Whit Stillman - Conversation taken from TTA12 - SS 2017
Interview John Dine
Photography Maciek Pozoga
Whit Stillman became an instantly known writer and director when he was just 32, with the release of his first film Metropolitan in 1990. An indie comedy of manners that shone a semi-biographical light on the privileged world of Upper Manhattan college kids, it was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay as well as the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Festival. Throughout the 1990s he developed many of the same themes and brilliantly directed several recurring cast members to create a world that was instantly recognisable as Stillmanian; Barcelona in 1994 and The Last Days of Disco in 1999 dovetailed with Metropolitan to form what became known as his “yuppie trilogy” and cemented Stillman’s reputation as one of the standout American auteur voices. Then for more than a decade, Whit Stillman seemed to disappear. In fact he and his wife had relocated from New York to Europe, where a series of financing and development-stage setbacks meant that it wasn’t until 2011 when his next film would be released, the Greta Gerwig campus comedy Damsels in Distress. At the beginning of last year, Amazon announced Stillman would write and direct six episodes of the new TV series Cosmopolitans, in the same month that saw the premiere of his new film Love and Friendship — a Jane Austen adaptation unlike any other and, remarkably for a period drama, perhaps Stillman’s most laugh-out-loud comedy yet. At his home in Paris, he tells us about life as an American abroad, the difficulties facing filmmakers in Europe, and the merits of writing screenplays at Dunkin’ Donuts.
Since the theme of this issue is New York I thought we’d start with your first film Metropolitan, which was set around the Upper East Side in the late 1960s. How has that world changed since you were growing up?
Well it’s kind of unfashionable now. One of the cheapest places you can live in New York is the Upper East Side, because they build tons of huge buildings heading further east from Fifth and Madison and Park. Now it’s Tribeca, the Village, Chelsea that have become very fashionable. I lived in SoHo for 14 years but I didn’t take seriously when everyone said it was becoming a shopping mall, until the day I was kicked out and our apartment became a modelling agency. So I learned my lesson there. I occasionally get to sublet the apartment of an artist friend in Tribeca, and I just love staying down there so close to the water. But the world of Metropolitan, I think it’s sort of the same. The apex of that world was F. Scott Fitzgerald circa 1922, so every 20 years is a new half-life of that radiation diminishing. I thought it would have disappeared by now, but they still do have debutante parties and things like that. It still goes on. But I never returned to live in that neighbourhood where Metropolitan was largely set, so my memories of the area were always in period.
Love and Friendship is your first true ‘period drama’ but you’ve often used anachronistic language; in Metropolitan when Nick Smith is punched by Von Sloneker he says, “He’s the scoundrel, I should have thrashed him!”
(Laughs) Yes. Is it scoundrel? I thought it might have been cad. They’re both very good words to use in this day and age. I love anachronism but I think it’s something of a myth that things change so quickly. There are periods where things do change enormously, but a lot of the past stays alive in the present, particularly in people’s imaginations.
How did that compare then with Love and Friendship, where dialogue has to be correct to a certain period in England?
The heart of my education was 18th century literature so I felt comfortable trying to get my ear around what that time in England would sound like, but we were very careful. We used a lot of different filter techniques, such as Google Ngram which allows you to search the usage of words in books through the centuries, and had certain interesting debates with a language expert who I was consulting with. For instance I was told we can’t say ‘pea brain’ or ‘peas brain’ because that wasn’t an expression in the 18th century. But it was just a joke within the film because there’s a scene about peas. I mean, peas existed and you could make that remark, even if it wasn’t a set phrase.
But is it plausible anyone could really not know what a pea is, like Sir James Martin in the film?
(Laughs) Well, this actually comes from a very charming guy my daughter dated. I don’t think his family ever served vegetables because everything he saw it was like the first time. He was just stunned (laughs). But in fact even in the highest circles of France at the end of the 17th century peas were still a novelty, so for a rustic gentleman like Sir James it’s possible he forgets what they’re called.
