It’s been fourteen years since Whit Stillman last explored the aspirants to high society in The Last Days of Disco. And, oh, his clever banter and twee worldview have been missed. In his fourth film, Damsels in Distress, the auteur behind Metropolitan and Barcelona takes on the plight of female co-eds at the fictional Seven Oaks, a former women’s college now overtaken by boorish frat boys. Greta Gerwig’s Violet leads a pack of pretentious do-gooders, including naïve transfer student Lily (Analeigh Tipton), snobby Rose (90210’s Megalyn Echikunwoke), and ditzy Heather (Carrie MacLemore), on a crusade to cure the college’s ills with tap dancing, a new dance craze, and soap. The film also marks a comeback of sorts for the also-missed Adam Brody, who plays a mysterious suitor to both Lily and Violet. Stillman spoke to Jada Yuan about his new movie, love of horse racing, and "hipster neighborhoods."
I interviewed Analeigh Tipton for the magazine, and she told me you didn’t give her much direction.
In this film, it’s true. I think with Analeigh it was kind of limiting the times she cutely steps up on her tippy-toes to three times in the film. She had a lot of cute mannerisms that were scaled back slightly, but that’s about the only thing that happened.
She walked on her toes?
She has a cute way of walking where, to punctuate a point, she goes up on her tippy-toes.
She took me roller-skating. Did you do any of that on set?
Roller-skating? No. I should have put that in contracts, that no one is allowed to roller-skate during our shoots, because Mira Sorvino roller-bladed in Barcelona and fell and had to get stitches, so I’m not very keen on roller-blading or roller-skating during shoots. It’s okay after shoots, but not while we’re shooting.
The Last Days of Disco came out in 1998. What took you so long between movies?
Well, I happen to be a very bad producer, so I couldn’t get the financing for the projects [I was working on]. And since I find writing a script the most challenging part and the most interesting part and the part under my control, whenever I was rebuffed going ahead with one of the projects, I’d just go back and work more on another script. So I kept working on scripts and not getting money to work on the films. The silver lining of that is that I have quite a bit of really good scripts that I could go back to work on.
What was the inspiration for the Damsels script?
There were stories I’d heard about girls who did these kinds of things in male-dominated universities, where they dressed up and wore nice clothes and gave parties and went dancing and worked with perfumes. And I remember how delighted people were with them. They kind of raised the level of social life and changed the university environment without subtraction. One of the women I was pitching the movie to had gone to Dartmouth, so she identified with the plight of these girls.
Just being trapped in a barbaric male environment.
When you went to Harvard, did you feel all the men were barbaric?
They were even worse. They were miserable depressives. I went in very political times, and everyone was really kind of hateful and full of ugly political passions.
The school in Damsels seems to be a third-tier college.
Yeah, at best. And the idea I had was that the girls aren’t really privileged. I mean, that is their style, but I think that their background could be that they are scholarship students. I think that Violet [played by Greta Gerwig] and Rose [Megalyn Echikunwoke], who are the two dominant ones in that group, I think they’re both scholarship students, because it says in the story that Violet’s parents were writers who didn’t have a dime and they died. So I think people can have a kind of funny, presumptuous persona without actually having assets.
You had a background story for Lily [Tipton], too. That she doesn’t even know what an artichoke is.
Yes, and she came from a place where they had to drive 40 miles to get a beer. I was at a dinner where someone had never seen an artichoke. This guy my elder daughter dated had never seen an artichoke, and he saw an artichoke and he was just so amazed! [Laughs]
What happened when you showed him the artichoke?
He was just so amused by it. It’s great to see something through the eyes of a person who had never seen it before, because artichokes really are weird-looking.
If the people around you were depressive and political, what kind of persona did you have in college?
I used to be on the school newspaper, which was very much like the Daily Complainer [the school paper in the movie]. So the guy shouting at us from a desktop [the paper’s editor, played by Zach Woods] was part of the experience.
That was inspired by you? You were the shouter in college?
No, I was being shouted at, along with other people. It was a very sadistic process at our paper, the Harvard Crimson. And back then they prided themselves on torturing us and humiliating us, which I’m sure was very good for our characters, and prepared us for the film business. But I changed: I went in a lot like Tom Townsend, the pathetic guy in Metropolitan, and then I came out more like the Violet Wooster character.
[Laughs] Like Violet? So you relate to Violet.
I do. I relate hugely to Violet.
What about her?
Well, I’m not a pretty blonde. I don’t know. It’s just that I became hyper-social and a group-organizer type. At least in my own mind.
What would you organize?
Jeez. I need to take a moment. I’m not going to incriminate myself.
These were illegal activities?
No, everything was legal. Strictly legal.
Did you start a dance craze like in the movie?
No, but I’ve always wanted to have one, and now I finally do.
