From Novel to Screenplay
Producer Lindsay Doran met actress
Emma Thompson on the set of the thriller "Dead Again," which Doran produced.
During the first weeks of the shoot of that film, a Los Angeles public
television station aired "Thompson," a British television comedy series
consisting of short skits written by Thompson. Doran was impressed: "The
writing was funny and sweet and romantic and real."
So when Doran decided
to produce "Sense and Sensibility," she asked Thompson to write the script.
Thompson wrote the screenplay adaptation
of the Jane Austen novel in the early 1990s, "long before I became famous,"
and never expected it to be made into a film. Thompson had originally hoped
to write a script for Austen's Persuasion.
In transforming the Austen novel, Thompson
hoped to focus more on the Dashwood sisters' relationship than on their
romantic liasons: "I'm just as interested in the love story between the
sisters as I am in seeing Marianne [and Elinor fall in love]... It's as
much about family as it is about love."
Thompson characterizes the story as
one of survival: "We plunge into [the Dashwood sisters'] stories at a time
when the whole question of survival is entering their lives because they
don't have any money. When their father dies and they lose the family estate
at Norland, they are edging towards the abyss of genteel poverty. If something
happens and they lose what little they do have, there's nothing at all
to fall back on, except the kindness of relations--an unreliable business
at best. The whole question of finding somebody to marry becomes a great
deal more essential to their financial and social survival."
It took Thompson almost five years
to finish the script: "The novel is so complex and there are so many stories
in it that bashing out a structure was the biggest labor. I would write
a version, Lindsay [Doran] would read it and send me notes. Or, if we happened
to be in the same city, we would sit down together and talk out the problems.
Then I would cry for a while and then go back to work... It's been so many
drafts that I have no idea where I started... [The final script] is the
result of a lot of tears."
Doran then searched for a director who could handle both romance and
satire, which led her to Ang Lee. In fact, there are similar dialogue
in the scripts for both Lee's "Eat Drink Man Woman" and "Sense and Sensibility."
Both scripts have a character uttering, "What do you know of my heart?" The
titles of the two films are also roughly similar in the posing of opposites.
An unlikely choice to direct, the Taiwanese
Lee hoped to give the English novel a new perspective: "'What I wanted
most to do with this film is to make people cry after they've laughed...
I think it takes an outsider to do this. It is good for this project that
I am not English.''
Lee was drawn to Austen's novel because
it focused on the importance and complexity of family relationships, as
his previous films ("The Wedding Banquet," "Eat Drink Man Woman") have
also explored: "Jane Austen is a wonderful painter of family rituals and
social customs. Her work combines warmhearted romance and drama with a
sense of social satire, qualities which I try to achieve in my own work.
Sense and sensibility, pride and prejudice, eat drink man woman... I like
that kind of thing, getting to the bottom of life itself!"
Lee had not read any of Jane Austen's novels before the film:
"When I saw Marianne on the hill looking down in the stormy rain--that's when I decided to take the job. Naive innocence. Something about Marianne on the hill (singing) the Shakespeare sonnet. The loss of innocence. That got me so much I was in tears. It's painful to struggle in the way of growing up, to learn the way the world is, to deal with people who behave the way Elinor does and still succeed in her heart."
He attributes his opportunity to directing the piece to Doran:
"She was developing the script. She saw "Wedding Banquet." She
thought I was the total right for director to interpret her understanding
of Jane Austen, which is social satire. You know, cool, cold funny on one hand
and family drama, which is warm... romantic, emotional... Usually these
two donít get along. That seems to be the, a natural director, whatever
I do naturally have that kind of balance. The way I grew up is probably
closer to Jane Austen time of English society than British people today."
Lee recalls: "I got offered 'Sense and Sensibility.' I read it and
wondered why they had sent the script to me. It's all about British introductions,
somebody is introduced to somebody else and then. . . eight pages later so-and-so
bows... so what did that have to do with me? But I was the guy that did social
satire and family drama - that was how they saw Jane Austen should be interpreted
and I was offered the job. I felt as if I know the world. . . really at heart,
I know the material, except I have to do it in English with an English touch.
