The Persuasion Of Robin Swicord

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)


By Omar P.L. Moore /

September 15, 2007


R  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. 

"I think we are hard-wired from birth to take family as the universe.  It is, the home."
-- Robin Swicord, writer and director of "The Jane Austen Book Club"

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 October 5.

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.)

Robin Swicord (part one - 13 minutes; part two - 9 minutes)

By Omar P.L. Moore /




Home   Features   News   Movie Reviews  Audio Lounge  Awards Season  The Blog Reel  YouTube Reel  Extra Butter  The Dailies