Whit Stillman wants to meet at the Harvard Club at exactly noon, on the eleventh day of June. He graduated from Harvard thirty-seven years ago, almost to the day, and the truth is he didnt like it much; he found it grim and impersonal. Stillman prefers businesses that outperform a buyers expectations, like Jet Blue or the Hampton Jitney. Now those businesses are well run. Everything should be like Jet Blue or the Hampton Jitney, Stillman thinks. Hes currently looking for the Jet Blue of car rentals. Harvard was not the Jet Blue of universities, although he does like meeting people for lunch on the steps of its swanky midtown club before suggesting they head over to a nearby Greek diner for a cup of tea.
An email pings at 11:49 a.m. Its from Stillman. The text reads, Think Im late. But hes not late yet; were set to meet at noon. Over all our encounters, he follows a similar routine: maybe a little late, reads another email, and o m w (his shorthand for on my way) is in a text message. Youll know hes late before hes actually late, a routine meant to turn his perpetual tardiness into a seemingly appropriate delay.
Anyway, a couple extra minutes isnt much when you consider the dozen years Stillman fans have been waiting for him to show up anywhere at all. The late-blooming fifty-eight-year-old director”who in 1990 swept through Sundance, wowed critics, and earned an Oscar screenplay nomination for his debut movie, Metropolitan ”is perhaps the most important American film director not working today. During his 21,170 days on the planet thus far, he has spent no more than 140 of them in a directors chair. That is roughly equivalent to .007 percent of his life engaged in the profession that still somehow drives and defines him, makes audiences wait anxiously for his return, and has led me to wait patiently for Whit Stillman in front of the Harvard Club, in sweltering heat, just like everyone else.
It has been so long since Stillman directed a movie that sometimes he wonders whether he should even call himself a director anymore. After trips abroad, when he goes through U.S. Immigration Service checkpoints, inspectors routinely ask him his occupation. If he says film director, it results in delays. Sometimes hell mention Metropolitan . Other times, hell drop the name of his 1994 film, Barcelona , or his third movie, The Last Days of Disco , released in 1998. Together, those movies”his so-called Yuppie Trilogy, three beautifully rendered satirical yarns about young, upper-crust college grads at emotional loose ends”once defined Stillman as one of the great young directors of his generation, but that time has long passed. Blank faces usually greet his explanations. Lately hes been telling the Immigration people hes a writer, just to get over to baggage claim a little more quickly.
But Stillman has never been ready for his directing life to disappear. Over the last decade he has divulged only vague hints about his new projects: movies about militias in Texas, a Whig hero, a 1960s Jamaican angel shortage, and an unidentified series of events taking place in Ireland. At various points he was attached to direct an adaptation of Christopher Buckleys novel Little Green Men , a biography of American Revolutionary War officer Francis Marion called The Swamp Fox , and a film of Anchee Mins Red Azalea , the script for which he unfortuitously turned in on September 12, 2001. None ever came to pass.
Despite the struggle, Stillman never stopped stalking the path toward his goal, over and over again. One afternoon he sought to make sense of his perseverance to me with the words of a fellow Harvard alum, Johnson OConnor, the former head of personnel at General Electric: He said, If people want to do too many things, then it limits their marketability, so if you dont want to do just one thing, then your earning capacity is reduced. Stillman uses quotations the way other people use facial expressions, and for the same reason: to support his point. Still, all this begs the question: What, exactly, has been taking Stillman so long to get back behind a camera? Is it simply that he somehow enjoys making people wait?
Well, if it is, the wait is almost over. Under the cloak of secrecy, Stillman has at last returned to the role of director. He has just finished shooting his first movie in twelve years, on the streets of New York, his home again after several years of self-imposed European exile. Its working title is Damsels in Distress , and its about a group of perfume-obsessed college girls”some suffer from nasal-shock syndrome at the faintest sniff of B.O.”who run a suicide-prevention center. Stillman has raised the money and written the script, which has a honed Whitonian perspective and Whit-icisms galore. And although the film offers the possibility of a cameo appearance by Stillman staple Chris Eigeman, who has appeared in all three of his movies, it will not make a quadrilogy of his trilogy. This film is different, Stillman says. Completely different. Okay, not completely different, but its different.
