DAMSELS IN DISTRESS is Whit Stillman's first feature film in fifteen years, and not by choice. He didn't go on sabbatical after 1997's LAST DAYS OF DISCO. He didn't hole up in some remote New England cottage and take up cobbling. He's been busy. There were projects developed and TV pilots commissioned. But for one reason or another, they never made it before the cameras.
So one mustn't take DAMSELS IN DISTRESS for granted. Though there seems to be a renewed interest in Stillman's oeuvre at the moment (via Q&As, revival screenings and, of course, the enshrinement of METROPOLITAN and LAST DAYS OF DISCO in the Criterion Collection), the next film is always uncertain when one of your big punch lines involves a character misattributing the popularization of the waltz to Richard Strauss. There is an audience for a Whit Stillman movie, but as he even admits in the below interview, they're unlikely to produce anything more than a nice-sized art house hit.
DAMSELS IN DISTRESS might be viewed as a concession to accessibility, but it's really just Stillman indulging his silly side. This is a refreshingly cheerful film about a group of do-gooder undergraduate girls attempting in a variety of ways to alleviate the depression of their peers. Their leader, Violet (Greta Gerwig), is a believer in the uplifting power of dance - be it ballroom, tap or one of her own invention (aka "The Sambola"). She is frequently challenged by the skeptical Lily (Analeigh Tipton), but is never dispirited by the constant questioning. Though Violet isn't above denial when she does manage to fall into a funk (she prefers to term her bout with depression a "tailspin"), she assuages her melancholy on her own idiosyncratic terms (I'll never look at hotel soap the same way again).
Stillman has set the film at a fictional college called Seven Oaks, which is notable for its Roman-letter fraternity system and students who are ignorant of basic facts (e.g. Thor, a particularly dim member of the D.U. house, does not know the colors). The film is vibrantly designed and brightly lit; Doris Day would be right at home on the Seven Oaks campus. But who needs her when Stillman's got the incandescent Gerwig? After being horribly mistreated by Ben Stiller in Noah Baumbach's GREENBERG (which, emotionally, feels like DAMSELS polar opposite), it's nice to see Gerwig playing an indefatigable force of goodwill. She's wonderful in this. Stillman should never stop writing for her.
I was a bundle of nervous energy when I got on the phone to chat with Stillman earlier this week. Before we started the interview, we made small-talk about the cities in which we currently reside. He had nice things to say about Los Angeles (my home at the moment), which prompted me to prattle on about my helpless romanticizing of New York City. His deadpan reply: "Maybe you should get it out of your system." Point taken. And with that, we were off.
Mr. Beaks: Your first three movies have a very particular sensibility and aesthetic. DAMSELS is still "A Whit Stillman Film", but a touch broader than the others.
Whit Stillman: I hope it's more than a touch.
Beaks: I'm being conservative.
Stillman: Oh good. It's a lot broader. I like that.
Beaks: Was that always the intent?
Stillman: it started broad. It started with the four girls with the floral names at a university with a Roman-letter, not a Greek-letter, fraternity system. Those are the two aspects of the original idea that survived from when I first thought of doing it. It was what it is from the very beginning.
Beaks: In between LAST DAYS OF DISCO and DAMSELS, you were trying to get TV shows going. Did that contribute at all to the sensibility of this film?
Stillman: I don't think so. I think what contributed to it were a couple of the other films I worked on. DANCING MOOD, the Jamaican film, has a lot of fantastical elements. And the comedy script I wrote taking off from Chris Buckley's LITTLE GREEN MEN, that is quite a broad comedy. I was working in different areas on those two scripts. I don't know quite how to do this in TV. Usually when I get a TV commission, it's an hour-long drama for some reason. And those don't have these fantastical comedy elements. I haven't really cracked that medium. I have a commission I have to do now, and I'm not quite sure where it will go. Somehow, the hour form, it's very hard to make it funny.
Beaks: Well, there still is, to a degree, that expectation that half-hour is for comedy and the hour format is for drama.
Stillman: I admire DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES a lot. I think that's brilliant.
Beaks: How so?
