The writer-director points the way forward, with Emily Blunt and
Marc Blucas on the set of Robin Swicord's feature film-directing debut, "The
Jane Austen Book Club", which opens in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles
on Friday (September 21) and on October 5 elsewhere in the U.S. and Canada.
(Photos: Sony Pictures Classics)
obin Swicord walks into a suite at the Ritz Carlton here
with a calm and unassuming elegance that befits a relaxed, successful executive
of a high-flying corporation. Of slender stature with round, softened
features, Swicord looks more 35 than 55. The writer of such films as
"Matilda", and "The Perez Family" is also very kind and helpful. She
directs her interviewer to the hotel's gift shop when the batteries to a voice
recorder suddenly expire halfway through the interview and later reminds her
questioner that the water being consumed was still waiting for the reporter.
If her manner and way with a reporter echoes a southern hospitality, then you've
guessed right. Robin Swicord was born in the Southern United States --
South Carolina, to be precise.
Swicord has written the screenplays for such films as the Oscar-winning "Memoirs
Of A Geisha", "Little Women", and "Practical Magic". She is in the midst
of a whirlwind cross-country U.S. tour to promote "The Jane Austen Book Club",
her feature-film directing debut. Swicord also wrote the film, adapting
the best-selling 2004 book of the same title, authored by Karen Joy Fowler.
The film, released by Sony Pictures Classics, opens on Friday in select cities
in the U.S., with an expanded release on October 5. In it, six Southern
Californians with relationship issues meet on a weekly basis to discuss each of
Jane Austen's literary works, which have a deeper impact in their lives than
they expect. "Book Club" boasts an all-star cast, headed by Maria Bello,
Amy Brenneman and Kathy Baker, featuring Hugh Dancy, Jimmy Smits, Emily Blunt
and Marc Blucas, with appearances by Lynn Redgrave and Nancy Travis.
For years a writer at heart, Robin Swicord has been around actors for a
considerable period of time. She started in the theater as a playwright
and acted when she was in college as a theater major and was at ease with
actors. Her level of comfort as a first-time feature film director was
never at issue as it is for some freshman directors. When it came to Jane
Austen however, a competing interest emerged for Swicord. "I had been at
work on another project called "The Jane Prize", which is about a family of Jane
Austen scholars. I had spent a number of years just reading Austen, the
letters, biographies, downloading academic treatises on Jane Austen -- kind of
preparing to write that . . . I had done a draft and I was making my way through
the development process of ["Prize"], which was for me to direct." Then,
John Calley, the former head of Sony Pictures and two other film studios, and
highly respected as a legendary figure in film and production in Hollywood,
brought Karen Joy Fowler's novel to Swicord.
Although Swicord admits to initially being "dismayed"
at the dueling Austen film projects, she got reassurance and backing from Mr.
Calley, who wanted to give Ms. Swicord her feature film directing debut.
Calley has started an almost infinite number of careers in Hollywood.
Swicord was immediately struck and impressed by Fowler's novel with its six
short stories centered around a book club. "The more I read it, the more
it began to come to life for me in my mind in terms of how I would make a film
about the way we live today," said Swicord. The 21st century, two removed
from Austen's time and primacy as a writer, comes with its immense distractions,
several of those being the Internet and television. "In our hectic lives,
no time for reading. No time for each other. Beset by all the
wonderful technological conveniences that drive us crazy. And I just
thought, 'wouldn't it be wonderful to make a film about how people come together
out of all these fractured lives and create community?'"
Family themes have dominated the screenplays of Swicord's
past work, and she is asked about the cultivation of the familial in her latest
screenplay and where the input for those impulses come from: her own life,
actors, Austen herself, or the novel specifically. "I think that the
subject of dysfunction in families and the need to make a family informs so much
of film, plays, poetry even -- novels certainly, and Jane Austen always wrote
about families as well . . . and she was very interested in social order -- not
a sense necessarily of a kind of a class structure -- but in terms of one's
responsibility to the people with whom you live. And so, she writes about
trouble in families, she writes about imperfection. And I am drawn to
those subjects as well. Matilda is a girl born into the wrong family.
The great structure in "Little Women", Louise May Alcott's book, was that
there's a family in which someone is missing. The father is away at war.
And the mother has to go. And these girls have to find out what kind of
little women they really are, by rising to the occasion and bringing the family
together. And there is always this movement towards this kind of order,"
says Swicord, who has a family of her own (two children) with husband Nicholas
Kazan. Zoe Kazan, her daughter, is acting on stage currently in New York
City in an Off-Broadway play.
For the first-time director and seasoned writer there was never a doubt about
the approach to adapting Ms. Fowler's novel. From the start there was a
clear intent to remain faithful to it, both in heart and spirit, despite
otherwise innocuous tweaks. For instance, Fowler's novel takes place in
Sacramento, in Northern California. Swicord's film takes place in Southern
California. Obviously Fowler's novel contains a lot more detail than does
Swicord's nearly-two-hour film, with more depth and time to probe character and
backstories for each of the six protagonists who form a family of their own as
book club members. "Anytime that you adapt [a novel for film], it's really
a process of finding the drama, finding the movie that's in the book," the
director commented. Naturally, the temptation to take license is
inevitable and universal for any writer committed to orchestrate a published
work for the big screen, and for Swicord, the process was no different than from
the journey that millions of screenwriters adapting novels take. "In that
case," continued Swicord, "sometimes you embellish, and sometimes you leave
behind material. But I think always we're trying to get at the essence of
what the book is really about. And I don't think at heart that Karen Joy
Fowler and I were writing about different things. We were writing about
the same thing, but our approach was different."
Amy Brenneman as Sylvia and Jimmy Smits as
Daniel, a married couple in "The Jane Austen Book Club", written and directed by
Robin Swicord. The film is adapted by Ms. Swicord from Karen Joy Fowler's
best-selling 2004 novel of the same name, and opens on Friday in New York, San
Francisco and Los Angeles, before expanding to other U.S. cities and Canada on
After talking about adapting books, and about the new film about Austen's
novels, the inevitable question for Robin Swicord is, which Jane Austen work
speaks loudest to her? "Right now, I think that Persuasion
resonates most for me. It's a book about second chances. It's about
a woman who waits and doesn't know if she will find happiness and doesn't know
what to hope for . . . and she gets a second chance at happiness that she
thought she had lost. And in a weird way . . . thematically that kind of
resonates in my life because I waited a long time to make the crossover into
directing. For a long time it was denied me because there is a kind of
insidious bias against female filmmakers. And I was never sure . . . I
could try as hard as I wanted, but I could never be sure that I would finally
have my chance. And it came true for me."
The cast of the film is right at home with the director, and when mentioning the
cast members, Swicord's face lights up into a large, bright smile, conveying all
the enjoyment, excitement and satisfaction that the shoot of the film brought to
her and to the cast and crew. It wasn't necessary to ask Robin Swicord
what kind of joy she had directing Amy Brenneman, Mario Bello, Hugh Dancy, Jimmy
Smits, Marc Blucas, Kevin Zegers, Emily Blunt, Kathy Baker, Maggie Grace and
Nancy Travis, as well as the rest of the cast of the film. It could be
seen and written all over her face.
(Bookleaf heart images taken from the movie poster for Swicord's film.)
AUDIO FILES: Robin Swicord (part
one - 13 minutes; part
two - 9 minutes)