Last week, Amazon started streaming their new pilots and the highlight of this year’s crop is writer-director Whit Stillman’s The Cosmopolitans. The show (which you can watch here) follows a group of young American expatriates in Paris searching for love and friendship in the city of lights. If you’ve seen Stillman’s movies (Damsels in Distress, Metropolitan, The Last Days of Disco) you know the type of characters and situations he likes to write about, and I’m happy to say his trademark humor and wit is on full display in The Cosmopolitans. It’s definitely worth checking out, especially if you want Amazon to pick up the show. The dramedy stars Adam Brody, Chloë Sevigny, Carrie MacLemore, Dree Hemingway, Freddy Åsblom, Jordan Rountree, and Adriano Giannini.
Last week I landed an exclusive interview with Whit Stillman in Los Angeles. He talked about how the project came together at Amazon, his plans for the series if it gets picked up, what it was like to shoot in Paris and the weird restrictions you have to follow, the casting process, why he likes to work with the same actors, the status of Barcelona on Blu-ray, his upcoming Jane Austen film with Sienna Miller and Chloe Sevigny currently titled Love and Friendship, and so much more. If you’re a fan of this great filmmaker, you’ll enjoy the interview.
WHIT STILLMAN: It’s the eternal thing. Every time I ask Peter Becker at Criterion he says he’s still negotiating with Warner – Warner doesn’t like to license out, but they have agreed to negotiate with Criterion. Peter wants to do it, but it’s not at the top of his Warner list. I think he has other priority Warner titles. I’m going to try to prevail upon Warner to do the transfer, the HD transfer, so we have that for screenings and stuff, and then maybe they’ll put that out through Warner Archive, but I’d prefer that Criterion do it with the other films. The DVD is available through the WB shop, Warner Archive.
Yeah, it’s not good enough.
STILLMAN: Yeah, it’s also made to order so it’s not quite as good as the original DVD.
Yeah, as I said I would very much like a Criterion Blu-ray, or just a Blu-ray.
STILLMAN: Yeah, we got to do that. It’s overdue.
A hundred percent. Jumping into why I get to talk to you today, what is the obsession with Audrey and Aubrey? There seems to be a few names that are very similar in your work.
STILLMAN: Oh, that’s interesting. It was helpful in this because it led to some jokes. I guess there are some names that I like. I’ve noticed that I really like male names that are “Fr-” and also if someone’s called Rick, they’re always bad.
I didn’t realize that.
STILLMAN: There was someone who was really terrible on the crew and he had the same name as someone who was really nice, and we were afraid that if we ever had to complain about him the nice person would hear us complaining, so we called the person we didn’t like “Rick”. It was our code. Fred, Frank…I guess I do like Audrey and Aubrey. I did know a girl named Aubrey and I remember the parental generation always saying, “Aubrey is a boy’s name”, which is something I would never think about. Now we have women named Whitney, so all sorts of unisex stuff is going on.
STILLMAN: That is one of the interesting things in film and TV, is the genetics of a project. How did it come about? Did it come about for the right reasons? I think in this case, absolutely the right reasons. Because Roy Price was starting at Amazon studios and he wanted a template that they could give to young filmmakers to make their own films, so he optioned Metropolitan as the template the young filmmakers could use as a story template – ensemble, outsider coming into a group, the group changing the outsider, the outsider changing the group. For various reasons they couldn’t go ahead with that, but they wanted to work together because they liked Metropolitan. Then they get comedy executives Joe Lewis and Sara Babineau and they are talking to me about doing a series or something and they have the idea that they want to something in Paris and they called me. They called me last summer in July. They wanted to do something in Paris. I think they had some property they were thinking of buying or optioning and having me rewrite it and I said, “I have so many stories in Paris.” I’ve forever been pitching these stories in the states and they’d say they’d never do something abroad, I have to change all the characters to be in New York. So I was doing all these Paris stories in New York – not all of them, but I’d had one. So I described the characters to them, they liked it, they gave me the greenlight to go ahead with the script, I turned in a draft in November, they liked it and it was very quick. The only thing was that I wanted to write an hour script for the pilot, and then about the third draft I said that the first half was working but the second half needed a lot of work. They said, “We’ve got a solution to that.” [Laughs] Because they’re half-hour people, so just do it as half-hour. This is the middle of my hour script.
That’s funny. You have an obsession, if you will, with ex-patriots.
STILLMAN: It’s so funny how quickly you get an obsession – two films.
Maybe it’s not an obsession, but your resume is not so large.
STILLMAN: It’s also my life. I got involved with a Spanish woman, that was many years, and then I got involved with a French woman and that was many years. So I’m an ex-pat.
A lot of people say that they write what they know, which of the characters in the pilot do you most relate to, if any, or are they all pieces of you?