* * *
Stillman rushes by the Harvard Club entrance at ten past noon and then stops abruptly, almost as if he were attached to a cord that suddenly ran out of slack. His body displays the clubs dress code in full-blown action”hes got on a light-pink collared shirt, khakis, and loafers”but he has no intention of going inside. He doesnt wear the dress code; the dress code is him the way a gray tailored suit with a red bow tie is Pee-wee Herman. Weather and level of establishment be blasted”hes going to look fiercely ready to enter the Harvard Club even when hes actually heading toward Dunkin Donuts, one of his favorite writing haunts.
Stillman likes Dunkin Donuts; its another well-run institution, and unpretentious besides. What Whit Stillman is not is someone whos about to pay $25 for a Cobb salad; who cares if it has lobster and mango-pineapple dressing? His cheapness seems at odds with his plaid blazer, but a plaid blazer, in Stillmans world, is not about money. Like the characters in his films, he also seems to inhabit a special space, a space he created”a Jet Blue of spaces, where people quote directors from the 1930s and are inspired by Balzac novels, and where plaid blazers are as all-purpose as three-packs of white T-shirts. Besides, saving money these days has become a pathology: Hes found he can save money by ordering an espresso and adding milk from the canteens over by the sugar, napkins, and swizzle sticks. Its a latte with a slight detour. Potential places to meet are the library and Bryant Park; both are free, as is the cachet of the front of the Harvard Club. Each dollar Stillman saves will expand his movie budget by a dollar. For this reason, he also currently lives in a cheap West Village sublet. He sometimes gets kicked out and goes to stay in Los Angeles when a renter willing to pay more comes along for a couple of weeks. But he rationalizes the disruption: Hes casting right now, anyway, so it works for his bifurcated process”checking out actors on both coasts.
As fast as he shakes my hand, the lean six-footer is already striding down the block toward the Red Flame Diner. Diners are the best, and the Red Flame is one of the best of the best. Stillman feels constantly poisoned by American restaurant food, except for diner cuisine, which engages in low-to-no-garlic usage and uses a plethora of eggs. Hed eat breakfast all the time, but dont they say you arent supposed to eat too many eggs in a week? Parisians knew how to do garlic, which was to keep most of it out of food. He spent nine of the last twelve years in Paris and two in Madrid, and although he visited New York regularly, only last year did he return to live in the city where his directing career began, and left off.
Stillmans happy to be back in Manhattan except for when he runs into film-industry folks on the street. They are nice people and all, but its kind of embarrassing”its awkward to see someone face-to-face who hasnt financed any of your films since the Lewinsky scandal broke. I mean, lets face it, when youre a movie director, the request for funding is ceaseless and implicit.
* * *
The Red Flame is packed. Stillman is pleased to get a booth but torn about the interview process. This will be his first film in, like, a billion years. He doesnt want anything to jeopardize the shoot, and even if he cant quite verbalize what it is that an article might do to jeopardize the shoot, he seems pretty sure just about anything could have jeopardizing qualities. Hes extra cautious. He cant be blamed; every other potential film hes mentioned since 1998 hasnt happened, and the resurrection of his career is riding on this one, which looks as if it will.
His part is on the left side and a shock of hair falls over the right. His bangs, brown tinged with layers of gray, will fall and cover his right eye. He will brush them back with his hand. This will happen again and again.
He has ordered a $12.95 Cobb salad. When it comes, he eats as if its his duty to get done as quickly as possible. Eating is a skill like any other”he will be good at it, and productive.
So, what do you want to know? Stillman asks. Im not sure if hes joking. His jokes are subtle and sometimes delivered so wryly that he has to warn me of his intentions. I just found out that my two friends who invested the most in my first film have the same birthday, he says, so maybe theres some sort of astrological thing. He leans back for a few beats. As he sees my mind churning, he adds, I didnt say that seriously.
He doesnt smile or laugh often, but when he does, his whole face softens, and the full abandon into joy makes an innocent kid-like impression.
We start talking about how long its been since his last project.
People make a big deal about your time away from doing film, I say.
It is a big deal, he says. Its pretty bad.
Does it make you feel bad? I ask.
No, he says, I mean, if I knew ten years ago, maybe, but its already happened, so I cant feel bad about it.
Stillman has his napkin in his fingers, playing with the edges. He orders an Earl Grey tea.