How did you come up with the Sambola?
The Sambola at first started out as a fictitious name in a script. And so I took the words for samba and bolero and put them together, although the dance we have has nothing to do with either the samba or the bolero. And then Justin Cerne, the young choreographer who was working on our film, he was thinking of a dance that was sort of Macarena-like, and about the only thing that we were rehearsing before we started shooting were some of the dance numbers. And so I said that I didn’t really like the Macarena at all, and I thought that what we should do was something where we produce all the great couple-dancing dance moves, and a lot of them involve dancing when you travel, like when you move from one end of the floor to the other. The tango has that, the cha-cha has it. So he sort of took about five of those moves and put it together as the Sambola International Dance Craze.
And you believe a dance craze is a social good?
Yes, definitely. And we definitely have a Sambola International Dance Craze, because that’s what we call the song. So every time people refer to the song by its full name, they have to say the Sambola International Dance Craze. And by repetition, it will become an international dance craze. [Laughs] Even if it never does.
You also seem to take cleanliness very seriously.
Well, I think that when you do feel discouraged, if you’re in a very down mood, both personal hygiene and straightening up your environment are very helpful. It’s not a natural inclination, but I know it’s therapeutic.
Is there a bar of soap you find particularly therapeutic?
I mean, occasionally there is a scent or something you think is wonderful. I remember balsam wood bags from Acadia National Park in Maine with that beautiful pine-needles smell. And soap, there wasn’t actually one that I could think of until I went over to the Dublin Film Festival and I stayed in a hotel where they had Asprey soap. And it turns out that Asprey soap is very precise. It has a precise scent. It’s very good. So I’m thinking of adopting that as the Damsels in Distress soap.
Do you get a sponsorship from them, since it’s in the movie?
Not yet. Not yet. We’ve actually had very bad luck getting sponsorships from the people we promote, because the film is a long ad for Dunkin Donuts, but they only gave us a card with a credit of, like, $50 at the beginning of the shoot. And although they like the film very much, they say, they committed to sponsor another film, so they’re not helping us.
Does it have anything to do with the doughnuts being handed out at the Suicide Prevention Center?
Apparently not. They just say that they had a prior commitment. I was definitely turned down brutally by Dior perfumes. And at one point we were even going to call the film Diorissimo. Our stealth title when we didn’t want to give the real name for our film was Diorissimo. It’s a very good Dior scent.
Are we in an age where decorum has gone by the wayside?
I would say pretty much so. Pretty much so. I actually think things are not as bad as they ought to be, based on current trends. Based on current trends, you’d think that everything would be really awful, when it’s actually quite okay. I think people talk a worse game than they actually seem to do. Like, all these people talk this wild and crazy game, but you see their lives and they seem pretty sedate.
The thing I find interesting about the film business is that these people are sponsoring these crazy stories and scripts that are really hard-edged and, you know, released X-rated, and really sort of perverse in every aspect. Then you meet the people behind them and they’re just so conventional and normal and worried about what lettuce they’re going to eat and whether it’s been sprayed with anything. And so in the past, people talked a moral game and did otherwise, and now it almost seems the reverse, that they talk this wild and crazy lifestyle, but they are actually very sedate in their daily lives. Seemingly. Until they’re caught doing nefarious things on Hollywood Boulevard.
Or they’re politicians …
Or they’re politicians and with all that testosterone, everything is forgiven.
If Violet is you as a young man, is Greta Gerwig a female version of yourself?
That’s just a little too transgender-ish for my tastes [laughs], but I think her inner life, a lot of the things that I really care about go into the inner life of this character. It’s just external things that I have nothing to do with. But the inner stuff is things I’ve worried about and dealt with.
The obsession with cleanliness and being an eternal optimist?
Well, sort of getting dumped … I think being in a relationship where you’re sort of condescending to someone. You feel that you’re being really charitable being with them in a certain way, and to be brutally dumped by that person, that is an eye-opening experience.
That has happened to you?
Were you telling these women you thought they were inferior?
If we were speaking again, I would definitely tell them that. “I was slowing with you. For you.”
These leftover scripts you were working on during your hiatus, do they deal with New York?
No, no. One, the original story was set in Paris and now I have sponsorship if the story is set in New York. So that is one that’s not actually written. It’s just a plan and that one involves people who are not just young people. They are different ages. So that will broaden out the character generations.
Are you interested in particular themes?
Not really. I mean, I wish I had a faster pace so I could cover more stories, because I have a lot of stories that I’d like to do. But my pace has been so pathetic I can’t assume I’ll do anything.
You’re rivaling Terrence Malick, who’s done five films in four decades.
No, the thing is that Terrence Malick cheated because he did actually very constructive, important things while he was away from cinema. I just failed.
What were you doing?
