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Whit and whimsy

Director Whit Stillman reflects on his career.

When I meet Whit Stillman in a London hotel, he is soberly dressed in the kind of tweed-jacket-and-slacks combination favoured by the hyper-articulate young Manhattan socialites depicted in his first film, Metropolitan (1990). He reflects on the 14-year gap between his latest feature, Damsels in Distress, and its predecessor, The Last Days of Disco (1998). 

“I failed as a film entrepeneur,” he tells me, trying to explain why it’s taken him so long to get another movie on to the screen. “A business adviser said to me after [my second film] Barcelona, ‘Whit, now you’ve got to do the things the industry way.’ The Last Days of Disco was done in a semi-industry way, and then I kept trying to do things that way. All those projects came to nought.”

With Damsels, Stillman has reverted to what he calls the “Metropolitan style of film-making . . . low-budget but maximum quality”. “My films are ‘mumblecore’ with clearer diction,” he says, referring to a strain of lo-fi independent American film. 

Stillman cast one of the doyennes of mumblecore, Greta Gerwig, in the lead role, as well as giving parts to Taylor Nichols and Carolyn Farina, who both appeared in Metropolitan. “I was always frustrated that Carolyn didn’t get much work. I think it was because she was typecast as the Metropolitan character, when in fact she has a much broader range.” In this film, Farina plays a waitress in a diner. “She had the right background to play that,” Stillman says. “She grew up in Queens, New York. Thank gosh we talked her into doing the part.”

Stillman says he’d had the idea of making a film set on a university campus for a while: “I find it interesting that different versions of the popular experience at American universities are often thought up at Harvard.” He graduated from Harvard in the early 1970s, a few years after Doug Kenney, who co-wrote the screenplay for National Lampoon’s Animal House. “In Animal House, Doug gave a portrayal of college life in 1962 – the pre-Vietnam time. But he and I came out of the Vietnam era, when things were really grim on campus. 

It was very dour.” Which is the last thing you can say about Damsels in Distress

Jonathan Derbyshire is executive opinion editor of the Financial Times. He was formerly managing editor of Prospect and culture editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The puppet master