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Whit Stillman’s ‘Metropolitan’ 25 Years Later: How it Become a Surprise Indie Hit

Whit Stillman's 'Metropolitan' 25 Years Later: How it Become a Surprise Indie Hit

When Whit Stillman’s “Metropolitan” hit theaters in 1990, it seemed like an overnight success.

But the low-budget film about a group of self-proclaimed “urban haute bourgeoisie” in Manhattan hardly had an easy time making it into the world. On the occasion of its 25th anniversary re-release, Indiewire recently spoke to Stillman and cast members Carolyn Farina, Taylor Nichols and Chris Eigeman, who reflected on the challenges — and joys — of making the film.

READ MORE: Whit Stillman’s ‘Metropolitan’ to Get 25th Anniversary Re-Release

Set “not so long ago” during winter vacation on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, “Metropolitan” follows young Ivy League student Tom Townsend (Edward Clements), who falls in with a clique of upper-crust preppies (portrayed by Farina, Nichols, Eigeman, Bryan Leder, Will Kempe, Elizabeth Thompson, Dylan Hundley, Isabel Gillies and Allison Parisi) who attend winter debutante balls.

The low-budget film shot in borrowed townhouses around Manhattan with a cast of first-time film actors and a first-time writer-director, “Metropolitan” seemed to indicate that anybody could make a film and get it distributed.

In fact, writer-director Whit Stillman was so green that he brought a copy of the book “How to Direct A Movie” to the set with him. 

“Chapter nine was screen direction and I couldn’t quite figure it out,” Stillman told Indiewire. “I said to the cinematographer John Thomas and Brian Greenbaum, the line producer, ‘You guys worry about screen direction. I’m not going to think about eyelines and screen direction. I just can’t get it in my head.'”

Before undertaking his first feature, Stillman had made videos for public access TV, including a mock travelogue called “Earthly Eden: The East 50th Street Story.” While running an illustration agency in the mid-late ‘80s, Stillman wrote the screenplay for “Metropolitan.” He had started writing “Barcelona,” which would eventually become his sophomore feature, but realized that it would be a lot easier to shoot his first film in his home city where he could call in some favors. 

“Essentially, it could be minimalistic. It could just be people very dressed up at an after-party and have people talking,” he said.

Stillman had finished the script in August, 1988 but, according to the director’s commentary on the Criterion Collection Blu-Ray of “Metropolitan,” he knew enough about the film industry to realize that he wouldn’t have any luck finding investors. Instead, he funded the film with the $50,000 he made from selling his insider’s right to an apartment (it’s a New York thing) before raising more money along the way. The idea was to keep it as low-budget as possible.

In the pre-internet days, an audition notice in Backstage magazine was industry standard and the notice for “Metropolitan” attracted hundreds of actors to the audition. Among them were the bulk of young actors who would make up the cast. “Chris Eigeman, Carolyn Farina and Allison Parisi were all among the first 50 people that showed up in the first audition and Taylor Nichols was in the second audition,” Stillman recalled. Dylan Hundley and Isabel Gillies came from the rarefied world the film depicted. Stillman found them through a talent search through the New York private school world.

“The ad said ‘anybody who could reasonably play in their twenties,'” Eigeman, who played the cocky Nick, recalled. He expected a huge crowd and was hesitant to attend until he realized it was half a block from his home. “I figured I could just go back and hang out at my apartment if I had to wait — and that’s what I did,” he said. “I got there in the morning, and my number was actually called sometime mid-afternoon. And it was a series of auditions. It was a very traditional way of getting a job back then.”

Looking back, Stillman and the cast members agree that their inexperience forged an immediate bond. “I wasn’t nervous because we were all first-timers, pretty much. We couldn’t have access to or afford people who were established,” said Stillman.

Eigeman can’t remember how much he was paid for the film. “There’s no way I made any money off the movie,” he said. “I’m sure I spent whatever money I had in subway tokens just to get to set.”

At the time, he was parking cars as a valet at The River Cafe. “If we were shooting nights, I’d tend to work the afternoon shift,” Eigeman said. “For everybody, the movie was just an exercise in sleep deprivation because we shot almost entirely nights. I was parking cars, asleep on my sofa, or in a tuxedo.”

