seinfeld with swords

Whit Stillman Has a Plan to Save The Cosmopolitans

Carrie MacLemore and Whit Stillman on the set of <em>The Cosmopolitans</em>.
Carrie MacLemore and Whit Stillman on the set of The Cosmopolitans. Photo: David Koskas

Whit Stillman is ready for television. The inimitable writer, director, and sometime novelist has been working quietly but steadily for more than half a decade on an ambitious TV show that he’s been calling The Cosmopolitans, a loquacious comedy about witty, urbane, and somewhat clueless Americans living abroad. The series was commissioned way back in 2014 by Amazon Studios, when the streaming service was just getting into original programming, but after Stillman produced a half-hour pilot — an uproarious and charming introduction starring Adam Brody and Chloë Sevigny as well-dressed expats chatting and partying around Paris — little has been heard of the show since.

As it turns out, Stillman is still trying to make The Cosmopolitans happen, though in slightly different form. While the pilot was made in the dry, talky comic style of his other movies — especially the loosely connected trilogy of urban comedies he wrote and directed in the 1990s, spanning Metropolitan, Barcelona, and The Last Days of Disco — he has been developing the series as a fanciful adventure with comic-romantic elements, replete with foreign intrigue and honest-to-goodness swashbuckling. When you think of a Whit Stillman movie, you tend to think of young men and women in formalwear, trading razor-sharp banter and gently teasing the bourgeois. The Cosmopolitans sounds like it’ll mainly be in that spirit, only with a touch of swords, car chases, and guns.

A fixture of the American independent cinema throughout the ’90s, Stillman has been considerably less prolific over the last two decades. It hasn’t been by choice. The vicissitudes of the industry have made it difficult for him to secure financing and successfully get new movies together, and indeed, several high-profile projects to which Stillman’s name has been attached have fallen through. Since The Last Days of Disco was released in 1998, he’s only made two other films: 2011’s Damsels in Distress, a whimsical college comedy with light fantasy elements starring Greta Gerwig, and 2016’s Love & Friendship, an adaptation of Jane Austen’s early epistolary novel Lady Susan. Both are a testament to Stillman’s easy brilliance. For this reason, one hopes that he has better luck putting together The Cosmopolitans — we don’t want to have to wait.

Five years ago, you made a pilot for The Cosmopolitans. What’s happening with that project now?
Amazon really liked the pilot and liked how it was received, but they wanted something called a “mini-bible.” I told them when I’m called to do an outline, it doesn’t turn out very good. One of the problems in this business is that people at many different levels want you to have some kind of outline or treatment or road map for what you’re going to do. But I find if I do that, I come up with clichés and things which are ultimately uninteresting. I have to plunge in the old-fashioned way, finding the characters and voices and creating the story through them.

So Amazon wouldn’t proceed without this bible?
They kindly — or sadistically — gave me a contract to write seven scripts. Then I went off to do Love & Friendship, then I wrote the novelization. When I came back to do The Cosmopolitans, something struck me. I’d long wanted to do a film set in Europe dealing with geopolitical intrigue. I realized I could do it with the same actors I had already cast to be in The Cosmopolitans, so when I came back to write it, I told Amazon I had a different idea.

How’d they receive the change in direction?
They said, “Great, spies!” It’s the spy genre. There’s a place for true adventure right now. There are countries under siege by authoritarian forces — it’s a bit like the 1930s, as has been observed. It’s really rich material for one of those great ’30s comedy-adventure films, like Foreign Correspondent. It’s also inspired by a lot of my favorite things from the 1960s: the Avengers TV show with Diana Rigg, the Maverick TV show with James Garner, the original James Bond movies, particularly the Roger Moore ones. Things with that comic spirit. We’ve been jokingly calling it “Seinfeld with swords” or “Friends against fascism.”

How do you see something like that fitting into the current TV landscape?
Right now at these streaming services, it’s all about Game of Thrones. It has to be the next Game of Thrones. But if you look back, the big hits are these comedy shows that started with really low budgets and poverty-row productions. These streaming companies are paying millions, billions, for the rights to comedies that are really small scale — Seinfeld or The Office.

Stillman on the set of The Cosmopolitans. Photo: David Koskas

Spies and adventure is a bit of a change for you.
I got into it a little bit in Barcelona. There’s a shooting; one of the lead characters almost dies. And Barcelona played really well across the United States. The distributors were shocked that it was doing so well in places like Dallas.

I assume you’re abandoning the original pilot and starting from scratch?
Yes, exactly. A lot of people think it’s stupid to still call it the same thing, so we’re not entirely sure we’ll still be calling it The Cosmpolitans. We were calling it The Cosmopolitans: The Plot Against the Prince. The first eight episodes will be about the plot against the prince. It could have been called Paris Knights. Now it’s looking like it will be called Knights Without Armour.