Did you take the same approach to the music?
I prefer pre-1760 because I love Baroque. I was chastised by some people that I didn’t have much period-exact music in the movie, which is set in the 1790s. They were saying why isn’t there more Haydn, blah blah, but I don’t like Haydn, I like Handel. I like Vivaldi. That music was earlier but it existed, and it went well with the drama of the movie so I think it was fine to use it. And I mean, I don’t really hear people talking in excited terms about going to a Haydn concert.
Kubrick said something similar about Barry Lyndon, and some of your music also overlaps with Clockwork Orange. Was he in your thoughts while you were making the film?
Definitely. You probably know that Kubrick and I were pretty tight…
No, that’s a joke (laughs). But there was an indirect relationship of a sort, people were sending us messages back and forth. He said some nice things about our film Barcelona and took one of the actors, Thomas Gibson, for Eyes Wide Shut. But I was very influenced by Barry Lyndon and it was really painful not being able to use Kubrick’s version of Handel’s ‘Sarabande,’ which we had during editing, because it worked beautifully with the opening scene. It was a real struggle to find something else until I found Purcell’s ‘Funeral of Queen Mary.’ Then when we adapted it for the film, people said, “Oh, you’re using Kubrick’s music?” I hadn’t realised the Purcell is in Clockwork Orange, which I saw when I was a teen and hated.
You did? When I was growing up Clockwork Orange had an almost mystical aspect to it, because it was banned in the UK.
Well it didn’t have a mystical aspect for me because I actually sat through it (laughs). Later, when I saw Barry Lyndon I changed my mind about Kubrick, but as a kid I hated his films.
Sir James is the funniest character in Love and Friendship, but there’s very little of him in Austen’s book.
He’s described a lot and plays a role in the plot, but Lady Susan is an epistolary novel, so because Sir James doesn’t write letters he doesn’t entirely exist. Even for the scenes in the novel I had to invent what he said. There actually is one long letter by Catherine Vernon, describing Sir James’ arrival at Churchill, and I had a first version of that scene which I thought was really weak, but then Tom Bennett who plays Sir James really made it funny in the read-though. So I started writing the new material, and I guess it’s more pure comedy. It’s my new obsession with the Will Ferrell kind of stupid American humour, putting that in the context of the 18th century.
You had the characters act in a more modern way?
I’m not sure about that, I just adore that kind of pure comedy whereas Austenian comedy is very fine but…higher. I’ll never be offered a Will Ferrell film because it’s not my budget level, but I discovered while writing Damsels in Distress I could write my own Will Ferrell style comedy. Again it was down to the performers. Ryan Metcalf and Billy Magnussen, who played the frat boys, were totally hilarious. It wasn’t anything I’d conceived really, it was the words I’d written, they just played it so dumb and so crazy. But I think some of the people who liked our other films weren’t comfortable with outright stupid humour. You asked if anyone could really not know what peas are, but in Damsels our question was could anyone really not know the colours…
(Laughs) That’s true. But I think from the beginning Damsels was a more dream-like film than the others.
Yes. I’m into stylization now, that’s what I really like. Occasionally I will go back to making things the in the former style, like the pilot we made for Cosmopolitans has a similar style to Barcelona and Metropolitan, so I hope to go back and forth between more naturalistic comedy and things that are broader.
There’s a great line in Love and Friendship where Lady Susan says, “Please don’t reproach me, I can’t support reproaches…”
And in Damsels we played with that in the reverse sense, where Greta Gerwig’s character Violet claims that she enjoys chastisement (laughs). I was just thinking about how fantastic that is, because it’s really hard to be the kind of person who thrives on that. Especially when it’s complete chastisement, when someone really criticises you. I have memories of when I was a fresh adolescent and being disrespectful or something of that kind, and I’d be slapped down by some older person whom I looked up to. I think I would respond well to that, maybe not in the instant but over that week, I’d think wow, they’re right…
(Laughs) Some of those comments stay with you for life.
