Whit Stillman by Betsy Sussler

BOMB 34 Winter 1991
034 Winter 1991
Whit Stillman. Photo by Susan Shacter © 1990.

Whit Stillman. Photo by Susan Shacter © 1990.

Whit Stillman wrote, produced and directed Metropolitan, a very witty, slightly mischievous and completely heartfelt film that traces, with hilarious precision, a group of young adults during the debutante season in New York. Metropolitan reveals a society that, to outsiders, is secretive and protective, yet this one feels familiar; it is, after all, a dramatic comedy about love. Performed by an ensemble cast of formerly unknowns, the characters are so intimately drawn that watching it is like walking through the Park Avenue living rooms, hotels and restaurants where Metropolitantakes place, arm-in-arm with the actors. Like a 19th century novel, the only thing wrong with Metropolitan is that it ends.

Betsy Sussler Last time we talked you had mentioned that you didn’t think your characters were privileged. Why not?

Whit Stillman I just think that “privilege” is a word with a real meaning, a word more appropriate for describing a set of social distinctions which went out with Ivanhoe.

BS What word would you use to describe your characters?

WS My preference would be none. But since you are not going to settle for that, I would plagiarize the term coined in the film by the character Charlie, the preppie “Spengler,” who hates “preppie” and “WASP,” preferring the term, “uhb,” or “UHB,” for urban haute-bourgeoisie. But in this case, it is more an anachronistic style adhered on to, than a class born into.

BS Metropolitan is shot with a novelist’s eye, the character portrayals are so precise. How closely does your background follow your character’s background?

WS Occasionally, too closely. The building Audrey turns into is where I lived until I was three—it was downhill from there—but we chose it because it was one of the only blocks on upper Park Avenue free of scaffolding and noisy metal roadbed plates—and, most importantly, because it was convenient to the lobby restrooms at the Lenox Hill Hospital.

BS Why this subject for your first film?

WS The material seemed pretty rich, almost rank. And perhaps it’s better approaching a subject people feel strongly about, even if that strong feeling is hatred, than something colorless and unspecific. Also, I love anachronism and this was the chance to film, essentially, a costume picture set in the present day or recent past. But a large part of the idea was to disguise our pitifully low budget by filming the most elegant subject available.

BS There’s always this element in writing where characters start as composites. Yet they are, in the end, complete fabrications.

WS Composites are a starting point. But once you start writing, the fiction takes over, and you really do create fictional characters. Then, with casting, you normally take a third step away from any real-life sources. The danger in casting is that you can also take a step back, closer to reality. But, as we told our insurance company, that didn’t happen in this film.

BS Which character started out being you?

WS The tiresome one, Tom. During the writing, I got sick of him as too much the typical male-ingenue with whom the audience is supposed to identify or sympathize. I put the script away for a while and only came back to it after deciding that Audrey could be the focus of the story. There was already too much of Tom in the story to make it Audrey’s, but balancing the story more between them opened it up so that Charlie and Nick and the other characters could grow larger. It’s a typical mistake of a first-time screenwriter to have a story with so many characters to follow; but sometimes, if a mistake can be made to work, you end up with something better. The Tom character remains the structural means for the audience to enter into this alien group. He is the explorer who has stumbled upon this lost aboriginal tribe.

CHARLIE: Do you know the French film, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie? When I first heard the title, I thought, “Finally, someone’s going to tell the truth about the bourgeoisie.” What a disappointment! It would be hard to imagine a less fair or accurate portrait.

SALLY: Of course, Bunuel’s a surrealist—despising the bourgeoisie’s part of their credo.

NICK: Where do they get off?

CHARLIE: The truth is, the bourgeoisie does have a lot of charm.

NICK: Of course it does. The surrealists were just a lot of social climbers.

WS (continued) The social subject matter for a lot of people is a problem. They really don’t like it.

BS Because they resent the upper class?

WS For all sorts of reasons, but especially because, like Nick hating the “titled aristocracy,” we all hate any group of people we suspect might be snobbish in our direction. It’s protective hostility but something almost everyone feels on some level.

CHARLIE: I think we’re all in a sense doomed. Now everything seems great. We’ve gotten into competitive, some highly-competitive, colleges, and things are going well; we’re finally out of school; we’re getting invited to all these parties—often by people we’ve never met before. Our adult life has just begun and already everything seems pretty terrific. And, best of all, this is just the beginning, with the presumption that things will just get better and better as they go on. On the contrary, I think we are all almost certainly doomed to failure.

