Whit Stillman interviews

First, sorry the updates here are a little sporadic. I can’t keep up with this temporary flood of material! That said, onward…

Whit Stillman
Damsels in Distress: Whit Stillman on set

Stillman’s been busy chatting away to support Damsels in Distress recently and here’s the latest batch of interviews.

I completely forgot to post this interview by Farran Smith Nehme at Joan’s Digest when I last updated, but if you’re only going to read one of this bunch, then this is probably that one. Long and interesting:

Stillman: We sort of have to struggle in the film to get people to like Violet better. There’s this default, rather cliched – although we can’t criticize cliches in our film, as we raise them – there’s a cliched response where the outside character is the likable one from the audience point of view, and the insiders are the rather bad characters who need to be reprimanded and changed. Generally in our film it’s the reverse. It’s generally the outside character who has to wake up and be changed, in terms of transforming themselves. And in this case, the Lily character is not at all that idea… in fact, she’s the nemesis character in the film. It’s amazing that people don’t get that. And they say absolutely absurd things; they compare them to Mean Girls or Heathers or something like that. And they say, “The film finally comes alive when they meet the outsider Lily character.” That is the first scene in the film.

A little later in the interview, on the same theme:

Stillman: I adore [The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie]. One of the things I don’t like about it is that once again, this incredibly magical, dynamic character has to get her comeuppance. She has to be revealed to be sad, and misguided, and all these other things. And I just think there’s this form of movie, where they have an incredibly charismatic character, and they think the interesting, modern thing is to show the unhappiness and despair behind the mask, blah blah blah. I think that’s become a hoary cliche. The truth is that some of these people are great and fantastic.

Next, David Lambie has a very brief interview in the Bay Area Reporter but there is some new stuff:

David Lamble: Discuss Adam Brody’s obsession with “The Decline in Decadence.”

Stillman: I think there was a higher decadence in the past. I don’t know Jersey Shore, but that is like true decadence. Before, the decadents were trying to get by the obstacle course of respectable society, and the tension led to the creation of these artistic personas that were so interesting. I’m not sure what Max Beerbohm’s relationship to that group was, he was very close to the Oscar Wilde group, but when everything became controversial, he exiled himself to Italy and stayed there. It was an interesting dynamic of camouflage and daring, and it led to some really interesting comic creations.

Also, I had no idea that, as this interview reveals, the guy who plays the “haughty bouncer” in The Last Days of Disco, Burr Steers, wrote and directed Igby Goes Down, and is Gore Vidal’s nephew.

At Time Out Chicago, Ben Kenigsberg has a brief interview in which we read this about Stillman’s long years between movies:

He wasn’t completely absent from behind the camera. “I shot commercials in Indonesia and Singapore,” he says. “I had a friend who was working for a chocolate company over there, and so I shot commercials for the chocolate company. Which were kind of like mini versions of the films I did – there’s a lot of music and dancing.”

I don’t think I knew that either… now, how do we track those down…?!

Another brief interview, this time at SF Gate with G. Allen Johnson ends on a slightly sombre note:

“I have a lifetime supply of scripts written, but I’d like to write some new stuff, too,” [60-year-old] Stillman said. “The window-closing thing is so true. In the last two years I’ve had to face reality, and realize I have to focus on those things that would be gratifying and doable.”

Peter Suderman at the Washington Times has an interview, the title of which reflects this segment, about the way rich people are often represented on TV:

Mr. Stillman recalls directing an episode of the TV show Homicide: Life on the Street. He had a script he liked, but a rewrite turned a yuppie victim – whose family had been murdered – into “this awful, caricatured yuppie villain.”

“We don’t necessarily want to do a PR job for them,” he says of the character type. “But we also don’t want to dehumanize them, either.” He objected to the rewrite and is sure he was “blacklisted” – his explosive and unprompted term – from directing television as a result.

This topic crops up again as the Guardian’s Xan Brooks interviews Stillman on video (which I haven’t watched yet). From the article:

In any other movie, [Greta] Gerwig’s infuriating, Stepford-esque co-ed would be relegated to the sidelines and played as a grotesque. Yet the director clearly adores her; even identifies with her. He explains that his heroine is an idealist and that he has always loved idealists, because they are fragile, often lonely, easily shattered. … The problem, he suggests, is that Hollywood has conditioned its audience to pre-judge people in terms of their class background and to dismiss the heroines of Damsels in Distress as “pampered little rich kids”, undeserving of our sympathy.

Miriam Bale interviews Stillman about fashion for ‘The Measure’ at The L Magazine:

I got a really nice Madras jacket from Ralph Lauren, so reduced they almost paid me to take it out of the store. And I was so happy to put it on and see how it looked on a hot summer day in New York, this very light Madras jacket. … I love them. They’re so light and comfortable, and I think they can be so good-looking.

