Art house auteur, Whit Stillman, dishes on good food, travel and indie film
by Christopher Tennant Photographer Douglas Friedman
Damsels in Distress, preppy auteur Whit Stillman’s first film in over fourteen years, centers on a group of peppy college co-eds at a third-tier New England college. It’s a brilliant, if belated, follow-up to his trifecta of beloved WASP-loitationist epics Metroplitan, Barcelona, The Last Days of Disco, and just might be his most successful project yet. On the eve of its wide(r) release this month, he joined us at the chef’s table at Locanda Verde.
THE AESTHETE: Where are you living these days?
WHIT STILLMAN: I’ve got a sublet downtown opposite Dominic Strauss-Kahn’s old place.
Yes, we were very close last summer.
Could you see into his apartment?
I could only see down into the closed curtains. The apartment across the way without curtains was far more interesting.
You picked the foodiest restaurant in the city. Are you a foodie?
Not really. I like places. I think more in terms of the place and the atmosphere than the actual food.
What’s the best restaurant you’ve ever eaten at?
I don’t like stiff, formal places, so the grand haute cuisine spots in Paris I always found a bit tiresome. I tend to like places like The Ivy in London, or Le Caprice. You know, sort of simple, sort of nice, it’s not a big production to get a reservation – places of the eternal chic that don’t outrage my Yankee parsimony. Should we start serving ourselves?
Absolutely. So, why Locanda Verde again?
Well, you had suggested Odeon, and I adore Odeon, but I went there last night after you mentioned it and had a wonderful time. It was a bit more expensive than I remember, but I love it because it’s authentic Tribeca. I’d heard people recommending this place and always walk by it but never had the scratch to come. This steak’s really good, by the way. High-cholesterol food is my Alzheimer’s cure. You die before you get Alzheimer’s.
Do you cook?
Most memorable meal?
When I was finally on my own in Paris and had this beautiful apartment in the summer I invited all these really great people over. It was a perfect date for a dinner party – the 13 of July, which is the eve of Bastille Day. I looked at the Harry Cipriani cookbook and saw he has this liver dish so I went to this really cool butcher shop on Rue Saint-Louis and bought this beautiful beef liver. I sliced it into really thin slices, melted an incredible amount of butter, like, more butter than you could possibly imagine – sautéed a ton of onions, put the liver in that, and had just the most delicious meal ever. Afterwards, we went and danced at the Fireman’s Ball. It’s much more fun when you cook for a large group.
You’ve been in the U.S. for the past few months promoting Damsels in Distress, which is about to go wide. Is it good to be back?
I actually feel like I’m sort of restarting. This kind of small release with Damsels was just the right thing for us. There are people who like the old films, but now they’re older – they have families and children and dogs – so it’s important for us to have a new audience. It’s a little bit like going back to the farm leagues.
Have you been happy with the response so far?
Yes, very. I mean it’s a small film. It’s low-budget, and it’s a small release by a distribution company that’s known for running a good business where they don’t overspend on advertising so they’re able to send money back to the producers. So it’s pretty certain that it will be really profitable because everything’s been economical.
Is that a change from how you usually work?
What can be sort of dangerous is if people think that a film is going to be a huge breakout hit, like, the next Four Weddings and a Funeral, and then start spending on advertising. You can ruin a basically successful small film that people like by spending too much money on marketing. It’s the fastest way to make a film unprofitable.
Are you working on a new one?
I will some day. Right now I’m writing my memoirs.
You’re often lumped together with Wes Andersen, who has his own film coming out. Are you two friends?
I think I met him once at Lotus. But I like his films a lot. I just wish I had met the billionaire who backs them.
You seem to move around a lot.
I like living in disparate parts. I like not being with a fixed address. At a certain point I decided I wanted my entire life to fit into two suitcases. Then I decided that actually one suitcase is better. I’m down to one suitcase and a carry-on. The problem is I spend so much money on storage. I have to get rid of it all.
You should have a yard sale.
I would, but every time I want to sell something my sister says, “No, you must sell it to the family!” Selling mid-range art to my sister just doesn’t seem that interesting to me, though. I want to sell to Sotheby’s. The Whit Stillman collection – he’s down to his last Max Beerbohm drawing!
Where would you like to go that you haven’t been?
This might sound crazy, but maybe Norway? I’ve been to Stockholm many times but I’ve never been to Norway. Stockholm is the only place I’ve been to with all four films, actually. There’s a wonderful film festival there in November.
Do your films get dubbed into other languages?
They do, and I’m really chagrined with Damsels that they went ahead with that so quickly. I have the French dubbed version sitting at home to watch, in fact. I love that whole process. You’re tempted to remake the film – to recast it using different kinds of voices and different dialogue. For example, to this day, Barcelona is beloved by people who speak Spanish and disliked by people who speak Catalan because I was involved in the Spanish-dubbed version and we changed the jokes to favor the Spanish. It’s still a favorite on Spanish TV. The people who did the Catalan-dubbed version made it kind of obnoxious.
OK, time for desert. Do you have a sweet tooth?
No, not at all.