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Interview: Whit Stillman on “Metropolitan”

By Stephen Saito It's been nearly 17 years since "Metropolitan" aired for free on PBS's...

08122008_metropolitan4.jpgBy Stephen Saito

It’s been nearly 17 years since “Metropolitan” aired for free on PBS’s “American Playhouse.” On the surface, the placement would seem appropriate for a comedy set amidst the afterparties of New York debutante balls, one that popularized the term UHB (Urban Haute Bourgeoisie, of course) and created a superhero for the Park Avenue set in Nick Smith (Chris Eigeman, in his first starring role), the party gadfly who wielded words as if they were daggers. Incidentally, had “American Playhouse” not kicked in some money during the production of “Metropolitan,” Whit Stillman’s brilliant first film might not have been completed, the beginning of a trilogy that was as formative an experience for some during the ’90s (this writer included) as John Hughes’ films were for those growing up in the ’80s.

So it should be considered a great triumph that “Metropolitan” is now once again available for the masses gratis, this time online (via Hulu here), and an even greater one that Stillman, who’s all but disappeared from the film scene since 1998′s “Last Days of Disco,” is working on a bevy of new projects. In fact, it was after a busy day in New York that Stillman took the time to reflect on his first film, one that didn’t get a distribution deal “until Vincent Canby laughed,” and spoke to me about his time abroad working on screenplays and how to get hold of the elusive “Last Days of Disco” DVD.

The funny thing is, as great as it is to see “Metropolitan,” it’s “The Last Days of Disco” that’s become incredibly rare on DVD. Is that a film you ever think might be going through this type of service?

I don’t know. I control “Metropolitan.” I don’t really control “Last Days of Disco” and what happens with it. I think Criterion is supposed to bring it out, but those negotiations seem to be taking forever — not with me, it’s with one of the studios.

What prompted you to make “Metropolitan” available online?

We’re trying to get as much exposure as we can for the film, and there was a gap in its availability. It’s not being aired anywhere right now, so this was a window that was open for doing something new and different, and Cinetic [who brokered the deal] was interested and Hulu.

Would you consider making a new film available online, considering the theatrical climate?

No. I am completely devoted to theatrical. I really hope people fight to keep the windows of the calendar of distribution going. I really think it’s important to have the showmanship of theatrical.

The widespread use of the Internet began to hit full stride around the time “Last Days of Disco” was released, and yet your legend has grown through sites like WhitStillman.org and the speculative nature of the Web. How do you feel about that occurring?

08122008_metropolitan2.jpgWell, it keeps you a little alive professionally, even if you sometimes feel like you’re dead, so it’s nice that you have some sort of existence and people are talking about the films and discovering them or commenting on them — it’s not a complete void. There’s still something happening. And it’s funny to see the clips of the films on YouTube — I think the only thing you can see from “Last Days of Disco” is from someone who put up the Josh speech about “disco will never die” — I’d love it if “Last Days of Disco” was available too, and I really hope it’ll be out soon.

If you tried to buy it used through Amazon, it would cost $78.

I’ve seen it up to $180, I’ve seen incredibly high prices all over the map for the U.S. edition of “Last Days of Disco,” but you can get it. It’s come out in Germany and in France in inexpensive editions through Warner — I think the French-dubbed version is one of my favorite versions of the film, and my daughters actually prefer [it]. One of the many ways that I found to waste time was supervising the French and Spanish dubbed versions of “Last Days of Disco.” I got huge enjoyment from that because it was a chance to retranslate things, change things slightly, recast in a different language — go through this intensely aesthetic feeling of recreating the sound in the film.

There actually is a way, if people can play European standard region two DVDs, to have a perfectly good edition of “Last Days of Disco” inexpensively. You go on Amazon.fr and you put in the French title of the film, which is “Les derniers jours du Disco.” You have to write it in French because if you put it in in English, they give you a high price for the U.S. edition.

You’re currently in New York, but you’ve spent the last 12 years in France. Are you actually just here for a brief stay?

The past two years I’ve been back here quite a bit, but I’ve mostly been Europe-based. This fall, I’ll be back in Spain and Madrid. I guess I haven’t fully come back to the States. I’ve intended to, but I haven’t done it.

There was an article in the Harvard alumni magazine 02138, that inferred you were intending to shoot a film about Jamaica during the 1960s in the spring. Did you do it under the radar or is it still in pre-production?

Jeremy Thomas, the producer, thought we were going to be shooting by the spring, but there are some delays in the financing. We did go down and do a certain amount of pre-production and casting — good things happened there, but we’re still waiting for the financing. A lot of people chastise you on the internet for not doing stuff, but I mean, if anybody wants to come along with a million dollars, we can do the film.

When I heard the description of it [a love story mainly shot in gospel churches], it sounded like a departure for you.

08122008_metropolitan1.jpgI think that there tends to be too much emphasis on the subject matter of films when really it’s the tone and treatment that are crucial and interesting. The Jamaican film, in tone and treatment, will be related in certain ways to what was done with the other films. But I think people are hung up on subject matter when it’s not so important.

