Whit Stillman interview: Damsels In Distress, economical budgets and more

Ahead of the release of his latest film, Damsels In Distress, Michael met with writer and director Whit Stillman to talk about his work...

Whichever way you look at it, 14 years is a long time in the film business – and that is how long it’s been since writer-director Whit Stillman (Metropolitan, Barcelona, The Last Days Of Disco) last graced us with a slice of dry-humoured, acutely-satirical comedy.

His new film, the East Coast college flick Damsels In Distress, is both a return to and a break from form. The budget is still low, and the characters still wrestle with toe-curling lapses in self-awareness, but this time around there’s a new generation of pitch-perfect performers (Greta Gerwig, Adam Brody) giving voice to Stillman’s dialogue.

The night before I was due to chat with the director, I caught one of his three London Q&A appearances, where he answered questions covering the racial make-up of his cast, his obsession with dance crazes, and his fondness for the ‘stupid, innocent comedy’ of Will Ferrell. With such a packed promotional schedule, I worried that all possible questions had already been asked. What could we possibly talk about?

Luckily, as he has proved in his films, Stillman is the master of looking at similar situations with different, fresh perspectives. When I arrived at the PR company’s Soho offices, the director broke ranks, wandered out into the foyer, and suggested we conduct our conversation over coffee. And, amongst the Berwick Street bustle, Stillman proved to be a chatty fellow, full of anecdotes about his unrealised projects, advice about being an economical filmmaker and opinions on the current state of the film industry.

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This is your first film in over a decade, and you’re on a full blown promotional tour.

Yeah. I’ve been on it, too, because I was doing it in the United States. It’s quite nice, getting to show it.

It was interesting sitting in on a Q&A last night. Do you get asked the same questions over and over? For example, about the recent gap in your filmmaking career.

Well, they’re logical questions to ask. This story has to be told.

It would be naive to assume that there weren’t films in that break that you were developing. Or that you weren’t working on other projects in that period.

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I see it as a ten year period of not making films, because The Last Days Of Disco was an elongated release period, because Warners wasn’t terribly anxious to bring it out in their territories. So it didn’t come out until a year later in continental Europe. And that gave me time to do one of my favourite things, which is supervise the translated and dubbed versions, which is like directing a new version of the film again. Like, half the film you get to redirect, and you get to do it in two weeks. So it’s a thrilling experience for a director.

And I also wrote this novel somewhat based on Disco‘s story, called The Last Days Of Disco, With Cocktails At Petrossian Afterwards. That came out in 2000, and they had a promotional tour on that. And there was work on a translation in Spain. I was starting other film projects in that period, but until I finished all that stuff, I couldn’t get down to it. So when I started getting back to it, I had two projects to start.

My first own project, coming out of Disco, was to do a film, because in Disco we put in some ska music, and I fell in love with all this 60s Jamaican music. And I wanted to to a film there, to show that music. A lot of people in London liked that. Disco did well in London, and people here liked the project, so they wanted to do that.

Then a producer came with a hot item, which had to come first: a memoir of the cultural revolution in China called Red Azalea by Anchee Min. Film4, who were interested in doing the Jamaican film, said let’s do this Chinese film first, and then we can do the Jamaican film later. By the time I turned in the script… I turned in the script on not a fortuitous date. September 12th, 2001. And I sent in a second draft in January 2002. The option period ended at the end of January. Film4 was about to change regime. Paul Webster was going to leave. So that project, for various reasons, died.

But I went and got backing from BBC Films to do the Jamaica story. Then I decided to change the story, and put in this whole thing with funny angels and demons. I don’t think that BBC Films is that keen on funny angels and demons. I got that impression.

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What was so different about Damsels In Distress that saw it get made?

At the same time, I’d been back in the States more to do the casting for Little Green Men, the Christopher Buckley novel. And I had a dream cast on that. Fantastic people. And some of them I hadn’t even met, they just wanted to do it. So I had to be back to do that casting, and I talked to Castle Rock, the backers for my other films, about this idea, and they really liked it. So I started writing that while this other stuff was going on. And it went really very quickly for me. I turned in a script at the end of 2009, and in January 2010 they said they loved it, they just wanted to do a polish. And in March or so they said they wanted to go ahead with it.

And there was a question of whether we did things the industry way, which is start casting, Equity, investors, distribution deal, before we could start. And I’d already done that on a couple of projects that hadn’t gone ahead, so I said ‘listen, I know a lot of people have been making films that look great, very inexpensively. I think that I can go back and do this film Metropolitan-style.’ And they said, well, if you could do the film for that reasonable a price, we can find people to write cheques.

