Whit Stillman is filmmaking’s l’aesthete-terrible, the son of di Lampedusan-esque aristocrats, and a man whose life as an ironic hobnober with the Harvard-educated and the “urban haute bourgeoisie,” was brilliantly and hilariously captured in his quirky, verbose, and neurotic debut, Metropolitan. Because of his three semi-autobiographical films, perhaps more than any other director, Stillman’s person and style come across as a particular and cohesive tableau.
I smiled, then, learning that when Whit Stillman came to Dallas ahead of his new movie, Damsels In Distress – his first film since 1998’s Last Days of Disco – we would meet at Adelmo’s Ristorante. After moving from New York to Dallas, I always thought the restaurant off Knox St. was one of the few in this city that looked how a restaurant should look: a tiny dining room crowded with white-clothed tables, a short, toss-about bar area in the back of the room stocked with Italian cordials. Adelmo’s seems like the only place in Dallas where Stillman could appear, because without the proper backdrop (I fancifully imagine) Stillman might merely dissolve, like the Wicked Witch of the West, into the gaping stretch of Dallas concrete.
I meet Stillman on the restaurant’s more private second floor, where he sits with his preppy flop of hair, trying to order coffee. “I hate Lavazza,” Stillman says when offered an espresso. “Let me try the American coffee, please.”
Before the interview, I was harboring fantasies of the both of us, jacket-clad males, leaning over a clean white table in a cramped restaurant mumbling about life and careers. I had fallen prey to an occupational hazard, believing for a moment that the talent is there to be your friend, when, in fact, they are there to promote their movie. Now I can see that Stillman is burned-out from the junket. “How much time do we have?” he asks the publicist as I sit down. So I ask him, is he tired having people ask over and over, what you have been doing for the past decade?
“It’s totally a legitimate question,” Stillman says. “And it is totally a mystery to me too. I didn’t realize how bad the situation was. It always seemed like something was about to happen.”
It’s not that Stillman hasn’t been working. It’s just that after Last Days of Disco, he moved to Paris and took what he now says was some bad advice.
“This lawyer said, ‘Well now that you have done these other films this eccentric way, you should do it the industry way,’” Stillman says. So the filmmaker went about soliciting screenplay writing gigs and has even completed a few, though none of them ever made it to production. For some reason, once you hear his scenarios, you’re not too surprised the films haven’t been made. Honestly, they sound a little like punch lines delivered by one of Stillman’s obscure and effusive characters: a musical set in Jamaica in the early 1960s; a movie about Maoist fanatics in the Cultural Revolution of the 1970s.
“These aren’t slam dunk projects to do from America,” Stillman says with a straight-face.
The fact of the matter is Whit Stillman isn’t a slam dunk in America. Despite his stretch of 1990s success, the appeal of his films comes from their quick intelligence and acute social wit.
“I think I know what killed cinema: film noir,” Stillman tells me, revealing himself as something of a cinephile-heretic.
The comment puts much of Stillman’s cinematic instinct in perspective, a sensibility that skips over the French New Wave and so-called American New Wave of the 1970s, and looks to classic Hollywood and French poetic realism. Though he cites John Ford as a visual influence (and in particular, Ford’s independently-produced Wagon Master), Stillman’s films feel most rooted in the social comedies of 1930s Hollywood. There’s a Jean Renoir reference in Damsels in Distress, which comes via a poster on a dorm room wall, and during our interview, he laments the broadening of the Turner Classic Movies Channel’s definition of the word “classic.”
“I think the so-called sex comedies of the early-1960s, late-1950s, those slightly risqué, but within the code movies, they are really fun to watch with the kids,” Stillman says.
It is tempting to reduce Stillman’s career in light of these comments, to say that the filmmaker is trying to make movies in the early twenty-first century that appeal to early twentieth century sensibilities. You could even blame the time it has taken for Stillman to make his fourth film – and it has taken a long time – on this apparent disconnect. But the story is more complicated than that.
Part of the problem is that Stillman got his career’s timing all wrong. His Parisian hiatus coincided with a tectonic shift in the economics of the independent film world. With the internet eroding the DVD market, investors were less sure how to make money by financing films like Stillman’s. That left the bright talent sitting overseas, wrestling with British film funds and government film agencies, getting nowhere.
“For me, the industry way was just a disaster. It was a big mistake,” Stillman says. “It was very nice personally to live there. But going from the script to a film production is the leap I couldn’t make there. The industry way normally means not ever making your film.”
Project after project got stalled or lost in the process of production until Stillman, who doesn’t actually enjoy the process of making a film (“At some worrisome points in the production and post production process I just want to go to a cabin in the mountains and write novels,” he says), suddenly realized it had been a long time since he made a film.
“I actually had to think of one of those Metropolitan lines,” he says, “When the character says, ‘Well, the failure could come later.’ And I definitely found that the failure could come later.”
Damsels in Distress represents something of a step back for Stillman, back to the kind of shoe-stringing production that started his career, shooting his first film in his friends’ haughty Upper East Side apartments. Damsels in Distress was shot on a hospital campus on Staten Island and made for a reported budget of $3 million, though Stillman says the real budget was actually less than that. But making his movie wasn’t merely a mater of stripping down his production expectations to the micro-size.
“It is kind of logical this one went ahead so well,” he says. “From my point of view, it’s a pretty accessible, silly comedy about American colleges. So it is a logical American project.”
That said, the key strokes of Stillman’s style are present in Damsels in Distress: its articulateness, the characters’ self-regard, their well-grooming, and a sense of humor that feels like a cross between Animal House and Jane Austen, as Stillman says one viewer described the film to him.
“I thought that was the best summary I’ve heard,” Stillman says.
Austen has played a background role in all of Stillman’s films. Mansfield Park is a key talking point in Metropolitan. And Stillman says he admires Austen’s ironical and humorous, but optimistic spirit.
“She’s dealing with the reality of people’s foibles, and having a nice time with them,” Sillman says of the author, sounding as if he is also describing his own work. “Yet at the same time she is keeping her wits about her and her judgment in check about the value of different people and their point of view. For one thing, I like works that are created at the beginning of something. In a sense, she was working at the beginning of the novel; she was doing things fresh in a way.”
Ironically, for the filmmaker who didn’t make his first film until his late-thirties, Stillman’s career has been marked by beginnings: his first film, his first studio-funded film, the beginning of his career as an industry hack. Now there’s Damsels, which, given the circumstances of its production, has the feel of a second first film. And Stillman says he doesn’t believe it will also be a second false-start.
“I hope that having learned to make a film at this very low budget level that we will be able to scale all our productions and move forward,” he says. “You just have to know that there are no extras — there is no superfluousness. And if people need superfluousness, you should not be working on a film.”