The Enduring Charm of the Bourgeoisie: Whit Stillman & Chris Eigeman Talk ‘Metropolitan’ 25 Years Later

Photo courtesy of Rialto Pictures

Although Whit Stillman’s films may feel out of time—set “not so long ago”—it’s officially been 25 years since the premiere of his beloved Metropolitan. As Stillman’s first feature, Metropolitan gave birth to a voice that was casually erudite yet wonderfully witty, with an endearingly wry dialectical style performed by the characters who represented the “urban haute bourgeoisie.” Nominated for an Academy Award for best screenplay, the film remains one of the most important films of the 1990s—establishing a tone and style that continues to influence directors throughout the independent and Hollywood sphere.

Starring  then first-time actors Chris Eigeman, Edward Clements, Carolyn Farina, and Taylor Nichols, Metropolitan is filled with Stillman’s “poised and learned yet worryingly aimless young adults hungry for love and social mobility.” The film takes place during debutante season when middle-class Princeton student Tom returns home for winter break and falls in with a tight-knit Upper East Side crowd. Perennially clad in tuxedos and party dresses, the group convenes after social events to drink highballs and discuss everything from their current philosophical bents to how many boyfriends Serena Slocum had last semester. But where some filmmakers would judge or vilify these types of haute society characters, Stillman always presents them affectionately as flawed young people trying to figure out their beliefs and desires in a world that has, perhaps, given them too many options.

This weekend, the Film Society of Lincoln Center will begin their exclusive re-release of Metropolitan in honor of its 25th anniversary. To celebrate, I chatted with Stillman and wonderfully talented actor Chris Eigeman to find out more about the making of movie, the particular world of Whit, and why Metropolitan has stood the test of time.

How does it feel to look back on Metropolitan now after 25 years?

Chris Eigeman: Honestly, I think the last time I saw Metropolitan was when it played at Cannes—so the 25th didn’t sneak up on me, I knew it was somewhere around the corner. But I’m just amazed and very happy that it’s stood the test of time. 

Whit Stillman: Generally speaking, I look at every film I’ve made very critically. But there’s a sweetness to this film that I really like. I had a really great experience shooting it and once it got going it had a charmed life. So I enjoy watching it, which I get to do periodically when they redo the color grading or transfers, that kind of thing. Although I have a bit of resentment against it because it was used to quote every movie that came after. 

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Photo courtesy of Rialto Pictures

Whit, why was this the story you chose to tell for you first feature? How closely was the world of Metropolitan tied to your own adolescent experience?

WS: It was one of the certain few periods in my life that seemed interesting and had a dramatic structure. There was also the social pornography element of it and dealing with class in that way. It felt uncomfortable, which made it potentially more interesting. There was also the idea of preserving something that would disappear. I also wanted to structurally encourage making something extremely low budget that would still look good—shooting on someone’s big apartment in a nice living room with everyone all dressed up from a party. It was inspired by a George Bernard Shaw play I saw on TV, “Don Juan in Hell.” We also tried to show as much vanishing New York in there as we could.

Everyone in the film has their own idiosyncrasies and details that make them interesting to observe. What was the casting process like for both of you?

CE: It was a huge cattle call, so I auditioned for it just like hundreds of other people in New York. I actually remember thinking I wasn’t going to go to the audition because if you’re asking for actors who can play young characters in their 20s, that’s the largest actor demographic there is. So I was just going to blow it off, but at the time I was living downtown and the audition was like a block from my apartment. I actually didn’t get cast originally though. They were a week into shooting and decided to shuffle around some actors and characters, so then I came in. 

WS:  One of the reasons why I really like working with stories in this age group is because there are a lot of really great actors who are incredible and just breaking out. For Metropolitan it was the ideal casting process because we did it ourselves. I think over 300 people showed up just for the first day and 200 for the second day, but most of the cast came from the first 50 people who showed up.

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Photo courtesy of Rialto Pictures

Whit, your films have a particular tone and meter to them—was that something you had to work with the actors on absorbing to or was it simply how they all reacted to the script and worked together?

WS: One of the great things about the type of audition process we had was that people were actually reading the script and performing the script. So each actor really brought their own interpretations, which were really great. So working in this way worked out from the beginning. Someone like Chris gave a tour de force performance in the first scene we shot, which was the scene in the hallway when he delivers a monologue to Ed Clements about being less the fortunate. Once we had that scene I knew Chris and I would work together again. But for all the actors, they were very fresh and many of them would just get better and better with each take and the more they got into it.

CG: We instantly worked together pretty well because, for whatever reason, I was always able to know where the joke was. So we got into a shorthand pretty quickly. We would talk about Nick and always try to figure out those long walk-and-talks he has. Somehow we came to the idea of “exquisite bullshit,” and I instantly knew, in the grand scheme of things, what that was all about. So we just worked well together and I’ve enjoyed working on his films. He has a unique style, but at the same time it’s all just acting.

Chris, because Metropolitan was your first feature, do you find that the acting style and type of character you played influenced the other roles you were offered?

CE: I was certainly associated with that style. There were Noah Baumbach films, but also even things like Gilmore Girls on television, which is very close to that style. I don’t know much I was influenced by it in my acting, but I’m associated with it, which is great.

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Photo courtesy of Rialto Pictures

Whit, how did the success of Metropolitan, as your first feature, affect how you went on to approach your work after?

