The moviegoer: Whit Stillman, a writer-director whose 1990s films Metropolitan, Barcelona, and The Last Days Of Disco explored the manners and morals of different circles of young people. Through those films, Stillman became an influence on American independent cinema as strong as Edwardian novels and 1930s Hollywood comedies were on him. After a decade of false starts on other movie projects, Stillman finally returned in 2011 with the giddy, quirky campus comedy Damsels In Distress. Now, he’s followed that up with The Cosmopolitans, a half-hour TV pilot about the romantic travails and complex ecosystem of a group of American expatriates living in Paris. The Cosmopolitans is now available on Amazon Instant Video, and will be picked up for a full six-episode order if it receives enough positive feedback from viewers.
The movie: Young & Innocent, a 1937 Alfred Hitchcock-directed adaptation of Josephine Tey’s novel A Shilling For Candles, about a fugitive accused of murder. Derrick De Marney plays the fugitive, while Nova Pilbeam plays the young woman who helps him escape a local police force that includes her father, the Chief Constable.
The Dissolve: Why Young And Innocent?
Whit Stillman: Well, I love watching movies when I’m having dinner with family, and we were someplace with no TV that I could figure out how to use, so I went on the Internet. My youngest daughter has become an old-film fanatic, following in the family footsteps, and she told me there are a lot of good old films on YouTube, so I looked it up and found Young And Innocent. I assume it’s legal because it’s probably out of copyright. I hate piracy. Anyway, it was just a delightful surprise. I had seen it before, I think probably a couple of times, but I hadn’t appreciated it so much as this time, because it’s a lovely mix of a young-romance story and the usual Hitchcock tension, pacing, and guilt-catharsis. He does the wonderful thing where he makes you feel guilty, like you have to clear your name along with the protagonist.
One thing I especially like about Hitchcock is his sensitivity and talent for portraying social milieux. He’s sort of a social documentarian, and he… Well, actually, I take back the word “documentarian,” because he’s really a social portraitist. He does all these social contexts really perfectly. There’s the family dinner table the heroine presides at with her widower father, who’s an important official, and then all her younger brothers are at the table, and she’s dealing with them. Then there’s the bitchy, gossipy, nosy, suspicious aunt, and this idiotic young woman who comes upon the character fleeing from the scene and assumes he’s guilty, and the officials who jump to conclusions. With Hitchcock, you’re getting such great portraits of all these social groups and social situations. He did a wonderful job with that even in American contexts. Like, it’s really amazing how well he gets the social background of Marnie’s sex life in Marnie. But this movie is him on home turf, so it’s especially good.
The Dissolve: “Whit Stillman” and “Alfred Hitchcock” aren’t names that often end up in the same sentence, but that scene around the dining-room table that you mentioned is very Stillman-like, with these posh schoolboys talking among themselves, very competitively.
Stillman: Also, there’s this great family relationship, the relationship between the talented daughter and her quite-impressive father. All the relationships are really well-done, and the ending is really beautiful. I’m not a great devotee of big traveling [shots] and big setpieces. Generally in most hands, they’re a bit dull and slow, and when I’ve had one in my movies, I generally regret it, because I get in the editing room and say, “Oh my gosh, this is slow. What happened?” But there is a beautiful traveling at the end, when they find the blinking man. The scene in the nightclub inside the hotel. I loathe—I despise travelings. [Laughs.] And I despise the cult of the traveling—I think it’s really idiotic. But that was a good one.
The Dissolve: What’s your problem with traveling shots?
Stillman: They’re stupid. The genius of cinema is to be able cut one image against another and control pace. That’s what makes it so special. Travelings tend to be unintelligent. It’s a huge amount of effort and money and complication and budget for not much gain. I think very often, it can even be dull. But in this case, it did work well.
The Dissolve: Would you consider Hitchcock an influence for the way he draws mannered relationships, or even visually? Do you draw from Hitchcock at all?
Stillman: Don’t focus too much on this idea that your influences will be similar to people whose films you admire. In fact, it’s really the opposite: You like people who are doing something completely different, and it’s very relaxing to you because they’re dealing with all kinds of problems you don’t have to deal with. [Laughs.] But I mean, if you put a gun to my head and asked, “Are there any similarities or shared interests?” I would never put myself in any category with Hitchcock or John Ford, who are the two masters I most admire, but he does care a lot about the social background and the social foreground, and he does a beautiful job at it, so I really admire that. Also, he plays with guilt and feeling guilty and being absolved from guilt, and I care about that too. I deal with that in my life, and I deal with it, I hope somewhat, in the films.
But I just like the film, and I like Hitchcock. The films I adore generally are the 1930s films, from the first seven years of talking pictures. The pre-war films, where the formulas hadn’t calcified, and things were really interesting and good. Both Ford and Hitchcock kept making great films when other, lesser talents stopped. The others were pushed around by the business going in bad directions, but Hitchcock and Ford kept their units going. Hitchcock kind of seems to have done it all himself, while Ford had a wonderful partner with a lot of films, Merian Cooper, who is someone in the film business that I vastly admire. He was really a hero in life. He fought in World War I, and went and fought with Poland in 1920. Merian Cooper is a really interesting guy, and when he and Ford had that collaboration, they made such great films.
