The most famous avenue in the world was transformed into a mini Cannes for one week. The Champs-Elysées Franco-American Film Festival in Paris screened both indie and major studio films from both sides of the Atlantic in theaters up and down the Champs-Elysées. But it was worth braving the waves of tourists, who were more copious than ever, for the program’s third edition.
One of the highlights this year was the Whit Stillman retrospective. Sure, the indie filmmaker has only made four movies in about 24 years: Metropolitan, nominated for an Oscar in 1990 for Best Original Screenplay; Barcelona (1994); The Last Days of Disco (1998); and Damsels in Distress (2011). But with his keen eye and ability to create poignant characters, Stillman is often compared to Eric Rohmer and Woody Allen. Hit the jump for more on the Stillman retrospective from the Champs-Elysées Film Festival.
His stories are studies of social behavior of a group of young upper-class Manhattanites during the debutante season (Metropolitan), yuppies and relationships (The Last Days of Disco) and college students who set out to fix their world, friends and themselves (Damsels in Distress). As producer, writer and director, Stillman deciphers the behaviors and the idiosyncrasies of his protagonists, much like John Hughes with The Breakfast Club. “I think it’s the struggle of the screenwriter to find material that resonates with the screenwriter and maybe with the public. And it’s finding the characters who then come alive and tell a story,” he says.
On the first eve of his retrospective, Stillman is in the audience. After the screening of The Last Days of Disco, followed by a restored version of Metropolitan, he asks the audience, “Did anyone see both films tonight?” Many hands are raised. “I have some money for you,” he jokes. Perhaps he is surprised he has a cult following with such a small, yet inspiring, filmography. In any case, he is as charming and contradictory as his characters. The first film he ever saw was Bambi, the last movie which made him cry was Gold Diggers of 1935, directed by Busby Berkeley, and he regrets he never got the chance to direct Cary Grant in a film. While he considers Jean Cocteau as the ultimate artist, he is also a John Ford fan.
“I don’t have a lot of John Ford in Metropolitan, but in the movie I made next, Barcelona, we watched Ford’s Wagon Music because we wanted to make something like American folklore.”
French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier, who is president of the festival alongside Jacqueline Bisset and an expert on Ford, is in the audience.
“Mr. Tavernier is here with us tonight because I just arrived from a John Ford symposium in Dublin and there they spoke a lot about the Mr. Tavernier’s interviews with John Ford,” explains Whitman. “It’s one of the few remaining ties with the Golden Age of cinema. I think it would be interesting if Mr. Tavernier came down here to discuss John Ford!” The French filmmaker laughs and remains in his seat, leaving the spotlight on Stillman.
Stillman addresses the audience in French for the rest of the evening. “I hope there aren’t any Anglophones,” he says. At first he seems to struggle with the language. “I have a girlfriend who’s so jealous that she forbid me from continuing to take French classes at the Alliance Française. She thinks there are too many cute girls there! So that’s why I don’t speak French so well. So it’s her fault!” Yet the expat director speaks fluently.
Metropolitan was made almost 25 years ago and continues to resonate in light of the current recession. “It’s interesting because there was an economic crisis then,” Whitman says, but he’s quick to add, “Whether it’s contemporary or not does not interest me because I think we continue the same path in each decade. What’s important are the real characters.”
When he was 16, Stillman wanted to become F. Scott Fitzgerald, but realized he couldn’t spend his life typing away at a desk. So he took up filmmaking after graduating from Harvard, but has not given up on adapting Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise. His films are steeped in literary references and rich characters full of substance, complex, interesting and interested that party the whole night and discuss Fourier’s socialism.
To find the actors, Whitman placed an ad in Backstage magazine. He also went to all the private school to hold auditions. “Half the schools didn’t want us to hold auditions. Cynthia the Slut (played by Isabel Gillies – Collider) was cast from one of these school auditions. She went on to star in Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and is a great writer.” But the choice of a redhead actor (Edward Clements) for the lead role of Tom Townsend surprised many people. “Someone important in the film world told me, ‘It’s so brave to cast a redhead as the main protagonist. It breaks all the rules!’ I didn’t know there were rules about hair color.” Redheads now dominate the big screen. “We launched the trend! And Isabelle Huppert. But I’ll never cast a redhead again,” Stillman jokes… I think.
Audrey Rouget, portrayed by Carolyn Farina, is “the secret of this film. She also plays a small part in Damsels in Distress.” And the character appears briefly dancing the night away in The Last Days of Disco. Dance is another omnipresent element in Whitman’s movies. In The Last Days of Disco, which takes places sometime during the early 80s, the discotheque could well be the Limelight or Studio 54. It is just one of the many autobiographical touches in the film. In Metropolitan, there’s the box of toys on the sidewalk and Tom’s absent father. “There was a scene that didn’t make the final cut where Tom was talking on the phone with his dad and crying. In the cutting room, the editor told me, ‘Let’s cut this and send it to your dad!'”
Whitman even sold his apartment to finance his first movie. “I don’t have an apartment but I have movies.” And that sort of explains why we never see the protagonists’ parents.
“The thing about parents and older people is that they want to go to bed at eleven o’clock, midnight, because most of the movie is taking place after midnight. And also because we didn’t have a big budget or the right to hire unionized actors, it was difficult for us to find actors older than the protagonists. The woman who plays Audrey’s mom at the beginning of the film is Cynthia’s real mother. She made the mistake of visiting her daughter on the set! And the woman who plays Tom’s mom – he was 25, she was 31. It was a small-budget film.” And what a film. It became a unique voice of American indie cinema.
Whit Stillman definitely needs to make more films, but the man likes to take his time working on other projects. “I sound like a very lazy person! I have been doing other things. I think what happened is that I was writing screenplays and unfortunately, when we write screenplays, sometimes we get paid but we often don’t get the films made. So that’s my excuse.”
He has been busy working in the French capital, where he lives. “And recently, I had the chance to shoot the first chapter of a television series in Paris in April and the title is The Cosmopolitans. It will premiere through Amazon in the United States and in England at the end of August. One of the joys in doing this film is that for the first time I had an actor who came up with much funnier lines than anything I came up with is Francis Leplay.” The French actor stars alongside Chloe Sevigny, Adam Brody, Dree Hemingway and popular French actress Alice Taglioni in what is described as “a look at the lives and loves of a group of young expatriates living in Paris.”
“We began to shoot this series in Paris and it’s interesting for me because, for the first time since Metropolitan, I can work with material I’m familiar with, groups of people, characters, parties, all that. I think for a writer, real-life material helps a lot.”
As an expat myself, I cannot wait to meet these Cosmopolitans.
He also plans to shoot a new film, an adaptation of one of his favorite authors, featured prominently in Metropolitan. “I’ve often thought of doing a Jane Austen film and a couple of times had the chance to maybe be considered for and I passed it up because I thought I should concentrate on original stories. And I thought these Jane Austen stories could be done by non-writer directs. Like a good director could do a great job on a Jane Austen film. In fact, only one time did a director do a great job on a Jane Austen film in my opinion, which is Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility. So I finally found some material that’s not a completed Jane Austen novel. It’s something that’s been published under the title Lady Susan. So I’ve worked on this for years and years and felt that I could create the popular existence of this work of hers, because it is published, it is quite funny to read but no one really reads it because it’s in the old epistolary 18th century style. And it really took a lot of time to dramatize it, to make it into something that is more theatrical, more filmable. So we hope to shoot that in Dublin in September and October with Sienna Miller and Chloe Sevigny and some other really great actors.”