College is finally the time when people can voice their opinions and set out to accomplish whatever they put their minds to. This certainly rings true in writer-director Whit Stillman’s new comedy, ‘Damsels in Distress,’ in which females are finally taking control of college life, and are portrayed to be smarter than their male counterparts. The female characters in the film aren’t afraid to voice their thoughts and opinions, no matter how different they are than their friends’ and classmates’ ideas.
‘Damsels in Distress’ follows a trio of beautiful girls-dynamic leader Violet (played by Greta Gerwig), principled Rose (portrayed by Megalyn Echikunwoke) and sexy Heather (played by Carrie Maclemore)-who try to revitalize life at their male-dominated East Coast college, Seven Oaks. At the beginning of the year, they decide to welcome transfer student Lily (portrayed by Analeigh Tipton) into their group, which tries to help severely depressed students through a program of good hygiene and musical dance numbers. The girls become romantically involved with a series of men they view to be inferior, including mischievous Charlie (played by Adam Brody), romantic Xavier (portrayed by Hugo Becker) and frat members Frank (played by Ryan Metcalf) and Thor (portrayed by Billy Magnussen), who all threaten the girls’ friendship and sanity.
Stillman and Gerwig generously took the time to sit down with us during a roundtable interview at The Regency Hotel in New York City to discuss what it was like filming ‘Damsels in Distress.’ Among other things, they also spoke about why the actress was a good fit for the role of Violet, and what they truly think about movie critics.
Question (Q): Can you two discuss how you met?
Whit Stillman (WS): We met in the casting process. There was a really great team of casting people, and they showed me this picture of this beautiful blonde actress. They said she’s very good, and I said, she’ll play the drop-dead gorgeous Lily. Then I meet her, and…
Greta Gerwing (GG): It’s me. (laughs) I wanted to play Violet, and when Whit talked to me, he maybe realized I was more of a Violet than he thought. I auditioned for him and the casting directors. I asked to audition, and I tap danced and sang.
WS: She had the part, we just wanted to see her tap dance. (laughs)
Q: Why did you think you were more like Violet?
GG: Oh, I was in love with her. She’s one of the most wonderful female characters I’ve ever read. I just think she’s inspiring as a person. She’s strange and contradictory, but also utterly herself. I had such fun playing her, the way she was and her humanity.
Q: With the portrayal of women and men in this movie, did you think about that a lot while writing?
WS: Well, she’s trying to be anthropological, and see people in their native habitat.
Q: It’s refreshing to see women being weird, and not shown in a stereotypical way.
GG: It’s funny. Violet’s trying so hard to be some kind of feminine ideal, but becomes utterly strange. It’s like aliens observing earth, and then trying to imitate humans.
WS: Yeah, I was trying to make an aliens comedy. (laughs) I said, we’ll make aliens on a university campus, but we won’t tell anyone.
Q: Why set the film in college?
WS: Well, there’s a seed of veracity to it. I’ve run into the story of groups of young women who try to transform male-dominated campuses. People were very amused by the women involved in the story, with their perfume and dressing up. But then it seemed like it could be a whole comic environment, and that’s how the story turned out.
It’s beyond what I anticipated. I like the comedy going in that broader, fantastical direction. I think it’s also that I don’t get to direct broad comedies, but I really love them. I love Will Ferrell, like ‘Old School,’ and ‘Animal House.’ I think we got a little bit of that in our film.
Q: How did you work out Violet’s delivery of her lines? They’re pretty deadpan, and she’s saying all these crazy theories. It sounds so normal, like you’re buying into what she’s saying.
GG: Oh good, I’m glad you thought so. (laughs) But I think a lot of it for me was internalizing her ideas, and really getting behind what she was saying, logically and emotionally. Not just saying the lines to be funny, but because she means them.
Whit really pushed up in the direction of whenever we would give more comic performances, the girls, he would say no, we’re not going to play this as a comedy. It’s funny, but we’re not playing it like it’s a comedy, for the girls. I think the boys had more comedic performances that were played like that. But the girls, we really tried to make it sincere with all of our performances.
Q: Was there anything about Violet or what she does that you can relate to or agree with?
GG: I agree with her. I really do think that dancing does help depression. I think it’s social and it’s physical. I think those are two things that help when people feel down. I also think with the case of depression, sometimes changing superficial realities really does help internally.
My mother’s a psych nurse, and she said all of those things are therapeutic. She thought it was a pretty profound movie in that way.
Q: Did you know that Whit when you were writing the film?
WS: No, I didn’t know about that, but I certainly felt that all these things would help, not hurt.
GG: Whenever I was down, her solution always was get eight hours of sleep, run around the block, drink a big glass of water and take a shower. (laughs) Which is essentially what they do, get out, move, take a shower and you’ll feel better. I think I really believe that.
