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Mr. Beaks And Whit Stillman Discuss The Delightful DAMSELS IN DISTRESS!

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.

Faithfully submitted,

Mr. Beaks

Readers Talkback
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  • April 27, 2012, 3:25 p.m. CST

    Stillman? Let me IMDB him to see if he did anything I liked.

    by Tikidonkeypunch

  • April 27, 2012, 3:26 p.m. CST

    Nope, don't give a shit about him.

    by Tikidonkeypunch

  • April 27, 2012, 4:15 p.m. CST

    great movie but

    by larrydart

    see it in a theatre with a good sound system, there's a LOT of dialog in this. Greta Gerwig is perfect. Nice to see Caroline Farina from Metropolitan, even though it's a tiny role.

  • April 27, 2012, 4:29 p.m. CST

    Not surprised by the lack of Stillman love around here

    by mr.underwater

    As he's not really in the aicn wheelhouse. That said, I'm looking forward to (finally) something new by him. He led the charge for independent film in the '90s. And one could very easily make the argument that if it wasn't for his Metropolitan, a young Tarantino would have never gotten his shot.

  • April 27, 2012, 4:29 p.m. CST

    Fantastic opening 20 minutes

    by Garbageman33

    Downhill from there. But still worth seeing.

  • April 27, 2012, 4:42 p.m. CST

    One of those posters where the names don't align with the people

    by Mickster_Island

  • I don't want this to sound snobbish, but you write for what I'd call an intellectual audience.

  • Ya know, snobs.

  • April 27, 2012, 5:52 p.m. CST


    by Nick

  • April 27, 2012, 5:56 p.m. CST

    This movie sucked big time

    by D o o d

    it was boring and full of itself. The whole thing was just nonesense!

  • April 27, 2012, 6:10 p.m. CST

    Stillman's a unique voice In cinema currently.

    by dalcross

    All his films have been highly enjoyable, and it's a shame there's no eigeman In this. If you haven't seen his work, you have no right to comment on 'not giving a shit' A

  • Or Joel Silver and Warner Bros breaking up or something else genre related. But if this is an "Official Selection" from count'em, 2 film festivals, then it must be good.

  • April 27, 2012, 9:09 p.m. CST

    BARCELONA is one of my favorite movies

    by CountryBoy

    Like HANNAH AND HER SISTERS, it's sort of a movie about everything. And Chris Eigeman is great in it.

  • April 28, 2012, 8:28 a.m. CST

    The idea of connecting to a film.

    by ChaunceyGardiner

    I feel that the idea of connecting to a particular film whereas other people might not feel such a connection is a pretty radical idea for some people. From a lot of the negative comments here it would seem that the assumption is that this is a film geared towards people who like to pose themselves as something they are not already, ie, a set image of what is cool, here and now. I first saw "Metropolitan" completely by accident. I had rented Goddard's "Masculine/Feminine" from Vision Video in Athens during a visit to see friends and family attending the University there. Vision Video used to, and may still, have a great deal: 5 videos for 5 dollars for 5 days. I would go up, proofread papers for loved ones, hang out, and get to pick and watch 5 really interesting movies I could not find anywhere else. It was like visiting the candy store once in a blue moon - I'd feel adventuresome, and for every mistake I made, usually there was one or more surprise or some film that would change the way I saw the medium ("Aguirre: The Wrath of God"). "Metropolitan," needless to say, was not what I expected to see when I opened up the "Masculine/Feminine" case. Deflated, I sagged at the waist, my shoulders like a shadow over the misplaced disc. But my eyes never ceased. They moved over the bright circle absorbing all the light of that moment, and I found things to like. First, it was in the "Criterion Collection." It would at least be interesting. Secondly, why on earth is there an etching of an apparently turn of the century drawing room here. What type of movie is this? The plan: watch the movie immediately, count my loses, return to the store, switch discs, see two movies for the price of one and gas, factoring in the pleasure of a chance to visit the store once again. "Metropolitan" is not a film I sought out, it found me. Stillman is a talented writer in that he understand that the method of entry into this story, into this world, would be best entrusted with someone that most people could relate to: someone who has not, sees, and wants. And if not wanting, he is a least curious; here are a group of young people embroiled in their own sense of being, so taken with their existence that they do not exactly realize that the rest of the world is sort of moveing in slow motion around, and past, them. He is caught up in there momentum, and is one who doesn't look back into too late. There is so much wisdom in its story. It is highly observed, even though haveing elements that might only occur in the fantasy world of film. As with our young interloper, we find things to like and dislike. Stillman allows his characters to be judged; he knows they will be, and yet in their earnestness we find them quite vunerable. There is a sensibility to him that is quite unlike our current age, with its pitchforks and its equally forked tongues, its rampants insecurity. His characters, though seemingly affected, are living out their lives like jazz melodies interpretted years later, almost unrecognizeably: they carry with themselves, though changed in style, the remnants of a discernible melody. He finds what is true in youth, and transposes it to its current century. I find his films wonderful and true. And while I will have to give "Damsels in Distress" a try (saw the poster in Athens Thursday night, not interested; but when I realized that it was the new Wilt Stillman flick, I changed my mind completely), I have a feeling that I will re-encounter that old magic. Though their accoutrement may be different, may we at least seek to find in these young people what there is to see. Mr. Stillman has a great ability to fully realize the longings and discrepencies of youth, and I feel that in seeking out what is true in his depiction, a greater understanding might be placed in our hand. I encourage viewers to look past the veneer, for great I feel is the reward. At least, so has been my experience.

  • April 28, 2012, 10:50 a.m. CST

    Love Stillman's perspective.

    by Bigdada

    And unique style / voice. His characters all have charm and humanity. More please.

  • April 28, 2012, 11:06 a.m. CST

    My Ex-girlfriend...

    by spire_walk

    ...who went to an all girls school and was/is a rabid feminist with victim fantasies would love this movie. I'm willing to bet she's read the book and highlighted all of her favorite lines in it also. Cunt.

  • April 29, 2012, 2:05 a.m. CST

    I heard that the people who disliked this

    by Keith

    ...absolutely loathed it. Interesting. May watch it just to see on which side of the divide I fall. I like watching divisive movies.

  • April 29, 2012, 5:29 p.m. CST

    BARCELONA is my favorite movie

    by bret3d

    Darn shame Eigeman doesn't get more work.

  • April 30, 2012, 9:28 a.m. CST

    Was I too young to get this guy's movies, or were they really dull?

    by Spandau Belly

    I think I saw METROPOLITAN when I was 14 or so and just found it really boring. I've wondered if I would like his films more now that I am older or if I would still find them really dull yuppie navelgazing.