“Austenland” is a romantic comedy about 30-something, single Jane Hayes (Keri Russell), a seemingly normal young woman with a secret: her obsession with all things Jane Austen. But when she decides to spend her life savings on a trip to an English resort catering to Austen-crazed women, Jane’s fantasies of meeting the perfect Regency-era gentleman suddenly become more real than she ever could have imagined. Based on the novel by Shannon Hale who also co-wrote the script, the film was written and directed by Jerusha Hess and produced by Stephenie Meyer.
At last week’s press day for the film, Meyer, Russell and Hess talked about their recent collaboration, what the appeal is of Jane Austen 200 years later, why Hess thought Russell was perfect for the role of Jane, their favorite Mr. Darcy of all time, their obsessions in real life, and why guys will enjoy the film as much as the gals. Meyer also discussed how Austen inspired her as a writer, what it was like making the transition from writer to producer, her producing responsibilities on the film, and why she finds making movies a very interesting and collaborative creative outlet that’s quite different from being alone and writing.
Q: For Stephenie, each film is different, but I’m wondering if you can comment on what your producing responsibilities were for this film in particular and what that role was like for you?
Stephenie Meyer: It was a lot easier and harder in some ways. Easier because this wasn’t my story, and so, for the first time, it was someone else’s story, and there was no pressure on me. With “Twilight,” there was so much, “If it’s not exactly like this, everyone is going to explode.” It just felt very freeing to not have that. But also, this was a little film and I felt like there was a lot to be done to make it happen. So it was just a lot of will power. This has to happen. We’re going to make it happen to get through it. So, there was a lot of pushing, I guess, as a producer, which is what you do.
Q: For Stephenie, you’re an author and a writer, but now you’re also a Hollywood producer. What was that transition like from being a child who wanted to be a writer to becoming a writer and now a producer?
Keri Russell: Now you just drive around in your convertible Jaguar and big sunglasses.
Meyer: (laughs) I don’t believe in convertibles. I live I Arizona. As a child, I actually wanted to be a lawyer. That was the goal. I didn’t plan to be an author, and then even less did I plan to produce movies. It all sort of just happened. You get to use a lot of creativity and I need that. Before I started writing, I made very elaborate Halloween costumes and birthday cakes. I just needed some kind of creative outlet and movies is a really interesting and collaborative one, because when you’re writing books, it’s just you alone in a room, kind of quiet and dark and sad. In “Austenland,” it’s a little bit different. I got to hang out with ladies all day. That’s not generally how it is in the movies. And it was very social and a community. I liked it a lot. It’s a different thing from being alone and writing.
Q: For all three of you, Jane Hayes is obsessed with everything Jane Austen. Is there anything in your life, whether it’s an author or a painter or something else, that you have a particular obsession with?
Russell: When I was younger, my obsession was less Jane Austen, more Nancy Drew, which I feel like I’m still obsessed with, a teenage detective. I read every single one of those books. But now, these days, what am I obsessed with? I don’t know. Maybe Michael Ondaatje (novelist who wrote “The English Patient.”). I would say something like that or good music or Bonnie Raitt. I have this old 1971 recording of hers that I play over and over, and my kids are like, “Oh! Not that again!”
Meyer: Is this from childhood or from now?
Q: Both, I think.
Meyer: I love Jane Austen. If there was a Jane Austen camp, I would go. There’s no question. I mean, one of the things with making this movie is, the author and I were like, “Maybe if we make the movie, they’ll make an Austenland and we can go to it.”
Jerusha Hess: You could make it. You make a gazillion dollars.
Meyer: I’ve thought a lot about it. I’ve actually looked into it. Just for two weeks, somewhere where we could go. I don’t know if anyone else needs to, but I need to.
Russell: Add massages to the mix. We’re fine. Yes, ladies.
Meyer: But when I was a kid, I wanted to step into Emma McCaffrey’s dragon books. I would have left my whole family behind and walked away because I loved it so much.
Hess: I’m obsessed with Patrick Swayze. Unabashedly.
Russell: (laughs) Oh my God! I cannot believe you just said that. Oh, “Dirty Dancing.”
Q: What is the closest thing we have to Austenland?
Hess: Oh, I’d say Dollywood.
Russell: (laughs) Totally!
Q: For all three of you, how are we going to get guys to go see this movie?
Russell: Jennifer Coolidge is in this movie. Need I say more? She’s bringing all that she brings. It’s not exactly all tea [and crumpets]. It’s Jennifer Coolidge bringing it.
Meyer: It’s only fair sometimes. I go to his movies. He goes to mine. Lucky for me, I’m like a huge nerd and I love things like “Pacific Rim” and anything with an assassin in it. So it’s a win-win for me. But they should have to play nice and come to some of our movies, too, with us. That’s what date night is all about – compromise.
Russell: You’ve got Bret McKenzie in there, too. C’mon, you’ve got some dudes.