WS: I really wanted to use it as the model for making other films, but it’s very hard to make each film the same way. I thought we would just do the next film on our own, but the other films actually ended up having some kind of studio arrangement. Fortunately for Barcelona, the same people that did the distribution for Metropolitan also did that movie as well. 

Did you have any idea when making the film that it would go on to have such a huge impact and life of its own?

CE: I don’t think anybody had any expectations that the film would even necessarily be released. We thought maybe there would be one little screening somewhere, but certainly not like this. An independent movie about this particular group of people, it’s a very hard sell.

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Photo courtesy of Rialto Pictures

What do you think it is about the movie that makes it stand the test of time?

CE: I would like to think it’s because when something is done well it’s received with open arms. It’s nice when that happens, but there must be some little secret to it that made it endure this, but I don’t necessarily know exactly what that is. The film’s humor and charm just endure. And even though it’s about a specific group, there’s something very universal about people trying to find their way in the world and finding their friends and enemies and finding love. 

Is there something you remember most about shooting the film?

CE: Everyone was incredibly sleepy because we only shot at night. I was working parking cars during the day, and everyone, if they weren’t acting, were sleeping somewhere. But I also remember we had to steal shots at the Plaza Hotel and right in front of the Plaza. So I remember sneaking into the hotel with a walkie-talkie, being told we were rolling, and then walking out of the Plaza starting to act. 

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Photo courtesy of Rialto Pictures

Chatting With Whit Stillman on ‘The Cosmopolitans’

“Don’t get a rabbit,” Whit Stillman tells me when I applaud one of the many clever one-liners peppered about his new television pilot The Cosmopolitans. His rebuttal comes in reference to a joke about the universal writerly struggle of not being able to work when one is alone, but not being able to get anything done with others are present—and it’s a sentiment that rings true for the director. His latest work comes only two years after his tap-dancing treatise on the female collegiate experience Damsels in Distress, but before Damsels, it was over a decade since we were graced with Whit’s erudite and cunningly playful charm in The Last Days of Disco. “I like delivering right around Christmas, I feel like it’s my lucky time to deliver a script,” says Whit, whose wonderfully witty The Cosmopolitans, produced by Amazon Studios, is now available for you to enjoy online.

And although it’s been twenty-four years since his masterpiece first feature Metropolitan, Stillman has remained faithful to his affections, populating his films with poised and learned yet aimless young adults hungry for love and social mobility, veering towards the crossroads of their lives. Harkening back to one of his best films, 1994‘s Barcelona, he now revisits the expatriate experience, swapping out Chris Eigman with his uncanny facsimile Adam Brody and bringing back Damsels’ Carrie MacLemore in the starring female role.

In the all-too-brief 26-minute pilot we follow a group of young Americans living in Paris as they try to mask and mend their broken hearts and eternal ennui by passing time in cafes and attempting to assimilate into upper crust Parisian society . As always, Stillman’s great ear for dialogue and affinity for refreshingly imperfect characters entices you into his very specific world—one in which we’re more than pleased to see an ultra-chic Chloe Sevigny pop in from time to time as the sophisticatedly snooty “Gold Coat Girl.”

So last week, I sat down with Stillman to chat about returning to Paris, portraying the over-dogs of the world, and how television comedy was his initial foray into the world of independent film. 

To begin with, I was pleased that the wait between Damsels and your next work was  vastly shorter than has previously been the case.

Me too, me too. It was unbelievable because usually it’s taken me quite long to do the script and have everything ready.

How did the pilot come about and were you actively writing a new script?

No. Very early on there was interest in Metropolitan as a possible remake, so I knew them and knew they liked Metropolitan. When I was making Damsels I started getting calls from the half hour department and there were various conversations, but nothing concrete. Then last summer the producers came to me and said that I should do something in Paris. So there were discussions whether there was a script they should buy, and I said I was over there for nine years and I had all this material that I wanted to use in a film at some point. I described the scene to them and they said it sounded interesting and gave it commission. Then the scripts went pretty well, several drafts. I like delivering right around Christmas, I feel like it’s my lucky time to deliver a script. I don’t know why that is, but by January they were saying go ahead.

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I was excited to see your revisiting a story about young expatriates. What is it about the subject and this period of  life that you’re so drawn to?

I think writers have a problem of finding periods in their life that are dramatic in nature or structure or cinematic in nature. I know that people dis a lot of our films because they say nothing happens or it’s just people talking in a room, but usually we are trying hard to make sure that there is some dramatic nature or visual nature. So okay, in Metropolitan they’re just characters talking in a room, but they’re exotically dressed characters talking in beautiful rooms in beautiful atmospheric Christmas time Manhattan.

But it’s certainly a crucial moment in their lives.

It’s crossroads time. When you talk to development people, smart development people, they’ll say, oh yes, we like this period because it’s a crossroads period, and crossroads are interesting. It’s least interesting for people in the crossroads, but it’s very interesting for people that haven’t gotten to the crossroads yet, and it’s also interesting for older people. Another thing people say is, oh, why does Whit always have young characters? But they’re not twelve year olds or eight year old, which very often most first films are because people look back and that’s what they want to write about. And it’s really hard not to have that mawkish, it’s depressive somehow. This is a happy time of youth and choices. It’s identity comedy. So which group are they going to be in, what work are they going to be doing, who are they going to be in love with.

