan is so manipulating and self-confident and funny. You sort of like her more than the Emma character. 

Kate and Chloe come at (acting) from very different directions. So they approach it really differently, but they end up coming together. I think people underestimate Chloe, because to listen and react to funny lines and not make it oppressive is very accomplished. Chloe has that ability to exist in space with her lovely eyes and her lovely expressions, it’s very relaxing. They are really, really disciplined. One reason we finished a day early, 26 days, is because Kate would just do her lines, no problem at all.

[Bonus: Stillman talks about the music, soundtrack for "Love & Friendship." The temp track first put in was a classical track with echoes from Stanley Kubrick’s “2001.”]

I have a strange relationship with Stanley Kubrick, because for a while he was the filmmaker I most hated. I remember my best friend and I going to see “2001,” a space odyssey, isn’t it? And we hated it. That was the first time I saw a director’s name in the credits. My friend said ‘Stanley Kubrick, you’re a marked man.’ Our Sound Editor had first put in Sarabande from Kubrick. One of the challenges we had was to get the music of "Barry Lyndon" (1975) out of our film. That first big scene, leaving Langford, the editor first put in (George Frideric) Handel's Sarabande from Kubrick. Finally I found (Henry) Purcell’s Funeral March of Queen Mary; it worked really well, the drums. Then people say ‘oh Kubrick used that in Clockwork Orange.’ We couldn’t escape Kubrick.

"Love & Friendship" from Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions open May 13, and watch for it to be nominated for Best Actress, Screenplay, and Film for Award Season 2016. The website is here for full cast and screening locations.

 

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Johnson Quendrith

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