“To Be Dissed By Bret Easton Ellis Is Delightful” – Whit Stillman Interviewed

Stephen Dalton chats to US cinema's premier chronicler of the Urban Haute Bourgeoisie, returning after 14 years. Photo by Kerry Brown

The missing link between Woody Allen and Wes Anderson, Whit Stillman has been frustratingly absent from cinema screens for more than a decade. In the 1990s, this irregular writer-director made a trilogy of witty, wordy, low-budget comedies about the discreet charm of America’s upper classes. But after The Last Days Of Disco (1998) and its well-received novelization, he seemed to drop off the map. A series of planned projects, including an adaptation of Chinese-American author Anchee Min’s memoir Red Azalea and Jamaica in the early Sixties drama Dancing Mood, never quite achieved lift-off.

Now Stillman is finally back in his whimsical heartland with Damsels In Distress, a sunny musical comedy starring indie screen queen Greta Gerwig as Violet, the earnest mother hen to a gaggle of female students on a leafy East Coast college campus. The retro-cheery tone feels like Jane Austen directed by John Waters, while the light-headed music numbers pay passing homage to Jacques Demy’s 1964 classic The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg. But mostly this immensely charming confection is pure Stillman: refined humour, good-hearted characters and goofy dance routines. Plus scene after scene of dry, droll, deadpan dialogue.

John Whitney Stillman was raised in upstate New York on a heady blend of left-wing politics and WASP privilege. His father was a wealthy lawyer and liberal Democrat who worked for the Kennedy administration. But after his parents divorced in 1965, the teenage Whit lived with his mother in reduced circumstances. Partly in rebellion against his father, he also began to embrace more conservative values, especially after he encountered hard left student politics at Harvard.

Mostly conceived while he was living in Barcelona and Paris, Stillman’s early films feel like throwbacks to an oddly anachronistic America of cocktails, socialites and Ivy League preppies in dinner jackets. Think The New Yorker magazine, with a dash of F. Scott Fitzgerald. In his sublime 1990 debut Metropolitan, he even coined a term for this outmoded overclass: the Urban Haute Bourgeoisie. But they are always portrayed with enough self-mocking wit, irony and ambiguity to ensure universal appeal. Well-intentioned nerds, not entitled jerks.

Stillman’s main characters in Damsels In Distress are all named after flowers. Like his fragrant creations, this boyish 60-year-old is a rare blossom, and a colourful endangered species in American indie cinema. It feels good to have him back in full bloom.

How closely is the Violet character in Damsels based on you?

Whit Stillman: Well, I don’t want to claim that I have pretty dresses, or that I’m a good looking blonde…

That would be an interesting interview. We can go that way if you want…?

WS: Huh huh! I would say pretty close. She’s a fictional creation but I feel pretty close to that character. As I work in comedy, I have the advantage of a very silly point of view, and silly views. So just the things I sincerely feel, if articulated, sound like comedy to people.

True, it can be hard to tell where sincerity ends and irony begins in your films. Should we take the eccentric views that your characters express seriously?

WS: I don’t know. Ironic is true, I think, but satirical is not true. I don’t think there is really much satire. Irony is there but I like broad humour, which is warmth. I like warmth.

You are actually aiming to launch a new dance craze with Damsels, the Sambola. How serious are you about trying to make it catch on?

WS: Pretty serious. I really want to do that. Why? Because dance crazes are fun, they bring groups of people together in a good way, and I think they bring couples together too. Um… and they’re aerobic exercise. I like a lot of kinds of dancing. I was very excited when disco dancing came in, I thought that was great. So if the Sambola catches on, that will be great too.

The film has dance numbers, a retro-dayglo look, a campy tone – are you turning into the heterosexual John Waters?

WS: Hmmm? It is the gayest film, I suppose. I like the John Waters thing but I don’t think I’m really that. I’m not camp, it’s more sincere than that.

Wes Anderson is a more frequent comparison. Do you ever wish you had enjoyed his smooth career rise instead of your own faltering progress?

WS: Well, I wish I’d met the good billionaire instead of the bad billionaires. He met the good billionaire and he’s had a wonderful career. I don’t quite understand why his films are big films and our films are small films, but it’s great what he’s accomplished and achieved.

Be honest, do you feel a little jealous?

WS: Nooooo… I think when I wasn’t having a film coming out I would have been. I mean, after I made this film and we started talking about what it was like, people started saying Heathers and Mean Girls. But I said no, it’s really more university girl Rushmore… In a way, Bill Murray is the secret element of success in a lot of American comedies. I’m not quite sure what the films would be like without Bill Murray. What would Lost In Translation have been like without Bill Murray? And Broken Flowers? And Rushmore? And not only did I not meet the good billionaire, I’m not tight with Bill Murray.

Do you ever attract serious criticism for the political subtext of your films?

WS: Yes, I do. I think it was really when Barcelona came out [in 1994], because Barcelona had a political tenor. There was a profile [in the press] that looked ostensibly positive but it was what a friend of mine called a ‘stiletto job’. They put in some political stuff that wasn’t true and that was picked up by some critics and I got into trouble politically through that. It hasn’t been severe since then because the films aren’t very political, I don’t think, and there’s an element of being fair to different points of view.

