CONFESSIONS OF A SERIAL DRIFTER
by Whit Stillman
The Guardian, May 12 '06
His first three movies were acclaimed comedies of yuppy highlife, then Whit Stillman vanished. So what has he been doing for eight years? And why does it involve Jamaican churches?
I have a happy novelist friend who operates on the principle "first thought, best thought". My own experience has been "first thought, unbelievably stupid thought". If a producer wants something cliched, forced and unfunny that's also weird and meandering ... yes, I can turn that in within the contractually mandated 12 weeks. Writing my three films so far, Metropolitan, Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco, I found that however much I might have wanted to "hurry", it was only through a fitful stop-start process, with long gaps between versions, that I could come up with anything worth holding on to.
I started writing Barcelona in 1983, while I was working as a foreign sales agent for Spanish producers, and also getting to play the "stupid American" role in some of their films. Watching their shoots, I started to think Barcelona was too ambitious for a first film and shifted to writing Metropolitan.
Without realising it, I had got into perhaps the best writing situation I would ever have. My day job was running a small agency representing some great US and European cartoonists and illustrators. While nearly everything about it was pleasant, the problem was that when I was actively selling, I couldn't really write. The script had to be put aside repeatedly. Pauses of weeks or months were normal. When I returned to the script, its weaknesses were clear, but I had less temptation to fret over and disguise them. I usually only had time to work late at night, and that borderline between waking and sleeping states seemed good ground for comedy. And so eventually - by which time I was long gone from being a foreign sales agent - Metropolitan was made, coming out in 1990, followed four years later by Barcelona, and another four years later by The Last Days of Disco.
I can't recall now which came first: the intention to take on more than one script at a time as a better way of working, or having more than one project that I wanted to do. Just as the seed for The Last Days of Disco came from the "beautiful women in discos" scenes in Barcelona, the idea for what I hope will be my next film came from the early Jamaican music we tried to use in Disco's non-club scenes. Justin Hinds & the Dominoes' song Carry Go Bring Come - used during the semi-climactic taxi escape scene - fell into my life like the Coke bottle in The Gods Must Be Crazy. Where did this come from?
Becoming fascinated with early-1960s Jamaican music 20 or 30 years after everyone else did not seem disconcertingly different from any other passion I've had. But when I started visiting Jamaica to research the music milieu, I fell in love with something else: Jamaica's gospel churches and the people who attend them. The weekend Disco opened in 1998, I lost my New York apartment to an unfavourable lease, so I decided to return to Europe to live, with the film's screening at the Edinburgh film festival a first stop. There I met a Channel 4 promotion whiz who put me in touch with a top dog at the channel who liked the idea for a Jamaican story.
So why haven't you seen the Jamaican film yet? Not long after that Edinburgh encounter, a producer friend called to apologise for having claimed I was "attached" to a project he was trying to get a studio to buy, which turned out to be Anchee Min's memoir of the Chinese cultural revolution, Red Azalea. I just replied: "Don't apologise, let me read it." The book was wonderful, as was the prospect of beginning a script with fascinating characters and incidents, and an established conclusion, rather than the march into the void of an original story. Other producers were involved who wanted to take it immediately to FilmFour (then in its Medici period), which meant putting aside the contract for the Jamaican idea. I was a bit worried - I had liked the idea of doing the small, difficult Jamaican production before the enormous, frightening Chinese one, but the option on the Red Azalea book rights was ticking.
There is an area of discord in the film business (from the little I know of it) as to whether one is honour bound to start work on a project before contract and payment terms have been set. As this story was not mine it seemed risky to do so. That meant a delay, which was welcome as I had not entirely left Disco behind. First, I had worked on the film's French and Spanish subtitled and dubbed versions. Dubbing one's film into a foreign language is one of the greatest experiences a film-maker can have. I had first tried it with the Spanish version of Barcelona, which allowed us to play with accents and modify the jokes - and the film goes over much better in its Spanish than its Catalan incarnation. To be able to recast and redirect your film in the calm and comparatively happy atmosphere of a dubbing studio, with the great types who work in this area, is a delight, especially after the panic that it's going to go badly subsides a bit.
The other unfinished Disco business was a novel. I had thought of writing an after-the-fact novel for each of the films. In the case of Metropolitan this had got to the point of a listing in a publisher's catalogue before I put it aside to finish the Barcelona script. (This phantom Metropolitan novel still crops up occasionally as an offering on Amazon.) The Disco novel had a more promising start - with a great editor and publishing house, happy to have it come out long after the movie. In my writing experience, the start of a project always seemed full of worthless weeks, flailing around without accomplishing much, while the priceless weeks came at the end, when the fictional world is fully existent and the characters begin to operate with apparent autonomy. In this last phase, improvement can be quick and major. Then this blossoming fictional world must be cut to the scale of a feature film. The prospect of finally getting to develop it in the comparatively free form of a novel was alluring.
So in 1999 and the start of 2000, I was still with the Disco characters who, refusing to be limited by the film version, took the story forward and backward. To reflect the changed story, a new title - Cocktails at Petrossian - was considered, then compromised, with the book coming out that summer as The Last Days of Disco, With Cocktails at Petrossian Afterwards. It would go on to win Shecky's Bar Guide's first (and last) nightlife literature award.
Silence is one of the greatest and least used weapons in the film business arsenal. The best rule seems to be: when a project is completed or nearly so, don't shut up about it. But when it's still in its early stages, don't say a word. That rule will be massively violated next week when the annual Cannes non-existent-film festival gets under way. This event, running parallel to the actual film festival - or the festival of actual films - features the trumpeting of entire slates of films that will never be made, at least not by the people announcing them.
While Red Azalea was announced with hoopla at Cannes, I suspect that it was idle chit-chat at a film party that led to the project's ultimate undoing. Someone with a special interest in the subject returned to Los Angeles and interested a far more important director in the book, who then started a long behind-the-scenes campaign to get it for himself - or so rumour has it. But I also had problems with the adaptation. That great opportunity - fascinating characters, situation and story already existing - became a straitjacket. The characters remained book-bound. Perhaps I could have ultimately worked it out, but the ground was shifting under our feet. Our project for Red Azalea came apart in early 2002. I still had the beloved Jamaican project to return to, and was lucky soon to find backers for that script.
My idea for the new millennium had been to use competing scripts, with their differing deadlines and urgencies, to create the stop-start pattern I found so helpful in my day-job period. The priority Jamaican script would alternate with other ideas to be kept under wraps. Finally, just in the last few weeks, that script has seemed to take its proper form - heartfelt apologies to any producer I rushed a draft to last winter. Any script with a date prior to May 12 2006 - please discard.
So I now have a project to take to Cannes, and large or small parts of others in the trunk. But I will still be keeping my eyes open for the right day job. The other evening in Mayfair, I passed a high-end yacht brokerage - they were having a glass of champagne with clients - and that seemed like very good work for a slow screenwriter. Cannes itself has its share of enormous yachts - someone must be helping the very rich buy, sell or charter them. And, based there, one wouldn't have to look for accommodation when the festival rolls around. When I go next week I'll look into it. I have never met a billionaire I didn't like.