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An Interview with Whit Stillman

The full transcript of our conversation with the recently returned director

I've had a few laughs with Scott Fitzgerald…

Really?

Pat Hobby's a riot!

(laughs) That's true… but that's just so, I don't know… really low Fitzgerald. What's really good actually, there's an extraordinary collection called The Price Was High, and it's his commercial magazine fiction, and it's an odd book, because the editor has such a deprecating attitude to the stories he's anthologizing—I think it's the great Fitzgerald editor, Matthew Bruccoli—but it's this conventional idea sort of started by Edmund Wilson and others that Fitzgerald sold out his talent to commercial magazines and only his more artistic stories were worthwhile, and then you read these theoretically empty stories and they're really good, really worth reading. It's a great book and… I've recommended it to a lot of people I know and almost everyone likes it. (with gusto) The Price is High.

As you mention Edmund Wilson… I noticed the Alfred Kazin reference in Disco, and of course the presence of Lionel Trilling inMetropolitan … it seems like you have some scores to settle with New York Intellectuals...

(laughs) Yeah. But those are both people who I just love reading. I think actually it's a misreading of Lionel Trilling by the character in Metropolitan—I was aware of that. Actually, Trilling, I think he loves Mansfield Park , but this guy was just reacting to the setup where he's sort of beginning to lay the grounds for his argument and overreacts to the setup of the premise…

Possibly didn't read it all the way through.

(laughs) Yeah, exactly. He doesn't even read the criticism all the way through.

I find it interesting that the sinking of the Maine in Havana harbor found its way into two of three films… What is it about the Maine?

I guess I have a bone to pick about that… it's fortuitous in Disco that I was writing under deadline for some days holed up in an apartment in that neighborhood and I walked by that monument (Note: The Maine Monument at Central Park's Merchants' Gate) and it just knocked me out it was so strange and beautiful and evocative. And it's just where they would be walking in those days and at that time… So it seemed to work in a lot of ways, so it came back. But yes, it's an interesting thing, the debate over the Spanish-American War—I mean there's not much of a debate over it, but it's really not as it was represented. And I was sort of confronted with it a lot living in Spain and visiting Spain a lot, it's when our two countries were at war with each other and—this blithe idea was it was some trumped-up thing that we did, that we knew the Maine… No, it was a legitimate conflict, the American involvement in that war was not just something cooked up by William Randolph Hearst and Pulitzer and the yellow press, there were matters of conscience and policy and terrible things were happening in Cuba, the oppressive hand of the remnants of the Spanish Empire had fallen very heavily on Cuba. It's a very interesting case, you know—what did happen to the Maine?—there's some people who say it's this or it's that, but we don't really know. We're not really certain what happened to the Maine, and in any case there were many reasons to intervene on the side of the independent movement.

So it's a safe assumption you don't subscribe to "9/11 Was an Inside Job" conspiracy?

(laughs) No. But I was in Paris… there was a big bestseller with that thesis which, um… Well, I think in these societies prone to fascism, they love thinking of conspiracy theories. I mean, I think there occasionally are conspiracies and paranoia is sometimes justified but—the habit of mind, thinking in terms of conspiracies, I think is often people who want to justify some fascistic or totalitarian ideological bent, to excuse the inexcusable of some kind or another. Please erase all that.

Consider it gone.

Where did you come from? Did you grow up in New York?

No, the Queen City of the West, Cincinnati, Ohio.

Oh, cool. The Athens of the Ohio.

Mr. Winston Churchill called it "the most beautiful of America's inland cities." Built on seven hills, like Rome. Great display of 19th century Italianate architecture.

Yeah, it is a great place. I was only there briefly, I think at Christmas, and I wish I'd seen more of it, but it was great what I saw. I spent some time in the Midwest and—I think Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati are cool cities, they've got great stuff.

There's some beautiful shots of Chicago in Barcelona … I wanted to ask, whenMetropolitan came out, 1990, did you feel at the time that you were a part of some kind of "indie" groundswell?

Yeah. I felt I was following other people who'd gone before who'd done a very good job and I think those of us who were making independent films in that period, we looked back and studied what John Sayles, Jim Jarmusch, and Spike Lee had done. And I suppose Steven Soderbergh, but I think the other three were more directly related, because they seemed to be operating on really low budgets and the material was coming right out of their own writing.

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