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.