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Whit Stillman and the Cast of ‘Metropolitan’ on the Legacy of One of the First True Indies

Whit Stillman and the Cast of 'Metropolitan' on the Legacy of One of the First True Indies

“I don’t think there is a popular imagination,” muses a debutante in the iconic 1990 film “Metropolitan.” Clearly, the character hasn’t seen her own movie.

25 years later, Whit Stillman’s portrait of New York socialites has a permanent place in the popular imagination. Its characters, dressed in upscale attire that locates them in no particular era, bask in a haven for the one percent in the twilight hours of the sleeping city. It’s “deb season,” and the teenage offspring of New York’s elite meet to play bridge, challenge each others’ morality and pontificate on everything from privilege to Jane Austen.

We have been afforded a backdoor entry to their world through Tom Townsend, a socialist-turned-social-climber who finds himself ushered into a deb meeting by chance. The stilted parlance and démodé customs seem to seal them in a vacuum. Like Tom, we remain outsiders; all we learn of the anthology of characters is what they choose to put on display, and the rhythm and rules of their world feel foreign, surreal and, at times, awkward. In this world, repartees are currency. Hypocrisy is wielded with the utmost force of intellectual weaponry. We’re in a world of pretension, but underneath it lies a deep anxiety: the characters fear they’re being rendered obsolete. 

What is so enduring about “Metropolitan,” the stuff of an antiquated niche tradition? 

Under its veneer of opulence, “Metropolitan” is one of the first true low-budget indie films in American cinema history. Stillman financed his directorial debut by selling his apartment. He used innovative guerrilla-style tactics to score locations that he couldn’t afford. He scraped together donated resources and cast first-time actors. With a budget of $225,000 and a grueling nights-only shooting schedule, it was the kind of project unheard of in 1990.

Even now, though, Stillman is reluctant to claim “Metropolitan” stood at the vanguard of indie filmmaking. “I was very impressed with the people that came before us,” he said. John Sayles, Spike Lee and Jim Jarmusch inspired his DIY approach. “They were doing this inclusive grab-bag of different things: do it yourself, and maybe it’ll be rough around the edges — and rough in the center — but really impressive with an economy of means,” he said. “It was about ‘less is more.'”

“It was everybody’s first film,” remembers Dylan Hundley, who landed the role of Sally on her first-ever audition. “We were often held in the basement of someone’s brownstone,” added Carolyn Farina, who plays Audrey, the most sensitive socialite among the group. “There was no furniture and we were all bitter cold. We were laying on the floor, cuddled up to one another like puppies.” Their pay was $20 per day, which Farina said most of the actors used to take cabs home.

The radical venture in economical filmmaking paid off. “We would joke around on set like, ‘Oh, right, wanna go to the Oscars? Oh right, wanna go to Cannes?'” said Hundley. “No one expected ‘Metropolitan’ to take off. But then off we went to Sundance and a New York Times article and then Cannes. It was an extremely active, wild and fun ride.”

“Metropolitan” stood in stark contrast to its compatriots at Sundance, where it premiered. The Audience Award winner that year, “Longtime Companion,” had a budget of $1.5 million, for example. But the differences weren’t simply budgetary. At that time, Sundance’s brand revolved around the championing of films that gave voices to the voiceless. The cast of “Metropolitan”— self-identified as UHB, or the “Urban Haute Bourgeoisie” — were not the typical Sundance fare.

“The term bourgeois,” says a character named Charlie in the movie, “has almost always been one of contempt, yet it is precisely the bourgeoisie which is responsible for everything good that has happened in our civilization.” Though the film derives much of its charm from lines like these, which showcase its sense of detached irony, the largely positive critical reception was splintered by some critics who panned Stillman for the inaccessibility of his subject matter. But most the audience found themselves grounded in the film’s universal elements: love, rejection, fear of failure, the contradictory nature of human beings, and the need to feel accepted and admired. “You can’t relate to the environment,” said Farina, “but you can relate to the human side of the story.”

For his part, Stillman thinks it’s wrong to review a film based on subject matter alone. “I mean, there are legitimate reasons to not like the film,” he said. “It is stilted; it is talky; not much happens. But I don’t think just disliking the subject matter counts as a good reason.”

Besides, Stillman approached the subject matter from an anthropological standpoint. It doesn’t exalt the world it depicts. The characters themselves know they’re anachronistic; they often refer to their world as a dying one, calling to mind the anxiety associated with the Lost Generation. “I just had a sense that the deb world is a lost world, and that it was going to vanish,” said Stillman. “That I’d seen it and I should preserve it somehow.” 

Ultimately, it wasn’t the one-percent that wound up vanishing. Who did vanish from the public eye were most of the film’s cast — and, to a certain extent, Stillman himself. Few of the cast members were able to follow up the success of “Metropolitan” with a fruitful acting career. Farina revealed that she never had a back-up plan, so when she wasn’t able to keep up the momentum with acting, she went back to school. “‘Metropolitan’ was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had in my life,” she said. “I miss acting every day. I know it’s pathetic to hear.” Hundley says that although “nothing I did ended up being as successful as ‘Metropolitan,'” she hopes to return to acting someday.
Stillman’s vanishing acts have been more intermittent in nature. In the 25 years since “Metropolitan,” he’s only directed five films. “The indie industry became sort of successful after ‘Metropolitan,'” he said. “There was a kind of boom; all these distributors were interested in buying films at Sundance.” The interest compounded, creating a bubble expanded by optimism and unfounded risk-taking. Of course, it burst, and Stillman said “it got really really bad for a long time, very conformist and industry-oriented, where you had to have stars, you had to do pre-sales.” This wasn’t an environment in which the director wanted to operate artistically. He added: “You can’t make a really original or new film on that basis.”
Despite its miraculous economy of means, when “Metropolitan” was initially released, its grosses didn’t demarcate it as a success in the Hollywood eye. Stillman remembers: “A studio chief/old film mogul type whom I met in the spring of ‘91 said he couldn’t believe that a film that only grossed $3 million was gonna be a success.” The film went on to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Screenplay and an Independent Spirit Award.
Today, of course, a profit of $2.5 million is a success any way you look at it. Other directors — notably, Noah Baumbach, Wes Anderson and Richard Linklater have all vocalized their influence — piggybacked on Stillman’s model, paving the way for a generation of independent filmmakers with big ideas but modest pockets. Furthermore, “Metropolitan” spawned the culture of mumblecore filmmaking, which Stillman describes as “minimalist, talky, and goofy.” It’s a genre frequented by Joe Swanberg, Harmony Korine, and Lena Dunham.
Whether or not Stillman will acknowledge the impact he had on indie filmmaking, the humble director can’t refute the place his film has secured in the American cultural canon. “I get a lot of people who say their first date was ‘Metropolitan,’ and they got married and have had kids,” said Stillman. “I hope the kids will come to the re-release.”

Rialto Pictures will re-release “Metropolitan” in New York on August 7 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and in Los Angeles on August 14 at Laemmle’s Royal. It will also be released nationwide throughout late summer and the fall. 

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