Whit Stillman is an American writer and director. He earned a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for his 1990 film “Metropolitan” and directed “Love and Friendship,” an adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel “Lady Susan.” He spoke Wednesday night at the Center for Constructive Alternatives lecture series “Jane Austen on Film.”
Q: How did you get into the film business?
A: When I was at Harvard, I went in wanting to be a novelist. But then I got very intimidated at the thought of writing at length and being all alone, so I thought, “well, I’m more gregarious, maybe I could work in TV comedies.” I had no way of getting into it, so I followed my resume into book publishing for four years, very anxious to get into film. I found a way to represent Spanish films for their sale. Some of the Spanish directors asked me to be in their films. There’s actually a film out now I had a role in called “Memories of my Father” that just won an award in Spain. So, I got into the film business in Spain.
Q: What got you so interested in Jane Austen?
A: I initially hated Jane Austen. I read Jane Austen when I was really depressed my sophomore year. I was in this totally funky state — I had just been dumped by a girl, and someone told me to read “Northanger Abbey.” I really hated the book and I told everyone how awful Jane Austen was. I was encouraged to try again and I read “Sense and Sensibility.” And then I really got to like them and began to read more and more. When I was writing the script for my first film, “Metropolitan,” I’d read parts of “Pride and Prejudice” to clean my palate. An argument I had with a friend about “Mansfield Park” became part of the story of that movie.
Q: What is your favorite Austen novel?
A: I have three favorites that are subject to change. “Mansfield Park,” “Pride and Prejudice,” and “Persuasion” all do different things that are really interesting and really sympathetic with different coloration.
Q: What is your favorite film adaptation of an Austen novel?
A: I really like our comic version of “Lady Susan,” called “Love and Friendship.” I think the great one is Ang Lee’s “Sense and Sensibility” with Emma Thompson, as well as the “Pride and Prejudice” TV long form. I’m so totally biased, though. The others might be good, but since I want to do them myself I just can’t bear them.
Q: Do you have plans to do more Austen adaptations?
A: Yes, I do.
Q: What are you thinking about adapting?
A: One thing I’ve learned about film projects is never tell people what it is. I’ve already said too much.
Q: What do you think makes Austen so special and so long lived over two centuries after her life?
A: There’s a writer whom she greatly admired, a dominant figure in the 18th century, Samuel Johnson. Jane Austen’s kind of the fictional version — the culmination of the Johnsonian point of view in fiction. One of his theories was that people working at the beginning of a new form have all kinds of advantages. There’s room for greatness that people working in later periods have a very hard time equaling or surpassing. Jane Austen really was present at the creation of a certain kind of novel form. And also you have her excellent moral character, her humor and her judgement, and the fact that she was working from this beautiful, very profound, Johnsonian tradition. Her work is like a garden that has been beautifully fertilized, and she’s the first-growth oak in this terrain. She looms really large in that way.
Q: You’re a filmmaker, but you’ve been involved in journalism as well. What have your education and career looked like?
A: I studied U.S. history at Harvard and I had two passionate interests there. One was the school paper. They had a very brutal, tough, masochistic competition to get on the paper. It was a horrifying experience, but it was a good experience. It was a great education, and it was actually one of the best practices I had for film directing. The other thing I was very interested in doing were these sort of varsity shows — the stupid musicals they do with males playing female parts. I wrote two of those and I was really interested in it. And then I realized later when I made the film “Damsels in Distress” that it was essentially me getting to make the silly musical comedy I couldn’t make in college.