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"I always thought things were about to happen with the films," Stillman says. That he let so much time pass, he says, is "disgraceful." The "silver lining," as he puts it, was that after depleting his autobiographical reserves on his first three films, the time off allowed him to gather new material.
So how was he able to pull off Damsels, and why now? In some sense, Stillman himself is the "sad sack" redeemed by the interest of young women. While his directing hiatus had long been a subject of cinephile curiosity, a cult of Whit began to coalesce in recent years. Stillman moved back to the States; Disco, long unavailable on DVD, was released by Criterion, and beautiful new prints of that film and of Metropolitan gave venues like New York's Film Society of Lincoln Center and L.A.'s Cinefamily an excuse to celebrate him. A Disco dance party at the Walter Reade in 2009 gave Damsels an unexpected push.
"I was thinking: 'OK, these things are great, and I like doing it, but I'm kind of spending a lot of my time promoting the old films. I should really be working on the new films,'" Stillman recalls. "And then it turns out Greta was there that night and was totally won over. And to have someone who was just breaking as a star so enthusiastic about the project was enormously helpful."
A year later, Stillman attended a party IFC Films threw for their titles screening at the Los Angeles Film Festival, including Lena Dunham's Tiny Furniture. "In a way," he says, "that night was ground zero for our production, because it helped us tremendously, the Lena connection." Dunham introduced Stillman to Tiny Furniture producer Alicia Van Couvering, who helped organize Damsels as a relatively cheap endeavor. (The budget was $3 million, put up by Castle Rock Entertainment, who produced Barcelona and Disco.)
Once identified—rightly or wrongly—as American independent cinema's staunchest defender of bourgeois values, Stillman, who has old money in his family tree but not in his pocket, is now embracing relative poverty, both as a production ethos and a general ideology. In addition to his frequent broadsides against "billionaire bad behavior," he drops quotes from John Huston ("The smaller the budget, the better the movie") and Roberto Rossellini ("In cinema, money is the root of all evil") to support ascetic filmmaking. Damsels in Distress is, in a sense, an ode to personal reinvention made by a man who has reinvented himself as suspect of solvency.
But that reinvention has not absolved what Stillman sees as the traumatic nature of his vocation. "I've made so few films, and people seem to be able to do this in an effortless way that I can't manage," he muses, defeated. "People say, 'Oh, you must be so happy to be back on set, making a movie.' No. Once you're in, you're just worried you're going to mess it up. I really think, 'I just want to finish this film, and then I can die.'"
Filmmaking was not Stillman's first career: He dabbled in fiction writing and journalism, was a film sales agent, and ran an uncle's illustration business. During the 14-year gap in his filmography, did he ever contemplate giving up, moving on to another profession?
Again, he gazes beyond his chicken. "You can't think those thoughts." There are a number of films he says he's excited to make. Dancing Mood will happen, though not next. There's a "dream project" starring Gerwig, Brody, Chloë Sevigny, and original Stillman muse Chris Eigeman, as well as something he describes as "sort of Oscar Wildean, based on material in the public domain by someone else. . . . Escapism for the college-graduate set."
But he admits: "The temptation for me is to abandon filmmaking and try to exist as a solo practitioner. Because the strain of filmmaking is too tremendous. . . . Not only do I struggle myself, but I put a lot of other people through struggle. So other people are suffering because of me."
Throughout our conversation, Stillman occasionally catches himself moaning, apologizes for being so negative, or brightens up to say it's really not all so bad. "All this whining and complaining aside, this was a sensationally positive shoot, great cast, really fun project, and I think it's a fun result," he says. But still, he can't help himself. "Maybe some party poopers won't like it."
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