Q: For Jerusha, I believe you said after “Gentlemen Broncos,” which you described as being very testicular, that you purposely did want to make kind of a girlie movie and you’re not shy about that?
Hess: (laughs) Yes. When you’re making a movie that has gonads in jars, you just really are like, “Whoa! Can I see some breasts?”
Russell: You’ve got a lot of those.
Hess: That said, my husband loves this movie and he thinks it’s very charming. I don’t know how to get the boys, but I think they’ll be forced to go.
Meyer: And then they’ll laugh. They’ll laugh when they’re there and they’ll be happy.
Hess: They’ll be surprised.
Q: For Stephenie, you’re a bit of an Anglophile yourself. How did Jane Austen inspire you as a writer and who were your other inspirations?
Meyer: I hesitate to name Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte and all of the greats, because then people might think I’m denigrating their names a bit. But I did love them and I do think they influenced me. I loved reading because of them. And getting to make “Austenland” is probably the closest any of us will ever have to being there. Getting to live in the English countryside and walk up to the manor house every day to film, it was a pretty amazing fantasy trip in and of itself. I love those stories. They resonate with me. I’m not sure why, but maybe because I’m a nerd.
Q: Was it hard to be on set and see people in these costumes and hair and not want to jump in?
Meyer: For Halloween that year I went in full Regency and I made my husband do it, too.
Russell: Did you?
Meyer: I did.
Russell: Oh my God!
Meyer: My gown was red.
Meyer: He wore a top hat. It was awesome.
Q: For all three of you, what do each of you think is still the appeal of Jane Austen 200 years later and who is your favorite Mr. Darcy of all time?
Hess: My favorite Mr. Darcy is J.J. Feild. (laughs)
Hess: Actually, it’s Ricky Whittle. I’ve got a thing for him.
Russell: He’s the most Patrick Swayze-like of the group.
Hess: Yes. He’s the best dancer. I think the appeal of Jane Austen is that she was really funny. What she wrote was quirky and funny and she made fun of the upper class. That’s what appeals to me because she wrote these romantic comedies and I just think it’s great.
Russell: I don’t know. It’s funny. I guess I also just think it has something to do with the whole idea of someone liking you more for the meeting of the minds and this acerbic banter back and forth. People still like that and they want that and that you’d be appreciated for it. That someone would see through everything that you’re dressing like or you’re looking like and they just want to know what makes your brain tick. I think that’s always appealing, especially to women. And then, my favorite Mr. Darcy, there are so many. Well actually I’m doing this cable show right now (“The Americans”), and funnily enough, the guy who’s on the show with me (Matthew Rhys), I’m promoting this movie and he’s playing Mr. Darcy right now on some BBC thing (“Death Comes to Pemberly”). So, I’ll say him – the Welshman playing Mr. Darcy.
Meyer: I’m a Laurence Olivier fan. He was my first Darcy. It’s hard to get over the first one you fell in love with. But I think people still love Jane Austen because she is so insightful about human nature. It’s like Shakespeare. The reason why you can buy all the fairies and nonsense is because it’s how humans really react. And Jane Austen stays completely in the realistic, but this is how we really act and we really feel. It feels true while we’re reading it. That’s real, that’s how you would feel, that’s what you would say. Human nature doesn’t change. The words might and the costumes do, but we still feel the same way.
Q: For Keri, “The Americans” is a show set in the 80s and then this film is in a totally different era. Can you talk about what you learn when you do shows that are set in the past?
Russell: For this one, I learned that it takes a lot more time to get dressed. Corsets, and corsets while pregnant, was interesting, and petticoats and lace-up boots and tights, and then dresses that have laces, and then hair-dos that have braids and buns. I mean, no wonder you have maid servants. You couldn’t do it on your own. It takes three hours. But in wearing all those clothes, there’s such a straight-backed kind of dignity that immediately happens and that definitely carries into the way you behave. It was nice, although time consuming. The 80s, I don’t know. Just a lot of gloppy mascara and banana clips.
Q: For Keri, how did you prepare for this role? Did you go back and read any Austen books? And also, do you see yourself as a hopeless romantic like your character Jane or are you the more practical sort?
Russell: I did go back and revisit some of the ones I had at home and refresh my memory. I did re-watch parts of the BBC “Pride and Prejudice” just to remember. But I do go in for the new ones, too — the glossy, dreamy remakes with Keira Knightley. I like those movies. Like Jane, in this film, I think we all have some version of a fantasy that’s easy to escape to. And like Jane, we all want a real relationship, where it’s a common give and take, and you’re seen for who you are and appreciated for that.
Q: For Jerusha, when you started writing this, did you envision Keri in the role?
Russell: Don’t lie.
Hess: Absolutely. I’ve been obsessed with Keri ever since she stepped foot in “Honey I Blew Up the Kid.”
Russell: Oh my God! I was pretty good in that.
Hess: She’s what every 14-year-old aspires to. Actually more like every 10-year-old.
