Friday, April 20, 2012
Exclusive interview with Director Whit Stillman (DAMSELS IN DISTRESS)
I had the opportunity to interview filmmaker Whit Stillman, director of Damsels in Distress. I found him to be a unique individual and really enjoyed our conversation. Talking with him, I felt that he was a true and bold artist, though when listening back to the interview I realized he sounds exactly like John Malkovich.
We met at a bar downtown, and as we went to sit down I noticed that the electronica music was really loud over the speakers. Whit Stillman commented on it as he said, "Welcome to the disco lounge". We both laughed. Then as we settled into our seats, he asked me whom I write for, which was Switchblade Comb at the time (which is currently on hiatus). He thought it was a pretty cool website name. Then I began the interview.
AUSTIN KENNEDY (AK): Congratulations on the movie. It's good to have you back.
WHIT STILLMAN (WS): Thank you. It's good to be back.
AK: Was there any particular reason why it took so long to make your next movie (14 years)?
WS: Yeah. Failure. Failure as a producer. In addition to being writer/director, I've never been fortunate enough to marry a producer or somebody involved. I like being a producer on set. But in between films I haven't really focused on raising money. I sort of relied on one buyer, and then I had a period when I couldn't get that buyer. So I had to find a way to raise the money myself. And also finding an active producer who could help me. I wasn't that depressed most of the time, cause I was working on scripts and getting paid for some of them. And the writing had gone pretty well. So I got to see great places like Paris and Madrid while writing scripts, and they were going well. But the horrible thing was allowing so many years to go by without a film happening. I got pretty close . You always think it's around the corner, but you somehow have to lock it in and make it all happen.
AK: With your first 3 films, you sort of have a cult following in the independent community...
WS: Even out here?
AK: Yeah, definitely.
WS: Really. Because I had this screening at USC that Leonard Maltin had, and at the end I asked the students how many had seen any of my films and only one out of a hundred people had seen any of my other films. And that was so different than my experience at Indiana University of Bloomington. And at Harvard Film Archive. There they saw my films, but at USC none of my films.
AK: Even critically you've got a lot of acclaim, and with getting that kind of praise does that add pressure or expectations for the next project, especially when it's been so long?
WS: They publicize the praise, but I also see all the bad stuff, so that keeps it in perspective.
AK: In your earlier films, you've drawn upon your own personal experiences. So I was wondering what your inspiration was for DAMSELS IN DISTRESS. How did that come about?
WS: Well there's the original inspiration, and there's what happened later. The original inspiration was the story of girls like this who came to where I went to college, when I was there it was pretty political, kind of grim, depressing and non-social/anti-social. And I went back and they said, "There are these girls who came and they wear this French perfume, it's very strong and very good, and they dress up, and they have these really fun parties, and they teach you everything... and blah blah blah blah blah." Everyone was just so happy about this change. So that was one idea, which put things in motion. And then I had a pretty painful experience of being dumped by a girl who I was really involved with and I thought she was really in love with me and all that kind of stuff. But no, she dumped me. And it really really really got me down. When I saw her a couple months after that I was sort of like, "Thank you for giving this story to my movie", cause I just signed a contract like 2 days before when I got dumped and I was like, "Oh my God, I have a story!". Because I didn't have an experience in quite the same way. I've had a lot of rejections, but the rejection came before the relationship. And so I now had the experience of being dumped. It's kind of an eye opening experience and I don't ever want to have that experience again. Ever! And so that gave me a lot of material for Violet (played by Greta Gerwig in the film), and it was really helpful.
AK: Was there anything that interested you about the College social scene (it's a big part of the film)?
WS: Yeah. I really liked idea of social textures and how these people were doing stuff. This is a bit of a Utopia film, a bit of a fantasy where there's this sort of absurd fraternity with these absurd characters. There's this country/western dance place they all go to and line dance and do the two-step. And there's everybody tap dancing there at the suicide center , and then I have this sort of Gershwin number. And this was all kind of fanciful.
AK: It definitely had a whimsical quality.