Its really bad not to be productive, Stillman says. On the other hand, you get in writer mode, and youre happy with what youre doing as a writer, and if all the pieces dont come together to make a film, then youre still doing stuff, so youre distracted. Youre making films, just no one else can see them. He sees a line of people building near the hostess stand. He goes into fast-forward tea sipping so he can help free up our table faster. It may be part of his nature, but he doesnt exactly enjoy making people wait.
* * *
After college, Stillman joined Doubleday as an editorial assistant for four years and then became a foreign-sales agent for Spanish films. He lived in Barcelona and Madrid, selling the works of directors Fernando Trueba and Fernando Colomo. He even appeared in some of the films, including Truebas Sal Gorda (1984). These early experiences demystified the filmmaking process. He returned to New York to run Riley Illustration, a company his uncle had founded. While at Riley, Stillman also worked diligently at writing scripts; it was then that he finished Metropolitan . He financed the film through friends, family”his mother gave him a chunk”and by selling the SoHo loft he lived in but couldnt afford.
Metropolitan follows Tom Townsend, an alienated middle-class twentysomething, during a winter break in New York City as he runs into the Sally Fowler Rat Pack, a group of Upper East Side debutantes who enlist him as a regular escort. The films singular comic voice and attention to revealing details of character and place won Stillman raves from most major critics. Metropolitan also gave him immediate entrée into Hollywood and the prospect of a filmmaking career. He scored a quick deal with Castle Rock Entertainment”the producers associated with Rob Reiner, Stephen King, and Seinfeld”to finance two more films. He rolled them out at four-year intervals. Barcelona came next; the 1994 film concerned contrasting cousins, Ted and Fred, who explore the terrains of women and politics in post“Cold War Spain. His last movie, The Last Days of Disco , followed yet more yuppies as they maneuvered their way into and around the 1980s disco scene, and charted their changing lives. Stillmans Disco characters posited that yuppie was, in fact, a positive term and promoted the importance of strong social groups as opposed to the act of ferocious pairing off. But when Disco didnt earn the accolades Stillman had come to expect, he decided to retreat from New York, his wife, two daughters, and wounded feelings in tow.
Mostly, though, Stillman just wanted to live somewhere cheaper. But he also had another problem: His trunk was empty. To him, a trunk means a body of material or manuscripts that a writer keeps around and, over time, can come back to rewrite and reconceive. He took his first stab at Barcelona in 1983. It took more than ten years and multiple rewrites before it hit the screen. After I finished Disco , I had no trunk, he says. Since then, I have been recreating my trunk. Hed wanted to go to almost any place that wasnt New York”maybe to Austin, Seattle, Savannah, or Charleston”but his wife wanted to go to Paris. Of course, she won, he says.
In Paris, at the turn of the century, Stillman wrote a novelization of The Last Days of Disco and saw his marriage to Barcelona-born Irene Perez-Porro unravel. Theyd met at a party in 1979. Hed known enough Spanish to communicate with her because of a mid-Harvard sojourn in Mexico. Hes not big on divulging personal facts, though, and his curt explanation of their separation almost comes off sounding droll: We stayed together ostensibly for a while, he explains. When asked if he is currently dating, he says yes, an uncomfortable smirk appearing on his face. When asked to elaborate, he shakes his head, looks down, and presses his lips tightly together. What he doesnt like to talk about in his own personal life, it seems, are the same themes he often explores in his art. He explains his penchant for the love stories”often complicated triangles”that always seem to punctuate his films: [The director] Sydney Pollack said that either there is always a love story in what they [writers] do, or there is something else. I cant remember what the something else was because I knew when he said that, in my films, there has to be a love story. There has to be. Thats just what its about. And its just a predisposition. Its what interests me.
While in Paris, Stillman wrote television pilots and researched subjects for future films. He stopped writing comedies, searching out more serious and dramatic ideas. For Red Azalea , he spent months learning about the Chinese Cultural Revolution; for his Jamaican film, Dancing Mood ”now in its sixth draft”he traveled back and forth from that island country and read every Jamaican newspaper he could find from 1958 to 1970. In all that time, he managed a brief return to the directors chair only once, in 2007, when he went to Jakarta to shoot commercials for a chocolate company. I wasnt that keen on the final thing, he says, but I got to do a directors cut. Meanwhile, he tried to get investment for a new feature from production companies in London; the task proved harder than expected. You would call it development hell, he says, or what I would call development heck. The only time Stillman seems to get riled is when he talks about what he calls The Business, in its current incarnation. He shows this with bold statements and about an additional twenty-degree forward lean, as if hes getting ready to charge. With scripts just about finished, he found no one willing to support his work in a new and more serious genre. No one has stepped forward to help me with the non-comedies, he says, and the people who will support my comedies are there to only support comedies.
