Whit Stillman: If racism is not socially acceptable, why is class prejudice?

Stillman on "The Cosmopolitans," bigotry and why he thinks his critics have a chip on their shoulder

Published September 15, 2014 2:55PM (EDT)

Whit Stillman    (Sony Pictures Classics)
Whit Stillman (Sony Pictures Classics)

Whit Stillman is back with another show about young people enjoying their leisure time -- but whatever you do, don't call them "aimless."

The director of classics including "The Last Days of Disco" and "Metropolitan" was most recently on movie screens with 2012's "Damsels in Distress," and is now available for streaming with Amazon's "The Cosmopolitans." The pilot episode, which features Adam Brody and Chloe Sevigny as part of a cast of young expatriates enjoying life in Paris, is available for free on Amazon now; if it's picked up by the website, future episodes will be available to Amazon Prime subscribers.

Stillman spoke candidly about the process of writing and why a TV show holds more appeal than, say, writing a novel, his early aspiration. He also described his annoyance at critics who deride his work as being all about about rich folk. "They're not embarrassed about being prejudiced if they're being prejudiced upward," Stillman said. "You should be embarrassed if you're bigoted, no matter which way the bigotry runs."

Are you nervous about whether the show will get picked up?

I'd love it to go ahead; it'd be a very fun thing to do, creatively interesting, et cetera. On the other hand, I really like the little pilot we did, and we were able to put tons of time and attention into it. I'm happy to have the pilot, and the executives I talked to seemed pretty keen on it.

How worried were you about the difficulty of committing yourself to multiple episodes?

That was a big concern of mine. I thought it'd be 10 episodes, though I didn't know whether it'd be this [pilot] plus nine or an additional 10. Now it seems they're thinking about six episodes. That seems doable and controllable. I wouldn't have to have a writers' room.

You don't want that?

I was thinking, I almost feel more comfortable having director friends come in and do co-directing-- I'd feel more comfortable sharing directing duties than writing duties, though a lot of people at shows have co-writers but might want to put it through their word processors first.

Are you surprised that you've been able to develop a younger generation of fans? Your work seems fairly rooted in specific time and place, and that means your older projects could be harder for young people to understand.

It's almost the reverse, the younger crowd is more receptive. There's more overlap with the younger crowd than with people my age. I don't know -- it's an accident or whatever. I'm closer to the indie filmmakers now than I was when I was making films in the early '90s.

What younger indie filmmakers do you admire?

There are a lot of them, but I don't want to get into names because I might leave someone out. I like indie comedy now. Some critic complained about how many small films are released in New York ... it annoyed me. Those small films that are lucky to get two weeks are often my favorite films of the year.

You're criticized, at times, for depicting a world made up of the bourgeoise, the ...



I hate that aimless word. Give me a break! We're talking about ["The Cosmopolitans" pilot, which depicts] Saturday afternoon and Saturday evening of one day! I don't know how aimful the American world is from 4 p.m. Saturday to 2 a.m. that night. I guess there's some aimlessness. I think it's an accident of this pilot. We made the party look more expensive and glamorous than it had to. Because when you find a location last-minute, the only location you can get last-minute that's comfortable is a wedding party location that is a semi-chateau in the city. It was much grander than it should have been and everyone was dressed too fancily. It all became very "Metropolitan"-esque, and it need not have been. It was fun to see. It was escapism. It was an accident of the shoot, the 25 minutes of story we told.

I think these people are nasty people to immediately assume someone is aimless. It's a nasty perspective in the world. You glimpse these characters when they're relaxing from whatever they do. Why would that be aimless? If you see people at happy hour in New York, they're aimless people. They're having drinks. But they're having drinks because they worked all week. I don't know why people congratulate themselves for deprecating other people. Some people who would end up in Paris would have been bought out of some job and they finished some big thing, or they got a big book contract. It's not aimlessness. They're just not tied to a workaday world which they were before and they will be afterward. We're talking about a 10-hour-period in p.m. hours.

Sure, but it's within a context that seems fairly luxurious.

It's presented as a rich place, but there's no information about people's economic status. It's just extrapolated from "Metropolitan," where people weren't rich at all! They went to a party and rented a tuxedo secondhand. There's this jumping to conclusions that just isn't true! I find it frustrating that people are looking for a club to hit people with. Why would they think that the Adam Brody character is rich? He doesn't do or say anything that's rich. He's not based on someone rich. I know who these characters are based on, I know their economic circumstances, and none of them are rich. There's publicity around "Metropolitan," and they're wearing jackets, so people ... I don't want to get in an argument, but it's kind of ridiculous.

Have you been dealing with this criticism throughout your career?

Of course, but look at the characters. "Barcelona" is a naval officer and a businessman -- the businessman could make money. The naval officer is eating regularly, he has a nice office. The people in "[The Last Days of] Disco," yes! Those two girls are supposed to be helped by their parents for rent, but they work in a publishing house. We get to "Damsels [in Distress]" where a scholarship girl is the protagonist. I don't know! It's a problem, of course, because I think racism is not acceptable, but having class prejudice, people can pat themselves on the back for. It's reverse class prejudice. Millions of people have been killed for being bourgeois. Should there be consciousness about that? How much of the hatred of anti-Semitism was a class thing, because the Jews of Germany were successful economically? Categorizing people economically and hating them because you think they're this way is a prejudice.