I recall you once telling BlackBook that you don’t enjoy films made past 1940.

[Chuckles] Maybe 1941.

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It’s evident that your work is steeped in your love for films from eras past, especially in the very affected tone and dialogue of these characters. Between Metropolitan and now you’ve been unwavering in your own style regardless of how the landscape and taste of film has changed.

Well, limitations help you set a style and then you get to like that and think this is how you have to do things, but it also risks becoming a straight jacket in the wrong way. So much of having something aesthetically good is setting all the things you’re going to exclude, and I see people who make something that has a lot of promise but they’re just letting too much stuff in. So it’s been sort of sometimes going a little bit beyond what the style is and then coming back. 

Was there something about Paris in particular that lends itself well to this story?

It was an accident that I went to Paris. I wasn’t one of these people that love Paris and always talks about it. In fact all my friends were dropping out and taking a year off or semester off and going to France and I was the one who didn’t want to go to France. I went to Mexico because I was so intimidated by my experience in French class. I’d done so poorly in French class that I went to Mexico and learned Spanish first. To this day I’m mocked by French friends who say I speak French like Zorro. They say I speak French like when they dub Zorro in France. They had an actor do a Mexican accent in French, so they say I sound like him.

But I found myself there and I’d done these three subjects that seemed to lend themselves to film, but I had no more material. I was being offered books to adapt and things like that, and I thought that was a good idea because I’d run out of my own material. Then I was pursuing those projects through producers in London and then having a life in New York. My marriage ended, I got involved with a different group of people, I fell in love with a French woman and so suddenly, I was thinking, well oh my gosh, these are really interesting things cinematically. It was almost as if I could say, well, I have no more material I need to go and have a life so I can have more material. That wasn’t it but it ended up being true. 

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You’re characters are certainly not always likable. They’re not the underdogs, but rather the–

The over-dogs? One of the bad things America has done is that in trying to be popular it’s relied on certain formulas and gone back to the pump again and again and again and with the same formula. It’s flattering the lowest common denominator and it’s this underdog thing, and it’s very seductive, it’s in all the templates in our brain. But it’s a wrong view of the world. So I want to emphasize the characters’ humanity, all of them. I don’t know if I’ve made an error in focusing on difficult characters. I did notice that in real life, women who are very opinionated and have very strong personalities, there’s something about that I always found really funny. I always assumed, oh they’re being funny.

So I find the Kate Beckinsale character in Last Days of Disco funny in all her opinions and contradictions. Whatever Alice says, Charlotte is going to find something to one up her. So in being sexy and promiscuous, she’ll top her. If it’s moral and religious, she’ll top her. I find that funny, but I’ve discovered in life that some of the people I thought were so funny because of their constant opinions, they might just be opinionated, it might not be that funny. But sometimes you enjoy it because there are so many milksops and so many people that are namby-pamby that just want to be liked and we try to get away from that.

Class and style have always factored heavily into your work, slanted towards a taste for the bourgeois. As a writer, are those the kind of people that’ve always interested you?

That’s something I wonder about and maybe that’s because I like it when people dress a certain way. If they’re dressed Ivy League or preppy or classic, I like that. But sometimes I think because Metropolitan came first everyone thinks that everyone in the films is like Metropolitan, and I don’t think that’s true necessarily. I don’t see Jimmy, Adam Brody, as upper-middle class necessarily. The filmmaker Nancy Meyers has gotten a lot of criticism for her very ultra-bourgeois American settings, and I think she makes good films. I enjoy them, and she has a good theory about the escapism of it. I think she’s right, I think it’s very appealing. She’s also writing about what she knows. The funny thing is, all these film types going on about my characters, the jobs in film and television are richer than all my characters, generally. So it’s this odd thing. Maybe it’s style and class more than money. For instance, in the promo we did one of the actors said something that I don’t think is true. The actor playing Sandro says he’s a rich playboy. Well, no.

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Were you and Adam Brody looking to work together again after Damsels?

Yes, we were anxious to do something, and what I had immediately before me—Jane Austen period thing— he wasn’t going to be in. So I started talking to him and his agent about it early, and it was reassuring for Amazon that here’s a guy who’s a name that likes it. It was very hard for us with Damsels to find a good male romantic lead. It was very hard because people considered it a girl’s project, so casting the women was great but it was very difficult casting the man and finding that combination that we wanted. Adam was really the only guy. I saw so many people and he came in and I didn’t know him. I’d seen The OC once but I didn’t really focus on anyone. He was just really, really excellent and right for it. He said it was the only time he’s been in a meeting with someone where the person said, “Would you be willing to work for cheap?” 

Of course Chloe is great—was this role written for her?

I actually didn’t write it for her. It was something that was really going to come in later in the series. But when I started thinking about getting Chloe to do it, it was really constructive to have her in he pilot. It started with just two small scenes of her and then producers, who were on set, they were saying they’d love to see more of Chloe. So I advanced the scene from the second episode and expanded it and changed it, and that became the Civil War conversation. That became something where Aubrey could be herself without being sad, so she’s not just sad Aubrey all the time. So it was both those agendas. 

Do you find that you’re more informed by literature than by cinema? I know Fitzgerald and writers of that ilk were who you originally admired.

