Robin Swicord talks “Jane Austen” with Jennifer Merin

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In “Jane Austen Book Club,” based on Karen Joy Fowler’s novel, screenwriter/director Robin Swicord beautifully interweaves themes and circumstances presented in the famous 18th century author’s novels with the needs and circumstances of a cast of contemporary characters’ lives. Translated from page to screen, Austen’s timeless concerns seem particularly timely.

“I wouldn’t say I’m a true Jane-ite in the sense that I’m obsessed with Jane Austen,” says Swicord. “But I do find myself returning to her books time and again. I had actually had an idea to write about people who were obsessed with Jane Austen and I was at work on that piece, which is called “The Jane Prize,” and I had set it up at Sony for me to write and direct. It went through a development process for about a year and a half, and while I was working on that John Calley brought me Karen Joy Fowler’s book and I felt, well, the last thing I need is a competing project at Sony that’s related to Jane Austen.

MERIN: What so attracts you to Jane Austen?

SWICORD: Well, I read Austen as a child. I was one of those kids who got through childhood by reading. And I loved her plots and her characters and I was one of those kids, also, who spent a lot of time in her room. And one of the things I would do was to make little cut outs of paper dolls and I would make the costumes and the sets and I would essentially adapt the books that I loved. And her books are very dramatic because people are always mistaken about each other and there are these little secrets that are being kept and sudden things happen and people are being moved to town and they’re naturally very dramatic and she is–I mean you can read her as a philosopher, you can read her as an Anglican, you can read her from a lot of different points of view–but as a child, you read her just at the pure story level. So I think I loved those books then and I had not read all of them until I was an adult, and I think she’s a writer you can come back to again and again as you age, and the books take on different meaning.

When I first heard about this project, ‘tho, it was kind of a blow–because I was working on “The Jane Prize.” But, then, I thought that I’d always wanted to meet John Calley. He’s a very cool guy. He’s run three studios. He’s started a lot of careers. He started Ellen Burstyn’s career, Marty Scorsese. I mean, he’s been there at the beginning for so many people. And when I met him, I just loved him. He’s a funny, funny guy and has such an easy way with creative people. He seems just to be a natural for that. And really, on the basis of wanting to work with him, and since I liked Karen Joy Fowler’s novel and I didn’t know what the future would bring–I didn’t know for sure that “The Jane Prize” would be made–and I knew I wanted to do something about people who love Austen, so I decided to do both and see which one–if any–actually made it to the finish line.

MERIN: And this one did….

SWICORD: It did, and it got ahead of the other one. And that, I think, is because john Calley is such a dynamic producer. Just as soon as we had our first obstacle at the studio–when Columbia said, “you know you were right, it is too small a project for Columbia“–you know, they do the big movies, and it was unusual that they even wanted to develop a movie like this. Because I knew it would be a small movie, and they did, too. But they wanted to develop it–but then changed their minds. So, I asked John what we should do. He said to let him think on it, and a couple of days later he called to say “I think we can set this up independently. And I think I’ve got Sony Classics interested and I believe I can get Maria Bello.”

So, he started this thing rolling. And that was June and we were in pre-production in September, and we shot November 1st. And the only way we were able to do that was we had to hit a certain number for Sony Classics–it could not be over six-million, and that was the proper size for this subject matter, I thought.

MERIN: Wow. You’re a good businesswoman, huh?

SWICORD: (She laughs). Well you have to be a sort of an entrepreneur as a screenwriter.

MERIN: How so? I mean, one tends to think of writers as a recluses with pen and agent–and from what you’ve said about your childhood, that sort of fits. And I usually think of writers in terms of their artistic output. Because of the quality of your work, I think of you in that way…

SWICORD: Thank you very much for that. Well, one of the things I share with Austen is a very rational mind. And, so, I tend to go to reason before emotion, actually. And I get very emotionally attached to work–because I do write from someplace else in my mind besides reason. But I have to protect that part of my mind. So I don’t want to foolishly go into things that are doomed from the start. Because it’s too hard to have that disappointment.

So, when I had my first meeting at Columbia, I brought in this beautiful little film that Lone Scherfig made–she’s a Dogme filmmaker from Copenhagen–called “Italian For Beginners.“ I’d seen this film in the theater, loved it and bought the DVD. At my meeting, I said, “You know, the movie you’re asking me to write is really not much bigger than this movie. Do you know ‘Italian for Beginners?’“ They said, “Yes, yes, we do.” And I said, “So, does Columbia make these movies? If Lone Scherfig came in here and pitched ‘Italian For Beginners,’ would you make it?” And they said, “Well we probably should, we probably should be making movies like that and, at any rate, we’d just like to see what you can do with this.”

It was as though a challenge had been put down: Can I make a movie on this subject that will be of a size that Columbia will say we’re going to invest big money in this? But, I just always had a reasonable doubt that that would happen.

But I also had a lot of confidence in John Calley. So the rational part of my mind was still going, even if they don’t come through, John Calley is the man who can get this made anyway–because he’s very powerful and he’s earned the respect of so many people. And I knew that with him backing me, I had a very good chance of being able to make something as different as “The Jane Austen Book Club.”

MERIN: How are you different on set from the way you are just sitting here, speaking with me?

