In conversation: Whit Stillman, Le Peloton, Paris 75003
I think we’re good.
Let me me know if I need to talk louder.
Yes. I think we’re good.
You don’t want to check, so that you know how it sounds?
If it’s okay I’d rather converse.
If it’s fine with you.
Nothing’s fine with me. Have you seen Damsels in Distress?
[Laughs] I did. Of course I did.
Okay. Nothing’s fine. There is no ‘fine’ in the world.
There is no ‘fine’ in the world. That is a very good beginning to our conversation. So hello Mr. Stillman. I want to thank you for being here today. I feel lucky and also honoured. I am a fan of your work.
No, el gusto es mio.
And we’re in this… I’ll just describe the place where we are.
We’re in one of Paris’ prettiest streets.
Rue de pont Louis Phillipe.
And it is pretty marvellous. They say “on a de la chance”, so, we do – I definitely feel this way this morning. So thank you.
I’d like to start with… It’s funny, you know, I’ve been having your work as something that interests me for a while and I found…
How did you discover the films?
Well, if it really interests you, in ’98 was the first time I watched a film of yours.
Was it Last Days of Disco?
Yes it was.
When it released in Israel?
Yes it was.
You’re one of the 10 people who went?
That’s right. And if you’re really interested to know, then I can tell you that I had a very hard time. I was 15 years old. I was with my friend, my best friend, who – like me – was a big lover of disco. And as two very stupid, very silly 15 year old girls, we would go every week to this disco party – you know, a sort of a weird revival, but very pure disco. And so watching the film, as two very silly girls who thought this film was going to be about sequins, we had no idea, right? And so I thought about it, when I read that you discovered Austen at an immature stage, in a way – that you’ve read ‘the wrong Austen’.
And then you had this sort of, I wouldn’t say epiphany, but then you got to the right works at the right time.
Yes. I read Northanger Abbey at the wrong time. I was a sophomore in university, and then after university I read Sense & Sensibility and got to love it.
So you hated Last Days of Disco. You were disappointed.
I did not understand what I was, like… I think that was it, I did not understand what I’m seeing. Which is very different from not liking a film. It does not happen that often. I mean, mainly in films that you go to see in the cinema, and you expect to be, I don’t know, entertained, or…
But afterwards, when a friend asked you whether she should see it or not, what would you say?
Well, obviously today…
No, no. The next week.
When I was I 15. Okay. I would say, this is a very bizarre movie, but. But… You know, I don’t think that when I was 15 years old I was able to say what were those the three dots after the but were.
Well, what’s your favourite disco film? Saturday Night Fever?
Saturday Night Fever is a very very good film. I would say that my favourite is… This is a very-very good question. Now I can’t think of anything but Last Days of Disco, it’s complicated.
But don’t you consider Grease kind of a disco film?
Grease is sort of hybrid 50’s nostalgia film with…
Oh, of course, Grease. I’m used to people pronouncing it with a Z. I didn’t know the S is soft.
It came out in the disco era, and it had a disco song as the central song, but it was referring to stylized 50’s nostalgia. What about Flashdance?
Well, Flashdance is the awesomest, I would say. I think this is a very good choice.
I had a great experience with Flashdance. I was just starting to sell Spanish films, and I was travelling, and I was in Helsinki when Flashdance opened…
Oh my god – you watched Flashdance in Helsinki.
In Helsinki cinema, with all of these albino blonds.
Isn’t that a movie in itself, “Flashdance in Helsinki”?
Yes, it was really great. I loved it. Actually, one of my Helsinki experiences is in Last Days of Disco. It’s when the pharmacist is giving medicine to Chloë, which suggests she has a sexual transmitted disease, and he says, “sorry”.
Because I got kind of, you know, gastro, when I was in Helsinki, and I went to the weekend pharmacy, and the guy said – what are you symptoms, and I told him, and he said, “I’m sorry”.
[Laughs] That is such a great diagnose to get. I would say that my right Austen, my right Stillman, came when I was about twenty-something-young, and I saw Metropolitan.
No. I definitely downl… [stopping]
How did you know where to stream it?
It was a torrent downloaded from the internet. That is the truth.
But how did you know to search for it?
Oh. Well, this was the time where I first became interested in cinema, which I wasn’t when I was 15, not in this way. And I watched a lot of Woody Allen, and I watched a series called Gossip Girl.
And obviously Metropolitan deals with… Well, suddenly, I got it. I even got…
Retrospectively, Last Days.
Yes. In a way I hadn’t gotten before. And watching Metropolitan, it has, I would say, a very curious structure – it leads you to think that the movie is about an outsider.