Russell: That little high voice and that hair bigger than you can imagine.
Hess: She’s beautiful.
Russell: Writing in a little kid’s pocket.
Hess: And Felicity with her quiet little voice.
Russell: (using Felicity’s voice) Mi, mi, mi, mi, mi. This sad, little embarrassing nerd.
Hess: No. I’ve always loved Keri and I think she is a fabulous actress. And yes, I tried to get her the script early on and it was really bad. It was an early draft and she was like, “This is great.” And then, the next year when we were ready, she was like, “I’m pregnant.”
Russell: I know. It’s true. You were like, “Come anyway! It’ll be fun.”
Q: I had no idea you were pregnant when you were making this movie.
Russell: Oh I was.
Hess: By the end, she was five months pregnant. That’s not even right.
Russell: No, I think by the end I was six. What months did we shoot?
Hess: I don’t know, but it was four to six.
Russell: It was mostly August and she was born in December.
Q: For Jerusha, how did you go about developing the sound for the film with these iconic pop tunes from the 80s and 90s and then some covers from Emmy the Great? How did she get involved?
Hess: I just wanted it to be like in Jane’s head so that she’s got this arrested development and she’s stuck in her little girl world. It’s just super pink and really poppie, so that’s where those songs came from. And then, you have the Bret McKenzie character who was just obsessed with the easy listening dream which is a dumb joke.
Russell: That was my favorite, him full blast singing with a saxophone.
Hess: If you find a singer, you have to make them sing. And then, Emmy the Great, my composer, Ilan Eshkeri, he was just like, “I know this girl. She’s just got such a great sound.” And she was a really great lyricist and clever and quirky. She came on board and wrote these funny, great, little Poppie songs that were in the same vein, and so it just worked out perfectly. And also, I liked the idea of it being all classical and real and ‘ye oldie worldie’ and then…
Russell: Belinda Carlisle.
Q: For Keri, you seem to be very grounded. How do you manage to maintain that?
Russell: I don’t know. I’m just sort of boring, I guess. I don’t have that exciting of a life.
Hess: She told me when we first started chatting, she said, “I’m the girl you want to make your first movie with. You don’t want to work with those other girls.”
Russell: (laughs) That’s so true.
Hess: Maybe not your second movie, but I’m the girl.
Russell: I’m the easy girl. I was like, “I’m the easy girl.” It’s so true.
Meyer: And Keri was there every single day. I mean, she’s in pretty much almost every scene, even the ones that weren’t in, you were in but that got cut. And so, to have someone that’s so easy going, what a gift. It was really nice.
Q: Speaking of staying grounded, if I’m not mistaken, Stephenie and Jerusha, you don’t live in L.A. either. Do you think that’s part of the secret?
Meyer: Channing Tatum said in an interview a while ago that the age that you get famous is the age you stay except for Keri Russell. I think he said that part but they didn’t do the whole quote. And so, I got famous in my 30s and I already had a real life and kids and responsibilities and laundry and cleaning bathrooms. It’s hard not to be grounded when you have that. I think if you get super famous and everybody tells you you’re wonderful when you’re 12, it’s probably a lot harder.
Q: Jerusha, anything you want to add?
Hess: I’m not grounded.
Russell: She’s such a nightmare.
Q: For Keri, I saw shades of Felicity in this role when she’s in between the two guys. For you, personally, who would you choose? Ben or Mr. Darcy?
Russell: (laughs) Oh gosh. Can’t I have them all? C’mon, I don’t know! Well Mr. Darcy has the best vocabulary. American boys are just like, “Uh…” English boys have such a vocabulary. Don’t you agree? Speedman (Scott Speedman who played Ben Covington in “Felicity”) is still one of my really close friends so I guess I have to say him.
Q: For all three of you, it was announced recently that Jane Austen is going to be on the ten pound note in 2017 so I’m wondering what your thoughts are on that?
Meyer: I wish we would’ve done the movie when we could have used the money.
Hess: I just did a couple of interviews about that, and they were like, “Did you plan it?” and I was like, “I got lucky.”
Q: People thought it was a publicity stunt and that you controlled the British pound.
Russell: She’s so powerful.
Q: For Stephenie, now as a producer, were you tempted to use any of your old “Twilight” cast?
Meyer: There are times when you see a role and you’re like, “Oh man, Saoirse Ronan would kill this,” but you don’t want to be too incestuous with your movies because then people are going to be seeing it. Sure. I would love to work with Kristen Stewart. She’s super talented. But if she plays the character, people are going to see Bella. And then, you get to meet new people when you do movies. Now, with “Austenland,” it was all grown-ups so it was like a completely different cast. It was super mature and everyone was mellow and awesome. It was nice to get to meet all kinds of new people. It’s tempting sometimes when you know what people can do. I know how talented Keri is and I know what she’s able to do, so when you have a role that’s the right age, you just think, “Man, Keri would kill it,” and then you want to do that.