Interview: Whit Stillman Answers the Call of “Damsels in Distress”


Whit Stillman is looking for a place to knock on wood. As incongruous a setting as it sounds to be interviewing the great scenarist who coined the term “urban haute bourgeoisie” in “Metropolitan,” we’re sitting at the Coffee Bean on Sunset in Hollywood in chairs made of aluminum and what would appear to be wooden armrests, but Stillman can’t be certain.

“This may be an entirely wood-free environment,” he says as his eyes search around for something without a trace of polyurethane, the fist he’s made unraveling just a bit. “Maybe that umbrella?”

True to the style of his films, he’s committed to the premise, unwilling to discard it immediately or betray it with the easy resolution of a laugh, letting the absurdity of the notably modern advent of faux pine become hysterically funny even if it’s underlined by the sad reality that the authentic stuff is hard to come by these days. After injecting this observation into the answer of a bland question from yours truly about the mix of a new generation of producers (Alicia Van Couvering, Charlie Dibe and Jacob Jaffke) with veteran collaborators (Castle Rock’s Martin Shafer and Cecilia Roque) that made his latest film possible, what rings true is that Stillman remains the life of the party, despite not being able to throw one on screen for an unbearably long time.

DamselsinDistressIf admirers of the writer/director can’t believe that his new comedy “Damsels in Distress” will be released in theaters Friday after a 14-year absence, neither can he to some degree. Indulging in some mild fretting about whether the final lab bills will be paid three weeks before release even after a triumphant screening the night before at Los Angeles’ Cinefamily, he could easily fit in amongst his quartet of “Damsels,” a group of comely coeds led by the headstrong Violet Wister (Greta Gerwig) who volunteer at their campus suicide prevention center to abate anxieties about their personal worth and their place in contemporary society that shouldn’t really be there. (This is in spite of the fact their “distress” is cheekily noted in the opening credits as their male co-stars, though the filmmaker’s affection for women won’t allow for that to be the root cause.)

But try as Stillman might to portray himself as a pessimist at times — his deadpan advice to a room full of aspiring screenwriters at the Austin Film Festival last fall was to see if “you can write for direct publication…because you don’t have to work with cinematographers” — it’s impossible to believe the act when in his film, one sees Violet’s answer to other people’s maladies as well as her own involves tap dancing. While Stillman maintains below that “Damsels” is the beginning of a new era – hopefully one as prolific as his glorious run in the ‘90s that also included “Barcelona” and “The Last Days of Disco” — he literally hasn’t missed a beat since he turned a New York subway station into discotheque at the end of the latter and found a way to stage not one, but two musical numbers at the end of his latest film as a cure to the fatalism and fraternities that run rampant at the fictional Seven Oaks University. Fortunately, he did step away for a moment to talk to me about the film that’s been closest to my heart ever since seeing it twice last year at the Toronto Film Festival.

GretaGerwigDamselsinDistressWhat’s it been like to be on the road with a new film?

The film has changed and I think it’s for the good. I thought we had to finish it before we were ready and you saw it in in Toronto…Maybe I’m just being too subjective but I find with the first version we finished, the sound was very rough and some of the musical choices weren’t quite right. In Venice, we had this great, exciting screening with terrific response. It was just fantastic. But it was that kind of really funky screening room they have for the press. Then [in Toronto at] the big industry screening [at the Scotiabank, a multiplex], I think the reaction was more divided and I think it’s because that stadium seating, immaculate sound, all the flaws, the irritation factor of the soundtrack come to the fore. It’s a delicate film and if the sound is irritating in the first 20 minutes, it’s a bad thing for us. It makes Violet harsher. And then the Elgin [a grand old theater] in the evening, that’s very funky projection, but actually I thought it helped us. It looked terrible, but it played really well, much better [than at the Scotiabank], didn’t you find?

It did. The best part of seeing it first at the Elgin in Toronto was to feel the energy of the big premiere and then going back the second morning to hear all the sharp dialogue that you couldn’t hear when the laughs lingered.

People will say that in interviews, like did you plan for the laugh to cover up? Do you pause so that the next line there’s a laugh? That’s like anticipating something we can’t expect. We just make the movie and if people laugh, they laugh, if they don’t, they don’t. You can’t think about that. It’s kind of someone to ask.

