Jerusha Hess says her scripts for "boy movies" such as "Napoleon Dynamite" (2004), "Nacho Libre" (2006), and "Gentlemen Broncos" (2009), all directed and co-written by her husband, Jared Hess, triggered a bit of head-scratching from her mother.
"My mother says, 'What happened in your childhood?' I say, 'Mom, you provided me with seven brothers.' I was in a boy world my whole life," says Hess, 33, in Boston recently to talk about her latest film.
That film, "Austenland," marks Hess's directing debut. More important, it gave her the chance to "jump into a pink world and get it out of my system." She describes "Austenland," which opens here Friday, as such a "girly movie" that it's "wrapped in a pink, feathery bow."
Hess teamed with fellow Utah native Shannon Hale to adapt Hale's 2007 novel. "Utah is a small world and even smaller if you're a creative woman," says Hess. "We were introduced by friends — Shannon was happy to meet the writer of 'Napoleon Dynamite' and I was eager to talk with her about another of her books when she gave me 'Austenland.' I read it in a few hours and it was such a fun, silly romp. It felt girly and I was sick of boy movies. I wanted to do something for my girlfriends."
Enter producer Stephenie Meyer, author of the "Twilight" sagas, who knows a thing or two about fantasy movies that appeal to girls. "Steph was friends with Shannon and wanted to work with her and we just came together as this weird, female triumvirate," says Hess.
So estrogen-centric was "Austenland" that Sony garnered publicity by holding women-only screenings when the film hit the festival circuit. But Hess says she hopes men who are "dragged along" will at least enjoy the bawdy, albeit PG-13, humor of "Austenland." "If you have the heart of a 10-year-old, you love my movies," says Hess, a Mormon who met her husband while both were enrolled at Brigham Young University film school.
It's easy to see why Sony would seize upon such a super-size chick flick marketing strategy for "Austenland," which is set at a theme park for devotees of the British author of "Sense and Sensibility" and "Pride and Prejudice." Mousy Jane Hayes (Keri Russell) blows her savings on a vacation to the English resort — a Disneyland for Austen geeks — presided over by a controlling dowager played by — who else? — Jane Seymour. In her requisite bonnet and braided up-do, Jane hopes to meet her own Mr. Darcy, even if he happens to be just a role-playing actor, while horse riding, playing cards, and attending fancy balls.
JJ Feild, who plays Henry Nobley (the Mr. Darcy role), is a veteran of the prestigious Masterpiece Theatre adaptations (he was in "Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey") that "Austenland" spoofs. "I don't know any bloke who doesn't say that a rom-com is a guilty pleasure. I watch a Nora Ephron film and I'm done for," says Feild, whose crisp British accent comes courtesy of his upbringing in England after he was born in Colorado. "Jerusha asked if I'd make fun of myself and I said, 'Yes! What a relief!' I moved to LA to get away from doing top hats and horses. I can actually ride, so maybe that's the only reason I was hired," says Feild, who returns to a serious period piece this fall with a featured role on AMC's American Revolution-set series "Turn."
Shot at a privately owned manor estate outside London ("Our British crew was like, finally, someone taking the piss out of our beloved genre," says Hess), "Austenland" costars Georgia King, another bonnet-and-corset
veteran; Jennifer Coolidge, who starred in "Gentlemen Broncos" and improvises much of her dialogue; and James Callis, best known as the villain of the television series "Battlestar Galactica," which Hess counts among her favorite shows.
Her taste in movies is closer to "Clueless" and "Bridget Jones's Diary" than to literary adaptations, but Hess claims she's a fan of Austen, the Bronte sisters, et. al. "I love good girl Brit lit. It's what my mother fed me my whole life. She didn't tell me about the birds and bees," says Hess. "She gave me [Thomas Hardy's] 'Tess of the d'Urbervilles.'"
After "Austenland," Hess says she's taking a short break to spend time with her two young children. Then she'll start a new script, which she promises will be another "clean comedy" for Jared to direct.
"That's not just our Mormon ideals; it's harder to do PG-13 humor. We want to make movies our kids can watch," she says. "We love the awkward character who wins in the end. There is a sweetness to them. We write stories for the underdog."
Loren King can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.