Austin Film Festival
Whit Stillman on the romanticism of first-time filmmaking
Oct 20, 2011 | 2:15 pm
Whit Stillman earned a suprise Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay in 1990 for his debut film Metropolitan, a witty, mannered look at a dying breed of Ivy-League New York socialites. Based on his own experiences, and financed by selling his apartment and begging favors of friends for shooting locations, Metropolitan began an unofficial trilogy of films loosely inspired by his life experiences that's rounded out by 1994's Barcelona and 1998's The Last Days of Disco.
This week, the Austin Film Festival welcomes Whit Stillman to the Alamo Ritz for a special presentation of Metropolitanl you can come see the classic on Friday at noon, complete with a Q & A immediately afterward.
In anticipation of the honorary screening, we spoke with Stillman about his literary influences while writing Metropolitan, how a small budget can make your film timeless and how he's weathered the twelve-year waiting period preceding his newest film, Damsels in Distress.
You're here to present Metropolitan...
Yeah, I go way back with the Austin Film Festival. I think I started attending at the fifth one, I was on the boards early on. A lot of film festivals are very film-director oriented and this is great because it's emphasizes writers. Screenwriters and television writers, too.
Metropolitan is a film that I think of as very influential for current directors like Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach. What were your influences in turn when making it?
I was terribly influenced by the fiction writers that I was reading, actually. So I was more of a fiction writer buff than a film buff in a way: J. D. Salinger, Evelyn Waugh, Scott Fitzgerald, Jane Austen and the big European novels. I had aspirations to make films, but I didn't think that I was cut out to be a writer of them. But writing fiction, I found that it's very hard to have that consistent narrative voice, the voice of the author versus the voice of the narrator. In film, at least in a dialect comedy, each character is responsible for their own worldview, and it's separate from the writer's worldview. That was very liberating, I found.
That must have played a factor when you decided to write a novel that served as a sequel to your third film The Last Days of Disco. Is that something you see doing more of in the future?
I don't think I will do that again, as far as basing it on a film, but I definitely want to, particularly after finishing this last film, Damsels in Distress. I found the production such a workout and the editing so hard that the idea of just working alone in a room, which used to frighten me, now attracts me. You don't even have to be alone in a room, you can be alone in a cafe.
Metropolitan begins with an intertitle that reads "Not so long ago,” which makes the time period ambiguous. Why avoid setting it in a specific year?
A lot of the aspects of that film are the function of not having any money. If I had a real budget I might have been tempted to make it a true period film: this is 1967, this is 1972. We couldn't afford to do that, but we could sort of suggest it was a little bit in the past, or sometime in the past. We were helped by the fact that people that leave their cars out on the streets of New York in the middle of the freaking winter have very old cars. So then we looked around for these big, boxy checker cabs that were disappearing around that time, and we tried to get in these iconic Manhattan locations that were going the way of the dodo. We shot the Scrivener's Bookstore window without revealing that it had become Brentano's Booksellers, and it would shortly become a Sephora perfume store. We really tried to catch things as they were disappearing, and trying to suggest an eternal Manhattan that might have been on the wane.
In it's way, it also seems like if you squint it could take place in the 30s, with the debutante parties and the old-style fashion they entail.
My own experience with those parties was in the early 70s, but I'd seen them during my sisters generation in the late 60s. One thing I noticed is that people who kind of grew up in the 50s thought Metropolitan was suggesting the 50s, people who grew up in the 80s said I thought it was the 80s. One of my Spanish director friends complained that a reference to The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie by Luis Buñuel kind of snapped him out of the film because he thought it was further back in the past than 1972.
How did making Damsels in Distress differ from the previous three? It's not as autobiographical, right?
Not ostensibly. I think you end up putting a lot of stuff in from different aspects of your experience, but less intentionally. It's more stylized, it's less real—I think in a really good way, I think it's funnier. I see the new one as the most fun. As far as shooting it, it was kind of a return to Metropolitan, in that we made it on a really tight budget, a really tight, disciplined shoot. It was great, it was sort of me and a lot of people in their 20s making the film, a lot of people really at the start of their careers.
There's been a long wait between all four of your films. Is that a product of circumstances not falling the right way, or just of your own patience? Do you get offered a lot of things that you turn down?
I'd say in a word: failure. When you're offered stuff, it's usually so far away from what you'd want to make that it doesn't seem very serious. But there are a couple things that I really would have liked to have done, but I didn't get them made, or it was too late, or something. I think one thing other than failure, and just sort of not pushing hard enough on the doors, was that I became more of a writer, with television writing assignments and film writing assignments, and even writing for things that I hoped to make. When you make a film, and it's you trying to scrape together the money, maybe with other producers, and other companies, and throughout that you learn about the film business, and I just never really learned about the film business. And I also made the decision to live in Europe and try to focus my efforts out of London, and that was okay for the script business but I couldn't get my films financed there.
There are some interpretations of your first three films so far as politically conservative.
I think it's more one person pushing that lever, I really don't want the films to be thought of as political.
It seems more as if people just don't care for a positive depiction of the upper class to begin with.
In think that's definitely true about Metropolitan, but I think it's because my biography's gotten out a little bit and people look at everything through those lenses. And that's why I think it's really great for first-time filmmakers: it's better when people don't know anything about you when they watch your film, so they just take it as it comes.
The Austin Film Festival takes place October 20-27, with hundreds of screenings, panels and parties all week. Badges are still available online. General admission tickets for Metropolitan go onsale 25 minutes prior to the screening.