Whit Stillman interview for Damsel’s In Distress

It’s been 14 years since Whit Stillman’s last film. It’s no wonder he pops open the whiskey for Paul Byrne.

It’s the last interview of the day, and Whit Stillman wants me to have a little whiskey with him. And why not? This Dublin film festival is sponsored by a fine whiskey brand, and there are bottles aplenty within our grasp. My only concern is, should we two get a little too drunk here, I might just end up in an argument with Whit Stillman.

Having been out of the loop for a staggering 13 years, Stillman is back with Damsels In Distress, another dry comedy set amongst New York prestigious young. And it’s a film that bugged the hell out of me.

As I said in my review elsewhere on movies.ie, for me, this tale of a trio of preppy Ivy League girls (led by mumblecore queen Greta Gerwig) cheerily trying to bring everyone up to their standards was akin to Animal House as written and directed by Miranda July. The one word that ran through my head for the entire film was ‘smug’. Followed closely by ‘not’ and ‘funny’.
Still, I knew Stillman’s intentions were good, just as they had been with his promising 1989 debut, Metropolitan. And that film’s two disappointing sequels, Barcelona (1994) and The Last Days Of Disco (1998). Plus, the guy is about as far removed from Russell Crowe as you can get. So, I’m guessing he can take a little constructive criticism without hurling some hotel furniture at me.

PAUL BYRNE: It’s been a long time. I know it took four years for you to write Metropolitan, but 14 years to get Damsels In Distress up on screen suggests deeper problems. Had the love affair with film ended?
WHIT STILLMAN: There was a bit of that, yeah, a bit of that. Getting material for future films too. I can’t put a pretty face on it though; it was a failure on many levels. Mostly my failure to become the producer on my own projects, and I shifted my identity into film writer, TV writer, and so, the good part was that some of the writing felt very productive, and there’s a trunk of scripts now that have a lot of potential, I think, but with the preoccupation being my writing I left the job of getting films made in other people’s hands. These impressive producers who, I believed, were going to make it all happen. And I lost that drive of being a filmmaker who was going to get his film made, no matter what. In this case, I went back to that working method, and to the people who had supported me with Disco, and they liked the idea, they liked the script, and there was a keen moment when they started talking to me about getting the finances together. And I wasn’t interested in the long slog of selling the movie territory by territory, getting backers here and there. I had heard that the old low-budget filmmaking process was back, mumblecore aping what we had done in the early 1990s – making movies for very little money. So, I said to the people, I could make this film Metropolitan style, for a very low amount of money. And when I showed them the figure, they said, ‘For that, I would write the cheque myself. For twice that, I’d write the cheque myself’. And then, with the film credits available in certain states, you’d get 25 percent more. And then, two of his friends wanted to come in on it – they thought it was a good deal – and they’re really important people in the business, writing personal cheques for films. And so, I think from now on, what I have to do is take responsibility myself to make sure that projects happen, and try and raise the money one way or another. And do it with a very low budget, if that is necessary.
So, on the positive side, I have a lovely life, in Paris and Madrid, and I wrote a lot of scripts with potential. But I failed miserably as a producer, and that’s my fault. So, it wasn’t as though I didn’t want to make films, it was just incompetence as a producer.

And how did you survive financially all this time?
The thing is, you get paid, writing the scripts. This is the subterranean world that I’m immersed in, and one that probably not an awful lot of people are aware of – a lot of my friends are screenwriters who almost never have a produced credit. And they’re very highly considered in the film business. They’re considered very good writers, and they make quite a bit of money. But things don’t really happen with them getting credit.

What’s the return for those who are paying for these unproduced scripts?
Talk about the decline of decadence; it’s a totally crazy and decadent business, and I think the crisis that the business is under now might be a good opportunity to think about just how crazy and decadent it is. I’ve been through the crisis, and it revised my thinking a lot. Because we had a film bubble in independent film, where there was a lot more money that suddenly went away, and you had to rethink things. Someone told me how much money was spent for Moneyball – the many, many scripts for Moneyball. And I met at a luncheon the first writer on that, the one who got everyone else interested in it, but he has no credit on it. And it was very good that he was at this luncheon; it was because every other person involved couldn’t make it, and so he got to come. And there’s another party that he got to go to like that. The stories about the making of that film are hair-raising.

