The Soul of Whit

Published April 4, 2012

ABOVE: WHIT STILLMAN ON THE SET OF DAMSELS IN DISTRESS. PHOTO COURTESY OF SONY PICTURES CLASSICS.

“The cha-cha is no more ridiculous than life itself,” observes Nick Smith, a character in writer-director Whit Stillman’s first film, Metropolitan [1990]. Damsels in Distress, Stillman’s fourth film (his first in nearly 15 years) ascribes to this philosophy. With characters such as Violet Wister (played by Greta Gerwig), Emily Tweeter, Freak Astaire and Mad Madge, Damsels is Stillman’s most frivolous film. It has the sort of capricious charm that you’d expect from a P.G. Wodehouse novel.

The titular damsels are a group of well-meaning, if entirely clueless, college girls who hope to civilize their fellow co-eds through soap and tap-dancing. While there is no cha-chaing, there are repeated discussions of the importance of “international dance crazes, like the Waltz or the Charleston.”

Interview sat down with Stillman the day of the Damsels premiere to talk about scriptwriting, Guys and Dolls, casting former teen favorites such as Adam Brody, and, of course, the art of dance.

BROWN: I loved Damsels, but I love all of your films.

STILLMAN: Oh good, thanks.

BROWN: It is much more overtly whimsical than your last three films.

STILLMAN: Definitely. It’s more of a comedy, too.

BROWN: Was that intentional?

STILLMAN: Yeah, it was intentional. Absolutely. I hope that I’ll be able to make two other films not too long from now, and I hope each of them will have a similar whimsical quality.

BROWN: It’s been quite a while since The Last Days of Disco came out in 1998, how long was Damsels in Distress in the making?

STILLMAN: It was actually, strangely [quick] compared to the fact that I had this 10-year hiatus, between projects. I started writing Damsels in Distress part-time during 2008 and I finished a full draft by Christmas of 2009. But it wasn’t as if I’d been writing all the time, I was working to earn money. I think it was sort of the happiest writing experience I had where, I usually have a lot of problems with the script, and there are always problems, but this one came out more easily.

BROWN: How did the idea come to you?

STILLMAN: I had heard about girls like this. My university [Harvard] had been very depressing and grungy and political, and I went back two years later, and people said “Oh, there are these great girls, they wear strong French perfume, they dress up and they give great parties and just have fun and everything’s different now. Everyone’s having a really good time.” I liked this idea of this transformative group of women, and I heard that similar things that happened at other colleges. [In the past] we had male bastion universities, and then they went co-ed, but they never really went co-ed, they had to be feminized by dynamic women in order to work, and that’s what the idea was.

BROWN: Did you have people in mind when you were writing the script?

STILLMAN: No, I didn’t. I didn’t know anyone. I almost always come to projects from a position of total ignorance about the business—less so with The Last Days of Disco because I knew I wanted Kate Beckinsale, she’d been so close to her Disco part in Cold Comfort Farm. But for this I really didn’t know anyone, I hadn’t seen The O.C., didn’t know Adam Brody, I had not seen any mumblecore films, [so] I did not know Greta Gerwig, I had not seen America’s Next Top Model, had not studied That 70’s Show, so I did not know Megalyn [Echikunwoke]. Fortunately we had very clever casting people who had this voluminous list of new talent. I really evaluated [the cast] completely based on what they did with our script.

BROWN: Your first three films are always described as loosely autobiographical…

STILLMAN: Yes, they are, and it’s not very loose. [laughs] This time was a chance to sort of break out an exterior, like it’s a fantasy world, it’s not supposed to be totally real. At the same time I felt pretty close to the Violet character, I went through a lot of the same stuff she did. [But I thought] it was well enough disguised that I could have her go through all that stuff.

BROWN: Several actors pop up in all three of your films—Barcelona, Metropolitan and The Last Days of Disco—but they’re not in this one. Did you miss having them around?

STILLMAN: I did. I wanted Chris Eigeman, the actor in the other films, to be in this film. I wanted him to play Professor Ryan teaching the Flit Lit course, but he turned me down. I’m quite bitter.

BROWN: Are you friends, have you kept in touch?

STILLMAN: We are friends…

BROWN: Tenuously so now that he’s turned you down…?

STILLMAN: Yeah, I am a little bothered by that, but I think we’ll make up and stay on good terms. I don’t think he knows I’m pouting. Maybe he’s pouting.

BROWN: When you start a script, do you start with an idea, or a character?

STILLMAN: Generally, I start with a place, an imagined place. Then the characters enter that place, and the characters start talking, and that forms their character and the scenes come out of their talking. It’s exactly the opposite of how you’re supposed to make a script according to the guru of screenwriting, Robert McKee. He said, you don’t find your scenes through dialogue and find your characters that way. He has this very firm rule that you plan out the story, and then you fill in the blanks. I cannot work that way at all, I have to go just the way he says you should not do.

BROWN: Did you know Violet’s whole backstory when you started writing?

STILLMAN: No, I didn’t. That comes along. Anthony Minghella had a wonderful image, he said screenwriting is as if you’re waiting for something, and then a drawer opens and you’re allowed to take one thing out and then the drawer closes again. Suddenly you get a whole bunch of material, and then you work that and you hope you’re going to get another whole bunch of material. If you don’t work, you wait and I think you have to do both. If you just work and don’t wait enough, you come out with really arid and forced scripts. Sometimes there has to be inspiration and it has to come out of nowhere.

BROWN: Do you do anything in particular for inspiration?

STILLMAN: I drink coffee. When I haven’t slept at all, or barely slept, I find I get much better ideas. If I was fully rested, I wouldn’t get any ideas at all.

BROWN: Do you force yourself to stay awake?

STILLMAN: No, I don’t. I have bad enough sleep that it’s no problem.

BROWN: And do you dance?

STILLMAN: I do. I love dancing. There are so many things that I love, that I actually don’t do that much. I loved Studio 54, and the disco era, but I didn’t really go that much. I love musicals; I remember thinking during a revival of Guys and Dolls that I would come and watch Guys and Dolls every evening of my life and be perfectly happy. I would love to be dancing all the time, but in our civilization, it’s not really set up that way. My favorite thing to do in New York is to go to Brazil Night at S.O.B.’s nightclub on Varick and Houston Street. I think Brazil Night is the greatest thing on Earth.

BROWN: Have you been to Brazil?

STILLMAN: Yeah, [but] I most remember dancing in the Buenos Aires Film Festival. I [was the] second-best dancer in the festival, after a very cool, young Brazilian guy, so I felt that second place was pretty hot. I think it might’ve been a charity, a handicapped thing. Like the Special Olympics of dancing. Buenos Aires was quite striking, because I saw on my schedule that there was this 4 a.m. party that we were supposed to attend. I said, “Is the jury really supposed to be at this party?” and they said, “Yes, it’s required.” I should have been writing a script then, because I wasn’t getting very much sleep. It’s such a late-night place.

BROWN: Are you pleased with the way that Damsels in Distress has turned out?

STILLMAN: I’m really delighted with it. And we had enough time to fine-tune the film. We changed it from the Venice and Toronto screenings, and from most of the screenings during the fall. [We] changed the sound of the music and it’s a tiny bit shorter and a tiny bit less dirty—it was a little stronger on the Cathar love stuff.

BROWN: I was wondering about the Cathar love, how did that come into it?

STILLMAN: I heard a story like that, a lovely woman was put through that by a young professor boyfriend in Spain, who said he was Cathar.

DAMSELS IN DISTRESS IS OUT TOMORROW.