Whit Stillman Goes Back to School with Damsels in Distress

Whit Stillman
“It’s funny because people assume I’ve been working on this film for 12 years.” Kerry Brown / Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

It would be easy on first meeting filmmaker Whit Stillman to wonder if he’s one of those curious humans who habitually refer to themselves in the first person plural. An awful lot of his sentences are filled with such phrases as “We were trying...” or “We were surprised to find...” So it is gratifying, as the conversation rolls along, to discover that when he employs the royal we, there’s nothing royal about it. He really is speaking as someone who never forgets that movies, even the idiosyncratic films of a lone-wolf writer-director-producer that only Whit Stillman could make, are collaborative efforts.

Check the credits in any of his movies: Metropolitan, Barcelona, The Last Days of Disco. Traditionally the director gets his or her name on the screen all by itself when the credits roll. Stillman, in contrast, has always insisted on sharing the screen with his crew members.

“I felt that I was going to get loads of credit for the films,” he says while nursing an espresso at a Manhattan coffee shop one bright March morning, explaining that the practice of shared credit goes back to his first film, Metropolitan, in 1990. “I felt just enormously close to the cinematographer and the editor and really felt they should share. I owed them such a debt.”

A different side of his generosity is revealed in his latest film—his first in 12 years—the big-hearted Damsels in Distress, a musical comedy of manners set on a college campus. Stillman’s trademark is making movies that slyly connive to make you sympathize with—or at least see the humanity in—people who at first might seem less than engaging: cosseted children of rich, callow American imperialists abroad, and dance-club yuppies. In Damsels, out April 5, he threatens to make you fall in love with an entire student body.

“The idea came from a group of girls I’d heard about who were at Harvard after I was there,” says Stillman, a boyish 60 who looks like he still buys his clothes at some campus men’s shop (boat shoes, wrinkled white cotton shirt under a broken-in houndstooth sportcoat that could use a mend in the right elbow). “I went back and heard about these girls who sought to revolutionize social life in their set. Everyone thought they were cool. It was very, very grungy when I was there, very political, very depressing. These girls dressed up, wore strong French perfumes, had parties. Everyone had a good time.”

From that germ of an idea, Stillman crafted a screenplay that revolves around three young women determined to bring a modicum of decency and dignity to campus life. Their principal mission is the Suicide Prevention Center, where with coffee, doughnuts, and dancing lessons, they hope to banish despair, bad outfits, and, were it only in their power, the cretinous male body odor so pervasive in certain dorms that it sends the girls, armed only with their passion for perfume, into a swoon.

In the film’s first scene this do-gooding trio spies Lily, a transfer student, on opening day. Taking her under their collective wing, they invite her to share their dorm suite, wear their clothes and volunteer at the suicide center. They’re all about “trying to make a difference in people’s lives. And one way to do that is to prevent them from killing themselves,” Violet, the group’s ringleader, explains to Lily. “Have you ever heard the expression, ‘Prevention is 9/10ths the cure’? Well, in the case of suicide, it’s actually 10/10ths.”

At first, you can’t help but wonder if you’re watching some sort of East Coast, dusty-money version of Clueless or Mean Girls, but the story quickly veers from that template. These girls aren’t evil or especially class conscious. They’re even charitable toward the knuckle-dragging frat boys they date, reserving their scorn for the self-satisfied student newspaper editor who mocks their highmindedness. And yes, the coeds are comic characters, because oblivious, earnest idealists are the comic writer’s natural prey. What sets Stillman’s stories apart is that he genuinely admires such characters, and he wants you to admire them too.

“I think the films are all a little utopian,” he says. “They’re all social utopias of one kind or another, and I think this is the most utopian of the four.”

Like his other movies, Damsels is an ensemble piece, or it would be but for Greta Gerwig’s bravura performance as Violet, a lovable queen bee with a ditsy fondness for the oracular: “I adore optimism, especially when it’s completely absurd.” Sounding like a parent trying not to show favoritism, Stillman says, “I’m close to all the characters in the films.” But he can’t help himself. “The character I’m closest to is Violet. I really like that character.”

Violet seems indomitable at first, blithe and serene, comfortable with her opinions and ambitions. “I’d like to do something especially significant in my lifetime,” she declares, “the sort of thing that changes the course of human history: such as start a new dance craze.” But when another coed—one the girls have saved from suicide!—steals Violet’s boyfriend, she goes into a tailspin, just like any normal undergrad. The less madcap among us might call it depression or even a breakdown. Then it turns out that she had severe mental problems as a child. Suddenly it feels like we’re in a different movie, still a farce, but with a much more complicated backstory, more emotional depth—and dance numbers. Line dancing, tap dancing, tap dancing in fountains—they punctuate the action throughout, although with each number, the good spirits that practically fizzed off the screen at the beginning seem a little harder won. Not that any of this puts much of a dent in the film’s ebullience. It’s just that, to its triumphant end, this movie takes some strange turns.

Explaining Damsels in Distress to people who haven’t seen it can make you feel like a fool. You find yourself reaching for words like delightful, giddy, frolicsome, devil-may-care—hardly a persuasive critical vocabulary. As for comparisons, at least to contemporary movies, forget it. You have to go back to the ‘30s—Stillman’s favorite decade for movies—to find corollaries, and even then you have to do a lot of mixing and matching. Best bet: imagine Preston Sturges putting Fred and Ginger through their paces.

Stillman willingly embraces this mashup, “because my favorite movie is The Gay Divorcee, the first RKO Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movie directed by Mark Sandrich. Pretty much my favorite. I mean, I have a lot of favorite movies.”

But why did it take so long to get Damsels in Distress to the screen? “It’s funny because some people assume I’ve been working on this film for 12 years,” he says, “when in fact this is one of the quickest scriptwriting jobs I’ve done.” OK, so what was he doing all that time?

“I like to say 10 years,” he says drily, “because for two of them I was writing the novel [The Last Days of Disco, With Cocktails at Petrossian Afterwards, a novelization of his previous film]. I had just a lot of projects that didn’t go forward. And if I find any resistance to going ahead on a project, I am very happy to just work on another script. And so I wasn’t that depressed the whole 10 years because very often the writing’s gone very well. I was very happy with the scripts. I was very happy in my creative life. It’s just that the script-writing creative life didn’t lead to directing creative life.” Then came Damsels, a project fought over by no less than three production companies. The fizzy high spirits that Stillman puts up on the screen are like the work of a man who just got out of jail.

Stillman cheerfully cops to the idea that he’s made something as old-fashioned as a movie musical. “I consider all the films stealth musicals,” he says, “but this is the one where they actually break into song. And toward the end of the film we permit a certain unreality, heightened reality—or perhaps lowered reality, since there’s less of it—it’s heightened joy and lowered reality.” A small smile lights his face. “I would say it’s my fondest dream for a film,” he says. “It was the ideal.”

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