Feature - The return of Whit


  • Whit Stillman on the set of Damsels in Distress
  • Damsels in Distress
  • Damsels in Distress

Whit Stillman is back after a 13 year hiatus with Damsels in Distress and tries to explain his long absence
You know there are many, many phases of the filmmaking process where I’d rather just be alone somewhere writing a novel. I got into filmmaking because I didn’t want to be alone somewhere writing a novel. And now that I’m in it, I just want to be alone somewhere writing a novel! [Whit Stillman’s conundrum]

Filmmaker Whit Stillman has been away for a time, he makes no bones about that. Looking easily ten years younger than his supposed age of 60, he smiles as he perches atop a comfortable looking sofa in Dublin’s Merrion Hotel. It’s a question he’s been asked many times of late – what, exactly, has he been up to for the last twelve years? “It’s a sad and boring story”, he admits wryly.

Whit was in town in February for the annual celebration of cinema that is the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival. He’s attended before with his previous films, speaking fondly of the late master of ceremonies Michel Dwyer and of his love for the city itself. And, for a change, it seems like more than idle chitchat – Stillman’s own daughter Ann dated a Cork boy and was so taken with Trinity college that she settled there and now, age 25, she lives and works in Dublin. Her father supported the decision but kept it to himself; “I was just so bowled over by how gorgeous Trinity was when I stayed here but I didn’t want to make that obvious because I didn’t want to turn her off!”

The writer-director-producer (and sometime actor and novelist) was here to present his latest film, Damsels in Distress, to audiences. It’s just his fourth film and also signals the end of a drought which has lasted for almost 14 years, though Stillman claims it’s just 13 “because it sounds less pathetic”.

The cast of Damsels in Distress
The cast of Damsels in DistressEnlarge Enlarge

His debut was Metropolitan in 1990, where he drew on his own life for a tale of privileged young New York debutants who have faux profound conversations while simultaneously revealing their naivety. Here, he found a format for the films that would follow, as well as a group of actors who would crop up in his future projects – particularly Taylor Nichols and the frequently vicious (but highly entertaining) Chris Eigeman.

Next came Barcelona where the director again mined passages from his own life, chiefly his experiences of living and working in Spain in the 80s. More openly comedic than Metropolitan, it emulated the same slightly hyper-real setting and hyper-eloquent characters which earned Stillman a special kind of cult status.

Metropolitan – 1990
Barcelona – 1994
The Last Days of Disco – 1998
Damsels in Distress – 2011

The Last Days of Disco was Stillman’s biggest film to date, with a budget in excess of $8 million dollars and a more realistic tone for a story about some attractive young people (including a young Kate Beckinsale and a strong lead performance from Chloë Sevigny) dancing and talking at a magical nightclub in the early 80s. Stillman considers the film his most well known work but at the time of release it was a commercial failure.

Disco was a critical darling but the low returns were perhaps partly to blame for Stillman’s exile – moving to Europe for almost a decade. He also sees the break as a product of his “ignominious failure as a producer”, he says. “I have the misfortune of being a hyphenate – a producer-writer-director and I think I’m a very bad producer.” But it’s also a more fundamental uncertainty about how his different roles mesh together; “I think writer-director can go together but the producer thing kind of goes against”.

The result was a period where he delved more and more into writing, finding satisfaction in that which didn’t require the strain of financing, but also a sense of his unique conundrum: “There are many, many phases of the filmmaking process where I’d rather just be alone somewhere writing a novel. I got into filmmaking because I didn’t want to be alone somewhere writing a novel. And now that I’m in it, I just want to be alone somewhere writing a novel!”

This all stems from the fact that Whit Stillman, in a refreshing change of tone from most filmmakers, openly admits that making a film, especially a small one on a tight budget, is an incredibly stressful endeavour. In fact, he finds little of the process enjoyable – “It’s like a near death experience for 19 months where you don’t know how you’re ever going to get out of it”, says the director. “The idea of the script is normally a happy thing then… I think probably everything has its downsides”.

