A cup of coffee in which director Whit Stillman and I reconsider my negative review of ‘Damsels In Distress’
May 6, 2013
During the couple of times I met with film director Whit Stillman at this past Miami International Film Festival, something has bothered me about how to present our meetings. He told me he hates those stories concerned with details about what the subject orders at a meal or what he/she chooses to wear. That’s fine. I could care less about that stuff myself. But what I found charming about this man when we met at the Italian restaurant around the corner of one of the screening venues on Miami Beach following one of his jury meetings, was his suggestion that we make the meal a “Dutch treat,” as he did not want to influence me. “That wouldn’t be ethical,” he said. I had never heard anyone use the original, full term of “going Dutch” until that moment. We agreed on a salad to start the meal and when the waitress asked if we wanted the salad with the entrée, which we literally split, Stillman said, “Well, isn’t the salad supposed to come first?” He wasn’t being a dick. He wanted the right experience. He did not want to rush this experience because when does a director have a chance to pick the brain of a critic who panned his last film, Damsels in Distress? (‘Damsels in Distress:’ Stillman dumbs it down after almost a generation in hiding).
We first met a few nights earlier, as noted in an early post covering one day in my week at the Miami International Film Festival (Underwhelming films but overwhelming schmoozing on Day 3 of MIFF). I was sitting with actress Lena Olin and her husband, director Lasse Hallström at a bar during an after-party of Hallström’s career achievement screening. I had interviewed him for “the Miami Herald” ahead of this event (read the article). Stillman came over and introduced himself to Hallström, who seemed to have no idea who the man saying he was an independent filmmaker was. I felt compelled to jump in and sing the praises for Stillman’s work. I then introduced myself as a film critic to Stillman, and he asked me if I had ever panned one of his films. I said, “Well… the last one,” and he made an exaggerated taken aback gesture. I quickly informed him that I am still a fan and quite interested in his work and suggested a meal one day since he was at the festival all the way through as a juror for the Knight Ibero-American Competition. I was impressed that he agreed, and he shared his email so we might coordinate.
I think it says a lot about this director’s humble nature to sit with this local writer/film critic to learn as much about me and my experience with film in general rather than get one-sided and defensive about his work. We turned out having a nice, leisurely lunch that final Friday afternoon of the MIFF. He asked about the title of my blog (I got it from something director Kelly Reichardt had written about filmmaking) and he took down my recommendation to check out Chloë Sevigny’s surreal work in Olivier Assay’s Demonlover. He really wanted to understand where I came from as much as explain where he was coming from with his last film, and it was an interesting two-way conversation. After the lunch, which I did not document, as I wanted it as a warm-up for our talk about Damsels, we walked over to Dunkin Donuts for a coffee. If you have listened to his commentary on the Damsels blu-ray, as I did before our meeting, you already know Stillman’s preference for Dunkin coffee over the dark roast hyped by a famous competing chain.
It was there, with pop radio blasting out classic hits by Michael Jackson and the like that I hit the record button on my digital voice recorder, and we got to the review I so brazenly titled “Stillman dumbs it down after almost a generation in hiding.” We spoke about some of the statements I made about his movie, the stylized world of Damsels, how the two leads are left more open to interpretation than Stillman might have liked and how technology dates movies. Here is a transcription of the first half of our half-hour chat, slightly trimmed for clarity and cohesion. We began with my lead:
Hans Morgenstern: So I put in the article “either A) I have grown too old and cynical…”
Whit Stillman: Oh, yeah, I was going to say A (laughs).
Of course, it has to be my first choice, because of course you haven’t lost your knack for smart writing, which was option B.
But you don’t think Millennials are too dumb to speak the same language as the generation before them, which was C?
I didn’t quite get that point. It sounded interesting, but I didn’t quite get it.
So, let’s go back to the ‘90s, think Richard Linklater. That was another very smart peer of yours during the rise of ‘ 90s indie film. I came of age in college watching these films. So when I think of those characters, I feel they seem as intelligent as I had felt, whereas the characters in Damsels don’t seem as bright.
Well, I do think they’re bright, except the ones who are dumb. You go with what you love, and I love Fitzgerald and Salinger as writers, but I also love the comedy of Will Ferrell and the comedy of Animal House. What the people at the Dublin Film Festival said about the film, which is really on, is that it’s Jane Austen meets Animal House, and that’s combining things you like. So, yes, some characters are dumb, but I hope it ends up being intelligent with the line of jokes with the guy and the colors, and the rainbow and all that. But I think that Violet is as intelligent a character as we had in previous films. I mean, I felt that where we went astray… there’s certain things that are flaws as far as audience comprehension or acceptance, but I wouldn’t want to necessarily say that they are intrinsic, sort of aesthetic flaws in the film. It just means that the acceptance of the film is going to be limited on the short term, but over the long term, it might make the film more interesting for people to see it a second time or chance on it again. Because, as far as entertainment terms, I probably blundered by having the first five minutes of the film. Because, the way it’s introduced, a lot of people think these three girls are probably the mean girls, well dressed, all the sort of things we associate with being superficial people, and then there’s this girl who’s nice, the sweet character. They think she’s supposed to be the character we judge the others by. I didn’t realize how strong that would be. Because I thought that we made it pretty clear early on that it’s really about Violet [Greta Gerwig]. So I don’t see Violet as a freak. I see her as someone very appealing and, through her point of view, very interesting. And Lily [Analeigh Tipton] is sort of subverted because Lily was supposed to be a real knockout but kinda cold and superficial, and then all the guys like her. But Violet’s way better and more interesting but doesn’t have those killer looks that Lily’s supposed to have. But then, an actress comes in to audition, and she’s very good and very real, and it’s really good, what she’s doing, but it’s not really what it’s supposed to do. But I feel that my idea is a little bit clichéd, having this easily identifiable negative character and to have it less easy to identify her as a negative character, who’d make the film better and more interesting. But it just throws so many people for a loop.
