The collegiate days are often fondly remembered by folks as a golden age; in the course of those four—or six, or eight—years, young minds are molded even as brain cells are destroyed. (This is assuming that said minds only partially used party as a verb during this period, and thus can remember much of their tenure in those academic institutions at all.) Like many other students, Whit Stillman (Harvard class of ’73) used the time to broaden his horizons. The future indie filmmaker was a member of the Fly Club—one of those exclusive “finals” that caused such Ivy League envy in The Social Network—and wrote for the university paper, The Harvard Crimson. There was one formative experience in particular, however, that stuck with the 60-year-old writer-director.
“I wrote something for the Hasty Pudding Theatricals,” says Stillman, recalling his school days over the phone. “I’d been reading about F. Scott Fitzgerald and how he’d worked on Triangle shows [Princeton’s musical-comedy revues], so I submitted a script. It was probably the best writing experience I’d had until I wrote the screenplay for Metropolitan (1990), and even though the Hasty’s president very reluctantly substituted his own script for mine at the last minute, I got a great reaction from the other members.” He sounds wistful for a second. “That feedback was an early sign of encouragement, and even after I’d started making films, the idea of telling a story in a university setting always appealed to me. There’s the potential to throw a lot of different things together under one roof.”
That’s as good a description as any for Damsels in Distress, Stillman’s higher-learning comedy that’s composed of numerous disparate elements: a skewed coming-of-age story involving new student Lily (Analeigh Tipton) and a go-getter gang, led by Violet (Greenberg’s Greta Gerwig), who take her under its wing; a droll satire blessed with the indie auteur’s keen anthropological eye and deadpan absurdity (“Did you stay at the Motel 6?” “No, the Motel 4, it’s much cheaper.”); a throwback to ’30s cinema, complete with Art Deco credits and an MGM-style musical number; and a broad comedy featuring frat lunkheads and the greatest Romans-versus-Vandals fight this side of Gibbon. “A festival director described it as ‘Jane Austen meets Animal House,’ ” says Stillman. “I think that sums it up pretty nicely.”
It’s also the first movie the filmmaker has made since 1998’s The Last Days of Disco. The 13-year gap has seen the brand of chatty, funny character studies he perfected in Metropolitan and Barcelona (1994) become a staple of indie cinema, as well as prompting many hand-wringing “Where’s Whit?” articles from his devoted fans. In the interim, Stillman wrote a novelization of Disco; joined the Writers Guild of America; and watched a number of projects he’d tried to get off the ground, from an adaptation of Anchee Min’s memoir, Red Azalea, to a period piece about Jamaican music called Dancing Mood, slowly wither and die on the vine. (He mentions that he eventually plans on taking another crack at Mood, just “not immediately.”) An idea about young women trying to establish their own culture on a coed but largely male-centric campus had been buzzing around his head for a while, courtesy of stories he’d hear from friends and his own college-age daughters; once he told Castle Rock Entertainment, who’d backed Barcelona and Disco, that he could make that movie for pennies, Damsels was suddenly a go.
“I had come to the correct conclusions about the state of the industry and what kind of budget I could work with,” says Stillman, without a trace of bitterness in his voice. “But it’s funny, because there’s this very traditional, almost corny view of old-fashioned college life that’s making a comeback right now. So in a way, the college experience of today seems to be mirroring the Harvard experience I had in the ’70s. It was a serendipitous moment to make this movie now, as it fits the retro-utopian style I gravitate towards. That’s the one thing all of my movies have in common: There’s a nostalgic, utopian vibe to them. ‘Hey, the Metropolitan guy sure had a great deb season…that’s an amazing disco you’ve got there, Chloë Sevigny!’ Damsels fits that, because between the ages of 16 and 22, there’s a period of self–re-creation. I think the happiest people are the ones who figure things out for themselves and create their own persona. You make your own path and follow it at your own pace. It doesn’t get more utopian than that.”
Follow David Fear on Twitter: @davidlfear