Soracha Pelan Ó Treasaigh met with Whit Stillman during the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival to discuss his new film Damsels in Distress. One of the leading voices of independent cinema in the nineties, this is his first film in over twelve years since his successful trilogy Metropolitan (1990) Barcelona (1994) and Last Days of Disco (1998). Damsels in Distress follows a trio of girls in a university who attempt to civilise the DU frat boys and uplift the depressed student body with musical numbers.
In your previous films, Metropolitan, Barcelona and Last Days of Disco, the characters are all recent graduates, or students away from college. What led you to focus the story within the university this time in Damsels in Distress?
There had been a story about these girls who did this where I went to university. In my day it was very grand, very depressing and grungy. I went back a couple of years later and everyone was telling me about this exciting group of girls who wore strong perfume and dressed up and had all these parties and just changed everything, and everyone was delighted with these girls and how fun it was. I thought that was just a wonderful thing. I noticed over the subsequent years that they established institutions that continued. There actually was a DU fraternity at Harvard and my father had been in it. The members of the DU disgraced themselves somehow and the graduate members decided to close the fraternity and they merged it with my fraternity and we rented the house to a girls group that formed themselves called the B…and it’s very much as if Violet Wister and her friends had started a sorority of some kind and it’s lovely and charming what they’ve done with it…to create feminine space in the university.
Comparisons have been made with films such as Clueless and Mean Girls, but on watching it the characters do not fit into this stereotype, how do you feel about this comparison?
I think this association with Mean Girls and Clueless is unhelpful to the film and I think the better association is Rushmore, really it’s a kind of female Rushmore where that had the Jason Schwartzman character who is sort of the organising visionary. The thing is he looks nerdy so you accept him as this interesting nerd while Violet looks fantastic but she really is Jason Schwartzman.
It’s been harmful as far as reception goes in some quarters because people just assume that it really is going to go one way and then it doesn’t go that way and I think it irritates them too much for the first hour of the film so even though later they might see what’s happening and go along with it, they’ve been irritated for an hour. In the trailer, we put in more information than we normally would to show that actually Violet is the person with the predicament and Lily isn’t so great. What everyone thinks is the outsider and the identification character is actually the nemesis character.
It’s not just that there are formulas and the industry uses formulas but it’s amazing to me the way that those are strongly embraced by the audience. People will very angrily criticise you for not adhering to the formula as if you’ve made a mistake, as if it’s not intentional, you’ve just made an error in not having an outsider character people can identify with.
I find it interesting that each film is about a mini-society – the characters have to operate within a group. What interests you about this dynamic? Why focus on a group, as opposed to a couple or individual who would be at the centre of the story in other films?
I suppose it’s an attempt to create something that was too scarce in the real world. I remember coming out of university and us reading things like War and Peace and there seemed to be a cohesive Russian society in that period and that our society had been totally deracinated and atomised and what we needed was more of a social texture and fabric and that we could sort of fantasise about these in film stories and maybe life would create that. I mean since then I’ve become much more optimistic, that there is a social texture and it’s not as bleak as I thought it was then. I think at twenty-one, you can see the world in very bleak terms. I see the films as kind of utopian. When my daughters were in school they were being given dystopian books, one dystopian book after another. Why can’t we have more utopian books? [laughs] So these are utopian movies, they’re not meant to reflect reality particularly. They’re trying to show small, unlikely utopias that could exist. Sometimes when I see people who are conforming absolutely to the dictates of today it makes me so sad that shouldn’t there be other people proposing a different alternative and there’s just so much basification of youth culture that’s really not very good or interesting, no diversification and uplift.
Your films at times seem like satire, but then there is such empathy for the characters that it seems as though it’s not.
It’s not. I don’t like satire. The first distributor I worked with was involved in Metropolitan,and at that time all these movies were being promoted as black comedies, and I think I told him if something is a black comedy I hate it and he said I think you should call your film a white comedy because it’s the reverse of a black comedy.
There’s a great emphasis on dialogue in your films, could you talk about your approach to screenwriting?