Your movies have often been described as satirical, I think misleadingly.
Well, if that pleases them, that’s good that they feel that way. Satire is not something I do. I just don’t do satire. I think criticism can be a dangerous job, because critics are in danger of revealing to the whole world stuff they don’t perceive or don’t know. What I try to do is maintain the eye level where, if I can get this, other people can. And not try too much to process it or dumb it down or explain too much.

How do you feel about your older films, looking back?
I guess this is unfashionable — Woody Allen is very cool about not looking at his films, or not liking them, or something like that — but I do look at the films. And I do like them. Since I’ve made so few, it’s good that I still like them.

You’ve said that Damsels in Distress is your favorite movie of yours.
It’s my favorite movie. I feel very close to that movie. It’s loads of fun.

It wasn’t as well-received as your other films. Why do you think that is?
It’s like a retro college utopia. It’s a little like a musical. I don’t know, people who are into naturalism aren’t into this. But I had a lot of support for the movie in France. That actually made it possible to make Love & Friendship. 

Your first three movies are pretty well beloved. They’re part of the Criterion Collection.
Getting a Criterion release can be a really good thing, if you’re not dead. If you’re alive a lot of good can come of it. Actually, Criterion coming out with The Last Days of Disco in 2009 helped me make Damsels in Distress. There were really cool screenings when it came out. They arranged one at the Museum of Modern Art and one at Lincoln Center, and Greta Gerwig had come to one of those screenings and really liked the film. It really helps, having those screenings and releases, to get younger generations to know the films.

And it was around that time that your influence started to be apparent in TV and film, like in Lena Dunham’s Girls.
Yes, and we love mumblecore. Andrew Bujalski and Joe Swanberg and the Duplass Brothers and of course Greta. That helped us make Damsels in Distress, because we could use people who cut their teeth in mumblecore, only with a bigger budget and a better schedule. Also, more enunciation.

I suppose there were people influenced by you in the ’90s as well. Noah Baumbach?
I think the list is Noah Baumbach and Noah Baumbach and that’s it. It was definitely a one-off thing in the ’90s. Everything then was Tarantino and guns and cool stuff.

All those talky gun movies.
At least they’re talky. Talk is good. Good dialogue is good dialogue, even if there are guns. I like to point out that some of the best-loved adventure films and action films are also liked because they have really good talk. The Lethal Weapon films have very good dialogue. Raiders of the Lost Arc is full of humor and incisive remarks. That’s important for the films lasting.

What were you doing before Metropolitan?
When I got out of university in 1973, I decided I wanted to work in film or TV comedy. I had no idea how to get there. I had done some journalism. I wrote some comedy stuff for the Crimson. I was a frustrated Hasty Pudding writer alongside Al Franken at Harvard, but my scripts, although rejected, were much better than Al Franken’s scripts. According to friends.

I thought maybe I’d get a job in banking and write novels on the side. I was left for months without a job, when finally I got interviews with The New Yorker and with Doubleday. The New Yorker preferred another Harvard guy, Ian Frazier. So I went into the Doubleday training program.

What did you do at Doubleday?
The Last Days of Disco was painfully accurate about my experience in book publishing. I was secretary at the Doubleday Crime Club doing crime novels. Then I became an assistant to a senior editor. I signed up books and got stuff published. I never made associate editor, but I was editing. I’d get off work at 2 a.m. Where can you get a drink at 2 or 3? After work, I had a friend who would get me into Studio 54 and I could go around and see what it was like.

And at some point you moved to Europe?
I went to Barcelona to get married. I was working as a sales agent as a way to try to break into films — I was going around film festivals selling Spanish comedies. The Spanish film industry was very casual, very porous. I played an American psychiatrist in a Spanish comedy and got to observe the shoot. I’d started writing the Barcelona script at that point, but I saw that it was too big for a first film. Instead, I decided to do something that I could shoot in a single room. It was going to be social pornography, all about the class system. Debutante parties. Characters people will hate. So I shifted to that from the Barcelona script.

So you were hammering out Metropolitan while working abroad?
I was writing Metropolitan nights and weekends. Sometimes I’d get a week’s vacation and I’d think, “I’ll write a lot of this script.” I’d drink five cups of coffee on Saturday morning at the start of the vacation, and then I’d see some article in the newspaper that outraged me, and then I’d spend the whole week writing an article rebutting garbage I’d read. I love drinking coffee and getting revved up on it, but sometimes it goes astray. Eventually, I finished the script. I’d saved some money. I had the insider rights to the apartment I was living in, and I knew I could essentially pretend to buy the apartment and sell it to an outsider for $50,000. Metropolitan was written as a film to be made for $50,000. It was a great sort of Cinderella experience.