STILLMAN: My story is more Hal’s story. That’s my story. But when you’re writing characters – in Metropolitan there are four characters who I thought were sort of identification characters, identification for me and identification for the audience in a way, so you split up your identification with different characters. In this case my story would have been Hal’s story.
A little bit about casting – you’re working with a number of people that you’ve worked with before. When you were putting the project together were you already thinking these were the people you wanted to work with? Did you do an audition? Or was it pretty much you picking up the phone and calling people saying, “Hey, I’m going to do this thing in Paris, what do you think?”
STILLMAN: There are three people I’ve worked with before who are in it, I thought of them for the roles. We had a really hard time casting the Hal part, so Adam [Brody] seemed logical for Jimmy from the start, but if we found another Jimmy he could have done Hal. So we were going back and forth if Adam was going to be Hal or Jimmy, but basically he was going to be Jimmy from the start. Chloe [Sevigny] had the idea of Vicky. I thought Carrie [MacLemore] would be really good for Aubrey, but we were obliged to go through the whole audition process. She’s very pregnant and they were worried about that. We hid it. She’s about to have a baby. She was four months pregnant.
When did you shoot this?
STILLMAN: We shot it in April.
Ok, because I noticed on the Facebook page that you were putting up photos in August, but I guess that’s just to help promote the show.
STILLMAN: Yeah, I tweeted some stuff in April.
STILLMAN: Yeah, that made it very complicated because they were offering these Draconian contracts to very hot young actresses, so it was an odd situation. It was kind of a catch-22. They wouldn’t let me cast Carrie because she was so pregnant, they said it was an insurance problem or something, and they couldn’t decide whether I could cast her. There were two really good alternatives who were wonderful too, I wanted to use Carrie, but the other two were good too, but they wanted them to sign these seven year contracts or something like that. In retrospect, I should have gone and explained that that character, the sort of broken-hearted female character, doesn’t have to stick around for every year. Because in the natural story they would come over in love with someone, that doesn’t work out, the way it usually doesn’t, then they stay around, maybe they find someone else, maybe they don’t. If they don’t find someone else then they go back to the states or they find a Yank and go back to the states. So it wasn’t really necessary for story purposes to have the young ingénue actress to signed for seven years, or how much these contracts are. Also with Amazon it’s even more complicated because they have to be under option for about a year potentially, six months, so it’s a super difficult contract.
With Amazon, they have a completely different business model-
STILLMAN: But it’s changing, it’s modifying. I noticed a lot of flexibility in thinking about our show if it goes ahead. A lot more freedom of variables, of maybe not continuing the same characters all the time and stuff like that because it’s part of the ex-pat thing that people come and go. I really liked the idea of a core group of actors that are really funny who are having these adventures and experiences that stay together and then there are the different heartbroken people who are there to cry and find someone else. They’ve changed – I think their belief about binging. They’re changing it.
I’ve always found that TV shows are most interesting when you don’t ride the same four or five characters all the time, because it’s not realistic to life. People come and go. So you’re of the opinion that if the show were to go that it could change?
STILLMAN: Yeah, a lot of freedom, super lot of freedom.
STILLMAN: I thought it was going to be more, I thought they were going to want to see ten episodes – this pilot, plus nine. I’m not sure if it’s just for planning the series bible, or if they want know six episodes ahead, or if it’s only a six episode order. I think it might just be a six episode order, which would be ideal because I could potentially write the whole thing and fine tune it. So I kind of like the idea of six episodes. It’s like a very long film in chapters.
I know over the years you must have written many different things have not gone, do you think that there are some stories you’ve written that can be easily adaptable into this?
STILLMAN: Yes, and the thing I found most interesting is that I had this sort of historical adventure film, this comedy thing, and this entire cast could just walk into that project. [Laughs] So if we had a big hiatus we could just cross the street and do the other film, which I would love. It would be fun. I really, really like working with same actors. When I work with someone normally I want to work with them again, I start thinking about how I could work with them. So in my Jamaican film now – Jermain Crawford, Jimbo in Damsels, he’d be great in the Jamaican film if he could wing a Jamaican accent. I’ve got some non-Jamaican characters in that too that maybe Jermain could do. I really like working with people again and again, and I don’t know why everyone doesn’t do it. Because you already know them and you know how good they are.
I think there’s a lot of directors that have worked with – Woody Allen tends to work with a lot of the same people.
STILLMAN: I think if you really study it, it’s rare. It’s very rare. I’m surprised it’s not done more. I think it’s because the way things are cast, it’s the bankable star of the moment. Everything’s about bankability and pre-sales.
