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Whit Stillman breaks Hollywood taboo, says he was ‘blacklisted’ from directing TV

Influential indie filmmaker resisted tendentious ‘Homicide’ rewrite

- - Thursday, April 12, 2012

Whit Stillman doesn't want to talk about politics. Ask the famed indie film director for his thoughts about the current Republican primary race, and he politely — but flatly — declines.

"No, I have nothing," he says.

Lightly pressed further, he changes the subject, turning the tables to ask questions of his own.

The exchange — part of a half-hour discussion about Mr. Stillman's work, his new movie "Damsels in Distress" and his deep empathy for his fictional characters — plays like a scene from a classic drama-class exercise. One character — in this case, me — tries to get information out of the other, whose job is to decline, evade and avoid the subject however possible. In the process, the player reveals his character.

What's the Whit Stillman persona like? It's a lot like his movies: a little bit droll, a little bit silly, a little bit self-conscious, a little bit sad — but always charming, and exceedingly nice.

Like Mr. Stillman's previous three pictures, "Damsels in Distress" is a clever, quirky indie comedy — this one breezier than anything he's done before. The movie stars Greta Gerwig as Violet, a young woman who attends a small East Coast college and dreams of starting an international dance craze.

It's late afternoon, and Mr. Stillman and Miss Gerwig are in Washington at the tail end of a daylong string of interviews to promote the new film, the writer-director's first in more than a decade. Mr. Stillman looks out the top-floor hotel window when he talks, as if yearning to escape to some contemplative space, and then turns his head and looks back at his feet, as if slightly embarrassed by the thought.

In his melancholic baritone, he recalls living in Washington as "a kid, a sad kid," jumping between jobs in publishing and journalism before taking up filmmaking. But he also makes wry jokes, quipping that he cast Miss Gerwig because "she had an emotional need to tap-dance for us."

Mr. Stillman's previous films — "Metropolitan," "Barcelona" and "The Last Days of Disco" — made up a trilogy of comic coming-of-age stories set amid the complexities and unspoken social formalities of the upper class. Like many of his characters, he's mastered the casual charm of the upper-class sensibility. In dark slacks and a French collared shirt buttoned just low enough to reveal a hint of scraggle, he looks every bit the New York-raised former Parisian that he is.

Mr. Stillman wasn't always so evasive when it came to political hot topics. In the early 1980s, he worked as the New York editor of the conservative political magazine now known as the American Spectator. In 1981, he wrote an essay for the magazine headlined "Sleazy, Soapy, and Rich," in which he complained of the crude and vicious stereotypes with which the era's television dramas had chosen to represent the wealthy.

Writing about "Dallas," the hit prime-time serial about wealthy Texans, he noted that "the vilification of capitalists and their families is so intense" that one critic had suggested the show might be pulling story tips from a KGB playbook. He was particularly bothered by the way the shows portrayed wealthy women, aghast that those "portrayed on the five nighttime serials are perhaps the largest group of sluts ever assembled in peacetime."

Those early sentiments go a long way toward explaining why Mr. Stillman's movies often play like sweet, funny odes to bourgeois virtue — and why his sense of empathy and respect often extends to his female characters even more than to their male counterparts.

It's a sense that he's stuck with — even when it's cost him. Asked about the article, he first pretends to be a little embarrassed but nods in assent. "I don't like the melodrama thing of turning people into villains," he says.

Mr. Stillman recalls directing an episode of the TV show "Homicide: Life on the Street." He had a script he liked, but a rewrite turned a yuppie victim — whose family had been murdered — into "this awful, caricatured yuppie villain."

"We don't necessarily want to do a PR job for them," he says of the character type. "But we also don't want to dehumanize them, either." He objected to the rewrite and is sure he was "blacklisted" — his explosive and unprompted term — from directing television as a result.

It didn't change his mind. To this day, Mr. Stillman continues to insist that all of his characters must be believable people, first and foremost — even in a frequently goofy comedy like "Damsels in Distress."

Miss Gerwig says the director "encouraged me and the other [female] actors to never play anything for comedy or judgment. Everything we were doing was sincere."

It's not just sincere. It's downright nice — without being boring — in a way that's unusual on the big screen.

"There's a quality of forgiveness" in all of Mr. Stillman's films, Miss Gerwig says. There may be conflict, "but it evolves into something civil."

Which may be why he's so wary of discussing politics, a business that's rarely sincere, civil or nice — quite unlike Mr. Stillman.