Taylor Nichols, who plays Charlie in the film, recalled, “I think we got paid $20 a day to shoot the movie, and I worked 28 days. We were working at night a lot of those times. We used to fall asleep because there’s a lot of waiting around and being in other parts of the scene that we’re not in. I was still waiting tables for part of the movie, so I would have to wake up early and wait tables or go to a dancing class or an acting class occasionally.”

Carolyn Farina, who was cast as the female lead, the thoughtful, romantic Audrey Roget, was working as a clerk at Macy’s when she saw the ad in Backstage. “It was basically a cattle call,” she said. “I think I was the fourth or fifth person there. I was very early and I
watched the crowd build and build to hundreds of people.” 

The audition was so crowded that Nichols said he almost didn’t stick around. “I had planned to meet a girl from acting class at a bar, and I was really on the fence about it. Do I stay in this long line to read for this movie that I know nothing about, or do I just split and go meet this girl from acting class?” he said. “I ended up staying and I’m glad I did, because it was really a fun process, the casting.”

Farina said she fell in love with the script, which involved sophisticated banter and references to Jane Austen and Charles Fourier. “I
thought it was awesome. I loved it. I thought, what a great story, what
interesting people, and they’re so smart,” she said. “As I was reading, I imagined all
these beautiful places and beautiful costumes. It was such a sweet story, so
innocent. It very much appealed to me. I was very nervous about doing it
because I didn’t feel worthy.”

For a low-budget film, “Metropolitan” featured many locations — including interiors at a number of New York apartment buildings and the exterior of The Plaza Hotel. “All the locations were either asking people for favors or people that I knew asking friends of friend for favors,” said Stillman. Cast member Hundley’s father allowed the production to shoot in his townhouse and a research foundation let them shoot in another location. With The Plaza, it was a bit trickier. “We had permission to have our camera on the street in from of The Plaza and the buildings of New York do not control the rights to their facades. Anything that you can see from the street is fair game,” Stillman said.

Eigeman recalled memories of “sneaking around Plaza Hotel, because we were essentially stealing shots with walkie talkies in our pockets telling us to go because the camera’s rolling. The whole thing, it just felt like this insane lark.”

The costumes came through when the film’s assistant director charmed the head of AT Harris Formalwear. “He agreed to give us all the suits and he agreed to let us shoot there and to play the tailor. He said that he got so much business off the film that he could buy a country house,” said Stillman. “See, it really does pay to help out filmmakers!” (Sadly, the legendary store has since closed).

The film’s costume designer Mary Jane Fort, originally from Chattanooga, Tennessee, “got her friends to send their cotillion dresses up to New York,” according to Stillman. The other dresses were hired from a party dress rental place.

“I think I had been in a tuxedo once in my life before that movie,” said Eigeman.

Farina said the young cast bonded easily, partially because they were all sleep-deprived and freezing. “It was a very special experience and I think that is why it comes through as special and charming because as we were doing it, it felt that way,” said Farina. “It was always filmed in the middle of the night. It felt like we were the only people up. Every time we filmed outside, it was always zero degrees, so we were always huddled together in some doorway or in somebody’s basement. There was a romance to it. I think that is what people feel when they see it.”

The film was shot on Super 16, which Stillman called “a nightmare.” Some of the footage was less than optimal and they ended up having to work around it. “We had a first scene that we never thought was good,” he said. “We tried cutting it and then the second scene seemed bad. We cut the second scene and then the third scene seemed bad. There’s really funky stuff. That was a favorite word of our cinematographer John Thomas, ‘funky.'” But Stillman added that the scenes in question came at the beginning of the film, which may have helped. “Maybe it was good at lowering expectations,” he joked.

The cast certainly didn’t expect much would come of “Metropolitan.” “It just didn’t occur to anybody that this film was going to be seen on such a scale. I think the prevailing wisdom was, maybe this could get released, maybe, but I wouldn’t bet on it,” said Eigeman.