Yes. My interest was always in literature. This big creative process is a writing experience. You’re writing something, you’re imagining a film but writing it down. Our film comes from the scenes and the dialogue and the characters talking to each other, and you really think a lot more about literature than you do about films. So when I was taking breaks while writing Metropolitan, I’d often just be reading Jane Austen as a palate cleanser–just let me read a few good paragraphs.

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Do you consume television shows on a regular basis?

I grew up obsessed with television. When I was struggling as a writer and feeling that I didn’t have the will power or the resolve to have a career as a fiction writer or a novelist, there were very good TV shows. It was during my college years. People refer to the Golden Age of TV comedy as the 1950s, but there was a second Golden Age of TV comedies in the ‘70s with The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Sanford and Sons, The Bob Newhart Show, All In the Family. I like the first three of those shows especially, and I was thinking, well gosh, I don’t want to be alone in a garret writing novels, but this seems like something that involves storytelling and writing and is also social, it was with people. So I thought maybe I could get into TV comedy. Then I didn’t know how to get into that so I took a job in publishing and was writing humorous fiction and journalism and trying to think of how to get in.

So then it seemed like independent film was the way in. I got involved in the film business in Spain selling independent films, and it was all indie films, and that’s why they third me to be their sales agent. I was able to be in to of them as the stupid American, and I saw how they were done and I helped shoot one in New York. I started writing Metropolitan during that time. So there was and forth with film and TV, and I grew up when they still had old movies on broadcast TV all the time. Independent stations in a city like New York were really excellent for old movies.

So if the show does get picked up, do you have what happens next mapped out?

No, they want that but I’ve been very reluctant to do outlines or pre-summaries of things because I feel like I get really interesting ideas and then it’s very hard for those ideas to go away. So I have to do a “what if,” or a “I could do this,” but not become wedded to it.

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Your work has been influential for a lot of independent American filmmakers—

It didn’t seem that way.

No?

It seemed like it was only Noah Baumbach for about 15 years. I haven’t seen all mumblecore, so I can’t speak about it authoritatively, but I know that some people working in that area did see the films and the films had some reference for them. I feel very happy with independent film now. I feel much closer to it than I did when Metropolitan came out. When Metropolitan came out I really felt out of step. It was not art films that people were only being influenced by, and it was only thanks to Noah that there’s any kind of back and forth. It was cool that he was here to do great work with Chris Eigeman. He also co-wrote with people like Wes Anderson, so that was cool.

I remember my family was divided on Rushmore. I think it’s a really fun, great film. I was surprised that Damsels got so much flack, because I just thought it was the girl, college Rushmore. Maybe there is this misogyny and resentment of women. It’s interesting, the, oh I won’t see that because it’s too girly a project, but actually in the terrible IMDB ratings for Damsels, guys like it more than women. It’s women of a certain age that are really against it. 

What age is that exactly?

It’s like 25 to 42, but young people like it, and Americans like it better than foreigners. I think it’s a little bit of, this group of girls is not their group, it’s the other group, and there’s a lot of sort of didactic propagandizing going on.

When you’re writing, do you find yourself looking to the past as a model more so than the present or the future?

When I had a lot of time and interest in watching things, the past was it. And now that I don’t feel like I don’t have the time to watch a lot of things, I don’t want to be directly influenced with what’s going on now. But I don’t want things necessarily to seem retro or set in the past. Occasionally, and yes, Damsels is definitely a weird choice. It seems to me with utopian movements, that they try to reinvent everything, and I felt you could do a plausible utopian movement by taking things you like in the past and bringing them into the present and future. It does happen sometime, the Renaissance was trying to do that.

But I don’t like things that are too clear or precisely period conceived by filmmakers because it tends to be really false. I lived through a lot of these periods where people are making these period films about now. So for instance, if they’re making a 1960 film, it’s as if the designer is going to only have things manufactured in 1960 in film, when in fact, you might only have the soda bottle manufactured in 1960 and it was designed in 1930. People have their apartments and furniture and not everything changes that way. However, when I do see wedding photos from my generation, people who got married early in the 1970s, okay, that does look period. So there are not that many periods that look that period to me. 

Time to Celebrate: Whit Stillman Is Currently Casting is New Period English Piece

Whit Stillman’s unique style of writing and directing may not everyone’s cup of tea—but it’s certainly mine. What I’ve always loved most about his films is the way they always feel so out of time. Although surrounding social issues and circumstances may be present to the particular time period he is portraying, there’s an emotional and dialectical through-line to his work that feels untethered to the past or present, it’s neither here nor there, making it so you could easily pluck one of his characters from Metropolitan and place them at the dinner table with Greta Gerwig’s Violet in Damsels and everything would meld just swimmingly. His particular style of writing has always been antiquated, even when set in the past and now, after almost a decade and a half-long hiatus between The Last Days of Disco and Damsels, it appears we won’t be waiting too much longer for a follow-up.

After The Hollywood Reporter told us back in May that Stillman was at Cannes dealing with a new project—a period piece at in Britain—now, the NY Post is currently in town casting the film. He went on to say that the film is “based on a funny but obscure late 18th-century work that reads a bit like an Oscar Wilde play,” and is expected “to shoot in Britain or perhaps at the Anglo-Irish great houses near Dublin.” The Film Stage also notes that “ nuggets of insight can be found in this 1998 article, reprinted last year, wherein he speaks of a 1700s-set screenplay which was originally geared to follow Disco — this new title being “a dramatic story that has adventure elements.”
 