So the cultural barrier and the major-league production was really the challenge,
and I was ready to take the challenge. Of course, working with Emma Thompson was
irresistible, and the film was to be made in England, not Hollywood, so I figured
that was good natured. I still didn't know if we should do a $15 million movie...
But then that week we saw some Hollywood movie and we thought, 'If a schmuck
like that can make a movie, what are we afraid of?' So I took the job."
Thompson herself had initially considered
directing the film: "I thought about it for 30 seconds, and I had to lie
down. How can you direct in a corset? You simply can't."
Although Lee was moved to tears when
he first read Thompson's screenplay, he was ruthless in editing her wordy
300-page script. For example, Thompson's original version had Willougby
return to Marianne's deathbed for eight pages of dialogue. Lee's version
only had Willougby ride past her wedding to gaze from afar. In addition,
Thompson had Edward and Elinor embracing and chatting excitedly after Edward
proposes; Lee's version only hints at a proposal with Edward getting down
on one knee.
There are a few other changes from the book. In the novel,
Brandon and Willoughby fight a duel. The scene in the film in
which Marianne catches a fever after looking at Willoughby's estate is new;
in the book, she becomes ill after an evening walk.
Doran was reluctant to tout Thompson's
script, thinking that an Austen novel would bore American audiences: "As
a girl I always thought Austen's novels were pretty silly, just [about]
people who visited each other a lot, and talked... At Emma's insistence,
I read Sense and Sensibility again and found that it was wonderful,
and would make a great movie. It had not one, but two heroines, a lot of
humor, plot twists and a surprise ending -- everything. But, still, Emma
wasn't famous yet. We had an untried screenwriter and a 200-year-old novel.'"
Auditions and Casting
Emma Thompson, who wrote the screenplay,
crafted the script intending to cast real-life sisters, Natasha and Joely
Richardson (daughters of British actress Vanessa Redgrave) as Marianne
and Elinor. However, she was later encouraged to play Elinor herself by
director Ang Lee. Thompson was reluctant to cast herself as Elinor, because
she thought she was too old (Elinor is supposed to be 19 years old). Lee,
who wanted Thompson for the lead, eventually decided to age Elinor's character
to 27 years so that modern audiences would understand how Elinor could
be considered a spinster. Thompson adds: "With make-up and a good wig I
might look young enough."
In addition, some of the supporting cast members had to be cast older as well,
to balance the 36-year old lead.
Thompson was so unknown at the time
she finished the screenplay that when producers Lindsay Doran and Sydney
Pollack flew to America to tout the script, one Hollywood executive asked
regarding Thompson, "Does she have to be in it?"
Lee considered Kate Winslet's prior
acting performance overdone and invited her to audition only for the minor
role of Lucy Steele. Doran also only envisioned her as Steele. Winslet, however,
"wanted to be Marianne, so she was the only character I would even talk to Lindsay about."
Soe she pretended that her agent had wrongly
misinformed her and read for Marianne's part instead. Lee was impressed
and ended up casting Winslet.
Doran and Thompson thought Winslet
was perfect for the role. Doran recalls of Winslet's audition:
"The producer, Lindsay Doran, says: "When I met Kate I must have forgotten
the agent had mentioned Lucy. Anyway, the moment she came through the door
I said to myself, 'Here comes the perfect Marianne' ... She knew
every scene by heart, and she gave it everything she had. She broke down
in the reading almost exactly the way she breaks down in the film." Thompson
adds: "We thought Marianne was going to be the most difficult person to
cast, and then Kate walked in. At the end of the interview she turned her
great, headlamp eyes on me and said: 'I wish you would let me do this.
I know how to play her.' When she left, I said: "That's Marianne. No question.'"
