Whit Stillman and Chris Eigeman by Gary M. Kramer

“The reviews, even the positive ones, said, ‘You won’t like these people, and nothing happens,’ and yet we benefit from those expectations.”

New York Live Arts presents

Marjani Forte
Nov 15-19


Whit Stillman 1

Carolyn Farina in Metropolitan (1990), directed by Whit Stillman. All images courtesy of Rialto Pictures.

Set to the beat of the cha-cha, writer/director Whit Stillman’s 1990 debut, Metropolitan, still fizzes like uncorked champagne, even twenty-five years later. The film, which is getting a silver-anniversary run at the Film Society of Lincoln Center starting August 7, 2015, shows the not-so-discrete charm of the bourgeoisie—renamed the UHB, or Urban Haute Bourgeoisie.

This sharply-observed comedy of manners, set over Christmas break, concerns a group of debutantes and their escorts known as the Sally Fowler Rat Pack, or SFRP. The members include: Audrey Rouget (Carolyn Farina), a young woman who finds herself falling in love with Tom Townsend (Edward Clements), a modest outsider who unexpectedly joins the SFRP; Nick Smith (Chris Eigeman), a smart, sarcastic guy, who gives Tom life lessons; and Charlie Black (Taylor Nichols) who frequently monologues about the plight of WASP life. As the young upper-class men and women drink, gossip, play games, and have dates, rumors are spread, truths are told, and some members possibly fall in love.

In the two brief interviews that follow, I discuss the making of Metropolitan with both Stillman and Eigeman.

Gary M. Kramer I remember Metropolitan fondly. For me, it was part of a trend in topical youth films that all came out around the same time—Less Than Zero; Bright Lights, Big City;and so on. What do you remember about making the film, and how does it reflect that era?

Whit Stillman The film was shot during Christmas of 1988, and our first screening was the following October. We premiered at Sundance in January, 1990, and it came out theatrically that August. It was a 1980s film. Less Than Zero is a good reference. I don’t think the subject matter unites the films, but its treatment did help us get into Sundance. The film was of interest in relation to Bret Easton Ellis. 

GMK Why do you think the film caught on and is still thought of so fondly?

WS DVDs are still being sold. Amazon’s comments include: “Boring, too talkative, static, nothing happens…” So not everyone loves it. People are angry that the video box features the strip poker scene—they were disappointed with the lack of skin in the film. But folks who are cineastes like it, despite that lack of sex. Metropolitan had the advantage of backing into an Oscar nomination [Best Original Screenplay]. But it was never presented as an “important” film or released during the awards season. The reviews, even the positive ones, said, “You won’t like these people, and nothing happens,” and yet we benefit from those expectations.

GMK At the time, were you more of a polite Tom Townsend or a know-it-all, smartass Nick Smith?

WS I was Tom, but I’ve turned into Nick. There are four identification characters. Tom will bring people into the story, because he’s an outsider. His situation is not admirable, and it’s a bit cliché: he’s in love with the wrong girl. I tried to make it about Audrey for a while. The sociological stuff was Charlie Black, his thoughts—or mock thoughts—about the UHBs and preppies. And what happened was that Nick really became the most entertaining and funniest character, and Chris Eigeman did a great job with him. So those four being identifiable characters helped, such that it would appeal to more folks.

GMK Did you mean to celebrate or satirize these characters, or both? How did you create the SFRP?

WS I had a group that was friendly and funny, charming and silly, and likable, too, so I based the film a bit on this group. I had an unusual experience. You could have had a bad experience. The characteristics they had in 1969 they still have when I meet them today. Judgmental Jane is still judgmental—and not talking to me.

GMK What is your opinion of WASP culture these days, and whether it can survive in a rapidly diversifying “meritocracy”? 

WS I think it muddles along. It appeals to some people and gets a lot of recruits. Metropolitanis a recruiting film. Tom Townsend gravities to the preppies, and he is one of those people who is not part of that private school world. But here, if you want to affiliate with the preppy crowd, the doors are open. Kids who grow up in the belly of the beast and reject it go to Timbuktu or Ecuador to escape.

GMK There are some great single lines of dialogue that explain characters completely. You also convey this through nonverbal cues. How did you form the characters and their idiosyncrasies? 

WS I devoted time to work on the script, to develop it. I had a day job and could only work on the screenplay late at night, from 10 pm until 2 am. I slowly gained materials and had the characters gain autonomy. I was in my thirties and feeling the frustration of having to express myself. I was not able to write a novel, but I accumulated a lot of material. 

GMK How do you think propriety and manners, standards and ideals, have changed since 1990? We now live in this age of TMZ, Facebook, Twitter, and Gawker, where gossip seems worse than ever. 

