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Whit Stillman On Why His Comeback, 'Damsels in Distress,' Was Born Out of Rejection

Photo of Nigel M Smith By Nigel M Smith | Indiewire April 4, 2012 at 1:23PM

After a 14-year absence from feature filmmaking, Whit Stillman -- the beloved chronicler of preppy, privileged and highly literate youth -- makes his comeback this Friday with the release of "Damsels in Distress." Despite his time away from the big screen, Stillman hasn't been resting on his laurels. He tried (and failed) to get a number projects off the ground, including an adaptation of Christopher Buckley's political satire "Little Green Men" and "Dancing Mood," a period piece about the Kingston, Jamaica church music scene (he told Indiewire he still hopes to get that last one made). In addition, he also penned the novel "The Last Days of Disco, with Cocktails at Petrossian," based on his last film to hit theaters, "The Last Days of Disco." Those familiar with Stillman's brand of wordy quirk and knack for doing wonders with ensemble casts will no doubt respond well to "Damsels." The film finds Stillman in familiar territory, exploring the dynamic between a group of verbose and driven female students at an East Coast college, with whimsical glee. Indie darling Greta Gerwig ("Greenberg") stars as Violet, the leader of the pack, who heads a group at college that seeks to help severely depressed students with a program of good hygiene and upbeat musical dance numbers. Analeigh Tipton ("Crazy Stupid Love") plays transfer student Lily, a doe-eyed beauty whom Violet welcomes into their brood.
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Sony Pictures Classics Whit Stillman on the set of "Damsels in Distress"

After a 14-year absence from feature filmmaking, Whit Stillman -- the beloved chronicler of preppy, privileged and highly literate youth -- makes his comeback this Friday with the release of "Damsels in Distress."

Despite his time away from the big screen, Stillman hasn't been resting on his laurels. He tried (and failed) to get a number projects off the ground, including an adaptation of Christopher Buckley's political satire "Little Green Men" and "Dancing Mood," a period piece about the Kingston, Jamaica church music scene (he told Indiewire he still hopes to get that last one made). In addition, he also penned the novel "The Last Days of Disco, with Cocktails at Petrossian," based on his last film to hit theaters, "The Last Days of Disco."

Those familiar with Stillman's brand of wordy quirk and knack for doing wonders with ensemble casts will no doubt respond well to "Damsels." The film finds Stillman in familiar territory, exploring the dynamic between a group of verbose and driven female students at an East Coast college, with whimsical glee.

Indie darling Greta Gerwig ("Greenberg") stars as Violet, the leader of the pack, who heads a group at college that seeks to help severely depressed students with a program of good hygiene and upbeat musical dance numbers. Analeigh Tipton ("Crazy Stupid Love") plays transfer student Lily, a doe-eyed beauty whom Violet welcomes into their brood.

Stillman sat down with Indiewire in New York to talk "Damsels" and how a tale about women in their early 20's actually hits close to home.

First things first: Welcome back!

Thanks a lot.

What's going through your head right now? The film comes out this Friday after a lot of tinkering on your part following its world premiere at Venice last year.

Even today I was looking at the HD transfer. I mean, it's been a fairly great couple of weeks/days. We're still waiting for the daily reviews. I think the film will have an audience. From an audience point of view, the reception seems to be positive.

Violet is quite the creation. From the outset, Lily appears to be the heroine of "Damsels," but once Violet goes through some heartbreak she comes out as the film's MVP.

I always thought that people would think she's a protagonist and like her from the beginning, because I liked her from the beginning. But then I realized, as I was working on the film and showing it to people, that we had a more complex journey to take on the film, a more complex route to the end. Part of it was that people are sort of conditioned -- with characters like Violet and her posse -- to have their hackles raised because they've seen "Mean Girls."

Also, I meant to have the Lily character very pretty in a sexy, sexy way, but not very likable. Analeigh has likeability and a naturalness that makes Lily that much more compelling. So that created a problem.  

Were films like "Mean Girls" and "Clueless" in your head while making this?

This is much more "Rushmore" I think. I didn't think about that until I was done. The easy thing would have been "Clueless" and "Mean Girls," but I think that's a false lead. And "Rushmore" is also much better in comparison.

Sony Pictures Classics Whit Stillman's "Damsels in Distress"
Even though 14 years have gone by since your last film, your latest is still about folks in their early 20's. What is it about youth that keeps you coming back?

A lot of it is happenstance. I just had the idea of doing "Metropolitan" because I was in my thirties and I was looking back and I find it easier to write about a past period when I have hazy memories of the time and can reinvent it in fiction. Then I went to the next phase of life and I got "Barcelona," and then I wanted to do something about girls in disco techs.

We were kind of criticized for "Disco" and "Barcelona" because the characters were kind of young, callow and philosophizing. It's okay when they're [the age of the characters in] "Metropolitan," but as the characters got older, it's different.

[With "Damsels"] I had an idea about these girls, and I'd heard some stories about groups on college campuses who are able to change the atmosphere. So I was getting back on home turf of that crossroads period of identity formation, and I was very depressed during part of my university experience, but then I overcame that, and I felt that my personality and talents came out of that crucible.

