The characters in Whit Stillman movies are terrific snobs. They’re the sort of people who defend yuppie-dom, and who say things like, “I don’t read novels. I prefer good literary criticism.” Stillman likes these characters, sometimes because of their snobbishness, so his affection for them rubs off on us. With three movies (Metropolitan, Barcelona, and The Last Days of Disco), he created a unique set of young, urbane WASPs who also happen to very funny. After completing Disco, Stillman went on hiatus for over a decade (way too long for his devoted cult following), but now he’s back with Damsels in Distress.
Set in fictional Seven Oaks College, Stillman’s latest is also the silliest movie he’s made yet. It centers on Violet, a fastidious, eccentric student who strives to improve the lives of frat boys, depressed students, and her similarly-minded roommates. Greta Gerwig, who made a name for herself in mumble-core titles like Nights and Weekends and Hannah Takes the Stairs, stars as Violet. I already knew Gerwig and Stillman were a natural fit, but I didn’t see the extent of this until I sat down with them at the Donovan House Hotel. By (mostly) interviewing themselves, they did a better job than I ever could.
Whit, it’s been thirteen years since your last movie. What have been up to during that time?
WS: Greta’s going to answer that now.
GG: I can answer it! He’s been failing [laughs]. That’s what he says, all the time.
WS: I’ve been waiting for Greta and the other cast-members to get older because when I first had the idea for the movie, they were ten. That’s too much of a stretch for ten year olds, no matter how accomplished they are. So, as Greta said, I was failing. I had all these other ideas I thought I could get off the ground in London. I was the Orville Wright of getting things off the ground in London. But then I came back, and the people who backed Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco commissioned me to do this script. They said they liked it, but then they also said they had no money. We’d have to get financing through star-casting and foreign sales. I told them there is a way to do this film economically, like Metropolitan.
What was your way to make it economical?
WS: I re-conceived how I would do it. Greta is a member of a group of young filmmakers who are really accomplishing a lot with very little money. One of her friends, Lena Dunham, came to audition. It was exciting because I had a whole day of people who made the script sound really terrible. They were fine actors, but they weren’t getting it. I was thinking, “Oh, my God! Maybe they script is really bad.” But Lena read the parts really well. Later, she introduced me to her co-producer Alicia Van Couvering, and Alicia came up with this plan of how to make the film low-budget. It was very clever. For instance, if you have stand-ins for an entire shoot, you can have a big budget while still qualifying for a low-budget deal. We found that with reduced resources, much less than what was quoted in The Times, we could still get more [shooting] days than most $3-5 million films.
GG: I shot a $5 million film and had less shoot days than I had with Whit. It‘s a weird Catch-22 at the lower budget level. You can shoot certain deals with SAG and not have to use Teamsters for trailers, but as soon as you pass into one budget bracket, it’s almost like you need $10 million. Your choices are to make the film for a lot less or a lot more. In between, you’re kind of screwed.
WS: So many people think it sounds good to have a $2-5 million film, but they get in total trouble. That money goes into the garbage can, essentially. When you’re talking to producers and you mention the low budget, you think it’ll please them. Actually, it just means they’re not interested because they can’t put their feet on it, so they say “good-bye.” They don’t even say “good-bye”; they just never say, “Yes.” So, anyway, that’s part of failing.
Violet is similar to other characters from your earlier films: Audrey from Metropolitan and Alice from The Last Days of Disco. What attracts you to these types of characters?
WS: I see her differently than that.
GG: I do, too!
WS: She’s like humanized Charlotte, [Kate Beckinsale’s character from Disco]. Maybe if it’s like you took the soul of Alice and combined it with the [brains] of Charlotte. There’s a bit of that Kate Beckinsale thing where [Violet] is funny and talkative, but she’s also really likable.
Was it challenging for you, Greta, to go into this universe where characters have a peculiar way of communicating?
GG: I love Whit’s movies, so the hardest thing for me was not imitating other actors he had worked with. I didn’t want to hear Chris Eigeman’s voice in my head, or anyone else, because they were so good at making Whit’s words their own. They seemed like they were thinking about everything they said, coming up with it on the spot. Actors who work with writers with strong voices can fall into a pattern of repeating the most well-known version [of that voice]. That’s why I think a lot people sound like they’re imitating Woody Allen when they work with him.
WS: Or they sound like they’re imitating Diane Keaton when they’re reading her books.
GG: I told Whit last night I just read the Diane Keaton autobiography, and he said, “So that’s why you’re talking like her.” [laughs] Anyway, to have a script like Whit’s is a challenge in the best possible way. It’s challenging, yes, but delicious and surmountable. It’s much harder when you have nothing and you’re forced to make shit up.
I read somewhere that Whit would challenge you and the cast by not letting anyone swear on set. What was that like?
GG: It wasn’t quite like that…
WS: … and they DID curse.
GG: We did!
WS: It was very painful to hear.
GG: It was a bunch of girls, and I’m very much a girl’s girl, and so I was instantly chatter-boxing away with all of them. We’d be on open mics, talking about boys we’ve gone out with, and I’d look over to Whit and…
WS: … I had to remind them that they were broadcasting to the whole crew.
GG: He said, “Ladies, we can all hear you!” So, yeah, we tried not to curse so much. And Carrie MacLemore, who plays Heather in the movie, never curses. As soon as you have someone in your midst who doesn’t use bad language, it makes you very aware of when you do. She was a moral improvement for us.