WS It’s interesting. The Gawker crowd tends to beat up on our films and feel threatened by them. I think young people are very well-behaved these days, at least compared to how they were.

GMK Can you give an example of that?

WS I think they are trying less hard to be cool.

GMK I can see that! What were your influences? The Official Preppy HandbookBright Young Things? Jane Austen?

WS I was resentful that the Preppy Handbook beat me to the punch! Lisa Birnbach did a great job with that book. But Jane Austen and Evelyn Waugh? I didn’t like them at first. I read the wrong Austen book, Northanger Abby, in the wrong state of mind. I loved them when I re-approached them. Fitzgerald and Salinger were big influences.

Whit Stillman 2

Taylor Nichols, Dylan Hundley, Isabel Gillies, Chris Eigeman, and Edward Clements in Metropolitan (1990).

GMK The games in the film are both symbols of childhood and maturation. Are you a big game player?

WS I did see the negative consequences of “truth” games, which are very embarrassing and can rip groups apart. Telling the truth is a very bad idea.

GMK Did you feel a pressure to meet the expectations set up by the success of Metropolitan?

WS Yes, I suppose so, and it has been a little bit of an albatross. There’s a slight silver lining. The first film of mine people see—they tend to like or not like that one, and they respond differently to the second. Folks who saw Barcelona first were less impressed by Metropolitan.

GMK There is considerable talk of failure in the film. How do you think the film avoided being a failure?

WS It avoided failure very slightly. It was headed for the scrap heap. We approached small distributors, and they would say the film had no hook, or that young people wouldn’t like it. I called up a low-level foreign sales agent at the bottom of the barrel—where I was aiming initially—and they said to talk to other guys. And there was huge rejection—from both Sundance and Toronto. But we got in the back door of Sundance and Toronto a year later. The Sony Pictures folks helped us out. Ira Deutchman went to bat for the film, but generally it was a divided jury all the time. It was close to being a flop, but people like Roger Ebert, Vincent Canby, and Peter Travers liked the film and were important to it having some success.

GMK What would you have done differently, if you knew then what you know now?

WS I would have made the casting of adults less defeatist. We were not a SAG film, so it was catch-as-catch-can. I would have included more parents. The people we got did a great job. My friend Roger Kirby, who played the man at the bar, was the most recognized. We could have had more adults, but putting adults in a film about young people—they look silly, absurd, and more obnoxious.

GMK When you see the film now do you think about anything else you could have done differently, or better?

WS When you watch you can have a cold, critical posture, or just go with the film. I can be cold and critical, but I try not to, and I enjoy the good stuff. I’m not like Woody Allen, who doesn’t see his films. I have to watch it for color timing and transfers, and so I enjoy it.

GMK Do you think the film could be made now?

WS I think it could have the same resonance, if people spent the time. The “mumblecore” people are doing it.

GMK What do you think accounts for the film’s timeless quality? Again, it’s twenty-five years later and doesn’t seem dated.

WS I tried to make a retro film. It’s set slightly in the past. It’s aging well because it’s not trying to be contemporary.

*

GMK What do you remember about making Metropolitan?

Chris Eigeman I have memories of understanding it, memories of the “click”—this is how this works, this is how this writing works, or this is how you need to approach this writing. Then everything fell right into place. I have a sense of that—where the joke lay, or how things flowed together. I don’t have a sense of days, or even my first day. I wasn’t cast in the film originally. Someone else was—Will Kempe, who plays Rick Von Sloneker. They shot for a week, and then Whit shuffled people around, and I got a phone call: “Can you be there tomorrow? We’ll fit you in a tuxedo, and you’ll be in the movie.” I have no idea what that first day was like. Everyone was exhausted. We shot nights, and I parked cars at lunch. We’d shoot until 6 am, I’d sleep until 10, work until 3, then head to the set. That’s why I don’t remember anything.

GMK Why do you think it caught on like it did?

CE That is a sincerely great question. The film is well-made, and it’s great that it was embraced, but none of us thought it would get any kind of release. A family and friends screening would have been enough for us. I honestly don’t know. It’s had an incredibly charmed life.

GMK At the time, were you more Nick Smith or Tom Townsend?

CE I was more of a Tom. I based Nick Smith on a guy who would have tortured me and scared the piss out of me in high school. Maybe Nick is a decent guy with a heart of gold, but he’s an absolutely aggressive prick. I based him on the people I was scared of.

GMK Did you attend prep school?

CE I did go to prep school. It’s a funky prep school in Vermont, called Putney. You work on a farm, shovel out cow barns, and ski a lot. It was very alternative, not “coat and tie,” more of a “jeans covered in cow shit” prep school. I loved it. I grew up in Colorado and worked on ranches in the summer in Montana, so it was a familiar world to me. I had never been to a fancy debutante party. I had no insight into WASP culture. Growing up in Denver, very Catholic, all that was alien to me.

