Interview: Alex Appel and Jonathan Lisecki on Updating the Talk of the Town in “Modern Persuasion”

As much as times change, some things just stay the same you realize as Wren (Alicia Witt) does her daily scroll of social media feeds in “Modern Persuasion,” as much out of professional obligation as personal interest, if not more. A master marketing expert, Wren has her finger on the pulse of consumer behavior, yet when it comes to actual personal interaction, she is thrown, particularly with the arrival of a potential new client who she realizes she’s crossed paths with before in Owen Jasper (Dominic Rains), a former flame from college who has reinvented himself in the intervening years as a tech entrepreneur. With Wren reluctant to engage, even when she’s a communications expert, it isn’t only Jasper who has a surprise in store for her after time away, but co-directors Alex Appel and Jonathan Lisecki find in revisiting Jane Austen’s final novel in the year of our lord 2020 that even with the myriad forms of connection, the ability to have a heart-to-heart remains as elusive as ever.

At least one bond is quite strong from the start in “Modern Persuasion” with the pairing of Appel and Lisecki, who previously charmed audiences with the pregnancy comedy “Gayby.” Along with co-writer Barbara Radecki, the duo find something contemporary in their adaptation beyond making the obvious amendments to the story of a woman consigned to spinsterhood after her engagement fell through — becoming the life of many a party while feeling always outside of it when she felt she was seen as damaged goods. With a radiant Witt as its lead, the film’s recasting of high society parties as events that linger on Facebook, or Blipper as it’s known in “Modern Persuasion,” for days cleverly interrogates the pressure to be a bon vivant while feeling internally alienated, a tension that’s exacerbated by the lively and gregarious ensemble Appel and Lisecki have put around their lead, including Mark Moses as Wren’s boss Grayson, Bebe Neuwirth as her doting aunt Vanessa and Liza Lapira and Daniella Pineda as her competitive co-workers and friends.

With the film arriving on demand this week, Appel and Lisecki spoke about teaming up to make “Modern Persuasion” and running with the inspiration with Austen while turning the story into their own, as well as pulling off all those parties on a modest budget and working with frisky felines.

How did the two of you join forces?

Alex Appel: I started developing a script with Barbara Radecki, a fellow Canadian, and obviously, we set it in New York, so we had very high hopes for getting this film made in the States. What we realized was our script, coming from Canadians, may have sounded a little polite for New York. [laughs] Barbara was always so wonderful — we laughed about it when we were doing it. We were like, “Well, we’re not as familiar with New York, so we’re probably going to need some help out here.”

I joined forces with Amy Hobby and Anne Hubbell as producers and they had worked with Johnny before on “Gayby,” and [when] I saw “Gayby” I thought it was fantastically written and hilarious, so we met with Johnny and the rest is history. We worked so well together and we both had such a clear and similar vision on the film. It was a little ambitious for such a limited time, [with] Jane Austen having these great big parties and set-pieces [in the book]. It’s something I didn’t want to pare down to budget, so us joining forces, it was just very seamless.

Jonathan Lisecki: When we were at a place where we were happy with the script, we really wanted a female director and went around looking for someone to take it, but in the process, we realized we should just do it together because we had both put so much time and effort into it. The script process was maybe three years that we worked on and off — and things happened. [laughs] I lost my appendix at one point. Our producer almost died at our first meeting because she choked on a salad.

Alex Appel: Which ended up in the script. [laughs]

Jonathan Lisecki: Yeah, and we really wanted to make it in the summer [because] we really wanted the Hamptons locations and we were in a position where it was like, “Let’s just do this or we’re not going to do it,” so we joined forces to do it together. It really was beneficial because there were a lot of moving pieces and we did not have a lot of time. It helped to have more than one person do the various tasks of directing.

And Jonathan, you got to dirty up the script as a New Yorker?

Jonathan Lisecki: We kept it pretty clean. It’s not that dirty. [laughs] But we definitely did like buff up the language.

One idea I liked so much in this is that the older characters were closer to the period language than the younger ones – was that foundational?

Jonathan Lisecki: That was important because at the time of the book, the ages [were] where you were perhaps past your prime or all those awful phrases we don’t like to use, but in our modern times, it’s different. In the book, [Wren’s inspiration Anne was] 27 or 28 when she’s [considered] washed up, but to translate that, it needed to have this longer space and a different kind of application of themes instead of just someone who gets surprised by a returning love. It was also important that it was someone who had their own character, who had their own career, who was very successful at it and was a smart and ambitious person who then was surprised by the return of a former love. It was important to make it about genuine adults.