Did that help you get into character more?
GG: Honestly, and lots of actors will say this, but putting on clothes is a big part of feeling who the character is. We were shooting in the fall it was cold outside, so we’d wear big coats in between takes. As soon I had the coat on, I started talking more like a trucker. When it comes off, I start talking more like a lady. Those coats made us more masculine.
Speaking of masculine, why wasn’t Chris Eigeman in this film? He was in all your others.
WS: He turned it down.
WS: I wanted him to the play the professor who teaches about the dandy tradition in literature. He said he wasn’t acting anymore, but then I see he’s in Lena’s thing [Girls]. He lied to me! I’ll make him pay the price for that.
Whit, what’s your writing process like? Do you start with a conversation, or do you start with a larger picture than fill in the gaps?
WS: It starts with too much coffee. Greta writes, too, so I’m sure she can relate, but it’s very tough until you feel your world has been created. I really like when the characters start to do their own thing, and you don’t quite feel like you have total control over them. It used to be a process that 100% intimidated me, and now it only half-intimidates me.
Do you think about grammar a lot when you’re writing?
WS: Why, did you have some problems with the script? [chuckles] When I first saw the trailer, the studio had written, “It’s who you educate.” I had to tell them, “No, it has to be ‘whom.’” Then we had the idea of correcting the card in the trailer with little ding noises, as if Violet is doing it. So, yeah, I can be a little grammatical. But when I wrote a novel, I realized that what I think is normal is not really grammatical. The copy-editor kept saying stuff like, “It sounds ridiculous if you don’t have the characters say this line in this way.” I’m so used to spoken speech films that I wanted to recreate that in the book. A reviewer later commented the book wasn’t very grammatical, so I guess the copy-editor was right.
GG: I once dated a boy in college who’d smoke Camel Lights, but he kept saying “Camel’s Light,” insisting that he was correct. I thought, “This can’t be good. This is over. You can keep your Camel’s Light.” [laughs]
In the Times article you mention, it says you cut the running time from 120 minutes to a little over an hour and a half. What were some of things you took out?
WS: I felt the first version would be a good audition piece for the backers of the film. I thought we’d trim just a little bit from that. When the editor suggested it could go down to 94 minutes, he almost lost his job. When he told I should cut 26 minutes, it felt like he was asking me to cut off my arm. We had this debate over long or short comedies could be, and I pointed out a lot of his favorites comedies are very long. This lasted for seven months. Meanwhile, I’d screen the film and see that people were impatient, even though I didn’t think they should be. We had this scene where Violet was talking about cures for depression, and the guys suggested alcohol. There was all this other stuff in that scene! In the background, we had Thor (Billy Magnussen) in a sleeping bag doing all this really funny stuff. But since it happens in the last third of the film, I got the sense the audience just wanted to get to the end. That’s where the cuts came from.
Do you think Criterion will ever show the full cut?
WS: I think so, but first the DVD will come out with Sony first, and they’ll show a lot of the deleted scenes. But, after a while, you get to love the cut you do and you don’t really want the film to exist in the longer, boring version.
WS: He told me that other people did the music for Margaret, which is really horrible for a director.
GG: Oh, that IS terrible!
WS: Yeah, that’s the worst. I totally understand where he was coming from.
Greta, since you’re also a filmmaker, is there ever a tendency to do back-seat directing?
GG: No, no, I don’t!
WS: She totally does.
GG: I do not! [laughs] When I’m working with great writers and great directors, I’m so happy to hand over my desire to control the situation.
WS: You took over for the Arthur shoot, didn’t you?
GG: OK, I did get into a little kerfuffle for the Arthur shoot. There was this moment where I’m giving a tour of Grand Central Station. Arthur sees me, and they told me they wanted me to catch his eye. I said, “No, no, that’s not how romantic comedies work! The girl is not supposed to know how adorable she’s being. If she sees him and is adorable for him, it doesn’t count. [adopts Violet voice] She mustn’t know she’s being watched.” So they kept trying to trick me! They’d call my name so I’d look over and make the eye-line, but I didn’t do it. I felt it was important there was this sense of being observed. When I direct a romantic comedy, it’ll just be boring because I’ll be doing all the tropes. Mostly I try not to put myself in positions where I think to myself, “I can totally do this better!”
So, Whit, when exactly did you think Greta was back-seat directing?
[they both laugh]
WS: It was a joke…
GG: … but the first week was a see-saw with my performance. I brought in a lot of different stuff, so [Whit] walked over to me and said, “Oh, what you’re doing, please don’t ever do that again.” We honed the performance after that.
WS: One of the things Greta said that I found interesting was how the on-set dynamic with the other actresses was similar to what [was in the script]. She had more indie film experience than anyone else, Greta became the Violet for that group of girls.
GG: I did become a little bossy. Also, I knew New York and the others were from LA, so I would say stuff like, “I’ll tell you the bar to go to.”
WS: What bar was that?
GG: Radio Bar on Hudson. It’s a good one. It’s simple.
WS: Where is that?
GG: Hudson and 12th. It’s across the street from White Horse.
WS: Oh, yeah, I always walk by there.
GG: It’s a good one. You should go!
Damsels in Distress opens in DC theaters today.