THE RETURN OF WHIT STILLMAN
EXCLUSIVE Whit Stillman/Damsels in Distress Interview by Paul Fischer in Los Angeles.
It’s been a long time since cerebral iconoclastic filmmaker Whit Stillman brought us his latest film, The Last Days of Disco. The now 60 year old writer/director, is relaxed at the end of a long day of interviews at a Beverly Hills hotel room and is philosophical about the big gap in his filmography that finally led to his latest work, Damsels in Distress. He never set out to take such a long break but admits the film industry is hard on those who work at Hollywood’s periphery. “I never set out to intentionally take a break. I wanted to make films and just thought everything would continue swimmingly and it was really disorienting to discover that the films I thought that had established themselves as being successful and that would allow us to continue making more films was not the case. I was in Europe trying to make films out of London and I just couldn’t get them off the ground.”
Stillman was born in 1952 and raised in Cornwall in upstate New York, the son of a impoverished débutante from Philadelphia and a Democratic politician from Washington D.C, which explains many of the upper class characters he has painted so deftly in his work. He graduated from Harvard in 1973 and started out as a journalist in New York City.
In 1980 he met and married his Spanish wife while on an assignment in Barcelona, where he was introduced to some film producers from Madrid and persuaded them that he could sell their films to Spanish-language television in the USA. He worked for the next few years in Barcelona and Madrid as a sales agent for directors Fernando Trueba and Fernando Colomo, and acting in their films playing comic Americans as in Trueba’s SAL GORDA.
Stillman wrote the screenplay for Metropolitan (1990) between 1984 and 1988 while running an illustrating agency in New York and financed the film from the proceeds of selling his apartment for $50,000 as well as contributions from friends and relatives. Barcelona (1994) was inspired by his own experiences in Spain during the early 1980’s, which was his first studio financed film. For The Last Days of Disco (1998) was loosely based on his travels and experiences in various nightclubs in Manhattan, and possibly at the Studio 54.
While his latest film, Damsels in Distress, is finally allowing audiences to rediscover the world that Stillmman has always reveled in, the director admits that as far as the film industry is concerned, he is “not an ideal candidate for what films to make so they recognize the films have done something and have had some recognition but they’re not to their personal taste. Everyone says it’s such a business and so business oriented , but I don’t think so. I actually think there’s a lot of personal taste and judgement that goes into it and whst I do is simply not beloved by the people who make these decisions,” Stillman says, reflectively. “In London it seemed that there was a very small group of people making these decisions but twenty years in the film business and just one guy has backed my films, which is not a very encouraging statistic,” he says laughingly. Damsels in Distress marks his celebrated return to the kind of anachronistic society he explored in his initial trio of films, largely about young women. The film stars indie favorite Greta Gerwig as the leader of a trio of girls who set out to change the male dominated environment of the fictional Seven Oaks college campus and to rescue their fellow students from depression and various other low standards that they perceive damages the social fabrics of society. As with all of Stillman’s work, Damsels in Distress is all about character and dialogue. For the writer/director, the challenges to write a script rich in character and dialogue are “to firstly having to wait for the right material to come. So you work at it and you just hope that some characters will come alive and will start doing things that will surprise yourself and that seem authentic for that character.” and Stillman is also so adept at writing for female characters, asserting that he feels liberated writing for women and “I feel trapped by my male predicament and I don’t find it all that interesting since its my daily life and I find the female situation far more sympathetic.”
Damsels in Distress is also a unique take on the classic movie musical. “Having women dominate the story gave it this sort of musical comedy and stylish dimension that lent itself to this kind of look these girls have.” and this lent itself to a film that’s visually richer than any of the director’s early work. “It’s rich material cinematically in the sense that the visuals can be cool, then we have the music, the dancing, the musical comedy elements so it was rich that way. It is really a musical around the edges of some of my favorite films like The Gay Divorcee.” Stillman says the “musical elements come out of the characters and not being forced in externally by me.”
A dozen years on and Stillman has not lost his touch and assures me that we won’t have to wait another 12 years for Stillman to give us his unique perspective on life as he sees it. “God I hope not”, he concludes laughingly.
DAMSELS IN DISTRESS IS NOW SHOWING IN SELECT MARKETS