A Conversation with Greta Gerwig and Director Whit Stillman on His Return to Filmmaking in ‘Damsels in Distress’

Comedy / Conversations / Featured / Indie / April 13, 2012


Photo: Sergio Teran Baldizon for Meets Obsession Magazine

Since the release of 1990’s “Metropolitan,” a scathing satire of an elite group of twentysomething socialites, or the “urban haute bourgeoisie,” writer/director Whit Stillman has become something of an arthouse icon.

The film, which also garnered Stillman an Academy Award for “Best Original Screenplay,” was the first in a progression of highly acclaimed comedies of manner which include 1994’s “Barcelona,” and 1998’s “The Last Days of Disco”.

His sharp dialect and cunning, often tragic characters who obsess over political and literary theorists, differing degrees of social caliber, and the obligations of being socially identified as a “yuppie,” propelled him to critical admiration among many cinephiles, as well as helped define the voice of 90’s arthouse cinema.

A glowing influence on the films of Noah Baumbach and Wes Anderson alike, Stillman’s iconic films evoke the spirit of Woody Allen, but succeed in a wholly different and original manner that Allen’s films couldn’t hold a candle to.

After 13 long years, Whit Stillman is back with a new film, “Damsels in Distress”, that is both a complete departure from his last three films while also classically ‘Stillman-esque’ in every manner of the phrase.

The film stars indie darling Greta Gerwig as the alpha to a dynamic group of college do-gooder socialites who make it their mission to help ‘rescue’ their fellow students from low standard conditions like depression, savage greek life traditions and overall low class.

An uproarious and whimsical take on college tropes that plays like an earnest and bourgeoisie take on “Animal House”, the film has received universal acclaim from its slew of festival appearances and is enthusiastically welcomed return for Stillman.

During a recent press tour for the film, Meets Obsession sat down with writer/director Whit Stillman and star Greta Gerwig to talk about what Stillman’s 13-year absence, why shooting on a shoestring budget is better, and Greta’s challenges of playing the lead in a Whit Stillman film.

MO [To Whit]: It’s been thirteen years since your last movie. What have been up to during that time?

Whit Stillman: Greta’s going to answer that now.

Greta Gerwig: I can answer it! He’s been failing [laughs]. That’s what he says, all the time.

WS: I’ve been waiting for Greta and the other cast-members to get older because when I first had the idea for the movie, they were ten. That’s too much of a stretch for ten-year -olds, no matter how accomplished they are.

So, as Greta said, I was failing. I had all these other ideas I thought I could get off the ground in London. I was the Orville Wright of getting things off the ground in London. But then I came back, and the people who backed “Barcelona” and “The Last Days of Disco” commissioned me to do this script. They said they liked it, but then they also said they had no money and we’d have to get financing through star-casting and foreign sales. I told them there is a way to do this film economically, like “Metropolitan.”

MO: How did you make it economical?

WS: I reconceived how I would do it. Greta is a member of a group of young filmmakers who are really accomplishing a lot with very little money. One of her friends, Lena Dunham, came to audition. It was exciting because I had a whole day of people who made the script sound really terrible. They were fine actors, but they weren’t getting it. I was thinking, “Oh, my God! Maybe the script is really bad.”

But Lena read the parts really well. Later, she introduced me to her co-producer Alicia Van Couvering, and Alicia came up with this plan of how to make the film low-budget. It was very clever. For instance, if you have stand-ins for an entire shoot, you can have a big budget while still qualifying for a low-budget deal. We found that with reduced resources, much less than what was quoted in The New York Times article, we could still get more [shooting] days than most $3-5 million films.

GG:  I shot a $5 million film and had less shoot days than I had with Whit. It‘s a weird catch-22 at the lower budget level. You can shoot certain deals with SAG-members and not have to use Teamsters for trailers, but as soon as you pass into one budget bracket, it’s almost like you need $10 million. Your choices are to make the film for a lot less or a lot more. In between, you’re kind of screwed.

WS: So many people think it sounds good to have a $2-5 million film, but they get in total trouble. That money goes into the garbage can, essentially. When you’re talking to producers and you mention the low budget, you think it’ll please them. Actually, it just means they’re not interested because they can’t put their feet on it, so they say “good-bye.” They don’t even say “good-bye,” they just never say, “yes.” So, anyway, that’s part of failing.

MO: I noticed how Violet is similar to other characters from your earlier films, namely Audrey from “Metropolitan” and Alice and Charlotte from “The Last Days of Disco.” What attracts you to these types of characters?

WS: I see her differently than that.

GG: I do, too!

WS: She’s humanized like Charlotte. Maybe if it’s like you took the soul of Alice and combined it with the [brains] of Charlotte. There’s a bit of that Kate Beckinsale [ed. note: who played Charlotte in “Last Days of Disco”] thing where [Violet] is funny and talkative, but she’s also really likable.

MO [to Greta]: Was it challenging for you to go into this universe where characters have a peculiar way of communicating?

GG: I love Whit’s movies, so the hardest thing for me was not imitating other actors he had worked with. I didn’t want to hear Chris Eigeman’s voice in my head, or anyone else, because they were so good at making Whit’s words their own. They seemed like they were thinking about everything they said, coming up with it on the spot. Actors working with writers with strong voices can fall into a pattern of repeating the most well-known version [of that voice]. That’s why I think a lot people sound like they’re imitating Woody Allen when they work with him.

WS: Or they sound like they’re imitating Diane Keaton when they’re reading her books.

GG:  I told Whit last night that I just read the Diane Keaton’s autobiography, and he said, “So that’s why you’re talking like her.” [laughs]

Anyway, to have a script like Whit’s is a challenge in the best possible way. It’s challenging, yes, but delicious and surmountable. It’s much harder when you have nothing and you’re forced to make shit up.

