Whit Stillman looks back on his 'identity comedies'
Twenty-five years ago, writer-director Whit Stillman released his first film, the romantic, ironic comedy Metropolitan, which screened at both Sundance and Cannes in 1990 and picked up a Best Original Screenplay nomination for Stillman at the Oscars the following year.
To commemorate the indie classic’s quarter-century, Rialto Pictures is giving Metropolitan a weeklong theatrical re-release starting in New York on Friday and in Los Angeles and Silver Spring, MD a week later on Aug. 14.
In celebration of the movie’s return to screens, EW spoke to Stillman about all of his work thus far — four films and an Amazon series pilot, with another feature on the way — starting, of course, with Metropolitan, where it all began.
Metropolitan follows Tom Townsend, a Princeton student who falls in with a group of wealthy college freshmen, at home in New York while on winter break from school and making the most of debutante ball season. Middle-class, socialist-leaning Tom is something of an outsider in the group, but while he maintains his own ambivalence about his inclusion in it, he can’t seem to stay away.
In a memorable scene, Charlie, a member of the Sally Fowler Rat Pack, as the group calls itself, comes up with another snappy label by which they and their ilk can refer to themselves: the Urban Haute Bourgeoisie, or UHB. “Is our language so impoverished that we have to use acronyms of French phrases to make ourselves understood?” one of the girls asks him. “Yes,” Charlie replies, without missing a beat.
Stillman’s godfather, E. Digby Baltzell, coined the term WASP in the 1960s, so “I was sort of immersed in terms like that,” says Stillman (who critics have sometimes called the ‘WASP Woody Allen’). “It seemed to me that there could be a new shorthand term that this character could invent and try to use that would be not ethnically based and not sort of in-group, snobbish-based.”
It’s not just the UHB, either: Stillman’s characters throughout his work are obsessed with defining and labeling themselves accurately. “I see them as sort of identity comedies,” Stillman says of his work, which many critics have referred to as “comedies of manners” — a term that he doesn’t fully accept, just as his characters reject “prep” or “yuppie.”
“I think the films come out of identity crisis, and I guess it’s one reason why I like, generally, having young characters. Because I think it’s interesting, the crossroads people have to choose from when they’re younger… It’s on every plane, so in terms of romance, personal life, work life, etc.”
Stillman wrote his second feature, 1994’s Barcelona, concurrently with Metropolitan, but decided to make the latter film first, as it could be done more cheaply and in New York, where he was living at the time.
Barcelona brings back Metropolitan’s Chris Eigeman and Taylor Nichols, this time playing a pair of cousins, Americans living in the film’s title city. Stillman had spent time in Spain and in fact got married in Barcelona, and he was also inspired by his own cousin, who had been with the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean.
“[He] had all sorts of interesting observations about the level of anti-Americanism there,” Stillman says. “One of his observations was that…if [people] looked like people from their country, they were actually very sympathetic to American Americans. Many of those people were older, had memories of the war, and were positive about America. But if they dressed just like Americans, if they had jeans and looked just like us, then they were very anti-American.”
Stillman recalls the shoot as being “chaotic,” but “one of the really good days, the really happy days of the shoot was in a disco in Barcelona… We had the music going a lot, for the dancing. It was really fun for the crew, and it was a really great day for us,” he says, “and the girls just looked terrific in it — Tushka Bergen and Mira Sorvino, they really looked delightful dancing in this disco, and I thought, ‘you know, beautiful young women in a nightclub — that’s cinematic.’”
That revelation brought him to 1998’s The Last Days of Disco, the final film in what Stillman would later call his “doomed-bourgeois-in-love trilogy.” Chloë Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale star as two recent college graduates and disco-lovers who live and work together in New York in the early 1980s, where they frequent a popular nightclub reminiscent of Studio 54.
When Stillman was writing Disco, “one of the salient things with this very, extremely popular nightclub is you’d run into people you knew from different times of your life,” he says, “so the idea of linking the two other films through the disco came up” — and characters from Metropolitan and Barcelona make brief appearances.
One of the funniest, sharpest scenes in The Last Days of Disco is an earnest analysis of Lady and the Tramp, argued between Josh, an idealistic lawyer who insists that the Scotty dog is more deserving of Lady’s love, and Des (Eigeman, who plays a different shallow, fast-talking semi-sleaze in each of the three films), who defends — and clearly identifies with — Tramp.
