Interviewed by Charlie Rose, 29 July 1994

A transcript of the interview, previously available to view on Google Video.

Video still of Whit Stillman
Whit Stillman on Charlie Rose, 29 July 1994

Charlie Rose: Whit Stillman’s first film Metropolitan brought him an Oscar nomination and wide acclaim for his inside look at the American upper class. The writer, director and producer has now released a new film, Barcelona. It explores the relationships between two young American men and some more liberated Spanish women. It too is receiving rave reviews and I’m very pleased to have him here. Welcome.

Whit Stillman: Thanks

CR: You do do it all. Give me, because I’m not as familiar, with some sense of how you came to film-making.

WS: I came the longest way possible. I was 37 when I started doing… I guess it could be longer, but… I was 37 when I started Metropolitan and I came out of… in college I decided I wan’t a novelist that I’d have to try and work in a different way and I thought maybe TV comedy ??? in New York, everything was Hollywood, I knew no one there, no relatives who were producers and so I went through book publishing, magazines, daily journalism. Finally a publication I was working for went out of business and that was my big break because on a trip to Spain with my wife I met a Spanish producer and I started representing him for the sale of his films internationally. The Spanish film industry was so small that I was able to sort of get jobs as the stupid American in some of their films, and I learned slowly about film making, and then gradually…

CR: To get jobs doing what?

WS: Well, I, I, just that, sort of acting jobs. Instead of coming to the US to LA to casting with SAG actors, I was at hand, I was their sales agent, so I got to play the idiotic American in a lot of their films, and through that I discovered a little bit about film making and felt enough confidence to start working on Metropolitan.

CR: Metropolitan was made for $300,000?

WS: Yes, and it is actually less than that. I think we put $210,000 in and the rest we got through sales to PBS and other places.

CR: And then it made what, about three or four million? Did it? Or more, or more?

WS: Yeah, yeah, it did. I mean it made that in the cinemas, we don’t really see that.

CR: And then did you have, because of the success of that, and the critical appraisal of it, did you have then offers to go do whatever you wanted to do? I mean did all those studios come forward like Castle Rock, which is distributing this I guess. Did they come forward and say, “whatever you want to do, we’re your backers”?

WS: Not exactly. What really helped us out was the fact that no one was helping us at the start. So with the first film by default I became the producer and we had control of the project because no one else wanted control, no one else wanted to finance it or anything, and so with the next film, Barcelona, we started playing it the same way, we tried to go back to New Line, to Fine Line to distribute it, get an advance from them, and in that process another company intervened, Castle Rock, now New Line and Castle Rock are both part of Turner, but Castle Rock financed this film in a much more opulent way.

CR: Is your wife Spanish?

WS: Yes she is.

CR: I mean, how much of this is autobiographical?

WS: Well there’s certain autobiographical knowledge behind the film but it was reshuffled quite a bit.

CR: Yes, because it’s essentially the story of an American living there and he’s visited by…

WS: …his cousin…

CR: …his cousin…

WS: Yeah.

CR: Ted and Fred. And then they have relationships with the Spanish women. And it’s at the end of the cold war, it’s set at the end of the cold war. You wrote it…

WS: Yeah.

CR: …produced it. What were you saying, what was the story that you… were you just writing a good story or was there more to be said here than a romantic comedy?

WS: No, I really wanted to conclude everything, try to make it a film with a lot of dimension and texture, and it’s about the careers people have and the decision they have to make about what they’re going to do with their life, both in work and in their romantic life.

CR: You cast?

WS: We were really lucky that there are two actors in Metropolitan who were really great and had a great dynamic between them so they came back for this film.

CR: How long did it take you to make it?

WS: It took, I mean, three years really.

CR: Now you’ve gotten rave reviews for this, or those reviews I’ve read, I haven’t read them all, what does it do for you now, what opportunites does it open up?

WS: Well, in a way by starting sort of backwards, starting without anyone helping us, the opportunity is to continue trying to do the best work we can. In this case the shoot was a little bit chaotic, I didn’t go over with an American line producer, had a really great line producer in the first film, so I’d really like to have the production under firm control next time by having some talented individual working with us to organise everything well. But basically, it’s just, the challenge is just to continue and try to make the films we want to make to the best of our ability.

CR: Here’s a clip from Barcelona, roll tape.

[Scene in the disco with Fred describing to Spanish women Ted as having narrow leather straps under his clothes.]

CR: …that may be because I haven’t seen the film. Let me just talk about a little… this is a quote Vincent Kanby I think wrote this, yeah, no, Peter Burnett wrote this and called this new movie is finished.. really! Whit Stillman’s 1999 Metropolitan became an overnight success, what took Barcelona so long, there was some question that you had writer’s block.

WS: Yeah, he puts that in. Well, it takes a long time, and I think that’s good because the most important thing in writing is doubting what you’ve written and going back over and having some perspective and throwing out tons and tons of stuff, so the actual writing was only fourteen months with some revisions later.

CR: If you’re writing, producing and directing, why don’t you go ahead and star in these films too?

WS: [laughs] Not on your life.

CR: Why not?

WS: Because I’m not an actor, and these guys do such a great job I just enjoy watching them.

