Now in its 18th year, the Austin Film Festival continues to bring together aspiring screenwriters with masters of their craft. On Thursday, writer/director Whit Stillman shared his stories with an appreciative crowd at the Driskill Hotel.
Stillman got a late start in show business, not making his first movie until his mid 30s, because he didn't see a way into filmmaking. Instead, the Harvard graduate worked in publishing and journalism before finding his cinematic inspiration.
Although John Cassavetes was working outside the studio system, it was John Sayles' "The Return of the Secaucus 7" that left an impact on Stillman. Arthouse favorite Jim Jarmusch and the creatively explosive Spike Lee proved the power of the independent filmmaker.
Even then, selling "Metropolitan," a social study of a middle class young man's absorption into Manhattan's debutante set, was no easy task. "We failed miserably, until we stopped failing," he recalls.
The 1990 film was well-received by critics, audiences, and the Academy -- earning Stillman an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay.
The intelligent dialogue that gained "Metropolitan" attention has been a hallmark of all of Stillman's films. When choosing a topic to write about, Stillman told the AFF audience he looks for "emotionally rich experiences with a dramatic structure." But he advises not staying "tied to planned out structure but letting the ideas flow as you move along." He initially advised the budding screenwriters in the room to write novels because the filmmaking process relies on so many factors to see a writer's work come to fruition.
No stranger to Austin, Stillman has long been associated with AFF. "I really like it because usually film festivals are totally director-oriented, producer and director-oriented, and it's great to come down here with screenwriters and other writers. It's been good."
Well-received at festivals in Venice and Toronto, "Damsels in Distress" is his first film in 12 years. Stillman explains that independent film was in "an indie bubble in the 90s" -- money for projects was readily available. Stillman released "Barcelona" and "The Last Days of Disco" before the bubble burst. "Now we've come down to three distributors for these films. We need more small distributors to take our small projects."
His latest film tells the story of three beautiful girls who transform the campus and culture at a sloppy, formerly all-male college. Stillman says the damsels are vaguely contemporary with a retro feel -- exaggerated and stylized -- dressing "as if they've seen too many Grace Kelly movies."
"I think we're immature our entire lives," he muses, referring to self-focused characters that populate his work, but don't expect "Damsel's" coeds to revel in the superficial domain of their contemporary counterparts. "It's amazing how people are misrepresented. I supposed there are people...I'm not sure they even exist like the people in 'Gossip Girl,' but young people are represented so badly in film and television, and I don't think it's true. I think they're really nice kids, much nicer than we were, and much less concerned with being cool, as far as I can see."
Stillman is doing more work on the music and sound in "Damsels in Distress" and hopes for a March release. After that, his deep Texas roots (his family founded Brownsville) may inspire his next work. "I've always wanted to do something set in the West. I think the war of 1848 would be a great background. That's an odd period where it's Western, but it's not the kind of 'cowpokes in a one-street town,' sort of more international."
The writer and director likes films that are "mildly utopian. Mildly better than reality. It's the reality you want..."I love to make films that are open to as many people as possible finding something in them...I'm not an art film guy; I'm general audiences."
"Metropolitan" is screening Friday at the Austin Film Festival, followed by a Q&A with Stillman.