Whit Stillman was one of the first American independent filmmakers to break out in the 1990s, just before Miramax turned the low budget production company into a mini-industry. His 1990 debut Metropolitan (a comedic exploration privileged 20-something New Yorkers whose self-obsession and intellectual preoccupations prevented them from finding happiness) earned him an unexpected Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay. He went on to explore similar themes and characters in 1994’s Barcelona and 1998’s The Last Days Of Disco and then seemed disappear. In the 90s, Stillman’s distinct brand of hyper-articulate dialogue-driven comedy felt out of place in the Tarantino-defined indie landscape. However, over the last ten years filmmakers like Wes Anderson and the mumblecore kids have turned it into a subgenre of sorts, so perhaps its unsurprising that the reclusive filmmaker has finally returned after fourteen years in the wilderness with Damsels in Distress.
The breezy comedy stars Greta Gerwig as the leader of a group of headstrong college girls in an unnamed East Coast campus that recently became co-ed. They plan to civilize the school by encouraging frat boys to use soap, calming suicidal students with donuts, and trying to start a new dance craze with The Sambola. It’s probably Stillman’s most enjoyable work to date and hopefully one that will be successful enough to ensure there won’t be another painful decade-long wait between projects. We recently got a chance to chat with the writer/director about his long awaited return to cranking out charmingly sophisticated comedies.
Dork Shelf: I’ve noticed the influence of your films slip into a lot of indie comedies over the last decade by people like Wes Anderson. Did that make it easier to get Damsels in Distress made at this point?
Whit Stillman: Yeah, I think it did. I haven’t seen a vast number of mumblecore films, but I think it definitely helped. Not so much in getting it made because it was the same people who backed Barcelona and Last Days of Disco, but I think it helped with the proposal that I made to them. We went about it the same way with foreign presales, star casting, an equity partner, and all that blah blah blah. I thought we could make this film very cheaply today and have it look really good. People today like Lena Dunham are making films for a pittance that look really great and I thought we could go back to the Metropolitan style of filmmaking, which is extremely low budget. That was actually the proposition that they bought into. They are very generous people so they encouraged us to increase our budget, but it was still quite low.
DS: Damsels in Distress felt a little a littler lighter and broader and even somewhat whimsical compared to some of your previous work. Was that something you were consciously trying to do?
WS: You know, I think it came with the idea. I based the previous three films on a specific milieu and time that I was representing. The characters were very specific to one thing. This idea from the get-go was always more of a comedy, and when you’re really in the world of comedy you’re breaking out of the naturalistic bonds. Also, I would say in the 12 years I was not making films I fell in love with a kind of Will Ferrell comedy like Elf and the fraternity world allowed us to do that kind of sweet innocent stupidity. The director of the Dublin Film Festival said that the film is Jane Austen meets Animal House, which captured the intention. Also, you mentioned Wes Anderson. I didn’t realize this until after I finished the film, but it is kind of a female version of Rushmore in a way.
DS: Did you write the role of Violet specifically for Greta Gerwig?
WS: No, actually this time I didn’t know any of the actors who were in the film. I’d met two actors in very small parts that very well played by the children of people that I knew. I’d met Caitlin Fitzgerald, who played Priss, just socially, but I did know her father from school, where he was my nemesis. But really everyone came through the audition process, even the people whose parents I knew. I actually didn’t know who Greta was. I have written for actors before. In The Last Days of Disco, I had seen Kate Beckinsale in Cold Comfort Farm while writing, so I knew she could play the Charlotte part. And in Barcelona I knew that I wanted the two guys from Metropolotin. So this was the first time since my first movie where I really had no idea who would play the roles.
DS: Since your dialogue is so specific and stylized, do you find it difficult to find actors who can get into those rhythms?