NICK: What are you talking about?

CHARLIE: Downward social mobility. We hear a lot about the great social mobility in America, with the focus usually the comparative ease of moving upwards. What’s less discussed is how easy it is to go down. I think that’s the direction we’re all heading in. And I think the downward fall is going to be very fast, not just for us as individuals, but the whole preppie class.

[Charlie’s listeners receive this with a momentary silence.]

FRED: Where do you get all this?

CHARLIE: Just look around. Take those of our fathers who grew up very well off. Maybe their careers started out well enough. But just when their contemporaries really began accomplishing things, they started quitting, not openly, but in other ways—“rising above” office politics, refusing to compete and risk open failure; not doing the humdrum part of their jobs or only doing the humdrum part; gradually spending more and more time on something “more interesting”— conservation, civic concerns, the arts—where even if they were total failures no one would know it. Or else deciding they could really accomplish more working on their own and starting their own company which is where the really big money can be lost.

NICK: OK. I guess most of us know who you’re talking about. I can’t deny your point. But unlike you, I always assumed I’d be a failure anyway. That’s why I’ve always planned to marry an extremely rich woman.

[Nick looks at Jane.]

BS Don’t you think that the characters’ conversations about being a doomed class are contingent upon the belief or wish that they should be privileged?

WS No, I think it refutes a certain objective reality. Life-study surveys measure success by whether individuals outstrip their parents in terms of income or achievement. In a prosperous country, most people will. This group is going in the other direction: they will not only not “outstrip” their parents, but their grandparents and even great-grandparents.

BS “Manhattan, Christmas Vacation, Not so long ago,” which is where Metropolitantakes place, sounds like a fairy tale. Was that meant to be?

WS It was meant to be a way of not being precise about when the film takes place. “Not so long ago” could mean either a few years ago or two decades ago. The main purpose was not to dress the streets with vintage cars.

BS The first real glimpse that we have of the Rat Pack is in Sally Fowler’s living room late at night. Charlie, the philosopher, is talking with Cynthia, the femme fatale, about God. Why God?

WS That scene starts the main body of the picture, which is conversation during the after-parties. Obviously, starting with a conversation about God is starting with the grandest and most pretentious topic—the most significant topic and the source of all other topics. It seemed like a comical thing to do, and it placed Charlie in his role with the others, the philosopher who is talking but not being listened to.

CHARLIE: What it shows is that a kind of belief is innate in all of us. At some point most of us lose that, after which it can only be regained by a conscious act of faith.

CYNTHIA: And you’ve experienced that?

CHARLIE: No, I haven’t… I hope to someday.

BS The Rat Pack seems to be concerned with being kind and moral, having a code of ethics. Tom hails the same cab as the group leaving a debutante ball and Nick insists that Tom join them, “We’ll share it, that way there will be no ill feelings.”

WS Yes, there are exceptions, but exaggerated moralism is something characteristically “uhb.” The character Charlie is right that social snobbery and social distinctions are essentially taboo in the United States; but moralistic distinctions are not. It’s another way they can differentiate themselves from the Donald Trumps. But the exaggerated moralism can lead to absurd extremes. It can find comical outlets.

BS Tom’s pose as a socialist is painfully comic. Why does he turn to Fourier, a 19th-century utopian?

WS Tom is the outsider with a chip on his shoulder. And he pretends to be more of an outsider than he actually is. He adopts a leftist political pose, but it’s an anachronistic, 19th-century utopian version of it, literary and innocuous. It’s very typical of these groups to be poking through the past to find things to be reverent toward.

BS Audrey is reading Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. Is there a connection between what happens in Metropolitan and what happens in Mansfield Park?

WS It started inadvertently with the argument that Audrey and Tom have about Jane Austen. Tom takes the Lionel Trilling point of view which he assumes is devastatingly critical toward Mansfield Park. It turns out that Tom has not only never read Mansfield Park but no Jane Austen. He doesn’t like to read fiction. He feels he can get both the novelist’s thinking and the critic’s thinking by reading literary criticism. But, in any case, Audrey’s opposition to the truth game and Fanny’s opposition to the group performing the play Lovers’ Vows in Mansfield Park paralleled each other. Also, without intending it, Fanny’s economic relationship to her cousins and Tom’s economic relationship to the Rat Pack are similar: they’re outsiders who are taken into the group, then are somewhat alienated from it. They both have an unhappy home situation they’re escaping, and they’re ascending socially in order to do so.

