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“Always Have a Low-Budget Back-Up Plan”: Whit Stillman in Wroclaw

The Cosmopolitans

Long regarded as one of the more singular, idiosyncratic voices in American independent cinema, Whit Stillman made his debut in 1990 with Metropolitan, the Oscar-nominated comedy of manners. Further dialogue-heavy comedies set among the urban haute bourgeoisie followed (1994’s Barcelona, 1998’s The Last Days of Disco), but it took another 13 years for Stillman to release a fourth film: 2011’s peppy Damsels In Distress. Yet with the pilot of a new Amazon series — Paris-set The Cosmopolitans —recently released to strong reviews, and an adaptation of Jane Austen’s short novel Lady Susan in the cards, it seems like Stillman is truly back in business.

At the recent 5th annual American Film Festival in Wroclaw, Poland, Stillman was the subject of a full career retrospective, and was awarded the Indie Star award (last year bestowed upon producer Christine Vachon). After presenting a screening ofThe Cosmopolitans’ first episode, Stillman took to the stage to deliver a wide-ranging, wry masterclass on a variety of subjects related to his storied career. Filmmaker Magazine was on hand to capture the highlights.

On experience, and getting into the business

I think you have to try and get into the business right away, but if that doesn’t work, there is another way. I think there are people who are precocious, fast starters, and people who like to do things the long way around, and I think I’m the latter. A lot of it, too, is getting a break of some kind. — if, say, you happen to sit next to the right person and you make sense [when you talk].

I’ve been reading some writers who say that they envy people who aren’t immediately successful as writers, because they do other work and live in other worlds before they become successful. For example, F. Scott Fitzgerald envied the fact that Joseph Conrad had had all that maritime experience — he was made a captain on a ship. Mine was much less glamorous and romantic than Conrad’s but I had a chance to work in several different worlds.

I was desperate for work in the film business, but there was no indie sector when I graduated [from Harvard] in 1973. I eventually got into selling Spanish films, even though it was a very bad business. I lost money. I was lucky in the sense that I’d read an article about the Spanish film industry on a plane going over to Spain, and I was going to meet a lot of film people at a dinner. I’d read this article three times, and it seemed like I knew a lot about Spanish cinema when I met these people. I had these ideas of how they could sell their films in the United States. At the time I was unemployed, I’d just lost my job in journalism and so I told them how I’d do business, they liked it and they gave me their films. I was prepared. I worked with directors like Fernando Trueba and Fernando Colomo. They had been inspired by Truffaut, so they were trying to make those autobiographical films like Stolen Kisses and Bed and Board.

On his first big breakthrough

Trueba needed a stupid American to act in one of his films [Sal Gorda, 1984] and didn’t want to go through the Screen Actors Guild. He asked me to play the part of Mortimer Peabody, a strange, bourgeois psychiatrist. I got to be the bad guy rival for the love of the Catalan woman. I had a love scene with the beautiful actress Silvia Munt, and I got to see how a film was made. I was writing the script for Barcelona then, and I realized that making a film in another country would be too difficult, and too expensive, for a first film. I decided in the summer of ’83 to shift and make the simplest possible film I could make in the United States.

On fiction vs. screenplays

Initially, I aspired to write fiction. I wanted to copy F. Scott Fitzgerald, or whomever I admired. While a member of the Hasty Pudding Theatricals society at Harvard, I had the opportunity to write silly, bizarre musical comedies — there was a tradition of men dressing up as women. It took around 12 years, though, for me to get back to that sort of writing with Damsels in Distress. But I became stuck in a trap in fiction, and I was intimidated by the screenwriting process. I just wanted to direct a film but I had to write a script in order to have one to direct. I found that, in fact, the great thing about film scripts is that each character is a first-person narrator, speaking in their own voice. And they’re going to be played by actors. It’s clear that it’s not you, it’s someone else. At a certain point in writing the Metropolitan script, the actors were creating themselves and saying their own things.

On film screening-as-performance

I really feel that films are like theatre, in that each performance, each showing of a film, has a different karma — even if it’s someone watching something on the internet, in their house. If the film strikes them at the right time, it’s a good performance. If they’re distracted, not paying attention and they’re bored with it, then that’s a bad performance. For example, we had this very good performance of Metropolitan in one of the screening rooms at Sundance, and an important distributor saw it. Suddenly we had interest.

