Whit Stillman made a name for himself making semi-autobiographical, deadpan, highly literate comedies about the night lives of idle heirs (his 1990 Oscar-nominated debut Metropolitan), privileged Americans abroad (Barcelona, 1994) and resilient yuppies in decadent early-'80s Manhattan (The Last Days of Disco, 1998). But for more than a decade, Stillman has been best known as a filmmaker who could not get a film off the ground. Projects were announced — an adaptation of Christopher Buckley's political satire Little Green Men; a period piece set in Jamaica called Dancing Mood — and then … nothing. But on April 6, Sony Pictures Classics will release Damsels in Distress, the 60-year-old writer-director's fourth film, and his first in 14 years.
On a Monday night in mid-March, over dinner at the Chateau Marmont — Stillman's choice, because it's walking distance from the friend's house where he stays for free when in L.A. — I ask him how it feels to be presenting a new film to the world after all this time. “I'm very worried,” Stillman says, his eyes fixed on a spot on the table somewhere past his chicken. “I'm a worrying person.”
Damsels in Distress tells the story of life at a fictional East Coast university. Very fictional: Coeds hang Renoir and Ophuls posters on dorm walls, and scholarship student Violet Wister (Greta Gerwig) plots to change the world by launching an “international dance craze.” Violet is the self-appointed leader of a coterie of anti–mean girls: Outfitted in hoop skirts and prim blouses, speaking in strangely formal prose, she, Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and Heather (Carrie MacLemore) extol the benefits of hygiene and choreographed dance to a depressed and cluelessly debauched student body.
According to Violet, the problem with “contemporary social life” is “the tendency to seek someone cooler than oneself.” Instead, she proudly dates “losers” and “sad-sacks,” drawn to the potential of a fixer-upper. At orientation, Violet welcomes transfer student Lilly (Annaleigh Tipton) into the fold. Lilly accepts an invitation to bunk with the girls, but she's unable to swallow their pretensions unquestioningly: Dressed in “normal” casual college attire, she rejects their offer of a makeover.
Initially positioned as Lilly's frenemy antagonist, Violet soon is sent into what she calls “a tailspin” by a romantic rejection. Through Violet's retreat from public life, Stillman slowly reveals the character to be a compulsive liar and an impostor — and humanizes her in the process. The crazier Violet gets, and the more staunchly Lilly embraces “normalcy” in contrast, the more Violet emerges as the heroine of the film.
Violet finds her ideal match in another student who plays fast and loose with identity, played by The O.C.'s Adam Brody. Violet's attraction to Brody's character stems from the revelation that they both have invented alternate personalities for themselves, in part out of idealistic ambition: They actually want to make the world a better place, and they start by making over themselves. Out of a period of struggle, rejection and depression, Stillman has made what he calls “the most utopian of all” of his four films. “The three previous ones were utopian in a quieter way, but this one is full on.”
Now that he's finally made another film, Stillman can't stop making it — at the time of our conversation, three weeks before Damsels' release, he says he's still tweaking. Since the movie's premiere last September at the Venice Film Festival, he says, there have been “huge changes”; Stillman seems particularly proud of the cuts made regarding one subplot involving a character's sexual proclivities, in order to secure a PG-13 rating. “There's less anal sex in this cut, did you notice that?” he asks. “I like that people could have their 8-year-old child walk in.” He calls it “our Lubitsch moment.”
When I suggest that he's probably sick to death of talking about what he's been doing since 1998, Stillman quickly says, “I'm not sick to death of it. In a word: failure.”
Disco was a financial and critical disappointment, and the director indicates that his long hiatus started as wound-licking. “I was kind of feeling beaten up after Disco, I felt we were unfairly treated. It's really tough, making a film. So I did want some time just to exist and to write.”