NICK: I know: You’re opposed to these parties “on principle.”

TOM: Yes.

NICK: Exactly what principle is that?

TOM: (pause) Well—

NICK: (quickly interrupting to tell him)—The principle that one shouldn’t be out eating hors d’oeuvres when you could be home worrying about the less-fortunate.

TOM: Pretty much—yes.

NICK: (the masterstroke) Has it ever occurred to you that YOU are the less-fortunate.


I just mean there’s something a tiny bit arrogant about people going around feeling sorry for other people they consider “less fortunate.” Are the “more-fortunate” really so terrific? Do you want some much richer guy going around saying, “Poor Tom Townsend—Doesn’t even have a winter coat—I can’t go to any more parties.”

BS Tom’s opinions are defenses against what he doesn’t have. Nick eats off the plate that’s handed him with wit and bravura, take his description of his nemesis:

NICK: Rick Von Sloneker’s tall, rich, (grudgingly) good-looking, stupid, conceited, dishonest, stupefyingly boring, a liar; bully, drunk and thief, an egomaniac and probably psychotic—in short, highly attractive to women.”

(continued) Did you ever consider Nick, rather than Tom, the hero?

WS Yes, Nick, Audrey and Charlie. In the course of writing the script, Nick got all the funny lines, so he became more and more important. He refused to stay in his place and seemed to invent lines for himself. One thing that makes Nick appealing is the contradiction between his humorous arrogance, the intimidating personality that can dominate the group, and this uncharacteristically open and honest side. He’s oddly friendly and inclusive, particularly toward the outsider character Tom, and really to any outsider.

BS Why would Nick want Tom in the group?

WS Well, leader-types need followers and by bringing outsiders into the group, Nick reinforces his position as the ringleader. Bringing in outsiders, people who are beholden to him, allows him to be a Pygmalion, to create them. He has two strains: one very arrogant and pugnacious, the other quite kind and self-aware.

BS Nick’s concern does seem genuine.

WS Although he wouldn’t admit that.

BS Why?

WS He’d pretend not to be. He wouldn’t want to seem like a sap.

Some indulge in a game of strip poker while some prefer chess in Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan. Photo by Terry Rozo © 1990 Westerly Film-Video Inc. Courtesy of New Line Cinema.

BS Nick is more interesting than what’s possible in life, whereas Tom with all of his self-conscious bungling, is a more realistic, modern hero. It’s interesting because when Tom enters the film, he enters as someone who has been dispossessed.

WS He’s in the process of realizing he’s been dispossessed. There are several blows to him in the course of the film: he’s been pretty well abandoned by his father and his father’s family, he’s stranded on the West Side living alone with his mother, who’s a bit of a forbidding type. That, actually, is unintentional.

BS It seemed to me that she was forbidding because she was so hurt having been abandoned herself. When you’re hurt, you’re angry and when you’re angry, you seem forbidding.

WS That’s right. It was a sad situation and he was escaping it: he wasn’t escaping his mother, with whom he had a perfectly good relationship. Tom is the most real of the characters because he has that awkwardness and authenticity, and he is played by an extraordinarily natural actor, Edward Clements.

BS Tom’s past is lost to him, literally. I think he wants that past more than anyone else in the film. The scene where he’s walking past his father’s apartment and sees his childhood toys in the garbage… What I’m trying to say here is that there’s always, in anyone growing up in that class, a desire to have a fairyland, a place where you can be that’s protected.

WS I don’t know about that. I don’t think it’s a very healthy desire. For the UHBs, it’s too much dreamland, too many protected places.

BS Nick says:

“The titled aristocracy are the scum of the earth. What really makes me furious is the idea of a whole class of people, mostly Europeans, all looking down on me.”

Von Sloneker, in the end, becomes, in Tom’s mind, the rival for Audrey’s affection. And someone he has to save her from. What does Von Sloneker represent?

WS Von Sloneker is something of a stock literary character, an 18th century scoundrel. The odd thing is that these young groups normally do paint someone in that role. And there’s someone usually quite happy to fill that role. Guys who are very good at making women suicidal.

BS Like Lovelace?

WS He is a literary character come to life, but not entirely fictional, there really are people who resemble Rick Von Sloneker.

BS Audrey objects to playing the truth game.