And I see young people now who don’t have anyone in their life who ever does that, and they’re really suffering, they’re really flailing around with bad behaviour because nobody ever said don’t act that way, you know? Do not do that (laughs). I’ve been working forever on this idea of doing a film in Jamaica…
About ska music?
It’s really about the churches there, against the background of all the good music of the early ’60s. Someone was saying that you go to church there and it’s a lot of women with their daughters, who are really well brought up in Jamaica. But these single mothers have a tendency to indulge and never discipline their sons. There’s a lot of bad behaviour that comes from this sort of psychology, and I think the girls have the advantage from not being spoiled that way. They grow up really well, and a lot of the guys are lost without any sort of father figure to set them straight when they need that.
In 2006 you wrote an article for the Guardian where you seemed very excited about that film.
Oh, yeah. I thought that article would be sensational and producers and financers would come out of the woodwork, my phone would just be ringing off the hook…none of it. Nothing happened. I finally did get a very good producer in London, Jeremy Thomas, and we came very close to making it in 2008, but then it was dropped. By that time I had enough going on with Damsels and other things to earn money, so I put it aside. I expect to go back to it, but it’s really a long-term project and it’s a very tough sell economically.
Why is that?
Maybe Moonlight will change things, but it’s really hard to convince people that an all-black story which doesn’t fit into a genre is going to have international support. That sort of film is actually much better in the US, but for foreign sales it’s just nothing. I think because the music is well liked in many countries we could try for a Buena Vista Social Club sort of appeal, but it’s not a commercial proposition from the industry point of view. I do think it’s commendable that in the US there’s more receptiveness to films with black themes than elsewhere.
Reading the article I wondered what you think of Fitzgerald’s Pat Hobby stories, about a Hollywood screenwriter? Why do you think nobody’s tried to make them into film?
Actually those are among the only stories by Fitzgerald that I don’t like. I think the reasons for not making a film of them are endless (laughs). But actually I don’t like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button either and they made that into a movie, which I never saw. It seems to me that people who don’t really like Fitzgerald tend to like those stories, and those of us who do prefer May Day or Winter Dreams for example, the more sincerely romantic, naturalistic ones. It’s a little like with Austen, where the English professors like Emma and the real Jane Austen fans like Persuasion, say. There’s a collection of Fitzgerald’s stories from the ‘slick’ magazines where even the editor is deprecating about it. He’s saying oh, Fitzgerald was ruining his talent by writing all these third-rate stories for money, and the collection is called The Price Was High (laughs). But I think it’s a marvellous book. I give it to friends and they love it too.
You’ve written two novels that involve characters from your films. How does writing fiction compare to making movies, which I guess is more collaborative?
Well, my life doesn’t change very much because most of my time is spent writing. Even if it’s a script to be played by actors with the help of technicians, I only actually do that stuff for about six weeks per movie. All the rest of the time I’m alone with the voices of the piece I’m writing, and I get stir crazy and so frustrated…when you’re writing, you either don’t do things or what you do is bad. There’s just a huge amount of frustration.
A writer has to write a lot of bad material before he can get to anything good.
And there has to be some moving around, you know? Some good walking, not just being in front of a keyboard. I mean I go to these cafés for writing sessions and it’s usually walking there or back again that I actually get the interesting, usable material, not so much when I’m sitting there pretending to write. I like what Anthony Minghella said, that writing is like a drawer that opens and you can take something out, but then the drawer closes up again. So you have to be ready. I can often remember exactly what I was doing when I had a good idea. I was walking back from a swim on the coast of Catalonia when I got a great idea for some dialogue in The Last Days of Disco, and I can still clearly remember that walk up the hill.
Is there any city or place where you feel you work best?
I don't write well anywhere! The most favourable places have been in those Dunkin’ Donuts coffee shops where they have seating, and don't mind a customer staying to write during non-peak hours. After the morning rush such places can be quite peaceful.
