Whit Still­man’s first film in 14 years,

Writer-di­rec­tor Whit Still­man has just fin­ished his first film in 14 years – a gen­tly satir­i­cal study of priv­i­leged col­lege types. So what’s been hold­ing him up? He talks to Tara Brady

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Front Page -

JULIE BURCHILL, dur­ing her early-1990s stint as a film critic, once of­fered a re­mark­ably sage piece of movie ad­vice. If, dur­ing a screen­ing of Whit Still­man’s Met­ro­pol­i­tan, a prospec­tive ro­man­tic part­ner looks wavy­mouthed or fid­gety or unim­pressed, it’s time for them to leave. Like, right away.

“Ha,” says Still­man. “She was very kind. I re­mem­ber. Is she still un­mar­ried?” The writer and di­rec­tor is sit­ting in Dublin’s Mer­rion Ho­tel, a guest of the Dublin In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val. Still­man has just put the fin­ish­ing touches to the Dam­sels in Dis­tress sound­track. He knows the city well and wants the screen­ing to be per­fect: his daugh­ter read law at Trin­ity and is train­ing to be a solic­i­tor here.

“It’s nice for her to be here,” says the film­maker. “When we lived in Paris she once com­plained that it was em­bar­rass­ing to have a di­rec­tor fa­ther whose films no one has ever heard of. Polan­ski’s kids were go­ing to her school. So the stan­dard for di­rec­tors was just too high. She came to Ire­land and im­me­di­ately met some­body who knew all my movies.”

Luck­ily, Dam­sels in Dis­tress, Still­man’s fourth film as a writer and di­rec­tor, has just opened in the US to rave no­tices: “A film that raises laughs even with its end cred­its,” Les­lie Felperin writes in Va­ri­ety; “an ex­hil­a­rat­ing gift of a com­edy about col­lege, the fe­male in­tel­lect, the lim­it­less male ego, in­vent­ing a new dance, and sui­cide preven­tion,” says Rolling Stone’s Pete Travers,

At 60, John Whit­ney Still­man, the cel­e­brated son of an im­pov­er­ished Man­hat­tan debu­tante and a Demo­cratic politi­cian, has four fea­ture films to his credit. And yet his arch de­scrip­tions and char­ac­ter­i­sa­tions of what he calls the “ur­ban haute bour­geoisie” have left a last­ing im­pres­sion on cinema. Ex­pe­ri­enced film fans will tell you he’s wit­tier than Woody and kinder than Wa­ters. Long­stand­ing crit­ics, those worth a damn at any rate, will swear that the con­tem­po­rary moviev­erse just wouldn’t be the same with­out the sly, chatty in­flu­ence of (1990), Barcelona (1994) and of Disco (1998). All three ti­tles – films Still- man calls “come­dies of man­ner­less­ness” – re­side in the per­ma­nent film li­brary of New York’s Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art.

All three are gen­tly satir­i­cal but ut­terly fond of priv­i­leged col­lege types. Still­man’s god­fa­ther, it’s worth not­ing, was the aca­demic E Digby Baltzell, the so­ci­ol­o­gist who pop­u­larised the term WASP.

And so to Dam­sels in Dis­tress, a de­light­ful, hi­lar­i­ous cam­pus com­edy that pairs mod­ernised Jane Austen girls with An­i­mal House frat boys. The movie hits Ir­ish mul­ti­plexes next week. But why have we Still­man freaks had to wait so long – 14 years! – for the di­rec­tor’s fourth fea­ture?

“Hmmm,” he smiles. “I want to try to re­duce it to one sen­tence: I’m a dis­grace­ful fail­ure as a pro­ducer. As far as the hy­phen­ate writer-di­rec­tor-pro­ducer goes, that’s where I fall down.”

Still­man is a cel­e­brated wit and deft con­ver­sa­tion­al­ist, and there is, of course, a longer ex­pla­na­tion of his ab­sence: “I was liv­ing in great places like Paris and Madrid,” he shrugs. “I had a re­ally nice life and my daugh­ters were grow­ing up. On one level it was such a happy time for me I didn’t no­tice how dis­as­trous the pro­duc­ing side was. Also, some­body was al­ways about to make one of our films. Hope was ever around the corner. I had joined the writ­ers’ guild and was busy do­ing some TV work and com­mis­sions. But I think that moves you away from the place where you are a film-maker.”