AUDREY: There are good reasons why people don’t go around telling each other their most intimate thoughts.

CYNTHIA: What have you got to hide?

AUDREY: No, I just know that games like this can be really dangerous.

TOM: (skeptical) “Dangerous?”

SALLY: I don’t see what’s “dangerous” about it.

AUDREY: You don’t have to. Other people have. That’s how it became a convention—people saw the harm excessive candor could do. That’s why there are conventions, so people don’t have to go around repeating the same mistakes over and over again.

BS (continued) The truth game reveals the little betrayals in the love arrangements: Nick is sleeping with Cynthia, betraying Jane; Tom admits to still loving Serena much to Audrey’s chagrin… And yet these revelations are a positive turning point?

WS In a sense, Audrey’s right, in the short term, about the truth session. It was a disaster, and everyone—except Cynthia—acknowledges that. Yet, in the long term, it saves her would-be relationship with Tom. Some people react against the last third of the film for two reasons: one, because the most charismatic character, Nick, leaves the film; but also because the film then starts to follow certain conventions of romantic comedy.

BS It stops being a comedy of manners. Tom actually sets out to save Audrey from Von Sloneker.

WS I like the last third, but it has been one area of the film that’s gotten criticism for being schmaltzy and corny. But it seems to me absolutely true to life—schmaltzy and corny. There is the ridiculous rescue mission to Southampton, breaking in on Von Sloneker to save Audrey from his villainy. That scene came very close to not working, both when it was shot and when it was being edited. We finally did get away with it, and the subsequent scene on the beach, when there’s a tentative resolution of the relationship between Tom and Audrey, with certain loose ends left as they are in life. I like the last scenes for many of the reasons others didn’t like them.

BS Tom and Charlie corner an older preppie in a bar who says, “We fail without being doomed.” What does he mean?

WS Well, Charlie is making all these sweeping generalizations about how they’re all doomed to failure, and the guy’s being more particular saying, “’Doomed?’ That would make it easier. We just fail without being doomed.” As the older fellow points out, not everyone from their background fails, just most of them do.

BS Audrey has an enormous amount of dignity and is inordinately patient with Tom. I suppose I equate patience with passivity. Did you find her passive?

WS Well, she’s passive through much of the film. She changes after the truth game. A lot of things that are happening behind the scenes are Audrey’s doing. Tom’s drafted into the group through Audrey’s manipulations, it’s not very overtly shown. It’s Audrey who is behind Jane calling up Tom and asking him to come, making sure that he’s always invited.

BS Audrey’s almost too polite for her own good. I really think that’s the problem.

WS Some critic, after he’d seen the film three times, said, “I think Audrey needs to get out and shake her body with Madonna.”

BS That would definitely be out of character.

WS I’m not sure.

NICK: How dare he hit me. He’s the scoundrel. I should have thrashed him.

FRED: Well, you missed your chance.

NICK: I would have if I hadn’t been doing my damnedest not to splatter blood all over your apartment. When I got back he was gone. No one does anything to help. I’m facing one of the worst guys of modern times and all I get is whining criticism, (mimics) “This looks really bad, Nick.”

JANE: Why should we believe you over Rick? We know you’re a hypocrite. We know your “Polly Perkins” story was a fabrication—

NICK:—a composite—

BS When Nick leaves at dawn from Grand Central—off to stay with a “stepmother of untrammeled malevolence”—he waves goodbye on the platform: the train, the cadet, the debutante seem almost archaic images. It’s a very sad moment, a yearning. Do you think Nick’s character is a white elephant, someone who can no longer afford to exist?

WS I think he’s an extravagant character, but these extravagant characters really do exist, whether we think they can afford to or not. But maybe it’s all a manic episode and he will get the proper medication later on.

BS Nick did drop—was that acid?

WS He takes mescaline in the film. We’re trying to figure out why the film got a 15 certificate in the United Kingdom, and the only thing we’ve been able to think of is that they take mescaline.

BS That one little snippet where he’s reading Babar and laughing?

WS Actually, he’s quite depressed, quite negatively affected by it. Here all the “slut” talk got us into trouble with the ratings people. They would not let us show a trailer—coming attractions—in which the word “slut” was used. Metropolitan almost went out unrated, like The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover and Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down. It would have been ludicrous, but if you show an unapproved trailer, you cannot have a rated film. Instead, “sordid details” was substituted for “slut” in the trailer. Why Metropolitan should get a 15 certificate in Britain when much racier films get 12s is very odd. And some 13-year olds actually like the film.

