I still remember the first time I saw a Whit Stillman movie. I talk about it in this interview, but his second film, Barcelona, was on HBO back when I was in high school, and I was entranced by its laconic pacing and intelligent characters who rationalize their emotional problems until they became too much to handle. I related. Stillman's fourth film, Damsels in Distress, premieres on DVD and Blu-ray this week, and while it's not his first great film it's definitely his happiest, focusing on a gaggle of well-dressed co-eds (led by Greta Gerwig, playing Violet Wister) who run a suicide prevention center at their college while narrowly dodging the harrowing travails of young love and student life themselves.
We got Whit Stillman on the phone to talk about the release, writing characters who are more intelligent than you'd find in most other films, the great American tradition of stupid comedies (which he's a fan of), what he thinks of Ghost (the film to which he lost the Best Original Screenplay Oscar in 1991), the recent critical trend to overemphasize genre films, the origins of the hit dance craze "The Sambola" and, for all you Metropolitan fans out there, what the SFRP is up to nowadays.
CraveOnline: I still remember the first time I saw Barcelona, and discovered that you can make films about smart people.
Whit Stillman: Okay, good! [Laughs] Thanks for saying that!
You tend to make movies about people who are intellectuals, who have actually read books. Why is that so rare?
Well, I think Jennifer Aniston’s characters, in her movies, have read books. [Laughs] Here they talk about them. I don’t know. I remember when my friends at Castle Rock saw the cut of Last Days of Disco, with the scene of the Matthew Ross character and the Chloë Sevigny character debating J.D. Salinger short stories, they said, “There goes a million dollars of the gross.” [Laughs] I guess they feel that it limits the audience.
Your previous films, as I understand it, have all been autobiographical in natures.
And milieus I knew about.
Does Damsels in Distress follow that same pattern, or did you have to come up with this entirely…
Yes, it’s actually… It’s actually kind of embarrassing to say it, but it’s deeply personal. It was very personal. Almost everything in that film has some real-life basis. It’s not very imaginative, except in arranging it.
Did you know people who were like these characters, or is it more of the environment that they’re in?
It’s self-knowledge. Everything. [...] Damsels really has a different nature from [my] other films, because the other ones sort of took the comedy within, and that’s sort of the framework that was possible in the The Last Days of Disco, when they start dancing on the subway. And it is kind of a continuation, in part, of that kind of that kind of subway in Last Days of Disco, where we’re sort of allowed to break naturalism a bit. I remember, at some point they tried to help us by saying the films were between Rohmer and Woody Allen, and I don’t think… it’s been a helpful thing for us, for the films, but there really wasn’t Woody Allen-esque elements in the other ones. In this case I think we break the walls of naturalism away.
There’s almost a certain fantasy element to how wonderfully confident these people are about their beliefs, even though, as we discover throughout the film, they’re not entirely sure about all of them. And I completely have fallen in love with Violet.
Oh, me too. Yeah, I don’t quite understand the people who are against her, because she reveals herself to be pretty great.
Wait… people are against Violet? Really?
Yeah, it’s weird. They fall for the Lily thing.
I honestly could not imagine. One of the things that I like about Violet, and that I like about a lot of your characters, is that they are smart who frequently get into trouble when they intellectualize their emotional responses.
Yeah. Yeah, rationalize it.
I think people do that, but they’re generally not as articulate about it as they are in your films. What is the obsession with this, if that’s even remotely the appropriate word?
Well, I see it a lot, and I think you see it in a lot of milieus. I had an ex-girlfriend, you know, the one who dumped me, who when she was raised up that no one talks this way, blah-blah-blah. She says, “That’s ridiculous. Everyone talks that way.” So I think there are people who resort to intellectualism to explain and try to rationalize when things aren’t going too well. [Laughs] Probably, Violet would really rather have had a better boyfriend than Frank, but Frank is her boyfriend. She might as well think it’s good to have a doofus boyfriend she can help. Although she does have a doofi orientation.
What came first: the screenplay for Damsels in Distress or the Sambola?
The screenplay for Damsels in Distress. “Sambola” was essentially just a word, an idea in the screenplay, and then it had to become real. That was a preparation with the choreographer, Justin Cerne, and the composer, Mark Suozzo. Mark Suozzo actually brought in the vocalist who did our limbo song in Barcelona, Jeff Young, who did the vocalizing.
Did you have a specific melody in mind for the Sambola, or specific dance steps?
There was a song that was a big hit European dance song that I was thinking turning into the Sambola, and the having words “The Sambola,” and I was in touch with the singing group and their handlers, and they were pretty friendly but we couldn’t figure it out. So I liked the idea of thinking fresh and creating a new song, and then Mark did that. Meanwhile, Justin Cerne and I worked out the dance. He said he’s allowing me to have a co-choreographer credit on the Sambola. Not that I can do it.
I imagine you’re very proud of that credit.
I do hope to learn the Sambola before Christmas.
Getting back to your tendency to have very smart characters, you have a lot of characters in this film who lead a very unexamined life.