Stillman moved to Paris with his then-wife and two daughters. While he may have been off the grid in a sense, he was hardly idle. He wrote TV pilots for paychecks. (“The commissioning-versus-pilot-making ratio, it must be that 97 percent of scripts sit on a shelf. I wrote one script, very well paid, that I'm not sure anyone ever read.”) He turned down an offer to direct episodes of Sex and the City, out of squeamishness over the explicit sexual content. A billionaire whom Stillman will not name (“I don't want to slander the handicapped”) signed on to finance, and then abruptly backed away from, Little Green Men. Dancing Mood got as far as a trip to Kingston to cast actors and scout locations before funding fell through. There were sundry other experiences with “this or that producer or financier [who] didn't come forward when we expected they would.”
“I always thought things were about to happen with the films,” Stillman says. That he let so much time pass, he says, is “disgraceful.” The “silver lining,” as Stillman puts it, was that after depleting his autobiographical reserves on his first three films, the time off allowed him to gather new material.
So how was he able to pull off Damsels, and why now? In some sense, Stillman himself is the “sad-sack” redeemed by the interest of young women. While his directing hiatus had long been a subject of cinephile curiosity, a cult of Whit began to coalesce in recent years, as Disco, long unavailable on DVD, was released by Criterion, and beautiful new prints of that film and of Metropolitan gave venues like New York's Film Society of Lincoln Center and L.A.'s Cinefamily an excuse to celebrate Stillman. A Disco dance party at Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater in 2009 gave Damsels an unexpected push.
“I was thinking, OK, these things are great, and I like doing it, but I'm kind of spending a lot of my time promoting the old films, I should really be working on the new films,” Stillman recalls. “And then it turns out Greta was there that night, and was totally won over. And to have someone who was just breaking as a star so enthusiastic about the project was enormously helpful.”
A year later, Stillman attended a party IFC Films threw for its titles screening at the Los Angeles Film Festival, including Lena Dunham's Tiny Furniture. “In a way,” Stillman says, “that night was ground zero for our production, because it helped us tremendously, the Lena connection.” Dunham introduced Stillman to Tiny Furniture producer Alicia Van Couvering, who helped organize Damsels as a relatively cheap endeavor (the budget was $3 million, put up by Castle Rock Entertainment, which produced Barcelona and Disco).
Once identified — rightly or wrongly — as American independent cinema's staunchest defender of bourgeois values, Stillman, who has old money in his family tree but not in his pocket, now is embracing relative poverty, as both a production ethos and a general ideology. In addition to his frequent broadsides against “billionaire bad behavior,” he drops quotes from John Huston (“The smaller the budget, the better the movie”) and Roberto Rossellini (“In cinema, money is the root of all evil”) to support ascetic filmmaking. Damsels in Distress is, in a sense, an ode to personal reinvention made by a man who has reinvented himself as suspect of solvency.
But that reinvention has not absolved what Stillman sees as the traumatic nature of his vocation. “I've made so few films, and people seem to be able to do this in an effortless way that I can't manage,” he muses, defeated. “People say, 'Oh, you must be so happy to be back on set, making a movie.' No. Once you're in, you're just worried you're going to mess it up. I really think, 'I just want to finish this film, and then I can die.' ”
Filmmaking was not Stillman's first career: He dabbled in fiction writing and journalism, was a film sales agent and ran an uncle's illustration business. During the 14-year gap in his filmography, did he ever contemplate giving up, moving on to another profession?
Again, he gazes beyond his chicken. “You can't think those thoughts.” There are a number of films he says he's excited to make. Dancing Mood will happen, although not next. There's a “dream project” starring Gerwig, Sevigny, Brody and original Stillman muse Chris Eigeman, as well as something he describes as “sort of Oscar Wildean, based on material in the public domain by someone else. … Escapism for the college graduate set.”
But, he admits, “The temptation for me is to abandon filmmaking and try to exist as a solo practitioner. Because the strain of filmmaking is too tremendous. … Not only do I struggle myself, but I put a lot of other people through struggle. So other people are suffering because of me.”
Throughout our conversation, Stillman occasionally catches himself moaning, apologizes for being so negative, or brightens up to say it's really not all so bad. “All this whining and complaining aside, this was a sensationally positive shoot, great cast, really fun project, and I think it's a fun result,” he says. But still, he worries. But still, he can't help himself. “Maybe some party-poopers won't like it.”