It sort of plays on that very classic tale. And yet, later you understand that it really isn’t about the one person. It is the story of a group. Can you tell me about this complex structure?
It’s one of the reasons I don’t like the standard process which some people push for – to have an idea of everything that is happening in the story before you write it – and the idea of having a treatment or an outline which you start with, then fill in the blanks with screenplay. Because I find that our initial ideas tend to be very cliché, very familiar and very much derived from what we’ve seen before and what we think we’re supposed to do. And I think that sometimes when you get to the better material is when you go off the rails with an original idea – and then have to sort of fix it, and to go with what the material or the characters are doing, somewhat autonomously. When you’re guided by the material – rather than trying to sort of shape and form the material too much, or manipulate it, or jerk it around like a marionette.
And so in the case of Metropolitan, I think I probably started it with the idea of Tom Townsend being the protagonist, being the outsider character who comes into the group and all that – but I had had that experience, and in the end of the experience I did end up being an insider, not an outsider – so I was writing it from an insider perspective defending the inside. Which means I couldn’t honestly take the outsider perspective, and do, you know, the conventional thing.
Normally, one of the weaknesses of cinema, of popular cinema, is that it always tries to flatter the preconceptions and the biases of the audience. And it’s never, in any way, really educating the audience or really bringing the audience into a different world beyond their prejudices. And so the prejudice everyone would have going in is to hate the insider group, the debutante types, and to like the outsider Fourier socialist. But in the course of doing the story, I saw I was in a situation where the Audrey character was much more sympathetic in her situation than the Tom Townsend character. He was kind of thick, preoccupied with the wrong girl, ignoring the right girl, not being very nice to her. And the seemingly obnoxious Chris Eigeman character was getting all the funny lines and all the insights. And the heart character was Charlie, Taylor Nichols’ character, who’s also the sociologist. And so, at one point I said, “it’s really Audrey’s story, I’ll try to make it about her” – and I tried to make it about her, but I had already done so much with Tom, so I just said “I just have to let this be the way it is”. It’s four protagonist characters with their different points of view. It’s the first screenplay that I completed, and I got worried halfway through it – I thought, where is this going to end, so I wrote the melodramatic ending in South Hampton. And so I had to do a sort of transcontinental railroad coming from the both ends, meeting with a golden spike, to see if they’d ever meet. And they fortunately did.
But what I found was that I kept getting ideas for new beginnings. The first beginning was Charlie talking to Cynthia about God – it was gonna be tight shot of him talking about God. And then it went earlier, and it was the meet-cute in the taxi cab, how they meet Tom Townsend. And then I said – we have to sort of look inside the predicament of the debutante. Because the Gossip Girl version of the debutante would be these heartless rich girls – when actually, the people who are least enjoying debutante parties are the debutantes. A lot of girls are having the party under the misconception that it’s about them, and that they’re the centre of attention, and they’re embarrassed, and awkward, and unhappy. When it’s not about them at all – it’s just people wanting to go to a party, you know, get over yourselves.
Another thing about that period is that adolescents are very worried about their noses and their asses: their noses and their asses being too big. I think it’s because when we’re children, these areas are underdeveloped. And as you approach adulthood, and adolescence, suddenly your body and face change – your nose becomes bigger, your ass becomes bigger. And so Audrey is very worried about how her behind looks in the white dress, and there’s the obnoxious comment her brother makes. So that started being the first scene. And then we had an awkward situation, because we had no older actors, because we couldn’t have union actors – so we just had to ask people we knew to be in the film, so Isabel Gillies’ mother came to the set, and we asked her if she could play Audrey’s mom. Sort of sprung it on her. And it felt like an awkward scene – so we tried to take it out. But then the next scene felt awkward. So it was funny to see how that screenplay came together.
It’s very interesting – you present it in that natural way, but you follow these instincts – it seems like a very complex structure to get to. What you said about “defending the inside” – this is a very hard tone to grasp. This kind of structure, that you have in Disco, that you have in Damsels, that you have in Barcelona – well, it’s not about “an American in Barcelona”, I mean, in a way of course it is, but the end – when the Spanish girls and the American boys get back to America – proves to you that it’s not about that, it’s not about this structure you’ve described, which is designed to answer our expectations as viewers. You seem to have this ability, in each and every one of your films, to just nail this very delicate line. That’s what I’m wondering about, how do you weave this complexity?