Who knows exactly what this will be for the director and just who will land “the best female part of all the films I’ve made,” but I’d say this is reason enough to celebrate. Let’s all do the Sambola!
 

J. Press’ Slimmer-Cut Line Opens Shop On Bleecker St.

“I think that the downward fall is going to be very fast…for the entire preppie class,” warned the serial deb escort Charlie Black in Whit Stillman’s 1990 bougie romp Metropolitan. Two decades later, for those preps still hanging on by a thread, that thread may as well be bright seersucker from the just-opened J. Press York Street, the sister line to the preppy label J.Press in Midtown East.

J. Press York Street – the college-oriented, slimmer-cut line by J.Press – opened its storefront last week on Bleecker, far enough from old-guard pinstripers to forge its own following. The clothing itself, designed by Ariel and Shimon Ovadia of Ovadia & Sons, has a playful way of pushing what one can wear and still command any respect. A madras blazer ($525) and all-white bowtie loafers ($430) would make a solid Tigertones getup for the springtime concerts. If you’re going for the Pete-Campbell-working-on-a-Sunday look, v-neck cricket sweaters in navy and white ($225) ought to do it.

Other items can come across as equal parts awesome and completely unrelated to the general theme. American-made red jeans ($195) would go great with a bright red cotton Barracuda jacket ($290)—like a Thriller getup that breathes and doesn’t kill cows. I asked the clerk if the designers themselves grew up in America. He confirmed they had (“they’re Jews from Brooklyn.”)

A room hidden behind faux bookshelf doors keeps an appropriately tame suit collection ($1450 for mid-gray heather or chalk-striped navy). Soft, draping pocket T’s in navy and sun-washed red ($85) come dotted with bandana-style paisley graphics, in lieu of sailboats or tennis rackets. Of course, there’s plenty of that club shit, too. A white shawl-collared cardigan ($225) bears a chest patch with crossed rackets that reads “York St. Tennis Club,” not unlike the hand-me-down “Polo Tennis Academy” sweater I rocked as a one-year-old. Similar juvenilia are peppered about; a multi-colored striped woven belt ($89) takes close examination to confirm it’s not needlepoint.

Throughout the shop, glass cases hold old wooden pipes, tattered Playboys from the ’70s, and tchotchkes from the personal collection of Scott Hill, who designed the layout. The first-edition Horatio Alger novels seem a bit out of place in what’s otherwise a debatably sincere shrine to Skull and Bones nepotism. You can buy a Yale lapel pin for $49 (J. Press itself debuted on the Yale campus), although Princeton’s looks cooler, so maybe go with that one.

What’s notably absent from the York Street label is eveningwear; you’ll have to trek uptown for those classic J. Press coattails and cummerbunds. What you can pick up, however, are four variations of a madras bowtie ($69), which just might be what the next deb season needs. After all, where’s the fun in taking yourself too seriously?

The Best of BlackBook’s 2012 Film Coverage

2012 was an interesting year for cinema—whether it be Hollywood franchise blockbusters, independent stage-play-turned-comedies , or haunting and heartbreaking foreign dramas. In the first half of the year, we saw young filmmakers such as a Brit Marling, Benh Zeitlin, and Leslye Headland debut their innovative and fresh take on modern stories, with films that established them as unique new voices of independent American cinema. Hollywood staples David O. Russell, Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson, and Whit Stillman once again pleased audiences and won critical praise for their idiosyncratic features. And then there were the beautifully guttural foreign films from Michael Haneke, Miguel Gomes, and Leos Carax that constantly reinvent, not only what film can be, but the experiential nature of cinema as well. 

So as the year draws to a close and we begin to anticipate next year’s film slate, here’s the best in BlackBook’s film coverage of the past twelve months—highlighting our favorite films of 2012 that will linger on in history and the one’s to breakout next year’s biggest stars.


Holy Motors
Amour
Silver Linings Playbook



Damsels in Distress

Django Unchained

Moonrise Kingdom
The Deep Blue Sea
The Queen of Versailles
Beasts of the Southern Wild


Cosmopolis
Sound of My Voice
Wuthering Heights

Bachelorette
The Loneliest Planet
Sleepwalk with Me


Beware of Mr. Baker
Anna Karenina
The Imposter

The Snowtown Murders
The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Tabu

Christopher Nolan and Five Other Directors With Favorite Actors

Part four in The Dark Knight Rises trailer series was unveiled this morning, and although this one seemed to pack more bite and excitement than the previous three, my brain immediately shut out the world of Gotham City and floated to Christopher Nolan’s last popcorn thriller, Inception. Now, that could have something to do with the brilliant but almost-identical Hans Zimmer score or the slow-motion, zero-gravity action sequences, but I’m pretty sure it’s just the fact that both films share nearly the same cast, including Joseph Gordon Levitt, Marion Cotilliard, Michael Caine, and Tom Hardy. In honor of the new trailer’s release and the countdown to the film’s premiere, here are some more directors who love to recycle their casts—for better or worse.

When Whit Stillman made his debut feature, Metropolitan, he cast a group of unknown actors like Chris Eigeman and Taylor Nichols. He loved them so much he kept them around in his next two films, Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco. Sadly, by the time he made his latest masterpiece, Damsels in Distress, his usual heroes and ladies had matured past his favorite age bracket. It’s quite easy, however, to see a young Chris Eigemann in Adam Brody as the snarkily charming Fred Packenstacker, and we were excited to spot Nicols and fellow Metropolitan co-star Carolyn Farina turn up in cameo roles.

