Fans of Whit Stillman will be delighted to learn that he talks exactly like a character in a Whit Stillman movie. “I find the idea of cinéma vérité just uninteresting and contemptible,” he says, over lunch at the Noho Star, near his production office on Lafayette Street, “because it actually isn’t vérité at all. It’s just depressing. I’m not really enthralled with ugly realism.”
He asks the waiter about an Aztec corn soup that used to be on the menu; disappointed that it’s not available, he orders a steak salad, “oil and vinegar on the side.” Stillman speaks softly, with patrician intonation, so that “been” sounds like “bean.” He’s a boyish 58, dressed in a white polo shirt, his collar popped. His hair is graying, but still sweeps upward in a style that wouldn’t have been out of place in the eighties Upper East Side living rooms of Metropolitan. The Noho Star, which he praises for the money-saving option of bringing your own wine (“But I don’t think we should drink this early”), is of similar eighties vintage. He folds a napkin into a tiny square with one hand, then unfolds it.
Stillman’s here to talk about his new film, Damsels in Distress. It’s his fourth, but his first since 1998’s The Last Days of Disco. It’s a collegiate comedy starring Greta Gerwig and Adam Brody. “There was sort of the unthinking idea that we had to shoot during the summer. And I was just appalled because I hate New York in the summer,” he says. He holds his water glass out to the waiter. “Can I get this without ice?” he asks. “I’m getting a bit of a cold, so I can’t stand cold stuff.” They shot it in October.
He blames that same cold for his discomfort with shaking hands. (Immediately after shaking hands, he excuses himself to the restroom to wash.) But his germophobia also echoes Damsels’s screenplay, which follows a group of busybody, odor-sensitive girls at fictional Seven Oaks University as they battle what they see as their classmates’ overall idiocy through the judicious application of soap and water. Like Stillman’s most endearing characters, the girls are convinced they know what’s best for everyone else, even as their own lives get messier and messier.
It’s a freewheeling comedy, full of musical numbers, failed love affairs, and Stillmanian bons mots on everything from Hacky Sack to the sexual proclivities of twelfth-century Cathars. It may be even sillier than the three lighthearted films in Stillman’s “yuppie trilogy”—Metropolitan and Disco bracketed 1994’s Barcelona—and is very different from the dramas that Stillman has spent the past twelve years trying, but failing so far, to make.
During this time of disappointment, Stillman has been living in Europe, working on scripts-for-hire, and occasionally being linked to projects—a movie about sixties Jamaica, an adaptation of Anchee Min’s memoir Red Azalea—without actually shooting anything. “Before, I was writing a script to make a movie,” he says about the first eight years of his career. “At a certain point I became A Writer in Film and Television. So I got TV deals to write stuff, film deals to write stuff. But it’s dangerous. I got into the WGA and I became kind of, you know, a slave! They just pay you to write a script, and it’s hard to make the movies.”
Besides, he says, every denial or setback offered a welcome chance to rethink a script. “I think one thing that makes me delay projects more than other people is, I see this silver lining in a turn-down,” he muses. “Maybe if I just wrote a script and then pounded my head against all the doors, I would be shooting more films. I always think, Okay, this door is not opening, and I don’t try another door. I always have a new angle of how it could be done.”
He folds his napkin, unfolds it. Stillman has said that he spends years developing the ideas for his movies before he ever starts filming. He calls these scripts “trunk items.” “I remember watching some people’s first films and thinking, These films are great because they’re trunk items. But then some of those people, when they get money to do a film and write the script in six months, I find their cinema to become really thin and less interesting. I find your first ideas are very clichéd, and over time they get more seasoned.”
So Damsels, a project he’d never mentioned in interviews, and whose first draft is dated March 2010, is actually a project he’s been working on a long time?
He grimaces. “Goooood questionnnnnn.” He says some things about how he’s been thinking about the idea for a good long while. But as for the script, “every word is new,” he says with a small smile. He looks at his watch, mentioning a meeting. “I better go. Can you take care of the check?”