It’s surprising when a great film comes out of such a process…
Yeah. In a way, it was the reverse of the usual process. It ended up with a group of talented, dedicated people making the film. The editor on the film was the editor on my first two films, and the director is also very good, and very careful, and the producer, Rachel Horowitz – who I know well – really stuck with it. And it was going to be a very original Steven Soderbergh film, but they were shocked by many of his ideas, and that was all part of this big crazy ride. It’s amazing it got made, because normally, a film would be dead by then.

It’s almost taking a shot at a moving object and hoping that you just get that great pose.
Right. The last people involved were, fortunately, also the first people involved. And there were pretty darn good people all along the road. That was something I really learnt – a lot of projects that didn’t go forward is because they were based on a book. And that makes it an industrial project. That means there has to be money to option the book, and potential money to buy the rights at some point. And that means there are producers and studios involved. The main project I wasted time on at the beginning of the decade was very exciting book, based in China, Red Azaleas…

I thought you were going to say Little Green Men, which fell by the wayside, right?
That’s the end of the story. The first one was Red Azaleas. I sometimes say, my problem was with colours. I had Red Azaleas, which was too red for some people, and I had Little Green Men, and the thing that happened with my Jamaican story [Dancing Mood] was that it was an all-black cast. And the studios said they couldn’t sell an all-black cast in Europe, and my being a white director, studios didn’t want to back a white preppy American doing a film about black Jamaicans in the 1960s wasn’t right. So, the colours were always working against me somehow.
But I’m staying away from books now. Original stories all the way. I’m also thinking about not accept script commissions anymore. Try to write the script myself, don’t sell it.

Through those wilderness years, did self-doubt enter your mind in regard to making films?
No, that didn’t really enter into it, because I had no experience at all when I made Metropolitan, and that worked out. I actually think the opposite, that it’s good to have a fallow period. It’s kind of good creatively to have the absence of something, and when I came back, I brought a new angle with me, and that kinda worked out.

The reviews in the US industry rags for Damsels In Distress have been positive, Hollywood Reporter liking it, Variety loving it. Would you care about such things? Do you get nervous when a film is about to be unleashed?
I have a huge amount of nerves. I did an interview in the United States when Disco was coming out, and it was filmed the night before the film opened. And I didn’t know what the reviews were going to, and I was so panicked, I just froze. There was a question that I felt was absurd, but I did keep spacing out. And then I found out that we had a great Times review, a great Los Angeles Times review, minutes after that, and it was such a relief. It’s terrifying, because the published reviews that have come out about the film is generally very good, and the reactions we’re seeing privately have been stupendous, fantastic, but we still don’t have the word from The New York Times, the LA Times. It can be just devastating, even if everyone else likes it, if the key papers don’t like it. Another aspect is, the distributor we’re working with, they’re very good but they tend to feel very intimidated by the critics. And I know they’ve had some good films in the past that didn’t do well, and they blamed that on reviewers.

You have an old quote dismissing the idea that films have a pre-destiny, depending on how good or bad they are – good films can die and bad films can be hits…
Absolutely. Even more than that, I think each projection of film – each time someone sees the film – it’s a performance. People think only theatre is a performance, but, while the film is ostensibly not changing – when, in fact, it changes a lot, depending on how it’s shown – I find it really odd the context in which I can like a movie. If I’m staying at someone’s house, and they’re not cheapskates, like me, I’ll switch on a movie channel, and just catch something that’s 15 minutes in – and sometimes, I’ll just love those films. Films I would never have gone near. A film like Grumpy Old Men – I loved that. I think with a lot of Hollywood films, if you miss the beginning, you tend to like the film better. I went to a premiere of the movie A Few Good Men, and I must admit, a lot of us had problems with the film. And these two people who loved the film afterwards, turned out they arrived late and missed the opening shots, which showed the crime. I think there’s a tendency in Hollywood filmmaking to explain too much. The film became fascinating when you didn’t know what the truth was.

