The first thing I notice upon meeting Whit Stillman in person is his socks. The iconoclastic writer-director, who returns to theatres this week with Damsels in Distress after a thirteen-year absence from the big screen, is dressed in a sharp pinstripe suit, dressy loafers, and a pair of bright green knee-highs, two splashes of technicolor that put the whole man into focus, bring him to the present. Stillman does, after all, have a reputation for seeming of another time and place, his characters and his own demeanor speaking and moving like life is one long period piece. It’s that kind of wonky dignity that has made Stillman such a singular voice in contemporary American independent cinema: he’s the original dapper misfit, empathetic moralist, always a little out-of-touch and yet, somehow, strangely in sync with the times. Many have thrown around the phrase “the WASP-y Woody Allen” to describe him, but that label doesn’t do Stillman’s peculiarity justice: he’s just not the kind of guy who invites comparisons to others. He’s the guy in the green socks, full stop.
What a relief, too, to get an immediate visual reminder that Whit Stillman is still Whit Stillman, even after the 13 years since 1998’s The Last Days of Disco, his last feature film. With Damsels in Distress, he returns to familiar character archetypes and thematic territory, exploring issues of idealism and identity among a group of young adults enrolled in Seven Oaks, a fictional East Coast liberal arts college. The idea for Damsels in Distress came, unsurprisingly considering the autobiographical bent of so much of Stillman’s work, from an anecdote about his own alma mater: “In the mists of time,” he explains with a grin, “there used to be more schools that were male bastions, that at a certain point went co-ed in the sense that women came, but in some places, the women made no dent on the social atmosphere. And there was a period where everything was kind of boorish and grungy and gross and depressing. I’d heard a story when I went back to my university about a group of girls who wore french perfume, dressed up and gave great parties and really changed the whole spirit of that world. People just loved them, thought they were so funny and interesting and attractive, and I thought this would be a great story for a film.” His description of this “grungy and gross” atmosphere mirrors the amusing disdain he shows for the zeitgeist moment in American culture that served as the backdrop for his own college experience. In 1969, upon his enrollment at Harvard University, he found that immersion in a campus environment “cured” him of his own proclivities toward teenage rebellion: “Somehow, that’s when the craziness inside me and the craziness in society came into a nice juxtaposition: I was kind of cured of it; and for me to be cured the whole country had to go crazy.”
It’s this trope of identity—shaping, dissolving, and re-shaping, all with green earnesty—that makes to draw Stillman back to the collegiate young adult with each work. His investment in that period in a person’s life comes with an understanding that its joys are often overwhelmed by a gruff, mundane darkness that society (and, truth be told, cinema) often tries to downplay. “That period lives with me,” he explains, “because it’s such an important, kind of tough period. The positive side is that you can come out of it with an identity that works for you that’s constructive and creative, and will lead to good things in the future. But there are a lot of pitfalls and potential downsides. I remember the thing that got me really depressed before I went to college was the remark people had that, “Oh, these will be the best years of your life! Oh, so wonderful! You’ll look back on these years with such fondness!” If you want to make sure someone gets depressed, tell them that.”
Of course, in order to explore the stratified sensations of a college student on film, it was necessary for Stillman to construct an authentic and tangible universe in Seven Oaks both as a physical environment and a community of individuals. In the case of the former, Stillman admits to a bit of major luck in acquiring Sailors’ Snug Harbor, a stunning and expansive Staten Island city park, for the shoot: “It was built in the 1830s at the height of the Greek revival period, and is considered the best set of Greek revival buildings in the country by some people. It was a wonderful campus backlot film studio to shoot in, because it’s quite underused, and we pretty much had our run of the place.” It neatly adapts Stillman’s vision of Seven Oaks—“one of those colleges in eastern Pennsylvania that’s not quite Ivy League, it’s not super-selective, so it has a real mix of people”—to the screen, with its sunlit columns and vibe of calm, affable isolation.