Alex Appel: Yeah, and with the Grayson character [Wren’s boss, played by Mark Moses], he’s such a dandy, so we tried to keep the flavor of the characters from the book with some updating, but he was really a fun one because he’s such a character and he speaks very much in the period still. We could push that one a little further.

And you turned Wentworth, her fiancee in the book, into a cat, which is pretty brilliant as a companion who can only be there for her in certain ways.

Alex Appel: This was one thing we were approaching other writers, and when Johnny came in, I’m a cat person, Johnny’s a cat person and when he was like, “The cat will be named Wentworth.” I’m like, “Yeah. Genius. Why didn’t I think of that?”

Jonathan Lisecki: And we had two cat actresses for that, but one cat actress shined a little bit more. It wasn’t the other one’s fault. The other one was just a tiny bit more skittish, but the one who has the majority of the screen time was pretty awesome. She had such character. They were actually super fun to work with. I don’t remember having too many issues with the kitties, surprisingly enough because if I tried to make my cat act in something, they would immediately stop wanting to be involved. [laughs]

Alex Appel: Oh my cats would find something to hide under and wouldn’t come out. [laughs] That cat was a scene-stealer in the end.

Jonathan Lisecki: Really. There’s a woman that we worked with who works with a lot of animals and these were her cats and they were clearly professional kitties.

Was it interesting finding high society analogs to set this in? I loved that gallery where you could see paintings in the background of the elevator shaft.

Jonathan Lisecki: That was an art gallery/studio that actually does rent out for film sets and we got lucky with that. Like Alex was saying, Austen is tough because specifically in this book, it’s about these big events that happen where people run into each other and things happen. They do go to the beach town in the book and if we were setting it in New York, there is nowhere else to go but the Hamptons, so some of that happened naturally, but we needed to keep an eye out for locations that matched the feel of the original story. The Hamptons art galleries lend themselves to gatherings and being able to shoot bigger scenes like that.

Was it hard to manage such big party scenes? Those seem like they might’ve gotten a little crazy.

Jonathan Lisecki: It was funny having the party scenes, especially because there is dancing, so there were some additional performers who were taking up too much spotlight occasionally. [laughs] They were some really good dancers who we were like, “Oh no, suddenly they’re the star of the movie. We have to cut around it.”

I will tell you this, the night we shot on the beach, it was freezing and about to rain, and we almost didn’t have enough time, but it looks gorgeous, so things like that work out and help. We had that outdoor location with the lights where they all gather around the fire. That night we were also having little drops of rain, but in a way, it actually made it look prettier. And mostly, things worked out.

Alex Appel: My friend Alex Boothby, who I did a film with — “Mr. Viral,” came in and did special effects and [with] the beach scene, there was a cliff and [there was] the point where you can’t even see the water. It’s just black. [So I asked the director of photography] Is there a way to see the water? And the DP goes, “Yeah, it’ll take thee hours to light.” So I’m like “Okay, so we don’t see water.” [laughs] So when I approached Alex [Boothby about the VFX], I was like, “Is there any way we could see water?” And he’s like, “I could do that.” He really helped give the film where we were lacking feeling that we had a much bigger budget because he’s so talented.

Jonathan Lisecki: There was one day when we had the dress shop in the Williamsburg area and the place had no AC. It was the hottest day of the year…

Alex Appel: It was a sweatbox.

Jonathan Lisecki: And out of nowhere on this incredibly stressful day, there was a parade that went down the street. There was suddenly one of those little neighborhood parades that just went by for a half-hour. I’m like, “Okay, I guess we’ll just eat.” But things like that happen and that’s part of shooting in New York. You get lucky because it’s so beautiful, but you also have to deal with bizarre things like a parade that nobody knows of.

Alex Appel: Yeah, I mostly just remember such a stressful time crunch on a lot of these bigger scenes, especially the scene with the charity at the top of the movie because we had very limited time. We had to really try to shoot [because] there was no way to get [the cast and crew] back in that location, and there’s a lot that happens in these scenes because of the way the book is. So much plot gets developed within one party.

Jonathan Lisecki: There were a lot of super-tight days where we had a location for one day and there was pretty much you’re getting what you get today. We just did not have room in our schedule for a lot of mistakes.

Alex Appel: But I feel good we got everything. This is where I think Johnny and I were very thankful to have each other because I can’t speak for Johnny, but on my own, I don’t think I could’ve managed to get that day alone.

“Modern Persuasion” is now available on iTunes.