Lynn Barber, a London journalist, swears by writing your article and then discarding the opening paragraph…
It’s true, in so many different ways, in the creative arts of one kind or another. Some of my artist friends, I see their paintings when they’re a work in progress, and I love them. And then I see them when they’re finished, and that spark has gone.

It’s like improv in music – a fresh idea not entirely fully formed is better than a labored piece of work. Before the bells and whistles, and unicorns, are added.
I drove the composer crazy here, Mark Suozzo, crazy here. He did these demo tracks for the movie, to give us an idea of what he was up to, considering them to be, as recordings, crap, basically. And then he gets in this great orchestra, mixers, the whole shebang, and I just can’t stand it. Because there’s an emotional quality to the demos that’s suddenly missing, and frankly, that’s the soundtrack we wanted. We did that with Metropolitan; we went back to the original demos.
So, we had to go back and remix it, and headed closer to that mono mix. We didn’t need that big 5.1 surround sound going on for a movie like this.

The film ends with a little musical number echoing the 1937’s A Damsel In Distress. I read somewhere that the original intention was to make Damsels In Distress a musical…
Not true. I’m not sure where that rumour came from, but it really annoyed me. Why do people put totally untrue stuff like that out there? All the music that was supposed to be in the film is in the film. I could have had the tap-dancing scene go longer, but that’s about all you could say about my cutting the musical number aspect of the movie. Another dumb rumour is that we were aiming for Judd Apatow country, which is ridiculous. This is the anti-Apatow, a movie about as removed from that big mainstream comedy style as you can get.

Apatow certainly has his eye on the box-office – do you ever think that way?
I just can’t get there. I adore the sweet Will Ferrell approach – I adore something like Elf, and I’d love to be involved with something like that. I met Will Ferrell, and I thought he really did a great job on the Woody Allen movie he did. I would love to be in that world, but it’s not really something I could do. I have my own particular style.

So, you’re not planning on hooking up with Jerry Bruckheimer any time soon, trying to cover as many markets as possible…
I think Jerry Bruckheimer is amazing at what he does, and I could never deliver the kind of movie that he likes. I wish I could, but, it just wouldn’t be me then. But I love how he’ll employ someone like Nic Cage, and find him a whole new audience whilst allowing him to flex a very different muscle. Have you met him?

A few times, yeah. Love the guy, but, it’s hard to know where that line between genius and nutter is anymore.
He does seem a little crazy these days. It’s terrible the system at the moment; I’ve already seen it with our actresses, as they begin to break out. When we dealt with them first, there were no lawyers involved. Now as we’re trying to clear the rights for their singing, it’s become very complicated. It’s a no-budget deal – record companies don’t make any money on this stuff anymore – and so, there’s the release, there’s a SAG payment, and there’s really no negotiation. And they all have lawyers now, and they all want to negotiate royalties, and it’s just not going to happen. So, on Monday, we’re going to have a mix, and we might have to take some of the actor’s voices off the soundtrack. It’s just an insanity, because that’s not our project. These entourages that people acquire… poor Whitney Houston, dying alone in a bathtub, and she probably had an army of lawyers around her, extracting every last dollar they could out of all of her deals. She doesn’t need it. There’s this feeling that they have to do things this way, and who needs it?

