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Noam Christopher Visits Whit Stillman’s Barcelona

Picture a Hollywood executive calling you from his car phone to tell you he wants to foot the bill for your next feature film. Here’s the catch – you can cast anyone you want, hand pick your crew and shoot anywhere in the world. In short, you’re faced with the burden of making all creative decisions. The prospect of a call like this might not faze Woody Allen, but for Whit Stillman, whose second film, Barcelona, was given a $4 million budget by Castle Rock Pictures, it’s enough to make him wait by the phone.

Stillman’s current agreement with Castle Rock has proven that even a New York-based independent filmmaker can find a home in Hollywood. "I will continue to write scripts that I intend to make," Stillman insists. "If [Castle Rock] wants to make one of my scripts, I’ll make it for them. If they don’t, we freeze the agreement and I’m free to take it outside without a turnaround fee. Then I can come back and continue working with them."

Unlike other successful independent filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, Stillman does not make movies that are easily coopted by an industry obsessed with violence and sex. If anything, Stillman’s first two films harken back to a time when Hollywood heroes used snappy dialogue as often as a pistol to prove their hubris. Seen through a more contemporary lens, Barcelona and Metropolitan are part of a recent tradition in independent film that began with filmmakers like John Sayles and Jim Jarmusch, where a great deal more is said than done.

Barcelona, which will be released by Fine Line Cinema in July, chronicles the romantic misadventures of two American cousins in Spain during the early ’80s – "the last decade of the Cold War." Ted (Taylor Nichols), an American salesman, is working in Barcelona and trying to get over a "failed carnal relationship." With only self-help books and the Bible (the definitive self-help book) to guide him, he is determined not to be seduced by beauty again and resolves to date only "plain, or even rather homely women." Enter Ted’s abrasive cousin Fred (Christopher Eigeman), a Navy "advance man." Much to Ted’s dismay, the two immediately become acquainted with a group of "trade fair girls," each one more beautiful than the one before. To make matters worse, Spain is in the throes of the sexual revolution and an infatuation with disco. Ted’s downfall is complete when he finds the girl he wants to marry while dancing to a Bee Gees song. Fred’s woes are of a political nature, fueled by post-Franco Spain’s distrust of the American military, and its misinformed opinions about U.S. politics – the Spanish characters insist that the AFL-CIO, a trade union, is really the "AFL-CIA," an insidious terrorist organization. Thanks to this volatile combination or romance and politics, Ted and Fred find themselves in the middle of a dialogue-driven romantic comedy that ruminates on the existential nature of shaving in between terrorist bombings.

Like Stillman’s first film, Metropolitan, Barcelona is droll, thoroughly understated, and clearly inspired by Stillman’s own experiences. Although Stillman began shooting second unit photography for Barcelona in July of 1992, before Castle Rock was in the picture, he really began work on the project when he left for Spain in 1979 to woo his future wife, a native of Barcelona, back to New York. As it turns out, Stillman had to return to Spain the following year in order to seal his marriage vows. Since his graduation from Harvard in 1973, Stillman knew that he wanted to be a filmmaker, but it wasn’t until he lived overseas that he got his first job in the film industry, albeit the Spanish film industry. Not surprisingly, the job was in sales; he sold the foreign rights to Spanish movies for producers and directors such as Fernando (Belle Epoque) Trueba.

Barcelona is more than just a collection of quirky anecdotes; the film reflects Stillman’s perception of what it’s like for an American to live in a sometimes frustrating, often funny, always foreign, culture. When one of the Spanish characters says, disdainfully, that America "is full of fat people in shopping malls with no culture who eat hamburgers," we know that Stillman has heard this before.

"Because the quality of Spanish hamburgers is so poor," Stillman says in a hushed tone, as if his Spanish relatives might be listening, "the Spanish think, ‘Of course Americans are stupid for liking hamburgers.’ But they have no idea how delicious they can be." It is a major turning point in the film when Fred’s love interest bites into an American-style hamburger and, to her surprise, finds it delicious. But it’s when Stillman discusses the political scenes in the film that we see the true marriage between art and life. "When Ted and Fred get into political arguments, I want them to make fools of themselves," he says heatedly, "because, when I get into a political argument, that’s how it is. I feel very upset and angry about it and I make a fool of myself. And that’s what works dramatically." Almost as an afterthought, Stillman adds: "The point of film, like fiction, is to be a stylized approximation of life. In certain ways, [Barcelona] is an exact recreation of my experience in Spain. It’s very important to me that the film have an authentic feel. But not all of the events happened."