MO [to Greta]: I read somewhere that Whit would challenge you and the cast by not letting anyone swear on set. What was that like?

GG: It wasn’t quite like that…

WS: … and they did curse.

GG: We did!

WS: [sarcastically] It was very painful to hear.

GG: It was a bunch of girls, and I’m very much a girl’s girl, and so I was instantly chatter-boxing away with all of them. We’d be on open mics, talking about boys we’ve gone out with, and I’d look over to Whit and…

WS: I had to remind them that they were broadcasting to the whole crew.

GG: He said, “Ladies, we can all hear you!” So, yeah, we tried not to curse so much. And Carrie, who plays Heather in the movie, never curses. As soon as you have someone in your midst who doesn’t use bad language, it makes you very aware of when you do. She was a moral improvement for us.

MO: Did that help you get into character more?

GG: Honestly, and lots of actors will say this, putting on clothes is a big part of feeling who the character is. We were shooting in the fall it was cold outside, so we’d wear big coats in between takes. As soon I had the coat on, I started more like a trucker. When it comes off, I start talking more like a lady. Those coats made us more masculine.

MO [to Whit]: I have to ask, I was disappointed not to see Chris Eigeman in this film [ed. note: “Damsels” is the first of Whit’s films that doesn’t feature Chris Eigeman]

WS: He turned it down.

MO: Seriously?!

WS: I wanted him to the play the professor who teaches about the dandy tradition in literature. He said he wasn’t acting anymore, but then I see he’s in Lena [Dunham]’s thing. He lied to me! I’ll make him pay the price for that…

MO [to Whit]: What’s your writing process like? Do you start with a conversation, or do you start with a larger picture than fill in the gaps?

WS: It starts with too much coffee. Greta writes, too, so I’m sure she can relate, but it’s very tough until you feel your world has been created. I really like when the characters start to do their own thing, and you don’t quite feel like you have total control over them. It used to be a process that 100% intimidated me, and now it only half-intimidates me.

MO [to Whit]: In the Times article you mention, it says you cut the running time from 120 minutes to a little over an hour and a half. What were some of things you took out?

WS: I felt the first version would be a good audition piece for the backers of the film. I thought we’d trim just a little bit from that. When the editor suggested it could go down to 94 minutes, he almost lost his job. When he told me I should cut 26 minutes, it felt like he was asking me to cut off my arm.

We had this debate over how long or short comedies could be, and I pointed out a lot of his favorite comedies are very long. This lasted for seven months. Meanwhile, I’d screen the film and could see that people were impatient, even though I didn’t think they should be. We had this scene where Violet was talking about cures for depression, and the guys suggested alcohol. There was all this other stuff in that scene! In the background, we had Thor in a sleeping bag doing all this really funny stuff. But since it happens in the last third of the film, I got the sense the audience just wanted to get to the end. That’s where the cuts came from.

MO: Do you think Criterion will ever show the full cut?

WS: I think so, but first the DVD will come out with Sony, and they’ll show a lot of the deleted scenes. But, after a while, you get to love the cut you do and you don’t really want the film to exist in the longer, boring version.

GG: Unless you’re Kenneth Lonergan, who made “Margaret.”

WS: He told me that other people did the music for “Margaret,” which is really horrible for a director.

GG: Oh, that IS terrible!

WS: Yeah, that’s the worst. I totally understand where he was coming from.

MO [to Greta]: Since you’re also a filmmaker, is there ever a tendency to do back-seat directing?

GG: No, no, I don’t!

WS: She totally does.

GG: I do not! [laughs] When I’m working with great writers and great directors, I’m happy to hand over my desire to control the situation.

WS: You took over for the  “Arthur” shoot, didn’t you?

GG: OK, I did get into a little kerfuffle for the Arthur shoot. There was this moment where I’m giving a tour of Grand Central Station. Arthur sees me, and they told me they wanted me to catch his eye. I said, “No, no, that’s not how romantic comedies work! The girl is not supposed to know how adorable she’s being.

If she sees him and is adorable for him, it doesn’t count. She mustn’t know she’s being watched. So they kept trying to trick me! They’d call my name so I’d look over and make the eye-line, but I didn’t do it. I felt it was important there was this sense of being observed.  When I direct a romantic comedy, it’ll just be boring because I’ll be doing all the tropes. So I try not to put myself in positions where I think to myself, “I can totally do this better!”

MO [to Whit]: So, when exactly did you think Greta was back-seat directing?

WS: [laughs] It was a joke…

GG: … but the first week was a see-saw with my performance. I brought in a lot of different stuff, so you walked to me and said, “Oh, what you’re doing, please don’t ever do that again.” We honed the performance after that.

WS: One of the things Greta said that I found interesting was how the on-set dynamic with the other actresses was similar to what [was in the script]. She had more indie film experience than anyone else, Greta became the Violet for that group of girls.

GG: I did become a little bossy. Also, I knew New York and the others were from LA, so I would say stuff like, “I’ll tell you the bar to go to.”

WS: What bar was that?

GG: Radio Bar on Hudson. It’s a good one. It’s simple.

WS: Where is that?

GG: Hudson and 12th. It’s across the street from White Horse.

WS: Oh, yeah, I always walk by there.

GG: It’s a good one. You should go!

WS: Well now that Greta recommended it…

MO: I’ll have to check it out next time I’m in New York, but I think that’s about all the time we have. Thank you both very much for talking with me!

WS: Thank you!

GG: Yes, it was a pleasure!


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Matt Cohen
Matt Cohen
Matt is currently obsessed with Rap Snacks, post-hardcore, pizza parties, and Carl Sagan's Cosmos.




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