An Interview with Whit Stillman

The full transcript of our conversation with the recently returned director

Was there anybody, when you were first hitting the festival circuit, who you felt was working along parallel lines with?

We were sort of thrown together—Hal Hartley and me—but… and I like Hal a lot, and I worked in his post-production facility on Disco, but I don't really see the similarities in the films. I don't feel close to him and what he does, but as a guy I like him a lot. There were some other people, I think… Oddly, my identification was more the Madrid comedy directors whose films I'd sold, and I'd been in a couple of their films. In the 80s, I was a sales agent for Spanish films, overlapping the illustration agency… I felt close to those guys, and the actors they worked with, and I got to play the American Fool in two of their films (Note: Sal gorda and La línea del cielo, both 1984)

One of the things that's striking—and maybe part of it is that you weren't a fresh-faced lad out of film school, you'd had a full professional life already—is that you seem you are so much yourself, right away, with Metropolitan

It was a huge leap for me because… I sort of wanted to—not "sort of," I definitely wanted to be a novelist and write fiction and then thought I couldn't do that, was tempted by all kinds of things but I was very impressed with film and television comedy, and I'd been writing short stories… but it's so hard with short stories, because it took me forever, and you publish them, the places you can publish them, there aren't many readers… One of the great moments I had was when Tom Wolfe championed some stories I'd written and got Lewis Lapham at Harper's to give me a commission, and the kill fee on that commission was the most money that I'd made—I got rejected. But I really wasn't a natural for writing that kind of thing. I wanted to do a film, but I didn't think I could write a script for it and I discovered in the nature of film comedy, my disabilities didn't hurt, they might have helped a little bit. My sort of disconnect… I can't be very logical, I can't go A-B-C-D-E-F-G in making an argument, but in a dialogue comedy you don't really have to do that, in fact it's sort of best if you're not very logical, and you just jump ahead, jump into something else. I'm not sure if it's better but it's less tedious for the audience if you have these logical disabilities and so… for me to write an essay, for me to write an OpEd piece in the Times would be nearly impossible. It's just much easier for me to write characters doing their own thing, saying this and that.

It does seem there are a lot of fragmentary essays scattered through your dialogues—the strong point isn't in developing them beyond a paragraph?

I don't think so. I think they can stand, you know, about two sentences before they… if I tried three sentences they would fall on their face. It's tough though because I grew up—when I was in college I was on the paper and a lot of the people I was working with had really successful journalistic careers very early, and they were very good at it, and very prominent, and I was going away on these sort of tangential sales jobs and… it was great to find something that I could do too.

I've read some of the things you've done for Wall Street Journal, and they're good, the piece that you wrote on Foster Hirsch's Otto Preminger book—the fact that you land on the final third and the redemptive narrative in that book, a singular take on it.

I was really lucky I found something that hadn't been mentioned in the book that sort of unlocked that piece for me… I find it so hard doing those pieces that I don't mind stepping away from them. Because they take—I think it's really interesting to read a book on a good subject, think about it, write about it, but it just takes so much out of me, I find…

Hanging up the hat?

I gotta make some films, I gotta raise the money, start shooting.

If I fall into a million dollars in the near future, there's literally nothing I want to see more.

I'll double it for you. But read the prospectus first.

It's been a real pleasure, thanks for taking the time—

Really appreciate it. It's great having the film come out again now, I think this is the time for it to come out, we're getting a much better—it's a great reaction. Did I tell you we had this screening at the Museum of Modern Art on August 5th… Some youth group… Hitler Youth at the MOMA? And it went over really well. It's been odd not having it on DVD, because for many, many years it wasn't available. The price got up to like $250 sometimes—I actually met some people who paid like $200 for a DVD.

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