Whit Stillman released his first movie in 1990. An undergraduate love story compressed into one holiday debutante season, Metropolitan presented the milieu of its writer-director—Preppie, Yuppie, Urban Haute Bourgeoisie—and treated it, not as something to be pilloried or taken for granted, but as a suitable subject for his characters’ study, even defense.
Metropolitan introduced actor Chris Eigeman, whose voluble reactionary would be a throughline in Stillman’s films to come. It applied the emotional delicacy of the 19th-century courtship novel to the sexual revolution’s aftermath—for Stillman, something more ambiguous and disorienting than the accepted version of escape from barren, pre-orgasmic Puritanism. It also should serve as a lesson for the young New Yorkers for whom feigned penury was a favorite sport.
Stillman was 38 in 1990, with a fully developed sensibility and professional life behind him. He’d aspired to be a writer first: “One of the great moments I had was when Tom Wolfe championed some stories I’d written to Harper’s,” Stillman says now, age 57. “The kill fee on that commission was the most money that I’d made. I got rejected.” His “first conscious affinity” was Fitzgerald, and he duly expatriated; Barcelona (1994) recalls his time as a sales agent for Spanish films in the early ’80s, as newly democratic Spain’s NATO membership prompted anti-USA protest. Stillman’s square American innocents abroad champion Ben Franklin and salesmanship culture against Euro pretense—perhaps a response to the Spanish comedy directors whose films Stillman hawked and admired, who then cast him as “the American Fool”?
Around the release of his third film, The Last Days of Disco, in 1998, Stillman immigrated again, spending 11 years abroad—nine in Paris, the last two in Madrid. It has also been 11 years since his last movie; the writer has been quiet, save for the odd Wall Street Journal contribution. He recently returned to New York City, after a string of financing disappointments, and took my call. (See the full transcript of the conversation, “An Interview with Whit Stillman here.”)
“I was very optimistic,” he says of his European filmmaking aspirations. “And it was a chimera. It took me a long time to realize that things don’t happen there the way they should. Very few people make the decisions so . . . if you can’t convince the two people, you can’t make your film. I think it’s better here, where there’s more freedom to raise money privately, and that’s what I’ll do. I wasted too much time not doing that.”
Little Green Men, an announced adaptation of a Christopher Buckley beltway satire, is now kaput. Of Dancing Mood—a long-treasured project set in the Kingston of the early 1960s, inspired by Stillman’s love of the era’s rocksteady and ska music—he is hopeful, but ultimately unsure. For the question, “What’s next?,” the most I got was, “A dark-horse candidate, something that’s never been mentioned, that I’ve kept under wraps. . . . I’ve made that mistake, talking about things before they actually happen.” He has worked out an adage: “If you can’t spur demand, at least you can increase scarcity.”
Shipping this week is a Criterion DVD of Last Days of Disco, previously out of print, now back with delicately cross-hatched cover illustrations by Pierre Le-Tan (in conjunction, Stillman will present a screening at Lincoln Center on August 27). Shot on his highest budget to date, Disco, concerning a circle of well-heeled, freshly adult WASPs astray in very-early-’80s club life, “underperformed.” “Unfortunately, there was this story that there was a disco revival going on. . . . And it’s bad to be a trend.” (The film was rushed through production, to beat the little-remembered Mike Myers vehicle 54.)
Dialogue, fragments from a lifetime of conversations, are the mobilizing force in all of Stillman’s movies. His meticulous writing technique (“It’s the reverse of what Robert McKee used to say in his course”) depends, he says, on developing voices “to the point where they seem to be operating autonomously,” then creating volleys of dicta and contradicta: “Have the characters tell the truth from their point of view and then . . . you realize, ‘You know, that’s not quite true, there are these exceptions. There’s this other aspect,’ and then send another character to say that.” Disco‘s characters, fluent and affluent, argue questions of fate, regarding both class (“What if, in a few years, we don’t marry some corporate lawyer? What if we marry some meatball, like you?”) and character (“What if ‘thine own self’ is not so good? What if it’s pretty bad?”).
With due respect to Carolyn Farina, terrific in Metropolitan, Disco has Stillman’s fullest female protagonist in Chloë Sevigny, here a recent Hampshire grad negotiating the shoals of sex and Manhattan nightlife, joining an Ivy League clique whose social bubble submerges, without ever popping, amid a multiracial, omnisexual dance floor. In a piece of “counterintuitive” casting, Stillman ignored Sevigny’s “very Downtown, Harmony Korine, edgy Kids reputation” to recognize the patrician Connecticut she’d grown up around. In a New Yorker profile positing Sevigny as 1994’s “It” girl, one interviewee commented: “People want to project their desire, [but] she’s smart enough to hold back, and that allows us all to project whatever we want to.” Stillman saw this—and saw beyond, into the expressive dolor in her dusky eyes, the slight slump that makes her meekly tall. Her hookup with Robert Sean Leonard, oppressed by outside expectation, is painfully human acting.
On his hesitance to screen Sevigny in Kids, Stillman ‘fessed: “I really like watching [Production] Code movies. . . . I’m Mr. Breen’s biggest fan.” This love of “Hollywood’s Censor” may imply a certain conservatism, but the articulacy, remorseless humor, class awareness, and Episcopalian conscience of Stillman’s works convey a refined iconoclasm. He’s a detail-driven craftsman of verbal filigree, in an industry of indie distributors concerned with marketable edge. Of recent “externally vérité” realism: “I don’t think it’s true. . . . I think we bring these emotions and aesthetic exultation to life as we observe it, instead of just having this critically negative camera covering things.” The tragedy is, there’ll be nothing even like Stillman’s three films until he makes another. The chronicler of decline and fall seems guardedly optimistic: “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.”
For the full interview, visit villagevoice.com/movies