There are people like you and me in Whit Stillman’s movies, but they’re outnumbered by a different class of folks: Worlds of big money and elitism and cocktails and intellectual pedantry, where terms like “titled aristocracy” drift in and out of conversations.
These days, we call these people the One Percenters, and their offspring the sufferers of “affluenza;” in the ’90s, when Stillman developed his signature themes as a writer-director, they were less threatening. In fact, when they weren’t schooling middle-class interlopers in their ways, they spent much of those films contemplating their obsolescence in cultures that seemed to be leaving them behind.
Stillman was born in 1952 and raised in upstate New York, the son of John Sterling Stillman, who served as an assistant secretary of commerce during the Kennedy Administration. A Harvard graduate and an alumnus of its male-only Fly Club —whose past members included Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Jay Rockefeller —Stillman began his career in book publishing and magazine writing before financing his debut movie in 1990.
That would turn out to be Metropolitan, a chronicle of a tight-knit cabal of sharply dressed young debutantes sharing drinks, dancing and heartache over a momentous holiday season; they called themselves the “urban haute bourgeoisie,” or the “UHBs.” For his eloquent script, Stillman received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay.
He followed it, four years later, with Barcelona, another complicated love story starring two Metropolitan cast members, Chris Eigeman and Taylor Nichols. It involved an expatriate businessman, his naval officer cousin, and the women that entered their lives over a dramatic period in the titular Spanish city in the early 1980s. That setting carried over to Stillman’s 1998 effort, The Last Days of Disco, whose period and culture is captured in its title; in 2000, the indie band Yo La Tengo released a song inspired by the movie.
Then Stillman pretty much dropped off the radar: There was a yawning chasm of 14 years between Disco and Damsels in Distress, his critically acclaimed 2012 comeback about a clique of female students at a elite university, but it felt like no time had passed at all. Stillman’s voice is such that his characters often exist out of time, or else have sequestered themselves in someone else’s era.
At any rate, it looks like Damsels may have initiated a second Stillman renaissance. Though he doesn’t like talking about upcoming projects, word has it that this summer he’ll begin shooting Love & Friendship, an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Lady Susan, which he will also be releasing as a novel. He’ll be doing some of the prep work, at least partly, from South Florida: For the past 18 months, he’s lived around the Lake Worth area, and he occasionally turns up at area events, including the jury of the 2013 Miami International Film Festival. He was gracious enough to discuss his career with Palm Beach ArtsPaper.
I get the impression from your bio that filmmaking wasn’t necessarily in your blood all your life, that the ambition to direct movies came well after college. Is that accurate?
It was during college that I got pretty interested in it, because at 16, I decided I didn’t want to just repeat my father’s career as a lawyer in Democratic politics. It didn’t work out for him very well. So at age 16, I was enamored of writers like Fitzgerald, and I wanted to write fiction. And then in college I found it very hard, and started to think of comedy … Musicals, television, films. I guess I was interested in comedy more than filmmaking per se.
Being a comedy writer, not a stand-up comedian?
Yes, but I was also sort of entranced with being in a production, and the physicality of film, the industrial side of it. I liked that. It was kind of like, you’re both a writer and an electrician.
Were you an avid moviegoer growing up?
I wasn’t so much a moviegoer as a movie watcher on television. In those days, they had really good movies on free TV. A lot of the independent stations would fill up their schedules with old movies. It was convenient during the commercials to go to the kitchen and get more food, or for calling your best friend. I remember there was a series of war movies every Saturday afternoon, and my friend’s parents got sick of my phone calls every commercial break; we’d watch the war movies and call each other to talk about them.
What was the genesis of Metropolitan?
I had been in book publishing and magazines and trying to write short stories, and I was getting into film, reading Variety really closely to figure out how I could get into film. Variety in the old days was different; it was really thick, it was on newsprint, and it was a really fat bible every week. I was living in Spain at the time, and I read this whole thing about the Spanish film industry. And I went to my first dinner party in Spain, and there were all these film people there. So I told them I could sell their films to Spanish pay TV in the United States, which was just starting.
But then I realized quickly that you don’t just sell to one channel or two one station; you sell to the whole world. And they were doing nothing with their films internationally, or very little. So they gave me their films to sell internationally, and I got to learn about the business side of the film business.
And then one of them came over to shoot a film, and I helped him make it. It was called Skyline. And then another one of the directors whose film I was representing asked me to be in it as a stupid American. I got to spend the whole summer in Madrid making the film. It was by an important director, Fernando Trueba, who won an Oscar for his film Belle Epoque. So I got to see a little bit how it was done, and I wrote the script for Barcelona that summer. I shifted the next year to writing Metropolitan, because I felt that Barcelona would be too complicated as a first-time film, that I should do something that I could make incredibly small.
