In the years when American independent film was still fighting for its place in theaters, usually only one or two Amerindies a year broke wide. In 1990, Whit Stillman's Metropolitan was one of them. A reserved, witty portrait of the New York City debutante-ball season, based on Stillman's own experiences as an upper-middle-class kid with super-rich friends, Metropolitan announced Stillman as a filmmaker with a uniquely positive perspective on class privilege. But he took four years to follow up his Oscar-nominated debut with the even-more-mannered Barcelona, and four years after that to complete his unofficial "yuppie trilogy" with The Last Days Of Disco–both also loosely based on his own experiences. And while Stillman has been rumored to be working on several new projects that depart from his first three films, fans are still waiting. In conjunction with the new Criterion edition of Metropolitan, Stillman spoke with The A.V. Club about his sensibility, his influences, and whether he's ever going to get back to work.
The A.V. Club: When are you going to make another movie?
Whit Stillman: [Laughs.] I just finished a script last week that's the first script I've wanted to shoot since Disco. I'm just beginning to show it to people, and I hope to get it off the ground soon.
AVC:You've been attached to two or three other projects since your last film, including a Revolutionary War drama and an adaptation of two unfinished Jane Austen novels.
WS: Yeah, my very slight alibi–though I don't really have an alibi–is that I've been working on a number of things that I hope at some point will come through at a faster pace. But it must look pretty pathetic.
AVC: Isn't there something to be said for just grinding it out, the way Woody Allen does, putting out a movie a year?
WS: I don't think so. I'm not that smart. Woody Allen is a genius. He's really funny, and it all just pours out of him in a really funny way. I feel kind of limited, in that I have to work on things a lot to get them to a level that I consider respectable. So that's one of the time factors. Also, I think that the first ideas I get, like a lot of other people's, are just total clichés.
AVC: Is this all a version of what Taylor Nichols' character in Barcelona describes as "Maneuver X," to play it coy and get your fans to come to you?
WS: Exactly. If I couldn't control demand, I could at least control scarcity.
AVC: You recorded a commentary track for Criterion's Metropolitan DVD, which must've made you nostalgic both for the time when you made the movie, and for the time represented in the movie.
WS: Yeah. The nice thing about it was the chance to get together with some of the people on the crew, and the actors. I've been living abroad, but I see the actors quite a bit because I go to the places where they live, which is Los Angeles and New York. But John Thomas, the cinematographer, came in to help with the color timing of the transfer, and the editor, Chris Tellefsen, came in for the commentary. It also gave me a chance to show them the script for the new film, so it was good that way. It's odd, after so many years of not doing anything, to be working on the last production phase of the first film, and also the first phase of what I hope will be the fourth film.
So, to answer your question, yeah, the experience of making the movie is covered in the warm glow of nostalgia from 16 years ago, plus having that backward look on real people and events. I'm still in touch with the people I was writing about. I got in touch with them again through making Metropolitan. A lot of the women I went to those parties with, I had lost touch with them before the movie, and we actually showed them the movie in rough cut to see what they thought of it, and we've stayed in touch.
AVC: Do you feel like the characters in the movie would've stayed in touch like that?
WS: Yeah. In fact, I think we did that in Disco. Not necessarily the characters you'd entirely expect, but the idea was that the Metropolitan crowd would show up at the disco, because people from my real Metropolitan experience were at those discos in the period. So I think four of the Metropolitan characters are in The Last Days Of Disco, plus a couple of the actual people I knew in the period.
AVC: Those scenes in The Last Days Of Disco work a lot like the closing scenes in Metropolitan and the closing scenes in Barcelona, in that they all introduce a note of hope into movies that are about a golden era coming to an end.
WS: For me, the present is a golden era that's ending too. That's the greatest golden era. Right now. [Laughs.] I just like pining for lost times. I can pine for this morning.
AVC: You set Metropolitan "not so long ago," so viewers could project it onto any era they want to…
WS: It was also a production shortcut, so they don't say, "Oh, this car is from a different period!"
AVC: To you, what era is it?
WS: In a way, it's not really a true era to me. My own memories of that period are very specific, but they're bifurcated between the end of the '60s and the beginning of the '70s. Things are pretty straitlaced in the first part of the movie and then long-haired and druggy in the second part, which is what happened while I was involved in that whole debutante-ball scene. The film suggests that a little bit, with the difference between before Christmas and after Christmas. There's some drugs after Christmas, and some wild behavior within the context of the film, whereas before Christmas is supposed to be the end of the '60s, which came very late for us. I remember going to those parties in 1968, because I had an extra ticket from my sister, and from my perspective, it was a continuation of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Nothing much had changed. And then in the subsequent three years, things changed a lot.
AVC: In Metropolitan's opening credits, you share your credit screen with the editor and the cinematographer, similar to what Orson Welles did with Citizen Kane. Either you were being very humble, or very presumptuous.
WS: Oh, humble. Absolutely. I actually do that in all three films. I felt in Metropolitan that I couldn't have done it without John and Chris. And other people, too. So the credits are not in the usual way, where the producer credits are way down and the editing, cinematography, and music credits are way up.