Thompson formulated the role of Edward
Ferrars with Hugh Grant in mind, long before he became famous. On Grant,
Thompson remarks of the casting decision: "[Grant is] repellently gorgeous.
Why did we cast him? He's much prettier than I am.' "
The Jane Austen Society,
however, called Thompson to complain that Grant wasn't right for the part.
Apparently, they thought he was too handsome for the role!
Because producers didn't think that
the story would sell to American audiences, Thompson and Grant had to accept
lower salaries just to finish the $15 million production.
As is typical with all of his films, Lee held a "Big Luck" ceremony
before the film was shot. Fruit, red flowers and incense sticks were
placed on a table while the group bowed to the four points of the compass.
A pineapple was produced, for prosperity. A camera and a symbolic
length of film were blessed. He also taught the English cast and crew how to do tai chi. The
cast knew that they were in for an unusual eleven weeks.
Lee got inspiration for the look of the film from
To prepare Kate Winslet for the role
of Marianne, director Ang Lee asked her to read Austen-era novels and poetry
and to report back to him on what she'd learned. Winslet recalls: "The
way in which you get into interpreting these characters is by just going
back and reading novels the character would have read that would have been
written at the time, reading up about that period... [about] what were
women up to then, what were men up to then, what was the marriage situation,
how old were women when they were being married off..."
Winslet, who had only completed one
film at the time, felt indebted to her co-stars during the shoot: "In the
first week of rehearsals there wasn't a single day when I didn't go bright
red and feel absolutely ridiculous about everything I was saying. I
thought I was long-winded, repetitious and stupid... Every
day I kept thinking 'This is so ridiculous, I'm working with Alan Rickman,
Emma Thompson, Imogen Stubbs...' They saw me as one of them, on their level.
But I felt like an absolute newcomer, which I was and feel that I still
am genuinely. But it is such a godsend to have had such knowledge and wisdom
around me. I can do nothing but absorb it."
She adds: "At the end of the first day's filming, I very timidly asked
[director Ang Lee], 'How was I?' And all he said was 'You'll act better.'
After that, sometimes he said, 'Terrible. Terrible.' ... Every day he would
teach me t'ai chi for an hour or two, and after we had done that, Em would
join us for massage and meditation. He explained that it was a mental
exercise, a relationship thing.
He set us homework, he gave us each a thing like a pamphlet, a huge
great list of things to think about and write down. We each had to write an essay on
our characters, very in-depth stuff, like a GCSE paper. And not
only that, we had to type it all out so he could read it.
Even Alan Rickman and Hugh Grant had to do it, and we were all freaked out!
I got into a terrible state of worry about it. I rang my mum and dad and they said,
'Look, he's chosen you for the part, you're not on trial. It's not an exam,
he's not going to give you ticks and crosses and marks out of 10.'
But, do you know, they were wrong. That's just what he did!"
Winslet produced 75 pages of close typing and waited, palpitating,
for his verdict. "He looked grim and he said, 'This is wrong, very wrong.
Too much of one emotion. You are dwelling too much on grief.'
He wasn't ever reassuring; you never got a pat on the back."
During the filming, the actors obeyed Lee's request that they keep up a flow of
letters to each other, all written in character.
Winslet worked hard with a piano teacher
to pull off the scenes in which Marianne plays melancholy tunes on the
"piano-forte." Although she can sing quite well in real life, Winslet's
singing voice was, however, later dubbed with that of a professional singer.
Winslet found that the most challenging
scene for her was Marianne's near death scene: "When you have to act that
you are dying, you really have to believe that you are. Otherwise all you're
doing, essentially, is lying there with a whole heap of makeup on your
Winslet, known for her intensity on
the set, passed out twice during filming and had to be revived using fresh
flowers from the producer and several bottles of ale from the assistant
directors. Doran recalls: "intensity. "It was scary. Twice on the set she passed out.