I’ve been dealing lately with good things that come out of failure. I’ve had a period of production, of failure, of not being able to set a film up for twelve years, and in the writing of the script it comes also from a background of failure too. I got the idea of doing things for film and TV, I didn’t have a film snob orientation then, I acquired one [laughs] because I didn’t feel like I had the concentration, or the stamina, or the will power to write long form fiction. I was publishing short stories that had some success, some people liked them, Tom Wolfe the writer liked my stories, but they were much too complicated. I was always creating a narrative structure to introduce a first person narrator who was not me. This wouldn’t work in long form.
I wanted to make a film, I wanted to do the storytelling and all that, but I had no confidence in my ability to write a script. I had all kinds of gimmicks. I used to get this friend I had known for years to sit with me while I wrote it so that I wouldn’t be alone and that lasted about forty minutes [laughs] but then I got into it and I found that these absurd character voices came up and started saying things and there was this material and observations. It was kind of electrifying, finally it all was working and I found that this was ideal for me because in the short stories I was trying to write it always had to be a first person voice and [in film] every dialogue part is first person voice. It’s all first person. Another thing is, it’s all going to be played by actors so it’s not me, it’s this character; I can say whatever I want because I don’t have to take responsibility for it. And then, there’s the dialectic, you want to say truthful things in the film and if you make one statement with one character and you realise that’s not true, you can say something else. So that’s where you get a lot of the dialogue. It’s thesis, antithesis and that goes on and so it’s this exciting thing of aspects of material.
I remember I was in Spain during the summer and trying to write one of the scripts and (I think I was trying to write the Barcelona script) and I was just coming back from swimming and this incredible piece of material fell, this really funny thing and so often I would be knocking my head against the wall trying to get stuff going and then I’d be either shaving or walking down the stairs from the Barcelona apartment and the script material would come. Yes you do have to work on it and write it but the really great stuff seems to come out of nowhere. When Anthony Minghella was talking about screenwriting, he said something that I found very interesting. He said it’s as if someone occasionally opens a drawer and there are a lot of things in the drawer and you can take one thing out but then it closes immediately. So, it’s very exciting when you get a piece of material that works and in comedy often if it works well once, it will work even better three times. So for instance in Barcelona, you have this idea about shaving and then I had another idea about shaving and a third idea about shaving and then it ends up being part of the character dynamic, to define the characters and their relationships with one another.
I think maybe the reason I had this period of no films is because I got so involved in writing and the writing was going really well that I completely flubbed the producer function. I was not trying hard to get the films made, I was just worrying about the scripts. The fortunate thing now is that I have a trunk of pretty workable scripts that I can go back to. The writing thing is a big challenge and it’s very, very painful when you’re starting out. You have the general idea but not the specifics and it’s agony because you write terrible, terrible stuff until you actually get on the beam and then you have to stand on the beam and I find that I drink too much coffee and get excited and I cannot write for more than two or three hours at a time because at the end of two or three hours I’m writing all kinds of stuff, it’s just drivel and it’s very hard to cut out the drivel and you get ideas for a story that aren’t very good and to remove it is painful.
How do you direct the actors with so much dialogue for them to work with?
It’s hugely in casting. It’s a very good phase in the process. It’s also very frightening because you might not find the right actor to play the part and in this film it seemed like we were not going to have the right guys to play the romantic leads. We spent a lot of our time finding the right people for Charlie and Xavier. In fact, Xavier was not Xavier, Xavier was Tom but the only actor I found that I liked had a heavy French accent so I changed the name to Xavier and changed some of the dialogue for him.
Chris Eigeman played a main role in each of your previous films so you obviously enjoyed working with him, why was that?
There’s a scene in Metropolitan where the Nick character played by Chris teaches the red haired character about what clothes he should wear, where he should go to get this outfit. They do it in the corridor. We did a lot of work in that scene. There were a lot of acting/directing discussions there. I have not directed him since, he’s really the same character in the other films, and that was one of the last directing conversations we had and that was terrific. So I really hope I can use him in a piece that can be multi-generational and I hope that’ll work out.
Greta Gerwig had previously starred in Greenberg, and is involved in filmmaking herself, how did you find working with her in the role of Violet?
It’s a very difficult part, and I would say that she found her part on set as we were shooting it. We did a lot of work. She’s very creative, very imaginative but we didn’t quite know what the tone was going to be for that character so there was a lot of variation in her scenes particularly towards the beginning of the shoot and she’s very good at giving different versions. Then the editing room is interesting just to get it together from earlier in the shoot where she was bracketing how Violet should be, how silly, how mannered. I think she found just the right spot to be in but it happened when we were shooting. Normally I like to have everything decided before we get there.