On routine

You think that when you’re well-rested and prepared, you’re going to do your best work, but I found that if you’re trying to have silly, crazy stuff in the story at some point, then the opposite is true. With Metropolitan, I was writing at night. I only had one very small child then, and I could stay up late from 10 pm – 2 am. I’d be falling asleep when I was writing, and dreaming up this crazy stuff. But I had all these great ideas. Later, when I had two children, I had to switch to a daytime schedule, and I found that if I didn’t sleep well, again I got all these great ideas. My favorite thing was with Barcelona. One of the girls had to go to school at 6:30 in the morning, so I’d get up and [arrange her travel to] school, then I’d come back to write, and I’d get ready and shave. But I didn’t get any ideas when I was sat at the typewriter; I got all the best ideas when I was walking or shaving, or swimming.

On the benefits of distorting autobiography

Normally in the writing process I cannot use material that’s recent. It has to be distorted from the past, changed one way or another. Things are never directly autobiographical. There’s a wonderful quote from Fitzgerald’s notebooks about the danger of talking about the story you are writing [“I think it’s a pretty good rule not to tell what a thing is about until it’s finished. If you do you always seem to lose some of it…”] What I find creative is not putting autobiographical experiences on screen, it’s more like creating an autobiographical mist, hazy memories of things. From these, ideas can coalesce and snowflakes can form, and it’s changed from the way things actually happened.

On how to stay interested in a subject

One of the most important things when you’re starting to write your first screenplays is to get a subject that you’re really fascinated with for a long time, and you think other people will be fascinated with — it must have some sexy aspect to it. The filmmaker Abraham Polonsky said that all film has an element of pornography. I don’t like pornography, but I think there is often that sort of frisson of excitement about certain subjects. I saw Metropolitan as social pornography because it’s about the class system in America, and it’s set in a world which is somewhat hidden away, and it’s something that people generally feel very ambivalent about — actually they tend to feel very negative about it. It had a lot of things going for it, and it was a subject that I could spend time on.

Part of the whole problem of not making a film for so long was that I tried to latch onto books and do things the conventional way, or getting assigned to work with a book, talking to producers, getting things optioned. [You end up in a situation where] you’ve written a screenplay based on a book that you no longer have the rights to. I see a lot of people in my film classes and young filmmakers at film festivals, and I see the films they make at 25, and they are very sad films about 10-year-old boys who don’t know what they’re doing. There are just not that many people who want to watch films about sad 10-year-old boys. You have to think about what might interest an audience, and what might interest you enough.

On having too much money

The Last Days of Disco was too expensive. I think there are some lessons to learn there. Just because people say you can spend certain amounts of money and do certain things, you still have to consider whether it’s a good idea to do them. I had too much money for this movie. It was money coming down from the studio, so we had to do it the studio way. It was a Warner Bros. film, although they ended up having to get money from Polygram. We had to be in all the unions and we wanted to wow them with our production, so I thought, “Studio 54 was a big nightclub, we’ll knock their socks off!” – but what we really knocked off was the top of our budget. Big spaces and wide shots in cinema often don’t look like very much; it’s not like being in a place, it’s totally different, and sometimes it’s better to be small. We had this enormous space and a huge number of union extras, and it cost millions of dollars just to fill a nightclub with people dancing. It was a real mistake, and I really loathe big discotheques now. A tiny discotheque with 20 friends dancing is my idea of fun. Don’t waste your time with illusionary, big budget, big spectacle things. There was too much money, and it wasn’t profitable.

On Damsels in Distress, we had a 27-day shoot and [producer] Martin Schafer wasn’t happy with the stuff we shot in the first few days. He kept saying, “Take an extra day” and I said “No, we don’t need an extra day!” I was proud to meet the schedule. He said, “We’re on the wrong sides of this argument. You should be the one asking for an extra day, and should be the one saying no!” In the end I took the extra day, and thank God I did, because we did all kinds of really fun stuff.

On failure

The biggest failure for me was not making a film for all those years, and kidding myself about what was happening. That led to a decision which was: always have a low-budget back-up plan. Try to have a way of going forward with it if the powers that be don’t want to do it. Try not to sell your script to other people; or if you do, try to be able to get it back. Try to have a plan for how you could shoot it for no money. There’s probably a low-budget version of War and Peace out thereA solution to failure is to try to take control of what can happen. Do it yourself and take responsibility. I was counting on studios and producers and it was really disillusioning in London [where Stillman spent ten years working on a series of ultimately unrealized projects]. It’s really a producer’s world. I was working with a producer, and he was a very good guy, but he was also a businessman.

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