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[Interview] ‘Damsels In Distress’ Director Whit Stillman Talks Financing Independent Films & The Significance of Soap

Written by , on April 5, 2012 at 4:00 pm 

For a while there, it looked like Whit Stillman might have been relegated to forced retirement, after nearly a decade and a half of false starts on various features, all looking to follow up his The Last Days of Disco, his third film in 10 years. There was his mini-epic film about youths growing up in Jamaica – one that he’s still hoping to make happen – as well as Red Azalea, an adaptation he tried to adapt with Killer Films in the early 2000s that fell apart and many, many others.

Now, finally and thankfully, he’s back with the delightful Damsels in Distress, telling a new story in the same, unique voice. The Film Stage sat down with the filmmaker about lessons learned from failure, fighting to not become too much of a screenwriter and this new world of micro-budget indie filmmaking, which feels eerily similar to indie filmmaking’s 1980s origins, and why that’s a good thing.

TFS: You shot all of Seven Oaks (the fictional college in the film) in Snug Harbor, Staten Island.

Whit Stillman: Yeah. Everything.

That’s nice, you know, it’s very close [to New York City].

I mean that’s one of the secrets of our films. As much as possible we like economy of location. So I think it’s a secret in low-budget film making. You try to find a hero location you can do everything in and that’s what we tried to do there. So everything was either right there at Snug Harbor or really close.

Is there any chance you won’t wait fourteen more years to make your next movie?

There’s a chance. If I wait another twelve years to make a film I’m tempting fate. I think there’s a chance I could crank them out every two years. There’s a chance. Two years I think is the least I could do something.

Now, you’ve had some studio troubles over the last fourteen years. What have you learned over this time?

The key thing I found was, I used to be a little bit la-dee-da about the budget and I’d go to these meetings and people would say, ‘Well how much will this cost?’ And I would say, ‘Oh it’ll cost five million’ or ‘it costs seven million.” And these are just numbers I was picking out of the air, I had no idea really what these things would cost or what they could cost. And I had a very, I saw that my friend Chris Eigeman, the actor from the other films, made his film for six hundred thousand or less and maybe much less, who knows what people’s real budgets are. And I saw that Lena Dunham made her film for next to nothing and did you ever see Tiny Furniture?

Yes, I have.

So I guess this is before I’d heard about Lena’s film. I was talking to another filmmaker, you know a guy who had made pretty commercial films, and we were talking and I was saying you know, ‘We have to go really way down in budget now to make films. We gotta go way down.’ Finally we said what numbers we were thinking of and I was thinking of going way down to two million and he was thinking about going way down to two hundred thousand. And if you do like an average of those two numbers, like 1.1 [million], it’s sort of 1.1 or 1.2 is sort of the upper limit of how much you can spend on an independent film and hope you get your money back.

But essentially I think that the analogy of film making as a business is similar to oil wildcatting. Because it’s not really a business because if people don’t really wanna watch it, if there’s not a large group of people who really wanna see it or be persuaded they wanna see it, you really have nothing to sell at all particularly. And so it’s like being an oil wildcatter where you have to kind of hit a gusher, or at least a medium gusher, and if you don’t hit a gusher, everyone’s out, of a lot of money.

Do you think Damsels is a gusher? Or has the potential to be?

Well I mean it doesn’t have to be like a gusher where it’s kind of lasting for ten years making everyone really rich. What I mean is it has to kind of bubble up out of the ground. There has to be oil there. There has to be something there. And I think that there are probably too many films where there’s really nothing there and so they drill the well and there’s a lot of expenses. And so yeah, I mean with Metropolitan that was a gusher. It’s considered, and we claimed it as the most commercially successful for the investors, the most commercially successful independent film up to Blair Witch. Maybe that’s not true but we plausibly claimed it. It was in a chart in the Wall Street Journal but then the information they got was from us so (laughs) shows the value of those charts.

Pure journalism, there it is. With Damsels I mean you have-

But I mean people you know, I’ve gotta change my mind set from screenwriter. I sort of became too much of a screen writer guy working within the business having other producers go to do my film, looking for a producer to do your film. I mean so many times in England, the great lawyer I had there would draft an agreement for some producer who wanted to do the projects, and then they got offered another film and they went off and did the other film. It’s through this subsidized business so there would be all these projects that looked really lame to me, but they had their funding so the producer would get his fee. So I felt combatted by this film industry over there where they wouldn’t take a risk on backing my film that I think could’ve been, my other films I meant, couldn’t really commercial good films because they were always getting a paycheck on something else. They were constantly loosing people to a paycheck. And I remember people here too. The downside of having a low budget is if, certain producer types, if you mention that low budget you can make it for, they don’t wanna do your project because they can’t put in their fee on that budget. They have to have a swollen budget in order to get their swollen fee. It’s a bad business.

From where I see it is it’s back to the 80’s. So it’s back to she’s gonna have a Stranger than Paradise and Return of the Secaucus Seven and Metropolitan and True Love and that’s where were back to maybe Bill Forsyth films and I think it’s good. If we can find a way to live between films, because the thing about that style of filmmaking, I think you can come up with really good projects that in a way are better than the more expensive projects. The people have to learn to live between films. Because our industry does not support that. Right now people get script assignments for TV that they can do. That’s probably how they live between films. It’s what I did.

Damsels, the dancing, etc. Do you feel that you’ve gotten softer over the years? If you look at Barcelona, it’s got a dark edge to it and Damsels is a little bit more joyful at the end.

I mean it is it’s own thing. I think that it levitates in a way and I was just happy that it took off. It’s like above reality, sort of floating there. And then the ending is very nice that way. I really like the ending of Disco where they start dancing, and that sort of path for the future. I still wanted some real stuff in it, so Violet is dealing with all this real stuff, and I don’t think I’ve had a person that sad about a break-up in a film before and that was obscene material and I think people identify with that.

If you could pick your next project what would it be?

Well I certainly know what the next project is just because I feel that this is the one I should do now and maybe it’s not the dream project but I just feel really close to it and I know how to handle it and I hope to do the Jamaican one after that. I remember writing an article for The Guardian in London in 2006 and I thought that “Oh, producers and financer’s would read this article and just send the money.” Didn’t hear a word.

Now what about the soap where did the soap come from?

That sort of stands for other things. I mean it stands for that you know, if you’re really down and depressed you find something that makes you happier. The soap; “the smell of this museum is so wonderful,” this place is so lovely, it’s something to get you out of the mulligrubs.

Damsels In Distress hits limited release on April 6th.


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