Interview: Greta Gerwig and Whit Stillman (2012) Damsels in Distress

Writer and director Whit Stillman is poised and interesting, dapper in a very New England and seersucker way. His relaxed demeanor is quite polished when he proclaims in no uncertain terms the reason why there was such a long pause between his current and last projects, “Failure! Failure. I was a very bad producer. But I was interested more in writing – and I think that you have to have the determination to make your film no matter what.”

Continuing his thoughts and addressing the change in the industry, he says, “It’s great from our point of view because we’ve come back to the 1980s. I think that Metropolitan came out in barely 1990. But, really, we made it in 88-89. There was a sort of bending of genres…of super low budget comedies, being made then. Then there was a boom, a bubble and we spent too much money on film. Last Days of Disco got kinda sucked into a studio setting. We spent much too much money on it. Now, we’re back to the 80s. Greta and her group, the mumblecore people and her friends, have sort of a reverse Pied Piper situation. Where the children are leading the adults.”

When discussing his latest film, Damsels in Distress, he notes, “The first three films share…a bit of a three chapter story. This one is something different…. Within the fantasy, there’s lot of personal material. I feel really close to this Violet character and I like what Greta did with it.”

Very much like Violet, Greta Gerwig is analytical and focused. Her friendly ease is heightened by the gentle jabbings of her director. She says, “I fell in love with Violet while I was reading the script. I was originally meeting Whit to play Lily. But, I just adored Violet.”

To which Stillman retorts, “At first you didn’t like Violet.”

Never missing a beat, Gerwig corrects him. “At first, I didn’t. I started reading the script and I thought: she’s got so many opinions. But, then by the end of the script, you just love her so much.”

Her enthusiasm is obvious. In her own words, she describes the film as, “A mad, fantasy, musical extravaganza!” The character of Violet is a gem. In discussing her audition Gerwig reveals, “the way I got to play Violet was very Violet-ish; when I auditioned for it I tap danced and I sang. Nobody asked me to do that but, I really wanted to do it. So, I just did it. I so admire people who are passionate and excited about things and committing themselves in a direction.” Violet would be pleased.

Casting the romantic leads was a bit of a trial. The original script included an American character, Tom. Whit recalls, “We had a lot of problems casting the romantic leads. We were scrambling to find the two romantic heroes and then it was sort of by accident that I…find Adam. That was really fortuitous. A manager sent me the audition Hugo had done in France. So, then I have the plight of this actor, a new Louis Jourdan, but a ‘Tom’ part and so I named it Xavier. While preparing for the production about the week before, the whole Zorro/Xavier thing came up and I was really happy with that because it’s such silly, silly material. (I) thought it would be good to disarm or frighten people right away.”

When channeling a character, it becomes difficult to label an exact process for success. “It’s terrifying each time out,” Gerwig says. “I don’t think I ever feel like, ‘Got it! I’m gonna do these ten steps and then, I’m gonna be great.'” Although, there are procedures that help. Gerwig says, “I like to do things like read a certain book while we’re filming. I like to listen to a lot of certain types of music.”

Here, Stillman asks, “What was that book you were buried in?”

“I was trying to read The Confessions. But, I was trying to read St. Augustine’s all the time.

Drawing parallels to her own college experience and that of her character Gerwig acknowledges, “The biggest thing I found similar is the way girls transform and can become like each other in college; especially if you’re all living together and it’s the first time you’ve been away from home. I think the crisis of identity tends to make people cling to the stronger identities of other people sometimes because you don’t know who you are.”

Stillman concurs, “Of course, being brutally dumped did give me a bit of a plot thread for the movie, which is very helpful. It dredges up other memories and experiences. I mean, I like the fact that so many of the characters are self-invented. It’s sort of an extreme version of what people do in those 4 to 5 years between 16-21 where they’re not really changing their name and changing everything but, they might as well be. I headed for university one way and came out completely different.”

Whereas tap dancing is a similarity they share, the list begins and ends there. The actress admits, the most obvious difference between Violet and Gerwig is boys. While Violet is set on a relationship, Gerwig says, “I don’t really think about that. I think about boys, but I think about myself more. That sounds horrible, but it’s true.”

Gerwig sums things up with, “I love acting in other people’s work and I don’t have any intention in stopping that. I have continued to write and will continue to write. I’d like to direct but, I’m intimidated by it. It’s a predominantly male profession. But my friend Lena Dunham is leading the way. We can just hang out with Nancy Meyers and Sophia Coppola. It’s the difference of authorship and influence. Men have the anxiety of influence. Women have the anxiety of authorship. Somebody had to start somewhere.”

Damsels in Distress opens on April 6, 2012.