Awards Daily talks to directors Alex Appel and Jonathan Lisecki of Modern Persuasion, the new romantic comedy starring Alicia Witt, based on the classic Jane Austen novel.
Jane Austen is one thing that never seems to go out of style. After all, earlier in the year, we were treated to an Emma update from director Autumn de Wilde, and now directors Alex Appel and Jonathan Lisecki are bringing another serious update to Austen, with a modernized version of Persuasion called Modern Persuasion, available in VOD Friday, December 18.
“Persuasion has always been one of my favorite books of hers,” said Appel. “It’s never been attempted to modernize, and as Jonny [Lisecki] knows with working on it, it has complications in updating, to make the lead character likable. You can’t really use the same construct of what society was back then, that got her to make her decisions. I thought it really had a place in modern times, with a woman being an older age and getting a second chance at a first love.”
Alicia Witt stars as the Anne Elliot role from the book, only in the update her name is Wren and she works for a marketing company whose new client is her former boyfriend Owen Jasper, played by Shane McRae. Like Persuasion the book, they meet up after several years apart and sparks fly. The supporting cast includes Daniella Pineda, Mark Moses, Adrienne C. Moore, Liza Lapira, Jenn Harris, Tedra Millan, and Bebe Neuwirth.
Co-director Jonathan Lisecki came on to “New York-ify” the script, and while he isn’t an Austen fan, there was something he especially liked about the process. “I read the book, did a lot of research and watched all the various adaptations—what was most interesting for me was taking the puzzle of the book and trying to adapt it and keep it as parallel as possible, but update it and make it different enough to make sense to modern times. Alex can attest that the original draft of the script was 140 pages because I kept every single thing from the book in it. It’s a lot easier to take away, refine, and invent,” he laughed.
Making Persuasion Modern
In order to get Modern Persuasion ready for the big screen, Appel and Lisecki had to streamline a couple of characters from the book. They also removed references to Wren being “past her prime,” something that was mentioned frequently in the original text. “I’ve always hated that, when society puts an expiration date on a woman,” laughed Appel. “So that, we cut out.”
The fact that Wren is a woman in her 40s is also remarkable, not just for Austen, but for romantic comedies in general.
“I personally think women are absolutely fabulous and more interesting in their 40s,” said Appel. “I have no idea why they can’t be a romantic lead. Surely, that was one of my interests in adapting it, because in adapting it, you can’t have this whole thing work if the woman is in her 20s [she’s 27 in the book]. I knew it would have to be aged up, and that was the thing I was most excited doing.”
In addition to the heroine’s age, Appel and Lisecki also tweaked how the heroine feels about women and emotions, including one piece of dialogue where Wren says that women can’t let go of things compared to men. “There’s a lot of things you get into nowadays where you have to say, ‘That is the character saying it!'” said Lisecki. “The character can really have an opinion that might not be right all the time.”
Austen and #MeToo
Another challenge was that #MeToo had happened when they had finished their final draft, and as any Jane devotees know, there are many romantic entanglements in an Austen novel. And when you set your modern update in an office, it can be tricky.
“There might have been some inappropriate things,” said Appel of the original script. “It’s so problematic now when you have flirtations in the workplace, so we had to give thought, ‘Did we cross the line?’ It was a little scary.”
Lisecki echoed the sentiment, saying that they added accountability from other characters. “You have a character doing that, and you also have characters saying, ‘You can’t do that!’ It’s a tricky balance. We did have to lose a couple of jokes that were too risque, but we kept one or two in. That stuff is not in there to offend. It’s really in there to show that there are still men in the business world who seem to think there’s nothing wrong with saying whatever comes to mind. It’s an example and it’s also a caricature.”
With the Austen remake, the other thing that Appel and Lisecki aimed to do is remind audiences of the classic rom-coms of the ’90s, something that nearly scared away people from working with them.
“When I first started shopping it, I did get a lot of, ‘Oh, well, romantic comedies are dead—you can’t do this anymore,'” said Appel. “But I’ve always loved old-fashioned ones like When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle, before the big dance numbers came in at the end or the characters had to kiss in public and everyone had to clap. Not that I don’t like the newer ones, but I do like the older ones, and also I felt it leant itself more to Jane Austen, which I do think is more refined and proper.”
“We were definitely not trying to make a rom-com of the past 10 years,” said Lisecki, “where the comedy has become bigger and there’s some occasional gross-out stuff. We wanted to embrace that it was classic. There are movies that do this that still ride the line, like Bridesmaids, but yeah, we definitely were embracing the classic romantic side of the romantic comedy, and a lot of those are my favorite films. And it does fit the world of Austen better if you do that style.”
Here’s an exclusive clip from the film now available on VOD.
Modern Persuasion is available on VOD.