The first time, we were filming a rain-storm and she had to run and fall flat
on her face in the mud, again and again. And Willoughby comes galloping up on his charger,
the incarnation of all her desires and fantasies, and scoops her up in his arms,
she was discovered to be in a real swoon."
It happened again when Marianne climbs
to the top of a hill and looks down on the house of her lover and his new bride.
As she fully absorbs the fact that Willoughby is lost to her forever, she murmurs
some words from a Shakespeare sonnet: "love is not love/Which alters when it alteration finds".
At that point, Winslet went into another unscripted faint.
Winslet admits: "I'm a bit of a masochist. I never believe I've
done my job properly unless I go home feeling that I've suffered."
Concerned co-star and friend, Emma Thompson, however, pleaded with Winslet to pace
herself, especially with her dieting (Winslet had been asked to lose weight
for the part).
Lee adds: "Kate had to learn to relax. She gets so tense that it could
weaken her performance. I had to work with her more than with any other actor,
and always on relaxation and concentration. She gave a most impressive,
outrageous, over-the-top reading. Such a bold, raw talent! I was
swept away; then I had to teach her 'Less is more.'"
In order to make Thompson appear younger
(Elinor was 19 in the novel, and Lee agreed to make her about 27 in the
film), close-ups were forbidden and the filming crew played with lighting
and angle tricks.
The sheep used in the film had their
fleece permed to look fluffier.
Lee once remarked during the shoot:
"The acting in England is much better than the food."
Thompson originally wanted to find
trained trout for a scene in which Alan Rickman (Colonel Brandon) catches
fish with his bare hands to impress Marianne. The idea was later scrapped
because it was impractical.
Rickman, who was in his forties during
the filming, was mistaken by a passerby tourist as Tom Cruise. Huh?
A native from Taiwan, Lee had Thompson
and Hugh Grant adopt some Asian poise for the scene in which Elinor nobly
tells Edward that she hopes to help him marry Lucy: "I insisted they should
just sit there for one long shot, with Hugh Grant's face in the shadow,
not being able to move."
Grant admittedly found the take difficult because of its subtlety.
There were a few cultural differences on the set. At first, Lee was
shocked when Thompson and Grant offered suggestions for shots during production.
He admits that it took him a while to understand that this was not an insult:
"In Taiwan they expect the director to come up with everything. You enjoy
all the authority and no one challenges you. We weren't brought up
communicating--you grow up taking orders until you're old enough to give orders.
'Sense and Sensibility' was my first taste having to convince people to
do what I wanted."
Winslet admits: "It was hard for him, too.
In Taiwan he is absolutely famous and his word is law. And he comes to England,
where actors are used to saying, 'Just a minute, actually, can we talk about this?'
and at first he took it as a criticism of his work. He took it to mean that we thought he was a [bad] director."
In addition, Lee was often heard critiquing the actors' performances in Chinese.
Known for his direct style, Grant took to calling Lee "the brute."
The filming was difficult for both Winslet and Thompson, who were going through relationship problems. Thompson's marriage
to actor Kenneth Branagh was crumbling, while Winslet admits: "Towards the end of the filming,
I was going through a bit of a personal hell time myself. It involves another person --
it was the break-up of a relationship. And it left me with a very big question of 'Who am I?'
It was bloody tough, and the fact that I started to look [terrible] probably helped with Marianne,
since it coincided with her own crisis."
With Thompson confronting a divorce from Kenneth Branagh and Winslet parting from her boyfriend,
real life formed an eerie symmetry with the roles when they were filming Marianne's breakdown.
Doran says: "Emma was holding onto the thought that her beloved sister was probably dying,
and Kate actually looked like someone who was pegging out. They sat around like ghosts
for two weeks and scared... the rest of us."
Winslet also found her near-death scene particularly taxing:
"It's all very well to lie there with your eyes closed and white make-up all over your face,
but to make it believable you have to believe you are dying. It was like hallucinating.
I went into a place in my soul I never knew existed. I went inside a black box that I
couldn't get out of, and it was like my soul and spirit had turned into some bizarre
heavy substance between coal and lead. Scary."