The style of Damsels in Distress is much more surreal than the other films, how important is the style to you?
Style is probably everything. People think that what they are seeing is just a talkfest, it’s all dialogue. I think the four films all chose not to show a lot of things, not to do things in a certain way so style is mostly omission. I really care about framing and the look of each, it really makes me upset when we have things that are ugly in the film. We really want everything to be done a certain way, and it pains me when things are mediocre looking and to do a film in this very fast, rough and ready way we still had the aesthetic imperative and so there’s a bit of a clash there. I worked with the same cinematographer on the first three films and a different fellow on this one. He’s very efficient. It’s a very important relationship between the director and cinematographer.
Of course it’s important as film is also a visual medium.
I don’t think it’s a visual medium. I think that’s a fallacy of cinema. I don’t think the aspect of sound should be slighted. I think that people make a terrible mistake in the visual fallacy of cinema because so much is communicated by the whole texture of sound, not just the words but words are really important. There’s also this deprecating attitude towards dialogue. Really through dialogue you have a chance to get into people’s souls and get their personality. I think people also forget how important titles were [in silent films.]
You have said that your favourite film is the musical The Gay Divorcee. You can certainly see the influence of musicals in your films. In Last Days of Disco for example, the closing scene features passengers on the underground dancing and singing to Love Train by the O’Jays. Again, Damsels in Distress ends with a musical number.
There’s a critic talking about the great George Stevens and the film Damsel in Distress from 1937, and he’s so wrong. The Mark Sandrich’s Fred Astaire films are infinitely better. George Stevens and everyone knew that it was not a good film. There’s a wonderful sequence though that we use in the film, the song ‘Things are Looking Up’, the Gershwin number which was one of the greatest sequences and a great anti-depression antidote but that’s the only beautiful sequence but the rest is just hosh bosh. I feel the starting point of the film takes off from that scene in The Last Days of Disco.
Would you ever consider making a full musical?
I would really like to, I’ve tried to with a couple of things but they haven’t gotten off the ground. It was very helpful the way we were shooting was so by the seat of our pants. A wonderful choreographer came aboard, Justin Churney, and had done no film work. He had a terrific spirit and the fall back position we had was that this is a college production. There’s some beautiful shots at the end when they break into song for that number but there are slight flaws that I can see but I can justify that well it’s just their college musical so it should be ‘hey we’re putting on a show.’
What are your other influences?
I just adore the cinema of the golden age of Hollywood from 1933-1941, I just adore them. I just wrote about the Shop around the Corner for The Times which I love. In more recent times I was inspired by the production savvy and wit of Jim Jarmusch and Spike Lee’s first films, the way they are able to put those together. Then there’s the Scottish director Bill Forsyth, there’s the Irish film Eat the Peach I really liked. I worked with two Madrid directors on their films, it was my first job in the film business, Fernando Colomo and Fernando Treuba and they made these little comedies set in Madrid. There’s one called Opera Prima by Treuba and it’s very much a model for what I’ve tried to do.
When you first started making films your contemporaries were Todd Haynes and Quentin Tarantino, what was that time like for you?
It’s interesting about Todd Haynes because Metropolitan was made from within the Todd Haynes world. Todd hadn’t made a feature yet but they (Todd Haynes and Christine Vachon) had this short film company called Apparatus and the editor that worked on our film was recommended to us by them, Christopher Tellefson. Tellefson was key in Metropolitan.
Tarrantino came up afterwards. It was a little bit disconcerting trying to get your career going and getting your films noticed and suddenly this guy comes along out of the blue and just took all the attention. We were shown at the same Cannes Film Festival as Pulp Fiction. His film was in competition and our film had not been selected. We had a pretty successful screening [of Barcelona] at the Olympia Cinema in the market but he definitely stole the limelight. I remember when it was chosen as the opening film for the Cork Film Festival and the director talked the whole time about how sad he was that he hadn’t been able to get Pulp Fiction for the opening of the festival [laughs].
Soracha Pelan Ó Treasaigh
Damsels in Distress is released on Friday. April 27th 2012.