GMK Are you more like Nick now?

CE Christ, I hope not.

Whit Stillman 3

Taylor Nichols, Bryan Leder and, Isabel Gillies in Metropolitan (1990), directed by Whit Stillman.

GMK What do you think about the characters now that you are older? Are they still relatable, or insufferable?

CE I haven’t seen the film in twenty-five years. Last time was at Cannes, and that was probably the first time, too! So I don’t know. I’ll probably see it again when we do the Q&A at Lincoln Center. I hope it’s viewed as a something organic and not some Margaret Mead found footage of a lost tribe thing.

GMK It really holds up. It does have this timeless quality—

CE That was a very clever move on Whit’s part, to set it “a few years in the past,” to put it in an un-pin-downable period. It’s shot in a timeless way, with black and white and gold colors. You don’t get bogged down in color palettes that are dated or associated with another era.

GMK Nick Smith was a breakout role for you. Did you expect that kind of response from your performance, or this movie?

CE No one expected anything. We viewed this as a wildly safe experiment. Who would ever see this film? If you were to set out to make a film about hyper-verbal Upper East Side young people, you don’t think there’s a built-in audience for that. This was everyone’s first film. We thought it was a good way to figure out how to act. That made it easy to manage expectations.

GMK Did you feel a pressure to meet the expectations set up by the success of Metropolitan?

CE No. I felt no pressure. I’m sure Whit did.

GMK Do you feel you were typecast as a result of Metropolitan?

CE If you do something like this, and you’re cracking wise like the demon offspring of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Noel Coward, and you are perceived as having done that well, then that’s what you get offered. You can get cranky about that, but I got an amazing amount of stuff as a result. I got to do Gilmore Girls. But I think there are two prongs to that. Careerism—careers are great, you can put food on the table, and for that, I’m happy. And there is artistic stuff. I’m artistically very drawn to good writing, so this is an easy fit. I like well-written things, and I bristle at poorly written stuff.

GMK How did your future collaborations with Whit compare to your experience with this film?

CE Whit and I work well together. There’s a perception we’re friends, but we don’t see each other unless we’re doing a movie together. A few years after Metropolitan, we made Barcelona. That had an adventurous feel to it. Last Days of Disco—I wasn’t even supposed to be in that. Whit and I agreed that we went as far as we could go, and we didn’t need to triple-dip. But an actor fell out of Disco, then I got a call and was on set a few days later. Our working relationship is our relationship, and it’s a good one. You develop a shorthand.

GMK How much input did you have with the character?

CE On Whit’s films, there is really no adlibbing. Sometimes, you’d “toss a button” onto a line, and I did that a bunch of times, but only one line showed up in the three films we did. Whit writes in a very distinct style. If you improvise too much it’s going to bump that style.

GMK How do you think propriety and manner, standards and ideals, have changed since 1990? We now live in this age of TMZ, Facebook, Twitter, and Gawker, where gossip seems worse than ever. 

CE I am so wildly and delightfully boring—which is fantastic. My Google alerts are a flatline, which I’m so happy about. It goes to that speech Nick has, holding forth about collars, and he’s talking about more than just collars. I think the film holds up hope for a greater good, and greater senility. It’s gotten clouded, but that can change.

GMK How do you feel the lessons and values of a generation have changed over twenty-five years?

CE My parents and their generation believed, with justification, that if you’re not a liberal in your twenties you have no heart, and if you’re not a conservative in your forties you have no brain. Our generation reevaluated that and weighed it differently. There’s been very little flip-flopping, and a great deal of serious consideration in your twenties and thirties as to what your position is in the world and an adherence to that as you get older. I always felt that the notion of a liberal-turned-conservative was vaguely callous or opportunistic.

GMK There is considerable talk of failure in the film. How do you think the film avoided being a failure?

CE I think you always want to champion a work that is well done, but just because it’s well done doesn’t mean it’s going to be championed. This film had a lot of people in the critical world and the film-buying world that really helped it. It was looking grim for the film at some points, and it triumphed because people really supported it. That’s pretty spectacular.

Gary M. Kramer is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews and the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.

Whit Stillman by Betsy Sussler
Stillman01 Body
Related
Lawrence Michael Levine by Gary M. Kramer
Lawrence Levine 1

The fine art of the romantic-comedy-thriller-mystery.

Mathieu Amalric by Nicholas Elliott
Amalric Bomb 01

“As soon as you film someone it accelerates the deterioration of love.”

John Magary by Paul Dallas
John Magary 1

“My dream of a movie is to end on a note of 100% ambivalence.”