Interviewing Whit Stillman: A cinematic sense and sensibility

Whit StillmanThere’s a lot happening for Whit Stillman nowadays.

Known for the wry, urbane quality of his films as well as the almost Kubrickian periods between them, Stillman always had a lot on his plate, and this year is no exception. With two major cinematic projects in the works, a pilot for a new series called Cosmopolitan for Amazon Studios and a Jane Austen-influenced film titled Love and Friendship – as well as an Austen-themed novel reportedly slated for publication – the director of Metropolitan (1990), Barcelona (1994) and The Last Days of Disco (1998) is set to make further inroads in the world of film and literature. Recently, CURNBLOG spoke to him about his career path, his movie likes and dislikes, and his creative process, all of which have added to his unique character. We reveal the details below.

Its been nearly 25 years since you debuted so memorably as a director with Metropolitan. Can you tell us how that tale of young Manhattan intellectual socialites came about?

WS: I was very lucky with the people I knew in that period. I fell in with a group of people that were very funny. They weren’t all bookish but they were very entertaining. Tom Townsend has a lot of me in him because I have a lot of background in my family that was very political. I was doing that thing, being more radical – I was very much that character. I had a taste of true radicalism from my brother and his friends. But that quickly soured. They became tiresome.

Later, when I was living in France, I spent a lot of time in the Fourier area east of France in Switzerland. A family I knew in the neighbourhood in those rural mountains had an ancestor who had a Fourier foundry, so he prided himself on treating the workers well and was very paternalistic.

I was writing Metropolitan from 1984 to 1988, but it was 15 to 19 years earlier that I was writing about. Real people became fictional characters easily. There’s a funny fellow a little bit older than me, Chris Gray, who writes the real estate section on Sundays [for The New York Times]. He was one of the models for Nick Smith. My funny cousin Jay from Philadelphia was also an inspiration. Anything to build cinema attendance. 

Metropolitan - Whit StillmanYour films are known for their witty, knowing dialogue, as well as their wistful recollections of days gone by. What is the process by which you create your scripts, and what is your ultimate goal with them?

WS: I can’t really say what the ultimate goal is because that’s a secret. And I’m not quite sure myself. I think it’s pretty clear. … I’m sort of surprised that people think that I’m being scathing – that I’m being hypercritical [of my characters]. I’m not disdainful of the characters. I’m pretty close to them.

Because the tone of Damsels in Distress (2011) is rarefied and stylised and not natural, there was more room for confusion. I was on the side of the Violet character, but I didn’t want to be unfair to the other characters. There’s a last discourse between Violet and Lily about cool people, with Lily defending normal people. A lot of people think I’m defending normal people versus eccentrics, and that’s not really the case. I don’t want to be unfair to a character or point of view.

Some of it is the casting of the actor. Analeigh Tipton [who played Lily] was very compelling and very likeable. I don’t want to be too schematic and obvious and biased. I like when an actor makes the character more rounded than in the script. I think Serena was sort of flattened in Metropolitan; she could’ve been more charming. Maybe that’s why Metropolitan is so popular – it’s a little bit conventional with the villains.

Many of the actors youve worked with, such as Taylor Nichols and Chris Eigeman, are staples in your movies. Why have you chosen to work with many of the same actors, and are there benefits to working with performers and artists whose work youre not as familiar with?

WS: You have to renovate the repertory of a company because the years pass, and the characters you’ve written require other people. I regret that there’s a big gap between my films because it meant stopping work. It’s natural to work with the same people. Now with two projects coming up, it’s very tempting and compelling to work with the same people. I really don’t see how people cast films [blindly] with name actors. Until the actor knows the theme and dialogue, you don’t really know what it’s like. It’s like the rubber hitting the road. Particularly in a certain kind of comedy – in our kind of film – it’s very important to know what the actor will do with that kind of dialogue and not make offers in the dark. I’ve never had an actor in any of my films who didn’t audition for it.

The Last Days of Disco - Whit StillmanHow much improvisation do you usually encourage actors to do, and how do you keep it within the boundaries of their characters?

WS: It depends. It’s not what we’re really after, where we’re just trying to get what we’ve written “XX” down because there’s very little time. Occasionally an actor will want to bring something else into it, and if it works it’s great. I had a guy create that kind of stuff in Damsels: Zach Woods. He added a whole level of performance that his comic chops brought to it. I love when an actor has the comicality that can raise what’s written several notches.

We came up with some added stuff when we were shooting Metropolitan. What’s good about that is the actors didn’t know the scene was ending when it was ending. Normally, one of the problems when a scene ends is that they’re aware it’s ending. We came up with ideas on the set but they weren’t good enough [to include in the film].

Youve also directed for TV specifically, an episode of Homicide: Life on the Street. Do you expect to make a return to directing for television, and if so or not, why? And how is directing for TV different from directing feature films?

WS: I will be directing for TV – I will be directing my pilot for Amazon Studios. What I didn’t like was [about the previous TV experience was] there was a really good script I had signed on to do, and I cast actors I liked, like the borderline Chris Eigeman yuppie character who’s human. Then there was this dehumanisation in the rewrite where the white male characters were turned into ogres. It didn’t make sense. I don’t want to perpetuate untrue stereotypes.

