By now, Whit Stillman has achieved a unique cultural status, at once iconic and elusive. His films have such a specific, literate sensibility that devotees hoard favorite lines like beloved family recipes (‘I don’t think Ted is a fascist of the marrying kind,’ remains very dear). And though he’s oft-quoted, Stillman has been a stranger for too long—he’s been executing his own Maneuver X, Barcelona partisans might say. After a dozen years, he’s back. Damsels in Distress, his university picture starring Greta Gerwig, opens in New York and LA today.
We spoke this week in a Madison Avenue hotel suite where Bloomberg News, of all things, was on the television in the background.
David Coggins: Is that Alexander Olch in the first shot of Damsels in Distress?
Whit Stillman: It is, and he also repeats, at the end, when they talk about cool people. His very recognizable silhouette goes through twice, kind of bad continuity. He’s wearing a suit and sneakers. I think you should talk to him about shoes.
DC: I will. It’s funny you mention coolness though, because in all your films there’s a distinction between people who understand what’s going on and those who are struggling to figure it out, and a lot of analysis about that fine line.
WS: I agree with the Violet character [in Damsels in Distress] in that debate, that if you really want to be cool, you have to tamp down your humanity a little bit. You’ve got to de-emote, depersonalize. But I tried to be fair to Lily’s character, and what she says does make sense, that yes, we need normal people so things work right.
For instance, I find dealing with Sony Pictures, I’m not so good with the deadlines, because I want it to be really right, but they need to get it by a certain time, so there’s a bit of a drama when ‘Whit needs to approve something.’ It’s been good, but I feel that the practical people get things done. And often I find there’s a conflict between a certain kind of particularism, and getting-it-done-ism. I don’t like to say perfectionism, because nothing is perfect, but if you want to get things in a particular way, that goes against getting it done on time.