|Born||John Whitney Stillman
January 25, 1952
|Alma mater||Harvard University (BA, 1973)|
|Occupation||Screenwriter, film director|
|Notable work||Metropolitan (1990)
The Last Days of Disco (1998)
The usual key to getting films made seems to be a producer's terrier-like determination not to let it go. Unfortunately, such producers often seem prone to sinking their claws into mediocre projects.
I had, in college, a professor called Walter Jackson Bate, and he taught a course called The Age of Johnson. It's about Samuel Johnson and his period, 18th-century British writing. So we all got to endure Samuel Johnson, and Boswell's 'Life of Johnson' is now my favorite book. I read it all the time I can; it's great for going to sleep.
A brief experience with a Radcliffe girl got very bad very quickly. I was so destroyed by it that I left and went to Mexico for a semester, where I have cousins. I learned how to speak Spanish, which was really important for my life. It was wonderful going to Mexico, learning another culture and a language.
Coming out of university, one of my obsessions was that in the novels I was reading, they seemed to be portraying a world that had a social fabric. People knew each other in 'War and Peace.' They went to all the same balls. These were societies with tightly wound, woven, social textures.
There are bad preppies and bad priests and bad humanitarians. Any group can have its bad apple.
Really, having a show freely available online is like having your book in the library. It's wonderful; it's ideal.
I think that, in terms of mainstream storytelling, the rebel gets off way too easy. We're way too hard on the insiders and way too soft on the outsiders.
One of the reasons it's important to make a new project is it always seems to improve the reputations of the previous one. Whatever you did before is better than what you've just done, apparently. But I've had to follow the first rule of journalism: Never read the comments.
What I like and find liberating in dialogue comedy is that the characters, and what they say, are not me. These are fleeting thoughts and observations and not presented as truths but as something that illuminates the character and the dynamic between the characters. This kind of dialogue is thesis and antithesis – and we never get to a synthesis.
There's something really admirable about French culture and an attraction in how independent it is from our own. So, it's odd that in other countries that are very American-influenced – who seem to care more about the Oscars than anyone here does – there's both anti-Americanism and also too much America.
I like to allow a story to arise as I'm writing scripts. I find it horrible when I try to think of something for the plot without really being on the ground and seeing where it goes.
I remember going to one party of this preppy, bourgeois crowd, and there was some obnoxious character there, really bad news, and saying, 'Oh my God, so the caricature you always see in films actually exists.'
If you're mostly a writer – if your point of departure is writing something – which for a writer/director is sort of where you start, you're really influenced by the writers you love one way or another.
The worst thing is the blank page at the start. Then the horrible things written on the blank page. Then deciding whether or not to throw out those horrible things: lame scenes, lame characters, bad ideas.
When you're doing the work, film and TV are exactly the same. TV is just film in reduced pieces.
The 'Damsels' crew was low-budget, young people who were doing their first thing almost. A lot of it. It felt like Pied Piper or Rumpelstiltskin or whatever: it was me and people thirty years younger or more. But it was great; it was really fun.
I love writing novels, but I'm very fearful about writing something from absolute scratch. I kind of don't have the time to write something from scratch. I think when my knees completely give out, and I can't make films anymore, I would try to write novels from scratch.
I always wanted to direct and write a movie, but I thought that I didn't really have it in me. I tried to write fiction and humorous short stories, and some were considered successful, but it was always a huge effort for a small reward. I was always intimidated by the process.
I'm not sure what my material would have been if I'd have started earlier. I probably would have started with 'Damsels in Distress' kinds of films because that's the kind of comedy I was writing in college. So I didn't really have any life experience to work off of.
So much of selling a film in the industry is about creating a fulcrum where all the pressure comes to bear, and something seems suddenly valuable and approved by an audience. It's amazing how people could pick up tons of films on the cheap, but they don't because they wait until everything is laid out for them.