WS: In the audition process, there are good days and bad days. Some days a number of actors come in who do really well with the dialogue. There was one day in Los Angeles where we saw Megalyn Echikunwoke, who got the Rose part, Analeigh Tipton, who got the Lily part, and Aubrey Plaza, who could have really done a lot of different parts but played a smaller role because of scheduling. All of them came in on the same day and it was really reassuring because there’s a lot of fear when you go into casting that you’ll never find the right people for the roles. I had my first casting day in New York and it didn’t go as well. In retrospect, part of the problem was that we didn’t give the actors enough time to read their sides and we didn’t give them the whole script. Caitlin came in that day and later she came in and was absolutely stunningly different. I asked her why and she said it was because the second time she’d read the whole script and had time to prepare for the part. The first time she’d just gotten her sides the night before. So I really learned something about casting and making sure that the actors had enough time to work with the material. But anyways, that time in New York was just terrifying because almost everything sounded flat, but there was one person who came in and didn’t look right for the part, but read it really well. It was Lena Dunham and I had no idea who she was, but her read of the script was really funny and that helped because I thought, “I’m not crazy. There’s some humor here.” The rest of the day was just a painful thing and made me worry that it wouldn’t work.
DS: I’ve read in an interview with Greta that she considered the character of Violet to be a female version of you—
WS: [Laughs] Yeah, that’s funny. I’ve never worn a dress. I have to admit.
DS: Was that something the two of you discussed or something that you even intended?
WS: I don’t know. It’s definitely my consciousness and my rapport. I put in a lot of the stuff I went through as a kid. I was very crazy as an 11 and 12 year old, just like that character was. So the flashbacks and things like that are very personal. I also had a very tough time in university where I was constantly getting depressed. And I have gone through the experience of being dumped [laughs], which is definitely not one that you want to have. I don’t know if we discussed that at the time. I’ve actually learned quite a bit from the actors as we’ve been doing the press stuff. For instance, I didn’t know that Greta likes to do rehearsals because I don’t like to do rehearsals. We sort of rehearse on set in a sense.
DS: I’m surprised because the dialogue is so specific I would have thought it would require rehearsal.
WS: Well, the actors do a lot of work on their own. Most of my concerns are addressed when we read through the script together and I hear their vocal rhythms and that they’re getting the essence of the characters.
DS: I’ve always loved the characters you write who are hyper articulate and intellectual, but also somewhat emotionally stunted and immature. Where does the interest in those sorts of characters come from for you?
WS: I don’t know. I’ve found it really easy to write comedy scripts. I had a very hard time with fiction and journalism. I wasn’t very productive. Somehow the silliness of the comedic dialogue was really liberating. I found that it was those contrasts between and within the characters the make them interesting. So with Damsels in Distress there is a very studios fratboy, Thor, who wants to hit the books and study, but doesn’t have the equipment for it. I found that very touching that someone with limited intellectual abilities is dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. And then, it’s sort of the same thing with the funny snobbish Nick in Metropolitan. He sort of has a snobbish pose, but it is actually quite kind underneath. So, I always try to find those contrasts in every character, if I can.
DS: Do you think that you’ll continue to make movies about young characters that are awkwardly sliding into adulthood?
WS: Not really. That’s sort of gone with the territory of the ideas I’ve had. But the next film that I’m doing is not about that. I can’t really say anything about it. In one interview I said that I had to keep it under wraps and I think the copy editor later saw that and thought it was the title and put in capitals. So some people think I’m going to make Keep It Under Wraps.
DS: I always sort of assumed that your primary influences as a filmmaker tied more to the Ernst Lubitsch or Preston Sturges era of sophisticated comedies—
WS: Thank you, I wish I was that good. There were many movies during that era that meant a lot to me. I’m struggling with the name but the writer Morrie Ryskind was always important. Movies like Stage Door by Gregory La Cava were a huge influence. That kind of film is a major inspiration and those were always my favorites as a kid. Stage Door is wall-to-wall girls talking and it’s really good. I think in the first decade of sound film they really appreciated the musical nature of talk in films in a way you don’t see as much anymore. It’s something I can only hope to achieve.
DS: Finally, how is the Sambola dance craze coming along? Is it catching on?
WS: Well, so far the film is going really well, but we have to work really hard on the dance craze. We’ve been busy with the film launch, but the soundtrack is out and we’re going to start making nightclub appearances to get the Sambola dance craze going. That’s our next step.