Volume 77, Issue 24
May 5, 2006

Elm Exclusive Interview: Whit Stillman Talks Film

By Bridget Romano
Elm Staff Writer

Washington College had a real life director in its midst last Friday when accomplished director Whit Stillman chauffeured his delightful first film, "Metropolitan," to the WC community for an evening of independent film.

"Metropolitan," full of characters with diverse personalities, showcased the type of dialogue that film lovers pine for. Such wittiness made you forget that you were watching the works of a first- time director.

Stillman, a resident of Paris and the director of two other films including "Barcelona" and "The Last Days of Disco," chilled with students and members of the WC community to share his first work and some words of wisdom.

Stillman later sat down with The Elm's Bridget Romano to get down to the basics of his craft and his love for film.

Baltimore Sun film critic Michael Sragow, who wanted me to pass on the message that he doesn't hate your work (by the way), said that the movie that changed his life was "The Wild Bunch." What was yours?

"One of my favorites, and I may sound silly saying this, is a Fred Astaire movie, 'The Gay Divorcee' from the '30s, a black and white with Ginger Rogers. It's so delightedly intense and fun with lots of good dancing. One of Hitchcock's films, 'Strangers on a Train' is terrific as well because Hitchcock uses guilt so wonderfully. Hitchcock manages to get the audience to feel guilty along with the characters in the film."

"Metropolitan" was your first film. If you could re-shoot it, would you? Would there be anything you'd change?

"You know, once you are done with that certain film, you don't want to think about that... I do wish that the older parts in 'Metropolitan' were played by professional actors. We had no problem finding talented actors to play the younger roles, but we did struggle getting older actors. The woman who played the lead character, Tom Townsend's mother, was only seven years older than the lead. She did the part well, but it was hard finding people to play the older parts."

I'm a big fan of dialogue, reading it, watching it, writing it - what do you feel is the hardest thing about writing, or even shooting, dialogue?

"The hardest thing is getting to the point where there is a real voice that is not from you, but from the character. You know something is working when the character speaks in their own way, and that you [as the writer] don't feel that you are forcing anything."

You were quoted once as saying that you feel that you have more confidence as a director than as a writer. Could you talk more about these roles and how they connect?

"It's a troublesome partnership. When you are a director, you really want to work a lot. But if you are a slow writer, it can be frustrating because the director becomes a hostage, in a sense, to the speed of the writer."

What is the best way for young writers or directors to sharpen their skills?

"Trying to find work opportunities in these areas, and even areas not directly related to film, is a great way to get experience. Working in independent film or companies, or working on things that need to be made for school, is great experience, and if you can get paid for it, that's great. I also think that the theater side of the equation is also good to follow. Get comfortable with actors; get to know the aspects of the theatre."

What was it like to have final cut and create control over your first big studio backed film? Many screen writers and young directors would kill for an opportunity like that.

"'Metropolitan' was done on my own, which really is the same as having the final cut. Because that film was done on our own, [studios] later allowed for me to be in creative control. Trying to maintain something like that I think would be harder on other projects if what you are directing is not from your own script."

What actor, dead or alive, would you most like to work with?

"Two that I really liked were Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant. Stewart was so likable and very funny. There are no bad stories about Jimmy Stewart. And Cary Grant was so good in so many films. I also always liked Audrey Hepburn. In fact, the character of Audrey Rouget in 'Metropolitan' I wanted to be sort of a young Audrey Hepburn."

Favorite foreign film?

"There is one Spanish film that is just great - 'Opera Prima,' which was directed by Fernando Trueba, who later won an Oscar for 'Belle Epoque.'"

I read in a Psychology Today article that you were once an aspiring novelist but didn't like the life of solitude that sort of writing can bring. But you still wanted to be a storyteller, so you became a director and writer of film. What story, past or present, fact or fiction, would you like to tell someday?

"I can't talk about any of my current projects, sorry, but I am very interested in the period of manifestation in America during the period when the Texans fought to get Texas back from Mexico. In those days there were all these sort of militias that had the problem of mutiny. There was no real established authority, so there were a lot of mutinous situations, and this was true during the American Revolution, too. I'd like to do something that deals with a mutiny on land. Like 'The Alamo,' the one with John Wayne."

So, is American film getting better or worse?

"Worse. The last time I thought that there were a lot of good movies out was about ten years ago, 1995. That was the year of 'Apollo 13,' 'Sense and Sensibility,' and 'Howard's End,' which I really liked."