Even as one of Hollywood’s most powerful writer-producers, it has taken 15 years for Robin Swicord to get the chance to direct. But she’s doing it now with The Jane Austen Book Club, an ensemble piece that brings the world of Jane Austen out of the 1800s and into the new millennium through the lives of the members of a book club. Taking a break from the WGA picket lines, Swicord spoke with MM about her long journey to the director’s chair, female-focused movies and how she knows God hates her.
Jennifer Wood (MM): In the almost three decades since you made your screenwriting debut, you’ve written and produced a ton of films—both big and small. But The Jane Austen Book Club marks your directorial debut. Had you been waiting all this time for just such a project to direct—or did now just seem like the right time to try your hand at directing?
Robin Swicord (RS): For a directing debut, The Jane Austen Book Club felt like it would be the right size in terms of production value and budget. On my first feature as a director, I didn’t want to work with a lot of “second-guessing” pressure from above, which can happen in larger-budget films. I had been trying to move other directing projects forward for almost 15 years—the right time for me to “try my hand at directing” would have been any time during that decade and a half; and I am very grateful to Sony Classics and John Calley for making it happen at last.
MM: Is it true that, before you were given a copy of Karen Joy Fowler’s book, you were working on an original script about a family of Jane Austen scholars? Was your initial reaction to such a similarly-themed work more of a deflation—or elation?
RS: I was at work on a project I had set up at Sony, The Jane Prize, a comedy about a dysfunctional family of Austen scholars at a low-ranking liberal arts college in New England. When I heard that John Calley (who used to run Sony Pictures) wanted me to meet on Karen Joy Fowler’s novel, The Jane Austen Book Club, I was initially deflated, for sure. I had been trying for more than a year to move my movie along past the development hurdle of “Are we seriously going to make a movie about people who love Jane Austen?”—and now, just as we were starting to set a timetable for production for The Jane Prize, a powerful producer like John Calley had come up with a competing project? It is moments like that in the film business when you suddenly know the answer to the question, “Is there a God?” And the answer is “Yes, but unfortunately He hates you.”
However, after I’d met the wry, insightful, congenial, generous, hilariously funny John Calley, I very much wanted to work with him. I also enjoyed Karen Joy Fowler’s book more enough to take on adapting it, since her book was actually about very different things than my script, The Jane Prize. The Jane Prize is about obsession and competition; whereas adapting Fowler’s novel gave me a chance to write about our contemporary struggle for community, and the transformative power of reading. I was not sure which project (if either) would move to production, but since I was attached to direct both, I thought it was better to let myself fall in love with both projects, and not worry about which would get made. Frankly, they were both long shots. We don’t live in a time when a movie about people who like to read is considered a “high concept” for a comedy.
MM: As a writer—and a lover of literature—an adaptation of The Jane Austen Book Club, which finds lessons for today’s world in the writings of Austen, would seem like a dream job. Am I underestimating the task at hand?
RS: Karen Joy Fowler wrote a book I found enjoyable and also formally interesting—her novel is actually six short stories about six people in a book club, with each story giving us an extended character sketch about a member of the book club. The short stories are linked by a rather slender narrative thread. Most of the narrative spelled out in each short story takes place in the characters’ childhoods—the stories were primarily “back stories,” none of which would be depicted in the movie! My hardest task was to strengthen and develop the thread that links the separate lives of these characters, and give the film a strong, dramatic narrative flow.
Karen Joy Fowler did a lovely job of bringing Austen’s thematic and plot elements into play, so I used that technique wherever possible, and even reassigned Austen’s books here and there to strengthen that conceit even more. For example, I switched Sylvia’s book, giving Austen’s Persuasion to Prudie and making Sylvia more like Fanny Price from Mansfield Park, like Fanny holding firmly to her own values and valuing above everything her family and home. Making Prudie responsible for Persuasion allowed me to develop and emphasize the personal social development of Prudie’s awkward, hard-to-like character, and also allowed us to end the movie with Prudie’s choice to renew her first love and turn down the advances of another man, as does Anne Elliot’s character in Persuasion. Many aspects of adapting the novel were made easier by Karen Joy Fowler’s skilled writing; she not only gave me wonderful characters to work with, she also wrote good dialogue, which I used whenever I could find a place for it.
MM: Little Women. Practical Magic. Memoirs of a Geisha. The Jane Austen Book Club. As a woman of power in the film industry, is it a coincidence that many of the films you’ve worked on feature independent, lead women?
RS: The first three screenplays I sold when I began my career in the 1980s featured male protagonists, and I didn’t think much about that. When I was first writing, I paid no attention to whether a protagonist was male or female—I wrote what was in my head. I grew up in a family of brothers, and I had easily as many male buddies as female friends. I never thought about “a female point of view”—I am not sure there is such a thing. But one day as I glanced through the arts section of the newspaper, I noticed that every single movie ad featured a photograph of a man. I was struck by that. I started noticing that movies about female characters were scarce to nonexistent. I thought about a whole generation of talented actresses who were being reduced to playing small side roles as prostitutes and girlfriends and mothers-in-law, and I thought, for the sake of fairness—and because I love actors—“Maybe we can change that.” I shifted my interest very deliberately to writing roles for women.
First I took on the only rewriting job I’ve ever done, the movie Shag, which became my reaction against Porky’s I & II and Porky’s Revenge—a franchise of alcohol-fueled comedies marketed to teen males. I wanted to show that teenage girls also had a coming of age. I tried for 12 years to set up Little Women. The book had been so important to me and to other women for generations, and it seemed timely now (in the 1990s) because the book was about family and also personal ambition. After Working Girl came out, with its depiction of female ambition as something negative and scary (in the Sigourney Weaver role particularly), I wanted to make a film about young women who realize their ambitions, and don’t become women-hating monsters. I never intended to write movies only for and about women—I just wanted to even things out a bit in terms of choices for actors and for the audience.
However, unconscious gender-coding is fairly entrenched in Hollywood—soon after Little Women came out, my husband, Nicholas Kazan, and I both noticed that he was only being offered films to script for male protagonists and I was being offered films for female protagonists. That hasn’t changed. So now, just to be contrary, I’d like to make a film about men!
MM: The Jane Austen Book Club is not your first adaptation—and I’m sure it won’t be your last. What’s up next for you?
RS: I haven’t set up my next project yet. I was starting to review material and have meetings about various projects when the WGA strike intervened. Now I am on the picket line daily, and just daydreaming about what I might like to write and/or write and direct next.