I don't think you change from the time you're 16 until you die. Maybe your body changes, and you have different experiences, but I think you become a fully conscious soul with full abilities. Souls are eternal, and if you keep your marbles until you croak in your 90s or your 100s, you're the same.
I have to embrace the fact people find me divisive, but I find it remarkable. I was very disturbed by the hatred 'Damsels in Distress' received.
Before, I was writing a script to make a movie. At a certain point, I became A Writer in Film and Television. So I got TV deals to write stuff, film deals to write stuff. But it's dangerous. I got into the WGA, and I became kind of, you know, a slave! They just pay you to write a script, and it's hard to make the movies.
I read one Jane Austen in college and didn't like it at all and told everyone how much I disliked it. I read 'Northanger Abbey' sophomore year in college and hated it. I didn't read good Austen until after college, maybe a couple years out.
My biggest false steps have actually been when I tried to do very different projects. I found I was getting people saying, 'Why does Whit Stillman think he can do a film about blacks in early '60s Jamaica? Or the Chinese and the cultural revolution?' Those were the two biggest failures I had getting off the ground.
I'm very troubled when editors oblige their film critics to read the novel before they see the film. Reading the book right before you see the film will almost certainly ruin the film for you.
Paris is the destination for brokenhearted American women. I think men go there and have their hearts broken, but women come there with their hearts broken.
What I find remarkable is that so much of the 18th century literature that I read is more accessible than reading your alternative weekly from ten years ago. People really aspired to write clearly.
I feel that if you want to make films, you have to be willing to make it without a fee. You get a deferment, I guess.
I think one of the saving illusions of the film business is everything seems like it's about to happen. It's always about to happen. It's only looking back that you see the wasteland.
In Mexico, wealth and poverty live next to each other and are cordial with each other – in my experience.
Sometimes, people who are very fastidious about what they're going to do in their work are not very fastidious in their private life. I'm like that. I love it when people do really nice things around me, but I don't have time to do it for myself. It's very hard for me to even buy a new pair of trousers.
I don't like the word 'perfectionist,' because it's self-flattering. It's tooting your own horn and implies that you actually can achieve perfection. I prefer 'particularist.'
The cinema I particularly love is the cinema of the golden age of the studios in the 1930s. One of the really nice things about it was the way teams of actors and directors and crew people worked together again and again.
Whether for company or isolation or just to make it a pleasurable experience, I have music in my ears all the time. I tend to listen to the same things, so I don't really pay too much attention to it. But it's there, and it's nice, and I do pay more attention to it than I probably should. I think, 'How can I use this music in something?'
I think sometimes it's the things you don't like that give you inspiration.
Paris is a Roach Motel for top American journalists: They check in, having won the plum foreign posting, but never leave.
I don't think there's anything cliche feminine about Jane Austen. And, anyway, her earliest champions were Sir Walter Scott and the Prince Regent.
I learned that you have to say that you're a filmmaker. You're not a screenwriter; you're not a director for hire. You've got to take charge. You're a filmmaker, and you're going to make a film.
It's really important to have subjects that people all over the world are familiar with, and the Disney films are really great that way.
I was in Paris for nine years, starting in '98. One of the great things when I was first there were these wonderful CD collections, selling for almost nothing. For ten euros, you'd get three CDs of all the Gershwin songs.
Coming out of college, back to New York, where I didn't really know that many people, I thought our world was very atomized.
A lot of people in the film industry are fatalists who think a worthwhile film will always achieve its destiny, and the films that aren't worthwhile won't. It's all sort of pre-determined, etc. And I don't think that's true at all.
It's a challenge for any writer to write beyond what he knows. You get material, adapt it, and do the best you can with it.
My friends in Paris are writers, or something like that, whereas my friends in New York are doing cool stuff in finance and living very different lives. In writing, it's pretty solitary, so it doesn't really matter who's around.
