Interview: Whit Stillman on Damsels in Distress

Interview: Whit Stillman on Damsels in Distress

One-time darling of 90s indie cinema returns after 13-year hiatus.

American indie filmmaker Whit Stillman was nominated for an Oscar for the script to his first film, 1990’s Metropolitan. He followed that with Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco, which cemented his reputation as an idiosyncratic talent. Then he didn’t make another film for 13 years. Here, he talks about his new film, Damsels in Distress and why it’s been so long coming.

On the genesis of Damsels in Distress
‘I went to Harvard in very grim times, very political, very sad. I had no social life to speak of. After I graduated I heard this marvellous story about this group of girls who dressed up, wore really good French perfume, gave parties and organised dances and everyone had a wonderful time. Years later, around 2000, I was asked to write a script. I did, based on these girls, and it was turned down. But I hung onto the ideas and the plain silliness of it. Then, more recently, I went to Rob Reiner’s company Castle Rock with it and they really liked it and said do it.’

On his film’s idiosyncrasies
‘Some of my enthusiasms, if openly expressed, would be laughed at. But they gave me a lot of material for these girls, so I’m pretty comfortable with their crazy point of view of things. For example, one of the girls observes that people with big behinds are more moralistic – I’ve often had that thought. And I’ve notice that slender hipped people are looser principled…’

On casting upcoming star Greta Gerwig
Greta Gerwig came to the film very early. In Hollywood, they always like the next thing. People who are good, but made a film three years ago are damaged goods. So Greta was highly valued, and having her so enthusiastic about the project was nice. It really helped the film.’

On trying to work the industry way
‘After I made my first three films I spoke to a lawyer who said, “You’ve made these films in a very weird way. Now it’s time to make them in the industry way.” I tried to do it the industry way, with films based on books and developed by other producers, and I found that the industry way was not my way. My way was as simple as possible: we just do it ourselves with a low budget and get it out. And this is what happened with Castle Rock and Damsels.’

On his decade-long hiatus
‘The silver lining of the ten-years off work is: I was writing all the time. Some of the writing went really well. I have one script that needs a little bit more work on then it’ll be ready to go. So I’m pretty hopeful I’ll be able to make another film very soon. I don’t want to die before I make my next film.’

Damsels in Distress Trailer

Damsels in Distress

  • 3 stars
  • 2012
  • US
  • 1h 39min
  • 15
  • Directed by: Whit Stillman
  • Written by: Whit Stillman
  • Cast: Greta Gerwig, Adam Brody, Analeigh Tipton
  • UK release: 27 April 2012

The titular damsels are a group of female undergrads led by the obsessive-compulsive Violet (Gerwig, good) who set about rescuing their fellow students from perceived ills. It's good to have director Stillman back after 14 years, even if the pointed wit has been replaced by studied silliness.

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