Friday, March 22, 2013

The Auteurs #21: Whit Stillman

One of the most revered voices to arrive in the 1990s, Whit Stillman is a filmmaker who presented a world that some people didn’t think they would relate to. Yet, he was able to provide those from upper class environments or lived in the city something that someone from the suburbs could relate to. Often filled with irreverent humor and commentary about the world, Stillman’s films became the anecdote to a period that was defined by irony. As the 1990s ended, Stillman went on a hiatus period that was similar to the 20-year disappearance of another American filmmaker in Terrence Malick. Yet, Stillman would finally return in 2011 with a new film that proved that he still had something to say.

Born John Whitney Stillman on January 25, 1952 in Washington D.C., Stillman was the son of a politician as his father worked as an assistant commerce secretary for the John F. Kennedy administration. Being raised at Cornwall, New York, Stillman was able to take part in the world of debutante parties and other aspects that privileged kids were able to do. In the 1970s, Stillman went to Harvard University where he wrote for the school’s paper while eventually graduating in 1973. After a period as a journalist in New York City, Stillman was able to get the attention of film producers from Spain about selling their films to Spanish-language U.S. television. The meetings would prove to be fruitful for Stillman as he worked in the country as sales agents for filmmakers like Fernando Trueba and Fernando Colombo where he would also act in small parts for their films.

Just as the 1980s were prevalent in a period dominated by excess and capitalism, Stillman used these experiences to write about the life he was part of while trying to give voice to a group of people that seemed inaccessible to those who lived in the suburbs or weren’t part of the bourgeoisie lifestyle. If there’s one filmmaker that is prevalent in the works of Stillman, it’s Woody Allen. Allen’s use of irreverent humor and commentary on aspects of high-brow culture was unique as Allen was this strange mix of American slapstick comedy with the world of 1960s European art house films. Allen would be this big influence on Stillman who would definitely take on a unique approach to comedy by finding voice in young people living in the bourgeoisie world.


The first film of this unofficial trilogy entitled Doomed-Bourgeois-in-Love would be a project revolving around a group of young college students from Ivy League schools spending the Christmas holidays attending debutante parties and such while dealing with the uncertainty of adulthood. Stillman would spend four years perfecting the screenplay that would eventually become Metropolitan as it was loosely based on his own experiences as a Harvard college student where he was in Washington D.C. with his divorced mother as he spent times attending parties in that world of young, privileged kids.

While the story would revolve around an outsider who becomes part of this group of young preppy rich kids, it would be an exploration about a world that is changing where these kids question about how they would adjust to the changes. Particularly as the film was made during the late 80s where one decade is about to end and another is about to arrive. In the course of this period during the Christmas holidays as it would expand into the early stages of the New Year. The characters in the film would delve into many discussions about existentialism, class issues, and all sorts of things where its protagonist in this middle-class Princeton student named Tom Townshend would enter this world as an outsider who does have some unique views on the world. Yet, he would come out of this experience with a bigger understanding about the world.

Stillman would utilize a small crew for the film as he gained such early collaborators in cinematographer John Thomas, editor Christopher Tellefsen, and music composer Mark Suozzo. For the cast, Stillman went for unknowns for the film as Edward Clements would play Tom Townshend while filling out the cast would be Chris Eigeman as the cynical Nick, Taylor Nichols as the intellectual philosopher Charlie, and Carolyn Farina as the young woman Audrey whom Tom falls for. With a lot of the location set in Manhattan during the cold winter, Stillman would often let the actors flesh out their characters through comical or dramatic manners.

With a lot of the film taking place in these lavish environments, it would definitely seem alienating to an audience that is from a working class or a middle-class background. Even to those in a lower-class background who feel like these are just a bunch of snobby rich kids who are just over-thinking everything about their comfy lifestyle while dressed in tuxedos and debutante dresses. Yet, Stillman is able to find something that people who aren’t upper-class or from the bourgeois world that people could connect with such as the uncertainty of becoming an adult. Even in a scene where both Tom and Charlie meet a man in a bar who provides some answers about life as an adult that would reveal some harsh realities for these two young men who are at odds with each other over their different philosophies on life and social classes while trying to win over Audrey.