SWICORD: (She laughs). I’m exactly the same, except wearing a lot less makeup.

(We both laugh).

MERIN: I was just thinking that you’re very, very stylish…

SWICORD: Actually, I’m not one of those people who hangs out in blue jeans and a tee shirt. You know, when I go to meetings in Hollywood, people come in and they’re wearing blue jeans and a baseball cap. But I always feel more comfortable if I’m presenting a slightly more professional look. So that’s what I do on the set.

You know, I really only own one pair of blue jeans. So I show up in slacks, black loafers, white blouse. And people look at me–like, why are you so dressed up?

(We both laugh).

MERIN: You’re like Ann Taylor does Jane Austen…

SWICORD: (Laughs) Well, these are my clothes, you know. This is what I do. I did have these little hoodie sweatshirts made that had slogans on the back, but that was kind of a nod in their direction ‘cause I knew that they would be looking at my back a lot.

MERIN: What did the hoodies say?

SWICORD: Well, actually, they were sort of fun. One said “thank you”–because everyone was doing this for very much less than they are normally paid, and we had a lot to get done in 30 days, and under six-million-dollars to work with. That meant people really had to give their all, and I wanted them to know–every now and then during the week, if I forgot to say thank you, my back was saying it.

One said “you have my continuous partial attention,” which I’d taken from a Thomas Friedman column when he was talking about our distracted lives, because that is one of the core ideas in the film–and that’s why it begins with that montage that shows us in the midst of our lives. This is a film about people connecting and creating a community. They don’t know that they’re doing that, but that’s what happens in the course of being in the book club. You can’t read in a distracted way. You have to read with your full attention and you can’t know a person unless you give them your full attention. And all the trouble that stems in their lives, comes in good part because they’re not paying attention. So that was a watch word.

And the last one was the sort of ethos of the filmmaking, which was “imperfect.” In all of Austen’s novels, her characters are flawed and in the course of making mistakes–largely mistakes in judgment, but sometimes mistakes in behavior, as well–they come to know themselves better. It’s like in “Pride and Prejudice,” when Elizabeth Bennett says–I forget what the exact quote is, but it’s ’until now, I never knew myself’ or something like that. When Darcy has shown himself to be a much different person than she had originally known. And I think that thing of coming to know yourself and pushing past your own imperfections is one of the pervading themes of all her books. In this film, all the people are imperfect.

So it fits thematically at the level of the text. But at the level of the filmmaking, we had to settle for imperfect–because we had so little time and I was working three cameras for six actors and everybody was separately miked, and we had to turn these scenes around very quickly in terms of the camera being on one side of the room and having to move to the other side of the room. We weren’t going to get the lighting perfect. Things were never going to be perfect. And I wanted to give people permission for it just to be good. Because I think that one thing that can happen with highly skilled people that are working in film is that you’re just trying so hard to reach–you know, the bar is so very high for people, and I think it’s why budgets get so high, why shooting schedules get so long, why an editor can be faced with the task of putting together a scene from 70 takes, sometimes, of a single performance. And I wanted to let people know that’s not necessary–we only have to get it good, and then we have to move on and get the film done.

MERIN: Are you a perfectionist when you write?

SWICORD: I am. And the word imperfect was also a watch word for me. It was don’t worry. You know. You have to move on.

I can drive myself crazy trying to get a scene right, and I have to say to myself, hey, it’s going to pass through the hands of so many people, including wonderful actors–relax, let it go. But I think that when you’ve been disappointed a lot, there’s an illusion that if only I can get this page perfect, maybe this will be the movie that can get made.

MERIN: That’s a lot of pressure to….

SWICORD: It’s pressure that I put on myself. And I didn’t do it to myself in this film.

MERIN: Isn’t that good? How did you get free from it?

SWICORD: I don’t know. Maybe I just finally got old enough.

MERIN: Is a movie forever, like a diamond? I mean, is it legacy?

SWICORD: I don’t think about leaving something behind. I really–I don’t think a lot about the past. In fact, my memory is terrible. And I don’t think much about the future. I sort of just follow the thing that I love, and every now and again I get a feeling that, oh, I should do that because people will really respond to that, people need that or this will really speak to people. And it’s really about the now for me.

MERIN: So, what does this film tell people that they need to hear now?

SWICORD: Oh, God, I feel this is such a contemporary story because of how hard it is for people now–we’re so connected through technology and email and all of that, and we’re so disconnected because of the way we live and how pressed everyone feels in their lives. I wanted to make a film that showed people that it’s necessary for people to find refuge. Each of these people, these characters, has a place where they go to make themselves feel safe and better. All of the places are depicted in the film: Bernadette (Kathy Baker) has the train station where she takes Prudie (Emily Blunt) to eat ice cream and you see her reading there. And, Jocelyn (Maria Bello) has the time that she spends with her dogs out in the country, and Grigg (Hugh Dancy) has the bookstore with the science fiction. Sylvia (Amy Brenneman) has her home–Mansfield Park–that she feels banished from–her home, her family, that’s her bubble. And Prudie has her car where she escapes.

So I wanted to show a film in which people have this need for refuge, and they find it in books, and they also find it, eventually, in each other. They’re able to make time for themselves and for other people, and really connect face to face. So, I really thought people would look at this film and think: I should do that.

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is also a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).