Whit Stillman, writer/director, “Damsels in Distress”
In the 1990s, Whit Stillman was one of the leading voices of independent cinema with his three comedies “Metropolitan,” “Barcelona” and “The Last Days of Disco.” They were films filled with wit and sophistication while covering the confusion of being a twentysomething. Then, Stillman went on an unfortunate hiatus from the world of cinema. He has now returned with a fantastic new film called “Damsels in Distress,” staring Greta Gerwig, which is a shift in style while maintaining his previous excellence.
We were thrilled to have Whit Stillman chat with The Film Yap about the similarities and differences between his characters, what an actor can bring to a role and how Bloomington, Indiana, helped inspire his new film.
Austin: What was it about “The Last Days of Disco” that made you want to adapt it into a novel?
Whit: Well, I always wanted to write a novel, and the idea of turning a story of a film into a novel came up with “Metropolitan,” and it used to a be a “phantom book” at Amazon just hanging around the Internet. It was announced in a catalog for Soho Press. They were people that really wanted to do it, but they were pressing me to do it in a hurry, and I was in Barcelona trying to write that script on a limited time basis. So the clash between trying to do the “Metropolitan” novel in a hurry and have this other script responsibility meant I had to drop out of the “Metropolitan” idea.
So I kept it in mind and felt that the “Disco” material was rich for a novel. A very good literary editor, Jonathan Galassi from Farrar Straus and Giroux, liked the idea of a novel that would not be tied to the film’s release. So it could come out years afterward, and I would have time to work on it. I really liked the experience. It got a pretty good reaction. I think there’s one part of it that I should have done something different. About three-fifths of the way through, it loses momentum. I slavishly thought I had to include all the lines of dialogue from the film in the novel and that was a mistake; I should have restructured some of it.
Austin: Do you have any wish to return to prose?
Whit: I do. I really want to. It’s very very tempting. You can achieve things with film that you can’t at all in fiction; it’s more social and gregarious and has all sorts of good things about it. But I think with writing fiction, you get the pure creative play under your own control. I don’t want to use a strong word to describe the world of cinema but … there are a lot of annoyances, tension and industrial processes with film. You don’t feel that you’re doing creative work, but industrial work, which has its good side, I guess, too.
It may be economical, too. I’m not sure if you get paid more for unprofitable films or unprofitable novels. (Laughs) No, our films are profitable. The reason they’re profitable is because they’re profitable for the investors and not profitable for me.
Austin: Then how has the independent film market changed from when you started out to now?
Whit: It’s been a radical change. We’re in a very tough period for independent film. I think there are good things, too, but you have to keep your cost level low. ["Damsels in Distress"] will be profitable, but we made it very inexpensively.
Austin: And yet your new film has a lot of visual style that I haven’t seen previously in your films, including a musical number.
Whit: We were so lucky that we got that off the ground. I was very happy with it.
Whit: It was really fun. (Laughs). It all came together with this beautiful weather. The cinematographer had a lot of really great ideas for how to do it. We got a crane to shoot against the backlights; we waited for the “magic hour” moment for Greta and Adam to dance in the fountain. We were lucky with our location that we had things like the Staten Island Botanical Gardens on our set, and we had a young choreographer who knew how to adapt things to the spaces we had to occupy.
Austin: Well, it looked great.
Whit: I really liked it.
Austin: Now I wanted to ask you about your characters —
Whit: As well you might!
Austin: (Laughs) I know, shocking! In your first three films, it seems that your characters are almost burdened by their education. They have this rich vocabulary and know so much about literature, but they don’t know how to apply it well to their lives.
Whit: Well, I think they’re all pretty superficial in the nice way that everyone is. I think at that age, and really at most ages, you spend a lot of time talking about things you don’t know that well.
Austin: But then in “Damsels,” your characters don’t seem as superficial.
Whit: Oh, cool.
Austin: They’re not as educated and they seem happier. Do you think that’s fair to say?
Whit: That’s really interesting. You’re probably right about that, but I never thought about it that way.
Austin: Do you have fun writing one style more than the other?
Whit: You know, I had a lot of fun writing “Damsels in Distress.” I really had a gas writing this one; I like this kind of comedy.
Austin: It’s more absurdist than your others.
Whit: It’s stylized, absurdist, broad. It’s a more out-and-out comedy than the comedy of manners.
Austin: Do you find there’s much of a difference between writing characters who are surreally dumb to those who are trying to be witty all the time?
Whit: No. I think the effect is witty sometimes from the characters in the other films, but I don’t think they’re trying to be witty. I noticed in the first screening of “Metropolitan” that people were laughing more at the reaction shots. It’s not what’s being said, but the reactions to it. So they are saying absurdities. There is a commonality between the supposed “smart humor” and the supposed “dumb humor” of the two groups of films. I consider “Damsels” in a group of stupid films; now that I’ve gone stupid, I don’t want to go back.
Austin: From that first screening, did you shape your films while thinking about that kind of reaction?
Whit: We had that in mind. The editor kept thinking about that when we were editing “Barcelona” together. That’s one of the great things about making a film as opposed to writing a novel or another endeavor: You have a lot of other people thinking about it at the same time. So I like to think that every actor is like a research institute on their character. Sometimes you change things for production reasons, but then the actor comes up to you and says, “Don’t you know what you’ve done hurts the arc of my character?” Then you do what they suggest because they are the people keeping the integrity of that character going.
