Park City • Utah filmmaker Jerusha Hess unveiled her first movie, "Austenland," Friday afternoon before the most prestigious audience she’ll find in her home state: The 2013 Sundance Film Festival.
And she’s all prepped to record the DVD commentary. "I wanted to make little comments all through the film," Hess told the Eccles Theatre audience after the afternoon screening.
The Eccles audience laughed and applauded at "Austenland," an offbeat romantic comedy based on Provo author Shannon Hale’s comic novel. It tells of Jane (Keri Russell), a Jane Austen-obsessed woman who takes a vacation at a Regency-period theme park. There, she’s romanced by a charming stablehand (Bret McKenzie) and a standoffish Mr. Darcy type (JJ Field).
"Basically, a bunch of Mormon ladies got together and made a movie together, which is awesome," said Stephenie Meyer, the author of the "Twilight’" series, a friend of Hale’s and a producer on the film.
Shot primarily in England (with some reshoots in Utah), the movie has some of the goofball charms of "Napoleon Dynamite," which Jerusha Hess wrote with her director husband, Jared.
When "Napoleon Dynamite" debuted at Sundance in 2004, Jerusha Hess told the Eccles audience, "people thought I was Jared’s brother." "Austenland" offered her a chance to step out on her own, putting a female spin on the Hess brand of humor.
"I loved all the smooches we got to shoot," Jerusha Hess said. "My husband doesn’t make rom-coms, so he couldn’t help me out."
There were many challenges to filming, not the least of which was that her star, Russell, was pregnant during the shoot. "You can tell by her bustling, because it changed daily," Hess said.
Field has appeared in some Austen adaptations — "being an English actor who can ride a horse, it’s required that I’ve done a couple of Austens," he joked — and said he got the part in "Austenland" because "Jerusha wanted me to take the piss out of myself."
Actress Jane Seymour, who plays the proprietor of the Austenland theme park, admitted to her own Austen obsession, so much so that she once bought an estate near Bath, England. "It’s very expensive — you do not want to do that," she said.
The strangest audition may have for Ricky Whittle, who plays another Regency-era suitor — a sea captain with washboard abs. Whittle said he auditioned over Skype, and later learned that the camera didn’t show Hess his face but his torso. "My chest and my groin got me the job," Whittle said.
When an audience member asked Hale if there might be a sequel, based on her follow-up book "Midnight in Austenland," the author was quick to reply: "If you would like to fund it, I think we’re greenlit — let’s go."