It's been three years since we caught up with independent film director Whit Stillman, on the occasion of the Criterion Collection release of his 1998 comedy

The Last Days of Disco. He hadn't made a film since, but now, after a 14 year gap, Stillman is back with his fourth feature, Damsels in Distress, about a tight-knit group of young women at a fictional east coast college who strive to "rescue their fellow students from depression, grunge and low standards of every kind."

The film, which was shot on Staten Island and stars Greta Gerwig, Analeigh Tipton, and Adam Brody (among others) is an endearing addition to Stillman's idiosyncratic body of work (despite the glaring absence of Chris Eigeman). His hermetically-sealed world of earnest and genteel sophisticates, who banter passionately about absurd principles with zero self-awareness, is a fantasy blissfully void of vulgarity. It draws you into its spell while also distancing you with its artifice—just enough that you can laugh, often, at the preposterous nature of it all. One particularly dim frat boy, for example, learns from the damsels that he simply does not know the names of colors. But he sets about learning with farcical determination.

Reviewing the film for the New Yorker, Anthony Lane describes Stillman as a kind of "preppy Prospero, putting his enchanted snobs through their paces. What the point of his movie may be, other than to woo and exasperate us in equal measure, I cannot say, but it proves how creepy the pursuit of innocence can be, and, given the earnest mayhem that prevails at your local multiplex, there is surely a place for a lightly mocking modernist with a distaste for the modern." In our perfect fantasy world, that would be the case. We'll have to wait and see: Damsels in Distress opens Friday in NYC and LA.

You've been doing so many interviews that it's a challenge to ask you something you're not completely exhausted answering. I'm not exhausted answering anything because I have a cup of Viand Coffeeshop coffee in my hand, so you'll get a caffeinated, very stimulating, fresh response to any question you pose.

Well, here's one: Why has it been so long since you made a film? It's kind of a funny story. It's not a very funny story, it's a tedious story. So I made those three films and each one was a little bit eccentric in the way they happened, although I had the great advantage of Castle Rock backing for films two and three, a guy there named Martin Shafer. Then I remember having sort of this business adviser/lawyer-type saying, "Now Whit, you've been doing things so eccentrically now you've gotta do things the industry way. It's time to do things the industry way." And I think not making a film for 12 years is doing things the industry way!

I've been reassured that I'm not crazy and that I'm competent, but I've seen other people who are really successful only make a film every six years. To the point that if one of their projects bit the dust that would be 12 years and there I am. So if you just erase Sideways, then Alexander Payne would be with me! It's really surprising how long it's taking everyone to make films because they're doing things the industry way. We have to get away from doing things the industry way, I think, and do it the filmmaker way.

Do you think there's anything you could have done differently that would have resulted in the film being made sooner? Not this film, because this film actually was not part of a failure. Essentially the reason for the 12 years was failure, but this film was post-failure. It was the right idea, with the right people backing it and people who could back it, and me putting it in an arena where it really could happen. After my experience with all these things not happening, the same people—Martin Shafer and Liz Glotzer from Castle Rock—liked this idea and I was able to start writing it in a tentative way. Write 30 pages and see what they thought of it, and I turned those pages in pretty darn quickly in June of 2008.

I think I only took two or three months after the end of the writer's strike and I was writing those things at the same time. They said they liked the first 30 pages and I could go ahead. I had other things to write to keep body and soul together, TV assignments, etc. So it was a short writing process for me. When it was done and they had read it in January 2010 they wanted to make it.

I met with them and we were talking about how to make it and we sort of talked about budgets. You think of an indie film budget and you think $3 million, $5 million, something like that. We would have to get foreign sales and have star casting and go to equity partners and get a film distributor and all this kind of stuff [at that budget]. I've been that route before and nothing ever happened. But I could make this film for very little and I quoted a very little number.

How much? I can't say, but it was very little. And they said, 'For that we could find you private investors, get you private checks to make the film.' So that's what we did. What we did is, we got people who were used to making tiny budget films and gave them more resources and organization. We had a really comfortable shoot—28 days, which is eight days more than people with big films get. So we stopped doing it the industry way and did in the filmmaker way. It's sort of back to the '80s now, going back to making things really cheap and finding some other way to survive between their films. [Filmmakers] cannot get paid on their films. They try to get pilot writing assignments. It's back to the past for indie filmmaking.


I feel like good stuff comes out of that. The whole "necessity being the mother of invention" thing. I agree with you completely. I just read that two great filmmakers, I just read recently, said as much. Roberto Rossellini is quoted in his biography as saying, "In some ways money is the root of all evil." And John Huston said his rule is that the less money, the better the film. David Lean and certain other people confounded that. Yes, there can be these great, very expensive movies, but for a lot of us there's something very, very exhilarating about doing it for less money than you usually would expect.

All of your films feel very personal to me. How much that has to do with the budget. It helps. It allows you to do what you want to do and not have people finessing it and changing it.

I just can't believe that's Staten Island. Obviously I'm not that familiar with Staten Island, but I had no idea until I looked at the notes. How did you come across Staten Island as being the right place to shoot this? One of the most important jobs on films in the location scout. Each of our films has really profited by having key locations where we can shoot a lot of the film. In this case, Chris Menges, the locations manager, knew about or found out about Sailor's Snug Harbor, and it was the ideal environment for us: kind of underused, it's a city park facility.