Have you considered doing something radically different?

One of the things that surprised me is when people say he's just doing this same thing again, blah blah. I was based in Europe and tried to do things in London. People said, "Why is he doing black characters in the '60s or the Cultural Revolution in China when he's a white preppie from New York? What does he know?" It's a challenge for any writer to write beyond what he knows. You get material, adapt it, and do the best you can with it. What made the final decision in sort of those different projects not going ahead was the idea that I could only do what I did before. A lot of people, in any kind of work, establish themselves doing one thing -- and they'll be criticized for doing the same thing, as they haven't shown they can do anything else. I would love to have done those other projects and I hope to do most of them. This is something that's logical for me to write and for Amazon to buy.

Do you feel trapped by your reputation as a documenter of preppiness?

No! Not at all! You do what you can do and need to get backing for doing it, and so you have to put together a plausible reason for people to back you. No, the odds are stacked against anyone going ahead with a project unless they can make it so manageable in scope you can go ahead with small sources.

Do you know where your characters will be going in future episodes?

I sort of do, but I can't really talk about it. I owe Amazon that document of stuff they'll be doing. I sort of know the next episode. I wrote it as an hour pilot and the decision was made to make it 25 minutes of story.

What current shows do you watch?

Whenever I'm doing something, I try not to watch whatever's happening in that area. I try to have my sources elsewhere. When I'm writing fiction, I read nonfiction or biographies. Now I'm watching very old movies or old foreign films. I don't immerse myself in whatever's going on in whatever area I'm working in.

Do you think this show will be meaningfully different from what's on TV because you're unplugging from contemporary stuff?

I hope it will be. I would love it to seem like its own thing and not just going in one pat direction. There have been things I've adored. My initial reason for getting into audiovisual work is what I consider the golden age of comedy on TV, the period of "Sanford and Son," "Mary Tyler Moore," "The Bob Newhart Show." I wouldn't have the stamina or will to be a novelist, which I wanted to be, and wasn't cut out for that long-distance running. The world of story comedy would have been great. But for me as a writer, the way of taking stories to the screen turned out to be the John Sayles/Jim Jarmusch/Spike Lee way. The industry was kind of hard to crack but the world of indie film was an inspiration. My first experience of film was selling films from Spain. The directors I was working for were making tiny comedies that were really good and really inspiring.

What about making movies and television is different from writing novels, which you found like a "marathon"?

What I mean is the isolation. Putting shows together is ferociously social, and friends of mine who've been screenwriters who are now getting into writers' rooms on TV shows love it. It does sort of appeal to me on some level.

What writers' rooms would you have liked to be part of?

I think the shows that I would've been comfortable in were the generation of "Seinfeld," "Friends" and "Everybody Loves Raymond." Or back to "Newhart" and "Sanford and Son." I really admire "Desperate Housewives," I thought that was a very good show, very interesting in how it handled elements of comedy and narration.

What makes working on TV different from working on a film? Do you feel as though you were squeezed out of the film world?

The thing is, now we're in the context of being discussed as TV. There's no real reason for that. I've been dealing in long pieces of sausage and this is just the first piece of a sausage. There's no intrinsic difference between the first 26 minutes of "The Cosmopolitans" and the first 26 minutes of an independent film I'd make. When you're talking about TV, you're talking about how it's watched. Films can be watched on the Internet now. It's packaging rather than the content. Our aspiration would be to do something that feels like a continuing film that comes out in installments. The question is, is this more like "Last Days" or "Damsels in Distress." What is the content? It is going back more to the style of the first three films than it is like "Damsels."

Woody Allen did jokes and went beyond the boundaries of reality. In the first three films, that was never done and in "Damsels," we did get beyond reality. I was pleased with that. I was very happy with it. I know there's a lot of pushback. I see it as not so related to how it's being received as to what box you're putting it in.

But movies and TV are different because movies are shot all in one piece while TV shows are shot episode-by-episode.

I'll tell you something, then. If we're doing six episodes of 25 minutes each, it's very possible we'll do it all together and edit it all together. The first discussion was to do two pieces but we could also do a 30-day shoot and do the whole thing at once.

Do you worry about losing people between the pilot filming and the potential future episodes?

It's a concern, but the key people are under contract and if it's only six episodes, we can work around a lot of things.

I'm sorry we got on a tangent earlier. But there's just actually not direct economic information about any characters other than Fred.

There are some people who just don't get what it is. Comedy is its own reward. I want to make it more ... I hate buzzwords or jargon, and "relatable" has gotten to be jargon. For those people who can accept anything, I'd like to make it more relatable for them without compromising the nature of the piece, without making it worse, keeping its integrity. I would like to make it relatable so that not everyone will have a chip on their shoulder.

There's too much chip-on-the-shoulder reaction. The reaction's been great, but I know some people have their nose out of joint. Some people come up to me and say they finally like one of my films and they didn't want to see it because of the sociology of the characters. They're not embarrassed about being prejudiced if they're being prejudiced upward, but they would be if they were prejudiced downward, saying, "I wouldn't want to see a movie about crippled people or this ethnic group." You should be embarrassed if you're bigoted, no matter which way the bigotry runs. Sometimes, you're looking at something and if you see it from the wrong angle, you get your nose out of joint, and later on you like it. It's happened to me.

By Daniel D'Addario

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