When it came to finding the right actors to populate Seven Oaks, Stillman desired as much involvement as possible. “I had this idea that I should be there [for the auditions], I love when people audition, I kind of have to do it. I had the usual great advantage of being a total ignoramus, of knowing absolutely nothing. I didn’t know any of these actors, but had very good casting teams.” These teams led him to stand-out talents like Greta Gerwig, best-known for her involvement in the mumblecore scene, who transforms herself beautifully into the brittle, hyper-articulate Violet, Damsels in Distress‘ de facto Stillman surrogate and unlikely heroine. “I saw a picture of her,” he recalls, “and said, ‘Oh! Pretty blonde! Good for Lily!’ So I set up a meeting with her, and we were talking and she said she really loved the Violet part, and she certainly had the chops for Violet.” They scheduled a second audition, in which Gerwig ran lines, tap-danced, and quickly convinced Stillman she was perfect for the part.
Numerous other actors went through a roundabout casting process: Hugo Becker, who plays French grad student Xavier, so impressed Stillman he rewrote the entire character for him. “He auditioned on tape from France, that originally was a part called Tom, an American, but he was the only guy who brought some personality to it. He’s an attractive guy and he made it charming and appealing in a way that it normally wouldn’t be.” After watching Becker’s tape, Stillman returned to the script and changed the American Tom to the French Xavier. The name change says it all: Xavier onscreen is a likeable but flawed, consistently engaging oddball, far removed from the type of heartthrob audiences are used to seeing in a college comedy.
But then, character specificity and attention to detail have always been a strong suit for Stillman, and that’s never been clearer than in the case of Greta Gerwig’s fascinating and expectation-defying Violet. Her eccentricity, unfashionable idealism, and peculiar brand of quiet affectedness posit her, initially, as a character audiences should observe and judge, not identify with, especially in contrast to the grounded, skeptical transfer student Lily (Analeigh Tipton), who Stillman cheekily describes as “normality, not necessarily in its finest colors”. Stillman is aware of this initial stratified identification between the two women: “A lot of people get the point-of-view confused and think Lily’s the heroine who’s going to give these over-dressed girls their comeuppance, but that’s not the plot.” Instead, Damsels in Distress consistently surprises the audience, establishing characters within archetypes (the posh snob, the dumb frat boy) and then discovering points of entry, allowing for depth, empathy, moral ambiguity.
This is never clearer than in the arc of Violet, which Stillman handles softly and elegantly, slowly allowing her to become the picture’s humane, oddball center. We come to understand her as a sort of anti-hipster, someone whose every thought and action stems from caring too deeply, and remaining ignorant, not defiant, of trends and expectations. Stillman developed particular strategies he developed to keep Violet (and other characters) tangible and empathetic: “There was a more formally attractive structure that had Violet’s story parallel with Lily’s story, but I decided I didn’t like it, because we had to have Violet’s story and all the bad stuff that she had been through earlier, not later. I’m glad we stuck with that, because it’s very important that people see that Violet is an interesting woman who has overcome things.” It corroborates a comment he made earlier on in our interview—when I asked him if he had a favorite character, he responded immediately, “Always Violet. I always liked Violet the most.”
I wasn’t too surprised to hear him say that (I bet Violet has quite a few pairs of green socks), but I’ll admit I was surprised to find how strongly I agreed with him in that moment. Violet’s the type of person I could very easily encounter in my daily life and immediately brush off as pretentious and clueless, not worth my time. But by Damsels in Distress‘ final moment—a sun-kissed, almost elegiac dance in a fountain between Violet and her similarly-wacky beau, Fred (O.C. alum Adam Brody, note-perfect in a tricky part)–my heart positively swelled for her. If Damsels in Distress—and indeed, Stillman’s work as a whole—has any one theme to convey, for me it was all in that moment: no matter how eccentric, affected, even arrogant an individual may seem, their feelings and struggles are the same as ours. Empathy is never impossible.
Damsels in Distress, from Sony Pictures Classics, is now playing in theaters.