David Lynch loves to pull from his hat of dedicated actors for his films, whether it be Laura Dern, Justin Theroux, Jack Nance, or Kyle MacLachlan. But when it comes to Lynch, collaborating with the same people only adds to the twisted dreamlike nature of his work. If you are to look back on the lasting images and moments from his oeuvre things can almost blend together—like looking at Twin Peaks‘s Dale Cooper as nothing more than Blue Velvet‘s inquisitive Jeffrey Beaumont all grown up.

But sometimes, casting the same people in everything—especially when the aesthetic and sensibility of the films is so similar—tends to get a little tedious. Tim Burton was putting out brilliant work back in the day with Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice, and Ed Wood. In recent years, however, it seems all he’s done is dress the same people up as Edward Gorey characters and set them in new worlds, which has begun to make everything just look like pastiche of one another. Honestly, it’s become almost impossible to imagine Johnny Depp without a painted-on white face anymore.

Whether you find Wes Anderson whimsically twee and contrived or a masterful storyteller who’s aesthetic vision creates a world far better than ours, the fact that he casts the same actors time and time again has never seemed to ware on his work. Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman seem to always have a place in Anderson’s world, but in a way that never seems too repetitive. The actors he chooses to keep in all his films help breathe new life into each of them and know how to operate in his world of wonder.

Although personally I would have no problem watching a film starring Woody Allen as every character, what defines his iconic work (besides his dialogue and Gordon Willis’s cinematography) would be his signature ensemble casts. In the early days, the films like Annie Hall and Manhattan always featured Diane Keaton and Tony Roberts. Then he seemed to slowly move along to the Judy Davis, Alan Alda, and Mia Farrow crowd (before the whole daughter-wife scandal). And now, with his latest film, To Rome with Love (which comes out net week), we’re treated to Penelope Cruz (who won an Oscar for Vicky Christina Barcelona) once again and more Judy Davis!

Clips From Greta Gerwig Movies In Descending Order Of Mainstreamness

Oh, Greta Gerwig. The Helen of Troy of Mumblecore; the face that launched a thousand Kickstarter campaigns.

The actress has definitely paid her dues, appearing in more tiny, indie, topless-role-having flicks than most other young actresses. Now, with the upcoming release of Lola Versus, she’s getting the chance to hold a film all on her own.

It’s not without precedent. Gerwig had high billing on the recent Whit Stillman snooze Damsels in Distress and did time in Greenberg, the Ben Stiller vehicle directed by Gerwig’s now-boyfriend Noah Baumbach, and the Ashton Kutcher sex romp No Strings Attached.

On the eve of Lola Versus’ release (and a clip from the movie, watchable but not embeddable here), we look back at Gerwig’s career in film, from the biggest budget to, well, what made her a name in the first place.

Lola Versus.

To Rome With Love.

Damsels In Distress

.

No Strings Attached.


Greenberg.

Nights & Weekends.

Baghead.

Hannah Takes The Stairs.

Whit Stillman Spars With “Ingrates, Traitors” Lena Dunham and Chris Eigeman

Whit Stillman has done a barrage of press for his new comedy Damsels in Distress, and while he was pretty tame when speaking with BlackBook (he only called out the New York theater audiences for their despicable and rude tendencies to cheer and clap during Broadway musicals), it seems he rifled some feathers last week and alienated some old and new friends. In an interview with Gothamist that ran on Thursday, Stillman was pretty blunt when it came to the other current press darling, Lena Dunham, who tapped one of Stillman’s regulars, Chris Eigeman, for a small part in her new HBO comedy, Girls

When asked why Eigeman wasn’t featured in the film, Stillman replied that Eigeman turned down the part seemingly either because it was too small or that he was taking a break from acting. But when Stillman discovered that Eigeman was going to be on Girls, he took offense (especially since Dunham had also turned down a role in Damsels in lieu of her HBO show). 

Well that’s one of the things he told me, that he was feeling really bad about acting, he was really down on acting. He’s been trying to get a film off the ground. But then I see that the other person who no-showed on my production was that Lena Dunham girl. She then cast him in her TV show so the two people who no-showed to our film are collaborating together, acting. What ingrates and traitors.

The stars aligned last week, bringing Stillman, Dunham, and Eigeman together for a screening of Stillman’s brilliant Last Days of Disco at a Dunham-curated week of female-fronted films at BAM. Gothamist reports that things were clearly heated at the Q&A following the film when Dunham openly admitted that there was tension between the trio. (She tweeted later that evening, "Sh%t got pretty real…") Eigeman followed up with Gothamist on Friday, filling them in on what really went down:

"I’m not a big fan of having my loyalty called into question," Eigeman says, "Particularly by Whit Stillman, whom clearly I have been deeply loyal to." According to Eigeman, both he and Dunham confronted Stillman and asked if he was joking when he called them ingrates and traitors, and Stillman said "I’m not joking."

