It’s been fourteen years since writer-director Whit Stillman’s last film, “The Last Days of Disco” (which followed “Metropolitan” in 1990 and “Barcelona” in 1994). In a recent Dallas interview, he blamed the long hiatus on “producorial incompetence on my part,” and said of his new picture “Damsels in Distress”—about a group of college coeds who fall in and out of romances while trying to reform the male students—“This was one of the fastest scripts I’ve worked on, actually. I couldn’t start it until after the Writers Guild strike ended in 2008, and I had to work on other things, so it was off-and-on. But we had a finished script by the end of 2009. These characters kind of wrote themselves. When Thor [a frat boy so dense he has trouble memorizing the primary colors] started talking about education, it was hard to stop him.”
“A lot of people at Harvard were notably dim,” Stillman added with a laugh of his own alma mater. “I was probably one of them. That’s something I find really touching—people who want to be very studious and scholarly but don’t have the equipment.”
While in Cambridge, Stillman worked on the student newspaper, but not at the famous Lampoon. “One of the many helpful reprimands I had from my father, who’d been on the Lampoon on the business side,” he recalled. “I’d suffered through the Crimson competition to get on that, and I was going to compete to get on the Lampoon. I went to the first meeting, and my father heard about it and came down hard and said, ‘You shouldn’t waste your time with those reprobates. You’re with the Crimson, stick with that.’ But actually it turned out that at that period the expressway from the Harvard Lampoon into television comedy was formed. I missed out on all that. A young friend from Harvard, he’s the head writer on ’30 Rock.’”
Asked how the script took shape, Stillman explained, “The germ of the story was actual girls who had done this sort of thing at various universities. Mine I went back to visit, and there are stories of groups of girls who had put on very strong French perfume and were known by this. One of the things about low-budget filmmaking is that you cut down the number of girls. There were about eight of them, so I said, okay, four for our low budget.
“I had been taking notes on it for eight or ten years,” Stillman said. “But I find that those notes, while reassuring, aren’t that helpful. The initial stab I took at it [included] the idea of four girls with floral names and their idea of proselytizing for good scent and cleanliness and the Roman fraternity system. Harvard actually has a Roman letter fraternity system. They gave up their Greek charter at the end of the nineteenth century.”
He added, “It’s a very strange thing. I find that when I haven’t slept properly I get better jokes. But it’s wearying on the body and soul to always be stressed and sleepless, trying to write. I had a day job on ‘Metropolitan,’ so I was writing a lot of that at 1am, sort of drifting off to sleep and dreaming and trying to write. After that I started writing in the morning.”
Stillman shot “Damsels in Distress” on the New York-New Jersey border. “It’s on the coast of Staten Island, not far from where the ferry lands from Manhattan,” he explained. “Actually, it’s very close to New Jersey. Since we shot there, it’s become a very popular location. One of the strange things about our shoot was that it’s right on a ship’s channel. So there’s no real quadrangle, as at SMU [Southern Methodist University in Dallas]—it’s sort of a half-quadrangle. And we pretend it’s a quadrangle. And there are weird sound problems, because the ships are making the strangest sounds you can imagine. We couldn’t quite figure out what it was, all this humming. The sound editor had a lot of problems—but [otherwise] it’s a wonderful location.”
Stillman was happy not just with the location but with the cast and crew. “It really is exactly the film we intended to make,” he said. “But it took us a while to get there. For example, when we showed it in Venice and Toronto, we hadn’t really finished the sound mix and the music choices. We finally in the last four weeks got the version we’re happier with.
“The director of the festival in Dublin…said the film was Jane Austen meets ‘Animal House,’” Stillman added. I loved ‘Animal House’ when I saw it…in Bloomington. It’s a classic, college-fraternity thing.” Others have compared the picture to “Heathers” and “Rushmore,” to which he said, “I don’t see the film much as ‘Heathers,’ but I do see it as ‘Rushmore,’ like a girl ‘Rushmore.’ And a movie I found inspiring was ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.’”
Stillman was especially proud of the movie’s end, which showcases the apparently mad dream of the lead character to create a new dance craze. “We thought of licensing more music for the film,” he said. “But I sort of like the idea that we were able to come up with our own dance hit—a brand new dance that’s quite fun, and we run instructions at the end of the movie.
“If you can count to eight, you can do the Sambola!” he added, echoing the last line of “Damsels in Distress.”