The last time anyone was able to say, "I'm going to see the new Whit Stillman movie," Bill Clinton was president, the Backstreet Boys were charming TRL audiences, and Stillman-acolyte Lena Dunham was only in the sixth grade. It's been 14 years since the 60-year-old writer-director's last film, 1998'sThe Last Days of Disco, but now Stillman's back on the indie-cinema circuit with Damsels in Distress, a new comedy in theaters today in New York and Los Angeles. Film fans talk about Stillman's movies, which also include Metropolitan (1990) and Barcelona (1994), in reverent tones usually reserved for directors like Woody Allen or Preston Sturges; Damsels in Distress is a wit-packed reminder of why Stillman's work is so celebrated. Starring mumblecore heroine Greta Gerwig as a tap-dancing college student with an interest in starting a dance craze and preventing her classmates at Seven Oaks (a fictional East Coast school) from committing suicide, Damsels shows that Stillman is still the master of WASPy comedies of manners (apologies to Wes Anderson). Earlier this week, Stillman talked with PAPERMAG about making Damsels, Dunkin' Donuts coffee, his next movie (about the music scene in Jamaica) and the best place to get a cocktail in NYC.
In the elevator after the screening I attended, a handful of film critics were arguing about which school Damsels in Distress was satirizing --
Oh, they missed the point entirely.
It didn't cross my mind that you might be satirizing a particular school until I heard them talking about it. So I take it that wasn't your intention?
No, I didn't have a particular school in mind.
Before the elevator reached the ground floor, they came to a consensus. Can you guess which school they thought you were sending up?
You got it.
It's the school most like the one in the film. In fact, early on, one investor was interested in the script because she went to Dartmouth and thought the movie was about her alma mater.
Greta Gerwig and Adam Brody in Damsels in Distress.
Like in all your other films, dancing figures prominently in Damsels in Distress. Beyond the entertainment value of watching people dance on screen, what's the significance of dancing on film to you?
I think you nailed it. It's just a way of more emotionally, more physically, more cinematically getting the characters together and expressing something. And in this case it goes beyond that because the dance sequences express the joy in coming out of discouragement, and finding the path that will lead you forward in a constructive way, which is what Violet [Greta Gerwig] has found, and so things are looking up. And then she also wants to propagate something creative and constructive that has a positive effect in the world, and that's to start a dance craze.
In the film you're presenting characters in their early-20s who experience existential despair to the point of contemplating suicide. What interests you in feelings of despair in characters at that particular age?
It's an age that's so dangerous for people. I mean, that there's so much opportunity, not that there's so much danger. Some severe mental conditions become apparent at that age. I think it's almost a cliché that very serious psychological problems emerge in junior year of college. That's the age Violet is at, and she's a girl who had some psychological problems when she was smaller, which she got over. And I think in film, there's sort of the question of, if there's depression or discouragement or a tailspin, if it's from a breakup, I think generally you can survive breakups, but you might not be able to survive some other kind of tailspin. And it seems that in that key period of identity formation from age 16 to age 24, people have the opportunity to come out of it with a kind of identity that really works, that's really functional, that's setting themselves up for their life, or without it that can meet up with some heavy weather that they might not survive.
Aubrey Plaza and Nick Blaemire in Damsels in Distress.
How long were you at work on the script for Damsels in Distress? Also, I read that you finished a draft while in Virginia City. What were you doing working there?
Do you have a connection with that?
I spent time nearby at Lake Tahoe as a kid, and I grew up watching a lot of Bonanza reruns, and they always went to Virginia City on that show.
Yeah, if you're around Lake Tahoe or Carson Valley, it's kind of natural to visit Virginia City. And I had all those memories of Bonanza and Mark Twain. I had a great-great-grandfather from San Francisco who'd go there and give speeches in the old mining days. And I actually didn't write it there. I turned it in, and then about a month later after the Sundance festival I happened to be traveling around that part of Nevada, and I just happened to be visiting Virginia City, and it's kind of a very poignant time, because in January there's nobody visiting, and at 4:30 in the afternoon the sun's going down and the wind's kicking up. It's not a ghost town, but there's a ghost town feeling. And I got a call from my friends at Castle Rock, and they loved the script and they wanted to go ahead with the film. It was really exciting.
So by that point, how long had you been working on the Damsels script?