When dialogue is going to discuss culture, Stillman explains, “It’s really important to have subjects that people all over the world are familiar with, and the Disney films are really great that way.” He also had very strong feelings about it. “There is this sort of model in romantic stories that Lady and the Tramp exhibits in a sort of primary form,” he says, “but it’s in tons and tons of films kind of glamorizing the Tramp characters — and at that point, I was very hostile to Tramp,” he admits. “I was very keen on Scotty dogs.”
After a 13-year break, 2011 brought Damsels in Distress, which stars Greta Gerwig as Violet, a college student and leader of a singular clique of girls. Gerwig, Stillman says, was “the ideal find,” and she collaborated with Stillman to create Violet, who, Stillman admits, is “a very difficult character to portray.”
All of Stillman’s films feature dancing. “It’s one of those things that you can put into a romantic film that is sort of visual and nonverbal,” he says. “[It] can sort of heighten everything about it, aesthetically and emotionally and romantically. Also I like music, and I like dancing.”
In Damsels in Distress, Violet decides to invent a dance, called the Sambola. “I was thinking, ‘what is important in life? What would be a real great thing to do in life?’” Stillman says. “There’s certain key dance crazes that are just so much fun — wouldn’t that be a great thing to do, to invent a dance?”
The Sambola evolved from a Macarena-like choreography (which would not do, because the characters needed to dance in pairs) into what Stillman calls “a greatest hits of dance moves,” incorporating the tango, the cha-cha, and the foxtrot.
While characters like Damsels’ Violet cling to outmoded ways of life, Stillman chose a decidedly contemporary platform for his next project: his half-hour comedy series The Cosmopolitans was part of Amazon’s third pilot season, in the fall of 2014. Stillman doesn’t see it that way, however: “Really, having a show freely available online is like having your book in the library,” he said. “It’s wonderful; it’s ideal.”
While the show wasn’t picked up after that season, the pilot is still available to watch, and Amazon has asked Stillman to write more scripts. “The great thing about their system is that you do a pilot and it gets seen by a lot of people,” he says. “By doing it publicly, I get at least a piece of the series out and in the public and completed.”
The Cosmopolitans, of course, also includes dancing. When Stillman was making Damsels in Distress, he wanted to use a French song called “Tomber la chemise,” but getting the rights to use the song turned out to be a nightmare (and the rights to write Sambola-themed lyrics for it, even worse).
“So I was really pleased we could get the rights and have them do the Sambola to “Tomber la chemise” in The Cosmopolitans,” Stillman says. But in France, it turns out, the song is somewhat stigmatized as what Stillman calls “the totally clichéd song that people pretend to hate, sneered at the way disco used to be sneered at in the United States.”
“It’s loved too much in the wrong way; I think it’s snobbish,” he continues, “and despite the ostensible subject matter of the films, I hate snobbery” — a distaste he shares, certainly, with the incomparable Jane Austen, who provided the source material for his next project.
Love And Friendship, Stillman’s forthcoming fifth feature, is based on Austen’s unfinished epistolary novel Lady Susan, published posthumously by the author’s nephew. Stillman has a distinctly literary sensibility (Metropolitan in particular significantly evokes Mansfield Park), and people had approached him to write adaptations before, but an unfinished novel presented a unique challenge.
“I thought…I can adapt Jane Austen and I can add to the Jane Austen library with a finished piece, in some sense,” Stillman says. “It wouldn’t be pure Jane Austen, but I could add to the Jane Austen library rather than just take down some masterpiece and turn it into an audio-visual piece.”
The epistolary form, too, was appealing; working on other adaptations, “I became too glued to the book and too dominated by the book,” he says. “And so that did help, because I was working on my script, not on the book.”
Love and Friendship reunites Stillman with his Last Days of Disco stars Sevigny and Beckinsale, which Stillman says was “terrific,” and is his first true period piece. “The guys who work with horses and carriages are the best extras in the world,” he observes. “They’re very good extras, the professional horse and carriage people.”
We’ll have to wait until 2016 to see Austen à la Stillman. In the meantime, Metropolitan will screen at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York starting on Aug. 7, and at the Laemmle Royal Theater in Los Angeles and the AFI Silver Theater in Silver Spring, MD starting on Aug. 14.