Were they you in some way, or were you observing from a distance?
Which characters in this case, in Damsels’s case, would you say?
Frank? Yeah, that’s him. […] I think there are all kinds of ways that people can define him, and that’s one of them. I think that there’s a great American tradition of stupidity in film, stupid comedy, and I wanted to tap into that. I adore Will Ferrell. I’ve worked on trying to do a Will Ferrell kind of film, and that hasn’t happened, but I felt like I could put a Will Ferrell-ish element in this film.
Something I’ve always been a little curious about, and I don’t know if you think this even matters, but what do you think of the screenplay to Ghost?
I don’t think of Ghost so much as a screenplay. I think of it as the film. He was a nice fellow, sitting next to me at the Oscars, who won and I think he has very interesting ideas in a lot of areas. He’s made other films that had very many interesting ideas about the metaphysical. I appreciate people who care about that and connect it with the popular audience […] and I think he did it beautifully, and the performers were great and they did a good job on that film. So it made sense that that film won the Oscar.
As you might be able to tell I’m a bigger fan of Metropolitan.
Ghost is fine too, I was just curious.
I think it’s interesting, the degree to which the critical and general community is sort of beholden to commercial films, because when that was coming out, I’d heard so much from journalists and other people that this great film Ghost was coming out. I guess it was a refreshing change from a lot of stuff, but it’s amazing the way box office impresses people.
I guess if a movie is popular, if nothing else, you kind of have to acknowledge that it’s doing something right.
Yeah… I don’t know. I would deny that. I would absolutely deny that. Definitely. It’s a terrible thing. [...] I don’t mean in that case, that was really, really a good film, but…
Do you not feel that perhaps something like, let’s say the Transformers movies, which are catering to a very broad audience, and not really appealing to the higher brain functions…
Well, some things are just aiming for one thing and getting it. But I do think that there are things that are reprehensible that get a big audience. I can’t think of anything offhand, but that’s happened.
I think my argument is that, if nothing else, they’re connecting on a certain base level, whether or not it’s easy to quantify.
I don’t know. […] The whole box office story is sort of complicated. It’s impossible to know from box office how profitable a film is. Like, we’re probably a very profitable film, but we had a small release and we had a small box office, and so it’s all about how much you spend and how much is spent on advertising, how much comes through the door to all the different levels of distribution. Even so, I do find that we’ve lost one thing to another, that before, journalists and critics were reliant only on quality cinema, and now there’s this huge interest in genre and mass cinema, and attention has gone further away.
I think a lot of journalists and critics in perhaps my age demographic grew up in the VHS era as children, when we would watch and constantly absorb genre films, and there were a lot of actually high quality ones in the 80s as well, so we have a sort of affinity for that, and we can be apologetic.
I guess I think, separate from that, that partly they feel it’s the mandate of the newspapers, these commercial enterprises, to follow the scene of the films that most people are going to and most people are talking about. But it just seems to me that people have sort of lost the critical faculty for that, and they’ve overcompensated for the fact that in past, people have snubbed genre films, and this decade has gone further away from small… For me it’s a life-long fight, because I was the kid who didn’t like the monster movies. [Laughs]
When we say “monster movies,” are we saying the cheeseball stuff, or are we including Rosemary’s Baby or The Exorcist in that conversation?
Definitely. That was a later period. There was monster movies and horror movies that I call “The Kids on a Bus.” Not all the kids, but there was the one group on the bus who would really like and talk [about them] all the time. I think those people became very dominant. But anyway, we got sidetracked.
Damsels in Distress is a very happy movie.
I came off of it feeling much lighter. Do you feel that this is in some ways more populist than your other work?
I think so. I think so. I think it’s a very cheerful film, and the import is cheerful. We even had someone from the university who saw the film, and came to New York, and actually hung out for a while. And she said that she actually thought that the sort of therapeutic impetus in the movie was actually better than what they were doing at the university to try to combat student depression and suicidal thoughts, that she felt that the whole craziness of what Violet and her friends were trying to do was actually helpful and constructive, and really a better way of de-traumatizing people’s problems and trying to put it in a more practical daily context.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but this is your first film without Chris Eigeman?
Yeah. I know, that’s not my idea. I tried to get him to play Professor Ryan, talking about the dandy tradition of literature, which I thought would have been a perfect fit, but he didn’t think it was perfect. He didn’t like playing that scene without another actor, he had nothing to play with if he’s just reading lecture. Then he does Lena Dunham’s TV show. Give me a break!
What is the SFRP up to these days? Because they showed up in The Last Days of Disco…
Did you notice that Taylor Nichols was in this film?
I did. Is that his character?
We didn’t want to press that. One idea was that it was Charlie Black. He doesn’t really play it as Charlie Black, but that character could be Charlie Black. He could be teaching seminars at a prestigious [university]. Audrey Rouget would still be top editor at Strauss, or she might have moved on […] I’m sure Fred and Sally are still having a good time.