Writer/director Whit Stillman‘s name hasn’t graced the big screen since his slightly divisive The Last Days of Disco hit thirteen years ago. That’s quite a long time between features, but if it takes Stillman that amount of time to write the dialogue he’s regarded for, then the wait is more than worth any inconvenience. So, it’s with Damsels in Distress that the breakout filmmaker of the ’90s returns with his signature wit and style.
Speaking with the self-depreciating Stillman, it was clear his process is never quick and easy. From going through screenwriting books to attending Robert McKee‘s course, the Damsels in Distress director knows there is no right way to tell a story. What he unquestionably knows is musical dialogue, which, as he tells it, informs his stories.
Here’s what Whit Stillman had to say about being rejected by NYU, how the director is the only one allowed to be an ignoramus on set, and how your first ideas are always your worst:
How are you, Mr. Stillman?
Very well. I love the name of your site. I am a film school reject. I was not only rejected by film school, I was rejected by a continuing education film program. My only film course was a night course at NYU, a film production one. I don’t think I signed up in time for the continuation, and I guess they were full or something. I suffered. I saved some money, but I suffered. When I did Metropolitan, I didn’t know much about sound.
Do you see that experience as a positive one now?
Yeah, I think so. I did get a book, How to Direct a Movie, but I only got up to chapter nine by the time we were shooting, and that had screen direction. We had a great cinematographer, John Thomas, and I asked, “John, screen direction is your department. I can’t do that.” [Laughs]
[Laughs] And then did you discover you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out the technical side for films of this scale?
Yeah, that really happened. I was in this Spanish film Sal gorda, by a Spanish director I really liked, Fernando Trueba. It was sort of his troubled second project. He had made a film called Opera Prima, a huge success and hit and it was a really good film. I was on set for his second film, because I was pretty much their captive actor. So I saw that, “Boy, this is definitely not rocket science.”
Did you immediately say, “I could do this”?
[Laughs] I think it’s true in the business that the only ignoramus who can be on set is the director. Everyone else has to know their jobs, while we just have to have opinions.
[Laughs] That’s a good way of looking at it. Did you see yourself as a writer or director first?
Actually, I saw myself as a director first, and I only wrote a script so I could have a cheap script to direct. Then I fell into the writing trap, hence 12 years without a film…
[Laughs] Do you find writing difficult?
I used to find writing very difficult. It’s very difficult at the starting phase, and it’s really, really terrible. There is a cool moment when there’s more material being generated and you maybe have something.
Does it usually take a while to find that moment?
Yeah, it can be really painful. You have a great moment where you think of an idea and you’re happy that you thought of a film. Then you have the horrible blankness of what’s actually going to happen. Generally all the first ideas are very, very bad, and that’s why I hate having to pitch something, doing a treatment, letter, or outline. Your first ideas are always really bad and really obvious. First, if you write it down and make a deal with whoever’s interested, they probably won’t think it’s bad. Second, you also get stuck with that initial idea in your mind, not giving you that freedom for better ideas.
What’s your process behind making an idea less obvious?
It’s funny, because there’s a course I took very seriously and enjoyed a lot of aspects of, the Robert McKee story course. My best relationship with that course is I had a friend – who had very forward notes and had this weird curly-cue handwriting – and he took very sparse notes of the class. Extrapolating from his notes, I found it really stimulating and used that when I was writing Barcelona. Just having a key few phrases was great. When I took the course itself, and it seemed really good, McKee said, “You cannot create characters based on dialogue and you can’t create a story writing scenes.” I figured out later what he said you could not do is the only way I knew how to do it. The only way I knew how to do it is having people say something to each other, and maybe they get their voice, come alive, and maybe they start doing things. For me, the dialogue thing is kind of helpful.
Was that an eye-opening experience, learning there’s not one way to tell a story?
Exactly. I mean, I think on Metropolitan I tried every trick in the book, and not successfully so. They’d say use cards, and that didn’t work. Have an outline, and that didn’t work. There was this one helpful book, the Syd Field‘s screenplay book, which gives practical ideas, like, “On page 62, there has to be a turning point!” He was very dramatic in the first book and on the second book he was, like, “Oh, I took a seminar in Brussels, and it turns out the turning point is not on 62, it’s on 54!” Makes a difference. [Laughs] It was sort of listening and fighting against the Syd Field’s system, and it was a really good road map for how to think of things. Yes, you are going to end up wanting something under 100 minutes and it does have to have some direct tension, resolution, and some switches. Those are useful things to think about.
What usually informs you when you’re writing, things you’ve seen and heard?
Generally, it’s not that way, but it is like stories I’ve heard years ago. I met this woman – who was my age and had kids and was a nice woman – and then I heard this story about a relationship she had at university, where a young professor talked her into all kinds of stuff. I found the story so appalling and incongruous. So that comes out, but dialogue doesn’t that way.
Does dialogue come easy for you?
It sort of does, because it’s making an affirmative statement, and I’m thinking, “Actually, that isn’t true,” so then the other character can contradict that statement.
I would definitely describe your dialogue as clever. Are there ever times where you look at a line or an event, and question if it’s too clever?
Yeah…I mean, there’s a lot that gets cut out, and the actors help a lot, in cutting stuff out. I had an experience where actors have seen drafts that are long, then the production wants you to cut all of this stuff because it’s too long, and then the actors will say, “I think this line’s really good and we should put it back in.” Sometimes the actors become the experts and guardians of their characters. They become the conscience of the writing process, and say, “No, you can’t do this.”
On Metropolitan, at one point, we changed the location and I changed which characters said something. Chris Eigeman‘s character finds a book and starts chiding judgmental Jane about it. When we changed the location to the Sally Fowler apartment, it didn’t seem logical. You know, it’d be him chiding Jane about a book he found in Sally’s apartment. I changed that and then Chris and Alice Parisi, who played Jane, said, “You know, this dialogue here is important for our background and love story.” I thought they were right, so we just had him do that, even though their location changed. It just seemed to work, like it was as if all the girls were reading it. Nick’s interested in Jane, so he’s teasing her about it, and that’s their relationship. It worked. At a certain point, you have people worrying about the integrity of their character.
So you don’t get precious about every single word?
Well…the actual words we don’t want to change that much, but everything is up for grabs.
You’ve always followed young characters. Since things have changed pop-culture-wise, did you notice any difference in trying to write 21st century twenty-year-olds versus in the ’90s?
I don’t know. I think there’s always different groups within a generation, and they all talk different ways. I think this is as plausible for now as it would’ve been for them.
There is usually an irony to these type of characters now, where I’d say the film is pretty cynic-free, like your other films.
I mean, I think there is an irony of belief, where you are sincere and do believe something, but you don’t want to be too corny about it. I think there is a way to have the sentimentality and the emotion, while also having some perspective on it, where it could be considered ironical.
Damsels in Distress is now in theaters.