Whit Stillman on the set of Damsels in Distress
“One of the beautiful parts of doing Metropolitan…the one subject that certain film critics and film journalists do not consider themselves experts in, it’s debutante parties. They’re experts on absolutely everything else in creation, except for debutante parties. So they allowed us to make a film our own way without saying it wasn’t true to life.” – Whit Stillman
After a fourteen-year absence, the acclaimed writer/director/producer and Oscar-nominated screenwriter Whit Stillman (Metropolitan, Barcelona, The Last Days of Disco) returns to theaters Friday, April 6th with Damsels in Distress, a comedic look at modern-day college life in America. While Damsels in Distress feels like a departure from Stillman’s previous films by virtue of being his most comedic thus far, his signature ensemble writing, insightful dialogue, and deconstruction of culture milieus are present in full force. (Check out the LiC review here.) Stillman has once again assembled a remarkable ensemble cast, including Greta Gerwig (Greenberg), Analeigh Tipton (Crazy, Stupid, Love), Adam Brody (TV’s “The O.C.”), Aubrey Plaza (TV’s “Parks and Recreation”), and Alia Shawkat (TV’s “Arrested Development”). I recently sat down with Stillman for an in-depth chat in which he took me deep into the process of screenwriting and directing his previous films and Damsels in Distress. Here’s what he shared with me about being an Oscar-nominee, the challenges of ensemble writing, and crafting Damsels in Distress.
Jackson Truax: You’re one of a very few living filmmakers to have multiple films released as part of the Criterion Collection. How were you approached about adding your films to their canon, and what was your involvement in those releases?
Whit Stillman: The approach is very interesting. I was called up, I think by Peter Becker, to do the commentary track on My Man Godfrey. They needed someone do to the commentary track…and thought of me. Then I ran into him when they did a MOMA screening of Walkabout with a party afterward. He talked about how he was a Metropolitan [fan], because he sort of came from that background in New York. He went to the uber-social school. I went to a less fashionable Westside school; he was in the Eastside Buckley school… I didn’t live on the Westside, but I felt I did, because I went to school there.
JT: So very much an outsider looking in, like Tom Townsend in Metropolitan.
WS: Yeah. I feel that there are four identification characters in Metropolitan. The obvious one is Tom Townsend, but then it turns out not really. Because like the Lily [Analeigh Tipton] character in Damsels, Tom Townsend isn’t really that great; he’s kind of flawed. Then there’s the Charlie, sociologist character. There’s the Nick, kind of snob character. Most of all, there’s the…sweet Audrey character.
JT: Looking back at Metropolitan, after the time that’s passed and now watching Damsels in Distress, the monologue given by the Man at the Bar feels like the thesis of that film, as well as your entire career. Do you think there’s any truth to that?
WS: It’s really kind of upsetting to think about at a certain point, because [of] that whole thing about how failure could come later [in life]. That was definitely the case in my career… Someone reminded me of my tenth anniversary report from Harvard… I was so not proud of what I was doing. I didn’t put anything in my college report… I think I…hadn’t yet started the script for Barcelona… When I was writing the script for Metropolitan, I was definitely in the Man and the Bar situation. Then I felt that I had licked that. Metropolitan came out and did well. Barcelona did okay. [The Last Days of Disco] did okay. Then I had this horrible unwilling, unwanted hiatus. Then…what Charlie [in Metropolitan] kept insisting, “Failure can come later…” Because the Man at the Bar is talking about people he knew from that background who were successful and then Charlie’s in total denial. He wants to be depressed. He wants to be pessimistic. Then his last line in this sequence, it doesn’t ring true. He’s not going to be cheered up by this fellow.
JT: When you received the Oscar-nomination for the Metropolitan screenplay, did it feel like it was changing your life or your career at all?
WS: It was an odd thing. Because one of my deepest convictions was that the Oscars were nonsense and I hated them. So getting a nomination shut me up for awhile. I had to eat crow. Because I really enjoyed going to the nominees luncheon. It was one of the greatest things. Then I [went] back to years of not being nominated or not [doing] anything. I [went] back to hating the Oscars and hating everything about it. So, it was strange. I guess it’s helpful. People can put the films on the map by saying we got a nomination for something way back when. I’m not a big fan of the whole awards psychology. I often think, “What would you rather do, write a funny scene or win an award?” I’d like to write a funny scene.
JT: After you made two well-received films, did you feel the expectation shift when you were making The Last Days of Disco?
WS: We had such a tough time when it came out… We were beaten up pretty badly. We got mixed up with popular culture. We got mixed up with the idea of Disco in people’s minds, and that was a problem for us. One of the beautiful parts of doing Metropolitan…the one subject that certain film critics and film journalists do not consider themselves experts in, it’s debutante parties. They’re experts on absolutely everything else in creation, except for debutante parties. So they allowed us to make a film our own way without saying it wasn’t true to life.
JT: When you’re creating films in the manner that you do, very independently and off-the-grid, do you feel like you’re making films in a manner that’s inherently subversive?
WS: I don’t know… In a very weird way… It’s not subversive at all. It’s affirmative and positive and constructive. But because there are so many toxic things in the way people think about life, we try and go against the toxicity and fly above it or beside it or get beyond it. Because there’s this eccentric joy we’re looking for, and just hopeful that there will be some communication going on in the films. And some levitation.
JT: There’s been a lot said and written about how autobiographical or inspired by things in your life your first three films were. How closely was Damsels in Distress inspired by your personal experiences?
WS: It’s very strange. Because the first three films are about milieu in places and specifics that are personal and autobiographical. [Damsels in Distress] is not… It’s a fantasy utopia of a university life or college life. Yet this is the most deeply personal, because I’m really, really close to the Violet [Greta Gerwig] character. I’ve been through a lot of the same stuff she went through. A lot of the other characters and situations are coming out of film comedy that I like.
JT: All of your films are examples of masterful ensemble writing, where you have a group of characters in a specific clique in a particular time and place, yet the characters all feel very well-rounded and have their own voice. How do you make sure that all your characters stand out on the page, and make sure they all have their own unique voices?
WS: We got in a good grove in [Damsels in Distress] that way. I think it was a little problematical in The Last Days of Disco, separating the guy characters. They’re a group of five guys, they weren’t the main characters, they were from the same milieu, and they were all good looking in ways that weren’t entirely dissimilar. So that was a little trickier… In this case, maybe it’s because we’re dealing with some…comic personality types from film, and comic personality types from life. The Rose [Megalyn Echikunwoke] character, this self-confident, opinionated, black woman, maybe with an English background or maybe with a Caribbean background is a character that I’ve encountered a lot, and I find very amusing and delightful. Heather’s [Carrie MacLemore’s] character is the…sexy, not very bright girl with goofy opinions. That comes more out of film comedy… That I think helped distinguish the characters. Lily is a realistic character from the real world who represents young people today. Violet is this crazy, eccentric character.
JT: When you’re writing characters based on your experiences or that are expressing things that are personal to you, how do you make sure these characters are fully-formed people with these things to say, and not just mouthpieces for your own ideas?
WS: It’s, I think the joy of an individual voice. I was completely stymied as a writer of fiction, until I got into the screenplay format, where things don’t have to be terribly logical. You can skip around, and characters start speaking and existing as they speak. And somehow, through their talking, they come alive.
JT: Each of your films has a distinct tone. With Damsels in Distress, the tone feels the most satirical. How did you settle on and execute that take on the material?
WS: I don’t know if the word I would use would be “satirical.” Because, for me, “satirical” always implies a critical, sharp-cutting, [sometimes] political…angle. I think “satire” in the original root means something about, “to cut.” I don’t think [Damsels in Distress] is cutting comedy. I would say it’s more broad humor. It’s humorous in the broad sense… This film somehow was easier than the other films. I hope that is not a bad quality of it… Once it was coming, it came more easily. They’re a lot of these characters who are broadly humorous who just took charge of their own destiny and their own world.
