During Whit Stillman’s Spring tour, CutPrintFilm caught up with the Love & Friendship director during his stay in Waco, Texas to discuss his career directing upperclass stories, his experience in the industry and his take on the industry becoming increasingly digital now that he’s working with Amazon.
CutPrintFilm: One occurring element in your films I see is journalists, as someone with a background in journalism, is that a vital element for you?
Whit Stillman: I would have loved to be a journalist, and I did some stuff but I mostly ended up on the editorial business side a little bit, because I had a lot of problems writing coherent articles. I could finally get one out that could be interesting, but I just took much more time than everyone else.
CPF: That sort of plays into people getting frustrated that you have such long gaps between your films.
Stillman: It’s not all my fault…a lot of it’s my fault. But I had that 12 year period where it wasn’t my fault. I had scripts but I couldn’t get the backing. What’s frustrating for me — over time we’ve done a project ourselves, it’s been profitable. The one that wasn’t profitable was Last Days of Disco, and that that’s because we were obliged to make a Warner Bros. film, and shot it in a way that was more expensive than we would have done ourselves. Except for that particular situation, all our films have been profitable, so I don’t really understand why we can’t get backing. I think the business has some bad habits.
CPF: One thing I think you do particularly well is how you treat your bourgeois characters not as villains or heroes. There’s a fine line you dance with that, especially with Metropolitan.
Stillman: Yeah, but also in the case of Metropolitan, that is a two week period where they’re doing these very exceptional things. Most of the year, they’d being doing what other people at university are doing and they wouldn’t be differentiable. That world vanished quickly in my group, because by Spring vacation, people got really druggy. So I tried to put that in the story where in the second week, a guy has a bad drug experience and that’s a little bit what happened.
CPF: Then you go back to that college age with Damsels in Distress and that’s where you mention that there’s a decline in this decadence. Is that your view of this class now?
Stillman: Yes but it’s from further back. The way decadence was before the 1960s had some nice attributes. Since the 60s, it became really depressing. I’m not into sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll. For me, in the 60s, the world zigged when it should have zagged. I was really glad during the disco period, seeing things coming back to this normal social life with melodious music, people dancing and socializing in clubs.
CPF: You’ve said in the past that you find writing harder than directing but you’ve only directed films you’ve written.
Stillman: That wasn’t my idea. I once got to direct one thing that I didn’t write, and I liked what it was. It was a very good script by a guy named Henry Bromell who unfortunately died really young and he’s a really good writer. He did a couple of independent films, he was writing on Homicide and he left Homicide but left this rather sweet script about three grieving people and they called me to direct it. So I went down to Baltimore to shoot it, and that was a great experience except for the fact there was a particular producer who’s really, really abrasive. They junked up the script. They added these trashy melodramatic elements, like they made the Chris Eigeman character into this yuppy villain. It was such a cliché. Chris and I both think one of the things we’re doing is humanizing these characters. We don’t want to perpetuate these hateful stereotypes. I objected to it and man was that bad.
CPF: Do you feel that the ease of directing could be because you already shaped the stories?
Stillman: Yeah, it’s possible. I’ve done all the research and thinking already so when I finally come to direct it, I’ve done the work and it seems easy. It doesn’t seem easy, it’s hard but in an easy way. It’s not an existential crisis of having the void of not having the material. When you’re directing, it’s like shooting the rapids. Yeah, it’s hard, it’s dangerous and scary, there’s a lot of pressure but you’re going to get to the bottom of the rapids one way or another.
CPF: With Love & Friendship it seems like you’re going back to that age of decadence. Is that what was the attraction along with being such a funny script?
Stillman: You’re very right, because what I really liked when I read it was it reminded me of Oscar Wilde. So Oscar Wilde’s plays would be exactly the kind of good decadence and the Oscar Wildian-pose of the ironical things he’d say. There was something cool there, and it’s not so bad now, but there have been some really bad moments in the last 60 years. I don’t think things are particularly bad now in 2017 compared to 1998. But there’s this very empty avant garde-ism with Lars von Trier, stuff like that. That’s a bad decadence.
CPF: All your films seem to touch on that decadence. Is there a story you want to tell that goes away from that?