While the story is largely told from the perspective of Tom Townshend as he’s dealing with not just the new environment he’s in but also a relationship with a young woman he was just with as she is dating a man who has a reputation for being a slime ball. Yet, he is someone who is very flawed as he becomes attracted to Audrey who is having her own issues about the ideas of love. Helping Tom navigate through this world is Nick who is this very talkative cynic yet he is the film’s comic relief. Notably as he would tell stories that could be true, false, or an exaggeration yet would often have something profound in the way people behaved. Even as Nick’s viewpoints on the world give Tom a chance to finally come into revelations about himself and the world where he and Charlie finally come together to stop something that could hurt Audrey.

The film made its official premiere at the 1990 Sundance Film Festival where it would become a major hit in film festivals in the U.S. as well as getting a chance to be shown at the Director’s Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival. Released to theaters in the late summer of that year, the film became a hit with critics and audiences as it gave Stillman a New York Critics prize for Best New Director while getting an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. The film’s success would help ensure the new wave of new filmmakers coming from the world of indie cinema as Stillman would become one of its key figures.


The success of Metropolitan gave Stillman lots of clout to attract the attention of the studios yet it took some years for the filmmaker to finally get the chance to make a film on his own terms while getting the backing of a studio. Castle Rock Entertainment would be the studio to give Stillman the financial aid he needed as well as the support to make his sophomore feature his way. For this sophomore feature, Stillman would go back to the time when he lived in Spain during the early 1980s at a time when the country was going through some major changes in the aftermath of the Franco-led dictatorship dating back to 1936 to the mid-1970s.

Named after one of the cities that Stillman had lived in the during the 1980s, the film would revolve around two American cousins who deal with this wave of anti-American propaganda that was sweeping around the nation while trying to win over the hearts of women in the country. Notably as these two men are very different from one another as they also bicker a lot over personal issues and all sorts of things. Yet, they would come together in order to help each other woo women while dealing with people spouting anti-American sentiments as they would even question themselves as Americans living in Spain.

Retaining such collaborators as cinematographer John Thomas, editor Christopher Tellefsen, and music composer Mark Suozzo while getting casting director Billy Hopkins to help cast the film. Stillman was able to use the small $3.2 million budget to get the chance to shoot the film on location in Barcelona. While Stillman was able to get Taylor Nichols and Chris Eigeman to play the leads, one of the big discoveries Stillman got was in emerging actress Mira Sorvino to play the role of a Spanish woman named Marta. Along with small roles from noted character-actor Jack Gilpin and Thomas Gibson as well as a role for newcomer Tushka Bergen as one of the love interests. Stillman was finally set to do his next feature.

While the film would be set in the early 80s primarily in Barcelona during this air of change where modern Europe is finally coming to the country. Stillman would take a much broader approach to his presentation while keeping focus on the characters at large with Nichols as the more socially-awkward salesman Ted and Chris Eigeman as his more talkative Naval officer cousin Fred. While both Ted and Fred each have different ideas about what they want in a woman. Both would face some tribulations in their own personal journeys where Ted is looking for someone who isn’t physically attractive but rather someone who can offer something more. Yet, he falls for the very beautiful and smart Musserat (Tushka Bergen) who exudes these qualities but is also just as flawed as Ted who is quite neurotic and rarely outspoken.

Balancing Ted’s awkwardness is Fred’s patriotism as a Naval officer who finds himself the target of a lot of the anti-American propaganda where he’s accused of being a spy as he often wears his Naval uniform. While he is a man who tries to help woo girls for Ted by making a lot of exaggerations, he is still a devoted cousin who is a bit selfish at times. During his stay in the city, he begins to question whether Americans are really the enemy as it allows Stillman to raise lots of heavy questions about identity. Particularly as it comes to Americans who are viewed by Europeans as low-class consumerists who spend their time eating hamburgers. It’s something that Stillman allows the audience to think about but with an air of humor as the film ends in a very ironic note of sorts.

The film premiered in late July of 1994 as it was able to do well in the box office as well as getting praise from critics. While it didn’t get the same kind of praise that Stillman’s previous film got. It still managed to prove that Stillman was no one-trick pony while raising his clout with the world of film. One aspect of the film that became interesting during its production was the fact that Taylor Nichols did fall in love with a Spanish woman whom he later married in an example of life imitating art.

Homicide: Life on the Street-The Heart of Saturday Night

One aspect of working outside of the film studio system for independent-minded filmmakers is the chance to work into the realm of television. For Stillman, he took part in the acclaimed investigative crime series Homicide: Life on the Street that often revolved around crime in Baltimore. Stillman directed an episode in its fifth season where its regular cast included Andre Braugher, Richard Belzer, Yaphett Koto, Melissa Leo, and Michelle Forbes along with guest appearances from Rosanna Arquette, Polly Holliday, and Stillman regular Chris Eigeman who all play people at a support group who had just lost family members.