The idea for Metropolitan was, essentially, a film that could be shot in a living room, and the scenery would be young people all dressed up in anachronistic formal clothes, and it expanded from that. The “eureka” moment was when I learned that for a $4,000 insurance policy, you could get permits to shoot on the streets of New York. And the idea of opening up the film and shooting on public streets came to us. We wanted to capture some of the Christmas spirit and decorations, so the cinematographer and I went out and shot a lot of stuff at Christmastime to have that available and make the film look seasonal.
Did you know people like your characters, the UHBs?
Yes, I was very lucky, because I was very much in the Tom Townsend tradition — a sad guy living in my mother’s apartment. I was very much against society and all that. I did fall for a girl in that world, and that brought me into it. It also brought me to Palm Beach for the first time.
It’s funny; the first couple of times I saw Metropolitan, I scoffed at Tom’s boast that he didn’t actually read the Jane Austen book that he was arguing so passionately about with Audrey, and that he read its literary criticism instead. Now, seeing it for a third time when I’m in my ’30s, I can see where he’s coming from, and I might even agree with him.
I don’t think it’s true of Jane Austen, but there are certain fiction writers whose work has become anachronistic, and we can get a lot from reading about their works as opposed to actually reading it.
Metropolitan sounds like the film whose plot description doesn’t lend itself to a one-minute pitch in the office of the people with the money. Did you run into any issues with financing your vision?
I had a windfall of $50,000 when I was about to start, right as I was preparing to shoot. I was able to hold onto my rental apartment for a year and sell it for a $50,000 profit. That was the genesis of Metropolitan. Then other people came in with investments. It always costs more than you anticipate, but the initial money to rent the cameras and film on the streets was from the $50,000. I think we got another $150,000 in investments.
You must be aware that a lot of the references and even the diction in your films probably flies over the head of three-quarters of moviegoers. Would you prefer it if more of the world had the intelligence, not necessarily the morals, of your characters?[Laughs] Yeah, sure. Actually, Barcelona I think had a more popular response. I didn’t think it went over heads so much. I think the problem was not so much the diction as the rarefied atmosphere of Metropolitan that was off-putting for people going into it. I think if they stuck with it they might have liked it. But I think Barcelona crossed over; it was the highest-grossing film I’ve had.
Barcelona seems like a more ambitious and expensive follow-up to make, between the attempted assassination scene, the explosions, the European location shooting … was there a bit of learning on the job for this project?
Yes. But it’s odd — the shoot for which I was least experienced went best. I had no knowledge at all when I was doing Metropolitan, and it went very well. The two happiest shoots were Damsels in Distress and Metropolitan.
You mentioned your personal connection with the Tom Townsend character in Metropolitan; are you usually any one character in your movies?
Yes, but there’s author identification and also audience identification. The author is the stand-in for the audience in a certain way. So in Metropolitan there were four identification characters: the girl, Audrey Roget, then the obvious nominal one, Tom Townsend, although he turns out to be not entirely sympathetic; and then I think the humor and insight is the Nick Smith character; and then there’s a lot of warmth from the Charlie character. And I think it’s fortunate in the first two films to have Taylor Nichols in them, because I think he comes off in a warm, likable way, and I think it humanizes him in the film, for a lot of the audience.
I wanted to bring up Taylor Nichols as well as Chris Eigeman. They did such wonderful work for you in those ’90s films, and it’s a shame that few directors seemed to have utilized them so well since. Do you have any insight as to why that is?
It’s interesting that they were well-utilized by people making commercials. Both of them were fortunate to get into big ad campaigns right off Metropolitan. They took the Chris Eigeman character from Metropolitan and had him as the spokesperson for one of the telephone companies. And Chris got a lot of recognition in the film business because those commercials ran on TV in Los Angeles, and it helped get him some income early in his career. And then Taylor was in AT&T commercials. So in a way, they were used better in commercials than they were by their filmmakers. Noah Baumbach actually put Chris in a number of projects.
It’s true, though with Chris’ character in Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming, it’s like he created another Whit Stillman archetype. It’s almost a double-edged sword; Chris did such a great job in your movies that people thought of him as that way and only that way going forward.
I think also, another problem with it was that he didn’t really identify with the character, and he was fighting identification with the character. I think if he had just gone with it, he could have had more TV work. That’s the impression I get now; he’s directing films now.
Is at a coincidence that your films, at least the first three, seem to be about the end of something, whether it’s the deb party season or the Cold War or the disco culture — is there something about the finality of things that seems to attract you?
