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The Jane Austen Book Club - Robin Swicord interview

The Jane Austen Book Club

Interview by Rob Carnevale

ROBIN Swicord talks about the appeal of The Jane Austen Book Club and why a blush landed co-star Kevin Zegers a key role.

She also discusses the appeal of working with former NYPD Blue stars Jimmy Smits and Amy Brenneman and why the film proved a dream first project as a director…

The Jane Austen Book Club starts off with a montage that raises some very amusing yet relevant points about where we are today as a society – over reliant on machines and not really talking with each other. Is that one of the things that grabbed you about the project?
Robin Swicord: Well, that opening montage of all the things that go wrong in our lives and the way that we live in such a detached way is not actually part of the novel. One of the reasons that I wanted to do this novel was that it was a collection of six separate short stories and each short story is how the character gets to the person that’s in the book club. So it’s only very thinly connected in terms of narrative lines. But in reading it I thought it would be an opportunity to talk about the way we live now. I put a few things in the script for the opening montage but I also put up a kind of sign up piece for members of the cast and crew to write down the things that drive them crazy about modern life and I filmed as many of those things as I could. I wanted to set the tone of why do we need community? Why do we look for refuge?

And it’s also about re-embracing traditional values?
Robin Swicord: Yes.

Were you a fan of Jane Austen’s?
Robin Swicord: I’ve always enjoyed reading her books. Like any child, I probably read Pride & Prejudice first when I was young but they are the sort of books that I do occasionally re-read. I can’t say that I’m obsessed with her books in the same way that true Jane-ites are but I do find myself turning to her books just for company. One of the things about Austen is that every generation reads Austen and feels that she’s talking about their time. She’s clued in to what remains constant in human psychology and human relationships. It was sort of fun to find those secret parallels between the novels and the lives of people in the book club because it isn’t really an Austen world, it’s more contemporary life in the suburbs.

And that’s one of the pleasures of the film as well because you don’t have to be a Jane Austen fan, or even have read one of her novels, to appreciate the film on some level…
Robin Swicord: Oh not at all. It’s designed that if you like books and you like people, you might like this movie [laughs].

Everyone seems to be raving about Emily Blunt at the moment – and rightly so, so what attracted you about her?
Robin Swicord: I had seen her in this little movie called My Summer of Love, a British film. It’s a pretty serious but she made me laugh so hard in that movie. I just found myself completely riveted by her performance, so I was secretly looking for an opportunity to work with her. I didn’t know that it would come so quickly. When I realised that this movie was going to move forward she was the only person I thought of for Prudie. Many names were suggested for that role but I just wanted to work with her.

She hadn’t really broken through yet but that was the summer that The Devil Wears Prada came out. But there’s just something about her – she has that kind of brittle surface, or she can have that very brittle surface that makes her very suitable for a role like Young Victoria [one of her next projects] but I saw something in her that was more like the wounded child – a kind of secret self. I wanted to have her play somebody who was more vulnerable. So, you see a sort of social awkwardness in the role of Prudie in The Jane Austen Book Club but underneath that is a person that she very slowly lets other people see, which is this unmothered child.

I’ve long been a fan of NYPD Blue and I wondered if you are as well because in Jimmy Smits and Amy Brenneman you’ve cast two NYPD Blue greats – although admittedly they never appeared together on that show…
Robin Swicord: Yeah. But I’ve always loved Jimmy Smits, like forever. He’s a person who doesn’t work that often in films, so I was never sure that I would actually get a chance to work with him unless I worked in television. But I suddenly had this opportunity with this film because I wanted somebody of his size. People say of him that he’s the quiet giant and I really wanted to have that in the character of Daniel because there’s something kind of unknowable about him but that you’d love him even when he was doing terrible things. It’s very hard… in this film the first thing he does is leave his wife for another woman, so in film language that’s shorthand for “dump the bastard!” [laughs] But of course this is a film about repair and so I wanted someone that you could connect to even when he’s behaving badly and he just has so much soul.

Amy Brenneman is just a wonderful actress. Even though she’d been on television already, the first time I really noticed her was in Heat, when Robert De Niro meets her in a coffee bar in a book store. She was so fantastic and so memorable that during the scene I turned to my husband in the theatre and said: “Who is that actress?” So, ever since then I had been thinking it would be wonderful to work with her. But again because her profile is bigger in television than in movies, I never knew if I’d have that chance. But because this came together as a kind of ensemble I was allowed to cast people who had worked in theatre, film and television without anybody second guessing me, and I was able to go for people that I wanted to work with.

Did you ever catch them talking about their old NYPD Blue days?
Robin Swicord: Yes [laughs]. But you know they had been talking, apparently, for some years about actually getting to do something together where they could play off each other. So, I think that was one of the big draws for Amy Brenneman because I’d already cast Jimmy Smits.

This is your first film as director, so how did you find the transition from being a producer and writer?
Robin Swicord: I had a wonderful experience. I was very fortunate in having such strong producers and such a strong cast that it made my life so easy. I also had a very strong crew. I had people that normally do not work on movies of this size, because this was a little movie that we shot for under $6 million in 30 days. But because we were shooting in Los Angeles, people who would normally be going away and getting big pay cheques on movies that were shooting in New Zealand and Australia and so forth were happy to stay home and be with their families for the Fall season leading up to the holidays, and they were willing to take less money to come and work on this movie. Consequently, I just had a first rate crew and all of those people made the job seem not so hard.

It sounds as though there was a lot of pulling together on every level. Emily Blunt, for example, paid for her own wig and sat in during the audition process to read alongside people who were to be cast opposite her…
Robin Swicord: Absolutely, she’s a very generous actress – not just because she bought her own wig but in terms of what she gives to other people in her performance. She’s fantastic.

And what’s next for you?
Robin Swicord: I haven’t decided yet. I’m actually being offered things but I’m trying to decide whether I want to direct somebody else’s screenplay or whether I’d like to write something of my own. I’m sort of in that process of collating material and thinking about things.

b>Read our review of The Jane Austen Book Club