It’s an episode all revolving a troubling Saturday night in which three people are killed and how it affected those who are connected to these three lost lives. The narrative moves back-and-forth from the main cast investigating the crime while Arquette, Holliday, and Eigeman are the people in a support group talking about their loss where Eigeman’s character is a man who lost his wife in a carjack while his 3-year old daughter was in the car. The support group scenes were presented in a stylized look while everything else looked normal. It’s a unique episode where Stillman strays away from his usual themes to explore loss with Eigeman playing a cynical individual who feels like there will be no resolve to what he went through. It’s definitely a small gem from Stillman’s work proving that he can step outside of his comfort zone.

The Last Days of Disco

While filming some scenes for Barcelona that were set in discotheques in the city, Stillman got an idea to create a story that would revolve around his time in New York City during the disco era of the late 1970s. Notably as it would fit in with his trilogy of doomed bourgeoisies in love set in periods of time when things were changing. This time around, Stillman decided to make a few changes as far as protagonists are concerned while still making it an ensemble film of sorts as it would be set in the final days of the disco music scene in New York City during the early 1980s.

While the lead characters in two post-graduates from Ivy League schools were women who worked at a publishing house by day and go to the disco clubs at night. There would be men that would pursue these women as they also deal with their own identities and aspirations. Notably as they would all come together as a group to talk about their futures and ideas about love while dancing to disco music at a club they all go to where one of the men in the film is a club manager. While there’s two other men in an advertising executive and an assistant district attorney all looking for love and meaning in their lives. It is still about these women trying to find the right man in their lives while dealing with the pitfalls of romance.

With collaborators such as composer Mark Suozzo and cinematographer John Thomas on board for the film, Stillman wanted to do something different with his approach to the cast. While Stillman was able to get Carolyn Farina and Taylor Nichols to reprise their roles from Metropolitan with Nichols also playing his role from Barcelona in cameo appearances. Stillman was approached to get big names such as Winona Ryder and then-rising star Ben Affleck for the role of club manager Des. Stillman ended up giving the role to Chris Eigeman while British actress Kate Beckinsale got to play the role of the outspoken Charlotte. For the role of the more introverted Alice, Stillman eventually chose Chloe Sevigny based on the suggestion of his editor Christopher Tellefsen who had seen Sevigny on the controversial 1995 film Kids that Tellefsen had edited.

With a budget of eight million dollars, Stillman shot the film on location in New York City while shooting the disco club at Loew’s Jersey Theater in Jersey City. Shot in the span of over two months in late 1997, Stillman wanted to create this world where it was set in a period of time where things were changing. With the help of stock footage that included images of the infamous Disco Demolition Night in Chicago of 1979, it was to emphasize a period where these young people are trying to come to terms with a world that is changing. Even as the era of the yuppies are starting to arrive where they all talk about some of the advantages that yuppies will have.

It’s also a film that involves these two different women who are very different where Stillman allows both Sevigny and Beckinsale to flesh out their characters. Notably as Sevigny’s character Alice struggles with her own relationship issues as a one-night stand with Robert Sean Leonard has her contracting a sexual transmitted disease that wasn’t AIDS. Even as Alice finds herself drawn to the sexually-confused Des and the more straight-laced assistant D.A. Josh while Beckinsale’s Charlotte is dating the ad executive Jimmy. Yet, these characters all go through issues of identity where some rise and some fall just as the disco scene itself begins to fall apart. Yet, it would be Josh who would have this very memorable monologue about disco that really stated about what was so great about the music and how he believes that will never die as the film ends on an upbeat note where Josh and Alice are dancing on a subway train to the O’Jays’ Love Train.

While the post-production for the film went through issues when another film about the disco music scene in 54 was about to come out around the same time. Stillman was able to get the film finished for its release in May of 1998. While it was well-received by the critics, the film was a box office disappointment though it fared much better than the more high-profiled 54 which came out later in the summer to poor reviews and disappointing box office numbers. Shortly after the film’s release, Stillman left New York City to move to Paris for a change of scene as he would eventually make one of the great disappearing acts in the world of cinema.

