Thursday, July 2, 2015

Whit Stillman on "Metropolitan"

On the surface, the idea doesn’t really lend itself to a low-budget treatment: a lot of characters, a lot of short scenes, a lot of locations -- some of them high-end -- and plus it's a quasi-period piece. Did you consider any of those issues while you were writing?

WHIT STILLMAN: Well, I remembered how cheap it was for me to go to those parties. It didn't cost me a dime, it was the least expensive part of my life. And so I thought, in a way, the film could be done the same way. If people donated tuxedos and a location, it would look rich but it's not.

I knew that for a very minimal amount of money you could get permits to shoot on the streets of New York, so you had a beautiful set for free. And moving around doesn't really cost that much. In a way, it's more expensive to stay in one place, because you really need to lock down the location and not have a chance of losing it.

One of our rules was that we wouldn't shoot in any apartment where we couldn't finish the scene in that day, because we assumed we'd be kicked out of the place. The lengthier apartment sequences were actually done in townhouses faked to look like apartment buildings.

One of the eureka moments for deciding to do the project, if I can use that term, was the director of one of the Spanish films I sold was talking about the actual cash budget for the film he had done was $50,000. And at that time I knew that -- if we bought our rental apartment at an insider price, held it for a year and later resold it -- theoretically we could make $50,000 on our apartment. That number encouraged me, because I knew I could write a script for that money. To finish it, I'd need other people's money, but I could start it with my own.

What was your writing process like on Metropolitan?

WHIT STILLMAN: I actually dreaded the thought of writing alone. I had written short stories and gotten some good reaction; I'd been commissioned by Harpers to write a story and people like them. Tom Wolfe was quoted as liking one of the stories. But I hated the solitary writing process.

So I actually started writing Metropolitan with a college friend -- not exactly a college friend, a fellow who hung around college without actually going there. We sat around, talking about ideas, for about three hours and I realized that wasn't going to work. And so I went and wrote the script.

It was good because I had this interesting job that was sort of challenging, representing artists, and I liked the vicarious work of being an agent for people whose work I liked. It was a social job, where you had lunch with people and saw a lot of people and it was a good day job while I was writing the script. It meant that I could take two weeks without writing anything and then I'd get in an intense mode, then I'd have vacation where I'd expect to write all the time but instead I'd get excited about another topic and write a stupid article for a newspaper. It allowed time to pass and let me reconsider what I was doing.

At a certain point I decided that the Tom Townsend character really wasn't sympathetic, because he was in love with the girl he shouldn't have been in love with and he ignored the girl he should have liked, and that really the sympathetic character was the Audrey Rouget character and the film should be about her. I tried to make the film about her, but I realized that too much is involved in the Tom Townsend character, I'd done too much of that and was too attached to it. So I gave up making it explicitly Audrey's film, but a lot of what remains having tried to make it Audrey's film is still in the movie.

And then I thought the important thing in film is how you end it. So the challenging thing was where was all of this going to go? And so I started writing the end of the movie. I had a process where I had the first three-fifths of the movie and the last fifth of the movie and I had to attach them at some point. For me, it was like the transcontinental railway and finding where would the golden spike be to attach these two ends of the narrative.

Did you do any readings of the script before you finished it?

WHIT STILLMAN: There was a casting reading of it -- after we had done most of the casting we had a read-through.

It was odd, because I had had the Charlie character have something of a stutter in the script. And then I thought, "This is too hard. We've got so many hard things to do, let's not have another hard thing with a guy stuttering through all this dialogue." And I thought it might sound fake, someone acting a stutter.

And then, in the read through, Taylor stuttered a couple of times, and there was one moment when it was a little bit too much. And I stopped the reading and said, "Actually, the idea of this character is he should stutter, so if you can do that, it's great." Taylor completely dominates his stammer, he can do a flawless performance. But he did have a stammer in childhood, and he brought it out for that part. I found it fantastic; somehow a stammer is like when an actor eats. Eating and food and business of that kind in a film is usually wonderful, people are relaxed. And the stammer was kind of the same, it made things really real and unrehearsed.

Did you use any tools to get yourself up to speed as a screenwriter?

WHIT STILLMAN: It was terribly helpful that I found a version of The Big Chill screenplay, in screenplay format. One publisher had the wise idea of issuing a screenplay-size edition of various screenplays, including The Big Chill. I used that to crib format from, to try to get close to film format. And it was actually a good script to have around, because it's an ensemble piece. And the She's Gotta Have It production book that Spike Lee did was very helpful.

And there's a book called The Craft of the Screenwriter by John Brady which has interviews with people like Ernest Lehman and Paul Shrader. I found that a very helpful book. I thought it was terrific.

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