Making a show is such a long process. You go through a TV production house that will commission scripts, and if they like what you've written, they take it to a network and sell it to them. It has always felt very far away from something that's actually real.
I'm a late bloomer. Even in high school, everyone else was charging ahead, and I didn't come into my own until very late. I feel that's true in cinema, too. I didn't even start 'Metropolitan' until I was 37.
When people are telling stories on screen, you can show the reactions of people, play it off those reactions, and it can be fun. But when it's someone just giving an opinion on things, even if the opinion is kind of interesting, that is potentially deadly. It has to be really quick.
I've learned that I really want to shoot short films on a short schedule. There can be very good films that run 110 minutes, but 90 minutes is beautiful.
I really like working with people again and again, and I don't know why everyone doesn't do it. Because you already know them, and you know how good they are.
Oscar Wilde was sort of my first love as a young reader. And then I went on to love Jane Austen's wonderful – this sort of comedy coming from her. I mean, all of her books are comic.
I think when my parents were together, my family was too prosperous for our psychological health. Not that they were that rich, but I feel that usually inherited wealth causes psychological problems.
There's the right person, or right people, for each other. There is that order that's searching to be found but, I think, it's not as if everything is going to be automatic. So, people could really be meant for each other and its goes awry; or they could have to learn or develop and grow up together. Grow to be right together.
Generally, I like people's trunk projects, the things they were working on before anyone knew who they were. I think when people run out of their trunk items and they start doing stuff just to do a film next year, the quality goes down, the interest goes down. Maybe it feels commercial or something.
So much of artistic creation is just exclusion. It's not creating things; it's just excluding things that really aren't going to be helpful.
I think my favorite two words are 'true blue.' I think those words are really important, and the spirit of them has been lost.
When I'm writing fiction, I read nonfiction or biographies. Now I'm watching very old movies or old foreign films. I don't immerse myself in whatever's going on in whatever area I'm working in.
One of the downsides of money is if there's no money, there are very few real jerks who are attached to your project. And if there is money, you do attract some very difficult, unhelpful people.
My whole career, only one person has stepped up to back me. All these people say they like your films. They say this and they say that, but no one actually does anything.
I didn't realize how limiting an R rating is. I made 'Disco' as a cautionary tale for 14- and 15-year-old girls, and those girls were not allowed to see the film by their parents.
You can be an American or an Englishman or Canadian and be a Parisian. It's a very admirable culture, and people want to identify with it.
A very sad moment for me was when my parents separated – a lot of crying, 'It's tragic, we're now a broken family, blah blah blah blah blah' – although my psychological problems stopped. I actually felt healthier.
Categorizing people economically and hating them because you think they're this way is a prejudice.
If you're sort of interested in politics but sort of upset about contemporary politics, it's kind of wonderful to read about periods who were very eloquent and admirable – generally. People are articulating ideas you can sympathize with or understand both sides of. Or at least feel like one side is saying the right things.
Happy is the small business that can hire additional employees besides the proprietor; rare is the indie-film enterprise that can be happy in this way. The norm is an unpaid principal with no employees between productions.
What frustrates me a lot about some aspects of filmmaking is people thinking everyone is really dumb and that we have to make everything really obvious.
I think one thing that makes me delay projects more than other people is, I see this silver lining in a turn-down. Maybe if I just wrote a script and then pounded my head against all the doors, I would be shooting more films.
I'm anti-verite. I think the verite style is a completely false thing. Most things are false to arrive at a truth; verite is falsity without acknowledging its falsity.
There's certain key dance crazes that are just so much fun – wouldn't that be a great thing to do, to invent a dance?
I remember when I was trying to do 'Metropolitan,' in breaks I would read a page of two of Jane Austen as a palate-cleanser.
I love making cheap films. I really do. What I've found is that I work better when it's both a fairly low budget and a short schedule. It focuses the mind, and it's a better atmosphere.
