AFF: A Conversation With Whit Stillman

What Whit Stillman wants? More tap dancing

AFF: A Conversation With Whit Stillman
Image courtesy of Austin Film Festival

The day before AFF screened a 35mm print of Whit Stillman's 1990 debut, Metropolitan, he chatted up a crowd of conference goers about his first film, his latest film, Damsels in Distress, and his exile in Europe.

"No one would buy it," Stillman recalled of Metropolitan. "We failed miserably, until we stopped failing."

Metropolitan, which was inspired by the writer/director's own experiences on the periphery of Manhattan's deb scene, was made on a shoestring budget. Stillman still prefers working with a super-low budget, for the creative freedom it affords him. "I have a pathological cheapness … [it] comes out of some kind of atavistic inheritance."

He was candid about the frustrating 12 year gap between 1998's The Last Days of Disco and Damsels in Distress. "I didn't realize we were in an indie film bubble," he said, pointing to the boon years when he started out. "The air was coming out of that balloon constantly as I was trying to set up my projects. … Now there's no money for scripts." He also noted that most of the boutique distributors run by the major studios have shuttered. "We need some small distributors to take on small projects."

He spent many of those years living in Spain, which he thinks put a dent in his filmmaking career. "I think being in Europe is a definite mistake. I can speak with authority.

"Except I heard Wes Anderson found his financial backer at a party in Paris. I wish I'd been at that party."

When asked if he thought mumblecore was a descendant of his early films, he said, "I would hope so. I really like the people involved with it. … In Damsels, there was a positive cross-pollination."

Mumblecore mainstay Greta Gerwig stars in campus comedy Damsels in Distress, which was inspired by his undergraduate days at Harvard, a time he described as "very grim, very political, completely unsocial." Of course, with signature Stillman wit, he managed to make the experience sound rather charming, with anecdotes about "alienating the Maoists."

The new comedy, which has a tentative March release date, includes musical numbers and dancing. "I think if people tap dance more, that would be a good thing."

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Austin Film Festival, Whit Stillman, Damsels in Distress, Metropolitan, Greta Gerwig

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