BS All of those anxieties that start when you’re 13, when you’re 26, when you’re 36, are cyclical, they don’t go away.

WS It’s interesting, how we can bear to watch stories of young love without getting nauseated. You can generalize up in age. It’s harder to generalize down. A love story about 50-year olds is harder for 20-year-olds to identify with. I find it puzzling when someone writes that nothing happens in the film. They’re lowering their expectations of what constitutes story, because lots happens. Does story have to be people dying of cancer, car chases and murders?—which I plan to have plenty of in the next film. (laughter) The events in Metropolitan — the relation of people to their parents, their love lives, their friendships — this is what looms large in our actual lives. The most important decision you make can be who you fall in love with and get married to.

BS Metropolitan is traditional story-telling.

WS People found the script extremely peculiar before we shot it. In film, you can still have straightforward story structure; you just have to fill it with something very different in order to keep people interested. But the basic bottle can be the same shape as the bottles they’ve been putting films in for the last sixty years. Zanuck was famous for doing stories ripped from the headlines, very topical, and people admired him for it. Yet, Zanuck would always wrap the topical story in a love story. When we look back on his films, the topical stories are generally of little interest, what we still enjoy watching now is what the general public enjoyed watching 50 years ago, the romance, comedy and social details.

BS You had to work another job while you were writing Metropolitan, for over four years.

WS For the four years I spent on Metropolitan and for all the years before that. Almost everyone, unless they’re Jay McInerney, has had a long period in their life when it was very difficult to be at a cocktail party with a lot of strangers, and be defined by what they’re doing at that moment. Let’s say you’re in advertising and writing a novel, if people ask you what you do and you say, “Well I’m a copywriter at McCann,” you have to talk about advertising for the rest of the evening. You could say, “Well I’m copywriting for McCann, but I’m really also a novelist,” but that sounds so pathetic. Until you’ve actually completed something which is being read or watched…

BS You’re identified appropriately, at least.

WS You have at least some legitimacy. But if you’re a would-be something or other, it’s better to just stick to your day job and talk about that, as tiresome as it might seem. Until the film was in the Sundance Film Festival, and was well-received there, and the New York Times gave it a favorable mention; up until that point, I felt like a fraud, because my identity was built on an invisible vocation.

BS Even while you were filming the film?

WS Anyone can make a film if they get some friends to put some money into it. The shoot itself was electrifying, though, and I needed electrification because I didn’t get any sleep for the first two weeks. Finally, I was doing the job I’d waited 18 years to get into and it was even better than I had hoped.

BS And now it’s been completely and absolutely verified.

WS Well, I don’t know. But I hope I get offered some good scripts, because I’m such a slow writer, I really love the directing job, and feel I can do it. I’d love to be able to do adventure films and historical films, silly comedies.

BS What are you working on now?

WS The script for the next film to be is called either Barcelona or Manifest Destiny. It’s a story set in Barcelona, Spain in the early ‘80s about two Americans, rectangular young men, who get involved with two counterculture Barcelona girls. Essentially, it’s two parallel love stories but is also about European anti-Americanism and the clash between Americans and Europeans and various other themes. Right now, I find the project very boring but I hope that will lead to “catharsis” and “turning point” taking the script in a more interesting direction.

Script excerpts © 1998 Westerly Film-Video Inc. All rights reserved.

Gus Van Sant by Gary Indiana
Van Sant 01
Shana Moulton by Bean Gilsdorf
Shana Moulton Bomb 1

“She isn’t all completely me, but somehow she’s a part of me, or some sort of art-making tool.”

Alex Ross Perry by Nicholas Elliott
Alex Ross Perry 01

Isolation, writer’s block, and break-ups on the road to success.

Mary Gaitskill by Matthew Sharpe

The first thing of Mary Gaitskill’s I ever read was a short statement she made at the back of The Best American Short Stories, 1993 about her story “The Girl on the Plane,” in which a man tells a woman in the airplane seat next to his that he once participated in a gang rape.

Originally published in

BOMB 34, Winter 1991

Featuring interviews with Romulus Linney, 2 Black 2 Strong, Jessica Hagedorn, Phil Hartman, Tod Wizon, Lari Pittman, Terrance Simien, Gran Fury, Raul Ruiz, Yuri Lyubimov, and Whit Stillman.

Read the issue
034 Winter 1991