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Director Whit Stillman talks 2016 for acclaimed Period Comedy ‘Love & Friendship’
16 Jan 2017 : Deirdre Hopkins
The Irish co-production was filmed in Ireland and produced by Katie Holly at Blinder Films.

IFTN: Whit, lovely to talk to you. Tell us a little about the background to ‘Love and Friendship’, before it opened to such praise at Sundance

Whit: For me, it's been a two year process because we started pre-production before Christmas in 2014. The main pre-production was January of 2015. Then we shot February to March for five weeks.

We gave a very early cut to Protagonist Pictures, the sales agents, who turn it over to some clever people who cut a three minute promo for using sales at Cannes for May 2015. We started getting a great reaction from the English speaking territories including offers.

Amazon was just starting up in the United States, buying films and producing films. Ted Hope from Amazon saw the promo and liked it.

I think you can make a funny promo for a film that's not funny; in this case the promo itself was really objectively funny and helped us sell the film in key territories. But it was really disconcerting that the acquisition execs from the two top distributors for this kind of film in both the US & UK came back saying the promo was unfunny. In sales nothing is surefire so we care a lot about the conditions under which a film is screened.

We finally had the film finished at a lab in Amsterdam around Halloween 2015. We were told that all the cinema screening slots for showing the film to Sundance's programmers were filled and Protagonist was going to just send them a DVD. Getting into Sundance is not an easy matter. I begged them to try again and it turned out that a screening slot had opened up for the Monday. All Halloween weekend I got to follow the emails between the Amsterdam lab and the Beverly Hills screening room as the download was tracked. It finally worked out, there was a great screening and the film was offered a prime, but late evening, Saturday screening at the festival.

It was a bit terrifying because we were the last film that people saw on the first big Saturday of the festival and they're pretty darn jaded. It went over well. The screening, nine o'clock the next morning, went better because people were actually able to open their eyes! It's amazing how the fate of a film is decided in two screenings with Sundance. In a sense, the die is cast.

IFTN: There has been such a positive response to the film – talk us through that.

Whit: Yes. I guess things can still go up or go down after the first festival showings, but it's pretty shocking how important they are. Fortunately we were lucky. I just couldn't believe how long we went without getting swatted down by someone.

We had a 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes for an incredibly long time. Finally there was a guy in Chicago who found things he did not like so it became 99%. It got interesting when we came out in DVD and we finally got a few of the brickbats I was waiting for -- a few people knocking the film for what we thought were strong points, like the character introductions.

The idea for the character cards with the pompous poses was one of the happy additions from the editing and shoot. The captions were largely taken from Jane Austen and they helped establish the film's tone. But then when the DVD comes out someone writes, "It's Artificial." You are going to get punished at some point. You have to wait for that.

IFTN: The film was distributed by Roadside and Amazon, very successfully – tell us about the release strategy.

Whit: John Sloss, who specializes in selling North America, helped negotiated the deal with Amazon an also set the film up with Mongrel Media in Canada. Amazon enlisted Roadside Attractions to distribute. John and Roadside convinced Amazon to break their own formula and accepting a full cinema window.

Ted Hope at Amazon thinks that the film might have had the longest cinema run of any film this year. It really held on. We had 12 weeks on our first cinema run at the Paris Theater in Manhattan where Metropolitan also had a record run.

Then it kept playing and they kept it off most of the platforms and they totally respected the cinema release. There's been this big sort of split between Netflix and Amazon. Since I'm in the Amazon area, I'm really glad they've chosen to favour and protect cinema releases.

IFTN: That really added to the buzz. It built up the momentum as well. When did it go online with Amazon?

Whit: I think it was October, finally. Amazon announced that we were the most streamed Amazon Original Movie over the holidays.

IFTN: What was it like working with Katie and Kieran at Blinder?

Whit: It's been such a long process. I was totally dead in the water as far as my career was concerned. I'd been in Paris trying to make projects out of London and everything, which got killed and shut down and nothing happened.

It was very disillusioning because producers kept signing up and then getting other jobs, doing something else and going ahead with another film, not our film.

So I really felt dead in the water. The manager Paul Nelson at Mosaic in Los Angeles -- they apparently have a charity division -- and introduced me to Jonathan Loughran who was representing the Irish Film Board in Los Angeles. It was great to meet Jonathan, he was really interested and discussed the avantages of shooting in Ireland. I was already biased in Ireland's favor as my daughter studied at Trinity and had become a lawyer in Dublin; I loved the idea of shooting in the same country. I was flying to Europe in 2010 and always tried to fly through Dublin to see my daughter. Naoise Berry of the IFB - who's really good at what he does - heard I was coming through and he had me picked up at the airport by a locations fellow who immediately took me to what actually became one of our locations: North Great Georges Street.

