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'Austenland,' a family-friendly romantic comedy at Sundance

Published: Saturday, July 4 2015 11:11 a.m. MDT

Keri Russel (Jane Hayes) and JJ Feild (Mr. Henry Nobley) perform in the movie "Austenland." (Giles Keyte) Keri Russel (Jane Hayes) and JJ Feild (Mr. Henry Nobley) perform in the movie "Austenland." (Giles Keyte)

If you have longed to live in the time of formal introductions, empire waist gowns and gentleman callers wearing cravats with buttoned-up vests, you too may have fallen into the Jane Austen trap.

Shannon Hale, a Utah author, capitalized on this period fascination in her novel "Austenland," which has been turned into a screenplay and will premiere on Friday, Jan. 18, at the Sundance Film Festival. Directing the film is Utahn Jerusha Hess, who has found success at Sundance previously as co-writer of "Napoleon Dynamite."

The Hale-Hess combination has produced a family-friendly romantic comedy that has sold out all scheduled Sundance screenings.

"We always just have these weird movies where people are like, 'What is this?' and then they are like, 'Oh wait, I can have my 3-year-old watch this,'" Hess said. "I was able to bring that funny 'Hess humor' to it. It's a little off the wall at times."

Keri Russel (Jane Hayes) and Bret McKenzie (Martin), perform in "Austenland," which is sold out at the Sundance Film Festival. (Ed Miller) Keri Russel (Jane Hayes) and Bret McKenzie (Martin), perform in "Austenland," which is sold out at the Sundance Film Festival. (Ed Miller)

The comedy may be off the wall, but Hess, along with her husband, Jared, have become naturals at producing films that appeal to a wide range of people.

"It's something we never really give a lot of thought to; it's just how our sense of humors are," Hess said. "I think it takes a little bit more effort to think of jokes that aren't raunchy. I don't know how we've hit the nail on the head to be so universally liked, but it's an awesome thing."

Hale also assured that the film's message and content would be consistent with the book.

"I don't think people who were fans of the book, and liked it for not being raunchy, will be disappointed," Hale said. "I don't let my kids see PG-13 movies, and I would let them see this."

The cast of "Austenland" wears costumes from the era of Jane Austen. (Giles Keyte) The cast of "Austenland" wears costumes from the era of Jane Austen. (Giles Keyte)

Hess said that its innocence and light-hearted feel may have been a factor in the film's acceptance by Sundance.

"I think it was just like the anti-Sundance movie," Hess said. "It just felt like after so many dark or serious or life-altering movies they just wanted to see something fun and light — and that's exactly what 'Austenland' is."

The story begins with a 30-something, successful woman who has given up on finding real love because nothing can compare to the romance found in Austen's "Pride and Prejudice," particularly the BBC production with Collin Firth as the irresistible Mr. Darcy.

Several big names can be found in the cast, such as Keri Russell as Jane Hayes and Jane Seymour as Mrs. Wattlesbrook.

The cast of "Austenland" wears costumes from the era of Jane Austen. (Giles Keyte) The cast of "Austenland" wears costumes from the era of Jane Austen. (Giles Keyte)

Stephenie Meyer, author of the Twilight series, also joined as producer in order to participate in the film version of a book she loved. Meyer's first review of the book said, "Adorable! This is the best tribute to obsessed Austen freaks (like me) that I've ever read."

And according to Hale, the movie also will not disappoint.

"I could not be happier," Hale said of the finished product. "I thought it was hysterical and sweet and swoon-worthy."

But if it wasn't for a simple lunch meeting, this anticipated romantic comedy would not be part of Sundance this year.

Hess had read some of Hale's books, such as "Goose Girl" and "The Princess Academy," but "Austenland" was far from their discussion. It wasn't until saying goodbye that Hale gave a copy of "Austenland" to Hess.

"I happened to have a copy of 'Austenland' in my car, which is really weird because I never carry my books around," Hale said. "But I wanted to give her something because she paid for lunch, and so I thought, 'Oh well hey, here is this book.' It never crossed my mind that she was going to want to make it into a movie because it wasn't like anything she had done before."

Hess returned to her home and read the entire novel overnight and eventually called Hale expressing her desire to make the book into a movie.

They began writing the screenplay together. The two worked together off and on for a couple of years.

"We would just sit in a room and pitch lines at each other, and if it made the other person laugh, we would write it down," Hale said. "Working with a veteran screenwriter was so educating for me. We had a blast."

The change of scene was exciting and new for Hess as well, who usually writes screenplays with her husband.

"It was so fun," Hess said. "I'm used to writing with Jared and it gets very close. You can't just escape after you've had a disagreement; you have to actually go home with that person. So it was really fun to have a new sensibility, and she knows her craft so well. It was lovely."

Once the screening is over, both Hale and Hess will hope that "Austenland" is bought and distributed. As for the future, Hale's secret wish is for the sequel, "Midnight in Austenland," to also be adapted to the screen. But for now, she is enjoying the moment.

"I would love to do this all over again. I had so much fun," Hale said. "It's exciting because you make something, first the book and then writing the screenplay, and then you spend a year making the movie, and so after all that work you just hope that it will get a chance to get out there and be seen. So to have it so hugely embraced by Sundance and the people attending Sundance — it just seems like such a gift."

Sarah Sanders Petersen is an intern for the Deseret News, where she writes for Mormon Times and does other feature articles. She is a communications major and editing minor from Brigham Young University.

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