How did you come to work with Chris Eigeman, who worked with you on the next three movies?
We put an ad in Backstage and hired a rehearsal space. I had been involved in selling films, so I tried to make it sound like the film would really get released and be a big deal, even though we couldn’t have SAG actors in the movie. Three hundred people showed up to the first morning’s auditions. Chris Eigeman was the first person who showed up. He put up the sign-up sheet. I think we saw 800 actors total, and half the cast were in the first 50 people who showed up.

The movie premiered at Sundance. What was the response like?
Our problem was distributors had already seen the movie and turned it down. But after Sundance, the movie started to grow in reputation. We had no distribution deal for the United States until the press screening for New Directors/New Films at MoMA. The critics were laughing it up. There was this weird commotion in the back of the theater, people coming in and out. I thought, “Why are they doing this? Why won’t they just sit down?” It turned out they were seeing the critical reaction and making bids on the film.

Did it help that you were nominated for the best screenplay Oscar?
It helps people explain things. Now you’re the Oscar-nominated Whit Stillman. They put that in the notes and it probably does something. I don’t know quite what. It’s definitely a thing that they say. “Oh, he’s Oscar nominated.”

You can take it to the bank.
I wish. I had never had bank financing.

What was the basis for Barcelona besides your experience of the city?
My wife and I had seen An Officer and a Gentleman and really liked it. I made the mistake of saying that in Madrid, and everyone said, “Oh, it’s facha. It’s glorifying the military.” Anything positive about the military in Spain in that period was facha. And for us, it’s a wonderfully corny, great romantic film set in this world of navy pilots. I had the idea, “Okay, An Officer and a Gentleman, but two men in Barcelona during the Cold War when there’s a lot of anti-American feeling.”

Was The Last Days of Disco always going to be your next project after Barcelona?
I made a false career move in the middle of that. When I was in the editing room for Barcelona and I was in love with the idea of The Last Days of Disco, I was sent the script for the Emma Thompson version of Sense and Sensibility. I met with them, but I didn’t pay it enough attention. The script didn’t quite have soul. It was a learning experience, maybe too late: Don’t judge a project too quickly. It can be improved. It can be changed. But I think I disqualified myself from doing other people’s scripts.

How did Chloë Sevigny come to be cast in Last Days?
That was the editor of Metropolitan and Barcelona. He also edited Kids. He was aware of Chloë and he said I would really like her. The casting people I was working with were very dismissive. “She’s not a trained actress, she’s just a downtown person, blah blah blah.” But I really wanted to meet her. She came in and was fantastic and seemed like a long-lost relative. I’d been under a lot of pressure to have stars in the movie. We had offered it to Winona Ryder.

There was a long gap between Disco and Damsels. What happened?
I entered this really bad period of flailing around. Someone said I had done these films eccentrically. They said I should work in the industry way. That meant signing up for these deals where there’s some book involved. I was going to adapt the book, and there were producers and a studio, things like that. It’s very complicated. I would be really reluctant to take on an adaptation of a book under copyright.

What were you adapting?
This is going to sound odd. It was a novel based on the cultural revolution in China.

I was obsessed with the events of 1979. It was the first account of the cultural revolution in China and how horrible it was. It was called Revenge of Heaven. The author and British publisher titled it Red Guard. It was a really important book.

What happened?
A friend of mine who also landed in Paris, a low-budget film producer, found this book he loved called Red Azalea by Anchee Min. It’s a beautiful book. He called up John Calley, the studio executive, and they asked him who they had attached. Off the top of the head, he said, “Whit Stillman.” My friend called me up and said, “I’m sorry, I dropped your name in this conversation, I said you were attached.” So we started working on that too.

And that project fell apart as well?
We started working on it with Film4 in London. The contract was really complicated. They had provisions that seemed really unreasonable. It poisoned the relationship and eventually time ran out. I later heard that Oliver Stone had wined and dined the author and was saying he was going to do it. It was one of those Oliver Stone things that apparently happens — someone is doing a China film and he says he’s interested. But he went to China and learned he couldn’t shoot it there, so he lost interest. Anyway.

You were also attached to a Jamaican movie at some point, right?
Yeah, Dancing Mood. I have this whole crazy Jamaica idea, which I still hope to do. I was working with BBC on that. They thought it was going to be a realistic thing about Jamaica in the ’60s and the music, but it’s not a music film, it’s not about the musicians. It’s about comedy angels. I really like the whole tradition of angels and demons in comedy.

Like a Heaven Can Wait sort of thing?
And lots of things. I think it’ll be really original and I still want to make it, so I don’t want to say too much about it. I went to Jamaica to work on it. Then there were some … contretemps. A fellow who was key for financing was like, “What is this New York preppie doing making a Jamaica film?” Identity politics was going on back then, too. It will have miracles and angels and demons and comedy and music. Does it really matter that the director is a New York preppie?

Whit Stillman Has a Plan to Save The Cosmopolitans