During the making of Damsels, Stillman put himself under more pressure by taking on extra writing– something he regrets. “I made a huge mistake in this film where, to make money, I also had an HBO writing assignment. I did a draft before we shot the film and right after. That was a mistake – particularly the draft beforehand. Afterwards maybe it’s a good to take off from the film for a few weeks but both were very bad ideas and I think we recovered from it but it took me a while.”

There’s a sense of relief about Stillman as he’s being interviewed, a sort of confessional air which makes it clear that he loves getting the chance to talk about his films; “My favourite side of the filmmaking process is just what we’re doing now. To talk to someone who enjoyed the film is the greatest pleasure that you can have.” He also seems bemused by members of the industry who rail against the necessity of promotion.

And so to Damsels in Distress. The film tells the story of a group of young women at an East Coast University who decide to nurture a new transfer student while also dealing with their depressed fellow students (using the elemental power of doughnuts and tapdancing) and vowing to ‘improve’ the Neanderthal-like males in their midst.

Clearly the autobiographical element is more distant in this tale but Stillman found his story resonated with female friends while also grabbing some details from his own life. “I based it on some real stories from where I went to school – there really were women who had done this sort of thing. People love them and the changes they wrought”. And the filmmaker felt a special closeness to Damsels, particularly the character of Violet (played by Greta Gerwig); “This is the best character I’ve had in a film. This is the most interesting character.”

He sees the film as a change of pace, as a ‘pure comedy’ as opposed to the comedy/drama of his previous efforts. There’s also a sense of the surreal about Damsels which flows from the archaic notions and unusual speech patterns of the girls, supported by some beautiful soft focus lensing from cinematographer Doug Emmett. It is reinforced by a purposeful vagueness about the period of the film: “These are girls who want to be living in a fantasy version of the early 60s or 50s, in the world of Grace Kelly or Audrey Hepburn [but] there’s nothing in it that would sat it’s not the present.”

Greta Gerwig and her chosen Neanderthal in Damsels in Distress
Greta Gerwig and her chosen Neanderthal in Damsels in DistressEnlarge Enlarge

As the film progresses, Stillman returns to a thread that has been commonplace in his movies –dancing. Violet becomes obsessed with the idea of starting a new dance craze and that passion begins to leak more and more into the movie as the finale approaches, ending with a charming and unusual sequence which won’t be spoiled here. These moments were inspired by a single sequence in The Last Days of Disco which always stayed with Stillman:

“At the very end of the film it breaks out of reality. We’re playing one of favourite songs ‘Love Train’ and it’s on a subway train and they suddenly all start dancing. It was great moment in extras casting in New York because … there were people of all races, ages, shapes and sizes who were performers and loved to dance and show off. So we had these people doing these crazy dances on this subway platform. And it was just a wonderful moment.”

Stillman has been rejigging the film since it debuted at the Venice Film Festival in August 2011. He finished the final version (hopefully) just hours before boarding the plane to Dublin, making the JDIFF screening the premiere for the definitive cut of Damsels. These trims were mostly made to dialogue to add some “ambiguity” to secure a PG-13 rating in the states, something the director was intent on after making Last Days of Disco an R for “no particular reason” – which scared off certain audience members. It’s a shrewd move, opening up the film to a larger audience and also ties into his recent tinkering with the theatrical trailer. After the first cut by Sony Classics, he made them replace a reference to Barcelona with one for the better known Disco, while also fighting to maintain a review quote citing the influence of Woody Allen – “I feel that they were very successful with the last Woody Allen film [Midnight in Paris] and I think we got the comparison before but it’s really valid for this film”

Damsels is guaranteed to sit well with established Whit Stillman fans but the breezy tone should also earn him new admirers, while the lower budget means a failure like Disco is unlikely to recur. One thing is certain; Stillman is determined not to repeat his decade lapse, intent on returning to filmmaking as soon as humanly (and financially) possible with perhaps his long gestating Jamaican dancing movie or even a hinted at script set in Ireland. When asked if he’ll make us wait as long again, he leaves us with a dry rejoinder:
“I hope not, because I’m going to die soon!”

Damsels in Distress is in cinemas from the 27th of April. Check back soon for the review.

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