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How Whit Stillman Made the TV Leap, From 'Metropolitan' to Amazon, for 'The Cosmopolitans'

Photo of Liz Shannon Miller By Liz Shannon Miller | Indiewire August 28, 2014 at 10:22AM

For indie film fans, Whit Stillman's "Metropolitan" is an iconic celebration of a time gone by. But while Stillman's newest project, "The Cosmopolitans," echoes that film's distinctive dialogue and engaging characters, it has a much more modern origin story thanks to Amazon, which is premiering the "Cosmpolitans" pilot today as part of its ongoing experiment with original series. Prior to Amazon viewers and Stillman fans getting a chance to judge his latest work, Indiewire spoke with Stillman about how he and Amazon came to work together, getting beaten up on IMDB, wanting to work with Will Ferrell and the time he acted in a sex scene in Spain.
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Adam Brody in "The Cosmopolitans."
David Koskas/Amazon Studios Adam Brody in "The Cosmopolitans."

What's so interesting about you doing a series at this point in time is that television has now taken on this auteurish element. What is it like coming to television with your background?

I came from, in retrospect, ideal environments -- I did three films with the people at Castle Rock and that's the best place to work in film. They're just really nice, they're great. So, I had a dream experience in film when it happened, but I had that period of 10 years of all these projects not going forward in London. And they were not comedies, they were not really what people would think of me doing, and that was a real problem. A lot of people would say "Why is Whit Stillman doing this black '60s Jamaican film? Why is he doing a cultural revolution, lesbians in China, film?"

And I think a bit of it is my own fault. I became more of a writer working with properties. So there would be a book someone optioned and I would adapt it and maybe direct it. And you have all these moving carts... It's much better, like with "Metropolitan" and "Damsels," where we're doing a show, we're gonna put it on, we'll make it small enough so that if we just get a little bit of money from friends we can still make it. That has to be the psychology in film. You're going to do it, and it can be small.

What was really cool about "The Cosmopolitans" is the genetics of the project were really good. Amazon had a comedy department and they wanted to talk to me about doing a comedy -- or a half-hour I should say, because it's not all a comedy--

So Amazon very specifically came to you and said, "We want to do something that's like 'Metropolitan'"?

There's a "Metropolitan" element, a "Barcelona" element and a "Last Days of Disco" element, which perhaps is Chloe [Sevigny]. And from "Damsels" we have two of the cast, Carrie MacLemore and Adam Brody. So, all four films are in "The Cosmopolitans."

READ MORE: Amazon Greenlights Whit Stillman's Pilot 'The Cosmopolitans' and 'Hand of God' From Marc Forster

And Amazon wanted you to do ex-pats in Paris.

So there's two separate things. Quite a few years ago -- when they were just starting out -- they optioned "Metropolitan" as a puzzle template for a series or something. For various reasons, nothing happened with that. But we knew each other, I knew where they were coming from, I liked them and then when they were gearing up they thought I should do a half hour for them and it was an idea about doing something in Paris. 

I had lived in Paris thinking I could never do anything over there, except for maybe an indie film. And I was living and writing in Paris, and having a life in Paris and crazy experiences in Paris. But for work I'd take the Eurostar to London. My work orientation was either London or L.A.

How hard is it to shoot in Paris?

Our experience was optimum, ideal. Terrific crew. They'd say things like, "You know here we can only shoot, you know, a normal day." And I found that that is a really desirable way to shoot. With "Damsels," because it was such a low budget film, I didn't want to stress the crew. So we tried to do it with really no overtime.

"A little bit of information is dangerous in a filmmaker's hands." --Whit Stillman

So it was a very happy shoot. A very great crew, really nice crew. The only kind of tricky thing was the timing of location permits, getting the permits in early. But fortunately they brought the person doing the permits around to one of our delicious meals -- they were so well catered, delicious food -- and I found out from her that there was an exception for certain things, like three days because of a reduced crew. A little bit of information is dangerous in a filmmaker's hands.

For a lot of what you have done, you've been really lucky to shoot in the actual locations where scenes are set. Do you think you could ever shoot something that just took place entirely on a soundstage?

I mean, I would do it. I would do whatever anything takes, but I always found it a nightmare. I remember in "Last Days in Disco" we had a scene in the manuscript room, the two girls are there in the manuscript room, and the crew had this idea. The cinematographer wanted to remove the walls and we'd be able to do everything and I found it such a nightmare. It just always looked terrible, and we were always trying to figure out the geography.

"The Last Days of Disco"
"The Last Days of Disco"

Then, on the other hand, the worst location they thought was the railroad apartment in "Last Days of Disco" because it was tiny, unbelievably. We had to bring these cameras up, and we were all packed in. We were all sort of sitting in the bed together and the actors really all came together when we were shooting there. It was so real. The performances all got up to speed. And I remember the wardrobe designer asked me what shoes the actresses should be wearing, and I said there's no possible way we could ever see somebody's feet in this location. 