Damsels in Distress

In the aftermath of the release of The Last Days of Disco in which Stillman’s cult grew through his three films as that film and Metropolitan were eventually released through the famed Criterion Collection for its DVD/Blu-Ray releases. While that cult of film buffs were watching Stillman’s three films, the director himself spent much of the 2000s living in Paris while trying to come up with various projects during that time. While he gave interviews with the press on rare occasions during that hiatus, there were several unfinished projects Stillman had been working on including an original project in Dancing Mood set in 1960s Jamaica as well as an adaptation of Christopher Buckley’s Little Green Men as none of these projects got off the ground.

Stillman finally returned to New York City in 2009 where he was involved for the Criterion DVD release for The Last Days of Disco where he did a commentary track with Chloe Sevigny and Chris Eigeman. It was also around that time that Stillman was finally working on a script for a new project that would finally be the end of his long-standing hiatus between films. A project that would be somewhat different from his previous works but also contain some of the same elements that he’s been for in a film called Damsels in Distress.

The film would be about a trio of college girls at a prestigious east coast university as they take in a transfer student to be part of their group. These four women would eventually deal with the pratfalls of romance as the lead girl Violet goes through a period of depression while the transfer student Lily finds herself drawn to a young European and a playboy. Amidst all of this chaos over men and social identities, Violet tries to steer her depression through dancing as she attempts to start a new dance craze in the hopes to get people to feel better about themselves. The film is something very different from Stillman in not just unveiling his love for the musicals but also for finding something that he could relate to in these young women who aren’t as different as the characters he had created in his previous films.

While Stillman was able to retain composer Mark Suozzo for the film’s music, in collaboration with Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne, as well as editor Andrew Hafitz who had co-edited The Last Days of Disco. Stillman relied on an entirely new crew to help him make the film while he also decided to use on a very young cast for the film while he was able to put regulars Taylor Nichols and Carolyn Farina in small cameos. The cast would be filled out by up-and-coming actors as well as people who are sort of known for their work in TV and indie films. For the lead role of Violet, Greta Gerwig was chosen while Adam Brody would play the playboy Charlie who is going through his own issues. For the role of the transfer student Lily, Analeigh Tipton was cast.

Shot in the course of 28 days, Stillman wanted to go for a film that had a realistic idea of what college life is but also subvert it a bit into the realm of fantasy. Notably as it involved these characters who maybe those who are in a clique of their own but they often observe everything as they often take part in many social gatherings of college life. There are moments where Stillman pokes fun at the world of college cliques that included an infamous dorm that is known for their lack of hygiene and being very smelly. Yet, the film ends in the form of a musical where Stillman once again goes against convention by having the film’s ending be an instruction into how to dance Violet’s new dance craze known as the Sambola.

The film premiered at the 2011 Venice Film Festival in early September of that year while it later played at the Toronto Film Festival in that same month. The film was well-received in its festival appearances as critics and audiences welcomed Stillman back to the film scene. A year later, the film was given a limited theatrical release through Sony Pictures Classic where the film got excellent reviews and did modestly well in the box office. Its success definitely confirmed that Stillman was back and his 13-year hiatus was well worth the wait.

While there hasn’t been any confirmation into what Whit Stillman will do next. The film’s he’s made in the 1990s as well as Damsels in Distress has already confirmed him as one of the most viable filmmakers in American cinema. In the works of filmmakers like Noah Baumbach and Wes Anderson, Stillman provided them the chance to give characters from upper-class backgrounds or those who are highly-intellectual the chance to finally have their voice. Even if these characters are flawed, the films that Stillman has put are still engaging for the fact that these individuals are quite real but also provide a sense of humor that is unique. These are some of the reasons why Whit Stillman is among one of the best filmmakers working right now as only he could make films that can be funny and stimulating without being overly pretentious.

© thevoid99 2013


Chris said...

Good observation how his films have the rich kids deal with universal issues, so those viewers who are not upper-class can also relate.

I'd like to read Stillman's autobiography, if there is one, sounds like from your piece, that his youth in some respects mirrors his art.
I look forward to the directors next film, hopefully not another 13y break!

Dan Heaton said...

Nice job on all these posts, which I've really enjoyed. I'm glad you were also able to check out the Homicide episode, which is a gem that varies from the show's usual format.

thevoid99 said...

@Chris-I went to fansites and his Wiki page to find out some things about his life and see how it played into his work. I also hope he doesn't make us wait for another 13 years for another new film.

@Dan Heaton-I was glad it was available as I decided to see it just to see what Stillman can do. It's a damn good episode.