The directors chair continued to act as a rainbow-like apparition; the harder he stalked it, the further it would recede. Still, he was able to appreciate his life in Paris. He learned a new language”being proficient only in the present tense kept him in the moment”and how to enjoy leisure time. I remember all these films coming out, and they were all about executives who dont take time to smell the flowers or smell the coffee, or they dont appreciate their children and miss childhood performances, he says. I suppose they were versions of entertainment-industry executives lives put in all these other situations”too busy to do this, too busy to do that”and, I thought, I definitely have time to smell the coffee and smell the daisies. I could write for a number of hours a day, and then it was pointless, and I wasnt in a town where I could really do business. I had a very nice life in Paris.
Somehow, though, Stillmans inability to get another production started always surfaced, as when his daughters came home one afternoon from their private school and told their father it was embarrassing for them that he was the director of films none of the other kids had heard of. Finally, in 2007, he was commissioned to write the script for Damsels in Distress . Martin Shafer, the CEO of Castle Rock, which financed both Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco , stepped forward with the funding, privately this time, for Stillman to make his fourth film. My whole career, only one person has stepped up to back me, Stillman says. All these people say they like your films. They say this and they say that, but no one actually does anything.
* * *
Its mid-July, and weve just left a Dunkin Donuts in Chelsea. Thats a nice one, Stillman remarks of this particularly roomy franchise, part of a chain he uses as a vast network of personal writing rooms. Yellow Splenda packets are everywhere, like an exploded pack of playing cards, and a light sprinkling of sugar granules coated the table. A two-day-old Newsday was on the seat. As he looks at the free hand-me-down paper, he says, One of the perks of coming to this place. He is dress code again. Glasses and papers are stuffed in the breast pocket of his ubiquitous blazer.
Hes talking about how exciting it was to run across a Film Forum series devoted to the 1930s, which is his favorite film decade.
He rattles off a ton of directors names and then he rattles off some more.
At moments, it can be hard not to feel like an idiot when talking to Stillman. There comes a deep desire to just nod yes to his multitude of references”yes, of course, the Mark Sandrich musicals are the best, RKO was fantastic, and the old film system with contracted actors is totally like Balzacs use of interconnected worlds. Its not that hes at all condescending; its just that his brain seems to have the Encyclopedia Britannica on autodial and doesnt realize that Ben Hecht and Phillip Barry might not be household names.
Since our last visit, he has attended the Los Angeles Film Festival, stopped by Barcelona, and gone to Ireland. He was scouting locations for another film he wants to do and visiting his daughter, who works at a law firm in Dublin. His other daughter is in her sophomore year at Columbia. She was another reason for him to get back to the city.
We are on our way to a casting session at Barden / Schnee, on the fourth floor of a building on West Twenty-Eighth Street. Stillmans got a banana in one hand and an iced coffee in the other.
Do you feel pressure about this film? I ask.
I feel less concerned about it and less personally implicated, he says, but maybe once the film comes out Ill feel just as sensitive and enraged as in the past.
But Stillman also senses that perspective is highly dependent on where one last was. Singapore, which he visited after shooting the commercials in Jakarta in 2007, was such an amazing country. Would it have proved so amazing if he hadnt just left such a chaotic and traffic-filled place? Right now, all he has to worry about is beating out where he last was: the arid plains of development heck.
We get to the Barden / Schnee office, which is coated in blue, sound-reducing foam. Theres a camera pointed at an empty chair; the image feeds onto a television screen. Stillman puts down his blue handbag, which reads, Once you go, you know”Jamaica. Out in the waiting room, good-looking young people slouch on a sofa. They are waiting their turn to read for him. As he talks to the two casting directors, the camera catches him and makes his pink, long-sleeved, buttoned-up shirt and crossed arms the stars of the screen. His eyebrows are digesting the conversation in an array of scrunches and arches.
