Whit Stillman is a name that has not been seen on a cinema screen for sometime. His latest, the delightful Damsels in Distress, is his first film since The Last Days of Disco in 1998.
I have a lot of affection for Whit Stillman’s films and was overjoyed to discover, upon viewing Damsels in Distress at a surprise screening last year, that his return to filmmaking after 14 years away is up to the high standard I have come to expect. Also, rather excitingly, Damsels is something of a new direction for Stillman and one that I was more than happy to follow him in.
I therefore leapt at the chance to speak to Stillman when the opportunity arose and managed to speak to him about a number of topics, including Damsels, his previous work and future possibilities. You can read the first part of this interview below, which focuses on Damsels in Distress. Check back tomorrow for the second part of my interview, in which Stillman discusses working on television, the past and the future.
Obviously there are sequences with music in The Last Days of Disco but not the kind of musical set pieces that you have in Damsels in Distress. How did you find filming them and did you find any particular challenges?
It was terrifying at the start but there was, sort of, four or more very helpful collaborations to make the version come off. The performers were all up to speed, they all had performing skills in these areas, notably Greta [Gerwig] who is a good singer and dancer. Then the cinematographer had the idea of getting a good crane, we had a Travolta crane, to do it and he had ideas for that. And then there’s a young choreographer, Justin Cerne, who I found extremely adaptable and imaginative. So I’d show him locations and where they could walk and he’d come up with stuff.
And did you storyboard that out?
No, not at all. I think we walked through the potential locations and we said, well first this will be Fred and Violet dancing alone here then they’ll continue around here and maybe we saw the bench so we can do something with the bench. Then we went to the dorm, and it’s interesting because in the featurette that we’re doing for the DVD there’s a record of how we changed that sequence from how it’s first blocked out.
I saw what had been worked out, and it was just going to be silly. And so we rejiggered it so it was something that would look good as one shot. There’s some things that you can do more elaborately and there’s some that are more [brings hands together and makes a schhhtut sound]. The thing that I couldn’t believe how well it came off was the Travolta crane coming down through the trees and finding all the dancers. And then the assistant director had the idea of having all the extras skipping and dancing in the background, I know a lot of people don’t notice that at first. Then we had the campus cop, who I knew we had from the sequence we shot earlier in the day, so we had him skipping after the other dancers, which was a funny thing.
And so it was just a lucky afternoon, a very lucky afternoon.
So you were quite involved in how the choreography played out?
I mean I was involved but I don’t want to take anything away from Justin Cerne and what he was doing because the mechanics of how it was done, I have no idea. When he made the dance craze he had a Macarena kind of thing so for the Sambola, I’m not very fond of the Macarena, I said why don’t we take just the most fun moving parts, the parts where the couples get to play with each other and move together, the fun parts of the tango, the cha cha and others and put them together. That’s how we did the Sambola.
You talked a little about improvising in the choreography on set, you don’t do that with the dialogue though?
No. I wouldn’t say necessarily they are improvised because the only area we rehearsed was the dancing so in at least one day, maybe more, Justin was rehearsing with the dancers. Some we then partially went a different way with but we had an idea of what it would be for everything. I think that’s good, you have your idea, that you can use but then you can adjust it in the circumstances to be something else. I’m getting a little rehearsal adverse so the actors who like rehearsal really liked the fact that they danced in the days before the shoot because it got them to know the other players, they got comfortable with each other physically. For Greta for instance, who likes to rehearse, and frankly I didn’t know she likes to rehearse. I listened to all her interviews and the interviews we did together and I learnt a lot of things I hadn’t realised. I think I’d like to do the publicity tour before the film next time. [Laughs]
Do you rewrite on set?
I don’t no, unless we get in some kind of jam. I had to earn a living while I was preparing the film so – probably a mistake but I felt I owed it to this other project – I had a very serious project with HBO and there were a lot of other people involved so I felt very on the spot to turn in a draft of that script before we started shooting. So it put a lot of pressure on my pre-production for the film and my ability to do the final re-write that I wanted to do. So the result was that I did a partial rewrite right before we shot and the Xavier/Zorro material came in then, that was because we renamed the character Xavier because the actor was French.
I couldn’t find an American actor I liked to play the Cathar Tom. Hugo Becker sent in his audition from France and somehow the charm he brings to it, the romantic likeability, made it more plausible and more likeable for Lily to be involved with him. So I had a French actor in the Tom part so I changed the name to Xavier, and I’ve always had a hard problem knowing how to pronounce that ‘X’. I made a fool of myself in school the first time I had to say in a French translation class ‘anxiety’, I thought it was pronounced ‘annex-ty’. So I’ve always had X issues. I came up with that material about Xavier and Zorro and I thought it would be ingratiating early in the film that is completely silly.
I like to have conversations in the film that anyone coming to watch our film in any country would generally know that. Like Zorro, everyone knows about, like Lady and the Tramp, almost everyone knows about. But then because I hadn’t done the final revise I was giving the actors, who’d have these microscopic sides of their text, and I was actually writing stuff on their sides. My assistant was transcribing it into the script. Then I’d never done the scene that I wanted to do of the back story of the Rose character and how she got her accent. The dailies for the first few days were quite disconcerting and there was one important scene where the dailies looked terrible but actually when the editor put it together, even though I hadn’t got all the shots I wanted to get, it actually played really funny and good.
