AS independent cinema was enjoying a huge upsurge of mainstream popularity Stateside during the 1990s, with directors like Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino forging highly successful careers, Whit Stillman was one to watch.
The writer/director’s highly-regarded crop of singularly quirky flicks included an Oscar nod for Best Screenplay for Metropolitan in 1991 and the Chloë Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale 1998 cult classic The Last Days of Disco.
And then he seemingly disappeared. His latest offering, Damsels in Distress, a kooky look at social snobbery on a university campus, comes 14 years after The Last Days of Disco. Why so long between drinks?
“I made a bad geographical decision,” he confesses. “I was tempted by the city of Paris. I went for a year and stayed for a decade.”
Stillman found it harder to score funding for independent cinema in Europe, eventually prompting a return to his home turf. “I have to hand it to people here; they’re willing to risk their own money signing cheques to make independent films.”
Damsels in Distress has performed well in the US, so it looks like those canny investors will get their money back, which means Stillman’s back in the game, luckily for us.
The film positively skips along with a mellifluous script, gorgeously retro styling and a fair dose of song and dance thrown into the mix. Focusing on a quartet of sassy ladies as they try to influence their peers for the better, led by rising star Greta Gerwig as the off-the-wall Violet, the results are endearingly whacky once you get your head around their odd way of seeing the world.
“In a way it’s a girl version of Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, where the dynamic characters try to change their environment constructively,” he says. “But these girls are so intimidating that they set people’s teeth on edge for the first twenty minutes of the film. You have to get over that hurdle.”
Stillman likens Violet to Nick in his debut film Metropolitan. “I’ve always loved very opinionated women. I love Violet’s extravagant personality. She’s the group leader who’s surprisingly constructive although you initially suspect her of bad motives.”
He says Gerwig was the perfectly choice, thanks to a couple of younger, in-the-know casting agents who were big fans of the Mumblecore movement of independent movies shot on extremely low budgets with largely amateur actors, of which she is a leading lady. “I came back from Europe without knowing who the new people were. I thought Greta was pretty, and could play knockout Lilly, then I met with her and was completely taken aback.”
It helped that Gerwig could sing and tap dance, with the movie enjoying a golden haze of old world, Hollywood glamour despite its supposedly contemporary setting, betraying Stillman’s love of Mark Sandrich movies like the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers classic Top Hat.
“It’s a utopian vision taking elements from all these movies with Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly, with the girls trying to invent their future, creating Breakfast at Tiffany’s at their campus.”
The campus setting lends itself well to this aesthetic. “The fraternities are very anachronistic, whether they are Greek Letter or Roman. It’s all a bit Animal House.”
At one point in the movie the characters discuss the dandy tradition in literature, and Stillman says this was the initial kernel of the film. “I’ve always adored figures like Max Beerbohm, Oscar Wilde and Evelyn Waugh.”
He assures it won’t be another 14 years wait for his next offering. “The silver lining of the ten years of writing scripts that didn’t get produced is that, with a few more drafts, are pretty shootable. I’m quite happy to be back making films, and knowing how to make them pretty inexpensively again. Budgets got pretty big, but there are ways of making very good looking films that don’t cost that much. It’s more like Metropolitan was now.”