When I confess to him that I saw his his first three films at an impressionable age, Whit Stillman says “I hope that didn’t do you harm.” No shock, surely, that the maker of hyper-literate, droll comedies is himself hyper-literate and droll. Self-deprecating is another matter. At one point during our phone conversation, Stillman tells of showing his new film, Damsels in Distress, to students at USC. Out of interest, the writer-director asked the class of 500 how many had seen his previous work. Only one hand went up.
In a way that’s understandable: Damsels in Distress is not only Stillman’s latest, but his first in 13 years. In the '90s, Stillman, now 60, was known as the only significant filmic chronicler of people often pejoratively classified as preppies and/or yuppies. Metropolitan, his Oscar-nominated 1990 debut, hung among deb party snobs. Barcelona (1994) found conservative types abroad. The Last Days of Disco (1998) focused not on the scene’s gay or drug culture but on young upwardly-mobile professionals who flocked to clubs in part for heady discussions.
The Last Days of Disco flopped—financially, not with his fan base—and sent him into an epic fallow period. Every couple of years, word would spread of a new project: an adaptation of Christopher Buckley’s Little Green Men, a movie about '60s Jamaican music called Dancing Mood. But these failed to materialize, although Stillman has said he’s still pursuing Mood, which he describes as “more in the sphere” of the more overtly comic Damsels.
What happened? “In a way,” he says, “I joined my screenwriter brothers in that nebulous existence where you’re employed, you’re writing, you’re having peaks and valleys of creative experience—and none of it is seeing the light of day. You’re making a living, but it’s rare to get an on-screen credit.” He wrote pilots that never got made. And he wrote his own scripts, so many that he now has a stockpile. “That’s the silver lining of what was in certain ways a bleak experience. But I didn’t realize how bleak it was until a number of years had gone by," he says. "I always thought things were happening. They seemed to be happening.”
Damsels in Distress did happen, happily, at a production size that falls somewhere, he says, between the true indie Metropolitan and the studio-indies Barcelona and Disco. (He notes the Damsels budget being quoted in most articles is “exaggerated.” When asked which way, he says, “Too high.”) Stillman fans should be plussed that it’s more of the same, albeit different in key ways: it’s the first not drawn directly from his life, focusing on a coterie of college girls, led by Greta Gerwig’s Violet, who try to extol the virtues of hygiene, formal attire and hyper-literacy to a they-believe debauched campus.
“The idea is really a fantasy,” he reveals, saying he based Violet on Grace Kelly, at least sartorially. And yet something similar has cropped up in real life. Thanks to one of his daughters, who studies at Columbia, he’s heard of a trend where collegiate women wear strong French perfume, put on pearls and throw old fashioned parties. “The kids I’ve come into contact with are much more similar to this movie than the universities of my day,” which he describes as having been “more political and radical and depressing.”
Another way that Damsels distinguishes itself from past Stillmans is tone: the others were serio-comic but essentially rooted in the real world. Damsels is strictly (and hilariously) comic. As the critic Mike D’Angelo put it: “He knows he’s funny now.”
“I love stylized things,” Stillman says. “My first three films were compared to Woody Allen. I think that wasn’t very true. But this one we do something that he does, which is take off from reality.” That meant changing how he directed actors, which was initially difficult. “I was trying to get them not to play funny. They immediately got it, but at first they were trying to reach for the obvious comic mannerisms.”
Stillman has long been an outsider, but he’s even an outsider among so-called “conservative” filmmakers. In the ‘70s he wrote pieces for The American Spectator. Today he cites himself as apolitical, though his classic conservatism manifests itself in a slight and charming prudery. When I thoughtlessly blurt out the term “anal sex”—in reference to a scene cut since Damsels’ appearance at the Venice and Toronto film festivals—you can hear him blush over the phone. “We call it ‘ambiguous love association,” he jokes. Although the scene was snipped to achieve a PG-13 rating, most of the edits were tiny, in order to make it lighter, he says.
He even balks at defining his work as “conservative.” “I think it’s bad to use that word. It’s retro,” he says, agreeing that his characters change their minds too much to be limited by political affiliations. Besides, he has a healthy sense of humor. “Most of my beliefs are completely ridiculous. Just having characters say what I believe gets a laugh.” Not that he believes everything his characters say. “Some of these positions are indefensible. Although the characters will defend them.”
Read our review of "Damsels in Distress" here.
Violet is, putting it politely, a corker. In a weird inversion of Mean Girls, Gerwig’s screwball charges forth with a gaggle of sycophantic followers, all of whom are not un-ostentatiously named after flowers.