The casting agents slip the name Greta into the conversation. They dont say a last name, but Gerwig comes to mind”the actress whos the darling of mumblecore films and who most recently got wider acclaim with her role opposite Ben Stiller in Noah Baumbachs Greenberg . The casting agents are working on Gretas contract. Stillman coughs and points in my direction. The casting agent says, Sorry.
You didnt hear that, he says, looking at me. Hes still trying to keep as much as possible of the details of the shoot secret, even though casting notices have gone up all over the Internet. (Gerwig has since confirmed that she has been cast in Damsels in Distress .) In hopes of remaining inconspicuous, Stillman even made his corporate name Steeplechase Webisodes, Inc. Everyone seems bored with the idea of webisodes, he says, so we figured people, when they see that, will leave us alone.
Casting director Paul Schnee ushers a man in his early twenties into the small studio. The actor has brown, curly hair and his plaid, long-sleeved, button-down shirt covers a broad back and shoulders. He sits in the chair, his legs wide open. Stillman is not trying to cast stars. Part of overseeing a low-budget production is trying to find new voices”new, affordable voices. After a couple of words of introduction, the actor begins to read some lines.
Come on. Theres no possible justification for those places to exist. Theyre exclusive and elitist, he recites.
Allison Estrin, the other casting director, reads the lines opposite: No, theyre not. The point Violet makes is that they cant be elitist, theyre morons, she says.
Yeah”elitist morons, the actor recites.
But youll grant that theyre morons? Estrin continues. Thats a handicap”such people should be helped, not hounded and persecuted.
Stillmans screenplays are unique; they are dialogue-rich, and actors who do little more than walk and talk create the most poignant scenes.
The young man looks toward Stillman for direction. I have some ideas, Stillman says, but why not do the next thing first. More waiting.
* * *
Were lucky Stillman is the persevering type. If not, he would have stopped trying to write after his first big attempt in college. He wrote a musical comedy for Harvards Hasty Pudding Theatricals called When You Wish Upon a Czar . It was about Rasputin and John Reed, with a Ten-Days-That-Shook-The-World kick line. Future U.S. senator Al Franken also wrote a show that year, called Seamen on Broadway . Somehow, both were rejected.
Stillman entered college with a completely different career path in mind. His ideas changed when he had his college entrance interview. My father was a lawyer in politics and my aspiration had always been to be the same. I was trying to explain this, he says, you know, go to law school and then be active in politics, and the interviewer seemed really bored, so bored, and then I realized how boring it was and that it wasnt really what I wanted to do. His father, John Sterling Stillman, a splinter off the old Mayflower , ran for the U.S. Senate several times and worked in the Department of Commerce in the Kennedy administration. Stillmans mother, Margaret, came from a wealthy Philadelphia family who lost their money during the Depression. Stillman attended school in Washington, D.C., and went on to Millbrook, then still an all-boys boarding school, in upstate New York. His parents divorced when he was thirteen, which left him, surprisingly, feeling liberated.
I think when my parents were together, my family was too prosperous for our psychological health, Stillman says. Not that they were that rich, but I feel that usually inherited wealth causes psychological problems.
During Stillmans adolescence and early adulthood, he felt on the outs and antagonistic toward his peers. He recalls: I remember being very young, and there were greasers, people who were very Elvis Presley-ish, and rock-n-roll juvenile delinquents, and these were people who I assumed would just disappear, and they were something that was really unappealing and not constructive and kind of awful. But then, rather than going away, they became completely dominant and then metamorphosed into something even worse. It gives me a lot of energy and a point of view, and I have a lot of material to work with. I think sometimes its the things you dont like that give you inspiration.
Or, as Jimmy Steinway, the character who narrates the novelization of the Last Days of Disco , puts it, I suppose you could say that whom we decide to hold grudges against is an important part of our identity formation.
That perspective comes through in Stillmans films. He crafts stories sympathetic to unpopular social groups, which makes for unlikely heroes and heroines: lovelorn debutantes who concoct acronyms such as UHB, which stands for Urban Haute Bourgeoisie; obnoxious American imperialists in Barcelona; and yuppie twentysomethings whose highs and lows are punctuated by whether or not they can get into a popular club. His characters are not, by any means, the typical American movie underdogs, yet many viewers find themselves rooting for them anyway.
