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Austenland

Twilight author Stephenie Meyer leaves the vampires behind to produce the UK-set Austenland, directed by Jerusha Hess [pictured] and adapted from Shannon Hale’s bestselling novel.

Keri Russell, Jane Seymour and Jennifer Coolidge wait in empire-waisted Regency finery near the entrance to a Palladian manor; JJ Feild and James Callis are nearby in shined boots. And then all of a sudden Bret McKenzie is doing some dirty gyrations to Nelly’s Hot In Herre. What century is this?

This confusion of eras is explained by the plot of Austenland: contemporary American career woman Jane (Russell) has a slightly sad fixation on everything Jane Austen, especially that famous BBC mini-series starring Colin Firth. So she finds herself visiting a Regency-style themed holiday resort, Pembrook Park, where contemporary actors play out Austen fans’ fantasies.

The scenes shooting the day Screen visits the set in late July 2011 see Jane encouraged to play some classical piano to impress her fellow guests, but it turns out the only song she knows is something a little more contemporary. Hence McKenzie’s hilarious dance coaching on the lush grounds of West Wycombe Estate and Park, Buckinghamshire, to make sure the dancers grooving with Jane during her dream sequence have the right moves (for the record, he is quite the impressive dancer).

So Austenland is not a period film so much as a fake-period film, playing with ideas of Regency life interpreted in the 21st century. Stephenie Meyer, the Arizona-based author of the hugely successful Twilight books, is producing, partly because she is such an Austen fan herself.

“It’s not about Jane Austen’s life and works, it’s about people who love them. We’re having fun with what a lot of us are, which is Jane Austen fans who’d like to be able to get into that story if we can,” she tells Screen. “It’s a comedy - this is not an Oscar-bait, people-are-going-to-die, tears movie. It’s fun, and we’re passionate about the fun.”

The film is adapted from Shannon Hale’s novel of the same name, a bestseller in the US when it was published in 2007.

First-time feature director Jerusha Hess became involved because she had read some of Hale’s children’s books and wanted to talk about adapting them. Their first meeting (both live in Utah) was when Hale had written Austenland, which Hess loved instantly.

The pair worked together on the script. Hess remembers: “She was lovely throughout the process. She was picking her own book apart, saying, ‘Hey this would work.’ The book was already very lean so it wasn’t like we had to pull out junk. But it was more of me putting in funnier, quirkier people and moments. I think I’ve added a lot of more physical moments.”

Austenland is something of a change of pace for Hess, who has co-written and worked on films including Napoleon Dynamite, Nacho Libre and Gentlemen Broncos with her film-maker husband Jared Hess. “It’s about time the Hesses made a movie for girls, not for 10-year-old boys,” she says with a laugh.

Casting Keri Russell as the loveable but slightly geeky Jane was key. Meyer explains: “Jane is a tricky character, there is a fine line between someone who is so pathetic that you can’t identify with them at all - ‘What a loser this girl is!’ - to the point that this is a quirky girl who has a weird hang-up but is otherwise a very loveable and capable person. Keri can play vulnerable - she was stunning in Waitress. And she’s also funny.”

Feild - who Meyer likens to a young Colin Firth or Hugh Grant - and McKenzie (of Flight Of The Conchords fame) play two very different romantic leads. Jane Seymour plays the icy, judgmental woman who runs the resort. Jennifer Coolidge plays a frequent guest and James Callis plays an actor entertaining the ladies. The cast is rounded out by Screen 2011 Star of Tomorrow Georgia King, Ricky Whittle and Rupert Vansittart.

‘All the right reasons’

The film was developed by Moxie Pictures, which represents Jared Hess for his commercials work. Jerusha Hess brought the script to Gina Mingacci, who had recently come on board to start Moxie’s new film division (which has also worked on Errol Morris’ Tabloid and has projects in the works with Seth Gordon and Jim Sheridan).

“Moxie optioned it and did a little work and we were just starting to talk to other financiers and that’s when Stephenie came on board as producer,” Mingacci explains. “She is the easiest other producer I’ve ever worked with. She’s doing it for all the right reasons, this is not a vanity project for her.” UTA is handling sales.

The budget, of less than $10m, was pulled together with private financing. Jane Hooks came on board as UK co-producer and line producer, and ensured the film could take advantage of the UK Film Tax Credit.

“There was always the chance, especially with a small budget, that you have to do it where it makes sense,” Meyer says. “We could have had to find a house that looks the right period in Louisiana or Vancouver. But it means so much more to be in England.”

Meyer had a busy 2011, away from home for the 100-day shoot of the two Twilight: Breaking Dawn films. Now the next adaptation of her work, The Host, will shoot this year with Nick Wechsler producing, Andrew Niccol directing and Saoirse Ronan starring.

The Austenland level of film-making, where the budget did not even include all-day craft services, was a different animal to Summit’s Twilight behemoth (by the end of the series, Meyer was a producer and on set every day). She says: “It is a really interesting process to go at it from this side, rather than creating the story and letting everyone else take it and make something.”

As a first-time director, Hess pays tribute to her mostly UK crew. “You have this team of experts that are this safety net… You just realise you have all these really cool and smart people who know what they’re doing. And you say, ‘Show me what to do!’” Having the experience of cinematographer Larry Smith (Eyes Wide Shut) was a bonus.

Female intuition

The set was also notable for its heavily female film-making team. Meyer notes: “I think women have different ways of dealing with problems, and we like to talk it out, and everybody’s more collaborative in some ways, I think.”

It was not just girl power creating a positive vibe on set. The shoot also had a relaxed vibe thanks to a generous 39-day summer shoot (Hess notes that Napoleon Dynamite shot in a rushed 22 days). That somewhat relaxed pace was built into the budget. Meyer says: “It is a comedy, and if the actors are enjoying themselves, we’re going to have a better product in the end.”

Meyer’s production company Fickle Fish Films, set up with Meghan Hibbett, is only making Austenland at this stage but she says the company could nurture other projects in the future. Hale’s sequel Midnight In Austenland, more of a Gothic murder mystery in the same setting, will be published in the US on January 31 via Bloomsbury, so a film sequel is a possibility.

Meyer says: “We’ll see. If this one does decently, then potentially I’d say we’d be back with some members of this cast back here in the same place.”

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