It’s kind of a problem, because it’s a barrier to intelligibility and acceptance. I think it’s in the writing process which is just very long. Sometimes when a film is not being well-received by critics, and where I feel it should be better received by critics, I find that their approach is not actually to get involved in what’s happening in the film, but it’s like they have a checklist. “Well, maybe there’s some interesting dialogue and some funny jokes, but there’s no forward momentum, no plot, no tension”. And the thing is, everything that you have – is also gonna be a lack. And you have to have a lack in order to have something else. So, generally, if you have jokes or something funny happening, you’re not gonna have tension and plot and forward momentum. You sort of can’t. I mean, I think there have been a few cases where people have been able to do that and it’s really wonderful – I admit it’s wonderful. But generally, if you have one thing, you’re not going to have the other – and so this idea of checklist approach to evaluating something is a misfire.
I think that what you’re talking about is just trying to work through the material as it arises, and allowing the material to go where it should go. At the same time, you are trying to shape it and make it work better for the audience – I mean, you want the audience to be pleased. But sometimes there’s no accounting for taste, and you get criticised or rejected for things which you’re actually doing right, it’s just that people don’t want it at that time. It’s very nice when people like you come back to the material and reconsider it, and that’s really what we want, I think. I have two writers where I rejected very passionately the first work of theirs that I read – the other was Evelyn Waugh, I hated A Handful of Dust. Since I’d gone back to read Northanger Abbey, after getting to love Jane Austen – and then I got to like Northanger Abbey, though not as much as the other books – I went back to A Handful of Dust. And in the first half of it I thought, this really is good, I am really enjoying this, this is well done – but then I got to the middle of it, and I said, no, actually, I still hate this. I just hate it. So I still hate A Handful of Dust.
I’m reading a Waugh biography right now, it’s a new biography that’s supposed to be sympathetic to him, and defending him of things people have accused him of in the past – and I am not being convinced. I just find him such a dreadful, dreadful person, and if this is the idea of what Catholicism does to people, then I don’t think that it’s a very good advertisement at all. It’s all a Protestant caricature of how awful Catholics are.
This is a very interesting point, I hope we will be able to get back to that. You’ve talked about “the checklist” – in this context, you’ve called your comedies, your films, “comedies of identity”. I’d like to ask you, how when one creates comedies of identity, does one succeed to escape identity politics?
Oh yes. Well, I try just to ignore it. As much as I can.
I think one of the problems we get to is that if something goes too far, in a direction that’s not really right, there’s a tendency to take the other point of view and go in the other extreme direction. I think the real thing is to try to just ignore it, to exist in a world where this wrong thinking just doesn’t exist. Because you can get into two tracks of wrong thinking – one wrong thinking here and then wrong thinking responding to it. If you think something is not quite right and not perceived in reality in a helpful way, I think it’s best to just — I mean, I find it very strange when people are saying how important it is for them to have all their artists as the same background as themselves. Occasionally, you do hit upon a writer who’s sort of close to you in certain ways, but the great thing is just loving people who are just completely different.
One of the first articles I wrote was “Isaac Bashevis Singer is the world’s greatest living writer” – I adored Singer. He was the only living writer I really loved – and I couldn’t have less to do with him. Well, except the fact that we both lived in New York at that time. I actually got to meet him a few times. I was working at Doubleday for four years in the 1970’s, and Eve Roshevsky, who was in the religion department, through an illustrator she knew, had been able to trap Singer to do a couple of his books and memoirs. She knew how much I loved Singer, and so she had me down to listen him in her office, and took me to a couple of speeches he gave. Singer was hungry at one point – and he’s a vegetarian, and so the only thing we could think to offer him in our canteen was pies. They were Drake’s pies, the kind of pies that have the pastry all around – tarts or whatever – so I got to run to the canteen at Doubleday and buy Isaac Bashevis Singer a blueberry tart.
That is so good.
And then also, Jane Austen, the writer I had identified most with – what is my connection to an 18th century British maiden woman? She is the only writer where I can’t think of a sentence she wrote that I don’t feel close to. I mean, almost every other writer, I guess the first writer who affected me a lot, was this sort of very romantic early novels and stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald. It really affected me – I was 15, I didn’t what the world was, so this fantasy was appealing. And at the the same time I was meeting with people from sort of that world exactly, so it created my interest in that world – but now I can’t really read those things.
The early works by F. Scott Fitzgerald, I find really, really flawed.
In what ways?
I mean, his first novel is nonsense. It’s really nonsense. It’s just really hard to get through. And the second novel too. It’s just crazy.
So 15 year olds have their own set of standards.