I remember you saying once that you wrote the Metropolitan script late at night, and that it was the perfect time for writing comedy.
In fact I had a full-time job in New York while I wrote it, and that was a painful way to write. It was 11 pm to 2 am, often in a semi-dreaming state, but the results ended up seemingly decent. I wouldn't want to go back to that, but I have the impression I come up with better comedy material on days after sleeping poorly.
I wondered too why your dialogues often consist of arguments…
That’s actually one way a lot of material is created. I do really try to be serious about the truth of what people are saying, so I’ll have a character state something I think is true, or a good observation, and the next day I’ll have a sinking feeling that actually it’s nonsense, and it’s going to be bad for people to even hear it. But if you have someone else say it’s nonsense and argue about it, you get a lot of dynamic which you try to plug into the characters and the storylines. Preston Sturges said something that was really a sign he wasn’t going to make another good film, I think, which was, “Well, I can just spritz dialogue.” Spritzing dialogue is exactly what you don’t want to do. Each dialogue has to have some significant information and should reflect on the characters. If it’s not true it has to be silly and funny, and then contested and protested. So the dialogue in the films is not just spritzing, although it might seem like it… (laughs).
No, even the way the characters stare at one another, when something ridiculous is being said.
Well you usually get the laugh on those looks. I also think the character who isn’t your own point of view should not be a cardboard villain figure, but sometimes you can go too far with that too. Everyone who watches Damsels thinks Violet is the bad character, and that the new arrival Lily, the ingénue, is going to be the good character because that’s the way all films are. And I don’t feel that way at all. I hated Lily. I think she’s a conformist and really unimaginative as a character. But I think we ended up making her argument so convincing, and Emily Tipton plays it so sympathetically, people assume my point of view is on the Lily side. I think there was some tension with the film’s reception because we played it down the middle. At a certain point people want things to be clearer.
Well in Love and Friendship there’s no doubt that the central character is an unvirtuous person.
(Laughs) Yes. But we were unbelievably lucky with that. When the script was first circulating, a lot of people said how can you possibly make a film about two such detestable ladies? We were incredibly lucky that it broke well. Kate Beckinsale helped a lot with it.
The other film you made with her, The Last Days of Disco; it’s such a great movie, why do you think it wasn’t more successful financially?
We spent way too much money on it because it was a Warner Bros. film, but essentially it was only going to do what Metropolitan or other films of that ilk would do, and I wasn’t thinking clearly. There were all kinds of conceptual mistakes I made from the production point of view. I thought I’d knock peoples’ socks off with this big nightclub, and it’s really a mistake to do that unless you’re Cecil B. DeMille. It’s sort of this whole myth of the wide shot. I’m not a big fan of Lawrence of Arabia, but I think one impressive thing is that David Lean was able to make wide shots look magnificent. Wide shots really are so often disappointing, and it was ruinously expensive to have an enormous disco and fill it full of union extras and pay them overtime…
The side benefit for me though, which I didn’t have to declare on my taxes, was that for the next five years when I went to any catered events in New York I could have whatever food I wanted. All the waiters had been extras on Disco and they’d made so much money getting triple-gold overtime. And so if I wanted seconds on the filet mignon, or an extra dessert, there it was (laughs).
Were you ever star-struck at Studio 54? Did anyone introduce you to Warhol?
Well, the first time I went to 54 the only couple in there was a guy I’d tried to kick out of my prep school, so I was depressed (laughs). And he was also the same person who stole my favourite book. When I was first in school I was incredibly homesick and there was a book by Allen Drury called Advise and Consent, it was my lifeline. I was so unhappy I would just go to my room and bury myself in it, until it disappeared. I was heartbroken. Years later it turned out he’d stolen it, he was just this total delinquent who would do anything to annoy people. But now we’re friends. He turned into a very successful and charming executive.
