Happy 200th Birthday, Pride & Prejudice…and Happy Sundance, Too

The writer/director of the Sundance hit 'Austenland' talks to TIME about why we still love Mr. Darcy centuries years later

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Giles Keyte/Fickle Fish Films/Moxie Pictures

Today, Jan. 28, 2013, marks the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the classic tale of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. It also marks the first day after the Sundance Film Festival, at which the new movie Austenland premiered (and was picked up by Sony for a reported $4 million plus). The comedy stars Keri Russell as Jane, a modern-day Austen fanatic in search of her own Mr. Darcy, who goes to “Austenland,” an Austen-themed retreat filled with other fanatics and potential Regency-era romance. Based on a book by Shannon Hale, it was adapted for the screen and directed by Jerusha Hess—the writer behind the very un-Austen movies Napoleon DynamiteNacho Libre and Gentlemen Broncos. Hess spoke to TIME about why Mr. Darcy is still sexy at 200.

TIME: So Jan. 28 is the 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice. Are you celebrating in any way?

Jerusha Hess: I think we celebrated enough this week! All things Austen have been celebrated enough for, like, two years.

What’s your own relationship with Jane Austen? Were you a fan before you started working on Austenland?

I absolutely was a fan but not to the extent of the obsessiveness of the character in the movie. It’s a timeless romantic story and I’m just happy that I was able to reinvent it and that it was received so well.

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What do you think it is about Mr. Darcy that keeps people so drawn in?

I ask that all the time! What is it about girls that we like douchey guys? That’s a problem. We go after the bad guy all the time; we go after the guy who’s mean to us. The question is if there’s something wrong with the female psyche that we keep going after the bad guy. But then, you know, it’s just so fulfilling that he ends up being good in the end. I think that’s every girl’s dream, that this punk who doesn’t really like us and doesn’t really requite our love, that he’s going to change all the sudden.

Is the Colin Firth BBC version a particularly strong example of that, or is it just the getting out of the lake?

I don’t know. The lake this doesn’t do it for me. I don’t know what it is about that lake shot that so many girls are like, “Oh my gosh.” He doesn’t have that amazing of a body. I mean, sure. He did such a good job of being aloof and snobby. But I think why the world loves it is because it was friggin’ five hours long! It had every detail!

And the more Jane Austen the better.

Exactly.

What do you think it is about Pride & Prejudice specifically, and Austen’s books in general, that lets them really speak to readers even 200 years later?

They’re very light and it’s really witty and the heroine is so smart and it’s just what we want to be, secretly. I want to be the clever girl in the midst of the silly ones and the pretty sisters. That at least I’m the clever one: “I’m cute enough but I’m so funny and I’m so smart.” I think that’s appealing to young and old readers alike. And of course the whole Darcy phenomenon.

Do those Jane Austen retreats really exist?

No, I think the closest we have is Dollywood.

There’s something for Dickens

I know in my town there’s a Regency society, but as for a hotel where people are paid to be your sexy Mr. Darcy, I don’t think that exists…yet.

Do you think it ever will?

I think there’s too many lawsuits. It’d be a big nightmare when you get all those horny old ladies in there.

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This is very different from the previous movies you’ve worked on. How was the transition from Napoleon Dynamite to Jane Austen?

I think I just got sick of making movies for little boys. There are a lot of young fans of our movies, young little boys, and I just thought maybe someday I’ll make the girl movie. I think Jane Austen is the perfect vehicle for that.

The quintessential girl story.

Exactly. Luckily my movie is so absurd and funny that a lot of boys are like, “wow, that was surprisingly really enjoyable.” We’re not stuck in the ye olde bit of regency life; we get to bounce back and forth.

Stephenie Meyer, of Twilight, also served as a producer. Was she involved on the creative side at all?

Yeah, she definitely had her voice in there. She comes from such a story world and such a different world than mine is. I’m just “let’s see how many jokes we can cram into this movie.” So it was a lovely balance. Sometimes I forget, whoops, you need to be tracking the characters.

Do Twilight and Pride and Prejudice have anything in common?

I don’t think they have anything in common but what the movie has in common with it is that fandom. Stephenie can say a lot about her fans and what it means to be a crazy fan who really gets into something, and where that can take you. That’s the root of the movie.

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