It happens late in the film, as well.
They constantly see the film as being Lily’s film, not Violet’s film. They still have an uncomfortable time to find that line.
And the actress who played Lily, did you see her on “America’s Next Top Model”?
No. I didn’t see anyone. I might have seen Aubrey Plaza in something before. Maybe I crossed paths with her visually. But it’s all through casting. I mean, yes, once I knew she was good, I went back and looked at “America’s Next Top Model” and that kind of stuff.
So you never even knew she aspired to be a model?
She’s not a model, and that’s a good thing.
I mean, she was never a model. She’s an aspiring filmmaker, writer, actress who got a gig on a reality show playing someone who was trying to be a model, but she’s not a model.
I mean, the good thing is that I didn’t have the prejudice of her being a model. I just saw her as an actress, and then I heard everyone liked her on “America’s Next Top Model.” Had you been aware of her in that?
I can’t remember anyone on that show because they all look alike, slender young women.
I know that the wife and daughter of the lead investor were very excited that it was Analeigh that they liked.
So, for you, it’s really all about Greta Gerwig’s character.
It’s really all about Violet. We had many alternate titles. One was going to be the Ultra Violets, but that would have sort have been misleading, or the Violet Ultras because they’re sort of ultras, those girls.
Sure. Talk about ultra, like Rose’s revelation at the end where she says she talks with a British accent because she just came from London.
I mean the film’s not supposed to be a retro, joking film. It’s the idea that if there are things in the past that we liked, we can bring them back. We can re-create them, and we can build a future with the elements that we like in the past. It’s sort of like when a bird makes its nest, it takes little elements it likes and puts its nest together with those elements. So, in our future, rather than thinking of anything new and having new things that’s never been done before, why not take some things that seem nice from the past, like, let’s say, a style of dressing or a style of music or a style of dancing, and let’s [recuperate] that. I mean, the Renaissance was about, after the dark centuries, looking back at classicism of Greece and Rome and, see, what is this great culture, how can we bring it back? So I think there’s a bit of that in our society. I think, at the same time, there’s been technological progress and material progress and many good things in life and the Internet and cool things like that. There’s also been loss, so you see films from the ‘30s and it seems to me like a higher culture. It seems like these people are more civilized. We’ve lost a lot, but we don’t have to lose it because people are more intelligent and aspirational and have good qualities. And reality is totally checked at the door, so people shouldn’t be judging [Damsels] based on any vérité. There was a French filmmaker who did this film where at the end all these young people come and take over the house, and they’re running all around … and I found it a very cliché version of the youth of today. A lot of the industry films, it’s kind of a cliché, but really there are all kinds of types and none of my daughters are like the cliché version of what today’s youth are like.
So they’re not always texting on the phone?
No, no. I have one daughter who’s immune to all that. I mean, we did have more contemporary signifiers, originally, in the film, but you cut out a scene that has it, and therefore it’s no longer in it, so we do have a cell phone in the film, and we do have her [Violet] saying, people don’t write by hand anymore. But also I’ve seen a lot of films where they’re using whatever the technology of the day is and everything, and it gets very boring, very quickly. It’s all about whatever the latest thing is.
Yeah, it seems kind of conscious.
In Spanish films, the classic scene is someone comes in to their apartment and plays the answering machine and listens to the message on the answering machine, or we have a close-up of the answering machine leaving a message, and that is like tedious cinema. I think now we can do the same sort of thing. It’ll just be some boring thing in the future. Like now, who uses answering machines?
Yeah, and it sort of automatically dates your film. It’s not good in the long run.
Yeah, it’s sort of stupid dating. And also, all the sort of dumb action films, even if they’re good movies and they’re fun to watch, they have tons of stuff with the camera on the computer screen as the person is subverting the terrorists. Like, what is it? The Mission Impossible stuff, so you have the good people typing away at their computer screens, and you have the evil people typing away at their laptops (laughs).
Yeah, and how interesting is that going to be 10 years from now, and how much will it turn the film into some campy joke for future generations?
I did have Adam Brody writing his essay “the Decline of Decadence” on my laptop, but it got cut.
It may have been interesting if he were on a typewriter.
I’m not gonna go there. I’m not sentimental about technology, so that whole thing about people who have to use their manual typewriter.
That was my dad.
I’m not gonna go back to that. But the problem is once the technology goes out, it’s real hard to find. And occasionally to address an envelope or a short letter it would be probably much easier to write on a typewriter, a good IBM Selectric would be good to have now (laughs).
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Our conversation continues here: