Whit Stillman’s Dance
Whit Stillman talks Love & Friendship and his naturally rhythmic memory.Photos by Ben Gabbe/Getty Movies Features
There are few directors who are more enamored with the complexity of the English language than Whit Stillman. Throughout his body of work, from his first film, the bourgeois love letter, Metropolitan, to this week’s exquisite Jane Austen adaptation, Love & Friendship, he’s conceived characters whose conversations thrive on semantics, the joy of intonation and painstakingly categorized vocabularies. Stillman’s characters don’t merely talk, they lecture each other with collected mental archives about academic theories, studied opinions and the endlessly layered systems of their chosen lives.
But even as his characters are just as often apt to alienate bystanders and friends with their constant reflexivity, they are all primarily interested in the possibility of a connection. They’re bored and lonely, and the only thing that makes sense in the world is to intellectualize every crush and possibility of true love.
Austen’s work, with its spiky affection for class and sneakily sharp gender politics, is a natural fit for Stillman’s sensibilities. Based on her epistolary novella, Lady Susan, Love & Friendship is his first bonafide period piece, but it engages with some of the director’s most timeless pet themes of access, the perception of the serious and unserious, and the universal worries of being alone. Plus it reunites the director with The Last Days of Disco stars Kate Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny.
In time for Love & Friendship’s release, the recent Criterion trilogy of Metropolitan, Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco, and an upcoming novel adaptation (of an adaptation) of Love & Friendship, Paste had the chance to sit down with Stillman and talk about the ease of making period pieces, his love of Jamaican music, and what authors he would be interested in adapting down the line.
Paste Magazine: This is the first time you’re adapting material. Why were you drawn to this particular story, and what was your experience like adapting, as opposed to writing your own work?
Whit Stillman: It’s sort of odd how it started. I was struggling with a lot of deals over in London for doing films that weren’t going very well. And I was with a group of younger people, and there was a bright theatrical producer from London who was having drinks with us. And I told him about this Jane Austen novella that I read that was so obscure, and in such a strange form, but very, very funny. And it was like a Oscar Wilde play. And I said, “I want you to take a look at this, and let me know if you think there’s something in here that could be a funny movie.” But it was like a lark. It was a joke. And he liked it too, and we started talking about it. He kept saying, “Frederica is the key. Frederica has to be important.” And s, I decided to try to pursue it thinking that it’s really unlikely, and I know I’ll take a lot of time with it. And I know i’ll put it in screenplay form, and only refer to the screenplay. I won’t refer back to the novel, so I don’t get trapped in her beautiful, hilarious language that was so far from dramatic form in its epistolary style.
Paste: Was it more or less intimidating to work with an original work that wasn’t in conventional prose, but in the form of letters?
Stillman: It’s one of these things that’s like a lot of things in film. The thing that’s the biggest problem and the biggest barrier becomes helpful once you lick it. The biggest problems become the biggest assets if you can solve them. This had to be made into dramatic form, and it was in a complete[ly] un-dramatic form. Epistolary novels are, by their very nature, very un-dramatic generally. It’s a letter back and forth, all the politics. Each letter’s a monologue.
So that was a huge problem, but I think it led to a positive solution because I couldn’t just take ostensible scenes in a modern novel, and just cut away the narration, and just leave the dialogue parts. It had to be completely re-thought, and that probably helped in itself. But yeah, that was very intimidating from the beginning. It wasn’t intimidating as an original screenplay, though, where you have nothing. You just have an original idea and a blank page, and then you fill the page with really bad material, and then you have to decide to throw out the bad material, and you’re depressed…and until you start giving good ideas, it’s a while.
Paste: I was reading in an interview that you’ve been working on this since around 2004, or around then—
Stillman: Or even earlier. Yeah, but I wasn’t really working on it. It was this fun thing that I tackled at random times like Christmas vacation when I know I have nothing else to write. I would get very upset. When I was sending this guy drafts, and he wasn’t replying at all. And it turns out, he was off email for the two weeks of Christmas break, and I was furious. [Laughs]
Paste: Is there a certain essence of the original work that you knew you wanted to have at the center of the film? I know you were saying Frederica was an the important part, but what was your philosophy about what to keep, add and eliminate from the text?