I later had a tough time with the Director's Guild. I wasn't in the guilds for the first two films. I joined for Disco, and the DGA didn't want to let me do that with the credits. They protect the director's-credit solo-card quite firmly, and I think we had to say that our strobe effect in the credits would hit the director credit last, or something like that. I guess it's small beer. Not that important.
AVC: To extend the Citizen Kane analogy, you were nominated for a Best Screenplay Oscar on your first try, just like Welles.
WS: I like these analogies. [Laughs.] But my idea was that The Last Days Of Disco was going to be the Citizen Kane of romantic comedies. [Laughs.] I like to defend Disco because it got a beating in some corners.
AVC: Why do you think that was? Why didn't people respond to it?
WS: I think I touched the third rail of popular culture, which one should never do. The third rail of cliché. A lot of people had very firm ideas of what disco was. They weren't my ideas, nor what I wanted to show. And then I later found out that many of the people who were so authoritative about how our disco period wasn't "real" disco had no information of their own. They were just going from having seen Saturday Night Fever or something. I imagined these journalists lambasting us for inaccuracy to all be habitués of Studio 54. No, not at all. [Laughs.] They would all preface their comments with, "Well, in that period, I only liked punk music. I hated disco. But this film is not…" Whatever. Anyway. For me, it was exactly as it was in my head.
AVC: Do you think some of the lukewarm response was due to the fact that the film's style was similar to that of your first two films?
WS: I don't know. I feel like the reverse. It seems like it wasn't enough like the other two. I mean, I shouldn't overstate it, because there were people who did like it, and we got some support. I thought it was funny how many times I got accused of cashing in on a commercial trend. Boy, I really wish I was better at cashing in on commercial trends. [Laughs.]
AVC: When The Last Days Of Disco was completed, you spoke of it as being the end of a trilogy, and indicated that you were going to make a real break in style with your next project. Is that still something you have in mind for your next film?
WS: Almost all the stuff I've been working on involves a break in certain ways, and yet I find that sometimes the content might come back and the style might come back. The overt subject matter will probably be very different, but when you actually get into the long slog of finishing a script that you like, sometimes things end up back into your usual sphere.
AVC: Are you conscious of your own style?
WS: I'm getting that way, yeah.
AVC: When you made Metropolitan, did you have a filmmaking model in mind? A voice you were looking to emulate?
WS: Well, there were things that helped. The Big Chill came out and was good and fun to watch and well-received, which was encouraging, and that was one of the only scripts I had. They published an edition of that in screenplay format, and I was a real greenhorn in writing scripts, so that's what I used as a model for what a script should look like. And The Big Chill worked as well as a model for an ensemble nostalgia piece.
AVC: What about the look and tone of the film?
WS: The look and subject matter of the film is sort of a tribute to late-'30s films of elegance that I really liked. The kind of world shown in those social comedies. The idea was to get something similar in a low-budget film set in more recent times. What if that world could still exist? It's more naturalistic-realistic in certain ways, but I was trying to cover that territory a bit.
AVC: Was it hard to get access to those ritzy locations?
WS: Yes, it was hard, and they weren't inherited locations, they were locations that we found through friendships or connections. Casting Dylan Hundley was a great triumph, because after she was cast, she put us in touch with her father and stepmother, who had a beautiful townhouse. And Roger Kirby, who played the man at the bar, donated his apartment. The big breakthrough came through this research foundation in New York, housed at the Alan J. Lerner mansion. I knew a couple of people who worked there, and the agenda of that foundation was to improve New York. We promised to try and do that. [Laughs.]
AVC: A lot of people presume that you're a rich guy yourself, and you had access to these locations because that's where you and your friends hung out.
WS: No, there's a big difference between having relatives who have money and actually having it yourself. Just because you have a cousin who has a lot of money doesn't mean he shares it with you. [Laughs.] Or that you'd ask him for a loan.
I've had no money, absolutely, from my family. They paid for a good education–or schools that purported to be a good education–but, um, not a dime. Well, okay, some dimes. But I was older when I made the film. I wasn't just out of college or anything. So by then I knew people, like the ex-boyfriend of my sister, this person, that person… that's how it came about.
AVC: In the commentary track, actors Chris Eigeman and Taylor Nichols imply that they weren't sure they really "got" the script the first time they read it. Was it difficult trying to explain your sensibility to people who didn't know you?
WS: Yeah, and I think it was disconcerting to people on the other films that I'd spend a lot of time working with them and no time working with Chris. I think some took that badly, but what they didn't take into consideration is that Chris and I spent a lot of time on Metropolitan. When I met Chris, I thought, "This guy's a great dramatic actor, but I'm not sure if he's funny." I wasn't sure if he could do the quicksilver comedy of that character.
AVC: Eigeman seems loose enough with you to take some shots at you on the Metropolitan commentary, and the Barcelona one too.
WS: Does he do that? I didn't detect it. [Laughs.]
