After a decade long furlough in Europe, Whit Stillman arrives at the rise of “mumblecore.”
The question, Who is Whit Stillman?, happens to be both literal and existential.
Stillman, the writer/director responsible for the Academy Award nominated Metropolitan and The Last Days of Disco, has returned from a decade-long sabbatical in Paris to the American Indie film scene he helped birth in the 90s. His latest work, Damsels in Distress, is autumn crisp, effortless and completely unlike how Stillman would describe his past decade.
Failure, the director states succinctly. I am a very bad producer, so much so, Ive changed my identity to solely being a writer and director. I was getting these commissions for things I really wanted to work on but they werent me and it took me a while to realize that. You have to be determined to make your film no matter what and you have to plow ahead to make your film so I really got distracted that way.
Sitting at a Beverly Hills hotel, Stillman looks like a character from one of his films. Despite the French shirt, Italian shoes, tailored blazer and perfectly coiffed hair, the writers personality does not resemble any of the urban haute bourgeoisie that hes come to define for the past 20 years.
What I like most about this movie is that the characters are so self invented. Its me because I came into college one way and left completely another. Its also how I feel right now.
Artistically, there couldnt be a better time for Stillman to make a return to cinema. 2011s Hugo, Midnight In Paris, and The Artist have proven that artistic films can find a wider audience. The question was can a 60-year-old director yet again find relevancy.
In an almost scripted passing of the torch, the director couldnt have been more fortunate to work with Lena Dunham and Greta Gerwig, arguably the two biggest names in the burgeoning mumblecore scene.
I was starting from the usual position of ignorance with the excuse this time that Id been living abroad, said Stillman. The film style known as Mumblecore I had heard of, but not actually witnessed or strained to hear.
Mumblecore is the latest catch-all term for American independent films. Filmmakers that fall under the category include rising stars Andrew Bujalski, Mark and Jay Duplass, Joe Swanberg as well as the latest Judd Apatow protégé, Dunham, star of HBOs breakout comedy Girls.
This was a key meeting, noted Stillman. Lena became a friend to the production, helped at a table reading, agreed to play a funny part in the film until work on her TV show intervened.
Stillman, who by his own admission is not the best producer, found Dunhams insight to be invaluable.
We had the idea of combining the production approach we had taken on the previous films with the techniques and young crew of mumblecore films such as Lenas. Through her, we found the key young crew who would execute the film properly.
Then theres Gerwig.
I had a meeting with Greta at a West Village watering hole, said the director. As a striking pretty blond I assumed that it would be to play the bombshell role. Fortunately, Stillman noted Greta had the insight to see herself in the Violet part. Greta came in to perform the Violet role in all its aspects, including stellar singing and tap dancing turns.
In Dunham, Stillman had found someone who could help him get reacclimated to filmmaking. Once the director had returned to vintage Stillman, he had found a kindred spirit.
What I loved about working with Whit is that he was always so open to discussion, said Gerwig. We wouldnt do too many takes but we would always talk about what felt the most natural and he had no problem working with other ideas.
Suddenly the wooden words made great sense in this actresss version, said Stillman. The good actress turned out to be good at other film tasks too: in this case, a terrific director.
Its so funny that I ended up working with Whit, mentioned an enthusiastic Gerwig. In my college experiences, I remember having these drunken dorm room conversations about his films so it was very surreal to work with him.
Simply stated It was so great to work with Whit said the actress.
Running the gamut from self- imposed exile to relevancy, Stillman appears comfortable, confident and able to provide his take on the current state of American independent film today.
I think its great from our [the artists] point of view in the sense that weve come back to the 1980s. Metropolitan came out in 1990 but really we made it in 89 and there was a very low budget. Spike Lees first film, Jarmusch and Linklater came out with films and then there was this huge boom and we were spending too much money, The Last Days of Disco really became more of a studio project than what I wanted it to be and now its back to the 80s with Lena, and Greta and their groups, noted the director. The whole mumblecore scene and their friends have a pied piper situation where the children are leading the adults.
When asked where does he see himself post Damsels, Stillman replied Theres a saying that the way to end up in the future one wants is to invent it oneself.
Its no coincidence for this auteur that the future is now.