Stillman: It’s a good question. It’s very odd because it is analogous to writing an original screenplay in that at a certain point the characters have to sort of take on their own life, and they kind of sort through the material themselves. You have to kind of get to the point where you feel the characters have to decide what part of the original text they’re going to include in the story.
We’re lucky that Lady Susan Vernon and Mrs. Alicia Johnson, the two friends of Love & Friendship, are such spark plugs that they kind of take over their part of the story, and they kind of conjure up Sir James Martin in their talking about him. And then, Sir James Martin starts existing. It’s very hard for me to analyze it. I hope to adapt other material in the future, and use whatever sort of incoherent insights. I’m not really a conceptual person, so I don’t really know how things happen, but there’s some alchemy going on. A magical thing was having these time gaps. I’d work on it in these really fun ways, and I would have a draft that I’d have my elder daughter or her friends read, and they would enjoy it because it was very readable even though it was far from being a screenplay. I’d put it aside, do Damsels In Distress, come back to it, and I could see all kinds of stuff that we didn’t need. We don’t need that, don’t need that. I think it’s the kind of dynamic of those two spark plug characters and time.
Paste: A number of people have noted that Jane Austen is kind of a perfect person for you to adapt, and there’s a number of thematic similarities, but one thing that I wanted to ask about is why you like dancing in your films so much?
Stillman: Dancing started out as something that’s visual and cinematic and fun, and went with the territory of Metropolitan, and it can advance story without just people talking in a room. It varies everything. But then also, it’s the fact that we’re living in a non-dancing time. It’s strangely a non-dancing time. Dancing has been really important throughout so many periods of history, and it’s also sort of central to traditional social gatherings and forms, and are supposedly very advanced and sophisticated. Modern day doesn’t really have [it], it just doesn’t really exist.
You see film, films that I love, [like] Rene Clair’s Under the Roofs of Paris, and people are just dancing all the time. They go to the restaurant and they’re dancing; a bar and they’re dancing; go home, they’re dancing; and dance, dance, dance, dance. And Billy Wilder when he was trying to support himself in Berlin as a young guy on the make, he was like a paid dancer to dance with older, un-popular women. I guess women liked to dance tons, and men liked to dance less. And so it would be guys who actually make a living just dancing with women at tea rooms. There’s all these elements of dancing that relate. And so part of it is my nostalgia for these forms. And I think it’s really great and beautiful. My mother is actually a passionate ballet fan. She’s obsessed with the ballet, and ballet is kind of over my head because it doesn’t have words. But I enjoy ballet music, and I love dancing.
Paste: So do you also have a preference for music that you can dance to, like Chris Eigman’s character in Barcelona?
Stillman: Yes, definitely. I have almost no coordination, except for rhythm memory. I took an aptitude test once, and the one aptitude that I have is rhythm memory. And so I think I adore music that has rhythm, and the composer I work with identified that I love baroque music because baroque music is very rhythmic, which is lost in later periods. He actually told me when I was looking for music to have outside the club in Last Days of Disco, he suggested Jamaican music because he said, “You’ll love Jamaican music.” And I said, “Why will I love Jamaican music?” And he said, “You love baroque music, and Jamaican music is baroque music.” And I just said, “What?!” And so I just started listening to Jamaican music for adding songs to Last Days of Disco in 1997. I became obsessed with it. So my big project i’ve been able to make is early ’60s Jamaican music.
Paste: You were mentioning about how you would be interested in more adaptations. I know you just finished a movie, but who are some authors who you would be interested in adapting if you had the opportunity?
Stillman: Bingo, that is like the best question. Ok, Fitzgerald. Let me see who else—Tolstoy, George Eliot and Evelyn Waugh.
Paste: This year, the Criterion trilogy of Metropolitan, Last Days of Disco and Barcelona came out after individual reissues of two of those films in 2006 and 2009. Has your perspective changed since those films have been reissued? Have you watched them as a trilogy, or thought about them specifically as a thematic package?
Stillman: It probably has. I can’t quite… Conceptually, I haven’t really thought about it that way. I sort of work on all of them, or there are occasions when I get to see them again. And I haven’t had really any new insights into them.