STILLMAN: Yes. There’s big changes that are happening. We sort of got hit by a tidal wave right as we were starting the shoot and we had to change things. And it really helped because I had to change the storyline and other things, write a new scene, and I was really lucky. I’ve never had that experience of writing a scene on Sunday night – I had it once in Damsels, it’s true, but it’s a new thing for me to write stuff last minute, change the story while we’re shooting. It’s fortunate that all three studio executives I worked with were all there at one point or another. We coincided with MIP TV and that executive had been there in Cannes and had come up through Paris. So there were people there that I could tell how things are going and what I wanted to change, because I think one thing about shooting in Paris is that it’s a nine hour time difference with the West Coast, either Seattle or Los Angeles, and for important matters it’s a long time to get a decision or to wait for a phone call. You sort of have to say, “We have to know by 1PM your time what you’re thinking because we’re going to sleep at 10PM.”
Has Amazon told you what the criteria is for the show going? Because I would imagine there’s a bit of prestige landing you to do a show on Amazon. Is it the viewership and what they think? Is it how many people are watching? Did they tell you what they’re looking for?
STILLMAN: I don’t think they go solely by the comments and the ratings that people put up, which is fortunate because we’ve not been very fortunate on IMDB in the past. There are a lot of people who get their nose out of joint. I don’t understand the haters of Damsels really. Damsels tracked a lot of hatred and it still gets beaten up on IMDB and places like that, so I’m a little worried about the comment process. I don’t think they go solely by that, they use their own judgment too.
It’s interesting, I have never noticed any negativity towards Damsels, but I also don’t look for it.
STILLMAN: Yeah, I see it pretty bad [laughs].
STILLMAN: I would say overall it was a dream. Nicest and best crew – as nice and good a crew as any I’ve ever worked with. I really loved the Damsels crew, it was the opposite extreme. The Damsels crew was low-budget, young people who were doing their first thing almost. A lot of it. It felt like pied piper or Rumpelstiltskin or whatever, it was me and people thirty years younger or more. But it was greet, it was really fun. This was the opposite in the sense that they had the money to pay good people. We were very lucky that some people who were very experienced and very highly regarded had films that got delayed or postponed so we had Oscar winning talents. Carlos Conti was the production designer, Jean-Paul Mugel, probably the best sound person in France, was our sound person. Both of them had films delayed right before so they could work on our project. Antoine Monod is a young cinematographer who makes everything look really beautiful. It looks like a film, I think it looks like a film. We shot in one movie theater in France and it just looked fantastic on the screen. It’s very high-def and cinematic. The crew was absolutely great and it was a dream crew. The French are really nice. It was ideal.
I do think locations were difficult in the sense that you have to give them advance notice and you have to clear it. And then everyone has sort of visual rights. So in New York, in Metropolitan, we had people coming out of the Plaza, we had no permit for the Plaza, we just had the camera on the sidewalk outside, we had a permit to be on the sidewalk. Sorry Donald Trump, sorry [laughs]. So we got a Plaza shot for free. But in France there are distant monuments that you cannot show without getting the permission of the architect. There’s crazy stuff like that. So there are iconic locations we really wanted, like the Café du Flore, and we knew it would be too difficult to shoot inside so we created a set for the Café du Flore inside, a tiny set, but then we had a really nice exterior from the café across the street, but we had to get permission form the Flore to show their façade and the problem was we cold never find the guy, we could never contact him. We finally got through to him and cleared it, so we have that, but that was the problem. There were image rights. But it was a great shoot. The food was just sensational. I think Chloe and people have talked about that. The dinner was just magnificent. The veteran members of the crew would have their bottles of Bordeaux. Something I remember from the Barcelona shoot, and I think it was a little too much, the drinking was out of control in the Barcelona crew in those days, back in the early period. Now it’s very discreet. It was like the older producer types would have their nice Bordeaux at night.
STILLMAN: The thing that is happening is the Jane Austen [film]. I’m doing that with Sienna [Miller] and Chloe in Dublin. We’re hoping that we’ll finish it before Thanksgiving. I’m going into it now. I’m going over to Europe in ten days. We’re really close.
So you definitely landed financing or is it still being figured out?
STILLMAN: I’m trying to get a little more money and I have a lot of friend types that have always said they know people that want to put money into one of my films and they’re now talking to those people. So I’ll see if those people come in or if we get a little bit more money from someone else. We have enough to shoot it, but I’d like to scale up a little bit and not scale back. We’re doing it really economically already. I think it’s an incredibly good deal for investors, because we’re going to do a really good Jane Austen period film for very little money and it will look beautiful because the locations are beautiful, the actresses are beautiful, and digital cameras are beautiful [laughs].
What is the title?
STILLMAN: The title is Love and Friendship. Sometimes we call it Jane Austen’s Love and Friendship and sometimes we just call it Love and Friendship. It’s taking a title from a very insignificant juvenile story she wrote and putting it on something significant she wrote that is usually called Lady Susan, but Lady Susan is not her title and I think it’s a bad title, so we called it Love and Friendship.
Watch The Cosmopolitans on Amazon here.