WS: For sure.
AK: Did you have any actors in mind while writing or was there an audition process when you were casting?
WS: I auditioned. Generally I like to meet people and then go work on the script with them. So they're always reading the script. And very often now, I like to do this thing now where people are kind of important. When you're there with the actor, they really should know what we're doing. So, I'll leave them alone with the script, and they can do it their way. And that's how you get the audition.
AK: I liked Greta Gerwig. She's so good in the movie as Violet and completely embodies the character. Did she immediately get the character or was it something you had to really work with her on?
WS: It's interesting because a lot of people did come in with their characters already formed and worked out, and I just kind of watched them do it, and maybe study tap dancing techniques. But Greta was still in "free search" mode. We had this table read shortly before we started shooting and she was really worried about that I would think what she was doing at the read was what she was going to be doing with her performance. During the first few days of shooting she was sort of triangulating where it should be. She was quoted in a magazine as saying that after one take I came up to her and said, "Remember what you did in that last take. Never do it again".
WS: She was really doing wildly different versions on each take. It's very interesting. And frankly, I really like it when someone searches for it, when they don't immediately think they have it.
AK: That way you can work in the editing room too.
WS: Yes, there's some interesting editing room thing, but also she really worked hard to find a very cool Violet.
AK: It (the searching for her character) doesn't show. It's a very specific performance I think on screen.
AK: I really liked Analeigh Tipton (as Lily). She's great.
WS: She's from here you know.
AK: I heard that. And I think she's going to be huge. She's a really good actress. How was it working with her?
WS: Incredibly easy. She's so natural. The only kind of direction was like: "Analeigh, you know that cute walking thing you do on your tippy-toes. You can only do that three times in the movie. You can't do it ten times". She's very cute. She's very real. But I didn't want her to be too cute.
AK: I don't think she came across TOO cute.
AK: I love how the film's coda is a whimsical musical number. During the writing process, when did you know it was going to go in that direction, that it was going to end with a musical number?
WS: Good question... I have a feeling that was always the intention. The idea of the second dance was new, but I think the idea of "always looking up" was there.
AK: Are you a fan of musicals?
WS: I love musicals. I was thinking when I was watching a revival of GUYS & DOLLS that I'd be happy just to see GUYS & DOLLS every night. Unfortunately, I don't have that much money.
AK: (chuckles). What are some of your favorite musicals? On film.
WS: On film?
WS: On film, my favorite musical is a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers RKO musical directed by Mark Sandrich called THE GAY DIVORCEE. After that they made TOP HAT. GAY DIVORCEE is kind of a low budget earlier version of TOP HAT. It's got a great Cole Porter score. It's got Night & Day.
AK: Oh cool. I definitely have to check that out. For me (in Damsels in Distress) the color really stands out in the film. Is that something you worked with the costume designer on?
AK: It was like every character had a different color on. No one's really wearing the same color. It added something...
WS: Yeah, she did tons of work. On a low budget film it's really challenging to do a good wardrobe. It's Ciera Wells. She did a great job.
AK: As a writer/director... this is a really hard question. I'm sure you'll roll your eyes when you hear it. But what do you prefer: Writing or directing?
WS: I guess I prefer writing.
AK: More freedom?
WS: Less tension. You have more time to get it done.
AK: Right. So what's next? You gonna wait another 14 years?
WS: Get back to writing.
AK: Do you have more scripts during that time (hiatus) that you were working on?
WS: I have 5 scripts in various states that I'm working my whole life, and I'll get to a number of them. I sometimes think of going off and try to write fiction, so I don't have to get in production.
AK: You did the one novelization of THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO...
WS: I would like to do that again, but one only has so much time. And I really feel very strongly now that I have to use my time wisely.
AK: Well, that's about all I have. Thanks a lot, Whit.
WS: Great. Thanks very much.
As I was heading out he asked me if I was from Minneapolis. I told him yes and asked if he had a chance to go around town yet. Whit said he was going to take in the sights later on that evening.
Hope you enjoyed the interview!