Stillman: It was an accident that I got into this series of films. Metropolitan was something that interested me, and it was sensible in its scale of production — but I want to do all sorts of different films. Adventure films. I wanted to remake Bonanza. All kinds of things. But you get typecast doing something and with words, I can make films cheaply.
CPF: What drew you to Bonanza?
Stillman: Well, a lot of these TV shows when we were kids really appeal to us. I guess my family was in a situation where we were considered the more affluent family in the neighborhood. We were part of the mountain people. The other people we’d go to school within the village, and I really liked it when I was down in the village because it was a nicer life as a kid. We kind of felt like we were like the Cartwrights on Ponderosa. It was a good TV series. It’s almost too late now because the generation that would take their kids to see it are now grandparents.
CPF: Hearing you talk about other genres, I’m interested in your take on the current superhero/blockbuster genre that’s taken over the industry.
Stillman: I love James Bond, those are kind of superhero movies, but I found the initial Batmans really ugly and unimpressive. They really seem lame to me. So I stopped following them and I had two daughters, so we really didn’t go to the superhero movies. But I do have as science fiction comedy called Little Green Men based off a Chris Buckley novel, and that didn’t go ahead but I was trying to do that for awhile.
CPF: Of course, the other film trend is digital production. Was Love & Friendship on film or digital?
Stillman: I really love digital, it’s really great. My last experience with 35mm was really bad. It was the release prints on Damsels in Distress. I had friends call me up saying ‘This is just terrible.’ So I really like the DCPs (Digital Cinema Package) because usually they really control how the film looks and it’s much better.
CPF: So digital is the future for you?
Stillman: I really enjoy shooting on digital because you get much more information than you need therefore you can do all kinds of things, make all these mistakes in the shoot. We don’t really do many camera moves and push-ins during the shoot because those are almost always too slow but we can do them in the editing room and control it and pace the film.
CPF: Is there an example of that you can think of with Love & Friendship?
Stillman: There was one scene where everything looked terrible. We were able to find a way of cutting into a steadicam shot. It’s Kate and Chloë speaking insignificant dialogue just to set up the scene and in one sense it seemed really boring to me, I want to cut that out. People that think my films are boring won’t believe I’m taking out something even more boring than the state it’s in. So it’s a steadicam shot, so how do you cut into that? So I just cut it, jump cut, I don’t care. I thought it was fine. But the editor was writhing in pain having to watch this jump cut all the time. A couple of very filmy friends that saw the early versions said ‘What’s the jump cut doing there?’ So one said in documentary filmmaking there’s a trick you use where you can go in tighter, create a single, so you cut a tighter shot and you come back out so you fake a different shot.
CPF: I think that’s what helped make it your funniest films. Was there a push to keep cutting more material, the “boring” stuff as some detractors might say?
Stillman: That’s the thing I learned from Amazon working on the pilot, they really pushed me to cut, cut, cut. And a little too much, I think I would have enjoyed sparing two sentences more or more dialogue to balance the story more.
CPF: You’ve mentioned Amazon a few times now, what was your experience working with them and going forward with them because this seems to be the new age where big filmmakers are being courted? Like Martin Scorsese being signed by Netflix has been seen as a sign of the cinema apocalypse.
Stillman: The thing is, it’s very different what Amazon and Netflix do. Netflix is not really giving films a theatrical release and Amazon is giving a great theatrical release. But my Texas investor friends that put a lot of money into Silence, they probably regret they didn’t sell it to Netflix. I think they might have lost their shirts on that.
CPF: They lost a lot. I think it was about $30 million.
Stillman: Did you see that?
CPF: I wholeheartedly recommend it.
Stillman: Maybe I’m being unfair because I haven’t seen Silence, but it seems the Catholic filmmakers are too into sadomasochism. So I didn’t see Passion of the Christ, I didn’t see Silence yet but they sound, particularly Passion, really grueling, and I see what Mel Gibson does with projects — there was the original [version] of The Patriot. It was quite nice and sort of family-oriented and a great historical film for Disney to do, and the moment Mel Gibson got involved, the violence level just skyrocketed, horrible violence.
CPF: And he wants to do a sequel to Passion, if you’ve heard that?
Stillman: He just seems to love violence and sadistic stuff and Martin Scorsese seems to have a little bit of that. Is that a Catholic thing?