Despite long break, director remains full of Whit
- Last Updated: 1:04 AM, April 14, 2012
- Posted: 10:02 PM, April 13, 2012
Don’t be fooled by the expensive schooling and the sartorial nattiness of writer-director Whit Stillman’s immaculately well-bred creations in his films “Metropolitan,” “Barcelona” and “The Last Days of Disco.” What Stillman really wants to do is make a silly Will Ferrell movie.
“I adore Will Ferrell,” Stillman says. “Films like ‘Old School’ and especially ‘Elf.’ I had brunch with him at the Four Seasons. He’s funny all the time. He made the reservation under this ridiculous name. He was wearing a bowling outfit.” Stillman cracks up momentarily.
Stillman, 60, would love it if people think of the energy of “Old School” during the frat scenes in his fourth film, “Damsels in Distress,” the Veuve Clicquot-bubbly and appropriately spring-like campus comedy that did big business in its opening weekend and is now expanding to more theaters. The story features several dull-witted frat types distressing a pack of proper young undergraduate ladies (led by alpha girl Greta Gerwig). Stillman loved it when someone described the film as “Jane Austen meets ‘Animal House.’ ”
One can’t help noticing, though, that Stillman hasn’t released a film in 14 years. What’s he been doing?
Stillman explains, “I lost my apartment in the city. We were in a funky building in SoHo where an old-timer had a scraps business. He rented to us, and he was very sympathetic. His son inherited the building following his death. There was a typical controversy, and we agreed to leave at the end of May of ’98.”
At his wife’s urging, the pair moved to Paris, and Stillman pitched projects in London. The most painful journey to oblivion was an adaptation of “Red Azalea,” a memoir set during China’s Cultural Revolution. Stillman turned in the script on Sept. 12, 2001, but couldn’t get it made.
As befits the creator of memorably threadbare preppies who discourse about the problem of being ornately spoken but shabbily funded, Stillman (whose father was a Harvard classmate of JFK’s who later went to work in that president’s administration) is not awash in riches. He shops at Ralph Lauren Polo, but “on the fourth sale,” he says. “The first week in August, when they try to unload the really unfortunate mistakes.”
So he’s on the low end of the high end, much as George Orwell described himself as “lower upper-middle class”?
“I am so Orwell,” Stillman replies. “I went from ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’ being a project I wanted to film to a life I was living.”
Starting in 2006, he began moving back to New York City the way Mike, in “The Sun Also Rises,” goes broke — gradually, then suddenly. “Damsels” came together relatively easily. He finished the script on Christmas Day in 2009, and had the film ready in time for the Toronto Film Festival last September.
Despite his long absence from theaters, Stillman is busy, and recognizes the bright side of not having too much going on at once. “You can cut corners and do something not fully baked when you’re under pressure to get it out,” he says. “The great luxury is time. When I was working on ‘Metropolitan,’ absolutely no one was waiting for that script.” It earned him a 1991 Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay.
For now he’s happy to defend his daffy “Damsels.” Those who are put off by its absurdist and surreal qualities are, he believes, missing the point. “I’m not a fan of reality, to be honest,” he says. “An important critic panned Woody Allen’s ‘Melinda and Melinda’ because people couldn’t afford such nice apartments, one of the most depressing criticisms I’ve ever heard.
“To people who say that, I say, ‘I didn’t like “Star Wars” because the Wookiee bar was unrealistic. The Wookiee bars I’ve been to weren’t like that at all.’ ”