In general, do you feel like actors respond better to real locations?

I really like real locations. I think they're great. But I don't know. That's part of my ignorance. I have really very little set experience. I guess anything can work. I guess the moveable walls is what I didn't like. Because that becomes disorienting. But I will sound like an ignoramus because I've shot so little. More experienced people say, "What a faker."

I want to go back to actors you brought over from your previous work -- Adam Brody and Carrie MacLemore, they came over from "Damsels in Distress"...

And Chloe was coming from "Last Days in Disco."

I really liked Carrie MacLemore. She's wonderful.

Her family invited me down to the premiere of "Damsels" in Montgomery, Alabama, and I found out about her Alabama background and put that in ["The Cosmopolitans"]: She mentioned that her grandfather had said they had seven "blood cousins" who died in the Civil War. So I put that in. I don't know what that even means, but I can imagine what it means. It's so Southern. So, it's cool knowing the actors. There's another joke about, "Where do they come from, Albuquerque or San Diego?" -- Adam comes from San Diego. There's a lot of that.

In bringing in actors who you've worked with before, is there a comfort in knowing that they have an understanding of how your dialogue works?

Yes. For instance, with the actor Chris Eigeman, who I did many projects with, we really had like one scene on set in "Metropolitan" where we worked a lot to get the character. And after that there was no more direction, really. It was just him doing his thing.

Are there actors that you would have loved to work with, but they just didn't get your rhythm?

No. No. I really would have loved to work with Will Ferrell, and I got to meet him once. I had a meal with him, and he is so so funny.

What would your Will Ferrell project have been?

You know what, I tried to do an audition piece for a Will Ferrell film in "Damsels." I thought the frat stuff was showing that I could get into that world.

No luck so far?

"I think Americans do stupidity better than anyone." --Whit Stillman

No. I think he has his own collaborators, who are very good, who he works with, but I love what they do. I think "Blades of Glory" was one of the most sensational things he's ever done. And the first "Anchorman." The second "Anchorman" was good too, but the first was... And "Old School" is great. I just enjoy that persona. I think Americans do stupidity better than anyone. That's actually how I started in the film business. I got to play the stupid American in Spanish films. So yeah, yeah. It's like a thing. We can fight their wars and we can be stupid on cue.

When you were playing the stupid American, was it a lot of saying stupid things or were you falling down a lot as well?

No. I didn't get to fall down, I don't think. I got a sex scene, actually.

How was that?

Rather eye-opening.

How explicit do the sex scenes get in Spanish films?

It was a comedy. The actor wasn't wearing a shirt, that was definitely true.

So for "Cosmopolitans," were these characters you've been toying around with for, potentially, a film?

Exactly. I had one related TV project, where I was told I had to relocate the characters to New York, and so that sort of took those characters that way. But this one, you know, certain European characters you can definitely do here. 

The two things that I have written that are really based on actual fun experiences are "Metropolitan" and "The Cosmopolitans." What I mean is that they were two times where I was put into a naturally cinematic and traumatic situation, that was objectively interesting, with people who were really entertaining. I was hugely helped, with "Metropolitan," by the fact that I happened to fall in with people who were very, very funny. And they're still funny. I see them now and they're just hilarious. And I'm like, "You're giving this away? You could be on the standup circuit."

It's surprising that you haven't really found a niche in TV before, because the thing I find with the great TV shows is that it doesn't necessarily matter what's happening plot-wise, if you just want to hang out with those people on a weekly basis. And that's something that really comes out in your work, is that you create characters that people want to know.  

I think you are absolutely right. At the beginning of my starvation period I actually had some good opportunities in TV. I think that it was right when "Sex and the City" was starting, but the problem was that no one wanted to do my version, which would have been "Sexless in the City." I could have, or should have, started it then.

Have you felt really liberated with Amazon?

Umm. I mean, that isn't the word I'd use. I had a really great creative experience with the executives I work with. It's a very, very positive collaboration. Very intense. I had a dream experience in cinema, too, because I worked with Rob Reiner's company Castle Rock and they were absolutely dream people to work with. So, it wouldn't be liberating for me because with "Metropolitan," I could do whatever I want -- no one else was around. Liberation wouldn't be the word, but it was very good creatively. 

Director Whit Stillman (center) with Carrie MacLemore, Chloe Sevigny, Jordan Rountree and the cast of "The Cosmopolitans."
David Koskas/Amazon Studios Director Whit Stillman (center) with Carrie MacLemore, Chloe Sevigny, Jordan Rountree and the cast of "The Cosmopolitans."

This show is really tight. I get beaten up on IMDb really badly, and it's always these people saying, "So boring, it's so boring, it's so slow." "Cosmopolitans" is pretty fast. The pace is pretty tight. There are not a lot of holes in this. And that's working in close collaboration with [Amazon executives] Joe [Lewis] and Sarah [Babineau]. 

