Interview - Whit Stillman


Interview - Whit Stillman
The full interview with the writer/director as he returns to screens with Damsels in Distress
You can read our full feature on Whit Stillman with plenty of background material here but for those who are interested we’ve also reproduced the full interview which was conducted by Daniel Anderson on Friday the 17th of February in Dublin’s Merrion Hotel.

DA: You just got in yesterday?
WS: I just came right off a revise of the film so I was just watching the reels. The assistant editor knows the film better than anyone so she and another guy stayed watching all the reels to approve them and almost missed the plane! Then we came over with the drive.

DA: So this is the first time you’re showing the full version?
WS: This is the first time – the world premiere of the final version will be tonight I think.

DA: How much has changed? I saw a version two weeks ago.
WS: I mean to us it seems big but [there are] very few pictures changes. We took out some dialogue so that 13 year olds can now see the film in the states.

DA: It seemed very PG 13 to me.
WS: I mean I like that there are standards for what you can and can’t show, I think that’s a good thing but then when you actually run up against it yourself you think they’re being unfair. There are other films that are much stronger that rated lower. Then when we went into trey to make changes for them, I really think it helped the film. Those scenes were a little too explicit and a little too heavy. And by just making it ambiguous it’s kind of an improvement. So tiny tiny changes to make what’s going on in one of the subplots more ambiguous. So you’ll be watching the film on DVD and your six year old could walk in and there’d be no embarrassment at all. And then we just… there’s an irritation factor when the soundtrack’s not right, when the voices are too high pitched so we changed that. And then we changed about six pieces of music one way or another – a remix of the song or a change to the background, that kind of thing.

DA: You’ve shown the other version at a couple of festivals, that doesn’t bother you?
WS: It went really well. I mean there are deadlines where you have to do stuff and it did very well. There are people who are fence sitters or lost patience with things and I hope these changes will make a difference to those people.

DA: It was always your intention to make this version PG13?
WS: Yea. I really went out with Disco R for no particular reason and I remember parents not allowing their kids to go see it and I was really shocked that parents were so censorious. But it’s true that some R films are really, really shocking. And it’s really unfortunate for us to be an R commercially. Because also it scares away the older crowd because they’ve been burned badly with some other R films.

DA: It must be a common question now but what have you been up for the last 13 years?!
WS: It’s a sad and boring story! I’ve tried to reduce it to two sentences so people don’t have to waste their time on it. I’m not sure how to pronounce it – it was my ignominious failure as a producer. I have the misfortune of being a hyphenate – a producer-writer-director and I think I’m a very bad producer on the level of finding money and setting things up. And also I think it’s a little bit like rock paper scissors. I think writer-director can go together but the producer thing kind of goes against that so my worry was writing and writing well and so instead if a project wasn’t going ahead instead of spending time making it work I wrote a different script. And that was going really well and I was really happy in my life, a very pleasant life writing scripts in Paris and Madrid, and I wasn’t worrying about the producing side because someone else was handling that and everything was fine. But then at a certain point things weren’t happening and it was getting bleak and around 2006 I was back in the states more to try to get things going. And I got back involved with the people who supported Barcelona and Last Days of Disco with this idea and so I got back in the harness essentially in the same sort of cinema.

This script was actually quite fast to write. I’d tried another version of it in 2000 very quickly and didn’t like it and so I pitched the idea to them having already done a version without them. From that period I have the four girls with the floral names and the roman letter frat system.

DA: But you worked on different films as well?
WS: A lot of different films, lots! I’ve always liked trunk films that filmmakers do. I think they initially have a bunch of things they’ve been working on for years before anyone wanted to make them. I noticed that with Spike Lee – I really liked his first three or four films that he had been working on before he became famous. And I always wanted to have a trunk, I never had a trunk of projects at various stages and now I have that. More work needs to be done; I’ve learned stuff about how the cannon should be shot. But it’s not as bleak as… there is a positive theory of the total bleakness and failure. It’s pretty bad, not making a film in 12 years!

DA: And you won’t make us wait again?
WS: I hope not, because I’m going to die soon!

DA: But at least you don’t need a blockbuster budget to make the movies that you want to make?
WS: That’s what I’ve learned. You have to be prepared to go really low. And the lower you go, the better!

DA: It must still be challenging to get even a smaller budget movie made?
WS: The liberating moment for this film was the people behind it liked the script and they were the same people I’d worked with before. But it’s still a question of financing and that conversation took place, we had to get an equity investment partner to get some stars attached, get some foreign sales. And I’ve been through this before so I knew what I meant. So I said I could actually do this film, Metropolitan style, for x amount of dollars. And this fellow said for that amount I could write the cheque myself. In fact, you could take twice what you said. And if we did it in a state that had one of these tax credits you could have 25 percent more and then they talked up the figure a little more. So that was good but it was unlocked by my saying a tiny number of what I could shoot it for. So I think that has to be approach from now on. When you have a project you make it clear that this could be done for less, frankly any film could be done for any amount of money. You could do the 500 dollar version of War and Peace if you wanted to, which could be interesting!

