Whit Stillman takes his time. A renowned documenter of the well-educated and self-absorbed, the writer-director has made only four films in 22 years. His layered depictions of the “urban haute bourgeoisie” are, though rare, singular in cinema, and unique in their dry humor and light irony.
Of those four films, perhaps the most influential is Metropolitan, his sleeper-hit debut that premiered in 1990 to critical acclaim and an Oscar nod for best original screenplay. The film portrays a “not so long ago” debutante scene in the upper-crust apartments of New York, where 20-somethings decked in tuxedoes and drinking champagne discuss Fourier, trip on mescaline, and repeatedly use the word “tiresome.”
Stillman’s script, chiseled to a subtle perfection, is a thing of beauty. Of those screenwriters who depict the lives of neurotic, privileged youth, he’s the oft-overlooked link between Woody Allen and Lena Dunham. Metropolitan‘s entire narrative consists of conversations between outspoken, embittered students bound by a temporary camaraderie; the dialogues are crisp, biting, and imbued with a playful intelligence. We’re introduced to eight characters, know them for only 98 minutes, yet they each loom large in memory. I recently talked with Stillman to explore what went into writing such a finely tuned film.
It’s been 22 years since Metropolitan was released. It was your first film, your first script. What were your inspirations, in terms of content?
I always wanted to direct and write a movie, but I thought that I didn’t really have it in me. I tried to write fiction and humorous short stories, and some were considered successful, but it was always a huge effort for a small reward. I was always intimidated by the process. I also had a day job: I was an agent for illustrators and cartoonists.
At a certain point, the script for Metropolitan started naturally coming together; the idea was to think back to a time that had been very important for me. And I remembered this experience, after my freshman year in college [at Harvard], of coming back to New York and being invited to some of these debutante parties. A lot of stuff in the script is actually true: the escort shortage, things like that. I had a friend who was kind of from that milieu more than I was, and I think the mothers felt they could call me or him as escorts for their daughters, and they’d get both of us, a sort of 2-for-1 deal.
And once you’re invited to one, you get invited to another. It was great, because I was very discouraged and depressed in school, and didn’t know that many people in New York. It was really interesting because I fell in with this funny, friendly group of people, including girls very much like Sally and Jane, who had access to their parents’ apartments late at night. The parents would be sleeping in residential quarters, and it’d be a rather large apartment, and they would let us hang out there after the parties. And we just had a sensational time. It was one period where I wasn’t just in the dumps. So it loomed in my memory even in my mid-30s, as this kind of interesting memory of when I was around 18.
Did you set out to redeem the people involved in that debutante scene? You’ve mentioned before that that sort of educated, wealthy class is often stigmatized. Was there a thought there that, as Charlie thinks in the movie, they had been wrongly portrayed?
It was more trying to preserve something in amber. I was specifically portraying the 1969 deb season, as during that season there was very much the feeling that the debutante era was over. The whole Woodstock, post-Vietnam cultural shift was coming. Also, everyone lost their money. There were so many stories like that. I remember one family: the father was a player on Wall Street who lost all his wealth, but he’d already paid for his daughter’s deb party. So they actually went ahead with the party and then moved to Australia, broke. It really was like that. All those parties disappeared in the next several years. And yet they came back, and continue to this day.
You said you had a day job. What was the process like of writing the script during that period? It seems like you almost lived a double life.
It was an odd thing. The first two years I didn’t have a child, and then I did. So I was on this nighttime writing schedule where I would write from 10 to 2 at night. I’d have dinner and split a beer with my wife, then I’d have a cup of coffee and get back to writing. I remember trying to write at 1, 1:30 am, and just sort of falling asleep. And I think that was actually a good creative state for weird ideas. I shifted to a morning schedule once I had two kids, and I still found that if I slept badly I actually had better ideas.
You’re seen as having a sort of literary, intellectual voice. There’s a very subtle irony to it, especially in Metropolitan. Did you consciously develop that through drafts, or was it a natural way to illustrate these characters?
Well, I hate a lot of the stuff I first come up with, so it’s very much a process of rejection. The key thing to look for is when a character seems to have some sort of autonomy: where they’re making decisions without you needing to expend much effort in writing them. When you’re trying to force things in a script, it seems like it’s getting somewhere, but it isn’t real or interesting. All the bad material you’ve written becomes an albatross around your neck. So I really don’t like writing a lot of bad stuff, I prefer to just keep narrowing it down to stuff I think is solid. I hate doing an outline, or some sort of big treatment idea, or anything where I’m supposed to tell people what the story is before I’ve written it. I find that approach incredibly unhelpful. Sure, the general ideas about the ending and the characters are in my mind, but I find it better to develop those as I go along.
