Stillman had come to Cambridge in the midst of finishing the final version of Damsels in Distress. "We did a couple of tiny, tiny cuts to make it PG-13," he explained. Like what? "The A-word."
I was glad he used discretion — to hear Whit Stillman utter the word "anal" would have been too much for me to bear.
"A six year-old can watch it with no problem. It's very important — we need to play all week long, and apparently, an R rating scares away older people," Stillman said. "But maybe no longer. Perhaps in the '90s, old people were more timorous." But he's hedging his bets. "I respect their discretion."
He related the strange tale of how he came to make a film about students at an elite college, when, as late as last fall, Variety was reporting his hopes to complete Dancing Mood, a picture about Jamaican church music in the '60s.
"I really needed to set up a film that would work. I finished the script [for Damsels], and they (Sony Classics) wanted to shoot the film," he said. "I'd been through that other project, and that hadn't happened. I said we could do this film very cheaply, Metropolitan-style. They said, 'If you do that, it'll be fine. We'll write a few checks.' So that's what they did. I think I want to plan to make every project that way, to have the possibility of going ahead with everything in a very cheap way."
Stillman furrowed his brow. "It doesn't look too cheap to you, does it?"
It really doesn't. Damsels, a romantic musical comedy, takes place at the fictional Seven Oaks College and was shot on the grounds of a former retirement community for sailors that is now a city park on Staten Island. It concerns a foursome of pretty girls named after flowers who inveigle to class up their sloppy, socially challenged male counterparts. Greta Gerwig stars as uptight queen bee Violet, who welcomes gamine new girl Lily (Analeigh Tipton) into the fold while conspiring to start an international dance craze.
Although the film is ostensibly set in the present day, Violet — in an attempt to channel a cheerier era — dresses like a preppy Doris Day. "I don't believe in chronology," Stillman says. And besides, '50s clothes just look nicer. "I'm the slobbiest, messiest dresser, but if everyone else dressed [that way], then I would dress nicer, too, and I would, in theory, like it."
The film also includes Stillman's first black lead. Violet's best friend, Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), channels the other dancing film Stillman almost made.
"She's based on the women I knew from the Caribbean islands, who had a sort of British colonial hauteur. They've got very strong opinions, and there's something very funny and charming about that."
Did someone say WASP?
Although he has ideas for other films, Stillman's not certain there won't be another interminable gap between Damsels and whatever comes next.
"At one o'clock last night, I was thinking that I never want to do this again," he said. "I dreamed about going off to the mountains and just writing a book rather than dealing with people and making a film. Before, I used to dread being alone and working on a book, and now I don't dread it at all."