Chris Eigeman, on the other hand, doesn’t share the same point of view. He hates them. And for some reason I always dress Chris in Madras. There’s a scene in Barcelona where he’s supposed to be a very badly dressed civilian, so we put him in yellow trousers and a Madras jacket. And there’s a scene in Last Days of Disco, when he’s leaving to go to Europe with Jimmy Steinway, and I think he wears another Madras jacket. And when it came to record the DVD commentary, he was going on about how ugly that jacket was and how he hated wearing it, but I was dressed exactly like he was in the film!

At the Wall Street Journal they have an odd half-interview by Thomas Vinciguerra, in which the questions are omitted, leaving a series of unconnected statements from Stillman:

The three films I find most perfect are The Shop Around the Corner, Top Hat and Howards End.

My favorite director is Mark Sandrich because he made my favorite film, which is The Gay Divorcee.

Jack Giroux at Film School Rejects has a good interview with Stillman that focuses more than most on the process of writing and making movies:

Stillman: …there’s a course I took very seriously and enjoyed a lot of aspects of, the Robert McKee story course. My best relationship with that course is I had a friend – who had very forward notes and had this weird curly-cue handwriting – and he took very sparse notes of the class. Extrapolating from his notes, I found it really stimulating and used that when I was writing Barcelona. Just having a key few phrases was great. When I took the course itself, and it seemed really good, McKee said, “You cannot create characters based on dialogue and you can’t create a story writing scenes.” I figured out later what he said you could not do is the only way I knew how to do it. The only way I knew how to do it is having people say something to each other, and maybe they get their voice, come alive, and maybe they start doing things. For me, the dialogue thing is kind of helpful.

We’re nearly there, only a few more interviews to go today. Come on!

The New York Post has an average interview by Kyle Smith:

As befits the creator of memorably threadbare preppies who discourse about the problem of being ornately spoken but shabbily funded, Stillman … is not awash in riches. He shops at Ralph Lauren Polo, but “on the fourth sale,” he says. “The first week in August, when they try to unload the really unfortunate mistakes.”

So he’s on the low end of the high end, much as George Orwell described himself as “lower upper-middle class”?

“I am so Orwell,” Stillman replies. “I went from Down and Out in Paris and London being a project I wanted to film to a life I was living.”

At the Globe and Mail, Rick Groen interviews Stillman:

Stillman: The strange thing about my period of failure, of not making a film, is that I felt much better about the thing I most worried about – writing a script. Because I really didn’t feel I was best suited to being a writer. There’s so much fighting with it. Now I just think people must be bad writers if they love it.

However, when I’m actually making a film, there are always naysayers in the process and production ends up being like 18 months of pure, sweating tension. So I want to be on a film to escape the solitary writer’s life, but now the solitary writer’s life seems very appealing to me. You know, after Krzysztof Kieslowski made Three Colours, they asked him what he wanted to do, and he said he just wanted to sit in a dark room and smoke. I’m not a smoker, but that just seems to me the perfect image.

Leo Robson at the Financial Times has an almost oddly short interview after a longer introduction. But there’s still a good bit on Stillman’s influences:

Stillman talked at speed, and almost always with love. “I adore Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger than Paradise. Salinger’s Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters is one of the greatest things ever.” His frame of reference goes from Robert L Heilbroner’s The Worldly Philosophers (a primer on economic thought) to the novels of Louis Auchincloss (a character in Metropolitan is shown reading The Rector of Justin) to Walter Jackson Bate’s biography of Keats.

Stillman prizes most in other people’s work what he excels at in his own. He loves “the first five or 10 minutes” of true crime documentaries, “when they do the scene-setting”. He emphasises the elements of “social reality” in Hitchcock’s films, so often associated with enclosed or paranoid worlds.

Finally for today, Stillman was interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row, which can be listened to here (starts at 21:16), although I suspect that might only work for those in the UK. The host John Wilson finds it hard to be sympathetic to the movie’s girls:

Wilson: I found that pretty hard.

Stillman: I know, it’s very hard for people. It’s the struggle in the film to get beyond what people assume. Because they see these girls who are well put together, and very opinionated, and they think they’re mean girls. This is not Mean Girls.

Wilson: No, it’s not that, it’s that they’re not worldly wise, they’re very self-obsessed, and there’s an arrogance to them.

Stillman: Oh no, no, that’s a misinterpretation. Yes, there is arrogance and condescension but in the service of humanity. I think the comparison, and it’s only something I thought about after making the film, is really with Wes Anderson’s Rushmore. This is the prettier, female, university version of Rushmore.

And it goes on. Worth a listen if you can.

Well done for getting through all that. Tomorrow we’ll catch up on all the reviews.

1 thought on “Whit Stillman interviews

  1. Not sure if this has been posted elsewhere on the site, but there’s another interesting little interview from a couple weeks back in the Atlantic Wire’s “What I Read” series:

    What I Read

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