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Exclusive Interview: Author and Co-Writer Shannon Hale on Sundance 2013 Film 'Austenland'

Jane Austen has certainly been fodder for several film adaptations (thank you, public domain and large fervent fanbase). To further illustrate this point, at least nine versions of Pride and Prejudice have been produced as films, mini-series or television series with a tenth film version currently in development (and no, I’m not including the future production of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies on that list). Sometimes, it makes you wonder if this obsession with Jane Austen has gone too far (blasphemous, I know). To answer this very question, we get to look forward to the Sundance 2013 U.S. Dramatic Competition film Austenland, adapted from the novel by Shannon Hale, directed by Jerusha Hess (Napolean Dynamite, Nacho Libre, Gentlemen Broncos) in her feature film directorial debut, and co-written by Hale and Hess. In our continuing series of exclusive interviews with the screenwriters of Sundance 2013 U.S. Dramatic Competition films, we hear from Shannon Hale on her experiences adapting her novel into a screenplay and collaborating with Jerusha Hess.


In addition to writing the adult novels Austenland, Midnight in Austenland, and The Actor and the Housewife, Shannon Hale is a Newbury Honor-winning and New York Times best-selling author of six young adult novels. She also co-wrote the graphic novels Rapunzel’s Revenge and Calamity Jack with her husband, Dean. Hale wrote and persevered for nineteen years through several rejections before publishing her first novel. The film Austenland marks her first produced screenplay.

Before we get into our interview with Hale, here’s a summary of the film Austenland from Sundance Film Festival Senior Programmer Caroline Libresco:

Jane’s life-size paper doll of Mr. Darcy and her “I Love Darcy” tote may be tattered, but even in her thirties, she hasn’t grown out of her obsession with all things Jane Austen. Careworn by love, she saves enough to fulfill her dream of stepping into Austen’s world and heads to Austenland for an “immersive” vacation to eschew all things modern. And it couldn’t be more perfect. There’s an imposing manor with verdant grounds for afternoon promenades, rosy-faced servants, trusty steeds for hunting expeditions, gilded drawing rooms for evenings spent in polite conversation, and, yes, gallant young suitors. Unfortunately, due to limited funds, she’s relegated to lesser quarters and drearier costumes than fellow bachelorette guests, but her cares melt away as she catches the eye of a young footman, and she’s swept into a romantic adventure she could never have imagined.

Will fantasy and reality merge for Jane? A wickedly funny, irreverent comedy, featuring a malapropism-peppered performance by Jennifer Coolidge and an impeccable cast of archetypal characters, Austenland hits all the right notes of the Regency era and our curious infatuation with it.

Our interview with Hale was conducted via email.

NoFilmSchool (Christopher): As a man whose only real encounters with Jane Austen include Pride and Prejudice as assigned reading in high school and the occasional date night flick, I find myself strangely compelled to visit Austenland. Is that wrong?

Shannon Hale: Christopher, that is so, so right. Give in to that compulsion.

How did director and co-writer Jerusha Hess originally discover your book?

Jerusha had read some of my other books and contacted me, asking me out to a friendly lunch. It was a love fest. “I love your books!” “No, I love your movies!” After, I randomly gave her a copy of Austenland as a thank you for lunch. Who knew? History made.

How did the two of you collaborate on the screenplay? Did you work together on a draft or did one of you take a pass on it then give it to the other person for notes and revisions?

We did both. Jerusha did the first pass, I did a second, and soon we were working together in the same room, reading it through, tossing lines at each other. Best way to work on a comedy. You can immediately find out if what you wrote is funny by earning either a laugh or a “that’s stupid.” Most fun I’ve ever had writing. Jerusha was a dream collaborator.

Your book reads briskly and certainly has elements that lend themselves to a film version of the story. Was it difficult to adapt your novel into a screenplay? Did you feel like you had to make drastic cuts or changes to your story to make it work as a screenplay?

The story always felt so film-friendly to me I briefly considered writing it into a screenplay instead of a novel. Then I thought, duh, you’re a novelist. I’m glad I went the novel route first but it was so fun to slip it into a screenplay. I loved revisiting it, writing new scenes, discovering what changes would really shine in a visual medium. No regrets.

What was the most challenging scene or sequence of this screenplay to write, and how did you finally solve the problem?

The beginning. We tried so many different beginnings! In the end, the best answer was simplicity. Just get her to Austenland.

What has been the most unexpected part of your Sundance experience so far?

Getting there! I didn’t dare hope that something light and funny and romantic would work for Sundance. So glad I was wrong.

Finally, with which Jane Austen character, female or male, do you personally identify yourself?

I think most gals would like to be thought of as Elizabeth Bennet–witty, intelligent, funny, a woman who women want to be friends with and men want to admire. So…I’m probably more of a Fanny Price.

Although I may not be the biggest Jane Austen fan, I’m certainly looking forward to seeing actress Jennifer Coolidge (American Pie, Legally Blonde, A Mighty Wind) as a middle-aged 21st century woman pretending to be a 22-year-old Regency ingenue looking for romance from suitors who are actually paid actors. The sheer absurdity of the situation matched with Coolidge’s talent should make for some excellent comedy.

NFS would like to thank Shannon Hale for her time and generosity to respond to our interview request. We would also like to thank Shannon Sonnier of Facet Public Relations for her quick turnaround of our interview request.

Also, in case you missed it, be sure to check out our exclusive interview with writer/director Stacie Passon on her screenwriting experience for her Sundance 2013 film Concussion.

Have you collaborated with a novelist to adapt his or her book to a screenplay? What challenges have you discovered when trying to condense the story of a novel into the structure of a screenplay? Share your experiences with us in the Comments.

Link: Sundance Film Festival 2013 U.S. Dramatic Competition: Austenland

 

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