One thing that was very positive was that they were on set. I had never really had anyone on set, but it was really fortunate because there were changes I wanted to make and I needed to make and there's a lot of changing going on. It was very fortunate that everyone involved was there at one point or another. 

What kind of decisions were you running past them?

I can't really talk about everything, but it was really good. The story changed and things changed.

On a script level?

Yes. And it was my choice, you know, it also was them making suggestions. Chloe gets over there and they were loving what she was doing, but they wanted more. So they said, can we have more Chloe, and I wrote that scene -- that Civil War scene -- and I think it's the best scene in the show. We did a screening on a big screen with a lot of people and that seemed to go really well. But [the scene] was in reaction to them wanting more Chloe in the pilot. And I always liked having more of Aubrey (played by MacLemore) not being sad. Aubrey in the first half of the show has to be sad, but it's nice not having to see her sad for a little bit.

For this project, you're trying to pitch it not just to executives, but to the viewing audience. From your perspective, are you coming at this, like, "I need to show potential viewers what kind of show this can be?"

I do think that the heartbreak aspect of it -- romantic heartbreak -- could be a show theme. You see a lot of it. There are heartbreaks in the States, but they are arriving in Paris to discover some heartbreak right there. And so I think that's maybe a good thematic line for a series. In fact, in this promo we just did, our promise is "more heartbreak to come." 

You mentioned looking at your IMDb reviews earlier. How much are you going to dig into the Amazon reviews?

I mean, I look at everything. I'm a procrastinator so I have to find things to procrastinate about. I'm very optimistic about "The Cosmopolitans" -- I think that people are taking it well. I think, "What's there not to like about it?" But, at the same time, I was optimistic about "Damsels in Distress," and "Damsels in Distress" attracted some really sincere hatred. Some really passionate hatred. And all these people, they attack it like it's the worst thing ever made, but then they say they walked out after 15 minutes. What is engendering this passion? 

I have two self-protecting, self-absolving explanations. One is that "Damsels in Distress" is the truly most shocking and controversial film of our times. People think "12 Years a Slave" is tough viewing. But no, it's really "Damsels in Distress" that's really the hard, shocking film that's gonna change people -- it challenges people's point of view. That's one thing. 

"The reason that you have to keep making projects is that there's a certain group of people who always like what you did before better than what you do now."

The other thing is that it's a comedy with a key and we ran out of keys. The reason that you have to keep making projects is that there's a certain group of people who always like what you did before better than what you do now. It's always something in the past that was better. And so, the only way to have your past films upgraded is to come out with something now. I noticed that since "Damsels" came out and is taking all these hits, "Barcelona" and "Disco," which had suffered on IMDb, had shot up. 

When you're someone creating something that is so distinctly unique and your own, which I would imagine is the goal, does that come with an awareness that not everyone is going to love it?

Yeah. I'm getting that idea. I'm getting that message. One of the problems I think is that, particularly in low budget sectors, you talk to a lot of press and then people get to know about you as a person or they think they know your biography and where you come from. The first thing I did was "Metropolitan," which was very rarified. So now people see the rarified sociology of "Metropolitan" everywhere. And I don't think in the other films it's necessarily true. 

Sometimes you get stuck in a certain sociology that's not really of your own doing. I remember there was a really good Woody Allen film and an important critic and an important publication just destroyed the film because the apartments the characters were in were just impossibly big for the characters in New York. The whole review was about how the apartments were too big and people didn't really have such big apartments in New York. First, who cares? Second, there are people in New York who one way or another have a big apartment without having tons of money. They have a rent-controlled apartment from their grandmother that they tricked people into letting them keep. Or whatever. That was "Melinda and Melinda," and I really liked it. It was Chloe and Will Ferrell.

Is that how you fell into Will's work?

No. It just impressed me even more because I think he's the only person -- the only male comic actor who came into a Woody Allen project and did something absolutely great and it was not Woody Allen.

Adam Brody prays in a Paris street with Carrie MacLemore and Adriano Giannini in "The Cosmopolitans."
David Koskas/Amazon Studios Adam Brody prays in a Paris street with Carrie MacLemore and Adriano Giannini in "The Cosmopolitans."

If "Cosmopolitans" doesn't go as a series…

I have another film shooting this fall, in Dublin. It's a Jane Austen project. It's with Chloe and Sienna Miller and a beautiful young cast. And some established British actors in some of the older parts. And it's really a great project. I've always been fascinated by Jane Austen and this is something that made sense to do. It's called "Love and Friendship" and we expect to be shooting in November.

Meanwhile, if the show doesn't go forward, how would you look back on the experience of making it?

I'm absolutely delighted to have done it. And I'm just so happy with it just as its own thing. This is its own little thing. I said to somebody that it will make my IMDb page look less pathetic, because I only have a couple of projects -- four features and an episode of a TV series. And so I'll have another thing to attract vicious comments.

This article is related to: Whit Stillman, The Cosmopolitans, Metropolitan, Chloe Sevigny, Amazon Studios, Adam Brody





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