The legendary indie writer and director arrives in Toronto to screen a couple of his films and discuss his return to filmmaking.
Throughout the ’90s, writer and director Whit Stillman was as vital a voice in the booming independent film community as any. His trio of films released during the decade—Metropolitan (1990), Barcelona, (1994) and The Last Days of Disco (1998)—featured young characters speaking in bursts of enlivened dialogue, digressively articulating the hopes and fears of privileged youth with hilarious aplomb. Afterward, he didn’t make a film for fourteen years. He emerged again only this year with the well-received Damsels in Distress.
Video magazine The Seventh Art has organized screenings of Metropolitan and The Last Days of Disco over two nights at The Royal, on College Street, and Stillman will be in attendance for a Q and A after both films. This will be the first in an expected series of similar events with different directors, to be put on by the magazine.
Stillman answered questions about the event and his career via email. Our interview is below.
How do you think independent filmmaking has changed since you made Metropolitan in 1990?
I actually don’t think there are big differences. We seem to have gone in a circle and we’re now back where we started. The indie boom and bubble are certainly over, but there were a lot of good indie comedies this year, which is what I care about. It’s now harder for an indie film to score a home run in theatrical distribution—a lot of that audience has disappeared—but there are still many ways to get a film seen.
What was it about the period (that is, the early ’80s) in which The Last Days of Disco takes place that made it such an ideal backdrop for a story?
The original idea for the film was “pretty girls in a disco”—that that could be “cinematic,” the dread. It also grew out of our experience shooting [actresses] Tushka Bergen and Mira Sorvino in discos while making Barcelona. But we wanted to get away from the pretty horrible disco-era look and fashions preserved in period clichés. Styles greatly improved as the ’80s began, and the late time period allowed us to include both early and late disco favorites. But the period we really should go back to is when people danced in bars.
When you stepped away from making movies for so long after The Last Days of Disco, did you miss it at all? How would you characterize that time?
It was very odd because—except for the period I took off to write the novel The Last Days of Disco with Cocktails at Petrossian Afterwards [released in 2000]—I was pretty well occupied writing scripts that seemed to be going better than usual. I have a terrible, terrible time getting started on scripts. For the longest time, everything’s bad, and then after that, production always seems around the corner. The Grand Illusion. I had attacks of frenzy to shoot something, but everything I worked on before Damsels was too expensive and complicated.
Having just released Damsels in Distress this year, how did you find the experience of returning to filmmaking after a long hiatus?
All the shoots I’ve had in New York have been good experiences. This one especially so: quick, tranquil, shot in semi-secret. The cast and crew couldn’t have been better, except for one pain in the neck who still did a good job. But the drawn-out strain of trying to get everything to fall into place is pretty overwhelming. We hadn’t entirely finished the film when we screened at Venice and Toronto: the hurried sound job was chalk on blackboard to me. So we did a lot more work on both the sound and music just before the release—a luxury for a very low budget film. But now I can sleep at night. The gap between films wasn’t really that important since I didn’t know what I was doing before, either.
Are you still working on the film set in Jamaica that you’ve discussed in other interviews? What are your upcoming plans?
I still hope to make the Jamaican film, but hope first to shoot another script I’ve been working on for a while. A lesson from the years of no-films is not to talk about future projects more than required: loose lips sank at least one ship. But I can’t put the Jamaican idea back in the bottle so I still talk about it. With Damsels I think I learned how to do it as cheaply as it needs to be done, which is very cheaply.