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The lives of six present-day friends (Kathy Baker, Maria Bello, Amy Brenneman, Maggie Grace, Emily Blunt and Hugh Dancy) are revealed through the witty prism of their literary heroine. Six book club members, six Jane Austen books, six interwoven story lines over six months in the busy modern setting of Sacramento, where city and suburban sprawl meet natural beauty. Today's central California may be far removed from Regency England, but some things never change. We're still every bit as preoccupied with the complexities of marriage, friendship, romantic entanglements, position, and social manners and mores as was Austen at the turn of the 1800s. Written and directed by Robin Swicord (screenwriter of Memoirs of a Geisha), based on the novel by Karen Joy Fowler.

 

 The Jane Austen Book Club

After I finished directing The Jane Austen Book Club, I felt a constant craving for useful activity. “Why don’t you relax?,” my husband suggested. But I cleaned my closet. I organized the pantry. I boxed up papers. For nearly a year, I had lived with the urgency of production and its unyielding timetable. Now I keenly missed the creative flow and laughter of the editing room. I missed the actors so much I put their photograph on my computer’s desktop. I was too exhausted to write, but I hungered to be making something. Perhaps because the farmers’ markets were vivid with summer’s fruits and vegetables, I turned to cooking and baking.

Chicken pot pie was ideal, because every stage of making it was a project in itself: The savory broth, the crust, the several vegetables, the chicken—each of these had to be prepared separately, and then assembled and baked. Gooseberry jam lightly scented with clove—that took up an entire day, what with picking and sorting and stewing and canning. And what a sublime fragrance! Stacks of cookbooks migrated from the kitchen to my night table, then took over the floor beside the bed. “What about that huge timpani from the film Big Night? I bet that’s hard.” I dug through old emails for a recipe for Hungarian pork shoulder that required marinating for days in a soup of 20 ingredients before being slow-roasted for 36 hours, with frequent basting. Obviously I missed sleep deprivation.

Standing at the kitchen counter up to my elbows in a marinade of cumin and orange slices and garlic and 17 other ingredients (all minutely minced), I remembered spending an evening a few years ago with veteran director John Frankenheimer, who had made more than 30 films, among them Birdman of Alcatraz, The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May. Frankenheimer mentioned casually that in the middle of his filmmaking career, he had dropped out, moved to France, studied at the Cordon Bleu, then apprenticed himself to a chef at a fancy restaurant. He spent several years as a kitchen slave, mostly washing pots and chopping carrots into perfect 1-millimeter cubes. “It’s satisfying to cook for friends,” Frankenheimer confided, “I really think I enjoy it more than directing.”

At that time, I was struggling to set up my first feature as a writer-director, and meeting the usual resistance that female directors face. I was desperate to move (metaphorically) out of the kitchen—and here was John Frankenheimer telling us that he preferred cooking to filmmaking! I felt secretly outraged at the time. But this summer as I fastidiously snipped leaves of fresh lemon thyme into the pork marinade I had to admit: There was an odd similarity between making a meal and making a movie, and it wasn’t just the presentation at the end. I puzzled over it. What was so seductive about cooking that it could lure a filmmaker away from directing?

A few days later as I browsed a used bookstore, I came across my answer in Marcella Says..., a collection of lessons in Italian cooking by the master teacher Marcella Hazan. Hazan describes a sautéing technique used for making risotto—in Italian, insaporire. Reading it I felt a jolt of recognition that flooded me with warmth. Her description of insaporire encompasses all that I love about my first experience of directing: Gathering my Jane Austen Book Club collaborators one by one, freeing their ideas through listening, talking, playing until we found a common language. Bringing the actors together to form our ensemble; observing them as they began to find and express their characters in the play that we called rehearsal. During filming, encouraging the actors to release what was hidden; standing beside the camera to watch as the players crossed boundaries, connecting and merging, allowing the scene to come together; until every moment in the film had passed through the differing sensibilities of actor and cinematographer and editor, music composer and mixer, and had been refined and finished to the limit of my understanding.

“The guiding principle of insaporire is to cause an ingredient to bond its flavor to that of another and thus expand both,” Marcella Hazan writes. “No matter how alluring the ingredients may be on their own, they must surrender their individual identity for the sake of a more expansive flavor identity, that of the risotto... In essence, that is what insaporire is about: the lowering of barriers that confine flavors, the release of flavor that takes place when ingredients intermingle and yield to each other.”

I’ve never read a better description of filmmaking.