Nichols didn’t think the film would ever be seen by a broad audience. “Chris [Eigeman] and I both talked like, ‘I don’t think my mother would even go to see this movie,'” he said. “And the funny part about that is when my mom and dad did see it, they saw it at the Cannes Film Festival.”

Despite the “funky” aspects of the filmmaking, Stillman had high expectations for “Metropolitan.” “Every time you make a film, you think it’s the best thing ever made and you think it’ll be this huge success and box office and hundred million dollars, and it’s really optimistic,” he said. He recalled that they could only afford one audience screening. “It was undermined by the fact that the assistant editor had flipped a frame, so we had an upside down taxi in one scene, which kind of took the air out of the screening,” Stillman said. But other than that upside down taxi, the film was well received. 

Still, nobody wanted to buy it. “We were rejected by absolutely everyone and we went to the tiniest distributor in the world to try and get them interested in our film and they weren’t interested,” said Stillman. “They said that there was no marketing hook. Everyone rejected us.” Orion Classics, which would later become Sony Pictures Classics, was one of the few to make an offer on the film, but with no advance. “That was the best we did,” Stillman said. “We were rejected by Sundance [after the film screened at the IFP’s Independent Feature Film Market], because why would you be interested in these characters?”

Luckily, the film did have some vocal industry supporters — including, ironically, Orion Classics’ Tom Bernard and Michael Barker, as well as producer’s rep Ira Deutchman, who signed on before the IFP market screening.

“I got a call from Tony Safford [who was the director of programming at the US Film Festival — later known as the Sundance Film Festival] saying he liked the film and wanted to show it, but that he was outvoted by the committee, which didn’t think the film was appropriate for what was then still programming mostly regional and minority films,” Deutchman told Indiewire. “I joked with Tony that ‘Metropolitan’ was indeed a minority film and that it dealt with a subculture that should be represented. We had a long conversation in which I convinced him to go back to the committee, which he did and the film got accepted.”

When the film eventually
screened at Sundance, film critics Roger Ebert, Vincent Canby and Peter
Travers liked it — as did Lindsay Law at PBS’ “American Playhouse,” who
bought the broadcast rights, allowing Stillman to pay his lab bill.

Risher and Bob Shaye of New Line Cinema saw the film and said they enjoyed it, but,
according to Stillman, “it was still considered too small for them.” 

The film
then got into both MoMA’s prestigious New Directors/New Films series
and the Cannes Film Festival. Screening at the Directors Fortnight at
Cannes helped raise its visibility in a way that few other festivals could have. “That was a godsend, because in that
period the Directors’ Fortnight was the key place for American comedy,
any comedy. [Jim Jarmusch’s] ‘Stranger Than Paradise’ had been in it;
Bill Forsyth’s ‘Local Hero’ had been in it, [Spike Lee’s] ‘She’s Gotta
Have It’ was in it, so that was the key place to show and it really
worked well,” said Stillman.

“Ironically Tony Safford had resigned from Sundance and was hired as acquisitions person for New Line. It was Tony who bought the film for New Line on the eve of The New York Times review coming out, which turned out to be a rave. I was the one who sold it to him. As part of the deal I was hired as a Marketing Consultant to work on the film, which I did in conjunction with the New Line marketing team,” said Deutchman. A year later when New Line created its arthouse division Fine Line, Deutchman was hired to head it.  “I used to joke that I sold ‘Metropolitan’ to New Line and that I got thrown in with the deal,” he said.

New Line released
“Metropolitan” on August 3, 1990. Budgeted at
$225,000, it went on to gross close to $3 million and was nominated for an
Academy Award for Best Screenplay as well as an Independent Spirit
Award. Even more significantly, it helped lay the ground work for the
independent film movement of the ’90s as well as the films of Wes
Anderson and Noah Baumbach.

Twenty-five years later, Eigeman said, “I was
amazed that the film got out, and was seen ever. I don’t think anybody
had that expectation. So, yeah, it’s been an amazing series of

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. 

READ MORE: How Whit Stillman Made the TV Leap, From ‘Metropolitan’ to Amazon, for ‘The Cosmopolitans’

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