In keep­ing with the ex­ten­sive time frame, Still­man has been tin­ker­ing with the new film’s sound mix right up un­til its Dublin pre­miere. The devil is in the de­tails: this final ver­sion is a dif­fer­ent cut from the one screened at last year’s Venice Film Fes­ti­val and from the one that popped up as the sur­prise film at the London Film Fes­ti­val. “That was a strange screen­ing,” he says. “I think a lot of the au­di­ence were ex­pect­ing James Bond or Twi­light or some­thing. They weren’t ready for a com­edy. Each show­ing of a film is a per­for­mance – even though it’s not theatre where the ac­tors ac­tu­ally do change their per­for­mance – the re­ac­tion be­tween an au­di­ence and a film is dif­fer­ent ev­ery time. So peo­ple who pride them­selves on mak­ing a firm judg­ment im­me­di­ately – you know, that whole Pauline Kael school that says you can’t see a film again – that’s to­tal crap.” Still, he’s more than used to the slings and ar­rows: bizarrely, Barcelona caused a storm of see­saw­ing press upon its Ir­ish re­lease.

“Michael Dwyer was al­ways won­der­ful,” re­calls Still­man. “But an­other critic here – I can’t re­mem­ber the name – took um­brage at what he thought were the pol­i­tics of the film. They weren’t suf­fi­ciently anti-amer­i­can for his tastes. So Barcelona ended up be­ing hugely con­tro­ver­sial here. And that, of course, was help­ful for the movie. ” Oddly, even Met­ro­pol­i­tan, the holi­est New York cow this side of An­nie Hall, had its de­trac­tors.

“We were lucky too be­cause the back­lash on Met­ro­pol­i­tan started re­ally late. Bret Eas­ton El­lis – a good rea­son to hate hav­ing pre­mieres is be­cause you end up with peo­ple who just turn up for the party and the event not the movie – slapped us for be­ing too moral­is­tic but to have a no­to­ri­ously amoral writer say that turned out to be good press.”

Still­man’s last-minute ed­its prove suc­cess­ful and all the bet­ter to hear in­die queen Greta Gerwig sing out like never be­fore. “The Hol­ly­wood sys­tem is fa­tal for creativ­ity,” says Still­man. “The mo­ment an ac­tor has any suc­cess, their agent and lawyer rush in. And sud­denly they won’t read for scripts. Sud­denly they need stylists and trans­port. It’s al­most as if the lawyers and publi­cists are try­ing lose work and op­por­tu­ni­ties for their clients. But Greta Gerwig was ter­rific about it. She came in and sang and tap-danced. She was won­der­ful.” It’s fit­ting that the Green­berg star has joined the Still­man play­ers. The talky and slightly pre­ten­tious in­hab­i­tants of the film­maker’s mi­lieu were “mum­blecore” long be­fore the word came into be­ing.

“Lena Dun­ham be­came a big friend,” says Still­man. “We used a lot of the peo­ple she worked with to make Tiny Fur­ni­ture to set up our pro­duc­tion.

“We just kept it very small scale and sud­denly, by pri­vately go­ing to the back­ers of Barcelona and Last Days of Disco we had a bud­get. We ended up with a much big­ger bud­get than a mum­blecore film but we were just as care­ful with their money.”

The re­sults are won­der­ful. But we are fas­ci­nated by the di­rec­tor’s con­tin­u­ing fas­ci­na­tion with col­le­gians.

“It’s an in­ter­est­ing cross­roads pe­riod,” he says. “It’s iden­tity for­ma­tion. When I was at univer­sity the big book we were all read­ing was Erik­son’s Iden­tity: Youth and Cri­sis. And I did find that my per­son­al­ity changed com­pletely be­tween the ages of 16 and 20.” He smiles: “And I no­tice that when I do write older char­ac­ters there have been com­plaints from some crit­ics and jour­nal­ists: ‘He can’t write old’.

“So wher­ever pos­si­ble I like to keep my char­ac­ters on the younger side of the equa­tion and in cri­sis.”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Ireland

© PressReader. All rights reserved.