The first time Stephanie Meyer read the novel “Austenland,” she said it was “adorable. The best tribute to obsessed Austen freaks (like me) that I’ve ever read.” That was in 2007, when author Shannon Hale’s novel was first published by Bloomsbury. Little did either of them know that four years later, they’d be collaborating on a screenplay, along with writer/director Jerusha Hess, to bring that novel to film.
“Austenland” opens today in a nationwide limited release. It delighted audiences at this year’s Sundance Film Festival in January, and enjoyed a true Hollywood-style premiere in Los Angeles a couple of weeks ago. For Meyer, best known as the author of the “Twilight” series, being a co-producer of the film was a delight—almost as much as reading her good friend Hale’s book for the first time.
We caught up with these three ladies, and the talented cast of “’Austenland,” at the Festival, in a closed bar that served, as many closed Park City businesses do during Sundance, as a press venue. It was the second time that Hess has been part of a SFF premiere. Along with her husband, Jared, they premiered the hit “Napoleon Dynamite” at Sundance in 2004.
“This time was much different,” Hess said of her directorial debut. “There was a lot less pressure than before with ‘Napoleon.’ It’s still very professional, but less stressful for all of us.”
She was introduced to Hale’s book through a friend, “and I read it that very night. Shannon and Stephanie were friends, and then I became involved and we worked on the screenplay for about a year.”
“Austenland” is the story of Jane Hayes, played wonderfully by actress Keri Russell, a single New York woman who has an unhealthy obsession with Mr. Darby from the BBC adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice.” She soon learns of an opportunity to visit a getaway-destination themed on the Jane Austen classic—a sort of Fantasy Island for women wishing to live out their dreams of meeting the proud and proper gentlemen of Austen’s story.
“Jane’s (Hayes) obsession with Mr. Darby is over-the-top,” Russell told me. “Her bedroom décor is all about Mr. Darby and Jane Austen. She really thinks that visiting the resort will somehow propel her fantasy into reality.”
What she soon discovers after arriving at the England countryside resort is that other Austen-crazed women have similar dreams. The resort’s owner, Mrs. Wattlesbrook (magnificent Jane Seymour), quickly puts Russell’s character in her place, telling her she had not booked the “deluxe” package and thus housing her in a less-than-luxurious room. From there, the fun begins, as Russell meets fellow guests with the “given” titles Miss Elizabeth Charming (scene-stealing actress Jennifer Coolidge) and Lady Amelia Heartwright (funny and neurotic British actress Georgia King). Soon, they are introduced to the gallant men of Austenland—actors JJ Feild, Bret McKenzie, James Callis and Ricky Whittle. All of the cast members were present at Sundance for the press interviews, though Coolidge missed the film’s premiere due to her role on CBS’ “Two Broke Girls.”
“Working with these ladies was delightful,” Seymour told me. “I know that Jerusha was directing for the first time, but this seemed like one of the most relaxed and professional sets I’ve ever been part of.”
“I had a ball doing this,” Coolidge said during our interview. “I loved the way my character evolved as we went along. One of the best experiences I’ve had as an actress—working with these guys.”
“I think they were all surprised that three chicks could put this together,” Hess said in a Q & A after the film’s premiere at Eccles Theatre in Park City. “And not just three chicks—but three Mormon chicks.”
She said the film was shot at a time when Russell was “quite pregnant” with her daughter Willa. In fact, she was eight months pregnant when the film wrapped.
“When she was riding her horse in the film, we had to make sure to have someone ride right alongside of her, to protect her,” Hess said. “Some careful editing to be sure!”
“This was such a marvelous collaborative experience for us,” Feild said. “Everything about the production was top notch—from the costumes to the art direction.” And Whittle added that “being here at Sundance with the film just makes this experience even sweeter. Although I wish it was a bit warmer outside!”
Ironically, Hess was in Ogden a couple of nights after the film’s SFF premiere when she got the word that Sony Worldwide had bought the rights (Sony Pictures Classic is releasing it).
“During our Q & A, some kid came up and told me he’d read on Twitter that the film had been acquired,” she said. “Everyone in the cast and crew began texting each other—we were all thrilled.”
Jared Hess makes a cameo appearance in the film himself, but this was Jerusha’s film from start to finish. Though she’s currently taking a break to stay home with the couple’s children while Jared is directing a film with Jim Carrey and Owen Wilson, “I’m not done as a director! I loved working with the actors, the costumes and makeup and the artists. This came about organically in a way for all of us, but it’s definitely in my blood now. I might never let Jared direct again!”
“Austenland” is rated PG-13 and will likely be opened to a wider audience after its initial premiere week. That’s typical of how Sony releases independent films it acquires at Sundance and other film festivals. If you like comedy, romance, and Jane Austen, you’ll love “Austenland.”