Whit Stillman’s still witty

Damsels in Distress more of the same from director

With its mannered dialogue effervescent spirit and keen eye for social mores Damsels in Distress has all the hallmarks of a Whit Stillman movie. Whether those hallmarks will be familiar to many viewers is another matter given the long hiatus that separates the director’s new film from his acclaimed movies of the 1990s. Fourteen years after The Last Days of Disco — the third in Stillman’s trio of sly portraits of what a character in his 1990 comedy Metropolitan called the “urban haute bourgeoisie” — his sensibility seems even more out of step with contemporary trends than it did back then.

Fans of Wes Anderson Stillman’s closest stylistic descendant may be more receptive to the peculiarities of Damsels in Distress which follows the travails of a group of do-gooding young women at a fictional East Coast university. Other admirers are just happy to see him back in action after a long and frustrating period in which the director toiled on a variety of projects (including an adaptation of Christopher Buckley’s novel Little Green Men and scripts set in China and Jamaica) that never came to fruition.

Speaking with Fast Forward Weekly at the Toronto International Film Festival in September Stillman seemed happy to have weathered the rough patch. “One thing that explains the long gap between films is that there was an indie film bubble in the ’90s” he says. “There was just a huge explosion of money and unrealistic expectations. We had a 10-year period of declining opportunities prices and wages. In a way our film benefited from that because there were a lot of people who are very talented and who were available at the prices we could afford.”

He began writing the script for Damsels in 2008 finishing it at the end of 2009. He notes that it was “horribly unsurprising” to have an easier time finding financing for it since it was the most similar to what he’d done before. He wonders whether he had fallen prey to a tendency that he sees in his own working methods.

“Generally I like to get an actor who’s similar to the character in certain ways” he admits. “But I’m afraid that casting to type happens in all parts of the industry. People would say ‘Why would Whit Stillman want to do a film about the Cultural Revolution in China?’ Or ‘What does Whit Stillman know about Jamaica in the early ’60s?’ So I myself was typecast.”

Even if Damsels in Distress bears some obvious resemblance to Metropolitan and The Last Days of Disco as the story of a group of young people it does have plenty of novelty value too. “Frankly I think it has more fun and accessible elements” says Stillman. “It has a less hermetically sealed and serious environment. It’s sillier and more democratic.”

The campus environment also allows for a pleasing mix of highbrow talk and goofy humour. Stillman creates an idiosyncratic universe where references to 19th-century writer Thomas Love Peacock and “the Dandy tradition in literature” fit next to gags about frat boys so dumb they don’t even know the names of colours. Bristling at some reviewers’ comparisons between Damsels and Judd Apatow’s comedies Stillman is quicker to acknowledge a debt to Animal House writer and National Lampoon co-founder Doug Kenny. (“He was a total genius” he says.)

Working in this collegiate milieu turned out to be a pleasurable experience for Stillman who turned 60 earlier this year. “It’s a weird thing with me working with people who were infinitely younger than me” he says. “There was almost no one over 27 working on the film — it was this youth army.”

Exposure to all that fresh-faced exuberance will hopefully rub off on Stillman as he gets back to work on other projects. He wouldn’t even mind taking a belated step into mainstream Hollywood. Alas other factors tend to get in the way. “People ask me ‘Would you be willing to do a studio movie?’ Yeah I’d love to do a film-industry movie but you read the scripts and in the first half-page you see the plan for the whole thing. There’s an uptight career woman who hasn’t found a guy and her layabout boyfriend and… I don’t know what. I think ‘Oh my god it’s all so paint-by-numbers.”