Austin: Do you have any examples of how Greta Gerwig changed the character of Violet?
Whit: First, she did something that I love, which was she embodied the character. She created the character that was intended, which is the thing you really want. She did a lot of little things, most of which I didn’t find out until afterwards when we did interviews together. She did all of these physical things, like she had a way of walking rapidly with small steps that conveyed this determination and specialness of her character. If someone spoke to her and she wanted to pay attention to them, she wouldn’t turn her head, she would turn her whole body.
These were the little and big things she worked on to get the character there. I think that’s the hardest part of the film, so there had to be a lot of modulation in the first four days of the shoot. “Is it this way or is it that way?” So she had to do a number of different versions, and we had quite a few takes to start with. Then, once she voiced the right version we stuck with that.
Austin: The balance seems so difficult. How do you maintain respect for the character while also focusing on the absurdity that she found an epiphany through a bar of soap? How do you focus on the comedy while focused on the characters’ true thoughts?
Whit: Well, I believe a lot of this stuff. I think a lot of people can grab onto things to have their epiphany on, like a special, rare scent. I don’t think either Violet or I particularly like a lot of perfumes or a lot of scents. So you can have the idea of something transcending. It’s something that sounds absurd or laughable, but it can be something very helpful to people.
Austin: I understand. I was in the audience when you spoke at Indiana University a few months ago. I loved how someone asked you about Scrooge McDuck because I love that dialogue scene from “Disco,” and then you surprised me by reacting very enthusiastically about that character.
Whit: Uncle Scrooge? Yeah I love that character.
Austin: So you find that through the absurdity you can be really genuine?
Whit: I tend to have to work with stuff I like. For instance, I was chastised by several reviewers because they thought the film should have been about the conflict between Violet and Rick DeWolfe from The Complainer. That was a missed opportunity, blah blah blah. That was one of the big changes I made in the script because at a certain point it was going to be conflict between those two or Depressed Debby, Aubrey Plaza’s character. Then I thought that was such a boring prospect, and it depressed me so much for being so unoriginal that I couldn’t write the script. I was stuck. My intention was to write it that way, but then I had a writer friend who said that when you get stuck, you’re stopping for a reason. You have to think something through.
I didn’t want to make a boring formulaic film where there’s a conflict between two people and that’s the whole film and then it’s resolved. So I decided not to do the Rick DeWolfe story; he’s disappeared from the story. His effect is still there, that influence becomes the killjoy for the whole campus.
Austin: So what inspired you to switch the conflict to what it is in the film now?
Whit: I think it was that I was going in that direction, but it wasn’t the true direction of the film. When I started the film, I didn’t want to do any political dispute between two people. I wanted to keep the zany Violet identity quest and romance story going so it was avoiding the trap of the other plan and staying with the ethos of the material.
Austin: I found all of the characters in the film to be really funny, but I felt there were more characters with whom you wanted us to emotionally connect, and then there were characters who were just there for humor, like the guy who doesn’t know what colors are.
Whit: He was kinda touching, too.
Austin: Oh, absolutely. I was wondering, in a comedy, how much do you want us to respect your characters? Is that a weird question?
Whit: I always like it to leave it open to how the audience should feel about the characters. Sometimes I fear I leave it too open. People really like the Lily character because they think she’s the identification character, but she really wasn’t. It’s hard for them to get back on track and recognize it as Violet’s film. They tend to be the ones more negative about the movie. That’s the problem with people being too pre-programmed to certain film formulas — like the one where the outsider character chastises the snobbish insiders, but “Damsels” ends up not being that.
Austin: I think, then, the movie would work better on a second viewing because I started off identifying with the Lily character until I realized how often she would change her opinions with whoever she was around.
Whit: I think it improves a lot on a second viewing because the viewer learns it’s not a film about where the journey ends up but what’s happening on the journey. You stop worrying about when it’s going to end and you get into more of the characters.
Austin: Now, I know you were at Indiana University for a year or so?
Whit: I was in Bloomington for a foundation for a year, but while I was there I had an Indiana driver’s license so I could use the IU library. So I was in the IU library working at nights and on the weekends quite a bit.
Austin: Were you affected by that type of college town for this film?
Whit: I really was. My two college times were Harvard, my own experience, and the year I spent near the IU campus. I was there when the movie “Animal House” came out, and I remember the toga parties at the time. And I had a tiny, tiny role in the production of the lovely movie “Breaking Away.” The director and the screenwriter, Peter Yates and Steve Tesich, were in Bloomington to location scout, and they were to be introduced to Mayor McCloskey. We were at a party, and I was picked to introduce them to the mayor. I met Mayor McCloskey once, so it was very incongruous me introducing them. He was such a live wire about seeing what a good opportunity for the town, so he was like “Yes, we’ll do anything you need!”
Austin: Now I have to ask, are you working on another project right now?
Whit: I do have another project. I said in another interview that we’ll have to keep it under wraps. Then they posted the article saying I’m working on a project called “Under Wraps,” putting it in capitals. I loved that. So now people will say he never made his film “Under Wraps” — another film he didn’t make.
Austin: I just wanted to hear that you were working on something next because the gap was a long time for fans.
Whit: There’s the feeling that I will be able to make them faster now because I have the scripts pretty well written. I have several I want to make, but I still want to work on them. I want to make them even sillier.
“Damsels in Distress” is currently playing at the Landmark Keystone Art Cinema and other theatres across the country.
And “Under Wraps” continues to not actually be a movie.