Naoise said, "When you're coming back through, why don’t you come to the Film Fleadh in Galway.” He encouraged me to come to Galway, and in July 2010 he introduced me to Katie Holly and Kieron Walsh. I started talking to them, Katie came to Sundance and Slamdance at one time and those conversations started.

After Damsels I came to Cannes in May 2013 with a script finally ready to show; the first British distributor go after Damsel's in May 2013 and was turned down flat by the first distributor I showed it to. The distributor said that, "People will never get that there are two horrible nasty bitches and no one would want to watch a film about these nasty women." It's funny because they ultimately became the film's distributors in the UK and Ireland (via Wildcard as subdistributor).

I was passing through Dublin again in June 2013, and again, Naoise had a locations person – Colm Nolan – who became our Locations Manager - pick me up from the airport in June. He took me to Russborough House and Newbridge House, and those were in the film too. I also got the lead on Howth Castle from an aricle in the Aer Lingus [Cara] magazine. It was just so logical shooting the film in Ireland around Dublin.

Because I had an absurdly low idea for the budget, I wanted to do the film for $1 – $2 million (we finally did for $3 million, ). Everyone just thought I was crazy -- but you have to aim really low in order to keep things low, so you have to aim for 1 or 2 in order for it to be a 3.

I actually got a lot of support for that in London when I was talking to people. Everyone was saying it's impossible to do that kind of low budget around London and they were encouraging about Ireland. Also the advantage of a preserved 18th century that Ireland has! In Britain the prosperous 19th century lead to a lot of building over of Georgian London.

Katie and I started looking for the money to make the film. We had a really long casting period and in the meantime I did ‘Cosmopolitans’; casting two projects overlapping which was helpful as we found such cast as Emma Greenwell, who plays Catherine Vernon, out of the casting for The Cosmopolitans.

The long money-search meant also a long window for the casting, which was very helpful. Sienna Miller and Chloe were originally cast when Protagonist was doing presales; then Sienna dropped out and, by a stroke of wonderful luck (and with the help of a supportive agent at UTA, Shani Rosenzweig), we were able to get Kate Beckinsale for the key Lady Susan part -- in fact, knowing what Kate had done with her part in The Last Days of Disco had encouraged me to undertake the adaptation but back then she was much too young for the part.

Also this was the first time I had ever found more than one actor who seemed "ideal" for a part; in this case there were three actors who seemed right for Sir James Martin. I think it's very good for actors -- and especially directors -- to have auditions recorded. When you're in a room there's a lot of personal and social stuff that might make you lean one way or another without being purely objective, without being free to get away from preconceptions.

When we finally started getting the money for the production we reviewed the auditions that had been recorded and Tom Bennett's as Sir James really stood out. Then he was so funny at the Dublin table read -- via a Skype link from Brighton -- that we thought we really needed more scenes for him -- so many (the peas, the commandments) were written during the shoot.

It was great casting Irish actors, too, a lot of whom we found through casting in London. Lochlann O'Mearáin really caught on as the smoulderingly romantic -- and entirely silent -- Lord Manwaring and Jenn Murray did a sensational job as Lady Manwaring. That was especially important for the film because -- although Lady Susan is really bad and nasty, well she's not really nasty, she's just entirely out for herself and thoroughly mendacious. But the only person who is really injured in the story is Lady Manwaring. There would be a real problem if it was just played sad and we just feel compassion for Lady Manwaring as this would turn us against Lady Susan more than we need to be. And so, Jenn did that trick of making her really unsympathetic -- but quite funny -- victim. The hysterical crying...

IFTN: Who cast the film?

Whit: Colin Jones, a very good fellow; he was just starting out. He had been the associate of Gail Stevens. Colin just does a perfect job. U.S. casting was by Kerry Barden & Paul Schnee with whom I always work.

IFTN: What’s next for the film?

Whit: We had hoped that Kate would get a best actress nomination in the Golden Globes because they have that comedy musical category, but there is ferocious competition for Best Actress.

It's been very nice with the Evening Standard Film Awards; Kate won there. Then [seven] nominations for the London Critics' Circle Film Awards for Kate and Tom Bennett and the film.

IFTN: Kate became a national treasure in UK on twitter after her appearance promoting the film on ‘The Graham Norton Show.’

Whit: Yes she's very funny and charming. In one of the Q&As, she said of the shoot, “When I can hear the swish of approaching corduroy" -- I wore corduroy trousers during the shoot – "I know that dialogue changes are coming up”. Ha, ‘the swish of corduroy’.




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