Whit Stillman on Jane Austen, George Gershwin, and 8 Other Things That Influenced His Work

Photo: Valerie Macon/WireImage

It’s been 25 years since the garrulous “UHBs” of Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan arrived on screens, paving the way for everything from Wes Anderson to Gilmore Girls. In the years since, Stillman has directed three more features (Barcelona, The Last Days of Disco, and Damsels in Distress), made a pilot for Amazon, and started work on Love and Friendship, an adaptation of Jane Austen’s The Lady Susan. Now, to celebrate the anniversary rerelease of Metropolitan, Stillman spoke with us about the films, books, and music that have influenced his own work.

Jane Austen
I came late to Jane Austen. I read the wrong novel when I was in college, which was Northanger Abbey. I thought it was terrible. In Northanger Abbey, there are really two things happening: One, there’s a typical Jane Austen story about characters involved in romantic situations, and maybe they’re funny and maybe they’re being mocked. And then you get into this tiresome parody of Gothic novels, which I don’t particularly like because I don’t particularly like Gothic novels. But I read the right Jane Austens after college and liked them all.

18th- and 19th-Century British Literature
I had in college a professor called Walter Jackson Bate, and he taught a course called The Age of Johnson. It’s about Samuel Johnson and his period, 18th-century British writing. So we all got to endure Samuel Johnson, and Boswell’s Life of Johnson is now my favorite book. I read it all the time I can, it’s great for going to sleep. 
I love Alexander Pope as a poet, especially “An Essay on Man.” Then there’s another writer from early 19th-century England I just adored after college: Thomas Love Peacock, and his influential novel Nightmare Abbey.

George Gershwin in Parisian Cafés
I was in Paris for nine years, starting in ‘98. One of the great things when I was first there were these wonderful CD collections, selling for almost nothing. For ten euros you’d get three CDs of all the Gershwin songs. I adore Gershwin, and I made my own playlist of my favorite Gershwins from the movies. One was this beautiful song, one of the greatest anti-depressive songs, “Things Are Looking Up.” It’s from a beautiful scene in a not-very-good movie called A Damsel in Distress, and it became sort of a keystone idea for the idea of my adaptation of Damsels.

I’m very influenced by music when I’m writing screenplays. I generally have headphones, and I’m usually in some noisy café. Whether for company or isolation or just to make it a pleasurable experience, I have music in my ears all the time. I tend to listen to the same things, so I don’t really pay too much attention to it. But it’s there, and it’s nice, and I do pay more attention to it than I probably should. I think, How can I use this music in something?

Preston Sturges
He’s another person I sort of underappreciated since I got into the long grass. I’m not sure if I particularly liked his first film, or even The Lady Eve, but I did like Palm Beach Story, and then I got to them all. I particularly like The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, which is really crazy. So I adore Preston Sturges. He’s a great spirit. In a strange way, we have a similar background — sort of a hodgepodge of influences, and thrown into European situations. I feel very close to him. He’s fortunate in having a widow and sons who are dedicated to his memory. They put together terrific collections of his screenplays, which are very very interesting to read, for screenwriters or anyone.

The Gay Divorcee
It’s my favorite film. 

Jim Jarmusch
The contemporary god! Jim Jarmusch sort of solved the problem; he did it first, for a lot of us. He did Stranger Than Paradise in 1984, which I first encountered when it was at the Cannes Film Festival. And then I saw it in New York and just loved it. It’s a minimalist triumph. He did so much with so little means. It was a huge inspiration for a whole generation of us.

Woody Allen
For many years, I didn’t realize how important he was for everyone. I read his editor Ralph Rosenblum’s book, When the Shooting Stops, incredibly closely. He analyzes at least two Woody Allen films really, really closely: Take the Money and Run and Annie Hall. That was hugely helpful. He says y
ou try to be honest about things not working and you keep attacking it from different ways until you get it to work. You don’t just leave things bad. He talks about the beautiful ending of Annie Hall, and how it was written during a taxi ride to a screening. They were able to record it and put it right onto the mag track [the analog soundtrack that accompanies a film reel], and it was a beautiful thing.

Alfred Hitchcock
The great thing for me is how Hitchcock uses guilt so well. He implicates the spectator in the character’s field, and you really feel it, and there’s incredible relief when it comes out right — if it does come out right. I don’t know why Strangers on a Train affects me so much, but there are elements that connected with me. You can see a bit of that in Barcelona, where the Chris Eigeman character feels that people are accusing him of doing something wrong. In Metropolitan, too, there’s that question: Is someone a bad person?

Evelyn Waugh
It’s like Jane Austen, except I read him for the first time after college — I can’t remember if it was Decline and Fall or something else — and really hated it. Fortunately, I went back and reread Waugh, and got to love him. I particularly love Scoop, and the novels from that period. In Scoop I love the yes-man’s thing where he has two responses to Lord Cooper; he can either say “yes” or “up to a point.” He never says “no,”  only “up to a point.” I use that for anyone I don’t want to contradict.

J.D. Salinger’s Manhattan
With Salinger, I’d say 9 Stories and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters are the ones that really resonated. 
Nine Stories is such a Manhattan series. I mean, “The Laughing Man” and “Just Before the War With the Eskimos,” having grown up here, it feel so Manhattan. I actually spent very little time in Manhattan. I had a key two-year period where I went to the Collegiate School, a really good school, the best I ever went to, and it saved me from illiteracy. I went there for third and fourth grade only, but I had a wonderful time. I learned how to read and write and count. This was ‘59 to ‘61 — almost exactly the Salinger period. My friend who gave us the location for the end of Metropolitan in Southampton, his parents lived next to J.D. Salinger’s parents for a few years. There are these connections you hear about.

Whit Stillman on 10 of His Biggest Influences