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(Contemporary women look for love in "Austenland," which screened at the Sundance Film Festival on Friday, Jan. 18. (Courtesy photo) )
3 women forgo Hollywood’s boys club to make ‘Austenland’

Interview » How “three chicks,” with help from Jane Austen, made a romantic comedy.

By Sean P. Means

| The Salt Lake Tribune

First Published Aug 20 2013 04:59 pm • Last Updated Feb 14 2014 11:32 pm

In the male-dominated hierarchy of Hollywood, it’s not often that three women — a director, a writer and a deep-pocketed producer — can team up and make their own movie.

This makes the existence of "Austenland," an offbeat romantic comedy rolling out around the country — and opening Friday at Salt Lake City’s Broadway Centre Cinemas — a particularly happy surprise.

At a glance

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Filmmaker Jerusha Hess, Tribune movie critic Sean P. Means and others will join moderator Jennifer Napier-Pearce for a live Trib Talk video chat about “Austenland” Tuesday at 11:30 a.m. at sltrib.com.

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Where were the suits? The omnipresent studio executives — usually men — who tamp down on imagination and creativity in favor of formula and market-driven imitation?

"We didn’t have any suits," said the director, Salt Lake City filmmaker Jerusha Hess. "Stephenie was the suit."

That would be Stephenie Meyer, the author of the ridiculously successful "Twilight" franchise. Meyer’s production company got involved in "Austenland" because of her friendship with Utah author Shannon Hale, who wrote the book on which the movie was based.

"Being outside Hollywood, I probably didn’t realize just how unlikely it was that three chicks could get away with making a movie," Hale said. And not just "three chicks" but, as Meyer noted when the movie debuted at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, three Mormon women.

The road to "Austenland" began when Hess pursued a meeting with Hale as two Utah creative types with a lot in common.

According to Hale, Hess had been initially interested in making an adaptation of Hale’s young-adult books, the "Princess Academy" series. But Hale showed her the comic novel she had just finished, about a Jane Austen fan going to a Regency-era tourist attraction in England, and a partnership was cemented.

It’s Hess’ first time as a director, though she’s spent plenty of time on movie sets as co-writer and producer with her husband, Jared, who directed "Napoleon Dynamite," "Nacho Libre" and "Gentlemen Broncos." It was Hale’s first time as a screenwriter, as she and Hess collaborated on adapting the book to film.

Hale said the collaboration brought out a script that neither would have created individually.

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"This movie is in every way a merging of our sensibilities," Hale said. "In the Hesses’ movies, all the characters are ridiculous, but they don’t realize that. In ‘Austenland,’ all the characters are also ridiculous, but two of them do realize it eventually, and I think that helps the audience members make a connection. Jerusha and I both wanted to tell a story that is the very thing the story is making fun of. You get the fantasy while getting to laugh at the fantasy."

"Mostly we were just mindful [of] the people that would watch this movie," Hess said. "We didn’t want to offend our target audience, which was the Jane-ites."

Her first day on the set, Hess said, "I was confident for one minute. … I thought I knew a lot because I had been on many sets, [but] it takes a week to get in your groove."

Hess said her directing style is more traditional than her husband’s: "Jared is super funny and he can play any of the characters he directs. He does a lot of line readings, and he does take after take after take. I was a little more classical: Get the wide shot, get the medium shot, get the close-up, so I’ve got coverage. Once I got in close, I could do tons of improv, and I let my actors just go."

With Keri Russell in the lead as the lovelorn Austen fan, the movie also features funny supporting turns by Jennifer Coolidge, Bret McKenzie (from "Flight of the Conchords"), James Callis ("Battlestar Galactica") and Georgia King ("Cockneys vs. Zombies"). Hess said the only one who was not allowed to ad-lib was Russell’s leading man, J.J. Feild, because he was playing the stiff-necked Mr. Darcy type.

Women make good directors, Hess said, because "we are natural mothers, and half of directing is mothering actors. They’re needy and often insecure. We need to constantly reassure them."

Hale said, "I heard from many of the cast and crew that it was the most fun, relaxed and professional set they ever worked on."

Hess said she can’t imagine how "Austenland" would have turned out if her husband had directed it. "There might have been less romance," she said. "It was hard enough for me to direct those kissing scenes; I started blushing. Jared might have just died."

Hale agreed. "If [Jared] directed this movie, we’d still get the laughs but we wouldn’t get the sighs," she said. "While this is primarily a comedy, there are scenes that make my heart pound every viewing. Jerusha is all about the comedy, but she wasn’t afraid of the romance."

Hess said she’s taking some time off from directing while Jared makes a movie — a heist flick called "Loomis Fargo," with Jim Carrey and Owen Wilson — and tends to their four children.

But Hale is interested in making more movies. "My agent says that by the time you go to your movie’s premiere, you have something like pregnancy amnesia. You forget the pain and want to do it all over again," she said.

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