Whit Stillman Returns At Last With Amusing But Tame "Damsels in Distress"
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.