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The Bickering IS What’s Happening: Two Interviews with Whit Stillman

Whit Stillman and I were talking about how brokenhearted women often go to Paris. "I don’t think it’s necessarily a destination a brokenhearted guy would choose," he said. "He might go to Alaska and die in the wilderness.”
September 2, 2014, 4:17pm

Whit Stillman speaking with actor Freddy Asblom while shooting The Cosmopolitans _in Nanterre, outside Paris. Photos by David Koskas/Amazon Studios_

Last week, in my parents’ dining room in South Carolina, I Skyped with filmmaker Whit Stillman. On the laptop screen his face appeared as handsome as it is in photographs, younger than his 62 years, and its expression of mild discomfort reflected my own. He’d let me preview the pilot for his new show, The Cosmopolitans, that will run on Amazon through September. Twice, from an office in New York, Whit complimented the backdrop of the house he assumed was my own. It wasn't until the third time he did it that I comprehended what he was telling me, such was my nervousness. After I understood, I considered pretending I owned the house, which he said was “nicer than his”—and so then if it is nicer, might I be able to convince him to come visit it? I wondered crazily. But then where would I send my parents? So I told him the truth. Technical adjustments followed. His voice sounded northeastern, sophisticated, contemplative, sincere. I could have sent my parents on a cruise, it occurred to me.

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In response to his question about how I’d become interested in his films, I told him how my friend, VICE fiction editor Amie Barrodale, had shown me a YouTube clip from his second film, Barcelona, in which the protagonist Ted dances to Glenn Miller’s "Pennsylvania 6-5000" while reading a passage from The King James Bible for advice on romantic matters. I forwarded it to a guy with whom I’d had romantic trouble. Then I watched Whit Stillman’s films. All of them.

Starting with Damsels in Distress, I worked my way backwards. Last Days of Disco. Barcelona. Metropolitan.

If I had to in a few sentences at gunpoint describe these movies I’d say that they were about people talking. That they were about people being in love and wanting to be in love and falling out of love and being damaged and restored by love and about people wanting to join groups of other people they found desirable and about people trying to decide what people should and should not do and how they should live and whether or not—and why whether or not—they like other people. But also the dialogue is about itself. It delights, surprises, provokes, amuses, confounds. Characters say things like:

I know that people can have useful careers in many areas—medicine, government, law, finance, education—yes, even education—but I’d like to do something especially significant in my lifetime, the sort of thing that could change the course of human history, such as starting an international dance craze.

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And they argue a lot. The arguing has an intimate quality, like the kind of arguing you do with someone you sleep with or your best friend or yourself. For example, when in Damsels in Distress, Lily says she’s fine, Rose responds, “That’s a terrible expression. Fine. I’m fine. There’s something smug about it. I’m fine.” Later he would tell me of how some viewers complained of his characters “bickering,” and that “nothing is happening.” But, he said, “The bickering is what’s happening!”

Whit Stillman characters are almost never silent. The characters in his movies talk more than the characters in almost any other movies I’ve seen.

In a New York Times magazine article, the amazing Greta Gerwig, who starred in Damsels in Distress, is quoted as saying, “Every day was like going into battle. The script pages were chock-full of dialogue.”

The character she plays, Violet, is probably the most talkative, perhaps the most enigmatic, and definitely the least sane of Stillman’s characters.

Now here he was. We were facing each other, talking through our computers.

“And after I saw the clip, I watched your movies in reverse order,” I told him. “I saw Damsels In Distress first.”

Damsels is a comedy,” Whit said. “It’s very stylized and unrealistic. But some people didn’t get that.”

Damsels in Distress, which came out in 2011, takes place at a fictional liberal arts college and begins with Violet inviting a transfer student, Lily, to be a part of her small circle, consisting of two other students, Heather and Rose. Early on, Violet’s confidence—or arrogance, you might say—gives Lily the mistaken impression she’s popular, and Lily accepts. The group tells Lily they want to help her adapt to campus life and to be happy at their college. “University life is pretty bad,” Lily is told. “There are a lot of suicides.”

