An Interview with Whit Stillman

The full transcript of our conversation with the recently returned director

The word that comes to mind when I think about the movies you've made is ‘articulate'—not only in how well-spoken the characters are, but in the clarity with which you cover them, which makes them stand out, I think, within the context American independent filmmaking, where there's a tendency to equate fumbling or hoarsely-emotional performances and handheld camera to "raw truth"…

I'm explicitly coming to feel that realism is a problem in cinema. It is the criterion for many people's judgment of films, and there's a lot of static about anything that doesn't seem verite to people, or externally verite. And I think… it's led people a lot of wrong roads, they dismiss some things that are good, and over-value some things that are rather empty because of the infatuation with "the real." That "real" we really get every day, every day we open our eyes. And it is true that the unreal can be artificial in a very bad way, and therefore it makes us appreciate those film that seem real in what they're showing. I've just seen a series of highly-praised very realistic films and… there's just a feeling of emptiness, of hollowness, there's no humor in them, there's no joy, there's no romance… I don't think it's true to life because I think we bring those emotions and aesthetic exultation to life as we observe it instead of just having this critically-negative camera covering things…

I don't think outside the "book this clown" police raid in Disco, there's a handheld shot in your movies…

You noticed that. It's funny because we were up against the gun as far as the schedule there, we had no time to do this, and so John Thomas (DP), he knew I'd directed an episode of Homicide before, so he said, "Okay, let's shoot this Homicide style."

Your one foray into police procedural.

It was kind of a joke, yeah, because that's our moment of arresting the guy, and the drugs, and… so we go into Homicide for a moment.

It absolutely blew my mind, because I've been to that Loew's in Journal Square where you shot—

You have? How come? Is it still operating?

They show movies there now.

Oh, great! It's just special things or all the time? We should try to get a screening of our film out there. Is it good projection? We had two films shooting there the same Summer, because John Turturro filmed—Illumanata or Illuminati ? I think we shared the cost of the carpet. I liked shooting over there.

Make the trip on the PATH train sometime. Did you frequent the Journal Square Pub?

I don't think so… We got out of there pretty quickly.

It's a charming little boîte. There's also a sister theatre up in the Bronx, a Loew's on Grand Concourse…

I love that they keep these buildings, they're wonderful buildings.

It's something to compare that theatrical architecture, as silly as it could be, to the multiplex, a grim study in contrasts.

Yeah.

The idea of decline runs through your films… I know for Metropolitan you said you went to a lot of New York landmarks that you felt had a limited lifespan to get that kind of closing time atmosphere…

What we were trying to do there, also, is establish more of a period feel than we really could afford. We couldn't really afford to do much period work there but by trying to get some stuff that might be disappearing, we'd give it more of a period feel.

Do you have a heightened sense of decline?

You know, I think I have less and less of one… I mean, I think it could be true that you are more imbued with nostalgia and regret when you're younger than when you're older. It's one of those perverse things. If you're somewhat inclined to nostalgia, anyways.

Are you now or have you ever been an Evelyn Waugh fan?

Yeah. I am. I'm a big Evelyn Waugh fan. Though… the first novel of his I read, right out of college, Decline and Fall , I detested. And it wasn't until I went back and read him some more that I got to like it. And I had the same experience with Jane Austen, I read Northanger Abbey—not one of her great works—in college, and I didn't like it at all, and very loudly told people I didn't like it. And then read her after college and loved her. So… I think people can be misled, and if their friends recommend something to them, and they don't get it, it's good to try again sometimes. I just wasn't ready to figure out what his point-of-view was and understand what was going on.

I felt there was a tenuous affinity…

No, there's a definite affinity. But I mean I think—the conscious affinity, the first conscious affinity was Fitzgerald, but Fitzgerald's not very funny, so I think for me and for just millions of other people the affinity was J.D. Salinger, because it's both dramatic, interesting, confessional, and funny...

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