Whit Stillman is in the middle of a busy decade. For fans of the comedies of manners that made him famous in the 1990s, this is both much appreciated and surprising. Stillman made his feature film debut at the age of 38 with 1990’s Metropolitan, a story of young (mostly) moneyed, New Yorkers drifting through the parties, debutante balls, and missed connections of one winter holiday season. The film became an arthouse hit and earned Stillman an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. He followed it with the likeminded Barcelona in 1994 and The Last Days of Disco in 1998. Then came a long silence broken occasionally by rumors new films that never seemed to go anywhere.
Then, just as quickly as he went away, Stillman came back, first with the divisive (but delightful) comedy Damsels in Distress, starring Greta Gerwig, then with The Cosmopolitans, a 2014 pilot for an Amazon-backed pilot that might still advance to the series stage. (Stillman’s still working on scripts for it.) Now there’s Love & Friendship, an adaptation of Jane Austen’s early novella Lady Susan that reunites him with his Last Days of Disco stars Kate Beckinsale (who plays the charmingly selfish Lady Susan) and Chloe Sevigny (who also worked with Stillman on The Cosmopolitans). Over soup in a Chicago hotel room, Stillman talked to us about Austen, how the film came together, and his thwarted hopes of making a movie with Will Ferrell.
I’m just happy to start an interview without asking why it took you so long to make another movie this time. This came together pretty quickly. Did it come out of working with Amazon before?
No, there’s no relation between the two. Oddly, I was actually talking to them, asking, “Who are you going to hire for your film division? Who are you going to get?” They got these great people in the film division. I wanted them to put some money in, but they hadn’t set up their film division and the script I sent them just lay there. So we did this completely without Amazon. They’d been very helpful. They gave me the Cosmopolitans gig and it’s good to be in the business doing casting for different things. For instance, Emma Greenwell was so good, I think, as [Love & Friendship‘s] Catherine Vernon — so pretty and nice. She actually came in to audition for Cosmopolitans to play an American girl, and so I met her, she’s plays American very well, but she wasn’t quite right for that part in Cosmopolitans. But I saw her and said, “We have the same casting people so can you have her read for Catherine Vernon.” She read for Catherine Vernon and we really, really liked her. Chloe was in Cosmopolitans, too.
Your first three films kind of fit together nicely, there’s even a nice box set out now.
And they’re linked through Disco. There’s a slight link. The story, I mean, it is a slight trilogy. When we were doing Disco we inserted the characters from Metropolitan or Barcelona into Disco.
You’re now two films into what could become a second trilogy. Do they fit together at all, your current work.
I think they do. I think that the common thread is stylization. I had the idea that I’d make three features now that are stylized. They’re not totally naturalistic. I mean this is more naturalistic than Damsels, and people seem to be accepting the stylization better. I don’t quite understand all the anger and hostility against Damsels.
Was it really anger and hostility?
I like that movie.
The good people like it. I think that defensive film makers, when they’re defending their film that’s getting knocks, they say that, “Oh people aren’t perceptive enough to see something,” or, “They don’t have the sense of humor to appreciate a comedy.” I don’t know, for me, this is even more severe. I see Damsels as a character test. I think only good people like Damsels. Bad people don’t like Damsels. That’s theological, that’s my theology.
I think that view of the world is there in your films, too. Questions of morality are at the center of a lot of your movies.
I don’t understand people hating the Greta Gerwig character in Damsels, I don’t get that.
This one’s interesting though because you have a fairly wicked character at the center of it, yet she’s delightful and charming.
It’s amazing, there’s much less resistance to her, which is good because it was an issue with the adaptation, and I remember the British distributor, which was the first person I showed the script to in May of… at Cannes in 2013, and she hated the characters. She hated the two wicked women, I think she felt somehow threatened by them. I don’t know what it was. It’s kind of odd that she came around to it. I think it’s through her number two, who loved the material and saw some of the auditions, we were able to show some of the auditions to the financiers and to the distributors and they could see, aha, we see what’s happening.