But you do seem to propagate a generally conservative worldview…

WS: I would say retro rather than conservative. I am nostalgic about past modes, like if I see someone overdressed and old fashioned-looking I think that’s delightful. Like I remember seeing a Rolls-Royce with a chauffeur and a grand dame going across a bridge in Paris, and it just made me profoundly happy that that could still exist. Huh huh! It was like a scene from Sabrina. I don’t have to own the Rolls-Royce, or even get a ride in the Rolls-Royce, I just am happy to see it there.

This is what I’m trying to pin down: do you simply enjoy old-world glamour and good manners for their own sake, or do you want to preserve the system of privilege and entitlement that created them?

WS: The thing is, even if the conditions that caused things to arise were bad, those good things did arise and they were good. I’m not sure about entitled and privileged; I see it more as lucky and cursed. I actually have profound pity for most people for grew up with a lot of money because I’ve just seen it ruin so many people. And the characters who have good, constructive, creative lives even though they were born with a lot of assets – I find that admirable, because I’ve just seen so many people go bad when there’s money. For me, it was very helpful when my parents divorced and we changed our economic position.

Do you feel romantic yearning for simpler times? A lost innocence?

WS: I’d say it’s more like an ambivalence about things. You can have affection for something and still see the downside of it. My family was intensely political on the left – everything was political. My father came from a wealthy family but he was a progressive. My parents’ marriage was based on them both coming from that background – my mother without money, my father with money – and both being progressive and left-oriented. That was their whole life, it was a political project. And essentially my father’s political project fell apart in 1965. They separated. He lost interest in the marriage because his political career was dead.

Everything in our family was about dislike for Republicans, people who played golf, Episcopalians, country club members, certain towns like Edgartown, these very conventional summer resorts… We had to despise all these people, make fun of them. And then in my life I actually met these people, and they were likeable and funny, and actually nicer than the political people. So I really loved taking those political glasses off, and I don’t want to get back into it on either side. I don’t want to like or dislike people based on their politics.

So we shouldn’t assume from your films that you are some kind of closet right-wing Republican?

WS: No! Huh huh! We should definitely not! I kind of liked the reaction to Metropolitan before there were profiles of me and where I came from, because I think it’s better if people can take the sides they want to take and still enjoy the film, without thinking a point of view is being forced on them.

There is a subplot in Damsels In Distress about a modern-day member of the Cathar religious sect and his fondness for going, ahem, off-road. Why is anal sex always funny?

WS: Huh huh! It’s so true! The thing is, that scene in the movie is absolutely true. There was a lovely woman in Spain, I knew her when she was already married with kids, but I heard that her first boyfriend when she was at university was a young professor who said he was a Cathar and talked her into all these things. There’s a website in the United States that investigated the actual attitudes of the Cathars, and they said this idea of the Cathars and anal sex is what their enemies said about them. But the thing is, there are people now who say they are Cathars and talk their girlfriends into this, so it doesn’t matter what the actual Cathars did and said. But that scene seemed to me to stand in for all kinds of things, where an older or more experienced person tries to talk someone less experienced into something they wouldn’t normally do.

Your films explore a rarefied world of bright young things, elite Ivy League colleges and New York nightclubs, but with generosity and warmth. It just struck me watching Damsels that you are the anti-Bret Easton Ellis…

WS: Absolutely! True, true, true. Actually I have not even read a Bret Easton Ellis book, I have zero interest. I can say that because he was the first to diss Metropolitan in The New York Times: he called us ‘moralistic’. To be dissed for being moralistic by Bret Easton Ellis is delightful. I mean, I’ve met him. We have friends in the same circles. I like him socially, his parties are great, and he actually said something nice about the novel I wrote… but what he does and what I want to do just don’t seem to have any connection.

You certainly seem much more comfortable with the geeks and the misfits – the ‘doufi’, as you christen them in Damsels – than with the lethally jaded hipsters Ellis writes about…

WS: Well, I love that movie Revenge Of The Nerds. I like people who are uncool, who aren’t the groovy people. I remember when I first went to Spain and got involved with the film business there, and there were some people who were just funny and nice who made good, funny films. Then there was the whole cool cinema crowd that would be dominant at film festivals, and it’s very hard to win with those people. Throughout my life, there were always these cool crowds and you’re like, What are their rules? You can never win with them. And sometimes I’ve found they are really pretty unhappy people. So no one’s winning. They’re not winning.

Now that you are back in the saddle, what happens next? Will Dancing Mood or Red Azalea finally get made?

WS: Dancing Mood I think will be made, maybe with a different title. I think I will do something connected to the Cultural Revolution in China, but it won’t be Red Azalea. And I’ve got another project that’s under wraps. The actors from Damsels want to work with me again, so I do have a project I want to do with Adam [Brody] and Greta.

So it seems F. Scott Fitzgerald was wrong: there are second acts in American lives after all?

WS: I hope so. We’ll soon see.

Damsels In Distress opens on April 27 in the UK.

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