You’ve been playing colleges too, I noticed.

Yes, we had a very good experience at IU, my old stomping grounds in Bloomington, Indiana because I spent a year there working for a small foundation in my twenties. I was actually there when they made “Breaking Away.” My first contact with the film business was to take Peter Yates, the director, and Steve Tesich, the screenwriter, to meet the mayor of Bloomington when they were location scouting. And then I was in the library there when they were shooting the little 500 race. They didn’t get enough extras since they had to cheat the audience by moving them around, but I remember fake cheering from that shoot. That’s one place where I ran into antagonism towards the Greeks. There’s a lot of town-gown disputes there and I saw the frat boy culture at IU.

AnaleighTiptonDamselsinDistressYou probably weren’t in town long enough to notice, but have things changed greatly there?

Everything is vastly richer and even more social. The last 30 years have been very good for American nightlife. I’m not sure about anything else, but people really go out a lot.

You said something at the Austin Film Festival last fall that intrigued me about how you’ve never been interested in the cool outsiders. Yet it could be argued that your heroines in this film who strive for tradition and by extension, you as well, could now fall into that group in contemporary culture. Has that shift interested you? 

I’m not sure about the outsider/insider dynamic there, but a lot of people in my generation or close to my generation assume that with time, everything becomes groovier and more hip and more cool and it’s a fiction from our youth. I guess it’s this question of how can someone your age write about young kids today and actually, we were nostalgic in my little group in our day for something that starts to exist now. In our college, there were no sororities of any kind. The whole idea of it would’ve been just impossible to think of.

Now, the headline of the paper I worked on, The Harvard Crimson is “Biggest Sorority Rush Ever!” [with] pictures and it’s like, all the Harvard girls rushing sororities? That was incomprehensible. It’s a return to the ‘50s in a way. So I think this film is strangely, unintentionally going at a moment when it actually matches the culture. What I find is that any group has its dominant and less dominant mores and my daughters had very different experiences in university, but my daughter who’s in university now, they’re very square there. All they’re doing is studying as far as I can see and it’s a much less dangerous thing than it was in my time.

Was that an influence on the film?

I don’t care that much about exactly what’s happening with the generality of people, but I am reassured that there are minority subgroups that match the world we’re talking about. The idea I’ve been developing is that each of our films is quite utopian. This is the most utopian of all the films and Violet Wister is the utopianist. She’s essentially the Charles Fourier of this university environment. She’s trying to create her version of Brook Farm and in her idea of commune, there’s a lot of people dancing and people not killing themselves.

One of the artistic aesthetic traps that we’ve been in for a very long time – nearly 120 years – is the idea that realistic and naturalistic styles are superior to other styles. That comes from the time when everything was extremely idealized and people like Theodore Dreiser came along to try to show the gritty side of life. But now that things are all gritty all the time, we need to sort of rekindle Booth Tarkington territory. I remember when I was in college at my Roman Letter fraternity, everyone was glued to the tube watching “Tom Brown’s School Days.”

VioletWisterDamselsinDistressBefore “Damsels,” you had worked on films like an adaptation of Anchee Min’s memoir “Red Azalea” about life in China under Communist rule in the ‘60s and “Dancing Mood,” which is set in Jamaica. Was it a bit of a melancholy feeling for you after planning for such a departure from your previous work to come back with…

Come back to my own territory? I was kind of happy because I feel this was a logical progression. This is not a chapter four [to my earlier work], I don’t think. It’s a new book. The previous three films really do go together as a triptych with a very similar style to each one. This is a stylistic departure. We’re into an element of fantasy and unrealism and idealization that is close to something I was trying to do with “Dancing Mood,” and that I couldn’t sell “Dancing Mood” in London, I think, because of the fantastical elements in it. So if I get more credibility for doing things that are fantastic, it’ll help me make “Dancing Mood.” “Dancing Mood” has angels and demons in it, so it’s not exactly the popular idea of realism, but I think this will help me make “Dancing Mood.”

So many things have changed since you last stepped behind a camera. How did it affect you as a filmmaker?

Things have gotten better in production terms. It’s much, much better than it was. The digital camera revolution is phenomenal. The results are beautiful and I don’t think the nostalgia for shooting on 35mm is logical. In some ways, my happiest experience was Super 16, which was a real handful to deal with in “Metropolitan.” We were happy with the results, but it was a very hard format and then I found the big production apparatus of shooting 35 was not so good, so I think digital’s better.