AVC: You obviously have a social relationship as well as a business one.
WS: Yeah, I've stayed friends with both Chris and Taylor. You know, Taylor married a Barcelona girl.
AVC: Do you watch their other work? Did you make a point to watch Gilmore Girls when Eigeman was on?
WS: I heard a lot about it. I'd love to see it, but I haven't. I really liked what he did in the Jennifer Lopez movie [Maid In Manhattan]. He kind of created his scenes. I've seen some of the independent films he's made, and some of them, it's amazing, there can be a scene where Chris is on one side of the scene and someone else is on the other side, and they're like in two different movies. Chris is in the good movie. [Laughs.]
AVC: Eigeman and Nichols returned in Barcelona, playing bickering cousins, but their testy foreign-policy discussions seem almost genteel compared to the angry debates going on today.
WS: That could be more a critique of my film than of the reality, because at the time, it didn't seem so genteel.
AVC: But even though there are bombs going off in Barcelona, and a sense that civilized behavior won't change the violence in the world, at least there's a value system that people can adhere to. And it matters.
WS: I don't know, though, because we were under a big-time nuclear threat in the '80s, and there was a lot of hysteria about the tensions between East and West. Maybe in the film it comes off differently, but that could be a function of style. I think it was a scarier time in the '80s than it is now.
AVC: One of the hallmarks of your style is that you often cut to the aftermath of a conflict rather than showing the conflict itself.
WS: Yeah, because I'm not a very good director at showing conflict. [Laughs.] I tried to show the horrible bomb in Barcelona, but it looked so terrible I cut it out.
AVC: What do you make of the varying political interpretations of your films? Some have read them as being deeply conservative.
WS: I don't know. I try to stay away from any characterization of the films, because it just gets in the way of other people enjoying them. I try not to delve into why people might dislike or like them, and it's one reason why I'll really think hard about doing any more commentary tracks. I sort of like the idea that you make the film and people can do with it whatever they want. You want them to like it and get something out of it, but I don't really like commenting on the films. Peter Becker, who worked on the Criterion DVD of Metropolitan, told me, "You know, we don't have to do a commentary track." That's an interesting thought, that maybe it's better not to do them. They can just get in people's way, and hurt you if there's too much visible thought or analysis.
By the way, there's a publication, I think it's called First Of The Month, that did a rebuttal to the conservative interpretation of the films. It was pretty funny. I'm glad people can approach the films from any ideological point of view.
AVC: So as far as you're concerned, you're happy whether people want to think of your films as conservative or liberal?
WS: Just so long as they don't hate them too much. [Laughs.]
AVC: You live in Paris, correct?
AVC: When you first moved there several years ago, you mentioned that the stereotype that French hate Americans wasn't true. Has that changed at all in the last four or five years?
WS: I think they really hate us in London. I don't think they hate us in Paris, actually. You can't go by what the governments say or do. It's not the governments. It's on the street where there's more hatred of Americans in Britain than in France.
AVC: Were you in Paris during the riots this past fall?
WS: I was, but you wouldn't have known about them except that train service to the airport was affected at one point. I'd like to know whether crime in Paris actually declined in that period, because, you know, it was as if it was happening in Yonkers. It was pretty far out of town. I think some of the vehicle-torching got into Paris itself, but I didn't see it.
The transit strike in New York [this past Christmas], I can tell you, really affected everyone. My friends blamed me for bringing the strikes in from Paris.
AVC: In the past, you've been very outspoken about movies and styles of movies that you don't care for…
WS: Oh really? I try to stay away from that. I was outspoken?
AVC: To an extent. You weren't running down your colleagues, but you certainly weren't too happy with The Patriot during the time you were working on your own Revolutionary War movie.
WS: Oh man, yeah.
AVC: In general, you've spoken about disliking the trend toward more cynical and violent Hollywood and indie films. Is that still a problem, or do you see some encouraging trends?
WS: It's kind of odd. It's as if pedophilia didn't exist until 20 years ago, and now it's the only thing we can talk about. [Laughs.] Five millennia, not a word about it, and then every film… Anyway. I don't know. I do feel out of swing. I guess a lot of people do. And I think it's helpful to aspire to make films if you feel that other people are not doing what you want to do.
AVC: Can you think of anything recently that's on the right track?
WS: Oh yeah, I love Chris Guest's films. I actually like a lot of individual films by different people, but I guess I don't always feel that I like every film by a lot of people.
AVC: You're not an auteurist?
WS: It makes sense, the idea of auteurism, but I guess maybe with all these people rate-busting and making too many films too quickly, not everyone gets to wear their auteur band.
Then there are certain years where I just like every film, and I wonder, was I just in a good mood in 1995? [Laughs.]
AVC: What's rate-busting?
WS: That's when you're doing, say, piecework in a factory, and you're all getting paid for doing five sweaters an hour, and then someone comes in and does 15 sweaters an hour. They bust your rate. I feel like I'm trying to keep the rate high by not overproducing. [Laughs.]