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Current credit: After penning scripts for 1994’s “Little Women,” 1998’s “Practical Magic” and 2005’s “Memoirs of a Geisha,” Swicord tries her hand at directing her own script with Sony Pictures Classics’ “Jane Austen Book Club,” based on Karen Joy Fowler’s novel, which explores Austenian themes in contemporary Sacramento. Memberships: Directors Guild of America, Writers Guild of America; Academy member since: 1995
The Hollywood Reporter: Did you reacquaint yourself with Jane Austen’s novels before you started working on this film?
Robin Swicord: I was working on a project at Sony already, an original screenplay called “The Jane Prize,” about a family of dysfunctional Austen scholars. And so I think because I’d already done the reading, (producer John Calley) brought me this novel. I had already spent several years really immersed in the world, not just of the novels, but also of academics who taught the novels.
THR: Did you have contact with the book’s author, Karen Joy Fowler?
Swicord: I did. I initially asked if I could meet her when I took on the job. Well, because the project went so quickly, I turned it in, and immediately it was financed. I had the unusual thing of having to call her up and say, “Hi, I have written a draft of a screenplay based on your novel, which I would love for you to read, and by the way, we’re going into production in a couple of months on this.”
THR: Who was the first actress to come aboard?
Swicord: Thank God, Maria Bello came to play. She was the first person that John Calley brought up to me. I had always seen (Bello’s character) Jocelyn as kind of a beautiful Hitchcock blonde so that there was kind of a mystery about “Why didn’t she ever get married?” And when he brought up Maria Bello to me, I just levitated.
THR: As this was your feature film directorial debut, what was the biggest challenge?
Swicord: Making it all happen in the 30-day shooting schedule that we were given. There are about 37 different locations in the film and only 30 days to shoot it in. And I had a nice big ensemble of actors, and their lives all had to be scheduled into those 30 days. And so I had the blessing of having good producers and a really strong first assistant director, Vincent Lascoumes, who helped us work it all out. And every single day people said, “You’re never going to make this day.” And every single day we made our day.
THR: What was the biggest highlight of directing your own screenplay?
Swicord: The great joy in directing my own screenplay was that I wasn’t cut out of the process of making the film. Very often, I think the writer is left to the margins. Not in theater, but in film. And directing is an interpretive art. So I got the chance to interpret my own work, and I felt no barrier between me and creativity.
THR: And to follow that point, you’re a member of the Writers Co-Op, the production venture that grants screenwriters participation in their films through postproduction, while risking upfront salaries for a stake in first-dollar gross. Can you tell me more about the Co-Op’s mission?
Swicord: What’s crucial to the success of the Writers Co-Op is that we have to now make movies that make money. A very simple part of the mandate is if we’re going to be allowed to have some creative control over what we are doing, the result has to be some kind of commercial success. We get to stay with the project and make casting suggestions and be able to suggest who might be a good director. Do things that would normally be done in another creative setting, like the theater or even in magazine work. If you write a novel, you get to choose who your editor is. So we’re just trying to bring the process back a little bit closer to the people who begin the movie. And I think that there will still be plenty of room for other people to feel that they are creatively represented in the films that come out of that.
THR: Looking toward awards season, as a WGA voting member, what do you look for in evaluating and viewing movies you screen?
Swicord: I always order the screenplays. I always look at the screenplay as well as watching the movie. And I look for wonderful characters. I look for great storytelling. I look for good dialogue. And I look for some kind of inherent vision in the writing itself, whether it got interpreted that way or not. I look for a kind of cohesive vision in the script.
THR: Do you have a preference between writing adapted screenplays versus original screenplays?
Swicord: I love to adapt novels because it is a way of communicating with another writer. You’re sort of engaged with the mind of the person who wrote the novel. And it’s a pleasure to sort of take apart the book and see how it was made. And then to reimagine it as something in a completely different way so that you are making another art form using the same story. But I also like writing original work. It’s harder to get original screenplays done, I think, because people feel, “Should I take a risk on this? We don’t know whether this story works.” Whereas if a book like “The Jane Austen Book Club” has already sold so many copies and is being read by everybody, the studio has some confidence that they will be able to, with ease, attract people to come see the film. So it’s much harder with original work, but it’s also rewarding because you can put more of your autobiographical self into original work.
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