Movie Talk

‘Damsels in Distress’ Director Whit Stillman talks about the MPAA and America’s next dance craze

Movie Talk

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It's been 13 years since a Whit Stillman movie graced the silver screen. His explanation for his cinematic hiatus was tersely self-deprecating. "It was failure."

Stillman got an Oscar nomination for best screenplay for his 1991 debut feature "Metropolitan." The film is a witty, frequently hilarious, look at New York's upper crust that was more influenced by the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Jane Austen than by the contemporary icons of indie cool like Martin Scorsese or Jim Jarmusch. But, being cool never seemed much of a priority for Stillman. His characters are, by and large, hyper-articulate preppies concerned with vice, virtue and beauty and who lace their conversations with references to people like 19th French philosopher Charles Fourier.

His next two movies were "Barcelona" (1994) and "The Last Days of Disco" (1998). While the former was critically lauded and is arguably his best film, "Disco" was a box-office dud.

His fourth and latest movie, the immensely charming "Damsels in Distress," comes out this week. The years since  "Disco" clearly haven't embittered Stillman. "Damsels" is his most light-hearted and optimistic work yet.

Violet Wister (Greta Gerwig) leads a trio of would-be campus reformers at Seven Oaks, a fictitious liberal arts college located some placeon the Eastern seaboard. Dressed in '50s cocktail dresses and conducting themselves with fussy propriety, they look to help the depressed and the clueless with a regime of tap dancing, good hygiene, and donuts. Along the way, they adopt transfer student, Lily (Analeigh Tipton), into their fold.

The movie starts out amite twee but quickly builds steam, aided in no small part by the comedic chops of Gerwig and company. The high points include Lily's grad student boyfriend's weirdly coy description of the lovemaking practices of Cathar knights and a music video that shows viewers how to do the Sambola — a dance craze that Violet tries to popularize in the movie.

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I talked to Stillman the other day over the phone. He was a remarkably unguarded and self-effacing. We talked about his lost decade, the merits of the MPAA, and America's next dance craze.

Jonathan Crow: I'm sure you've been asked a million times, but it's been a while since your last movie came out. What have you've been doing in that time?

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Whit Stillman: Okay, that's fair enough.  I try to whittle down the hiatus to 10 years, a mere 10 years, because I came out with the novel based on "Last Days of Disco," which was called "Last Day of Disco: With Cocktails at Petrossian Afterwards".  It was published in the summer of 2000.  I turned in the first draft of this movie in December of 2009, so the "naughty naughts" is where I lost my decade.

But to answer your question, it was failure.  I was writing scripts but I wasn't getting them put together as films.

JC: Then why did "Damsels in Distress" get made and the others didn't?

WS: I had been in Europe for a long time, and for various reasons, I started coming back to the States. I had the idea to make a really good American comedy.  The other films I was making were… not very logical.

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JC: What do you mean by logical?

WS: Well, I know.  Good question.  They were far-flung dramas.  One was set in the Peoples Republic of China during the Cultural Revolution based on a beautiful memoir by the writer Anchee Min, called "Red Azalea." I turned in the script on September 12, 2001, an inauspicious delivery date.

JC: Yes.

WS: And the other one I wanted to do was in Jamaica -- "Jamaican Church" — with an all black cast, set in the early '60s. That fell apart too. So I'm not a cliché by choice.  I've had clichédom forced upon me. [Laughs]

JC: So how has the business side of independent film changed since "Metropolitan"?

WS: Well, it's kind of back to the '80s.  There was a boom and then a bubble and then a bust.  Now to get your film made, you need to go is all the way back to the very small budgets of the past. You need to go back to the Jim Jarmusch, John Sayles world of filmmaking.

JC: The star of the movie is Greta Gerwig.  How much of the script did you write before you met Greta ?

WS: I had no actors in mind when I wrote this script and I really didn't know anyone.  I've been kind of unplugged from the culture living in Europe.  And I mean I've heard of "Mumblecore."  It sounds really interesting but I hadn't seen the films because I wasn't around.

JC: What do you think she brought to the part that wasn't originally on the page?

WS: Well, this huge amount which is not dialogue, there is huge amount that is someone's physical presence and their timing.  There are some very nice moments in the film that is just Greta's reactions, it's just her.  And reactions are supremely important in this kind of film.  People always talk about dialogue et cetera, but during the first screening of "Metropolitan" all the laughs were on reaction shots.

JC: One of the most charming things about the film is Violet's obsession with starting a dance craze, the Sambola. Do you have a particular thing for dance crazes?

WS: I have a fondness for the right kind of dancing.

JC: What kind of dancing?

WS: There are certain silly dance crazes that are reductive. In the beginning, the dance in the movie was going down the path of the Macarena.  I said, "Oh no, no.  We're not going to do that. We're going to get the best moves for couples dancing and make it fun and where they can travel and move and do things." We had this wonderful young choreographer Justin Cherny, who helped me create the dance.

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JC: You think that the Sambola is going to take off?

WS: It's definitely going to take off.  We're so confident that we've named the song on the soundtrack album, "The Sambola International Dance Craze"

JC: I'm looking forward to a Sambola dance party.  So in the movie, there's a character, Xavier, who likes to show romantic love "the Cathar way." What that actually means is elided over so unless you're paying attention, it wouldn't register.

WS: Yeah.  Well, I'm really grateful to the MPAA for helping us out with that.

JC: How so?

WS: Well, they were going to give us an R rating. I had already an R rating with "Last Days of Disco" and I know how terrible that is for our kind of film. Our films really are intended to be kind of innocent. They're supposed to be helpful guides to young women.  So I went through with the editor, Andy Hafitz,  we found that taking out of tiny, tiny bits of two scenes about Xavier, we could make it wonderfully vague in a kind of intriguing way.  The laugh is still there but it's when Violet says 'Poor Lily, Xavier used her body, not even the right side."  Before, they got the joke early and then it becomes a little lame if you keep talking about it.  So we felt that MPAA helped us by nudging us to clean up our act.

JC: There are very few filmmakers that would credit the MPAA for helping them become better filmmakers.

WS: Yeah, I've always had a fondness for production code movies.  I grew up on them.  I thought that was the way the world really was. Imagine my surprise.

JC: You've got five projects in the hopper right now. Do you have anything moving forward after this film gets released?

WS: Me?

JC: Yeah.

WS:Something moving forward?  That would not be me if it's moving forward.  [Laughs]

See the trailer for 'Damsels in Distress':

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