When you're trying to force things in a script, it seems like it's getting somewhere, but it isn't real or interesting. All the bad material you've written becomes an albatross around your neck. So I really don't like writing a lot of bad stuff, I prefer to just keep narrowing it down to stuff I think is solid.
My theory in the '90s was that I didn't want to take a Jane Austen book I loved and reduce it to a 90-minute movie. The Emma Thompson-Ang Lee 'Sense and Sensibility' was beautiful, but other ones, I didn't think justice was being done. It's not a slam dunk to adapt these books.
My family was entirely political, all the time, on the left. The opposite of that is not to be political on the right. It's trying not to be – politics is not everything. There's life other than politics. Politics intrudes.
Some critic complained about how many small films are released in New York… it annoyed me. Those small films that are lucky to get two weeks are often my favorite films of the year.
Oddly, in a sense, I still have more confidence as a director than my ability as a writer. Somehow, directing is just really easy. It's just about being really honest about how you feel about what you're seeing.
I really like the short stories that Melissa Bank writes. I think she's sort of channeling the female version of J.D. Salinger in more recent days.
I thought I was going to make bigger films for mass audiences. And I wanted that. I actually had in mind a James-Bondian thriller.
I've gotten to really, really like being back in the States. It's so easy being in your own country, and I really like Americans – typical American towns and provincial college towns are my ideal place to be.
I'm the ayatollah of the Jane Austen fan base! I want to lead the fan base, not be attacked and devoured by the fan base.
At the New York Harvard Club, they've moved the memorial for those who died in World Wars I and II up to an obscure little hallway; they used to be in the main hall, in the most prominent location. The sacrifice of those young people I always found so stunning and so admirable.
The dull externals of the screenwriter's working life are well known: We are the people taking up too much table space at cafes.
I fell for a Spanish woman and followed her to Spain. We got married there, and then I got involved in the Spanish film industry and got the material for 'Barcelona.' It was my way of breaking into the film industry.
The thing that was most harmful was that there was always something that was about to happen. So I found myself indulging in the writer's luxury of doing another draft, another idea. If this project isn't happening, then I'll shelve one script and start writing another. And in that way, the years go by, and there's very little money coming in.
I find it preferable not to have public opinions about anything. It's good for me to shut up.
You have to constantly work on your script if it needs it. You don't accept, 'Oh, I did a draft and…' No, it's your responsibility to work on the script as much as possible and make it better and better.
That's why I hate the outlines and treatments, because all you get are cliches. If you put things down on paper as your plan, it's very hard to get those ideas out of your head and do something better.
With all my films, the pace is not very fast, and so people get bored with them and comment that they're just people talking in rooms and all that.
I kind of put people from the past up on a pedestal; I don't think, in a lot of ways, that we're at their level.
The great thing for me is how Hitchcock uses guilt so well. He implicates the spectator in the character's field, and you really feel it, and there's incredible relief when it comes out right – if it does come out right.
I remember trying to write at 1, 1:30 A.M., and just sort of falling asleep. And I think that was actually a good creative state for weird ideas. I shifted to a morning schedule once I had two kids, and I still found that if I slept badly, I actually had better ideas.
It's intimidating for guys to hear women complain about their boyfriends. Guys imagine that girls are thrilled to have them around, and this is what they really talk about.
Producers have a tendency to put you in a pigeonhole: 'What does this white, middle-aged preppy know about 1960s Kingston?'
There's so much of this thing now, where you're supposed to do all the work before you get the commission. I think it's really good to try to resist that. If you just have a week to come up with a pitch for something, your ideas aren't going to be very good. Get your income from somewhere else, and keep your writing not tied into these contracts.
I can fake decent penmanship, but generally, it's really just terrible. And, unfortunately for me, maybe fortunately for the reader, it's very often illegible. If I get an idea, and if I do remember to write it down, which is rare, I write in such a way that I can't read a letter.
I'm very concerned about the countries bordering Russia. But let's stay off that stuff.