Just Asking: Shannon Hale and Jerusha Hess
Austenland, a hilarious film about a modern woman obsessed with Jane Austen's novel Pride & Prejudice who gets the chance to live out her fantasy, hit theaters in 2013. It’s the work of three LDS powerhouse women: Shannon Hale, Jerusha Hess, and Stephenie Meyer.
How did this project get started? Shannon, you wrote the book, but then how did you connect?
J: A friend of ours introduced me to Shannon, and I had just read all of her little children’s stories in a row, back to back. I started reading them and I was like, “Where have you been all my life?” And I told Shannon, “I adore your work; I want to make your anything into a movie. Your children’s fairytales are so gorgeous; I would love to do an adaptation. And she slipped [this book] across—“I’ve got a thing for you—why don’t you read this one. It’s ready.”
S: It’s not true. Part of it is true, but she said, “I don’t know if I’m the right person to make your books into movies, but I think they should be released.” And I was ok with that, but then as we were leaving, I had Austenland in the car, and I wasn’t even thinking that she was going to want to do it, but I was like, “Oh, here, thanks for lunch.”
J: My memory is way more cinematic.
S: But the important part is she read it overnight and emailed me 24 hours later saying, “We need to make this movie.”
And how did Stephenie Meyers get involved?
S: I knew Stephenie through the book world. We’d been friends for a few years, and she’d always really liked Austenland. She’d always talked about needing to make a movie. When Jerusha approached me and we decided to do it, she was loosely involved for a while, unofficially read the script and gave us feedback, and then it was like a year and a half later when she officially became involved.
J: That long.
S: We went away together the three of us—we had a ladies’ weekend to talk about it—but we started writing in May of ’09 and I don’t think she got involved officially until—
J: I have wasted too much time on this movie!
S: Well I started writing it in 1999, so…
What was it like working together?
S: I think we’re probably soul mates, is that fair to say? Kindred spirits.
J: Yes. It was a great balance. She’s very smart, I am very dumb. It was a wonderful balance of power.
S: It was Jerusha on one side being the veteran screenwriter, knowing film, and having a great sense of humor and the visual storytelling. And then me on the other hand with a lot of writing experience and no film experience, having a good sense of the story and of character and character arcs. And then—BAM—we collided in a big eruption.
J: It was awesome. It was really fun to write with someone other than Jared [her husband and cowriter for Napoleon Dynamite and Nacho Libre].
S: Jerusha’s so great; she set up the tone: If you don’t like what the other person suggests, you’re not polite about it, that wastes time. You just say that’s stupid.
J: Sorry, these are not good Mormon values we are sharing here. Well—honesty is a good Mormon value.
S: But it was great, because then you could really test it out. It was a really good spirit. One thing that was cool was, when I’m out in the book world, I’m really the only LDS person. But on the set there were a whole bunch of us, with me and Jerusha and Stephenie.
J: We went to church on Sundays together.
S: You work all day during the week on the set and then there we are with our families at church on Sunday, and it was a nice break. I think our ward was very proud of us.
How do your LDS values influence the work you do and your career path?
S: Writing a story is so hard for me, I can’t be thinking about “How are people going to be interpreting this?” and “How can I teach values through this?” The best I can do is try to live my life the best way I can and know what I believe and what’s important to me, and then I think that just comes through whatever story I’m going to tell.
J: I’m not invited to certain cocktail parties. I don’t know—it’s like being an active LDS member, it’s your whole life. It’s not just going to church on Sundays, so in that it’s my whole life, it’s not something I have to make decisions about. It’s just who we are. A couple of dorky Mormon people.
S: Exactly. Once you decide “This is what I believe and this is the life I’m living,” you’re not continually making those decisions over and over again. Being LDS is more than going to church on Sunday or particular ceremonies; it’s just engrained in who you are.
Any missionary moments during the movie?
S: All the time. Jane Seymour and I have had a lot of talks. It’s wonderful, honest curiosity, and I’m happy to either correct misconceptions or whatever. Everybody was really lovely about it.
How do you balance all the things you do?
S: It’s hard.
J: My husband and I will take turns making movies, and one of us will be home with the kids. And that’s not just a Mormon thing, I think that’s something every working mother has to figure that out. I think in the end, having a working mother isn’t the worst thing for kids. It shows that your mom is strong and capable and talented and hardworking, and those are all great values to instill in kids.
S: I love being a stay-at-home mom and I’ve got four small children. But if that’s all I did, I wouldn’t feel fulfilled. And I think that if women are fulfilled by that, that’s great. But if they’re not, I hate that there’s this myth that you’re not a real mother if you want something more as well. And I think I’ve got the best of both worlds because I don’t have to work full time. Because my husband works I’m able to work just three hours a day and I have a babysitter where I can come work, and then I’m a better mom because I’m happy because I’m able to express creativity and my intellect.
BBC or Keira Knightly Pride & Prejudice?
J: Isn’t that what everyone says?
S: I mean—Colin Firth. That’s all you need to say. The Keira Knightley one is beautiful, but there was more story to [the BBC one]. I felt like [the Keira Knightley version] changed the characters, so if I can watch that without thinking that it’s Pride & Prejudice I can enjoy it, but if I watch it thinking it’s supposed to be the book, then I get annoyed.
What character in Austenland are you most like?
J: Definitely George East. I’ve got my awesome bod, my tanned skin, my very short hair… Just kidding.