The Ford film I love is Wagon Master, which is sort of their low-budget indie with no big stars, and it’s so beautiful. One of the good things about Young And Innocent is that although they list the lead actress in the front titles as if she’s very big, to me, the stars are unknowns. They’re people I’m not familiar with, and I love that, when there’s a great actor doing a wonderful job and I don’t really know them.
The Dissolve: Is Wagon Master the one in Utah?
Stillman: I guess it probably is. It’s about the Mormons.
The Dissolve: That’s a good one.
Stillman: I adore Wagon Master. It got mentioned on IMDB or something that it was one of my favorite films, and because of that, I got invited to the John Ford symposium in Dublin, and had a really good time. I met his grandson, and John Wayne’s daughter, and his biographers.
The Dissolve: The Cosmopolitans is set in Paris, and you made Barcelona in Barcelona. Have you spent a lot of time in England as well?
Stillman: I have. England was sort of my business base when I was living in Europe. But I struck out there. I failed in London. I was thinking of using the title of George Orwell’s book Down And Out In Paris And London to do my Nanni Moretti memoir film of my Paris years. Down And Out In London And Paris.
The Dissolve: Is that a project you think will actually happen someday?
Stillman: It’s something I might do under a different rubric. I want to use all my failures somehow. Put them to good use.
The Dissolve: Do you feel at this point in your filmmaking career that your style is set, or when you watch something like Young And Innocent, can you still pick up something you can use?
Stillman: I definitely pick up things, because my film school was shooting with John Thomas. John Thomas was the cinematographer for my first three films, and he would walk me through everything. I knew nothing when I started shooting Metropolitan. We had no means, we had no dolly, we had no wheels, so we just put a tripod on a Western dolly, which is a piece of plywood on rubber wheels, and we’d find a flat stretch of sidewalk and pull the Western dolly with the tripod and the little Super 16 camera on it. That was our traveling in Metropolitan. The subsequent films, I had more apparatus. In fact, in Damsels, we had some fun stuff for the end of it. We had the crane to do the concluding scenes in Damsels, mainly for the Gershwin production number “Things Are Looking Up.” That was really fun. I got really lucky with the weather and the sound and everything in Damsels.
The Dissolve: Paris looks so beautiful in The Cosmopolitans. How long did you have to wait for just the right moments, when the weather was perfect and the sky glowed just so?
Stillman: I think you’re praising the cinematographer and the set designer, really. I think what you’re saying goes really to them—and also the colorists. We had big weather problems, as you always do in Paris. It had been absolutely beautiful weather the first couple of days of April—just sensational, which is very, very rare. I think Paris has a better press agent than London, because you always hear about the bad London weather, but the Paris weather is usually just as bad. So on the day we shot, it turned incredibly cool, and we were shooting this outdoor café scene, and it was absolutely freezing. The actors were really suffering. And then the light kept changing. It would look like November or December, and then suddenly we’d get all this sunlight. It was a big problem for the cinematographer. And then we had to come back and do some reshoots, and we got super-sunny weather. So in the café, one side of the table was shot in one place one week, and the other side of the table was shot in another place another week, as often happens in cinema. And if you’re doing a lot of that kind of stuff, I guess a long traveling would be fine, because at least you’d get the weather you got during the long traveling.
We do have one nice traveling in The Cosmopolitans, which is the last scene, the penultimate scene, when they come out of the party and walk down the street. I like a lot of dialogue, and I like to see the characters facing in the same direction, and I like some movement when I can get it, so I do like people walking in the street and relating in the street, and that kind of stuff. So in this case, the penultimate scene when they’re walking on the Paris street at night, it’s Adam Brody, Carrie MacLemore, and the Italian actor Adriano Giannini. It’s after they’ve been booted from the party, they’re walking down the street. I mean, I love that kind of shot when it works. You have to get it right in one shot, and that was really fun. It was the oldest technology matched with the newest technology: a Steadicam operator in a rickshaw.
The Dissolve: When you shot The Cosmopolitans in Paris, were you looking to capture Paris, or your version of Paris?
Stillman: The latter. My Paris, that’s The Cosmopolitans’ Paris. We’re not trying to do some big thing on every aspect of Paris. Paris is not our brief, our brief is The Cosmopolitans. It’s this particular sort of expat subgroup, and how they relate to French people who they’re involved with.
The Dissolve: Young and Innocent is set in England, where you’ve been. When you watch it, are you seeing evocations of an England you recognize, or just Hitchcock’s version?
Stillman: I don’t really think of films in those terms, like as it relates to things I’ve seen. I often think, “Oh, are people going to get a big charge out of seeing something they’re familiar with?” And then I think, “I really don’t get a big charge out of seeing things that I sort of know.” It’s irrelevant to what should be going on when you watch a film.
But you know, now that you mention it, it’s true I had kind of a Young And Innocent drive. My first girlfriend after college was half-British, and we went on a trip, and after London, we went through the countryside of Cotswolds, and it was very similar to where they drive in the movie. Certain parts of our countries don’t change greatly over the decades, so the drive through the Cotswolds in the 1970s was probably like the drive through the Cotswolds in the 1930s. There, I would say I lived the movie. And then re-lived it, when I watched it again.