It’s totally different in the sense that generally, the director in film is a bit like the captain of the ship, while in TV the writer-producer is definitely the captain of the ship. You are kind of a first mate when you’re doing television. They’re very denigrating with the director role. It also depends entirely whether the director’s integrated into the productions. There are directors who are key collaborators with the writer-producer. I hope that I’ll be able to direct all or part of the Amazon show if it gets on. I’m definitely going to direct the pilot.

Barcelona - Whit StillmanBarcelona was set in the titular city, and many of your films have a fish-out-of-water theme, with characters living overseas or traveling far from home. How has living in Paris and Spain influenced your creative process, and how have you applied it to your work?

WS: I hope that I will be able to apply it; I don’t think I applied it very much in Barcelona. It has an American point of view. It’s the one film that I don’t share the point of view in the film. It’s sort of excessively American – it wasn’t balanced. When I did the translation into Spanish, we tried to even up the score and clarify some things. In Spain, the Spanish version of the film is quite popular, whereas the Catalan version is quite unpopular. They didn’t even use our Catalan actors to dub themselves. The way Catalan is translated is not a good thing. The same thing happened to the novel I did based on The Last Days of Disco [The Last Days of Disco, With Cocktails at Petrossian Afterwards]: It came out in Spain as Cocktails and Caviar in Spanish. The Catalan translation was not based on the English version; it’s done off the Spanish version. So it’s like a bad photocopy of a bad photocopy. Comedy really suffers in translation because the people doing the translation tend to be very serious people, and they don’t get the punchline and change it.

Music plays a prominent role in your films, particularly in The Last Days of Disco, which was a paean to the namesake genre. How do you choose the compositions to use in your films, and how do you match the music with the onscreen action? Which should come first?

WS: It comes in several ways. It really is important to put everything against the picture and see what it’s doing. Normally, there’s a lot of people who cut the film and then add the music; we don’t do that. We normally try to get the demos from the composers [first]. We generally like a demo for a part of the movie that the composer didn’t intend. Mostly Mark Suozzo is the final collaborator who makes it come out all right. I’m really comfortable working with Mark – I had brilliant, brilliant contributions from Tom Judson in [Metropolitan] who wrote these beautiful themes. And then Mark came in and made that music happen for the film, and then Mark did Barcelona as a solo job. He really did some very clever stuff unobtrusively in Disco. Mark’s my go-to guy for music. 

Damsels in Distress - Whit StillmanWhat is the best and worst thing about movies today, and do you think that will change?

WS: For the worst, that will be a long conversation. There’s a lot of good stuff that manages to slip by. I actually like tons of indie comedies and unpretentious films. Their batting average is really high – maybe they’re hitting singles and doubles. I love seeing the films of other nations. Humanist, light cinema that doesn’t have as many powerful backers, but I think it’s there. There’s plenty of good films over the years, but we don’t get to see them because they don’t have major distributors. You have to really look for them. Maybe there could be more curatorial efforts in places like Netflix and Amazon to try to get those films more attention.

Youve recently noted some of your favourite films, which include The Gay Divorcee (1934) and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944). What movies have been the biggest influence on you and your work?

WS: When I was a kid, the films shown on TV were mostly from the Golden Age of cinema. I still adore pre-1941 to 1942 films, which is what I mostly watch. I love TCM [Turner Classic Movies] and RetroPlex channel. I think prewar cinema during the first 12 years of sound was a wonderful creative period.

I don’t think I’m that influenced by other films. I’m much more influenced by writers than other filmmakers. If Jane Austen and F. Scott Fitzgerald had a kid, it would be Metropolitan. I like Tolstoy, but that’s not very original. I also love J.D. Salinger and Evelyn Waugh.

Simon Hardy Butler is a writer and editor living in New York City. He has written for publications ranging from Zagat to Adweek and has interviewed innumerable people—including two Auschwitz survivors whose story may be heard at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s website: http://collections.ushmm.org/search/catalog/irn189827. He also blogs about anti-Semitism for the Times of Israel. His views and opinions are his own.

11 thoughts on “Interviewing Whit Stillman: A cinematic sense and sensibility

  1. Good interview. I had a chance to do a twenty minute phone interview with Stillman. It ended up being more like 80. He’s a great film-maker and a true gent. Never made a dull film, character or scene.

  2. Great job, Simon. It’s good to hear from Whit. “Metropolitan” is one of my all-time favorites, hilarious, erudite and touching. Also like “Barcelona” and “Last Days”. Will have to check out “Damsels” soon. Rick

    • Thanks, Rick! I agree–and it’s so funny how a period of relative quiet from a director may be misleading … that it’s an extremely busy period of getting projects under way. Thanks for reading.

  3. An interesting interview with someone I am not that familiar with.
    I did seen ‘Metropolitan’ many years ago, and enjoyed it then. I will have to try to catch up with some of his other films.
    Thanks Simon, regards from England, Pete.

    • Thanks, Pete! I heartily recommend his others, too–they’re unique and have a very specific tone. Barcelona is one I particularly like, though Whit notes its American point of view. It has a number of very funny jokes and quite humorous dialogue.

  4. Pingback: From Skip and Setter’s Creator: Another Interview … This Time With Whit Stillman | Skip and Setter's Cinema Blogishkeit

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