I'd only been working on it, on and off, for a few years, which for me is very little. Because [doing my own features], they don't really pay me, and I had to earn a living so I was writing other scripts for money. It really was a quick script for me to write. The quickest script I've written.
When you were writing these other scripts for money, were they things were enjoying or were proud --
Yes, I was. And they were all things I was sincerely doing. Usually they were ideas I'd pitched and followed up on. I've never had a cynical film or TV writing assignment. Some of the TV assignments, they do make it a little less personal, because they generally give you ground rules of what they want. And you'll say, "I'd like to try it this way," and they'll say, "No, we want it this way."
Greta Gerwig and Analeigh Tipton in Damsels in Distress.
Speaking of writing methods, I've read that you do a lot of writing at Dunkin' Donuts. Dunkin' Donuts makes a prominent cameo in Damsels, was that product placement or just a nod to your favorite writing spot?
It's a nod to my favorite coffee! I really like Dunkin' Donuts coffee and I sometimes jokingly say I left the United States for France when French roast coffee took over the United States. There's a kind of coffee-shop coffee that I'd grown up on, that mild American coffee, which I really like, then all of a sudden everything was very Starbucksy. I hate that Starbucks coffee. I mean, I hate their brewed coffee. It's perfectly fine as an espresso. When I came back to the States on trips, when my daughter came back to school here, I discovered Dunkin' Donuts coffee. And I said, "Oh, good coffee is back and it's all over the place!" And so I had a Dunkin' Donuts near me in Greenwich Village, and they opened at 5 and they had plugs and people left me in peace and I could have my favorite coffee and write away, until the transvestites took it over.
There's a generation of filmmakers who cite you as a major influence, including Lena Dunham, who read for Heather in Damsels and ended up helping out with the production. What's your relationship like with these younger filmmakers who hold you in such high esteem?
It's kind of been a one-way street, because they've helped me a lot, and I haven't done much for them. It was kind of a reverse pied piper on the shoot because we had all these people trained in mumblecore and low-budget films who were putting the production together, and I was just relying on what they were doing. I mean, I had some tricks left over from the '90s, but they way they put the production together, it really got fantastic results at a much more economic cost level. And we had a really talented cinematographer, Doug Emmett, who sort of trained in these kinds of films, and our producers also. And then having people like Greta in the cast was really good. And then there were these groups of friends, like Greta and Aubrey Plaza were friends, and Caitlin FitzGerald sort of became part of the Greta group. And Lena Dunham helped by introducing me to her producer. I really regret that Lena's not in the film. There was a cameo she was going to play, but she couldn't because she was working on her TV show.
Caitlin FitzGerald and Ryan Metcalf in Damsels in Distress.
Several of the actors in your cast have credits like The O.C. and Gossip Girl on their resumes. Do you watch any of these shows? How did you come to know these actors?
I think it was a little bit after the fact. We really tried to see Hugo Becker in Gossip Girl when he was cast. That was happening alongside the film. So it's not like we saw him in that and cast him that way. I was completely unaware of the television work people had done.
There's a book of scholarly essays about your movies called Doomed Bourgeois in Love. Have you ever cracked that book open?
Yeah, I'm really grateful they did that. It's a nice book.
Is there anything you can share about your next project?
I'm trying to keep the next one under wraps. I'm hoping to do the Jamaican one very soon, and I think doing this film has shown me the path of how to do it. So all of my trunk scripts, I'll rewrite them based on what I've learned from this film.
OK, let's end with some lightning round questions. What's the last great book you've read?
I'm reading a book right now called Fighter Pilot by Robin Olds. He was friends with my parents. And his wife was Ella Raines, the actress, who was in Preston Sturges' Hail the Conquering Hero. He was in air raids in both the Second World War and the Vietnam War. It's a fascinating story.
What movie have you seen more times than any other?
It's a Wonderful Life.
What's your favorite dance craze?
I think the most fun dance craze is the Charleston. The tango or the Charleston.
Finally, where's the best place to get a cocktail in New York City?
Oh brother, I have a lot of opinions there. [long pause] Cocktails. Good question. [longer pause] I hate promoting some of these places. Lemme see. [pause] The Art Bar, on Eighth Avenue in the Village. Great happy hour specials.
Whit Stillman's Damsels in Distress opens today in theaters in New York and Los Angeles.