While “Damsels in Distress” may appear on the surface to share similarities with the likes of “Heathers” or “Mean Girls,” as has been the case with Stillman’s past films, it’s best not to approach his work with any preconceived notions. The only assurance is that it will be distinctly Stillman. As Violet Wister, Greta Gerwig leads a group of sophisticated female do-gooders at an East Coast College. Their goals are simply to elevate the lives of those around them, both in terms of their scholarly and social ambitions. In addition to Gerwig, the ensemble cast includes Adam Brody, Analeigh Tipton, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Carrie MacLamore, Zach Woods and Hugo Becker.
The Playlist recently spoke with Stillman about the origins of the project and how he feels more connected to the current generation than to his own. Here's what we learned from Whit Stillman about “Damsels In Distress.”
Whit Stillman doesn’t look back on his own college years with a great deal of fondness. “I’d been there in a very depressing time when things were grim and there was no discernible social life,” he tells The Playlist. But when he went back for a visit, he felt the environment had changed. It was here that he heard about a group of girls that piqued his interest. “People were talking about this group of dynamic girls who wore a strong French perfume and dressed up and looked nice and they revolutionized social life and made things fun and everyone was really keen on them.”
“Years later, I was looking for a subject to fulfill a contractual commitment and I had this idea and I just worked on it for six weeks or so. When people asked me what I was doing and I told them I was doing this college comedy about these girls they went, ‘Oh, those girls.’ And it was sort of a happy memory [for them]. I put it aside but I kept thinking about it and finally pitched it to my friends at Castle Rock. Then, because of the writer’s strike I couldn’t get started on it until into 2008. I turned in 30 pages so they could see if they wanted to go ahead. And I finished it around December 2010 and they wanted to go ahead with it right away but there was the problem of having the financing for this kind of film and I said I could do it really cheaply. And they said, ‘If you can do it cheaply, we can write the checks.’”
While some directors may tire of a project they’ve been working on for so many years, Stillman looks at the extra time as a chance to get everything just right. “When I was in production and editing, I wanted to submit to this festival early, I wanted to get it out early, I wanted to get it considered in the fall and all that stuff. I mean, I thought we’d be done long before Venice but we were kinda still working on it and I had to close it up to get it to Venice and Toronto. And then I was very glad that we weren’t coming out until later and I could go back and finish it. The sound mixer wasn’t available until quite recently so we had a sort of terrifying panic to get everything done at the end."
The Trick Of Making Violet Into A Likable Character
Watching the trailer or even the first third of 'Damsels' will lead many viewers to the conclusion that Violet is the antagonist and quite possible the villain of the story. But as Stillman’s story unfolds, so too does Violet’s vulnerability. “I worried a lot about making her a likable character,” says Stillman. “People have such preconceptions that the kind of very dressy people are not going to be nice and the relaxed, contemporary girl is the likable one. Analeigh Tipton is very sympathetic in the way she plays Lily. It’s a bit of a danger and I think people struggle in the first 30-45 minutes of the film to see whether they like Violet enough to support the whole movie. Someone who is a little bit smug when they come into the cinema can really follow it down a false path and never realize the degree to which Lily is the nemesis character and Violet’s the heroine. People who reference 'Heathers' and 'Mean Girls' are actually following the wrong path. We have this prejudice against well put together people. We think they’re the bad ones when it’s not necessarily that way.”
Along with Stillman’s writing, the unexpected trajectory of Violet Wister’s journey also comes from Greta Gerwig’s steadfast performance. Stillman admits that the actress struggled a bit at the outset to find Violet, but once she did she honed in on her perfectly. “You see some actresses who have a lot of experience -- like let’s say they’ve been in a TV show for instance and they’ve done well -- they get a version that works very quickly and in an audition they’ll already be up to speed with a version of the character. The thing is, I’m not sure if they can get much beyond that version. But with Greta, she was searching for Violet. I think the first two weeks, she was searching for Violet and doing different takes in scenes. And then I think she kind of honed in on the character and got it. There was always a good version in every scene she did but I think it’s better for such an important, complicated role, that if they’re not getting it, if they’re trying to find that richer character then I don’t mind. And that’s what I feel she did.”
Mixing Up The Right Ensemble
Along with Greta as Violet, the ensemble cast comes together to keep the delightfully unusual tone of the film on pace from start to finish. “Each one had a very different method and tactic. So I guess one worry would be if all these actors are from different traditions, how is it going to mesh? But somehow it just seemed to strengthen their character’s instinctiveness. Analeigh’s incredibly naturalistic. You just put her in front of a camera, she’s real. Adam’s a wonderful pro. Carrie’s a neophyte. This is her first film and she had very little dialogue to work with. I was really impressed recently watching the film the delicacy and thoroughness of her reactions to everything. Heather, her face is beautiful reacting to everything going on.”
Along with stepping into the director’s chair for the first time in over a decade, Stillman had the additional challenge of working with a cast three generations (and then some) removed from himself. But the writer/director says he found no problem connecting to the younger group. “I was a fish out of water in my own day,” Stillman tells The Playlist. “I didn’t get along with what was going on at university. So I feel much closer to the way kids are in university now than I did in my day. I still have sort of hostility to what the dominant modes were when I was in university which I feel is now reflected in a lot of the media. So I don’t necessarily have a fan base in certain aspects of the press because I feel sort of like the University conflicts are still playing themselves out. I think some people were too cool for words back then and they’re still too cool for words and feel sometimes that their coolness is a permanent feature of youth and it’s not really true. I think one of the great things about a lot of kids today is they’re not trying to be cool. They’re pretty sincere and hard working. Maybe it’s obscured by the fact that my daughters have been sort of studious and in good schools where they could really work hard. But I’ve got a very positive impression of the university environment now.”
The Timelessness Of 'Damsels'
Although it’s not a period piece per se, 'Damsels' doesn’t necessarily feel like a current film. In many ways it’s hard to put a time stamp on the film. “It was intentional,” says Stillman. “They’re trying to create a sort of retro-utopia now. But I think that it’s going on too and I’d love it if the film were influential, if people sort of got into some of this music and some of these habits; if Grace Kelly was brought back to campus.”
“Damsels In Distress” opens April 6th, 2012.