I think it’s different when you have Kate Beckinsale smiling her way through it than just seeing the words on the page.
Generally if the script is okay and the casting has been done probably there’s, like, no direction. They’re doing their thing. The only thing that sometimes we’d say is smile more. Normally I don’t like that at all, I don’t like the smiling, but with these wicked ladies, to say all these wicked things with smiles made it more fun.
At what point did Kate Beckinsale come on board?
I’ve always wanted her, but there’s all these strange things in the business. There’s the Death Star, which keeps all their actors from working on good projects, and … You know who I’m talking about with the Death Star?
Creative Artists Agency, right?
You said, I didn’t. I think she might have been part of the Death Star. Also, maybe I didn’t agree about the casting ideas with this big European studio. So it’s really hard cobbling together totally independent films — this money comes from Netherlands, this money comes from France — and knowing their 5000 names.
Where did you find Tom Bennett? He’s really funny.
He’s really great. It’s was one of the strange things, because normally in casting films you see 20 really good actors come in and then one comes in and then, oh my God that is probably like… I’ve seen all these great actors I love from English productions, and then it was so great to meet them and they were fine, but then James Fleet came in and read Sir Reginald and it was just great. Xavier Samuel, the same with Reginald. Then for that part, Sir James Martin, there were three actors who were good and thank God I went with Tom Bennett because he was just so right. He sort of came in dressed in character, because I think he was doing some sort of Dickens play. He looked like a character out of Mister Pickwick, and I think he is sort of like a character out of The Pickwick Papers.
It seemed kind of inevitable that you’d end up adapting Jane Austen.
Absolutely. It’s like the only thing that people in the industry would call me about, or talk to me about, proposing some Jane Austen project.
Why this one?
Well I love Jane Austen, most Jane Austen, as it exists. I love all her major novels as they are, and then for me, creatively, to turn them into 90-minute films is not the most joyous project. In this, it’s a question of I think those of us who love Jane Austen want there to be another one, let’s please have another one. This is one where she was very good, it’s really excellent material both in terms of the comedy, the humor, and also there’s actually… I’m just beginning to realize this, very good story things happening. But it’s in this really inaccessible form and not really completed, on her terms, with a bad title her nephew stuck it with. That we changed. It sort of had the advantage of adapting material without the disadvantage. There was room to creatively change things and do things and rearrange, and it’s not like it’s a lot of people’s favorite book and you can’t change a word or they’ll hate you forever, not at all.
It’s almost like Jane Austen apocrypha.
It’s the apocrypha. It’s the Book of Tobit, which I love. It was kind of a lark, I was kind of at loose ends, it was a weird time in my life. I was seeing people socially, in London, after these kind of grueling, unsuccessful business meetings, cocktails with young theatrical types, and, “Oh, I just read this Jane Austen piece that’s so funny. It’d be like an Oscar Wilde play. It’d be like one of those play adaptations of Oscar Wilde that are quite commercial, the film version of something or other, and take a look at this what do you think?” I started talking to this theatrical producer about turning it into a film. But I always have to have someone to talk to about it to start with and he was great because it kind of got the ball rolling. But I was completely on my own. I think it’s best if you’re the person responsible for something and criticizing it, and you’re the toughest critic of your work.
This and Metropolitan I was kind of entirely on my own. In fact at one point I was working with this… One guy who helped me come back into the business is this very nice guy, manager at Mosaic [Media Group] in Los Angeles. Of course I was thrilled to go to Mosaic in Los Angeles, because they represent all the big comic actors like Will Ferrell, who I adore. I thought, I’ll go to Mosaic and I’ll get in with Will Ferrell and make one of those Will Ferrell movies.
Of course, none of that at all. On the contrary, they come to my auditions and sets and take all our actors. So they’re getting all my actors and I’m getting none of their Will Ferrell comedies. But he’s a great guy, and he’s very commonsensical. I think in the business managers and agents, they don’t get you jobs, but if they can keep you sane and productive and not shooting yourself, and just thinking positively and doing your thing better, that’s the people you want to be around.