Campus capers

Fri, Apr 20, 2012, 01:00

JULIE BURCHILL, during her early-1990s stint as a film critic, once offered a remarkably sage piece of movie advice. If, during a screening of Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan, a prospective romantic partner looks wavy-mouthed or fidgety or unimpressed, it’s time for them to leave. Like, right away.

“Ha,” says Stillman. “She was very kind. I remember. Is she still unmarried?” The writer and director is sitting in Dublin’s Merrion Hotel, a guest of the Dublin International Film Festival. Stillman has just put the finishing touches to the Damsels in Distress soundtrack. He knows the city well and wants the screening to be perfect: his daughter read law at Trinity and is training to be a solicitor here.

“It’s nice for her to be here,” says the filmmaker. “When we lived in Paris she once complained that it was embarrassing to have a director father whose films no one has ever heard of. Polanski’s kids were going to her school. So the standard for directors was just too high. She came to Ireland and immediately met somebody who knew all my movies.”

Luckily, Damsels in Distress, Stillman’s fourth film as a writer and director, has just opened in the US to rave notices: “A film that raises laughs even with its end credits,” Leslie Felperin writes in Variety; “an exhilarating gift of a comedy about college, the female intellect, the limitless male ego, inventing a new dance, and suicide prevention,” says Rolling Stone’s Pete Travers,

At 60, John Whitney Stillman, the celebrated son of an impoverished Manhattan debutante and a Democratic politician, has four feature films to his credit. And yet his arch descriptions and characterisations of what he calls the “urban haute bourgeoisie” have left a lasting impression on cinema. Experienced film fans will tell you he’s wittier than Woody and kinder than Waters. Long-standing critics, those worth a damn at any rate, will swear that the contemporary movieverse just wouldn’t be the same without the sly, chatty influence of Metropolitan (1990), Barcelona (1994) and The Last Days of Disco (1998). All three titles – films Stillman calls “comedies of mannerlessness” – reside in the permanent film library of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

All three are gently satirical but utterly fond of privileged college types. Stillman’s godfather, it’s worth noting, was the academic E Digby Baltzell, the sociologist who popularised the term WASP.

And so to Damsels in Distress, a delightful, hilarious campus comedy that pairs modernised Jane Austen girls with Animal House frat boys. The movie hits Irish multiplexes next week. But why have we Stillman freaks had to wait so long – 14 years! – for the director’s fourth feature?

“Hmmm,” he smiles. “I want to try to reduce it to one sentence: I’m a disgraceful failure as a producer. As far as the hyphenate writer-director-producer goes, that’s where I fall down.”

Stillman is a celebrated wit and deft conversationalist, and there is, of course, a longer explanation of his absence: “I was living in great places like Paris and Madrid,” he shrugs. “I had a really nice life and my daughters were growing up. On one level it was such a happy time for me I didn’t notice how disastrous the producing side was. Also, somebody was always about to make one of our films. Hope was ever around the corner. I had joined the writers’ guild and was busy doing some TV work and commissions. But I think that moves you away from the place where you are a film-maker.”

In keeping with the extensive time frame, Stillman has been tinkering with the new film’s sound mix right up until its Dublin premiere. The devil is in the details: this final version is a different cut from the one screened at last year’s Venice Film Festival and from the one that popped up as the surprise film at the London Film Festival. “That was a strange screening,” he says. “I think a lot of the audience were expecting James Bond or Twilight or something. They weren’t ready for a comedy. Each showing of a film is a performance – even though it’s not theatre where the actors actually do change their performance – the reaction between an audience and a film is different every time. So people who pride themselves on making a firm judgment immediately – you know, that whole Pauline Kael school that says you can’t see a film again – that’s total crap.” Still, he’s more than used to the slings and arrows: bizarrely, Barcelona caused a storm of seesawing press upon its Irish release.

“Michael Dwyer was always wonderful,” recalls Stillman. “But another critic here – I can’t remember the name – took umbrage at what he thought were the politics of the film. They weren’t sufficiently anti-American for his tastes. So Barcelona ended up being hugely controversial here. And that, of course, was helpful for the movie. ” Oddly, even Metropolitan, the holiest New York cow this side of Annie Hall, had its detractors.

“We were lucky too because the backlash on Metropolitan started really late. Bret Easton Ellis – a good reason to hate having premieres is because you end up with people who just turn up for the party and the event not the movie – slapped us for being too moralistic but to have a notoriously amoral writer say that turned out to be good press.”

Stillman’s last-minute edits prove successful and all the better to hear indie queen Greta Gerwig sing out like never before. “The Hollywood system is fatal for creativity,” says Stillman. “The moment an actor has any success, their agent and lawyer rush in. And suddenly they won’t read for scripts. Suddenly they need stylists and transport. It’s almost as if the lawyers and publicists are trying lose work and opportunities for their clients. But Greta Gerwig was terrific about it. She came in and sang and tap-danced. She was wonderful.” It’s fitting that the Greenberg star has joined the Stillman players. The talky and slightly pretentious inhabitants of the filmmaker’s milieu were “mumblecore” long before the word came into being.

“Lena Dunham became a big friend,” says Stillman. “We used a lot of the people she worked with to make Tiny Furniture to set up our production.

“We just kept it very small scale and suddenly, by privately going to the backers of Barcelona and Last Days of Disco we had a budget. We ended up with a much bigger budget than a mumblecore film but we were just as careful with their money.”

The results are wonderful. But we are fascinated by the director’s continuing fascination with collegians.

“It’s an interesting crossroads period,” he says. “It’s identity formation. When I was at university the big book we were all reading was Erikson’s Identity: Youth and Crisis. And I did find that my personality changed completely between the ages of 16 and 20.” He smiles: “And I notice that when I do write older characters there have been complaints from some critics and journalists: ‘He can’t write old’.

“So wherever possible I like to keep my characters on the younger side of the equation and in crisis.”

- Damsels in Distress opens on April 27