The characters and conversations are so finely sketched, which I think is what makes the film work so well. How many of these characters are composites of people you knew?
It is, to a certain extent, rooted in reality. In real life, particularly in this debutante scene group of people, each person has a function. One is inviting everyone to their house. Another is judging them all, having opinions on everything. One is sort of the decadent group leader, who is picking up interesting stuff and theories. In the case of Metropolitan, the people I spent time with during that summer were definitely inspirations for the characters. But at a certain point, the fictional character has to create their own dynamic and be their own person. With Metropolitan, I find it interesting that very often the people who it’s based on deny any similarity and the people who it’s not based on say “Oh, that’s me.”
You sold your apartment to finance the film.
And I still don’t have an apartment! I’m cat-sitting this week.
So you were, like your character Tom Townsend, of “limited resources.”
(Laughing.) Yes, precisely.
What, then, convinced you so strongly it was a script that needed to be made?
Well, I was pretty desperate. I was desperate to get my career going. I had entered my 30s, I had been prospecting around the sides of the film business, but I hadn’t really gotten into what I wanted to do. And the apartment was really just a rental apartment: I sold the right to buy the apartment. Legally, I bought and resold it. But I just borrowed money to buy at the insider’s price and sell at the outsider’s price. So with that $50,000, I could make an indie film. Metropolitan cost $230,000, but we only put in $210,000. The reason it worked is because we started making sales before we finished paying our bills.
It’s not a script that, on paper, would seem to communicate the tone you see on screen. Or did it? How was the script received by friends or people you showed it to?
The script generally read well. It really depended on whether the reader had screenwriter biases. There were two reactions to it that were very negative, and examples of such biases: one was a friend of mine, a wannabe screenwriter, who was very communicative about things. He was scathing about the long monologues in the script, such as Nick Smith talking about Polly Perkins and Rick Von Sloneker. He hated that. I also sent the script to a professor at the NYU Tisch School, who said she couldn’t even look at it because, of all things, the margins weren’t right. The dialogue wasn’t centered or something. And so she couldn’t help us, because it wasn’t professionally formatted.
Then I had my godfather, a professor, read it and he specifically liked the Polly Perkins story. He really loved it—and it turned out to be the best scene in the film.
And how did the actors view the script? Was it tweaked at all during production?
The actors were all great. One of the reasons I like doing films in this age range is you get really great actors who don’t already have agents or whatever, and they’re great talents, and it’s great to discover them and put them in their first film.
Taylor Nichols, who played Charlie, was actually not that keen on the script. He had some issues with all the sociological monologues his character delivers. But what he really liked was the Charlie-Tom relationship at the end of the film. And in the editing room, he proved correct: we had to pare down those speeches. That was the real challenge, to winnow down Charlie’s sociological rants that were everywhere in the script. What I found is that when a character is telling a story, he can talk as long as he wants. You can write a 5-page monologue if it’s a story; that’s why Nick telling the Polly Perkins story works. When people are telling stories on screen, you can show the reactions of people, play it off those reactions, and it can be fun. But when it’s someone just giving an opinion on things, even if the opinion is kind of interesting, that is potentially deadly. It has to be really quick.
The beginning intertitles are often analyzed: “Manhattan, Christmas Vacation, not so long ago.” What were your reasons for setting the film in “not so long ago”?
It’s interesting you noted that, because I did it for two main reasons. One was just low-budget indie film production reality: I couldn’t afford to do a film set in 1968 or 1969. We’d need period cars, costumes, all that. So I didn’t specify. I also think that isn’t very interesting; once you specify a time, once you say “this is 1969,” you separate people from the story. So the idea was to suggest the past, but not say too much. People can come to their own conclusions about what period it is. And the reaction was great: there were some people who thought it was the 50s, others, the 60s, others who thought it was the 80s, when it was filmed. What helped the ambiguity on film is that most cars parked on Park Avenue, or on any street, are old cars. No one parks their new Jaguar out there.
There also seems to be a change in tone before and after Christmas. Before, the film is mostly intellectual conversation. After, it’s drug-taking, candor games, and fistfights. Was that a conscious decision?
Definitely. That’s supposed to represent 60s going into the 70s. The whole transition between the cultures of those respective decades.
Yeah. Within three months of the debutante parties I went to, it was a whole different world. People had long hair, were experimenting with drugs. It’s funny, because I snuck into a deb party with my cousin in Philadelphia, back when I was quite a bit younger, in, like, 1967. And back then, the deb scene was the world that seemed strange and different, like the world of F. Scott Fitzgerald. By the time of that New York summer though, that world was falling apart and a whole new one was coming in. So the difference in events after Christmas in the movie really reflects the change I experienced of the 70s coming in.
