Chatting With Whit Stillman on ‘The Cosmopolitans’

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“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.