Do you feel people have an image of you as a reclusive filmmaker? You’ve got something approaching hero status for being a blueprint for the mumblecore generation…
That’s been great. That actually has been great, because in the first phase of our filmmaking we had no real followers, except for Noah Baumbach with his first few films. And everyone was Quentin Tarantino-ised, and there guns and scams and grifters in every film. For mumblecore, The Last Days Of Disco is like Gone With The Wind [laughs]. The scale of production, you know. So, yes, it’s been great, because they like our films. The secret to the production of this film is Lisa Dunham, because she did this film, Tiny Furniture, that I liked, and she’s a superstar in certain circles in the United States, especially with the Judd Apatow-produced HBO show Girls. Lisa’s very much in our orbit, and I met her, and she made that film for $750,000, so, we took her producer, and her production method, and added our point of view, and our money. Normally, you’re dealing with budgets that are one-twentieth of what it should have been, with this production method, it was twenty times what they’d had last time. So, it’s a super low-budget film, but we were making it as a real film, and the mumblecore people were a real help to us, and we used a lot of them.
Not sure if I told you this, but there was a thirty-year age gap between me and the rest of the crew. Everyone else was 27 or under. And they were great. I’m not anti-younger generation at all.

Talking of the younger generation, your daughter Anne is a lawyer, based here in Ireland – did you feel the need to consult her on a script like this?
There’s actually quite a lot of Anne in this film. It’s quite amusing to have a daughter who’s quite similar to the characters that I’m writing.

Would she be happy with that, or a little annoyed?
She loved the film. She didn’t think the Sambola lived up to her dreams, but we’ve now remixed it, and it’s reaching many higher levels.

Given that the critics have been positive, do you feel, okay, I’m back in the ring – I want another fight, right now?
You’re absolutely right, that’s what I’m going to do.

Will it be easier now, given how tough the film industry is right now?
I think I’m removed from the usual pressures of the film industry. It’s actually very good for us that the studios make a lot of money with their big films, because then they’re a little more tolerant about losing money on small serious movies. I think it’s preferable to take the risks rather than go for the insurance policies. It’s been hard to work out the distribution of all my films after Metropolitan, because they’ve all gone through studio distribution deals. International distribution is really hit and miss. So, you have really nice people here in sunny Dublin, really paying attention to it and doing a great job, and then you’ve got other territories who put it out like a bad sausage, and they just don’t care.
I think it’s preferable, if you can economically, to just bring the film to the marketplace and see if you can get independent distributors to buy it. Because they’ll know what to do with it otherwise they wouldn’t have bought it. This time, you can go with this international deal because of all the TV deals that will cover the costs, but that’s not the way I want to work. I want to feel that everyone who distributes the film actually cares about it.

What’s going to happen next? You’re planning a film here, right?
I had a producer lined up for a film I was planning for Ireland, but I want to make sure that I have the script that I know is ready first. The Irish Film Board has been very encouraging, but I don’t know if they’ll ultimately want to back it. So, I can’t rely on that.

Any details on the film?
It’s still a work in progress. I feel the Jamaican film is ready to roll, but I haven’t settled the Irish script yet enough to talk about it in any great detail. I’m thinking of relocating the Jamaican story to an island, as it’s not the story that people might expect. And I’ll probably go with the title Dancing Mood, as the other title I had lined up, Creation, was stolen by a producer who was working on it with me. Took that title for another movie, and got a cheque.

Nice. Would you generally feel optimistic about the future then, or are you slightly wary of this fickle, backstabbing world of filmmaking?
Of course I’m wary, but I think there’s a way of just being realistic about the situation’s prospects, and how to go about things. And not counting on other people to do your job for you. I remember at the beginning of my period of inactivity someone advising me to do things the industry way, and that just totally didn’t work for me. So, I have to do things the Damsels In Distress and Metropolitan way. And I think that maybe the creativity is better served with our kind of filmmaking. Bertrand Bertolucci had a great line – ‘In cinema, money is the root of all evil’. And I think that’s true. If you can disengage from too much of the money factor… not that I don’t want to make movies that people see and that turn a profit – but, for this kind of film, I think it’s wise to avoid the industry formulas.

Words – Paul Byrne

Damsels In Distress is on limited release in cinemas now, including the IFI, Screen Cinema and Movies@Dundrum