If left on a topic for too long, Stillman often twists his logic into circles until he disproves the very point he first made, which is one reason why his films work so well. With so many characters, each one can represent a distinct perspective. What works for many characters, though, does not necessarily work for all. When its Stillman, alone, representing all, he at times takes on a look of complete, although thoughtful, self-contradiction, as in this monologue from one of our encounters:
A wonderful quote by the fellow who was key in creating computers said that the best way to be happy in the future is to try to invent it, or something like that, instead of being oppressed by the way things are; try to think of how they could be, and how they should be, and their retro-orientation is that, if you have a utopian, hopeful cast of mind, the only approximations of utopia we have are those aspects of the present and past that we can look at and say, okay, that was good and foment that . . . . I say that, yet there are contradictions in that because the good things that pass were the way they were for certain other reasons in the past that we cant necessarily duplicate, but as long as our environment is under our control, we can try to have the things we like and avoid the things we dont like, although our point of view is always changing and evolving, so you might create a world you think youre going to like and then not like it at all.
Stillman says that what he aspires to do in his films is to create a world where people dissenting from what he believes is the bad dominant culture can exist and maintain their point of view. When someone doesnt like one of his films, Stillman theorizes its because he or she feels attacked. They like to put themselves up by judging the film in a contemptuous way, he says. He hesitates and then adds, Or maybe the film is judging them in a contemptuous way.
* * *
One afternoon in late July, Stillman sits at Kobma Thai in the West Village with his newly hired coproducer Charlie Dibe and consulting producer Alicia Van Couvering. His days now consist of consecutive meetings at different West Village cafés, the kind that take a liberal view of the lunch-table-as-office. As always, Stillman is dress code”this time in a blue, long-sleeved button-down, black slacks, and a blue-and-white pin-striped blazer. A bus rolls by and heaves to a stop at a red light. I think its so fantastic how you get transfers with the MetroCard automatically, he says. Little details often interest Stillman. He spent a couple of minutes during one interview collecting tiny white balls off the floor. He thought they were pills but lost interest when he discovered they were your typical over-the-counter breath mints.
Half-finished, watered-down Thai iced teas sit in front of all three at the table. Theyre discussing the budget for the forthcoming shoot, in September. Stillman wants more days, but Van Couvering doesnt see it happening in the numbers.
I think it will be thirty days, says Stillman.
I hope it will be . . . Van Couvering begins.
Its going to be thirty days, so might as well plan it in advance.
Its hard to get time and light, she explains.
Time is money, says Stillman.
And light, she says. Everyone always says youre always running out of light.
For my past films, we were always running out of night.
Stillman is growing accustomed to being a director again. It turns out there have been some significant technological advances since 1998. Hes asking about digital cameras and shock-absorbing mechanisms for handheld rigs.
I budgeted for five cameras, Van Couvering says. Well need them for the line dances.
Yeah, and the barbarian fights.
Before the cameras start rolling, theres a lot left to do. Stillman has cast most of the main characters but still hasnt filled the secondary roles. He also has to scout locations”he needs a nice college campus”decorate spaces, get rights to music, obtain promotional help, design costumes, and get some exercise. Im in writer shape, he says, not director shape.
* * *
Stillman adjourns the meeting, and we begin walking down Bleecker Street. Hes looking up at the trees. The sun is making them look shriveled, he says, displeased. He worries about how the trees might appear in the shoot. Its looking doubtful, but maybe hell have enough in his budget to splurge on some borrowed trees? Or are there such things in the world as glue-on leaves? Then, suddenly, hes distracted by a menswear boutique”Jack Spade”and so he stops and looks into the storefront window. Its as though there is nowhere in the world he has to be, but that cant be the case. Somewhere, someone is probably waiting for Whit Stillman to arrive, and he is likely just a little bit late. But hes in no apparent rush, patiently studying a mannequin in a blue-and-white pin-striped blazer. Its almost an exact replica of the jacket hes currently wearing. They sure have nice clothing on this street, he says, but its all a little too expensive. He continues to stare, not seeming to realize that what he wants in the window, he already has.
Mara Altman, a former staff writer for the Village Voice , has also written for the New York Times and New York Magazine.