Joseph Pomp talks with the writer-director behind Metropolitan, The Last Days of Disco, and Damsels in Distress about the French New Wave, finals clubs, film finance, etc.
Whit Stillman’s new film, Damsels in Distress, is now playing in New York (BAM, Landmark Sunshine and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas) and 50 other screens across the country. Coming soon to a college town near you.
Look closely at the above photo of Whit Stillman, who burst onto the American independent film scene with his so-called “Doomed Bourgeois in Love” trilogy [Metropolitan (1990), Barcelona (1994), and The Last Days of Disco (1998)] but sadly did not return to the big screen until 2011, when Damsels in Distress premiered at Venice and Toronto. It pictures him in his typically preppy garb, but more importantly it shows him with a cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee in hand. A self-proclaimed cheapskate, Stillman considered the steady supply of Boxes o’ Joe on set a luxury. He assured me that Damsels’ budget was far lower than the figure estimated in a recent New York Times profile.
As frugal a filmmaker as he may be, Stillman first caught the film bug in a breeding ground about as affluent and élite as they get: Harvard College. Some of his fondest memories of Harvard are from his days as a member of the Fly Club, a finals club that (along with the A.D. Club) is a Roman-letter offshoot of the Alpha Delta Phi fraternity. Incidentally, the Bee (the female counterpart to the Fly) now operates out of a building that used to be occupied by D.U., a club that serves as the namesake for the Roman-letter frat that the girls (played by Greta Gerwig, Megalyn Echikunwoke, and Carrie McLemore) in Damsels in Distress frequent. It’s as if Violet and Heather’s quest to take over D.U., perhaps the most philistinic of the frats at the fictional Seven Oaks College, has become a reality.
Although he did become quite interested in filmmaking while at Harvard, it was outside of the classroom. Film was already being taught to some extent while Stillman was there, but by a “rarefied” group that defined itself in opposition to popular filmmaking and aligned itself with the visual arts department. Although a fan of professor Richard P. Rodgers, memorialized in The Windmill Movie (2008, Alexander Olch), Stillman was inspired above all by a double bill at a Harvard Square theater of Bed and Board (1970, François Truffaut) and Claire’s Knee (1970, Eric Rohmer). “I gravitated more toward the Truffaut,” Stillman told me, which is unsurprising, given the scene in Damsels in Distress in which Tom, a creepy French womanizer, shows Lily Stolen Kisses (1968).
Writing about Noah Baumbach, the filmmaker probably most similar to Stillman, Jonathan Rosenbaum compared the former to Jean Renoir and the latter to Rohmer. But, as the anecdote above confirms, Stillman does not feel exceptionally close to Rohmer (in contrast to Baumbach, who modeled Margot and the Wedding in some ways after Pauline at the Beach and even named his son after the director). Like Wes Anderson, the other director most commonly associated with Stillman and Baumbach, Stillman adores and draws much inspiration from musicals and the screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s (especially by Preston Sturges). Highly erudite though his films may be, Stillman is no austere auteur. Damsels in Distress in particular showcases his zany and whimsical way of framing the world.
Part of the magic and sheer joy of Damsels in Distress may derive from the fact that it’s been gestating for a while. After working on several projects in the early aughts that never came to fruition, Stillman penned the script in 2008. Also, despite being shot digitally, it has a deliberately anachronistic look and feel. One of Stillman’s big aesthetic choices, for example, was not to include cellular phones and other technological gadgets. They distract the viewer from what’s most important in a movie: the characters.
Of course, technology has become an even more unwelcome distraction from going to the movies in the first place. In an age when far too many people do their movie-watching on Netflix and other sites on the internet, Damsels in Distress will be only in theaters for the foreseeable future. “We’re doing it slowly, the old-fashioned way,” Stillman said about the film’s release. After opening in just a few major cities on April 6, Damsels has been expanding each week and will reach its peak when it opens in about 100 more theaters all across the country this Friday, May 4.
As for what’s next, Stillman said that the trials and tribulations he faced trying to bring various novels to the screen over the last decade have made him not want to deal with living writers whose works are under copyright and need to be optioned. While he would be open to adapting older writers whose work is in the public domain, he seems most of all set on making his “Jamaican film,” tentatively titled Dancing Mood. I asked Whit to promise to include instructions on how to dance the ska (like the ones he gave for the Sambola at the close of Damsels), to which he responded that in fact he wants to make his own version of the ska dance entirely.