This interview with SVT, Sweden’s Television, is split into several short videos, available to view online until 10 November 2012. It’s unclear what order the videos are supposed to be in.
Whit Stillman: I think is your identity a writer, or are you a film maker? And in our business, since people pay you just to write, it’s easy to get sucked in to just being a writer, for hire.
SVT: What have you been writing?
WS: Well, there’s the cultural revolution in China project, called Red Azalea based on a wonderful memoir. There was something else that was an adaptation of a Christopher Buckley comedy comic novel [Little Green Men] about Martians coming to Washington, or not coming, and whether they’re Martians or not, and that had all kinds of complicated producers. And then I did the script for the Jamaican film that a British producer was going to make. And then all these other things, and TV pilots, and this and that.
SVT: And they all fell through, or did some of them…?
WS: [Smiles] Well we like to say they haven’t happened yet. [Laughs] Some of them I’m sure won’t happen. But I think some will. And I like having an earlier version, you try to do it this way and it was sort of OK, but maybe it would be better doing it this way, so I like having things in the trunk to work on, we say “trunk projects”. Because this film now [Damsels in Distress] I sort of that of it and done a version of it twelve years ago, in a different context, and then I completely redid it, I didn’t use anything from the other version except the character names.
SVT: When do you think your next film will…?
WS: I’ve got to change my ways. I’ve got to change my ways and become more focused on… you know what, the thing is, sometimes you’re the writer of the script, you’re the director, and you’re also normally [or nominally?] the producer, and what I’ve found is that I’m a very, very bad producer. So I have to be a better producer and I have to just charge ahead and make the film and get the money and do it. The problem is that if you’re a writer and a producer you think, well, I’m having trouble getting the money for this film, I’ll just write another script. And you work on another script, and another script, and you love working on your scripts, but you have to make movies.
WS: And one of the things I didn’t realise was we had a bubble in independent films in the 90s, you know, like we have the housing bubble, the real estate prices go up, and so everyone thought this was going to be a good business and they started giving us money to make films, like, for Last Days of Disco I really had quite a bit of money. And then that bubble started having the air come out of it. It was a very long time of it going down, and then it went completely down, you know, 2007, 2008: dead. And so now we have to kind of go back to the very start and do things the old fashioned way like we did with Metropolitan, of getting together, you know, a small budget, small crew, new actors, don’t do it the industry way, do it the different way, and for me it’s better. So I had a very good time shooting this film. It was me and everyone else, you know, decades younger. Everyone else was 27 and under, and they were terrific, and the young cast is the best cast I’ve ever had. There’s so many good people in it, so many funny people. And some of them came into their auditions with these funny personas they’d already created… I just, I had nothing to do, I just turn on the camera.
SVT: How did you decide on her [Greta Gerwig]?
WS: Well, they were very good casting people who worked on the film. I’d come back from being in Europe, completely out of touch with what was going on. I’d heard about mumblecore but I hadn’t seen it. And they loved Greta and they arranged for me to meet her, and we talked about her playing the other part, the Lilly part, and then it turns out that she was interested in the Violet part, and I hadn’t thought of her as Violet because I didn’t know who she was or anything about her. And so I really liked her and I went to see Greenberg, and I liked her in Greenberg, and she did a beautiful job in an audition for Violet, she did tap dancing and singing and everything, she’s multi-talented. And reading her biography, it’s what she did as a child, she did musicals and she was with the Sacramento Ballet.
SVT: It seems like in most of your films there are upcoming young [unclear] actresses.
WS: Yeah, we’ve had good luck that people have won or been nominated for awards for the film after ours. So Mira Sorvino was cast in the Woody Allen off our film and won the Oscar for Mighty Aphrodite. Then Kate Beckinsale and Chole Sevigny came out of Last Days of Disco with a lot of energy and making important films and they became kind of famous.
SVT: Yeah, Boys Don’t Cry…
WS: Yeah, she went and did work for Boys Don’t Cry, and she’s wonderful. And then, I think there’s even something else. I think Greta’s wonderful and I’m sure she’ll become very big [unclear]. And I think she works very well with the actor Adam Brody, and I have this script I worked on in the period I wasn’t making films that they’d be really great for.
SVT: Is that your next… will it be part of…?
SVT: I read something about your Jamaican movie.