I think it’s true of Disco and Metropolitan. I don’t think it works for Barcelona, because the Cold War is not something we’re feeling nostalgic about. It sounds like it’s the end of something again, but it’s a different nature. It’s a set time period in Spain where they were still debating things like joining NATO.
So I think Disco and Metropolitan definitely have that dynamic going on, and I think that it’s oddly inverted in Damsels, in the sense that they want the past to be the future. It’s more upbeat that way. I think it’s a good utopian strategy, because usually when people are utopian, they’re trying to invent something that’s never existed, and they normally fall on their face. But there’s a retro utopianism that says, well, these forms existed in the past, and they were actually pretty nice — why don’t we bring some of them back?
Do you in some ways live by retro utopianism? Are you on Facebook; are you a technology adopter?
I do that stuff. I do love the Max Beerbohm quote: “It distresses me, this failure to keep pace with the leaders of thought as they pass into oblivion.” There are some things that everyone talks about and then they disappear, and it was a big waste of time. And there were several social media phenomena of that kind that I never got into.
Then I had Damsels come out; they were still distributing the film, but Sony Classics’ advertising budget, which had been appropriately modest, wound down in the normal course of distribution. But we were still on screens, so I went onto Facebook and Twitter to help promote the film, and it really helped. It kept it going 13 weeks in New York.
Did you make a deliberate decision, though, to avoid things like cellphones and other modern technological trappings in Damsels in Distress?
I did. They were working on laptops in a couple of scenes, and there were tight close-ups of writing on late-model laptops. I think the Adam Brody character does talk on a cellphone in one scene. But generally I like to avoid this stuff. We wanted to make it an eternal retro presence.
A lot of the critics have commented on the artificiality of Damsels, that it doesn’t resemble any sort of realistic college experience.
“Artificial” is a bad word. I’d say it’s stylized. I think stylized works are higher than realistic works. Realism is a lower form of expression. Some of my favorite films are stylized, like some of the musicals of the ’30s.
Like Rouben Mamoulian’s films?
The style I like is Mark Sandrich’s. I like The Gay Divorcee and Top Hat.
What made you decide to novelize The Last Days of Disco?
I really wanted to write a novel based on Metropolitan, and I had a contract, and that is still listed on websites as an existing book. So I always wanted to write novels, and I felt that to write a screenplay, you essentially learn all about a world and all about a group of characters, and you don’t have nearly enough time or space to cover the story. Everything is truncated. I thought that would be a good way of starting a novel.
I don’t call it a novelization. There was too little time for me to write that before the film came out. A very good literary publisher liked the idea of taking the time for a literary book, and making as good a book as possible, and having it come out when it came out, two years after the movie.
Can you speak about what accounts for the 14-year break in your filmography, between The Last Days of Disco and Damsels?
I would make it less (than 14). I wrote the novel for two years and published that in 2000. I normally work in four-year cycles. I wrote a couple of scripts. It’s just a hard business, I don’t know … A lot of the problem was getting involved with adapting books, because these are books that had rights and options and money flowing out and producers who had very unhelpful attitudes toward the source material. It’s frustrating to work on something and you’re not even allowed to show your script to people, because it’ll muddy the waters.
I don’t know why it didn’t work, but there were a lot of projects I thought would go ahead and didn’t. I had to learn to take control of the economics, because I would go over an idea for a film, and people would ask me what the budget would be. And I would say a number that sounded like what other films cost, and what I found was that the business had gone back to the ’80s, where you had to make films really cheaply.
We shot Damsels for nothing, and it looked great. I had to learn again and take control of the costs and the financialization. In a way, Damsels and Metropolitan were very similar experiences, because they were films made for low prices.
Can you elaborate on those projects that fell through?
The Jane Austen film I hope to do this summer was something I had been working on. Generally now with film, I don’t think I want to get money for the script. I think I just want to write the script and own it and try to set it up. There were very arbitrary reasons why the projects didn’t go ahead. One project, the people who sponsored it were from a film company in England, and at the same time a famous film director said he wanted to do the same piece. And it’s pathetic; he did take it away from me, and he didn’t do it.
Who was this?
I don’t want to get into it, but it was very frustrating. It was Oliver Stone; he took it away and did nothing with it. I try not to talk about projects, because I find it pretty dangerous to talk about what you’re doing. [In 1998] we were bedeviled by this other disco film they were making at the same time, and I’m sure Castle Rock wanted to announce the disco film way too early. The idea was floating around, and then other people say, why don’t we do that?
Was that 54?
Yeah. They’d say, Paul Schrader suggested it to us, or something like that. But the idea is out there. If I could, I wouldn’t announce films until they’re being shot.