GretaGerwigAdamBrodyDamselsinDistressYou have a reputation as a perfectionist, though I was surprised to hear the other night you weren’t a fan of rehearsals. Still, did the ability to do as many takes on a RED camera as you wanted give you more leeway?

I hate rehearsals. No, we actually did fewer takes on this film. All I want to know is that the actor is very close to the character that we need and that really for us is part of the auditioning process. There’s no one who’s hired sight unseen. And we have everyone reading the thing they’re going to do, so I see they’re doing that, they know what they’re doing. Losing freshness is a real issue. The whole Frank Sinatra thing of “best in the first two takes,” that’s true of a lot of people. You do the other takes and you think it’s really good what you’re doing on set, but normally what you’re correcting when you do takes five and six is one little thing, one little phrase or one little word and you end up in your editing going back to the first three takes.

Since the film ends in dancing, let me do the same with this interview — you’ve had some form of itin every film you’ve done, even your cameo last year in “The Imperialists Are Still Alive.” You said it was an amazing depression cure in Austin, but how do you keep coming back to it in all your films?

It’s one of the few arrows in our quiver that is cinematic because yes it’s true that a lot of the film is about ideas and words and I think that’s cinematic too. I don’t accept the visual fallacy of cinema, that cinema’s only picture. But dance is an area where what we like to do and what’s interesting for our characters and the story is also really good onscreen. The idea for the “Disco” movie came out of how much we loved the pretty girls in discos from Barcelona. I thought wow, this is really cinematic. Pretty girl dancing at a disco – that’s cinema.

MegalynEchikunwokeDamselsinDistressAlthough it would be impossible to spoil “Damsels in Distress,” I wanted to include a portion of our conversation at the end since it likely will be most appreciated by those who’ve already seen the film. As L.A. Weekly’s Karina Longworth illustrated beautifully in her recent profile of Stillman, two of the film’s central characters create alternate identities for themselves that ultimately makes them uniquely fit for each other. In an unrelated anecdote about the casting of Megalyn Echikunwoke, who plays Violet's coolly dismissive friend Rose, Stillman suggested there was originally more subtextually to this theme of shifting identity – and it’s a good story to boot, so I’ve included it below in full.

From the very first casting session, Megalyn was always going to be Rose and I always had the idea that Rose would be from the Caribbean because I’ve known these wonderfully aristocratic women of British-West Indies-colonial culture and I find them very funny and very opinionated. They’re just delightful. You don’t want to cross them. So she did [the voice] in English and she was good and I said, “I have this idea. Could you do a West Indian accent?” And she said, “Well, I was just visiting a Nigerian friend of mine” —and Megalyn’s father is Nigerian — “who lives in London and I can do her British accent.” Her friend had kind of a posh accent, so Megalyn did it and I really loved it.

We had her work with Sam Chwat, the guy who helped Kate Beckinsale with her American accent [in “Last Days of Disco”] who tragically died this past year, and I thought that she’d just get this approximate British accent that played through the film and I’d write a scene where it would be revealed that it was a fake put-on thing. Megalyn worked so hard on it that she got it really, really perfect, so at the end, we didn’t really need to have the scene. That’s the only time I’ve written something so close to the filming and when we first saw it, it just seemed absolutely godawful because the weather turned cold. They were absolutely freezing. I had only done one draft and it was too on the nose and then in editing, I could see that I could lose a lot of the scene and rearrange it and have it more oblique and then it worked.

We don’t really do that much of total duplicity in the editing room, but there’s certain things…someone says a word or I found that I was too harsh with Rose in one [scene], so I was able to replace dialogue from another scene. In the first suicide scene, Greta does this wonderful gulp and we actually used that gulp for Analeigh when Xavier [Hugo Becker] is explaining Cathar love. She gulps and that’s actually Greta’s gulp. Then there’s another scene with Megalyn where she does something and we put in Greta’s gulp again. So Greta’s gulp became the sound effect we used in various scenes. But then I went to the sound mix and we left it out of Greta, so we put it everywhere else, but somehow it got dropped from Greta.

"Damsels in Distress" opens in New York and Los Angeles on April 6th.

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