During the Q&A following the Sundance Film Festival premiere of Austenland, Salt Lake City-based writer Shannon Hale described the dream come true of “Mormon ladies sitting around making a movie.” While a third partner—producer Stephenie Meyer—was certainly crucial in getting the film made, the actual “sitting around making a movie” part largely fell to the collaboration between Hale and director Jerusha Hess.
Based on Hale’s novel, Austenland tells the story of Jane (Keri Russell), a Jane Austen-obsessed 30-something woman who empties her bank account to visit an immersive theme park/Fantasy Island experience in England where female guests get to live out a Regency-period romance. Hess—who had co-written Napoleon Dynamite, Nacho Libre and Gentlemen Broncos with her husband, director Jared Hess—was looking for a project for her own directing debut, and first approached Hale in 2009.
“We clicked on a personal level,” Hale says. “And she wanted me involved as a partner. That was a tremendous trust she gave me. She’s the veteran screenwriter, she’s the filmmaker. … It was telling to me that she was willing to hear my voice.”
The actual process of developing the script was facilitated by simple proximity. “We couldn’t have collaborated if we weren’t living in the same city,” Hale says. “We sat in the same room together. It’s a great way to write comedy, because … if it makes the other person laugh, you know you’re on to something.”
“Sure, you could Skype it,” Hess adds. “But you don’t get that sense, ‘Did you really like it, or are you fake laughing?’ ”
While both Hale and Hess were experienced writers, each was required to stretch different muscles for this project. For Hess, it was her first screenplay written without Jared; for Hale, it was her first screenplay, period.
“When you’re writing a book,” Hale says, “you’re writing to your internal reader: What do I want to read. When you’re writing a screenplay, you’re also writing to the director, and the set designer, and the actors, and the producer, and anyone who might want to give you money.”
Hess, for her part, enjoyed a different collaborative experience. “I love Jared, but it gets a little emotional,” she says. “But I think what makes good screenwriters [is] when you can check and balance each other. With Shannon, we were just able to balance each other out without fighting.”
Such a happy collaboration is impressive, given the potentially difficult experience an author faces when being forced to realize what might have to change in her story to make it work as a movie. The back story for Jane, for example, was collapsed into a tight montage conveying a personal romantic history hampered by her Mr. Darcy crush.
“For me,” Hale says, “it was always a challenge of, how do we still keep telling [Jane’s] story? That story may change for the film, and that’s OK, but how can we tell it in a visual medium and still keep some of it intact? And we had to give up a lot.”
“We tried thousands of beginnings,” Hess adds. “The character needs to get to this point in her mind … but in the end it was like, ‘We just need to get there fast, so let’s develop her as fast as we can.’ ”
The collaboration allowed Hale the experience, rare for a novelist, of actually being on set for the entire shooting schedule. And Hess had her own unique experience: being behind the camera for the first time. “I knew what a set is, I knew what the hours were, I knew what was to be expected,” Hess says. “I think it was surprising working with so many actors, an ensemble like that.”
Now that the film is finally in front of audiences after a long wait—the production schedule just missed the submission deadline for Sundance 2012—there’s a chance for Hale to see how much this version of Austenland looks like what she had in her head in 2009. “From the very beginning, we said what we wanted it to be: First, we wanted it to be funny, and we wanted it to be sincerely romantic,” Hale says. “For me, the end result achieved all of this.”
For both women, now there’s also the chance to soak up the Sundance experience—different for Hess this time, if not brand-new. “[With Napoleon Dynamite], it was mostly about [Jared]. … It is kind of fun having the movie be my movie this time. It’s all very selfish and egotistical, but I love that people in the street are like, ‘I loved your movie!’ ”
Hale says she’ll remember being in the theater with an audience seeing the film for the first time: “You wonder, ‘Are they going to laugh?’ And the audience got it. It seemed like the only place where they didn’t laugh when we hoped for a laugh was ... where they couldn’t hear because they were already laughing.”
It’s a nice place to finish for a couple of Mormon ladies sitting around making a movie.
Rose Wagner Center
138 W. Broadway
Saturday, Jan. 26
Sold out, but wait-list tickets still available
Jerusha Hess and Shannon Hale will attend post-film Q&A