JT: One of the launching points for Damsels in Distress from a plot standpoint is this group of girls trying to navigate dealing with the depression of their peers. You dealt with similar subject matter in a very truthful and very dramatic way in The Last Days of Disco. What makes that subject important to you, and how did you decide to play it for comedy in Damsels in Distress?
WS: I think it’s sort of Topic A in life. How dysfunctional are you going to be? How dysfunctional are you going to let yourself be? It definitely goes with the territory of college students. It’s famous and notorious in that way. It’s definitely something I went through. I had a crazy, irrational depression the first two-thirds of my freshman year. The reason why Metropolitan was so attractive to me, I think, [was] because the only period that I wasn’t depressed in that period, was when I was being offered free champagne at parties in New York. I think that a lot of these problems are developmental, and that if people will be joked out of doing something drastic and irreversible, and humored along until their hormones and body chemicals align better…kids are hit over the head with all these raging biochemical changes in their bodies as they develop. If they can just hang on a few more years, they can come into a safe harbor.
JT: I went to a couple of colleges that resembled Seven Oaks in a variety of ways, so it’s easy for me to imagine a character like Thor, who gets into this school without being able to identify the colors. Where did that idea come from?
WS: I don’t know where it came from. I think my happiest educational experience was in nursery school when the teacher asked, “How do you get the other colors besides the primary ones?” I answered, “mixed.” She said that was right… I was a very retarded student in the early years. I didn’t learn how to read until I was in fourth grade. To answer a question successfully was a triumph of my youth. I guess I was thinking, “What if I didn’t go to nursery school? What if I had never learned the colors at all?” This whole… precocity obsession, I’ve seen a lot in baby boomers with their kids, where they just brag incessantly about their kids, and all these little things are just so important to them. So to have a kid skip kindergarten and go straight into first grade would be such a classic boomer bragging thing. The thing is, what is really the importance of precocity? Nothing. Precocity is actually a bad thing rather than a good thing. Because it disqualifies you [from] life with your contemporaries. Everyone else is going to catch up and your precocity means nothing. You’re slightly weird and conceited, if you’ve been precocious.
JT: Analeigh Tipton is incredible in the film, but she’s never had anything close to this much screen time. Were you initially nervous about casting her? How did you know she would be able to deliver the performance that she did?
WS: Generally what you see is what you get. In the audition, if they’re really good, they’re going to be good in the movie, in my experience… She was not only good as Lily, that’s the first thing she read; she was very good at it. I also had her read Violet and Heather. She was pretty good at them too. At the beginning of the casting process, you don’t have anyone, and you just don’t know what you’re going to get people for. Or you’re going to get a lot of people that can do Heather, and no one can do Violet. So, you have to fill those slots [with] who can do it well. I was very happy with Analeigh. I was encouraged by the fact that she had been cast in these [upcoming] projects.
JT: One of the things that’s become a greater aspect of your films as they have progressed are dance scenes, with dance numbers taking on a whole new role in Damsels in Distress. How do you write, direct, and edit these dance scenes to have them further the plot most effectively and give as much information about the characters as possible?
WS: There’s just so much blind luck… We had a really good choreographer, Justin Cerne, who…because he had never done any film or even TV…he had no preconceptions about the conditions that he’d be working in. And he was able to work in some really, really tough conditions [and] really informally come up with stuff…and adapt himself to our shooting situation. It was a bit of dream [that] it all worked out that well.
JT: Damsels in Distress deserves to find a huge audience. Is there anything in particular you’re hoping they’ll be thinking or feeling as the credits roll?
WS: I hope they’ll be happy. I hope they’ll be smiling, I hope they’ll be wanting to learn how to do the dance, the Sambola!
Filed under: LiC Interview