Stillman waters run deep

Indiedom’s most sophisticated clown returns to the camera

Stillman

As Whit Stillman pours himself another bloody mary over a cozy Italian meal in Uptown, he’s looking back on his career as much as he’s looking forward.

“I started writing so that I would be able to direct, but the pressure of directing is so oppressive, it’s just not very enjoyable,” he says about his evolution as a filmmaker.

The “not very enjoyable” part may account for why, over the course of 22 years, Stillman has produced a grand total of only four films — the last of which, Damsels in Distress, finally opens in Dallas this week. His most recent film, The Last Days of Disco, came out an astonishing 14 years ago — although Stillman will quibble with you about that.

“[Disco] was distributed in Europe after the United States, and Damsels was the reverse — it’s actually been out since last year. Plus it took a year to make it and edit it. So it hasn’t been that long.”

Maybe not, but it has easily been a full decade. Well, yes, he concedes. It has been.

Not that he has been on vacation all that time.

“I have been living in Europe, trying to get films made for the last decade,” he says. “In London, I had two ideas that producers liked, but when it came to making them, they either had financing trouble or it just didn’t come together.”

American studios weren’t much better.

“Focus Features actually told me [Damsels] was ‘too small’ for them. Too small? They mean too much trouble to make money on,” he snaps.

Damsels is in the hands of Sony Pictures Classics. They know how to handle a film like this.”

Stillman’s movies have never been blockbusters, but on the art-house circuit, he’s been a darling throughout his professional life. Metropolitan, his first film, “was hugely successful, one of the most profitable films of its year,” he boasts. “But you need to work to make money on 63 prints, which they did.” It netted Stillman a much-deserved Oscar nomination for best original screenplay as well as something else: A stalker.

When I mention to Stillman that another film that came out soon after MetropolitanSlacker — had a similar appeal (one, about the idle rich; the other, the idle poor) he nods knowingly.

“Rich Linklater [the Texas-based director of Slacker] shadowed everything that happened with me on Metropolitan,” from calling his distributor to his agent to his marketing style. He took it in stride.

Stillman quickly followed up Metropolitan with Barcelona; Disco came a few years later. So the wait for Damsels has been much anticipated by film geeks of all kinds.

In that time, Stillman has maintained the deadpan sensibility that distinguishes his sense of humor. But even though he makes films, he thinks his movies play more like theater.

“I think every visualization of the film is a different performance,” he says. “Theoretically, a film is always exactly the same, but the reaction of the audience and the projection affect it a lot. I find the screening room experience isolating and slightly banal. An empty room eats up every chuckle. Still, you really cant anticipate any laughs and hold for laughter in a film— you just hope for laughter.”

I tell Stillman I laughed a lot, but that they play to a specific audience that appreciates such close-to-vest intellectual wit existing side by side with slapstick … that it must be impossible finding new audiences for his style of filmmaking.

He pauses and pours another bloody mary.

“Well, I certainly hope you’re wrong,” he says.

— A.W.J.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 20, 2012.

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