CR: OK, here’s what you say, quote, talking about Castle Rock has announced that they will back Mr Stillman’s next film, he admits that he has nothing on paper yet but he has some ideas, since his first two films have been centered on a male protagonist he wants his next film to deal more with women. What do you want to find out and say and explore about women?

WS: With Metropolitan I really wanted to change it into the girl’s story. It started out being the guy’s story and I said, “this guy’s story isn’t very sympathetic, let’s make it about the girl,” and I never really could do that. It helped the girl’s role a little bit, it built it up. And so now I want to come back and I think it’ll keep me away from sort of direct autobiography, and I think it’s an interesting time when people come out of college, they have their first apartments in New York, their first jobs, and three girls living together, I think it’s a sort of a ripe recipe for a romantic comedy.

CR: You say, “I want my next film to be more poignant and sympathetic. It’s going to be about that interesting, dramatic time in a woman’s life when she’s in her twenties, you know, there’s sadness and a lot of interesting stuff that happens in those years when people don’t know how things are going to turn out.”

WS: [laughing] Very articulate. That’s why I write and don’t talk.

CR: [laughs] Is there a message here about this, I mean, the fact that there ought to be more Whit Stillmans out there and somehow are you unique and so different and so something that you can pursue this dream to make movies, which was not, you didn’t grow up sitting in theatres like Woody Allen, a lot of other people did saying, “I want to be a director or Martin Scorcese or whoever,” you actually came good later in life, is there some… I mean, what do you know that more people don’t know about getting independent films made and doing them well, for a lot less money than most people?

WS: Well, I’ve got to sort of dodge that a little bit, there are a lot of implications in there I can’t handle…

CR: Like what? That you’re…

WS: Well I don’t know, I don’t think it’s that special, I think we’ve made another film and we hope people go see it and enjoy it, but I don’t want to say it’s that particular. I think I had the advantage of a lot of years of experience in different businesses and in the business side of the film business, so I think that when we came to that point of showing the film, we knew more about what we were doing. And basically I couldn’t write in a novel form and I find the screenplay form just wonderful because you can be completely illogical and use non-sequitors and have these crazy characters saying goofy things and it can work, and if you try and do that in a serious novel it’d be pathetic.

CR: What about directing though, I mean it seems to me a legitimate question to say here’s a guy who really hadn’t directed, hung around movies, but all of a sudden he directs a film that people praise and now he’s directed a second film that people are saying very attractive things about, suggesting what, that directing is simply an instinctive skill rather than an experiential skill?

WS: They do say it’s the job in film you don’t particularly have to know anything to do. And you try to learn, I mean, I read every book about film making, and every little scrap of knowledge I can get I try to get, and every improvement we can make… I had wonderful collaborators who worked with me on both films and, you know, these their film too. The editor, the cinematographer, the composer, and so I think it’s slowly building a band of people you really trust and trying to use their expertise, because they’ve worked on a lot of films, I’ve only made two films, and it’s really their knowledge and expertise that’s coming into this.

CR: Is it a fearful process, I mean do you walk out there each day when you’re filming saying…

WS: You know, it can be wonderful and it can be absolutely terrible. In Barcelona it was a little bit like war, because the production wasn’t well organised, which was my fault, it ended up well, the actors were great, all the quality stuff that was on screen was wonderful, but behind the scenes I was going crazy, and I was reading a book about English novelists of the nineteenth century thinking, “boy, it’d be nice to be Dickens and be sitting in a room under a deadline,” and so…

CR: That’s why you find some people who’ve had film careers and they’re writing their memoirs and then going on to other things, saying, the one thing they like about it is it’s just one on one, it’s their own sitting there at a typewriter.

WS: Yeah, I mean, now that I’ve been in a recently gruelling war of production I’m really looking forward to getting back to writing, and I never thought that I’d have such nostalgia for the solitary life of a writer.

CR: For you is it mostly, as they say it was with Hitchcock, where you plan out everything, or is it much more of a, once you get on the set we’ll experience and we’ll figure out how to do this best and it’ll take a life of its own.

WS: [grimace] Well, with Metropolitan I only got up to chapter eight of a book that was actually called How to Direct a Movie. I was on set and inspiring confidence in the crew with that, and it really was a little bit working with John Thomas with each scene, you know, where do we put the camera, what do we do, how do we do this, and it all worked out nicely at the end, but in this film I sort of knew how it would work and the scenes were kind of written as they end up in the film, and the transitions from one scene to another I think were quite a bit smoother, you know, I think we felt better about it cinematically.

CR: I’m out of time, but, is there any great myth about film making, I mean, did you get involved in this and thought this was going to be the hardest thing to overcome and in fact it wasn’t at all.

WS: Well, I think the bad myth is people being obsessed with the money side and how they get their projects made, rather than worrying about the quality of their projects, the quality of the script, rewriting the script, you know, worrying about what really goes on the screen.

CR: Like television in some cases, I mean, it really depends in the end, the core of it, is that right, you know, do you have a good script, do you have, you know, is, what you do right at the core?

WS: Most important work doesn’t cost anything.

CR: Great to have you here.

WS: Thanks a lot.

CR: Congratulations.

WS: Thanks.

CR: Whit Stillman.