That night, Thompson gave her a glass of wine,
a supper and put her to bed. The two actors had now become so friendly that Winslet was
staying in Thompson's house in West Hampstead, where she remained for some weeks after the wrap.
Winslet adds: "I do get incredibly wired and very stressed out, which is where my mum has always stepped in, But
on 'Sense and Sensibility' I grew up a lot."
Frightened by her own tendency to internalise the role and
live the part, she made herself phone home and talk to her family after every day's shooting.
After the shoot, Winslet had to wrench herself away from the movie family:
"At the end of 'Sense and Sensibility' we all gave each other presents. I put on my boots and my
701s, and Em and I lay on the grass and drank a pint of champagne each. I've got a Polaroid [of us]
Sure enough, the photo reveals Winslet's face wet with tears, and even Thompson looks bleary.
The next evening after the wrap, Lee threw a party entitled "Eat Drink Cast Crew".
This began with a Chinese banquet and ended at the Cafe Royal, where they danced to Hugh Laurie's band.
Relationships On and Off the Set
To bring authentic affection to the
screen, Lee had Winslet and Thompson share their living quarters and encouraged
them to live like sisters during the shoot. Both actresses have remarked
that Lee's advice worked, as they are still good friends. Winslet has nothing
but praise of Thompson, who she refers to as "my best friend" and mentor: "Her nature is to be open and to be honest and
to wear her heart on her sleeve. She's a very emotional, passionate person and
somehow that just oozes out of her and sets up this really good team feeling on set.
Emma was in a very happy frame of mind (on set). She was great, very clear.
I mean, she's a brilliant actress, absolutely brilliant. I admire her so!"
Winslet adds: "We really cared about each other. We became like sisters and still are.
We took care of each other's needs on the set and got along like a house on fire."
Thompson was only one of a few stars who were invited to Winslet's wedding in 1998.
Of Winslet, Thompson remarks comically: "Ah, the Winslet girl. She should be unbearable, shouldn't she?
I mean, she's bright. And young. And talented. But the fact is, she's likable too."
Thompson also paid tribute to her in her published diaries, written during the shoot:
"Kate looks a bit white. The bravest of the brave, that girl. I can't imagine what sort of state
I would have been in at nineteen with the prospect of such a huge role in front of me.
She is energized and open, realistic, intelligent, and tremendous fun."
Thompson also found another kindred spirit on the set. She and actor Greg Wise (Mr. Willoughby)
became romantically involved during the filming. The couple now live together with
their daughter, Gaia Romilly Wise.
The Actors on Their Roles
Of her similarities to Marianne Dashwood, Kate Winslet humorously remarks:
"I certainly think two years ago I was absolutely a Willoughby girl, but now I'm the more serious Brandon type,
a bit more solid. But it was great [to play Marianne]... Two men, and they were both lovely."
Director Ang Lee remarks of the success of the movie: "After the success of
'Sense and Sensibility' I just couldn't take it anymore, you know, the same tone anymore...
I don't know why I'm embarrassed about success. I just want to do a movie that could be a flop, maybe. [But]
I was very happy that I did that movie." Still, Lee admits that he is more comfortable tackling tragedies such as his
Oscar-winning "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon": "I just couldn't do 'Sense and Sensibility' again. At least not for a while.
There will be a time when I will be less cynical and I come back to have some pure fun."
At the same time, Lee confesses that directing the film sparked his love for period movies:
"Once I taste the making of a period piece, I just immediately fell in love with it. I think
thatís more proper for me. You know, Iím not such a hip person. I donít know whatís trendy, whatís happening
now. I think period piece I can do the research and create a world of my own. In a way, itís
like making foreign film. Thereís a distance to it, especially after five generations, everybodyís
guess. Of course, it is hard work. There are ways to get into no only all the looks authentic,
but the spirits authentic so you create a sense, a smell of time."