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Saturday, September 22

Robin Swicord: An Interview With The Screenwriter and Director of The Jane Austen Book Club, Part 2

Elegant Readers,

On Wednesday I posted Part One of my interview with Robin Swicord, the director of The Jane Austen Book Club, which was released in theaters this week. So far the reviews are good, and I cannot wait to see the movie. Here is the conclusion of my interview:

Ms. Place: Maria Bello, Emily Blunt, Amy Brenneman, Kathy Baker, Maggie Grace, Hugh Dancy, Lynne Redgrave, and Jimmy Smits! What was it like directing such a sterling cast? Does any story about working with this group stand out?

Robin: Working with this cast was sheer pleasure. We kept an attitude of play throughout both rehearsal and the production, which began with our own lame attempt at a book club meeting (only Maggie Grace actually did the reading), and paid off especially in the eight large group scenes, when we had three cameras capturing performances in scenes (sometimes eight or ten minutes long) that were allowed to run from beginning to end without interruption. I chose actors who had theatre training as well as experience in television (a medium in which actors must work fast, with few takes) and in low-budget film – and I tried to get out of their way as much as possible. With such strong actors in every role, once we had established our understanding of the characters and the intention of every scene, all I had to do was be present near the camera, and occasionally step in to whisper a reminder. When I saw that we had captured what we were all working for, we moved on – usually after only two or sometimes three takes.

Filming with three cameras simultaneously gave us wonderful flexibility -- we could cover a take three different ways, or cover three different people, so performances tended to stay fresh. Occasionally I would begin a scene by sending away the crew, to allow the actors to play through the scene in private -- rehearsing or just doing a walk-through of the lines, or trying out business with props. I called this impromptu play-time “getting our feet under us”. It made our First Assistant Director (who had to keep us on task) extremely anxious to see me “waste” shooting time with an on-set rehearsal. But I saw that it really paid off not only in the pace of shooting, but in the pace of the scene. Plus it was fun to send the “grown-ups” away and take over the set for a little playtime.

On our budget --under $6 million – and with our schedule – only 30 days – we had little margin for error, and with a first time director, of course errors occurred! In our first week of shooting, Emily Blunt and Kevin Zegers filmed the scene in Prudie’s car, in which Prudie confides her secrets in Trey and Trey begins to kiss her. For speed we lit the scene for close-ups first, then changed the lighting for the wider two-shots. Because this scene had been both auditioned and rehearsed, I didn’t object to starting with the close-ups. I knew I could trust the actors, and we had a very ambitious day of shooting ahead of us. We shot the talking and kissing close-ups simultaneously to capture both performances at the same time. I saw that we had good performances in the first three takes, and we moved on to the two-shots. However, as we were filming the wider shots I realized that Emily and Kevin were just beginning to find the best of the scene. Their performances were becoming more nuanced, more real. In dismay I watched as Emily and Kevin just got better and better, their timing more poignant, the kiss more unexpected. I had a strong sense of how the scene would be cut together, and I knew that very little of this scene was likely to play in two-shot once we were editing the movie.

When we finished the two-shots and prepared to move to a separate part of the scene, I told our D.P. John Toon that we had to re-do the close-ups. I think he and the First A.D. (who kept us on schedule) were appalled. “We don’t go backward”, Toony said, but I quietly insisted, and without further objection John Toon and his team quickly relit the car. As they worked, I got into the car with Emily and Kevin and asked them to please “stay in the scene” and not leave the car for a break. Instead of being annoyed at having to re-do the close-ups, both actors were grateful, because they had felt the difference too, and they were eager to do better. A few minutes later, we filmed the close-ups again. When I saw the actors’ performances in the editing room, I was so happy that we had gone back for more; and grateful for Toony’s tolerance of a newbie director; and especially grateful to Emily Blunt and Kevin Zegers for their commitment to giving the strongest performance.
Clip from the movie when Maria Bello as Jocelyn meets Hugh Dancy as Grigg, the lone male in the Jane Austen Book Club

Ms. Place: Did Karen Joy Fowler have a hand in writing the script? Or choosing the actors? Did you consult her at any time before or during the movie’s production?