Stillman: I think his narrative approach, the way he can have a lot of story and a lot of comedy at the same time... his use of narrative is just very good and very impressive. I could be biased because I came across it in Europe, where we would see three episodes with no commercial interruption. The commercials would only be in between the episodes. They'd run three episodes at a time on Friday night. It's like a movie with two interruptions between the episodes. But it's not like I'm watching DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES all the time. I did watch it for a while, and I do think it was underrated by people. To me, it seems more interesting than some of the TV shows they talk about incessantly.
Beaks: One show they talk about incessantly is THE WIRE, and you've got Jermaine Crawford in your film. He was beloved as Dukie on THE WIRE. What led you to cast him? I think he's a great actor who doesn't work enough.
Stillman: Jermaine turned eighteen on our shoot, so he's got plenty of time to work more. (Laughs) I had the advantage of never having seen THE WIRE, and I had the advantage of never having seen THE O.C. So I could see Jermaine just as Jimbo, and Adam Brody just as Charlie Walker.
Beaks: And while this is a new, younger set of actors, I can still see in some cases where you might've plugged in actors from your long-term company had they been the right age. I can hear the voices from METROPOLITAN.
Stillman: Well, you know, it's the same screenwriter for both films.
Beaks: (Laughs) I noticed that! It's amazing how that works. But the Zach Woods character [Rick DeWolfe], were you ever thinking of a young Chris Eigeman as you wrote for him?
Stillman: Not at all. The Zach Woods is kind of a bad character. He's the enemy. Chris was always sort of the touchstone, the friend. I see them differently. But it's interesting you mention that. I do see it now, but I never thought of that before. But one of the temptations for this script was that it would all be about the conflict between Rick DeWolfe and Violet. I think one of the happiest choices I made was "It's not going to be that." Most of what you do in film is "It's not going to be something." It's sort of the stuff you're not going to do. So we're not going to do the endless confrontation between Rick DeWolfe and Violet. Fortunately, we had Zach for a day, and the AD was on vacation. And the replacement AD let me get away with shooting two more little things with Zach Woods, so that he does exist in the rest of the film. But that confrontation that would've been really tiresome is gone. The presence of Rick DeWolfe works itself out in the story, but without him being there more. So when they close the Roman-letter fraternities, they blame it on him - that kind of stuff.
Beaks: In casting the girls... Greta right away feels like an actress that belongs in your universe, but they're all wonderful. Were these first choices?
Stillman: Absolutely! We got everyone in the film that we wanted. The only two people who weren't in the film who I wanted were Lena Dunham and Chris Eigeman, and it's totally understandable what happened in those cases. Lena was in the throes of doing rehearsals for her pilot when we finally got to shoot, and it's a really small role which Alia Shawkat did really well. Then Chris, it was a very small thing, too: he was Professor Ryan teaching the course on the dandy tradition in literature. But everyone we wanted we got. There was no one who escaped our net. (Laughs)
Beaks: So no trepidation shooting a film without Eigeman for the first time?
Stillman: I mean, I couldn't use Chris in a major role in this film because of the age range of the main actors. The thing is, you know... we made three films together, and we were both worrying about the typecasting that was going on. We considered not doing LAST DAYS OF DISCO together, but I just couldn't find anyone else who was right for the Chris Eigeman part except for Chris Eigeman. In this film, I love Adam Brody. I hope to make a lot more stuff with him. He's very good. I hope to keep working with these actors. I have a project with Adam, and Greta would be very good in it. I think Chloe [Sevigny] and Chris could also be good in it. There are other actors from DAMSELS who could be in that project.
Beaks: I want to talk about the Cathar element in the screenplay. You've said the way you worked around the anal sex jokes allowed for a sort of Lubitsch moment in the film. I think it's an especially big laugh because you don't come out and say it. Is it true that was more explicit in the [festival] cut?
Stillman: I felt the MPAA helped us out there. I'd hoped to get a PG-13 even with the Venice cut, but in the first viewing they thought it was R. So we looked at it, the editor [Andrew Hafitz] and I, and we saw immediately some things that would make it pretty clearly PG-13, and we felt would help the movie. There could've been a little heaviness of talking a little too much about what was going on, and it would delay the laugh until later - which I think is always good. We were really happy with the small changes we made. We made tiny changes in two scenes: we took out the text for what the ALA stood for. It's really nice with the MPAA: they both gave us the PG-13, and they said they really enjoyed watching the movie a second time. (Laughs) That was a really nice thing to say. I think it gave it a Lubitschean vagueness and delayed the laugh.