It’s also been hard for the [previous] films to get a wide audience because of the bad class elements — people feel sociologically antagonistic to the protagonists of those three films, as well they might, and therefore we haven’t had as much acceptance as maybe we would’ve had if the characters were more ingratiating in their social situation. In the Jamaican story, I think the situation of the characters is much more endearing and likable, and so I really hope that it’ll be a breakout film in terms of popularity. We’ve gone back to the original title, which is “Dancing Mood.” [We] called it “Creation” for a while. It’ll have a lot of music, but it’s not really about music, and I think the characters are ingratiating and funny and I really hope financing will line up and we’ll be able to do that soon.

Did you actually spend a lot of time in Jamaica to research the film?

No. But I spent a lot more time in Jamaica than I did deb parties.

Since there’s been somewhat of a sea change in the indie film world since you last made a feature, I’m curious about your experience with “Red Azalea,” [an adaptation of Anchee Min's memoir of China's cultural revolution] which was epic in scope and seemed to be the project of yours that was the closest to getting off the ground.

Until I do something with that material, it’s sort of a big hole in the decade — years of not doing a film can be associated with a project that doesn’t go through like that. It never really got that far along. It was just a question of some script drafts. While I was working on it, I started thinking of a different way of doing it that would be more my territory, small-budget independent film territory, and more interesting, so I do have a cultural revolution in China project influenced in certain ways by “Red Azalea,” which actually is a subject I got into the film business first wanting to do. When I left magazines and book publishing [in the early 1980s], the first project I had was called “Red Guard” or “The Revenge of Heaven” — it’s under both titles. I love the title “Revenge of Heaven.” It’s the first novel written about the Cultural Revolution and I knew the professors at Queens College, Ivan and Miriam London, who had translated it into English, and they were very sensitive observers of China. I think I have a way of attacking the subject again or to be able to come back and do it.

You’ve also been attached to direct an adaptation of Christopher Buckley’s “Little Green Men,” what’s the status there?

I hope that’ll happen too, but there are a lot of decisions about that that haven’t been made yet about exactly what its nature is, how close an adaptation it’s going to be. There are various scripts and their approaches are quite different. The great thing about that [is that it] has some actors attached who are fantastic that I’d love to work with. Greg Kinnear has been interested in “Little Green Men” and he’d be great in it.

You said recently that you had become more of a writer than a filmmaker — how do you make that distinction and how does it affect your approach to new projects?

From now on, if I undertake a new project, I’m going to try to know how I can do it with almost no money. I don’t want this financing thing to stand in the way of making the movie. I’m trying to think of subjects that can be done small, in addition to a bigger version. I want to take responsibility for the financing and production of the film in some ways.

08122008_whitstillman.jpgYou’ve also been doing the occasional article for the Wall Street Journal and other publications recently. What’s it been like getting back into journalism?

I like it a lot, but I spend much too much time on it — I overresearch and overfret everything. I do find it a good break sometimes from working on scripts and film pre-production, to write something that’ll just come out. It comes out, boom, it’s there.

Because a lot of the articles have been film-themed, has one gig informed the other?

The articles have been pretty infrequent. You come up for air and do some journalism, and most of them have tied into researching certain things, so I’m able to think about what I want to do, how I want to do things, what I’ve done wrong in the past, how to do things differently, what other directors have done, things that have caused some problems or helped them. I like to read biographies, so I wrote something on a Walt Disney biography and then an Otto Preminger biography, and I’ve done interviews with writers such as Melissa Bank, who I really admire. Almost all the things I’ve done have been helpful as far as being able to delve into people’s careers and experiences that relate one way or another to what I want to do.

Over the past decade, has it mostly been writing or have you had other things occupy your time?

No. I’ve really written a lot, for me, because I always wanted to have a trunk of projects in various stages, various drafts. [laugh] Now I definitely have that, and some of them are really good projects. I haven’t necessarily solved everything that needs to be solved about them. I think “Dancing Mood” is where it should be. I could’ve made a very good film from the script I had two years ago. It would’ve been a slightly different film, maybe a little more serious, and it’s more comic now, but…I don’t feel it’s been wasted, the past two years, but at the same time, I’d prefer a faster process. I think there’s no particularly good reason it’s taken so long. Things went so well after “Metropolitan” with the Castle Rock collaboration that I didn’t need a producing partner and, without Castle Rock, I do need a producing partner. We can’t all marry talented producers the way certain directors have done, but it would’ve been a very good idea. [slight laugh]

Besides the writing, do you have time to do a lot of reading?

I try to stay away from doing too much reading because I find it addictive. In France, I tried to think of places I could go where I had to write and couldn’t be distracted. I couldn’t work at the American Library in Paris because I’d end up getting distracted with all the books there. So [instead] I’d write in one of the most beautiful spots in Paris, or the world — the Nazarene Library, where they only had ancient history books in French hidden away in stacks and it was very hard to get to them. They had some historical quarterlies in French along the side and my French wasn’t that great, but I’d stand up for a break occasionally and read a historical quarterly and then go back to writing. That was a very good place to write. A lot of cafes I’d write in started getting Wi-Fi, or wee-fee as they call it in France, which was terrible because then there’s a temptation to go on the internet. I really valued the Starbucks in Paris because you have to pay to go on the internet and I’m too much of a cheapskate to do that. [slight laugh] So I found Starbucks kind of safe, although…I mean, I prefer to be in a different kind of café.

“Metropolitan” is now available on Hulu.com here.

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