Paste: It’s very interesting seeing how your work resonates with some of the modern indie scenes, specifically the New York-based scene. I see traces of your sensibility in Lena Dunham’s work….in Alex Ross Perry. And I don’t know if you saw The Mend, but there’s a real sense of articulate self-loathing in there as well.
Stillman: I haven’t actually. I’ve glimpsed things, but not enough to have an opinion. I saw a film by Alex Karpovsky. It’s the film where he’s going around the country showing around a different independent film, Red Flag. There’s a lot of really talented people in mumblecore. I think there’s a lot of great stuff.
Paste: Do you see some of your influence in that scene?
Stillman: I know that some of them sort of cite our films a little bit. In the ’90s, we were not popular among indie cinema types. There’s a little bit of Noah Baumbach, a little bit of Wes Anderson similarities, but I really think it was mostly mumblecore where there was some resonance. Greta [Gerwig] did say that she went to a Criterion-sponsored screening of Last Days of Disco at Lincoln Center in the summer of 2009. And I think Greta came to that, and liked the movie, so she was up for the movie when Damsels in Distress was being auditioned.
Paste: I was reading an interview back in January where you were talking about getting back to the rest of Season 1 of The Cosmopolitans.
Stillman: No, not yet. We only shot that one thing. And now, i’m writing the scripts—I’m supposed to be writing the scripts for the next six episodes, which they might not do.
Paste: You have the novel coming as well, what has that experience been like?
Stillman: We have the novel coming, but Sony Classical has also put together a soundtrack for the film, which is very important for us because we really care about the music. And we recorded all the music ourselves. The novel was a really great experience. We had a mock-up that I just saw yesterday, and there were some little graphic errors I see in the design. This first edition will be valuable because I don’t think the second edition will look quite like this. That was really cool. It was a total trapeze situation where I had to write it really quickly following the completion of the edit. And I’m glad I waited because the Sir James Martin thread in the movie became very important part of the novel. So it’s written by his nephew who wants to defend his aunt, Lady Susan. And so, the full title is Love & Friendship: In which Jane Austen’s Lady Susan Vernon is Entirely Vindicated. It’s about her vindication by her nephew, Rufus Martin-Colonna. And it was a great experience, and I hope people like it. It’s got some funny stuff.
Paste: Was it easier after you had finished the movie to write it?
Stillman: Yes, it was strangely easy to do. It was strangely forthcoming, the material flowed.
Paste: Even to translate some of the cinematic qualities past the novel?
Stillman: Well, you’re losing the picture and the music, but as much as it can. There’s certain sensory deprivation in novels. It’s in the head.
Paste: This is arguably your first legitimate period piece. Your other films have a strong sense of time, but they’re more capsules of recent decades than those of centuries back. Did it feel that different, aside from the pageantry of the costumes?
Stillman: Yeah, it did. Strangely, it was easier. These are great questions. I don’t think I’ve thought about this. With the other films, I felt a huge amount of the decisions and production design, and all this stuff was on my shoulders because I was trying to recreate a time period that I knew about, and my collaborators didn’t know about. There’s tons of information that I had to get to them about like everything. It was a very precise thing that I was talking about. It was really hard, and with this, it was the opposite. It was objectively about a period that my collaborators knew a huge amount about. They had a huge amount of skill and knowledge about recreating this period. It was exhilarating and easy. Other people were pulling all the weight. I had very little to do. I got to sit back in the carriage, and have the horses carry us forward.
This was a really great experience being in an area where objectively other people knew all this stuff. Yes, I was going over the clothes like which period do we like, which period do we not like. We were able to make it earlier than the usual Jane Austen. The clothes look more flattering to women. They’re a really attractive moment in fashion. I tried to do that with Disco too. We did early ’80s rather than late ’70s. We tried to make the clothes look better and the hair look better, and all those things better in the early ’80s than the late ’70s. In this case, it was much easier to have other people do the heavy lifting.
Paste: Did you have historians you were speaking to?
Stillman: Absolutely. The production designer and the hair and makeup people knew what they were doing. They were already experts. And as far as the language, I was using people who were experts in the language to help me. And sometimes I’d say, “Maybe you don’t think this phrase is exactly 1790s, but it’s OK, it’s good, and it doesn’t stick out, and it’s funnier.”