Beaks: In getting your movies made... I don't want this to sound snobbish, but you write for what I'd call an intellectual audience. So in making your films palatable to producers or financiers, do you ever find yourself saying, "Okay, maybe I should lose this literary allusion"?
Stillman: It's funny you say that. It reminds me of something. When I was doing the script for LAST DAYS OF DISCO, Martin Shafer at Castle Rock, when he saw the debate in the dark about... [slightly garbled] J.D. Salinger's short stories, he said, "There goes a million dollars of gross." (Laughs) I think it's true. I think he was right. You put in material you really enjoy, and you think some people you know will enjoy. But a lot of other people won't enjoy it at all. I'm not sure if precisely that scene is what drove down our gross, but it does make it challenging. I mean, I'm the last person to ask about how to get a film financed, but I know that you have to work overtime to find the right audience for these films. Sony Pictures Classics is a really great company, and they know how to release specialized films, but we're kind of, in a strange way, even more specialized. So if they just show it to their older art-film audience who is used to seeing serious films, that's not going to do it for us. We have to get in a new, younger audience who are not used to going to the independent theaters, but who are clever types who will get into this film. So we've got to do this work for the independent release, and then we've got to work to get the kind of people who are going to laugh at this into the independent theaters.
Beaks: So when you're writing a scene like you just mentioned, do you ever say to yourself, "There I go again. Goodbye, one million dollars!" Do you ever find that creeping into your creative process?
Stillman: It can't. I just have to do what I can do, and I can't do anything else. I don't want to change that way. I want to be able to do different kinds of material, and I was trying to do different kinds of material during the period when I couldn't get anything done. I think that I just have to be very responsible with the budgets knowing we can only go so far with the gross.
Beaks: Does LITTLE GREEN MEN have a chance of coming back?
Stillman: I hope so. It probably won't be called [LITTLE GREEN MEN] because it probably won't be based on the Chris Buckley novel. That was one of my problems with the project. There was a producer who was absolutely in love with the novel. A number of people have tried to adapt the novel, but they haven't been able to. It works very well as a book, and the writing is very funny, but as far as the story, to me it called out for having the story go in different directions. So I wrote a script that had very little to do with Chris Buckley's novel, which I'm not sure Chris Buckley entirely appreciated. I'd like to be able to just make my film as an independent film using the elements that I added and forgetting the original material. I had someone who wanted to finance my version of it, but he was super-close friends of Chris Buckley's, and I think when he heard that Chris didn't like the fact that I'd taken so many liberties... I don't really know what happened, but I think that was it. People really liked the script, and wanted to do it, but the producers generally didn't show up because they were trying to just do a more straightforward adaptation of his novel.
Beaks: To the extent that you can talk about it, what is this "dream project" with Greta Gerwig, Adam Brody, Chloe Sevigny and Chris Eigeman?
Stillman: Well, it's the "dream project" with Greta, Adam, Chloe and Chris. It's that "dream project". (Beaks laughs) I'd really love to get some of the D.U. types in there as well. They wouldn't be D.U. types, but I love Ryan Metcalf, Billy Magnussen and Nick Blaemire, who plays Freak Astaire. They would be really good in another film.
Beaks: So when you say "dream project", is this like Strindberg's DREAM PLAY, or is it just a dream project you've wanted to make for some time.
Stillman: The very latter. So it's a script that I wrote that has not been shown around or talked about, and I've been so jinxed talking about things that have never happened that I don't want to go any further on that one.
Beaks: That's fine. I'll stop. Just wanted to clarify. And then DANCING MOOD?
Stillman: That'll happen some day, I'm just not sure how quickly. That doesn't have any actors who... that it matters how old they'll be in two years. I think that'll be good to do later. It's not an idea I think anyone's going to steal. (Laughs)
DAMSELS IN DISTRESS is currently in theaters, and is absolutely worth your time and money. Take a date. Do the Sambola. It is, after all, dance craze that's sweeping the nation.