I think it’s interesting when Whit says, people take their moments of despair so seriously that it can lead to something as serious as suicide. Really, if you gave it a little bit of space and time and levity, it wouldn’t go so dark.
Q: Like the nice smelling soap, it can really make you happier.
GG: I actually just read something that Fabreze doesn’t have to smell that way. There’s something in it that neutralizes odor. When they first tried to sell it, they sold it with no extra odor. But they discovered that when people’s houses are clean, they like it to smell nice, too.
So they added an extra odor in addition to eliminating bacteria, so it smells clean. People would buy it, because smells make you feel good. You’re happy in your clean house.
Q: How do you feel now that the movie’s out?
WS: Happy, now I can get my eight hours of sleep. (laughs)
GG: It was exciting. In Venice (at the Venice Film Festival), it was nice when we premiered there. That night, we were all at dinner, these glowing reviews from Variety and The Hollywood Reporter came in. Everyone was on their smart phone, reading. (laughs) It was so exciting.
WS: I didn’t want to read anything. You show the film for the first time, and you get these great reviews from the trades, like that night. The good ones are really good.
GG: (The bad reviews) just make you want to punch the critics.
Q: So you read all of the reviews?
WS: I want to become more adult about that. Theoretically, as a producer, I should pay more attention to that. Also, you spend all of this time getting market reaction to people, like at the screenings, you ask people what they thought. The cynicism discourages you when you see the reports from the screenings. All these people love the movie from the screenings, but then it comes down to the critic. (laughs)
I think critics go with their judgmental mentality. I don’t think any film profits from a judgmental review.
GG: I try not to read anything, because when I get a good review, I get really prideful. Then I also feel like a fraud, and they’re going to find out about it. (laughs) If I get a bad review, I really want to drive over to their house and punch them in the face. (laughs) I think, you just sat in the dark for two hours, I worked so hard.
But I realized for me, it doesn’t produce anything good. It just makes me neurotic. (laughs) You just want to park outside their house and wait for them to come out.
WS: Sometimes when I meet the people who give the film a bad review, I try to understand. In a way, after awhile, you can see it like characters in your comedy. Everyone’s doing their own thing, and doing their own character line. Of course they’re going to criticize that. Their identity is to criticize that.
GG: Sometimes it’s really weird, the ones that give you terrible reviews, you’ll meet them at a party, and they’re like, it’s so awesome to meet you. It’s like, why? I thought I was ruining cinema for you.
WS: I stop disliking them when I meet them, generally. For example, one guy who didn’t like ‘Metropolitan,’ and he didn’t read books at all. He had a learning disability, so everything was movies for him. He did a really courageous thing, he re-reviewed the film 20 years later. It went upward, so he’s forgiven.
I’m cruel and negative about so many films. So it’s amazing that critics can see and appreciate so many different cinema that I could not.
GG: I’m opinionated about movies. As a viewer, I’m always looking to enjoy myself, and I can enjoy myself with many different kinds of films. There’s no particular criteria. I’m not just interested in arthouse films. I’m always hoping that a film is great.
Sometimes you get the sense that people go in critical, which is good. Criticism is always part of art. I think someone should start something that filmmakers should review each other.
WS: That would be really brutal.
GG: Everyone would just hate everything. (laughs)
WS: The whole reason you make films is because you don’t like anyone else’s. You have a rough-cut screening, and someone says, can I bring my director friend? No, you cannot bring your director friend! (laughs)
Q: Whit, after ‘The Last Days of Disco,’ what made you not give up on films?
WS: What made me not give up? That’s a good angle. I’m not sure if I didn’t give up, I did give up. This is my after-death film.
It’s kind of a home-coming in a sense. I was off in London, trying to make a film set in China and in Jamaica. Then I came back with this silly American story. But it was all painless, all fun.
The key thing was seeing how cheaply people were making films. I said, there’s a way to make films like this cheaply. Now that I know you can get people to write personal checks, and not have to go through the whole industry thing of superstar casting and foreign sales and partners, I hope I can do that with other films, too. I think if you can lift that problem of the cost of the film, there are more possibilities in the marketplace.
Q: What’s next for you?
GG: I shot a film called ‘Lola Versus,’ which is coming out through Fox Searchlight this summer.
WS: And at Tribeca, right?
GG: Yeah, it’s going to be at Tribeca in a few weeks. So I’m just talking about myself a lot. (laughs) I also did a Woody Allen movie that’s going to be out this summer (‘To Rome with Love’).
Q: How was that?
GG: Amazing. It was great, it was Woody Allen, and I really like Woody Allen.
WS: He asked to see a set of Greta’s scenes from our film.
Q: Do you like his films?
WS: Yes, I very much like his films.
Q: Greta, you’re also part of ‘The Corrections,’ right?
GG: Yes, but we don’t know if it’s picked up yet. I know we shot a really great pilot.
Written by: Karen Benardello