It’s taken Robin Swicord more than a decade to make the transition from respected A-list studio scribe to tyro helmer.
Along the way, she worked the angles at both the studios and indies, but nothing ever came to fruition. Finally, the right combination of powerful producer (John Calley) with strong ties to a major studio (Sony) with a specialty division (Sony Pictures Classics) and a hot bestseller with a brand-name personality (Jane Austen) landed Swicord her first movie as both writer and director: “The Jane Austen Book Club.”
Studios have found that along with the works of William Shakespeare, you can’t go wrong adapting Jane Austen, from countless versions of “Pride and Prejudice” to “Emma” and “Clueless.” With Austen as her star, Swicord could make a $5 million-$6-million ensemble drama with no other brand names. Sony Pictures Classics will debut the picture at the Toronto Film Fest on Sept. 9.
Swicord has never been the standard-issue studio screenwriter.
“I don’t take production rewrites,” she says, making tea in the kitchen of the airy Santa Monica craftsman house she shares with screenwriter husband Nick Kazan. “It’s a less lucrative career, but I am happy with the way my career has gone. Every job I take at a studio is a movie I want to make.”
But after 20 years of working for other people, Swicord has watched several movies go in directions she wasn’t happy with. While she ardently defends her collaboration with Rob Marshall on “Memoirs of a Geisha,” “Practical Magic,” especially, was a movie that “I would have been a good director for,” she admits. “It should have been directed by a woman.”
Having shot a half-hour short about her southern grandmother, “The Red Coat,” some 12 years ago with Teresa Wright, Swicord knew she wanted to direct.
But it’s harder for women to land that first helming gig, especially when they’re aiming a story at the female demographic. Despite considerable evidence that women moviegoers are starving for female stories, studios generally aim their wide releases at the reliable young male demo that turns up on opening weekends.
It didn’t take long for Swicord to discover that the material she was interested in making was not going to fly at a studio.
Some 10 years ago, she tried to get one project afloat at Paramount, “Thing of Beauty,” about young models. But after the studio figured out there were no young movie stars to carry it and placed it in turnaround, the project was so loaded with expenses that no one else could afford to buy it, including Ruth Vitale at Paramount Classics. “Every car wash from an executive was charged to it,” Swicord says. “Even though the screenplay cost was lowered so I could direct the film.”
Next, Swicord optioned her own piece of material, wrote a spec script, “The Mermaid Singing,” and set it up in Ireland with tax credits. Even with Jessica Lange, Evan Rachel Wood, Neve Campbell and Dougray Scott ready to shoot, the money fell through. So Swicord put it aside. For six years, she kept trying to get the family drama made at the $7 million level. “I’d be fully cast and partially financed,” she recalls. “I’d move into a hotel and get shut down. It was unbelievably frustrating.”
The combo of a rookie woman filmmaker and a female story was the killer. “I’m not a known director,” she says. “I feel that if the movie had been about a young grandfather back in the U.S. going back to Ireland to claim his lost grandchild, the movie would have been made. Even if an unknown male director had tried to make a female family story he would have had a hard time.”
So she went back to a passion project she and Sony’s Amy Pascal had talked about for some 15 years, a movie about people who love Jane Austen. “Amy and I got serious about trying to do a movie about a dysfunctional family of Jane Austen scholars that would echo some aspects of ‘Pride and Prejudice,'” Swicord recalls. As of June 2006, Swicord’s “The Jane Prize,” an academic family comedy in the vein of “You Can’t Take It With You,” was on a slow track.
Then producer Calley, who once ran Sony Pictures Entertainment and still checks in regularly with Pascal, approached Swicord with “The Jane Austen Book Club,” a 2004 bestseller by Karen Jay Fowler. Calley had read “The Jane Prize,” and clearly Swicord knew her Austen.
“The last thing I needed was something competing,” Swicord says. So she decided to do both.
Calley called Sony Classics co-presidents Tom Bernard and Michael Barker, who agreed to finance and release the pic. Calley called Maria Bello, who wanted to star. Suddenly, in one week, one Austen movie had forward momentum. And the other was left behind.
Swicord jumped in and made structural changes to Fowler’s six linking character studies, in which each book-group member presented one Austen novel at their meeting and each one’s life reflected the themes of that book. Swicord shifted several book club member and their books to best reach her narrative conclusion.
“I saw different things in the novels,” Swicord says. “It was a challenge to move from something that had the slightest narrative thread connecting the stories to creating something with enough narrative power to actually be dramatic.”
She kept flashbacks to a minimum. “This is a story that takes place in the here and now,” she says. “It’s the world we all live in, at an insane pace. We’re all looking for refuge.”
Having mounted two plays in New York, Swicord used a table read with her cast to shape her final script. “You can hear what’s missing or overwritten,” she says, “– whether certain moments have the power you think they do.”
Swicord expanded the role of the group’s one male member, Grigg, a boyish software designer played by Brit Hugh Dancy (“Elizabeth”) with an American accent. (She had discovered Dancy at a table read for “The Jane Prize.”) She also took the fantasies of the married Prudie character played by Emily Blunt (“The Devil Wears Prada”), who lusts after one of her young students, and upped the stakes by making them real. “In the film, her marriage is truly at risk,” Swicord says.
By Nov. 1 of 2006, “The Jane Austen Book Club” was shooting in Los Angeles, to save money; its cast could sleep in their own beds. New Zealand director of photography John Toon (“Glory Days”) was able to stay in Swicord’s downstairs apartment. They spent long afternoons playing with a Fisher Price videocamera and Playskool dolls as they blocked out the film’s talky group scenes. In the end, they shot the film on 37 locations in 30 days.
If “The Jane Austen Book Club” is a hit with women, Swicord may finally get the chance to breathe life into some of her abandoned children.