Did you have a personal realisation that disco was over at some point?
Well my first date with my future wife was at 54, and then when we married I sort of lost interest in going to nightclubs. It was a bit of a strain on our marriage because she still thought it was a good idea to go to all these places (laughs). In my mind the music stayed good through to ’84, there was Culture Club and all these different things. I remember being in Madrid in the summer of ’83 for instance, when we were shooting Sal Gorda by Fernando Trueba, and there are really fun nightclubs in Madrid, really cool places. Disco never really died. There were a lot of things started in disco that continued in different ways, it wasn’t like the nightlife wasteland that was the seven years before disco. The early ’70s were really bleak socially.
That time was a kind of golden age for the ‘new wave’ in American cinema though. Were you influenced by that at all?
Oh, that golden age. No, not at all. I was appalled. I didn’t go to see Taxi Driver. I changed my mind about Bonnie and Clyde later, and I remember being excited by Star Wars, but I guess my golden age would be the ’80s, not the ’70s.
Really? Which filmmakers?
Whoever had Bill Murray in their films (laughs). I was obsessed with Bill Murray. He actually for a period was the secret element in indie film comedy, I think. It was really important for Wes Anderson that Murray was in Rushmore, and then he was also great in Broken Flowers and Lost in Translation; the only ones that were seen beyond the tiny coterie of fans were the ones with him in them.
How did you feel after making Disco? Was it your intention to have a hiatus?
No, not at all. It was really painful. I think it was considered a failure in the US more than in the UK, because it had been really nicely received in London. So I was in Paris, it was an optimistic time in the British film industry, and I signed up to a lot of things. Someone had told me in ’98, now that you’ve done Disco you should do things the industry way. So I tried to and it totally flopped for me. I had this horrible period of more than 10 years without a movie, and its was only thanks to going back to the States and getting TV deals and the Damsels deal that I was able to resuscitate things.
Was the disillusionment anything to do with why you left the US?
No, it was the opposite. I was really prosperous and things were looking really good, but then I lost my apartment in SoHo. So I made a list of cities I’d like to live in with my wife Irene, nine of which were in the US I think, and she wanted to live in Paris and so of course we lived in Paris. That was supposed to be just for a year but our marriage was coming apart, and you develop a group of friends and contacts and stay there. It wasn’t intentional. A playwright friend said to me at the time, you’re making a big mistake going abroad at this stage of your career. I kind of resented him saying that, but looking back now I think he was right.
Barcelona dealt with European animosity towards America. Have your observations on that changed at all?
Actually for many years I’ve felt the one film where my point of view is different now is Barcelona. I think I was still seeing an American vision of things when I was in Spain in the ’80s; I’d been pulled into this Spanish orbit by the woman I’d married and I really still had my American glasses on. But coming to France in ’98 I got more deeply involved in the culture, so now I think I can see both points of view pretty well. I’m still loyal to my country, but I wouldn’t make Barcelona that way if I were making it now. In the US it’s the most popular of my films, and I still like it, but it’s the one where I would have done things differently.
Speaking of France, why are those Parisian kids gatecrashing your portraits for the magazine?
I have no idea (laughs). It’s a really cool neighbourhood with a social club for the local kids, whom the photographer is friendly with. He’s a really nice and easygoing guy. And I’m a bit of a sheep to the slaughter with things. I’ll do most things a photographer asks.
Because you sympathise with their job?
I mean I was just pushing for things that would make me look less terrible. I thought perhaps I could use the kids to block my face as much as possible (laughs). But for some reason there were only photos with the boys, and there was this great girl there who I got into the picture. She was very nice. I mean she could be the lead character in my Jamaican film. If she were Jamaican.
Finally, people who knew you growing up in New York have described you as very quiet and observant, making mental notes. Is that still true, now you live in Paris?
Living in a foreign country I think it’s incumbent on you to remain as quiet as possible (laughs). So yes, whispering is definitely a good idea…