The Playlist was also in attendence on Thursday night, and details the interaction between Dunham and Stillman:

Dunham responded by reciting from memory a bruised letter she’d received from Stillman at the time and had since framed. “How could you decline to be in my film which will be seen worldwide for decades to come in exchange for the utter ephemera of a TV pilot?” The pilot in question was Dunham’s own series in which she is the star as well as writer and director of many of the episodes, which had forced her to pass on Damsels. Stillman’s deadpan demeanor made it difficult to gauge the degree in which he was only joking but he closed the sore subject by saying, “these people are great talents and I hope to work with them someday.”

Rich white people fighting at BAM! (That’s probably not an uncommon occurrence, actually.) It seems like the three have made up, which is a blessing if only because it’d be nice to see Eigeman show up in Stillman’s next feature as another insufferable, pompous preppy. You know, if Stillman manages to get it made sometime in the next decade! 

Photo by Instagram user curleyburly, via Gothamist.

Whit Stillman Ditches the Middle Class and Goes Back to School

To a certain group of twenty-something urbanites like me, Whit Stillman is something of a god. I was too young to really appreciate the writer-director’s most famous film, The Last Days of Disco, Stillman’s 1998 portrait of a group of post-collegiate New Yorkers pairing up in the fading days of the disco scene. But seeing it as a post-collegiate New Yorker, the alienation resonates. I dug into Stillman’s earlier work—1990’s Metropolitan and 1994’s Barcelona—which complete his “doomed bourgeois in love” trilogy, and eagerly awaited the next Stillman masterpiece. It took a while, but after 14 years, Stillman has finally delivered. His newest film, Damsels in Distress, is another comedy of mannerlessness set at a fictional northeastern college, and hits theaters April 6. The new film is full of familiar Stillmanesque characters, still immensely relatable: imperfect, sometimes obnoxious, and all struggling to find where they fit in. Though Stillman was at the forefront of the ’90s independent film boom, he never really fit in. Despite delivering three critically acclaimed films (he received an Oscar nomination for Metropolitan), his movies lacked the gritty edge of Pulp Fiction or Boogie Nights. Rather than embrace the supercharged techniques of Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson, Stillman took a more classic approach to filmmaking: completing character-driven scripts, avoiding salacious subject matter, and examining the morals at play within societal constructs. “I really think films started going bad around 1942,” he tells me. Coming from him, this is not particularly shocking.

I am very nervous to meet the peripatetic Stillman for coffee at Pécan Café, a restaurant on the corner of Franklin and Varick Streets just a few doors down from the Tribeca apartment he is subletting. I had spent the week re-watching his films and feared that the writer-director would be the doppelgänger of one of his over-intellectual Upper East Side misanthropes. When speaking to members of the Damsels cast, I realized I was not alone in my apprehension. “He’s a man of such etiquette,” Adam Brody, who plays the film’s love interest, told me. “I’ve since given it up, but when he used to email me, I would be very self-conscious about my replies, making them very formal in order to match him.” Greta Gerwig admitted that, to prepare for her lead role, she “tried to live in a way Whit would approve of.” But as soon as Stillman and I sit down, my anxiety abates. Dressed in a white dress shirt and a colorful plaid blazer, Stillman resembles a college professor rather than an Academy Award nominee. He’s soft-spoken, inquisitive, and lovably curmudgeonly, and he apologizes for bringing along a plastic shopping bag carrying a crumpled dress shirt that he plans to drop off at the cleaners after our interview. Almost immediately, he reveals how he has started to catch on to the anticipation of his first film in nearly 15 years. “[Damsels] was selected as the surprise film at the London Film Festival,” he tells me, “and it was a really bad idea. Everyone was expecting My Week With Marilyn or the new Twilight film. That was their taste. The good thing was that the press was there and they really liked it, but the response on Twitter was incredibly negative—people seem obsessed with how much they hated it. they really took it personally.” (I should note that in 1998, the average moviegoer did not have an accessible public outlet on which to play movie critic.)

Though it’s surprising to me that anyone could dislike a Whit Stillman film, I recognize his oeuvre is still very much a niche market. Focusing on characters living in the upper-crust of society, Stillman’s films likely alienate the movie-going masses. But despite its sociological exclusivity, his work still points to larger truths about man’s place within society. He also succeeds at creating a surreal universe of his own. Damsels is the first of Stillman’s films to take place in the present day, yet his stilted language and vintage-inspired costumes, not to mention the Gershwin song-and-dance number at the end, create a severe dissonance for modern audiences. Stillman’s own tastes tend toward the classic comedies of Golden Era directors like Preston Sturges. (He even proudly compares Gerwig to Irene Dunn. “Have you seen The Awful Truth?” he asks. “You need to watch it.”) While incorporating some uncomfortably comedic situations, like when one damsel is coerced by her boyfriend to have anal sex based on a fringe Catholic philosophy, the film still inhabits the Whit Stillman universe wherein young women find comfort through dance and where their dashing suitors force them into “tailspins,” the antiquated term Gerwig’s character prefers for a depressive state. 

Audiences tend to identify with the outsider. Huck Finn was a hero, as was the titular Shane. But Stillman’s protagonists, outsiders all, are never completely heroic. Metropolitan’s Tom Townsend, whose lower-class status at first garners the audience’s sympathies, soon reveals himself to be a snobbish heartbreaker who tosses away the affections of the innocent Audrey Roget. In The Last Days of Disco, ’90s indie queen Chloe Sevigny plays Alice Kinnon, a timid and cold editorial assistant who, despite being tragically unlucky in love, also takes out her aggression by kicking a puppy while jogging in Central Park.

