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An Interview with Whit Stillman

The full transcript of our conversation with the recently returned director

That's Chloë's genius, isn't it? She's so natural and likable on-screen. Thanks to the editor of the—the amazing thing about the film business is that when something good happens, ultimately there's some person making it or helping it happen—and the editor of Metropolitan and Barcelona, Christopher Tellefson, even though he's not the editor in this film, he had read the script and he said to me "You know, Chloë Sevigny would be a very good actress in your film. She'd fit right into the world of characters you like to have." And that was totally counterintuitive or not at all what casting people were thinking about, they would not have thought of Chloe… Very Downtown, Harmony Korine, edgy, Kids reputation and… it was considered very surprising that Chloe was cast to play the sweet, nice girl part—now it seems like she's almost typecast in it, but then it was considered completely against her image.

And what was the particular quality—when you say that she's just able to exist on-screen…

The thing I noticed… The things I like filming are like surf, Chris Eigeman, and Chloe Sevigny. Because they all do their own thing, which is almost always interesting and fun to watch and doesn't take direction (laughs). In the case of Chris, yes, there was directorial-actorly work to get the right tone of the character in Metropolitan, but after that it was pretty easy because the character is kind of a throughline, a similar operation… Chloe, because she's existential on-screen, it's not as if she's working or trying hard or being kind of dramatic in a way that's false… I suppose she's so good in certain ways it could get to be a tic or something she'd rely on too much, but it hasn't. She's so expressive with her eyes and—her eye looks are so good, there could be a temptation perhaps to use that but…

I have to say, from what I've read of your likes and dislikes, Kids doesn't necessarily seem like a movie you would positively react to…

I saw it… I had avoided it, I'd been sort of scared of seeing it… I avoid a lot of films… I don't want to be shocked. But I watched it, I watched that and Trees Lounge after I met Chloe in an audition, thought she was fantastic and told people at Castle Rock… And there was actually an offer out to Winona Ryder that was withdrawn before her agent called them back, the offer wasn't out but… the studio had called Winona Ryder's agent to make the offer and the agent didn't call back for 4 days and by the time they called back we'd found Chloe and decided to go with her so… we didn't get in trouble with Winona Ryder.

When you say there's a lot of things you avoid seeing to avoid being shocked—are you easily adversely affected by movies?

Yes. Yes. I really like watching Code movies. I'm Mr. Breen's biggest fan.

You couldn't cross the threshold in a theater playing a horror movie or something like that?

Not willingly. Several times I was—I felt tricked into seeing films, and every time people would say, "Oh, no, this one really isn't that shocking, it's really an important film, you have to see it, you'll find that—" And I just have been shocked so many times, that I had to say "No, no, no, I'm not going to be talked into it anymore." But you have to see things for various reasons. I remember about two-thirds of the way through Goodfellas , when it really gets horribly violent and nihilistic, I thought "I never want to see anything like this, ever again." And then they faked me out about Silence of the Lambs . I spent most of the time it was playing in a restaurant. I'm really surprised people willingly put images like that in their heads.

I think it's something to do with getting acclimated to it, some people are and some people aren't… My mother will flee a living room shrieking to this day at the sight of stage blood.

Good for her!

I've read of your reaction to the critical reception of Disco, that you felt a lot of the commentators who self-identified during the period as rockers, punk rockers…

(laughs) Punk rockers…

…you felt people brought that umbrage back up to the surface when reacting to the film.

Yeah, exactly. I think maybe the film came out too soon. Too soon after the period. I don't know what it was. Unfortunately there was this story that there was a disco revival going on, with two disco films and some other things happening… And it's bad to be a trend.

There might have been some kind of K-tel compilation advertised around the time… (Note: K-tel's seminal Disco Fever was released to CD in 1994. Polydor's Pure Disco came out in Oct, 1996. I can only presume this is what I was thinking of). There was a virtual disco revival, sure, in think pieces if not in actual fact.

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