And you made Damsels In Distress for around $3 million, is that right?

Much less. We have to be careful about that, because when you do foreign sales, some territories say they’ll only pay four per cent of the budget, but if you make a film that’s more valuable than the budget, which you try to do, then you get penalised. And if you make a stupid film for a big budget, they’re not going to buy it at all. So the producers can’t be very honest about the real budget. Also, if you say a really low number, it kind of scares people, like it’s going to be very funky or ugly.

Whatever the final figure is, it’s still a remarkably economical budget for a veteran filmmaker, with such a great cast…

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We made this much more cheaply than Barcelona. Much more cheaply.

But, as the director and producer, how did you keep costs down?

You don’t do things the industry way. I was a little too maniacal about it, because I am such a cheapskate emotionally that I would get out of control where any expenditure upset me. But I felt we were a very comfortable production, because we could have a Dunkin’ Donuts coffee run twice a day. There’s one in the afternoon, too. So I felt that was quite luxurious. Having good coffee on set was quite a treat.

And there was a New York Times profile published earlier this year, which says you flew coach as opposed to first class to reduce costs.

Not only coach, but the cheapest tickets imaginable. I’d stop off in Timbuktu if it would save ten cents.

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All of your films to date have featured dance sequences, or have celebrated dancing in some form.

I do love it. It’s true.

But at the end of this film, there’s a proper, musical-style dance number, with a Gershwin tune and choreography that goes through across an entire college campus. That’s quite an ambitious sequence, and quite different from the use of dance in your other films. Did you have to put a lot of preparation into that?

It was amazing it came out so well, because I can’t say there was much preparation at all. I mean, I think, you know, sometimes you hit an intersection where everyone does their job well. No very concrete plan, it’s just everyone knowing their ideas, doing their jobs pretty well, and keeping their wits about them, and adapting to the circumstances.

In that dance sequence, the cinematographer had the idea for those crane shots. He had the idea of shooting backlit by the sun, which is an effect he loved, which was wonderful. And the choreographer had rehearsed the actors, and then we saw the locations. I saw the bench, and said ‘can we do something with the bench?’ And it was just adapting it with Greta, Adam and the choreographer. He was brilliant, Justin Cerne.

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The film does have a very striking look. Those backlit shots, with the sunlight cutting through the frame, are beautiful. And I don’t think many cinematographers would do that.

It’s amazing. Some people really criticise that. I think it’s fantastic. It’s transformative. I think that digital photography, by people who know how to use it, has gotten far superior to film. Far superior. I love it. I mean, I saw a famous RED film last night on TV. It was one of the first big-budget films made on a RED. I don’t know what they did wrong, but it looks so god-awful. And I think the RED wasn’t very good when it started. And, also, I think on post-production, if people don’t colour time it properly… You have to have proper people working at every stage.

I remember my first experience with a crew member that didn’t work. It was on Metropolitan. And it was within the first two days they started the shoot. Metropolitan was actually made with no art director or production designer, and everybody was working for free essentially on the film. It was just volunteers. This art director rushed out to shoot the Park Avenue trees.

They have Christmas trees, and we thought they were going to stay up all of Christmas, or longer. But on January 17th, when our shoot was going to start, they started taking down the Christmas tree lights. And that’s our big location! So we rushed out to shoot those scenes, and this woman spent half our art budget getting extra lights put on the trees, but the extra lights she got were on a circular circus, and it looked like an amusement park.

The production manager saw it before I got there, and he said ‘Whit, prepare yourself…’. And he started laughing. [sings] ‘It’s going to be a Coney Island Christmas!’ And we had to unplug those lights, which is half our art budget. And then the next day, I’d been up all night shooting, and she wanted to have a meeting to discuss the art direction of Audrey’s room, and she had the idea of leather-bound editions of Jane Austen, and I said that, really, she’d just have old paperback editions. She’d have an old, scruffed-up paperback copy that would have been her sister’s. And we didn’t really know what the room would look like, because we didn’t have the location yet.

And she was very upset, and then she said to the production manager that she couldn’t work that way. And she quit. And that was terrific. I really hate firing people, I really hate it. It’s much better if they get into a situation like that, where they have a nervous breakdown based on nothing, and it was so good that she left, because she really was not into it. But then other people, like production assistants, stepped up and helped me do stuff. And the film looks really good.

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And so… I’m not sure what that story was about. But that’s someone not working out.

Mr Stillman, thank you very much for your time!

Damsels in Distress is released on the 27th April.

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