The same messiness comes into play in Damsels. At first glance, Lily, a new transfer student at the less-than-competitive Seven Oaks College, seems like the rational counterpart to the fibbing, obsessive-compulsive Violet, the leader of a trio of girls who favor tap dancing and perfumes as suicide-prevention tactics. Things get complicated once Lily and Violet fall for Charlie (Adam Brody), a super-senior who tries to pass himself off as a young professional working in the field of “strategic development.” The young women find this incredibly enticing despite not knowing what such a position entails. Through the course of the film, Lily realizes that Violet’s affinity for sad-sacks and losers, as well as her aspiration to change the course of humanity by starting a new dance craze, bespeaks a shallow nature. But Violet also shows a curious self-awareness. “You probably think we’re frivolous, empty-headed, perfume-obsessed college coeds,” she tells Lily early in the film. “You’re probably right. I often feel empty-headed. But we’re also trying to make the world a better place.” “My character sort of plays along with the audience’s reaction [against Violet],” Tipton told me. Gerwig originally auditioned for the Lily role, but was more interested in Violet. “She’s totally crazy and totally a liar, yet totally sincere,” Gerwig said. “She is all of those things, and she’s so critical. But she’s also critical of herself and, in a roundabout way, trying to make the world better.”

Despite her flaws, Stillman makes it clear that it’s Violet who is the film’s hero. “The Lily character is actually the nemesis of the film,” he explains. “People need all the help they can get not to dismiss Violet as the mean girl.” It’s not necessarily the film’s fault that most audiences might miss the mark; on the contrary, it might be evidence of Stillman’s powerful writing. He’s able to craft characters who aren’t cut-and-dry, whose moral ambiguities are as important as, if not more important than, the film’s plot. “The secret key to the films,” he continues, “is that the outsider characters are not portrayed very sympathetically. There’s this fiction that I think is very dangerous in almost all popular films that have the sympathetic, identifiable outsider character who’s a good person while the other people are bad. In my films, it’s the outsider character that doesn’t learn anything. A lot of people reject that.”

Stillman’s obsession with outsiders and insiders might stem from his past. The son of a Democratic politician and the grandson of E. Digby Baltzell, whose sociological study of the American protestant class system popularized the term “WASP,” Stillman navigated the demimonde with charm, invention, and the moral ambiguity one finds in his heroes. “The only way I survived debutante parties and awkward social situations was by making stuff up about myself. I couldn’t go as myself to these things,” he explains. “You say who you are and everyone turns their backs. But if you just make something up, generally they are much more interested. When I went to those parties, I found that if you were from Tyler, Texas, or Tyler, Idaho, those very pretty, preppy girls were really interested. But if you were just Joe Preppy from Madison Avenue…”

That goes a long way explaining why the 60-year-old Stillman still examines the social lives of those in their early twenties. “That is the identity formation period, when you’re making important romantic and career decisions,” he explains. “Friends ask me, ‘Why don’t you do stuff about people our age?’ Basically, you’re 16 all your life; once you become 16, nothing changes except that you grow feeble and die. The plight of the 50-year-old? Meh.”

It was a group of young actors and filmmakers who inspired the completion of Damsels. Upon meeting Gerwig, Stillman was fascinated with the ways she and her mumblecore cohort financed their films on miniscule budgets. “I’m not sure about the actual films themselves,” he says, “but the whole style of mumblecore is an exciting thing that revitalized this film.” The micro-budget financing of films like Hannah Takes the Stairs and The Puffy Chair pushed Stillman to make Damsels on the cheap. Despite his critical success with his earlier films, he found it difficult to maneuver the business side of the film industry. “There was a bubble,” he says of the independent film movement of the late ’90s. “It didn’t pop exactly, but the air was going out quickly.” “Indie” quickly became a buzzword and its own commercialized genre. “After Disco, people told me, ‘No, Whit, you’ve got to do things the industry way now,’” he confesses. “The industry way for me was not making a film for ten years. You do this star-casting and equity financing, and you wait around forever. It’s just wheels spinning.”

Gerwig confesses that Stillman’s name was on a list of directors she handed to her agent. When she heard he was casting Damsels, she said, “I was just thrilled that he was making a movie because I wanted to watch it.” Analeigh Tipton, whose role in Damsels is her largest to date, admitted that she wasn’t familiar with Stillman when she was offered the chance to audition. “I was shooting Crazy, Stupid, Love and sitting in the trailer with Julianne Moore, and she asked me what I was working on next,” Tipton told me. “I said, ‘I don’t know. I’m looking at this Whit…Somebody project?’ Julianne threw her makeup down and said, ‘Whit Stillman?!’ I thought, ‘I guess I can’t say no after that.’”

It must be an ego boost for an A-list actor to eagerly shout your name, but Stillman hardly reacts when I retell Tipton’s story. After all, should Stillman make another movie in the next decade (he is working on a script set in 1960s Jamaica), it’s unlikely he’ll cast boldfaced names in place of younger, inexperienced actors. But he’s got some other ideas, too. “Musicals have been wrecked by Broadway audiences,” he declares. “I was thinking of doing a period musical, but the audience would have to be in period, as well. They wouldn’t be allowed to give standing ovations or squeal and yell at the stage.”

And with that, Stillman grabs his dirty laundry, scoots back his chair, and heads outside.