If Jane Austen were alive today, then she’d probably attract more paparazzi than Lindsay Lohan. So it’s perhaps fitting that Austen has a strong presence at the Sundance Film Festival, where it sometimes seems like half of everyone in Hollywood goes to see and be seen. The romantic comedy “Austenland” had its world premiere screening Friday at the festival’s Eccles Theater, fittingly located inside Park City High School, where Austen’s novels doubtless gain new readers each school year.
The movie's title will almost certainly have a familiar ring to many in Utah: It's based on a popular novel by Beehive State author Shannon Hale. Librarian Marilee Clark said that Orem Public Library currently has eight copies of "Austenland," all but one of which were checked out, as of earlier this week. "They were all purchased in 2012," Clark said, "which is an indication of how many copies we have worn out in the last four years."
The new movie may soon be equally popular in Utah -- Hale co-wrote its screenplay with director Jerusha Hess, who has a local following of her own from writing the films "Napoleon Dynamite" (also a Sundance sensation) and "Nacho Libre" with husband Jared.
Hess said that she first met Hale at the urging of friends. "They were like, 'Man, you guys should work together,' " Hess said. The two eventually met for lunch, though Hale didn't immediately realize who was attempting to contact her.
"Basically, I got a phone call from my mom, who said, 'Somebody who you used to know who's a friend of your sister called me.' I thought, 'Well that's weird,' " Hale said. "I didn't return the call forever." The she finally heard that the attempted contact was on behalf of Hess, whose name she recognized -- sort of.
"I loved 'Napoleon Dynamite' and 'Nacho Libre,' " Hale said, "but I didn't even know that those filmmakers were in Utah."
When they met for lunch, Hess said, they mostly chatted about Hale's young adult books "Goose Girl" and "Princess Academy." Hess paid for lunch, which Hale said made her feel self-conscious. "I felt guilty and I wanted to give her something," Hale said. In her car was a copy of "Austenland," which seemed appropriate to the moment.
"She emailed me the next day," Hale said, "and said, 'We need to make this into a movie.' "
Art imitates life imitates art
The plot of "Austenland" is simple: A young woman in New York who's obsessed with the Mr. Darcy character played by Colin Firth in the 1995 BBC miniseries adaptation of Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" gets the opportunity of a lifetime from a wealthy relative. Jane Hayes will travel to England for an extended stay at Austenland, a fantasy resort that meticulously re-creates the environment of Austen's novels.
It's not as far removed from reality as it may sound. The Jane Austen Society of North America has a Utah chapter (www.utahjaneites.org) founded by Salt Lake City resident Aspen Anderson, who teaches history at Utah Valley University. Anderson, 30, leads London literary tours that visit sites connected to Jane Austen (and a few other English writers), and the Utah branch of JASNA has an annual Regency Romance Ball -- this year's event is Feb. 8 and 9 in Salt Lake City -- for people to dress in costume, dance and have dinner.
"I think that people really want to experience what they see in those movies," Anderson said. "The Regency Romance Ball is the closest that I've ever come to living the fantasy." And now there's a new movie to keep the daydreams alive -- Anderson said that the Utah JASNA crowd is eagerly awaiting "Austenland:" "I guarantee you that every single one of us will go see it." If not at Sundance, then the second it's available anywhere else.
Like her main character in "Austenland," Hale was, shall we say, inspired by Firth's famous performance, despite not watching the BBC "P&P" until years after it had been released. "I put off watching it because I was a fan of the book," Hale said. "I didn't want it to spoil (the novel) for me."
Instead, she liked the film -- and Firth -- so much that she wrote "Austenland." Hess said that she has her own thing for Austen adaptations -- "I love the genre; I've watched every single one" -- which made it a pleasure to work on the script for "Austenland" with Hale.
And it probably didn't hurt that Hess loves "Austenland," too. "It really spoke to the girliness in me, and the fan girl in me," she said. "Whether it's Jane Austen or 'Twilight,' it speaks to those little obsessions that we all keep hidden."
Speaking of "Twilight," just in case "Austenland" doesn't already sound charmed enough by the powers of Utah pop culture, the new film was produced by -- wait for it -- Stephenie Meyer. "Stephenie is one of the smartest people I know," Hale said. "She's got a great eye for stories and characters. Her first priority was getting the story right."
For Hess, "Austenland" was her first experience directing a film, something she's always wanted to try. At first, she said, it was everything she'd anticipated. "It was all such a joy," Hess said. "I loved production, I loved writing." The other foot didn't drop until later on, after filming, when the everything else that has to happen reared its ugly head.
"Jared kept telling me, 'Post-production is hard, editing is hard -- I'm just warning you,' " Hess said. The hardest part of post-production, she said, was seeing everything she'd done with her cast over and over and over again. "All the jokes are just flat in your mind," she said. "They were so funny when you wrote them, and then the actors made them better, and then ... "
"Austenland" doesn't quite have the level of all-star cast that the highest-profile films at Sundance attract, but it certainly has oomph. Keri Russell, who made a splash at Sundance five years ago in the romantic drama "Waitress," plays the lead, and former "Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman" star Jane Seymour has a key supporting role.
The film also features James Callis (Gaius Baltar from "Battlestar Galactica"), Bret McKenzie (half of the titular duo from HBO's "Flight of the Conchords"), Jennifer Coolidge (Stifler's mom in the "American Pie" movies) and JJ Feild (star of -- casting coup alert! -- the BBC adaptation of Austen's "Northanger Abbey").
Hess said she definitely had stars in her eyes at the start of filming. "That first rehearsal, I was just shaking in my boots. I'm sure I had tears in my eyes," she said. "They were all so sweet and sympathetic to the new director. By the end, I was just yelling at them."
Because, you know, things change. In Hess's words, "You kind of get over the shell shock of being around somebody who's so amazing when you're hungry and tired and wet in England."
Authors frequently have their own ideas about casting, but Hale, who was on location in England for the entire shoot, said that she couldn't be happier. "I cannot imagine a better actor for any of the characters," she said. "Every single actor became exactly what I'd hoped for and more."
Now all that's left to find out is whether festival audiences agree. In that sense, Hess said, there are definite benefits to having Sundance rather literally in one's backyard. No matter what happens at screenings, she'll be able to relax at the end of the day: "I'm going to sleep in my own bed every night."