DA: It’s been more than a decade, was it fun to be back on set?
WS: Well I never find it that fun. The worry and the pressure are so enormous and one of the reasons for not doing a film in 10 years is that the pressure is agonising. 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. So the pressure is just absolutely terrifying.

DA: You don’t find the writing so terrifying?
WS: Everything can be bad! I think there is… I used to find the editing phase the best. But even that can be bad if things aren’t quite working. I find starting out… the idea of the script is normally a happy thing then getting started is very difficult. Then there’s a point when things are going well with the script and everything’s exciting. I think probably everything has its downsides. So yes the casting thing is great because you’ve finished the script and people want to make it – that’s kind of cool. But then there’s also the terror that you won’t find anyone to play some parts. We had a very hard time finding the males for Damsels. The French actor Hugo Becker we didn’t get his VISA until the last three days of the shoot. And everyone thought I was crazy hanging on for this actor, they wanted me to recast.

DA: So you had to do all of his stuff in the last three days?
WS: The last three days of the shoot.

DA: Editing must be a little easier because most of the pressure is gone?
WS: I do. But I made a huge mistake in this film where, to make money, I also had an HBO writing assignment. And there are a lot of very impressive people attached as producers and I didn’t want to disappoint them. So I did a draft right before we shot the film and right after I finished shooting. And that was, in some ways, a mistake – particularly the draft before we shot. 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. And that’s part of what was the problem with the 10 years – I became more of a writer than a filmmaker. You have to keep making films, not just become a writer for hire.

DA: There’s some satisfaction in writing something that gets made, even by another filmmaker?
WS: Yea but the only things that I write that gets made are the ones I take on as a filmmaker. The stuff I write to be a TV series does not get made.

DA: Would you consider directing something that someone else wrote?
WS: I have considered that and I’ve gone pretty far along that path. I sort of feel that there are all these things I want to do but I feel like the sand has run out of the timer on those things. And I really have to try to focus on doing my own projects. I would have loved those 10 or 15 years ago. But I think what I’ve heard from other people, those generally aren’t such good experiences.

DA: You find production quite stressful, how about the promotional side? Talking about your movie.
WS: I love it. 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. And it amuses me that there are these people who are reluctant to do publicity on their projects. It is tough in the junket situation because you get these junket rats who are all very negative about everything, that can be upsetting. But generally that’s a really happy phase. Theoretically, you’ve finished your film, the challenges are done. That’s really good. And look at this hotel. This is the nicest hotel I’ve ever stayed in in my life!

I mean this room is kind of grand but I think my room is so comfortable. It’s less grand but it’s just… this room is intimidating but mine is unintimidating and just comfortable and quiet and nicely done. And they even have fantastic bars of soap, a very good scent which I think is very appropriate.

DA: Like in the movie!
WS: Yea, asprey is a very good scent whatever it is.

DA: And have you been to Ireland before?
WS: A lot, I have a daughter here. First I came to promote the films and I had a friend who was helping the promotion. He went to Australia and is producing down there. So I came here promoting the film and had a great experience with Michael Dwyer, people like that. And then my daughter started dating a boy from Cork and on the way back from visiting him she was trying to decide where to go to school and she visited Dublin and saw this beautiful college, Trinity College. And 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! And so she came to Trinity and had a great experience there and is training to be a solicitor with McCann Fitzgerald. A wonderful firm and she’s having a great time and I get to see her when I come over. And I hope to shoot a film here.

DA: So that’s another one of your scripts but you aren’t talking about it yet?
WS: No!

DA: And so to Damsel’s in Distress – what is it like to be back after 14 years?
WS: I like to say its 13 years because it sounds less pathetic!

DA: If you had to pitch the movie – how would you
WS: Well it’s a very dynamic group of girls that want to revolutionise their grim university life and they take under their wing a girl who seems nice and then some guys either boorish or not, throw them for a loop and they have to recover from that.

DA: After so long what was it about this script that got it made?
WS: Well I suppose… this was… um… there are a couple of women who I told the story to and they all loved it because they’ve all been through this experience. We had the whole long project of co-education in the States and all these places were set up as male enclaves, with male traditions, etc. and then women came in and the question was do they adapt to the male environ and become girl guys or do they carve out some space for women. And I based it on some real stories from where I went to school – there really were stories of women who had done this sort of thing. People love them and the changes they wrought. And so the people I pitched to responded positively. Generally at the script stage I could sell things. But this was just right up the alley of everyone I was talking to. But when the script was actually done, then it becomes very specific and everyone wants to read it the wrong way. So we faced rejection and challenges later on but it all worked out.

DA: Most of your films have an autobiographical element – you mentioned this has some but maybe less than your other films?
WS: It’s very odd because the other features are much more set on specific experiences and are kind of realistic and are comedy dramas. This is, I think, pure comedy. And it’s not really set in any specific thing that I remember. A lot of different elements that I know about. But I would say I’m closest to this film than any other film. Because the protagonist I’ve found – this is the best character I’ve had in a film. This is the most interesting character.