On a more technical level, one of the things I love about the writing, and which I think is underrated, is the use of repetition. Just certain phrases: things are “surprising,” people are “tiresome.” Is this a characteristic of the urban haute bourgeoise that you’d noted? Or was it a purely comic device?
Both, really. It’s definitely a characteristic of the UHB and my personal vocabulary. And in American comedy, repetition is very important. It’s funny because when you go to Europe, they don’t really like it that much. When you’re dubbing or subtitling, in Europe they will try to vary the language, and you have to say “No, we want to repeat that exact phrase over and over.” And they say, “why?”
There’s no real clear protagonist in the film. You start thinking it’s Tom, but then you realize that maybe he is, as Charles says, a “huge phony.” Nick, on the other hand, despite his snobbery and meanness, can be endearing. Is he the real hero here? And did the hero change from your first conceptions of the story?
You’re absolutely right. I see the film now as having four identification characters, and that’s evident in the script. Those four characters are Tom, Audrey, Charlie, and Nick. I also think it’s in that order, with Tom being the most obvious, but then the viewer realizing that maybe that’s not the case.
At first, I really thought the protagonist was going to be Tom. But as I was writing the script, I thought “Wow, this guy’s kind of a jerk. He has this lovely girl [Audrey] who adores him right under his nose, and he prefers this meretricious, prude girl [Serena].” Well, I’m going to withdraw the word ‘meretricious,’ because I don’t know what that means. But then I tried to make it about Audrey, since it seemed like there was too much focus on Tom. And then during all that writing, I was simultaneously trying to get in my own observations about the social milieu at the time. All that is manifest in Charlie’s dialogue and long, ranting observations: that was me being the sociologist.
But in the end, I think there’s something comical and compelling about the intellectual gravity of Nick that really became an engine in the script. You get caught up in it, even if you don’t think you are. One of the criticisms I get of the film is that all its energy goes out once Nick Smith leaves. I can see how people react that way, because you’re getting a lot of the fun and comedy from Nick. A lot of these things, frankly, I did not catch as the writer of the script. People had to bring it to my attention.
For about three-quarters of the film, it’s mostly conversations. The last fourth is a very Hollywood ending, all action. What made you move toward that type of more conventional, rom-com ending?
That ending required a lot of work. Shooting what was written at the end there, when they barge into Von Sloneker’s room, was just so bad. It was painful. Luckily, the editor found this little smile Audrey gives Tom to redeem the scene. That wasn’t even directed. Same with the beach scene—she touches or adjusts Tom’s collar, and it’s a beautiful touch that really brought to life what was written. And the very last shot, with Tom, Charlie, and Audrey just walking down the road—I’m really embarrassed by it. In the script, it actually ends with a cool sports car passing them on that road, and the audience watching them fade away in the rearview mirror. Of course, with our budget, that was basically impossible. Sometimes you just can’t do what’s in the script.
Right. I’ve heard many writers talk about how important it is to write the conclusion first. Where in the writing process did you hit upon that ending, and how did it affect the rest of the script?
Well, I wrote about a third of the script, and then I thought, oh my god, I have to see how this ends. So I wrote the end of the script, but then I had to go back and write the middle part of the movie. For me it was like the Transcontinental railroad, where you have the tracks coming out from San Francisco, which is the end of the movie, and the tracks coming out from Chicago, and I had to get the tracks to the same spot somewhere. I don’t know where in the movie is the golden spike, because the writing is both from the back and from the front.
That being said, not much is resolved in the ending. These eight kids realize that though they’ve spent winter break constantly together, they may never see each other again. We, likewise, see bits and pieces of their lives, but not enough to make an informed judgment of who they really are or will be.
One of the things I strongly felt is that if you’re writing a romantic story in this age range, you should not be saying these people are going to get married. You should not be saying that they’ve found a life solution, that Tom and Audrey are going to live happily ever after, or ever after in any way. You have to say that this guy and this girl are going to have a relationship. And it might be a nice relationship, but very possibly it’s not their definitive relationship. My feeling was that Charlie would always remain a friend of Audrey’s, and Tom might be the old boyfriend she rarely sees. Which worked, because when I was writing Last Days of Disco, Charlie and Audrey are still friends. They’re not dating each other, but they’re still going out together. I think loose ends are important. They make the script, the film, more real.
Previously: The Sound Of Requiem For A Dream
Sharan Shetty is an Awl summer reporter.