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“We’re trying to make a difference in people’s lives,” Violet tells Lily. “And one way to do that is to stop them from killing themselves.”

Though the four pretty women seem normal enough, just as the college itself seems like a sort of regular liberal arts school, you soon realize that you aren’t watching a typical college-y coming-of-age movie, and despite how normal, how not shocking the figures and backdrop are, the stuff that is coming out of the actresses' mouths has a sort of satirical Alice in Wonderland-like dream logic to it. Violet and her friends not only want to help Lily but also to protect the whole campus from suicide, going so far as to run the campus’s suicide-prevention program, through which they provide tap dancing and very aromatic soap as therapy for depression.

“This scent and this soap is what gives me hope,” Violet says.

But when after a break-up Violet herself becomes depressed, we learn the story of her first mental breakdown, which occurred at boarding school when she was a girl: There, to prevent the death of her parents, she required herself to flawlessly complete obsessive-compulsive rituals, like moving her suitcase in a particular pattern ten times. But her parents die anyway, in an accident. The film’s comedic treatment of suicide is acceptable because one intuits that only a writer who himself has experienced morbid depression could have created such a story and pulled it off so brilliantly.

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Some people expected Damsels to be like his other movies, Whit told me, and didn’t like it. They judged it by a “drama yardstick” and missed the point. “We’re in the epoch of realism,” he said. Interestingly though, people who’d “by accident or whatever” ended up seeing it again revised their opinions upward.

Another production still from The Cosmopolitans

Whit Stillman’s new series, The Cosmopolitans, is about a group of American expatriates trying to enter Parisian society. I told him I’d read him say, “it’s a very admirable culture and people want to identify with it." And also that "Paris has long been the Mecca (or refuge) for those either looking for romance or fleeing broken ones. When such choices don’t go well, the loneliness can be particularly severe.” I asked if he would say more about this, and he responded that it was very easy to be “very very lonely” in a foreign city, not really expecting what loneliness does. “Because it’s something you might get as a child when you go to camp or boarding school for the first time. And once loneliness starts, it’s very hard to stop. It’s like a crying jag or something. It’s insidious. And I thought it goes with the territory of being in a foreign city, the loneliness aspect. Paris is a Mecca for the brokenhearted—I noticed particularly among women. That a lot of women seem to come to Paris when everything has gotten messed up in their lives at home; so if they’d been married and they got divorced, they might come over; or if they broke up with their long-term partner, they might come over; and then both with men and women, I think they fall for someone—I think they’re attracted to someone who—"

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Then he was gone. I mean, his voice was gone. The Skype connection had broken. After reconnecting briefly, the connection again broke, and upon reconnecting we decided to switch to the phone.

Before calling him, I fiddled around with the phone-recorder application I’d never used before. It didn’t seem to work right. Trying to get it to work took longer than anticipated. I called him, but he was on the other line. He called me back. As he was telling me we would need to reschedule, the connection broke again. But this time it was my fault: I’d accidentally hung up on Whit Stillman.

When Whit rings back—we’ve by now rescheduled through email—I’m outside a small private school, where I’ve come to pick up the two children I watch in the late afternoon, who will be released in an hour. I stand beneath the shade of an oak tree at the outskirts of campus. I remind him that when we last spoke, he was telling me about how brokenhearted women often choose Paris as a destination. “They are fleeing something or going there because they’ve met someone. I don’t think it’s necessarily a destination a broken-hearted guy would choose. He might go to Alaska and die in the wilderness.”

We both chuckle.

I wonder if I should be in Paris.

Though Stillman himself went to France and stayed there for quite a while, he didn’t move there because of a broken heart, or for the promise of a new love, but because his then-wife wanted to move there. “I had a list of nine cities I wanted to consider going to, all in the United States. She had one city she wanted to go to, which was Paris.”

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“You were there for nine years?” I had read this somewhere but wanted to confirm it.