It’s great as a reader, because you can accept all kinds of things and imaginatively get involved with them in a way that you won’t later. You can sort of write your won story based on them.
Talking about the work from its intrinsic structure is one thing, and then there is, you know, this environment of checklist, we can call it?
The checklist is just the people very exterior to the process. The checklist is just about the people judging badly.
Exactly. Let’s say, you’re active on twitter —
To a fault. To a fault.
Do you think it’s a fault?
I think it’s a little negative. I see it with journalists, where I just see how tendencious they are in their thinking, and narrow – and it undermines their credibility as journalists, I think. And I wonder if the same thing happens also with other people, like as a filmmaker – is it limiting to be on twitter, is it showing too much of your thinking. So with political stuff, if I sort of get an impulse, I try to take it down within the day.
Plus, we can also say that twitter, from all the social whatever – it’s even in a better situation than the others because it’s very text based, so even that forces people to somehow come up with something, and yet even this is, as you say, limited.
Also, if you let something stupid go, you could really hurt yourself, you could really hurt your career. Recently, I saw a word – I thought a word meant something, and I was going to use it. And I looked it ups I double checked, and it really meant something really different than what I thought. I could have just sent out a tweet that is just, you know – with absolutely no knowledge that I was saying something controversial.
In this context, the thing that interests me is, well, internet – it wasn’t there when you started writing. Would you say that a writer these days… How does living in a world where there’s a constant stream of, of things — you know that people know all the time what other people are thinking, in a way — does this, in any way, has to find its way into a creation or a work, or is it something that can be left out, and we will keep creating the way, if there is such a way, the classic way?
Yeah, I think everything can be ignored. I got on twitter and facebook when Sony Classics were distributing Damsels in Distress, and at a certain point they said that we really have no more ad budget, which we didn’t have a big ad budget anyway – so I knew there was a guy who was a guru for social media, and I went to him for advice. He was really great, unfortunately he hurt himself and been kind of inactive since, but he was really great – he put me on twitter, and facebook, and I found that I could support limited runs of a film in a certain areas just with support from those things. I’ve also had all kinds of good contacts through twitter.
An agent was telling me for my idea of a novel derived from Love & Friendship – that I’d have to write three sample chapters and an outline. And I’m really opposed to that, because those are your initial ideas before you have the time to think things through, and they’re gonna be terrible, and you’re just wasting your time on bad ideas that you won’t be able to chuck later and I really didn’t want to do that. I had a screenplay that was very readable because it was based on Jane Austen, and it was heavy in text at that point, enough to make a judgement about the novel - and so, on twitter, somebody immediately was interested. I mentioned the project, and I sent them the screenplay, and they wanted to do it. So I didn’t have to the sample chapters and the outline, which was good because when I finally came to do the novel after the film had been essentially edited but not completed, I had a much better idea for the novel than I would have had then. Much better. And so I really hate this thing where you’re supposed to set the structure before you do the work. You should do the work and the structure should come after that.
If we’re talking about outside/inside forces, influencing, reflecting or permeating the creation – well, this would be coming from the top I guess, but when we’re talking about groups, a very hyper-capitalised interpretation of that would be fashion. Fashion is the way to commercially dissect people in different, you know, groups. Does this thing – people wearing stuff – has a role when you work on a film?
You mean, the clothes people wear in the films?
I mean, yeah, you can say that, but it’s a bit more than that. I mean, you always try create a world – in Last Days of Disco, and of course, in Love & Friendship…
One of the tensions in doing films is that I like formality – I like uniforms, and traditional outfits of various kinds – and I’m living in a very. Very informal, casual world. Casualness, informality, grubbiness, are all really dominant – so how can I get away from that? How can I do the kind of world I’d like looking at, in the present day? So everything is sort of changed and stylized a little differently.
I don’t really like the idea of… I don’t see realism, naturalism, as particularly virtuous. I think they’re without moral aesthetic content. The worship of various ideas of vérité – I find that really misplaced. So, in doing something, I’m trying to find some way that we can have these elements that I like, without it being completely distracting and implausible. So Metropolitan is very appealing, because there are very formal uniform that people wear, and that’s it. And also in that period they also dressed carefully somewhat outside of that.
In Barcelona I had the businessman in suit and tie, which is the uniform of that moment – unfortunately the suit and tie are kind of under siege in the corporate world, and also the idea of uniform. I’m actually in Barcelona, as the navel attaché – I’m behind the consul, in my navy uniform. My father was in the navy, so I tried to keep that up. Then, in Last Days of Disco, again you get the girls in their nightlife uniforms. I guess the problem for me was that cliché version of the disco era is really bad fashions, in my view – these sort of fashions of 1977. So I had the idea of setting it in a really late period, early 1980’s, and – this is kind of a bit of a cheat: I went through fashion magazines from those periods – 1981 to 1982 – and found all the looks that I thought were good. It might have been 10% of the looks, which means I did take looks that were from then, but we just excluded the 90% that we didn’t like.