Although Stillman first conceived of the script for Barcelona in 1983, he did not have a working draft until almost ten years later. After successfully raising $200,000 for Metropolitan by incorporating the project and selling shares to friends and investors, Stillman was prepared to try and fund Barcelona the same way. He never got the chance. Much to his surprise he received a call while in L.A. from Castle Rock President Martin Shafer and President of Production Liz Glotzer. Afraid that they wouldn’t understand or support his style of filmmaking, Stillman was wary of studio involvement. Stillman was amazed to find that they were enthusiastic about the premise for Barcelona. None of the problems he anticipated materialized. Final cut? Not a problem.

After reading the script, Shafer’s only complaint was with an assasination attempt in the final scene. Stillman, who had been having trouble with the ending, agreed and disarmed the assasin in the editing room. The only other concern was raised by Andrew Scheinman, one of the founding partners of Castle Rock Pictures with Rob Reiner. Scheinman found Ted’s reliance on self-help books troubling. "Andy wanted [Ted] to become disillusioned with the books," Stillman says, "to see how immature and trivial they are. And my point is, if they’re good self-help books they’re not immature and trivial. There’s this ridiculous aspect to them, but they really can give you good advice." In August of 1992, Castle Rock gave Barcelona the green light.

Principal photography was set to begin on April 19th of 1993. With the cast in place, Stillman had to assemble a European crew. As a representative of Castle Rock, he wanted to do everything by the book, so he hired a local production company to hire extras, find equipment and help with the logistics of the shoot. It quickly became clear that their respective approaches to production were not only different, but incompatible. The company was accustomed to working on fast-paced American TV projects and wanted Stillman to conform to their style of shooting. Stillman finally decided to go to a Spanish notary, start his own production entity and return to a scaled-down, Metropolitan-style shoot. With a smaller crew, Stillman was able to recapture the on-set rapport he established during Metropolitan. Fortunately, the dollar became consistently stronger, allowing Stillman to extend his shooting schedule. Stillman credits his wife with the shoot’s success. "She’s from Barcelona and connections and family contacts mean so much there. She helped arrange housing for the cast and crew, find locations, extras, even props. She didn’t have an official title, but she really handled crisis management."

The greatest obstacle for Stillman in making Barcelona was not shooting in Spain, but rather shooting a low-budget rather than a no-budget film. "It’s so tough going from no budget to some budget," Stillman says. "Suddenly you have money to divide up and people always think there is more to be had. With a minimal budget and resources, people only work on the project who are really for it." Ultimately, despite the unusual circumstance of shooting in Spain and having access to Hollywood funding, Stillman’s mode of production remained the same, as has the essential personality of his films. Visually, Barcelona retains the simple, unobtrusive style of Metropolitan. Stillman’s directorial style is designed to give him the greatest amount of freedom in the editing room; it also accomodates his penchant for extended close-ups. Perhaps Stillman’s knack for holding onto his artistic vision lies in his belief that the writing and editing stages are where his production really takes place. It is as a writer that Stillman creates his style as an auteur, and it is in the editing room that he refines that style.

Even now, despite his good fortune, Stillman does not like to draw attention to the fact that he has a Hollywood deal. "I don’t consider the people I work with at Castle Rock Holly-wood," Stillman says plaintively. "I really don’t. My current arrangement with them is purely independent. I don’t want people outside of the process tampering with [my films]." With Barcelona, Stillman has demonstrated that he is an independent filmmaker by sensibility rather than financial necessity. Perhaps Stillman’s next film, The Last Days of Disco, which he has set in the late ’70s and is writing with Winona Ryder in mind, will shed some light on the longterm creative ramifications for independent filmmakers who work, even peripherally, with Hollywood.


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