Whit Stillman Details His Self-Imposed Exile

The director spent many years "starting from scratch" in Paris

Illustration of Whit Stillman by Paul Kisselev

Illustration of Whit Stillman by Paul Kisselev

This week, Whit Stillman celebrates the 25th anniversary of his urbane comedy Metropolitan with the re-release of that literary anthem to Manhattan’s UHB (Urban Haute Bourgeoisie). After a string of hits in the 1990s, he spent a dry decade in Paris before he returned to cinema in 2011 with Damsels in Distress. Compared to a younger Woody Allen for his gift with dialogue, Mr. Stillman has just completed Love and Friendship, an adaptation of Jane Austen’s novella Lady Susan.       

Are you still interested, 25 years after Metropolitan, in the lives of young people? It’s a natural subject matter, if you’re doing romantic films, not shoot-em-up films. Maybe for shoot-em-up films, it’s a good age group, too. It’s a quintessential crossroads period, when people are forming their identities, and going off in different directions, having their first serious loves. It doesn’t have to be definitive. It doesn’t have to end with a wedding scene. Also, if you’re working outside the star system, it’s where you can find really good actors who are not behind the wall of CAA.

Are you represented by CAA? I was during part of my period of unemployment, yes. They were my partners in unemployment.

Unemployment? Unemployment was the time between the publication of my disco novel [The Last Days of Disco: With Cocktails at Petrossian Afterwards], in 2000, until I started shooting Damsels in Distress, which was in 2010.

You were in Paris then. Can we call that exile? I was sort of self-exiled. It wasn’t entirely my choice, because I was involved with someone who wanted to live over there. Jumping from writing a screenplay to making a film didn’t happen the way it happened in the United States.  

Preston Sturges, the master of the screwball comedy, saw his career founder in Paris. He actually died at the Algonquin. That did terrify me. With nothing happening, it was getting pretty depressing that Preston Sturges ended his career there after a blaze of glory. It was sad that his young family was in Paris, and that he was separated from them when he died.  

What’s it like to be writing in English, but living in Paris? Is it more isolated, or is there a community of writers there for you? I had to start from scratch. I had a whole group of friends there, in Paris, in a similar situation. My friends in Paris are writers, or something like that, whereas my friends in New York are doing cool stuff in finance and living very different lives. In writing, it’s pretty solitary, so it doesn’t really matter who’s around.

Did you miss anything about New York? My church, and my family and friends.

What church in New York do you go to? A French church on West 16th Street, Eglise Evangelique Francaise. It’s a Protestant church. It’s mostly Haitian and Cameroonian, and it’s great.

What do you get out of writing a novel that you don’t get out of making a film? A fee. The only money that I’ll be making so far is from the novel. I feel that if you want to make films, you have to be willing to make it without a fee. You get a deferment, I guess.

What got you so interested in Jane Austen? Her observation is so exact. Her humor is so perfect. The moral perspective is there, but it’s not tedious. She’s the one who put it all together. It’s also about achieving great things through something small—not huffing and puffing.

Whit Stillman Details His Self-Imposed Exile