I do have two other films I hope to do that don't have much to do with that age group. I think 16-30 is a very interesting period. If you're doing more dramatic films, it makes sense, but generally at college age, you're making your pre-life choices. Theoretically, in the old days, people used to get engaged and married right out of college. That doesn't happen much anymore. But I still meet people who meet at that age and stay together.

Sony Pictures Classics Whit Stillman's "Damsels in Distress."
It's interesting to note that the two films you tried to get off the ground -- the political satire "Little Green Men" and the period piece "Dancing Moon" -- marked big departures for you. "Damsels" is in many ways a love letter to your fans.

I couldnt't get financing for stuff that was different. People couldn't imagine me doing the "revolution in China" film.

Both "Disco" and now "Damsels" prove that you have a knack for creating wonderfully complex roles for women.

It really has appealed to me. We were criticized in "Barcelona" because it was all about the male characters, but that was just happenstance. And the next film I wanted to make was about female characters.

But I do find that the Audrey character in "Metropolitan" is really compelling. I felt at some point that these guys who were entertaining them were characters, but the situation in "Metropolitan" that was most touching was the Audrey situation.

When I was doing "Barcelona," which has male protagonists, I thought the most cinematic thing I could do after was pretty girls dancing in discos. I really liked that description. And so I had two female protagonists, and I really liked working with those characters.

I find it really liberating to write from a woman's point of view. And the Violet character is as close to my concerns and my story. She's the most personal character I've done; the one I'm closest to. In a romantic comedy, the woman's situation is the most interesting. The guy's situation isn't. He just has to call up a girl. I have another story that's just totally female, but that's just happenstance.

When did you write the script for "Damsels"?

This script was actually the fastest, easiest writing job I've had. I couldn't start writing until after the WGA strike, and I had all this other work to write at the same time, so I was only doing it off and on. I started in Spring of 2008 and I finished in December 2009.

"Well, the tailspin I had was fortuitous. I got the contract to write a film and then five days later, I was brutally dumped. I was speaking to the woman afterwards, and I said, 'Thank you for giving me the story to my movie.'"
Violet really comes into her own as a character after experiencing what she refers to as a 'tailspin,' after getting dumped. Maybe I'm reading into it too much, but how much of what you went through during your 14 year absence played into her transition?

Well, the tailspin I had was fortuitous. I got the contract to write a film and then five days later, I was brutally dumped. I was speaking to the woman afterwards, and I said, "Thank you for giving me the story to my movie."

I had the idea for all the girls, but I didn't know what would happen to them or where they would go. I've been rejected a lot in my life, but that one was out of a long relationship and it was completely out of the blue. I'd never had that experience, and it's really dramatic. I remember reading things that both sides of a breakup are hard, but I'm sorry, getting dumped is infinitely worse than sliding out of something.

When I don't want to be committed to someone, I try not to make it dramatic. I try to ease out of it and help them along. And then to not be treated that way really gave me a story. I hope I don't have to be clobbered that way. I'd rather not make another movie than have it be like that.

Even though it's essentially a break-up story, and was born out of this dark period, "Damsels" is still a very upbeat film. You described it as "utopian" in an interview with the Village Voice.

All of the three films have an element of utopian versions of love. "Barcelona" is a utopian version of being abroad. "Disco" is a utopian version of nightlife. "Metropolitan" is definitely the utopian version of the season. This one is just a full-on utopia.

These girls are self-conscious utopians and that's one reason why it's set in the present, because they're trying to create a future we haven't come to, where the samba is an international dance craze. They are constructing their utopia out of something that they know to have been nice. They take elements of the past as their utopia. They like the style of Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn from the 50's and 60's. They're going to create their experience out of that kind of material, creating the retro-utopia that's about to emerge.

Is their version of utopia something you'd like to see one day come to fruition?

Yeah, but I think utopia is something you can kind of live in. When we go around the world, we can see what we choose to see and interpret it how we choose to interpret it. I think we create our own little utopias.

If there's something really upsetting on TV, we don't have to watch it. I remember when reality TV started, it reminded me of the story of Indians who had a superstition about photography because it would steal their soul. There's an element of TV that I worry about if people are dehumanizing themselves by being photographed on TV this way. But there's the reality TV that is essentially a talent contest, and that is an age-old thing that's really very creative. My daughter liked watching "Project Runway." She likes watching these cooking competitions, and I think that's great. They're creating something, you can learn something. So there's sort of positive reality TV and then the kind of reality TV that you worry about...stuff like "The Bachelor" and "Big Brother." Then these things like "Ice Road Truckers" and "Big Tuna," gosh those are interesting worlds, and if they're not faking it. It's interesting to see these people. That's real.

No surprise then that you cast Analeigh, herself a runner-up on "America's Next Top Model."

That's a talent contest, that's real. And she was really charming on that.  That's not her identity in the sense that, "Oh she's a model and now she's trying to be an actress." No, she's essentially a performer, and she just got a gig on some modeling show.

What's next for you?

I have a thing that is under wraps and I hope it will get off the ground faster than the four-year process. And then I hope I'll do the Jamaican thing after that.
 

This article is related to: Interviews, Whit Stillman, Damsels in Distress