S: You’ve got a little bit of Miss Charming in you. That wide-eyed delight. I feel like I’m like Miss Charming when I’m in the film world and I’m like, “Wait a minute, there’s a world outside that’s not a messy house and screaming children?” And my eyes go wide and I’m like, “Everything’s delightful!” And I just want to love everything. But Jane’s got that geekiness to her that I really understand.
What was your favorite thing about making the movie?
S: I had recently had twins, so I went to England and there was catered food, and everyone was complaining about it, and I was just like, “Someone’s giving me food! This is awesome.” We used to have this little Maltese dog that had a neurotic disorder and would get really anxious around people, and you could get close to it to pet it and it would start to shake, it was so excited, and that was me on set. I’d been housebound for like a year and a half and I was like, “There are people!”
J: I just loved being around those funny actors. Brett and I got really close, and some of the middle-of-the-night scenes that were shooting, the foal scene being born for one, we were in this little bubble of director-actor, and we would come up with the dumbest, most horrible lines, and no one was laughing but he and I, we were giggling like schoolgirls about placentas and all sorts of strange things and afterbirth all over the body, and nobody that it was funny and the scene was almost cut, but I just had fun with them and it was really a pleasure.
What was your favorite moment on the set of the movie?
J: My favorite moment was a scene where a baby horse is being born and it’s the middle of the night, and Keri [Russell], Brett [McKenzie], and myself were really tired and really giggly, and we were laughing and coming up with the craziest lines. Brett was like, “Oh, I’m covered in placenta,” it was just very, very funny. There should be a lot of outtakes.
S: For me it was the theatrical. It was also a night shoot, I think it was the first night shoot. And we walked into the woods, and the theatrical was always kind of my baby, I was really excited for that scene, and the set designer, it was like entering fairyland. It was gorgeous and fabulous. And they did the whole play from beginning to end in one shot. And they were all so funny that we were turning red and shaking trying to hold our breath and not laugh out loud. And I remember as soon as Jerusha called cut, everyone, the entire crew, burst out laughing—at last we could laugh—because everything was so funny.
J: That was a good moment. It got really bad though because then we had to reshoot it like 4,000 times for days and days.
S: Yeah, that moment didn’t last.
J: It didn’t. Diminishing returns there.
Tell us about the adaptation process from book to movie. Was that hard for you, Shannon?
S: I was totally cool with it. I really feel like a book is a book, and you need to make changes to adapt to visual media, and it was all about “How do we make this the best story?” I didn’t want the movie to be just a visualization of what it was, I wanted it to be its own story that made sense. You have to cut stuff, you have to condense stuff, you have to change stuff just to make it work. And I actually really enjoyed it. I enjoyed going back, I enjoyed writing new scenes and exploring new stuff. My favorite thing to add was the theatrical, which was in the book, but we blew it up. I wrote it into a 15-page scene, and I was like, “Jerusha, this is the centerpiece of the movie; everything is perfect because they’re all playing a role playing a role and then only when they play-role play-role do they actually speak what they mean, and their truth comes out,” and she’s like, “Cut 90% of it.”
J: And I enjoyed filming the soap opera. Highbrow, lowbrow.
Any plans for a Midnight in Austenland movie?
J: Shannon’s going to make me write down something in blood. She’s planning it. She’s writing it already. She’s ready. Are you kidding me? And she might star, let’s be honest.
Shannon, you got to be an extra in the movie. What was that like?
S: I was an extra in the ball. I was amazing. I walked across the room. I don’t know—it might be Oscar-worthy. I don’t think I’m bragging to say I was probably the best extra on set. By far.
J: And the prettiest and youngest.
S: I made them put makeup on me. The others didn’t get makeup, but I was like, “The director told me I could have makeup.” I wanted to look pretty. It was actually really fun, because I had been an extra on Touched by an Angel in college, so I knew the thing. And I got on set and I walked in with my garb and everything, and I knew you weren’t supposed to talk to actors or anything, and I didn’t tell my little group of extras who I was, because what are you going to say, “Hey, I’m the writer.” So I didn’t say anything, but then first thing Keri Russell comes in and says, “Ooh, I like your hair,” and I was like, “Thanks!” and the others were like, “Wow, the stars talk to you!” And I was like, “Yeah, I don’t know.” Then Jennifer Coolidge walks in and she’s like, “you have the perfect coloring for this era.” And I was like “Thanks, and I love your dress!” And she was like, “Thanks!” And they were like, “Wow, two of them, it’s amazing.” James came up to me and did this: “I want you to know, I am so glad that you’re here. You have made this experience magical for me.” And I was like, “Thanks!”
I hear there are some connections to the original BBC Pride & Prejudice in this film.
S: Mr. Wattlesbrook’s part in the book was based on Mr. Hurst from Pride & Prejudice, and Rupert Vansittart played Mr. Hurst from the original Pride & Prejudice and was cast [as Mr. Wattlesbrook] without my knowledge, because I wasn’t part of that process. I met him on set and he told me and I about freaked out. And to add to the splendor of all of this, JJ Field—Mr. Nobley—wore the Colin Firth hat and jacket—it had Colin Firth’s name in it—the very first scene and wardrobe that [Colin Firth] wore in Pride & Prejudice.
From left to right: Stephenie Meyer, Shannon Hale, and Jerusha Hess. Photo from Shannon Hale's blog.