WS: Yeah, the one I talk about, because I already talked about it, is the Jamaican movie because I decided not to talk about things specifically because I never know whether they’re really going to happen and so until we actually start shooting I don’t want to talk about anything until we finish shooting. But I talked about the Jamaican film ad nauseum already, so I can continue to nauseate people…
SVT: Is that the one…
WS: That’s not the next one I’ll do though, that’s not the one… because the Jamaican movie’s all black, it’s all black, in Jamaica, and this is a different project, where Greta and Adam would be really good. And I’ve still another project that I hope to do before either of them.
SVT: Was there a point in time when you knew that this particular film was the one?
WS: Yes, yeah. Because, in my defence were [very art?] projects. One was about the cultural revolution in China… they were very difficult commercially. They tend to be dramas, and I’m more comfortable in comedy. And this one, I sort of knew that this must work, and I went back and I told the story to the people who backed my two previous films, and I told it to two other film companies, and they all wanted to do it. And they all wanted to do the script, because there’s a big gap between “they want to do the script” and “they want to do the film”. And I was lucky that the people that backed my two other films wanted to do this and I went with them, and they’re people who want to make the film, and so they helped me do it. But it was like going back to the first film, Metropolitan.
WS: I’ve always wanted to do sort of a musical, you know, singing, dancing, and I can’t really do that because it’s not really realy or whatever. It’s too stylised. But this film was sort of a compromise between that. There’s a bit of a suggestion of a musical.
SVT: What part are you the most pleased with?
WS: I would say I am happy with the way the comedy works in a slightly unreal world. It’s an idealised slight fantasy world. And I worry about that and it’s the kind of thing, it’s like taking flight, it’s like the flight of the first biplane getting off the ground and I’m glad it flew, it actually flew.
SVT: Why did you take you thirteen years to come to…?
WS: Horrible, unrelenting failure. There were a couple of things… some associate in the film business said, “Whit you’ve made these eccentric films, in this very strange way, now you have to work within the industry, you’ve got to do things the industry way.” For me, disaster. No film in twelve years. So I kind of have to think of things the way we thought of our first film, where we write a script and if we don’t get the money we expect to get, we’ll do it another way. You have to not be a screenwriter, you have to be a film maker, and I became kind of a screenwriter, and I’d get money for writing screenplays, and like my other screenwriter friends we make a living, or barely make a living, but we don’t make films, because we’re just part of the system.
SVT: Is this the Hollywood like system, or…?
WS: It’s both systems. Because what I found was I had a very positive image of the British film industry and I thought I’d make my films with financing from Britain and then I realised that in some ways it’s worse than in America, I think. Because it’s just a small group of people deciding on the films. And in America there is more of a spirity that we’ll find the money somewhere. In Britain it seemed to me like there’s a little funnel and you had to get two… there are three buyers and you had to get two of them to make a film, and it’s just very small. And I think maybe it’s the same thing in Sweden.
SVT: I’d probably say so.
WS: So that’s the good thing about going back to the United States that I could get my film financed. I mean, I loved living in Paris, but it was a mistake.
SVT: So you moved from France?
WS: I’m no longer in France. I hope to be successful and to be able to come back to Europe.
SVT: OK, so where are you now?
WS: I’m nowhere.
SVT: Nowhere, OK.
WS: Really, when I go to a festival, I’m living at the festival, and when I go somewhere else I’m moving there. So I’m a complete gypsy now.
WS: And one of the things we hoped to get out of it is a dance craze, because the protagonist, the character, she’s trying to start a dance craze and I think we’re going to start an international dance craze with the film. So next summer probably, will be the summer of the samboa, that’s our dance.
SVT: The samboa?
WS: The samboa [smiling].
SVT: Do people normally know this dance?
WS: Not yet. But they will.
SVT: You invented?
WS: Actually, the choreographer is allowing me co-choreography credit. So we worked on it together. One of the joys of a film like this is you’re trying to grab talents where you can find them and we had no choreographer to work with so I talked to someone I knew in theatre and they talked to someone else and they said well look at this guy, and this fellow came in, Justin [unclear] and he was just a very funny delightful guy and did wonderful things, and we don’t want it to be too good in the movie, everything’s a college production, university production, so it has to be sort of the way college students might dance or put on a show. And he just did a great job.
SVT: How would you describe the samboa?
WS: Well, what it is, is all my favourite moves from different dances. So it’s got a bit of the cha-cha, it’s got a bit of this, a bit of that, and erm…
SVT: The macarena?
WS: It’s not a macarena kind of thing [smiles]. It’s a far higher plane than the macarena. But even the macarena, to give it it’s due was a fun thing that happened, and people had fun with it, and so I hope people will have fun with the samboa. Its aspirations are higher than the macarena.