Robin: Karen wrote the novel; and several years later I wrote and directed the film. We didn’t talk before I began working on the adaptation. I loved delving into Karen’s novel. It’s actually comprised of six free-standing short stories, each with a character sketch of a member of the book club. In each short story Fowler tells the “back story” of a character – what had happened to each one in childhood, mostly – as well as describing the character’s unspoken thoughts during the book club meetings. These six stories are linked by a slender narrative thread. In adapting Karen’s truly enjoyable book, I made that narrative thread stronger, and slightly expanded upon Prudie and Grigg’s characters especially. Because our film is set very much in the maddening here and now (and not at all in the past), I couldn’t use much of the back stories Karen Joy Fowler wrote for Prudie and Grigg and Jocelyn – although between rehearsals the actors pored over the novel for clues to their characters! Soon after I finished my first draft of the screenplay, I went to Sacramento and Karen gave me a tour of the locations she had imagined when she was working on her novel. I photographed all around Sacramento and its outskirts, and referred to some of these images when we searched for Sacramento-like locations in Los Angeles County, where for budget reasons the film had to be shot. During pre-production I occasionally gave Karen updates on casting, but she didn’t really have a hand in any aspect of our filmmaking, except to give us a great tour of the Sacramento area, and write a novel that gave us a multitude of riches from which to work.

Ms. Place: Concluding our short talk, what would you suggest for my readers? See the movie first, then read the book? Or vice versa?

Robin: I don’t think it really matters whether you know the book first or even know Austen’s books beforehand – the film is obviously an adaptation of Karen’s terrific novel, but each stands alone as something to be enjoyed.

Thank you so much for answering my questions. I wish you much success with this new film. If it is half as good as the novel, I will love it. I adore your choice of cast, and I look forward to watching them play these characters.

Below are more thoughts from Robin Swicord (from the Sony Press Kit)

When John Calley asked me to read Karen Joy Fowler’s novel, The Jane Austen Book Club, I was at work on an original screenplay about a dysfunctional family of Jane Austen scholars, which I planned to direct for Sony Pictures. I had spent years immersed in Austenalia, not only reading Austen’s novels repeatedly, but also absorbing her letters and juvenilia, and making my way through various academic treatises which explored Austen’s life and work from every imaginable angle. I joked to my Sony executive that I was on the way to making the only light Hollywood comedy ever to need a bibliography appended to the credits. However, in reading The Jane Austen Book Club, I found myself no longer in the company of sparring intellectuals. Here were ordinary people more like me; readers, seeking shelter and companionship in books. That contemporary readers have found refuge in Jane Austen’s well-ordered novels isn’t surprising, given what we’re seeking shelter from—congested traffic, ringing cell phones, squealing security wands, waiting rooms with blaring televisions. Recently I noticed that four of Austen’s six novels were for sale at the newsstand at the Seattle airport. Spend a couple of hours trapped in a terminal waiting for a flight that’s been delayed, and you’ll be only too happy to withdraw into a semi-rural English village, two centuries in the past. When you begin to love Austen, her world doesn’t seem that antiquated. Her characters worry about money, deal with embarrassing family members, cringe at social slights, and spend more time than they should hoping to fall in love, even when the local prospects don’t seem that promising. In short, her people are just like us—but without the commute and the twelve-to-fourteen hour workday.
Swicord sums up the satisfying experience of directing her first feature with a quote from Jane Austen, the muse who was never far from the production’s heart: “In a letter to her niece, Austen speaks of her writing as “The little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour.” Making a movie is a world away from Jane metaphorically carving a piece of scrimshaw, but we’re really after the same thing: telling stories that reveal our lives and how we feel about love and friendship.”
Scroll down to the next post to read part two of this interview.

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