INTERVIEW: Whit Stillman On Returning to Filmmaking, Admiring Will Ferrell, and ‘Damsels in Distress’

As a lifelong movie fan and recent film critic, I often find myself imagining the personalities of artists in the industry based solely on their work. For instance, I always pictured a conversation with Metropolitan and Barcelona director Whit Stillman would be wonderfully pretentious. I envisioned the two of us sitting at an upscale coffee house in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, drinking beverages with seven words in their name, wearing turtlenecks, and confabulating about the films of Luis Buñuel.

I never expected that my first encounter with the renowned director would be in a hotel lobby in Minneapolis, that Stillman would ask me a series of questions about myself before I got to talking about him, or that our discussion would center more around Will Ferrell than Buñuel. Stillman was in the midst of a cross-country tour to promote his new film Damsels in Distress and he was kind enough to answer my questions about filmmaking and the future of comedy.

Despite having only four films to his credit, Stillman is widely regarded as one of the most influential independent filmmakers of the 1990s. His depictions of the young and the wealthy are known to have influenced the work of filmmakers like Wes Anderson. Damsels in Distress marks something of a return for Stillman, considering it has been 13 years since his most recent feature, The Last Days of Disco, was released in theatres. His absence was well-documented in a recent New York Times article, wherein I learned that he spent his time away with his family in France, attempting to get various projects off the ground.

“The idea of being able to go off again to a foreign place and start writing something else and not have to worry about the production anymore,” Stillman explains when I asked what gets him the most excited about returning to making films. He prefers the writing and directing aspects of filmmaking to post-production because he tends to be “picky” in the editing room. “The sound mixer was not available until very late, and I hadn’t really figured out how to do the music stuff, so now recently we’ve been completely I’m not sure if ‘behind the curve’ is the cliché or ‘behind the 8-ball,’ there’s some cliché or hackneyed expression that applies to my plight, but the people at Sony who deal with post-production are furious, so I’m kind of overwhelmed.”

Stillman was on his second cup of coffee and his speech was beginning to slow down. Who knows how many interviews he had already done that day, but I suspect that I was one of his last. “I think drinking coffee makes me tired by Pavlovian reaction,” he said between yawns and apologies. “No apology is necessary,” I responded, sincerely thankful that he was talking to me instead of up in his hotel room taking a nap.

In an attempt to inject some energy into the atmosphere I asked him about the intellectual state of the characters in Damsels in Distress, who are noticeably dimmer than the urban haute bourgeoisie depicted in Metropolitan. I expected him to explain that this was a commentary on the declining intellectual pursuits of today’s youth, but his actual answer was something of a surprise. “I love dumb humor. It’s a line of comedy that we love in America. I’m not sure if they love it as much overseas, but here there are so many actors who do it well. I love Will Ferrell naivete in film and so this is sort of inspired by Animal House and things like that.”

Inspired by John Belushi the characters in Damsels in Distress may be, but they exude much more innocence than characters in other college comedies. “It’s the cutting edge,” Stillman responds when I ask if he sees the naive college student as a dying breed. “It’s the wave of the future, we’re bringing it back.”

It cannot be easy to find actors who can balance Stillman’s unique dialogue with a National Lampoon sensibility. “It’s more about finding actors with comic flair. There was one audition day that was really painful and it had me second guessing my script,” Stillman explains. “Then this woman named Lena Dunham came in to audition and she was really good, but not suited for the part at all. Then it turns out she is a writer/director who had a film called Tiny Furniture coming out, so she introduced me to her co-producer who became my co-producer who helped cast my film.”

Stillman ended up with a strong cast including Adam Brody, Analeigh Tipton, Zach Woods, and the great Greta Gerwig who all tap dance (literally) through the lighter moments in the movie. “I just really like it in movies,” says Stillman about his frequent use of dance in movies. “If you’re making this kind of film, one of the few areas where you can be visual and cinematic is with the dance scenes. I also like it myself and wish there were good dances several times a week that you could go to.” There is a dance number created just for Damsels in Distress called the Sambola that Stillman invented himself along with choreographer Justin Churney. The mention of that particular dance instantly perked him up and I got the sense that he really does hope the Sambola catches on and becomes a new sensation.

Stillman hopes that we won’t have to wait another 13 years for his next film. He plans to work with Damsels stars Gerwig and Brody again along with actors from his previous films like Chris Eigeman. “I really like working with the same people,” says Stillman, “but I don’t dare predict again with my bad track record.”

My last question of the day was intended to be a fun, open-ended way to end the interview, but Stillman was surprisingly serious when I asked which time period other than his own he would like to live in. “It’s a question I take so seriously,” he responds after the longest pause in the interview. “There are some good periods, but they tend to be followed by depressing periods and I would hate to have them come back.” That desire for things to always end positively is reflected through all of Stillman’s films that are more likely to end with an escapist dance number than a damp dose of reality.

Damsels in Distress is currently playing in limited release. It will expand to additional cities this Friday, April 20th.

Hear the full interview with Whit Stillman on the last episode of the Film Misery Podcast.

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