So I was no longer concerned about having another day of shooting or doing additional things but the people who were backing the film only saw the dailies and didn’t see how that would ever work out so they kept saying, oh you should take another day or add another day and pick up stuff. So I had that extra day and on the morning of the last day of actual shooting I got up very early and wrote that scene and it was a bit of a fiasco when we shot that Rose accent scene, it was very cold and the poor actresses were shivering in their shirt sleeves. It kind of went over like a lead balloon and we didn’t really know where to put it because it had never been really placed in the script. So it was like this lump of material and I thought, we’re never going to be able to use this but fortunately her accent was good enough. Because my original idea was that in case the accent wasn’t good enough, we’d have an explanation.
So there was a period where it may have not been explained at all then?
Yes. I always had the idea of doing it but I hadn’t done it. And then it turns out that – the editor went on vacation and I was left with the assistant, or maybe it was with the editor – I went through the script and the problem here is we’re being too literal in everything and if I took out some stuff and changed the order of things it made it funny and interesting. And then we found a place to put it and we found a piece of music to link it to everything, so it becomes part of a whole ending sequence. There are a lot of sub-plots that are tied up in little roundelays of scenes. I think every time you make a film and it turns out okay you think, my gosh that was lucky, my gosh we were lucky.
The accent feels like a bit of gamble, did it feel like a gamble when you were writing it?
It was a real gamble and the original idea was that character was based on women from the West Indies I knew. Because there are a lot of women there who have very strong personalities and are imperious, snotty, somewhat Britishy, they’re the old school, they go to an old-fashioned kind of school where they’re educated very well, I don’t know if they have British teachers or they just have other teachers from that background. At my first publishing job there was a woman from the West Indies, she was the executive secretary for the head of the department, and I tried to get a character like that into Disco [The Last Days of Disco] in the publishing house. you really find that character a lot in the Caribbean. So, the Playboy-Operator [a phrase that Rose says in a particularly amusing way] type. It’s interesting, because one of these reviews said, what is this curious accent and they identified it as that. But what happened was, we had a very lucky day, early in the auditions and it’s such a relief when that happens. Because you’re terrified that you’ll never find actors who can handle the material or you’ll have to settle for someone you’re not that happy with. And three people came in on the same day who were really good. One was Aubrey Plaza, who couldn’t take a big role because she has a TV show – Parks and Recreation – so she plays a small part as ‘Depressed Debbie’ and she harasses Violet about clinical depression.
She feels almost like the voice of reason at times.
Well, she’s the sceptical voice. There’s an early version of the story where Depressed Debbie and Rick DeWolfe worked together against Violet but then the whole idea of having a Violet/Rick DeWolfe fight throughout the whole film just seemed too boring from other films, but one person that wrote an article said that it was a false step in the movie, that more wasn’t done with the Rick DeWolfe character. But I consciously said that I’m not doing that one because that just takes it in a political direction…
It’s a common thing in college films…
…and they would end up together, yeah. And then Analeigh came in, who was very good and she read for Lilly. She was very good for Lilly but she was also very good for Heather and for Violet so if I didn’t find someone for either Heather or Violet and I found another Lilly then she could have played those. And then Megalyn came in. She was good as Rose but she just did a U.S. accent and I asked her if she could try a Jamaican or West Indian accent, and explained the idea of the post West Indian. And she said ‘no, but I have a Nigerian friend from London and this is her accent’. She went off and studied that and came back with the accent. And when Megalyn read the part with her accent, even though it was very approximate – what she did in the audition, it created the character. The character had not existed until that point. The moment she did that, she was cast.
I can’t imagine those lines without that accent…
Also, it also helps with lines like ‘Rubbish’. Which we don’t really say, but I think it’s the best word. It’s such a nice word. The thing is, the actors make fun of me because I didn’t like strong language on set but I do think that there are words that are not offensive words that are very expressive and very useful. And I do like rubbish, it’s just delightful. And I’m sorry that retard has become politically incorrect for some people. I don’t think it should be because if you’re just talking about, sort of, the people of everyday life it seems like it’s just a useful word.
With the jock characters in Damsels, not even being able to tell colours it feels like an extreme…
That is something else, I saw someone talking about that and I think it would be easy for someone to look at the subject matter and think that’s just… you can’t do much with that. But it’s not just that fact or that problem that guy has, it’s the way those actors in the trajectory of the story, kind of deal with that material and that’s what makes it funny. Because, yeah that’s pretty damn broad. That’s the first time in one of our films when that kind of broad comedy comes in but I was really pleased that when those actors came in for the auditions they had those performances. It was really surprising, those auditions. We were really happy and we laughed a lot. Ryan Metcalf, who plays Frank, who I think is a kind of discovery, said very apologetically, ‘I’ve prepared a version that’s kind of very broad, would you mind seeing it?’ and we really liked it. And him and Caitlin Fitzgerald as Priss were operating in the same world. I love that sort of stupid, innocent Will Ferrell kind of character. I think they kind of have that.
It felt like something new…
Yeah, I felt it was new. I think some of the fantasy elements come from the Jamaican project. Which was very fantastical and fanciful, which causes you a lot of trouble with a lot of people because they want everything to just be realistic. The fact that I really loved the stupid comedy movies and really wanted to do one. I mean, I met Will Ferrell, he’s a really really funny guy. He’s very funny. He just says really funny things. When I met him his codename in the hotel was ‘Mr. Lemon Jello’ and he was wearing a weird bowling short, a bowling outfit. It was really weird. [Laughs]. He’s very funny.
Damsels in Distress is in UK cinemas this Friday.