That’s how you aestheticise a world.
Yeah. And Damsels is interesting, because there the concept is stylized – I’m surprised of the people who didn’t want to get that. I mean, come on. What we’re doing is not very hard to see: we’re doing a retro-present world – it’s my idea of utopia. And then of course, I was home free in Love & Friendship. But there again, actually, I don’t really like, well… I mean, most of the Jane Austen novels are set in the Regency period, and I really think that women’s fashions were unflattering in that period. So, I was really lucky with Love & Friendship, because it’s from an earlier period. Again, we went through different looks of that period and just took what we liked, and ignored things that we didn’t like.
What would you say is the most flattering time of style?
It depends if it’s men’s fashions or women’s fashions. I think that the late 40’s, early 50’s was a very good time. You had Dior’s New Look. You had women looking very womanly and really wonderful – and men’s fashions weren’t bad. Men’s fashions were great in the 20’s, but I don’t think that the women’s fashions were very good. In the 30’s you had some really good periods. I think that the 1790’s – the period of Lady Susan’s Love & Friendship was great. In the Regency era – some great clothes for men.
How was it for you to do, for the first time in a way, a period film – period?
It was very interesting, because I was very intimidated by how are we actually going to execute that, on a small budget. I made the film for 3 million, but I intended to make it for less – I intended to make it for one and a half.
It does not look like it.
Yeah, I was really worried about it. But it turns out that if you’re working on this era, which has been frequently done, there are all kinds of resources that you will know. The people we working with in Ireland, the crew, they’re the key talents – very, very skilled and familiar with making things look great with period on a small budget, because they’re doing a lot of European tv things. They know all the tricks of the trade. It turned out to be incredibly easy compared to getting the right clothes for Last Days of Disco. And we had an absolutely brilliant custom designer for Love & Friendship – we had very good people working on other films, too: the young woman who started on Last Days of Disco, Sarah Edwards, had a sensational career – but Eimer, who worked on that movie, had a lot of experience and was really great at actually creating the dressed. A lot of Kate Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny’s dresses were created for the film.
You can’t miss it.
I tried to do it with some of the dresses in Damsels in Distress, I had a clothing designer friend who I got in to do some things, and it was kind of good – we weren’t really able to afford it, so we had the girls trade in the dresses, that’s what people do. I really liked the sketches, but the sketches weren’t really based on how people actually were, and their bodies. If I were doing that again, I would take the actresses for dressing their shape, and design things that are going to be great for them.
It’s two minutes to eleven, and I don’t want to take more than an hour of your time. I want to ask you about The Cosmopolitans – as a proud owner of the twitter account @ohcosmopolitans…
…Is this something that’s going to have continuation?
Yes, I hope so. What I’ll be doing in the next two hours before lunch is trying to add some scenes to the first episode’s script. I had seven episodes’ scripts done.
And we were going to go out, I think next week, to companies with the show – but it might be slightly late, because I got advice from someone, saying that they felt something missing from the first script. Immediately when they’re saying this, I’m just, “oh yeah, I really want to add something” – so I’m trying to add material in. And after I’ll do that with the first episode, I’ll have to sort of tweak the other episodes. So I’m revamping. I’m hesitant about rereading this – every time I reread it, I just hate a lot of stuff. And I’m not sure – I mean, in the rewriting process there is some of improvement going on, but sometimes you can hurt yourself.
I had a Jamaican project I thought about for a long time, and one of the producers who was involved in it – his company is being really, really unfair about saying that certain developments cost that they expended, and they really shouldn’t have expended, have to be paid back before I can go ahead. So I just thought, well, I’ll do that. I had another idea – they can go to heck! It does make me a little sad, though, that the original Jamaica idea I will never do, and that that film will never exist – even though I hope I’ll have another idea sprouting from that fertilized material. If I had any questions about my authenticity doing the Jamaican film, then it’s soon going to be over 21 years of interest, which is breaking the Love & Friendship record. If I’m challenged about my background for doing it – I’m going to have to take out my machete and just, well, whack.
I’ll be there if you need me.
On that note – thanks very much for this. And thanks for your Cosmopolitans twitter account, I greatly enjoy it.
Thank you very much.