Whit Stillman | Interview
The Damsels in Distress director takes a break from Indonesian chocolate commercials.
Whit Stillman was the first director I interviewed, at the time of his just-published novelization of 1998’s The Last Days of Disco in 2000. Halfway through our phone conversation, I noticed the tape in the recorder had snapped; we’d lost 20 minutes. A born conversationalist, Stillman had given me more than enough. But almost as a cosmic joke, when we met—11 years later—at the Toronto International Film Festival, my digital recording device crapped out immediately.
No matter, Stillman said. He looked forward to passing through Chicago in the spring, when his new movie, Damsels in Distress, would be scheduled for release. We chatted by phone two weeks ago.
Waiting for Whit Stillman is a familiar routine for those of us who’d begun to worry the Metropolitan and Barcelona director might never release another movie. You wonder how he ate over the last 14 years.
Stillman laughs when I raise the question. “I can eat all the time, but getting the money to buy food was often an issue,” he says, sounding like one of his characters. “I was writing scripts and getting paid for them. I also had sort of cash flows coming off all three films. It was very touch-and-go for periods.”
He wasn’t completely absent from behind the camera. “I shot commercials in Indonesia and Singapore,” he says. “I had a friend who was working for a chocolate company over there, and so I shot commercials for the chocolate company. Which were kind of like mini versions of the films I did—there’s a lot of music and dancing.”
Indeed, Damsels is the closest any of his films comes to a full-fledged musical, as well as a frat-house comedy. In the movie, a foursome of self-righteous coeds (led by Greta Gerwig’s Violet) sets out to improve life at the fictitious Seven Oaks College, distributing bars of “fantastically good-smelling soap” and starting a dance craze. The tone crosses the urbane banter of Stillman’s previous films with the absurdism of Will Ferrell. (Stillman’s a fan.) “There is a world that’s quite close to the other films, where it’s talking about real people and their real problems,” Stillman explains. “And then there is this college-film-comedy land.”
The 60-year-old says he’s still drawn to making movies about youth. “Puppies are cuter than dogs,” he says. “And this is a very attractive period of young identities in the making.… It also is very practical, since I’m trying to make films of limited means. We can look for actors who are not that well established and cast them.”
Stillman didn’t know Gerwig’s work (Greenberg, Hannah Takes the Stairs) before choosing her, but she could quote his films at length. “I tried to distance myself from watching his older stuff as soon as I knew I was going to do it, because I didn’t want to do that thing where you’re imitating someone else,” she says, pointing out that actors also run that risk with Woody Allen. (She’ll appear in Allen’s new film, To Rome with Love, this summer.) “It’s like doing Shakespeare—once you start doing it, it’s actually very easy to do. And once you memorize it, you know it forever.”
Stillman had other literary inspirations in mind. He enjoins me to read Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop (1938), expressing surprise that I haven’t gotten to it. “Ten years from now, when I come out with the next film,” he quips, “I hope you will finish Scoop by then.”
Damsels in Distress opens Friday 13.