DA: You had a lead female role before but generally focus more on males.
WS: I think it’s also the first star part I’ve written. Because in Metropolitan, the identification characters are divided up – there are four and all different aspects of one’s life. In this case, it’s really Violet [Greta Gerwig] and she’s the character I feel closest to.

DA: It’s also your first movie that isn’t clearly set in a specific time period.
WS: There’s always been a coyness about when things are set. This and Metropolitan are similar in not specifying period that much. We didn’t want this to be a period movie but their interests are so period – 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. So what is the period? There’s nothing in it that would say it’s not the present. And yet at the same time it’s a modern version of the past. There is a cell phone in it. There were laptops in but those scenes got cut out. They do talk about people not writing things by hand any more.

DA: It’s also your most obviously surreal film, was that a fun avenue to explore?
WS: I really loved it. I think that can be really difficult and dicey and high risk but in this case it just seemed to be happening and comfortable and we didn’t have to scale things back much it just seemed to be working.

DA: It flows really well. A dance sequence might be incongruous in another film but here it just feels like it fit. There’s a fairytale quality to it.
WS: Absolutely. In a way the inspiration for the tone of the film is my favourite part of Last Days which is at the very end of the film it breaks out of reality. Its 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 we really couldn’t find in the extras pool in New York people who looked like they were young people who went to nightclubs. But 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.

DA: A trailer was recently released, were you involved in producing that?
WS: Absolutely!

DA: What was cutting that like?
WS: That was great because Sony Pictures Classics came up with something that was really close on their own so I didn’t have that anxiety. But then they allowed me to go in and do some find tuning and that made all the difference.

DA: In terms of the included text? Review snippets and that?
WS: They had put that in already, the quotes as well. They wanted to take out the Woody Allen reference because they said its clichéd. And I feel that they were very successful with the last Woody Allen film and I think we got the comparison before but it’s really valid for this film. I think if someone liked early Woody Allen they should like this film.

DA: Especially in the wake of Midnight in Paris, not quite reality.
WS: Yea so I think it’s a good comparison. Now every independent comedy is compared to him but those ones did not deserve to use it but I think this is a good quote. And instead of mentioning Disco they wanted Barcelona I thought Disco is a more similar thing. It’s more recent and it seems to be the film we’re best known for, over here as well.

DA: Did you feel like you needed to use the trailer to re-educate audiences about you?
WS: Actually one of the things I liked about the trailer was actually one of our worries. The first time I saw it I thought that there were too many things relating to the plot. And I know that people feel that way. But one of our big problems with the film is that people are so conditioned to think that the outsider is the likeable hero so they can’t get their heads around the fact that our sympathetic outsider ingénue actually isn’t that nice. And that the crazy seeming mean girl is very nice. And so in the trailer we try to prepare people for the fact that Violet is actually the heroine of the film and she actually is a girl with problems and a situation so she’s the sympathetic character. It’s not Mean Girls or Clueless, this is different. And we have to try to put the film in the right context. The thing is, if people just are convinced that one person is the hero and another is the villain – even once they realise what’s going on, they’ve been irritated by things going a different way.

DA: You’re known for working with the same actors, mainly Taylor Nichols and Chris Eigeman – did you try to get them into Damsels?
WS: Taylor’s in it. He’s the teacher at the… he talks to Greta about dancing. There’s a class in the film. Let me see. It’s after they tap dance down the hall and he’s the teacher in the seminar. And each class member is naming three people they most admire. So Taylor is there.

DA: Do you see them as touchstones?
WS: I really wanted Chris in too. There were two people I wanted in the film who are not in it. One was the director Lena Dunham who really helped us through the production – she did this thing Tiny Furniture and helped us to get into mumblecore group as far as crew, we had a crew mostly of people under 27. And the Lena Dunham crowd really helped us. Lena was going to play a part that she would have been great at and it would have been ideal and it just so frustrated me that it didn’t work out. And Chris just refused to do it. I wanted him to be Professor Ryan, talking about Flit-lit in that thing. And I was really disappointed that he didn’t do it but I should have pressed that more. But he’s just someone who can’t be pressured. And we had the funny thing of having a professor Ryan being played by a Japanese actor. It’s part of our ethnic joke.

DA: Well you’ve written for the screen, directed, produced, acted, and written a book. Which do you want to keep doing?
WS: I want to keep doing everything.

DA: Would you act again?
WS: It depends. If I just was given a job, yea I like it. If it was silly and ridiculous, even more so. 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!

DA: Finally, do you have any future projects that you’d like to talk about?
WS: No I find that a jinx. One I talked about a lot that I still want to make a lot is this Jamaican film and then there’s this film I want to shoot in Ireland.

And hopefully you won’t make us wait another decade!
WS: I hope so.

Damsels in Distress is in cinemas from the 27th of April.

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