It has all kinds of things there. It has the Staten Island Botanical Gardens that became this kind of fantasy sequence when they danced to the Gershwin song at the end. It has this lovely old museum for a maritime painter and that became the kind of reading room/study where they have one scene, and it also became the dorm corridor where Violet gets even with the nasty girl next door. All these different things out in Snug Harbor and we just shot almost everything there or in the streets right around it or in the town that's right next to it.

If you're making low-budget things you want to get those kinds of things. Tons of your budget in normal films come from having trucks riding around town, and you waste a lot of time and strain with all that. It's one thing that defeated my Jamaica project, that I hadn't written it with that in mind, and the budget swelled because of the transportation and the traveling time required. So I'm going to have to rewrite the Jamaica project with budget in mind.


I would really like to visit this part of Staten Island now. Can you take mass transit to get there? Yeah, it's really good getting over to Staten Island because you just take the ferry and then there's a bus that takes you down to Snug Harbor. I think there are directions on their website that tell you how to do it. We were shooting away from anything that was ugly and the neighborhood's a little...I remember some sort of delinquent kids on the bus that were a little scary. It's strange because it's kind of a nice neighborhood around it, nice residential neighborhood, but if you go a little beyond there's a town with a little bit of crime. It even has a police lookout.

You mean one of those elevated towers? Yeah, that's pretty scary.

Another thing I was wondering about was Chris Eigeman. That's probably the only problem I had with the film, that he wasn't in it. Yeah, I'm still pissed off at the guy. I wanted him to play Professor Ryan. I would have made it a bigger deal. He would have been great in that.

What happened? He wouldn't do it.

Why not? You've gotta ask him.

Maybe I haven't been paying close enough attention but I don't remember seeing him in anything recently. Well that's one of the things he told me, that he was feeling really bad about acting, he was really down on acting. He's been trying to get a film off the ground. But then I see that the other person who no-showed on my production was that Lena Dunham girl. She then cast him in her TV show so the two people who no-showed to our film are collaborating together, acting. What ingrates and traitors.

I was reading the press notes and it said she was helpful. She helped us a lot because she introduced me to Alicia Van Couvering who sort of set the rails for our production. She was really helpful.


Do you ever entertain fantasies of where those Metropolitan characters are now? What they might be doing? Yeah, we have a tentative joke thing where Taylor Nichols cast as Charlie Black in this film, so that's kind of an afterthought and I'm not too sure how serious that is. I liked what we did with Last Days of Disco, that was more seriously thought out, that he appears there with Audrey Rouget. That really seemed to make sense to me. I'm not really interested in those characters later in life. I think there are other things. We could continue this film, the guys from the fraternity. I think they could be a funny TV show.

Can you talk about where some of the inspiration for this story came from? There's some actual groups of girls who did this kind of thing and I heard people talking about them and they were always very amused by them and kind of admiring. I thought that was kind of a cool idea. I never knew any of these people but I heard about them. They were doing the raising the tone of their university. One of the groups wore strong perfume, they dressed up, they gave great parties. They sort of made this grim, grungy, depressing university atmosphere much more cheerful and sociable.

Was casting the four lead women difficult? Well, when you start on that everything is terrifying because you're not sure you're going to find good people to play every part and then you slowly start filling in the blanks. Finding an actress like Analeigh Tipton was kind of terrific because she was really great as Lily, but she also read really well for two other parts. So potentially we had three parts covered depending on who we got for other things.

She's so charming. She was on America's Top Model or something? Yes but she was not a model at all. That was just some gig she got and did really with her charm. It's not like she comes from the modeling world, that's just an opportunity she got as a performer. It's really reassuring when people like Lena Dunham came in and read really well—although the part was really odd that she read for and would not have been right—but she made the dialogue work. Aubrey Plaza read for Heather and made the dialogue work although in a totally strange way, very different from what Carrie MacLemore did. Finally, Aubrey had her TV show so she could only work for a week and she did the Depressed Debbie part.

Very late in the day I found Carrie MacLemore as Heather, which was tricky to find because she's really good in the film. The real saving thing was to get Adam Brody. I signed him right at the end and couldn't find anyone to play that part, totally struck out. He was the only guy who came close. He was very surprised that I started talking to him about whether his agent would be tough about letting him do the part. He said he'd never been offered a job right in the audition room! I just had seen so many people who hadn't been right.

Why would his agent have a problem with it? Well he's a star and we weren't paying stars wages.

What were some of the reactions from the actors when the saw the film? Well it's very disorienting because a lot of them first saw it at the Venice Film Festival. It's one of these gala things: the red carpet, closing night film, huge audience, ovations. It's very weird-seeming. Also, the audience is Italian so they don't laugh where we laugh, they laugh in the subtitles. I hadn't prepared Adam that I had to cut a really great performance he gave in late in the movie. The scene was too long and I hadn't told him about it. What was great is they got to see it a second time immediately at Toronto two days later and they could kind of relax into the movie.

Are you totally happy with it? Do you feel like you were able to do everything you wanted to do? I am, I really am. I'm really glad I had the time after Venice to finish the sound and the music because there's a lot of stuff I felt had been left half done or not right done. Getting that was great.

Where did this idea for the dance craze come from? It's always something I'd thought it was interesting and wanting to do. I think it's one of the most fun, galvanizing things that can happen socially into a group. I loved the whole idea of dance finding them and kind of heading off into the future.

Did you come up with the choreography for the dance craze? I kind of did! Justin Cerne, the choreographer, is giving me a co-choreography credit because I went over with him—he was doing a Macarena-like thing—and I said, "No let's do the cool moves you can do!" And so he made a list of all the cool moves people can do on the dance floor, sort of a greatest hits of dance moves.