“Yes. I was there and not there. I was there a lot,” he replies, this comment in style reminding me of something one of his characters might say.

At which point I want to know if one of his influences could be Oscar Wilde.

“I loved Oscar Wilde when I was in my sort of wanting-to-be a writer youth. I enjoyed Oscar Wilde. I read a lot of Oscar Wilde.  Liking Oscar Wilde, I also liked the British writer Evelyn Waugh. I’m glad you asked that because while Metropolitan was influenced by Jane Austen, ultimately The Cosmopolitans could be sort of influenced by Evelyn Waugh."

Thinking of Oscar Wilde still, thinking of the class consciousness in much of Stillman’s work and recalling from the pilot I watched how the American expatriates aspired to enter Parisian society, I tell him I am curious about Nick’s assertion, in Metropolitan, that the surrealists were social climbers. “Do you think most artists are social climbers, really? Albeit hesitant ones—the society they want to enter often enough what they also wish to expose?”

“I think that’s true. Though it’s not my real thing because I’m not very critical of society. Paris is a very good city to be a social-climbing artist in. Paris is really nice about people who they define as artists. I remember I was leaving a Paris dinner party, and the other fellow leaving, on the early end of the evening too, was a book binder—he did this sort of high tech, rubberized book-binding for the family, for their books—and someone said, ‘The artists are leaving early!’ We were impolite enough to leave early. At Paris dinner parties, people feel obliged to stay very late.”

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“How late?” I said.

“Horribly late,” he replies, chuckling. “You have to stay and eat bad French and not understand anything that’s happening.” He tells me when he got to Paris, he didn’t speak French very well. “The problem was not the dinner party. The problem was me.”

After briefly debating whether or not I want to risk getting dirt on my clothes, I sit down on the ground beneath the tree. I ask about Whit’s writing process.

“In the film business you’re constantly being pushed to tell them what the story is before you’ve had the time to think what the story is,” he complains. “I find it really unhelpful and kind of negative to try to plot out a story before I’ve gotten into the nitty-gritty of individual lines of dialogue and scenes and characters. I prefer that the story comes out of detail. I don’t like having outlines and plots. Or, it’s not that I don’t like it, but that it doesn’t work at all for me. No good result will come of it. For me the most important thing is that the character has a voice at a certain point-—that you’re working on a character. They get their autonomy, their personality. Out of their voice and personality they start thinking things, doing things, and then they come up against other people. And things develop. It’s much better if I try to do it that way.”

The conversation circles back to the Cosmopolitans pilot, with my wanting to know what it’s like working on the script for a series, as opposed to a film, and Whit replies that since he may be writing it to be seen in several segments at once, he expects it might be something like putting two film scripts together. Then he shares his excitement about the “texture” added by the European actors involved in the project, mentioning Freddy Asblom, who plays Fritz, and Adriano Giannini, who plays Sandro.

He tells me Adriano is the son of Giancarlo Giannini, the star of some of the great Italian comedies of the 70s, and praises the actor’s work ethic.

The pilot begins with a male writer and a woman (played by Cary MacLemore) who has moved to Paris to be with him. He's showing her cramped, alternate living quarters that she will have to move into because he can no longer write with her living inside his apartment. Afterwards, she's dejected and walks the streets of Paris and stops at a cafe to get a drink, where she is intercepted by a group of American expatriates—and Parisian wannabes—led by Adam Brody’s Jimmy. In Whit Stillman stories it isn’t uncommon for a group of people to pick up a stranger. (Think: Tom picked up by Nick and his group in Metropolitan; Lily picked up by Violet in Damsels in Distress). Thus the adventure begins.

Now Whit has to go, and I do too. He has more promotional duties to perform, and I have to drive around to the side of the school to pick up the children.

The first episode of The Cosmopolitans, also starring Chloë Sevigny, Dree Hemingway, and Jordan Rountree, is now available for viewing on Amazon.com. I have been assured that there is much more heartbreak to come.