Well, I have been writing the scripts, which I don’t think are that bad. But I mostly was just failing to get up my projects. While he was, I think, getting a doctorate and becoming an interesting person.
But how did you fill your down time between failing on your projects?
I was having a very intense … I was creating material for future films. I was having a very intense social life, which was very confusing. And then I was also getting into activities that would possibly be useful and very interesting, such as my favorite thing in Paris was going to steeplechase races at the Auteuil Racetrack. Essentially you see that sort of thing in Degas paintings, he liked to paint races and horses. And there’s this whole horse culture in France, which I love. And there’s a whole channel devoted to horses called Equidia. I kind of love the whole horse culture.
Do you want to do a steeplechase racing movie?
I’d love to do a Paris movie in which Auteuil plays a part, because it’s very pretty.
You might have trouble now that HBO canceled Luck since horses kept getting killed.
Really? That’s terrible.
I think it’s diminished the ability for people to do projects on horse racing in the future.
I think there are ways around that. You could take real footage of actual races and just do a show around that. I think the beginning of anything is really kind of inspiring, and when they started out making films, what they would do is they looked and would see that there’s a parade happening on a certain day and then they’d get their actors out and film the actors with the parade in the background. Or they’d phone the parade and put their actors in the parade. They’d take advantage of what was going on to kind of create a film with good visuals. And I can see that you could do that with a lot of variants.
Would horse racing be a part of that Paris movie you were talking about that’s now set in New York?
I don’t think it’s that set. I don’t know how to use steeplechasing in a movie. It wouldn’t be about steeplechasing. It’s just that the characters would be in this nice setting. One of the first things that interested me about Paris was I was in Mexico — I took time off from college and went to Mexico and learned Spanish — and all my friends had gone off to France, and I felt too intimidated by France to go. While I was in Mexico, I read an Ernest Hemingway book in which he talks about the Auteuil track and all these times at the Auteuil track. And I thought, If ever in my life I’m living in Paris, I’d like to go there with friends.
Do you have more affinity with Paris now than you do with New York?
I mean, I like it better. Affinity? I’m stuck with my New York affinity. I’ve recently been subletting in Tribeca and I adore Tribeca. And I liked some neighborhoods in Brooklyn where we were doing post-production on the film. Hipster neighborhoods. I like hipster neighborhoods.
Further out. Bushwick is really cool.
You shot the college scenes on Staten Island, correct?
Oh, that sounds bad when you say it that way. [laughs] We shot at this beautiful place called Sailor’s Snug Harbor. It was a sailors’ retirement home built in the 1830s, right by the water.
You think it sounds bad to say you shot it in Staten Island?
[laughs] No one will come to the movie if they think it was shot in Staten Island.
But Seven Oaks looks so non-specific. It’s not even recognizable as New York.
Let’s say it was shot on the Pennsylvania land mass, because we always thought that our college would be somewhere in Eastern Pennsylvania, and Staten Island is really the coast of New Jersey and the coast of New Jersey is really the coast of Pennsylvania. That’s my theory.
People from Staten Island will be mad at you for being ashamed of it.
I’m actually fine with the reality of Staten Island. I’m talking about the image of Staten Island from Manhattanites.
If you made a movie about youth today, what issues do you think we need to tackle?
I’m not sure if it matters if it’s today or some years ago. I’d like to make a film about kids in the early sixties coming out of a church, like coming out of a really devout background. I think that would be interesting. How are the people brought up that way, and what are their childhood and their families like, and how do they adjust to the outside world?
Do you watch Gossip Girl?
I’ve watched one episode of Gossip Girl and I tried to get a job directing episodes and I was turned down.
They turned you down?
Yes! They caught me in a lie. They asked me if I’d seen a number of episodes and I said yes, but I’d only seen one.
How did they find you out?
They just sensed it. They might have asked me to, like, name a character, and I couldn’t. I know one character is called Serena, because we had a Serena in Metropolitan. I don’t think Gossip Girl is influenced by Metropolitan. I think the writer of the series took some sort of external elements from Metropolitan, maybe, like a character name, but I think it’s almost the antithesis of Metropolitan.
It seems like the look of it is somewhat influenced by Metropolitan.
I can see that. But I think the people involved with Gossip Girl were involved with The O.C. And they cast Adam Brody, so I stole from them.
It upsets me that he hasn’t done a ton of work since The O.C.
He’s done some films and the people I worked with on films really like him. He was in The Romantics and he was in The Land of Women. He’s very good. I like him a lot. I want to work with him again.
When will that be?
I can never say. I have such a bad track record.
What happened in the one Gossip Girl episode you saw?
I can’t remember. It was okay. It was okay. And I went in and tried to get a job and failed. I was really hungry. If you’re trying to make a film for ten years, your bank account gets pretty low.