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Whit Stillman: Why I Love Working With Amazon

Amazon Studios

Last Thursday, Amazon released the pilot episode of “The Cosmopolitans,” a half-hour comedy written and directed by Whit Stillman. With only four films, Stillman has earned a reputation as our premiere chronicler of the young, white chattering class—or “UHB,” urban haute bourgeoisie, as the characters in Stillman’s 1990 debut Metropolitan describe themselves. “The Cosmopolitans,” which stars Adam Brody and Chloe Sevigny, follows a similar group of idle expatriates in Paris as they wander from cafes to parties while discussing heartbreak. Earlier this week, I spoke to Stillman—who lived in Paris for nine years with his family—by phone about his new show, his previous forays into television, and his favorite Jane Austen movie. (He also told me that, as a self-described “fanatic adherent” of The New Republic as a teenager, he had put the magazine’s logo on his high-school yearbook page.)

Esther Breger: What interests you about the expatriate experience? 

Whit Stillman: You get to see people who for one reason or another have a lot of time for social life. In comment sections people can get their nose out-of-joint because of this tiresome thing—oh they don’t have jobs, or they’re aimless. But, you know, “Cosmopolitans” is set on Saturday afternoon from 4:00 to 2:00 am. Who are these hard working commenters to begrudge people not working from 4:00 pm to 2:00 am on a Saturday? Are they just nose to the grindstone?

EB: The only character in the episode who mentions a job is Chloe Sevigny, who’s playing a fashion journalist.

WS: Well, people don’t always spend their Saturday afternoons or their party time talking about their jobs.

EB:  In Washington they do. 

WS: I know that! I know all too well. That’s one of the reasons I’ve stayed in Europe.

EB: What are your plans if it gets picked up? How many episodes will you do?

WS: I was very encouraged because I had heard originally ten episodes, but I think the last conversation I had with Amazon was six episodes. And that would be really good because then we would be able to do two or three episodes at a time and not block out everyone’s careers while we’re doing it.

EB: Would you want to do multiple seasons?

WS: I don’t even want to think about multiple seasons. I just want to get one year and not worry about what comes next.  

EB: The show opens with these beautiful shots of Paris—though I guess it’s not that hard to make Paris beautiful. 

WS: Well, Paris is another big city like anywhere else, so there are a lot of ugly things in Paris. In fact, right after I finished the shoot, a young Cahiers du Cinema person said, “Oh I hope your version of Paris will not be the typical American romantic one.” And I said, if I’m making a romantic comedy what other vision of Paris would I ever want to give? That’s the vision of Paris that I have! I feel really personally engaged in the material since I lived in Île Saint-Louis for a period of time. Twice, I had the experience of being kicked upstairs to a maid’s room. So it’s definitely a partial view, but it’s authentic.

EB: Have you tried to do television before this? 

WS: After Last Days of Disco I really thought it would be good to work in TV. You spend so much time coming up with a fictional world, and then you’re over with it. It’s done, and you have to invent a new world and a new group of characters. After Last Days of Disco I thought, I’d really like to work in TV where I can just keep going with the same characters and not have to reinvent the wheel every couple of years. So I was working with these big production companies to write scripts that they would then take to a network, but nothing ever comes of it. I once asked how these companies could afford to commission so many scripts they didn’t do much with, and they said, “One word: Seinfeld.” But it was this crushing feeling, like you’re working in a void and by the time you turn a script in, no one’s paying attention. 

It was different with Amazon because you really feel close to the printing press. It’s like being in a college newspaper, like the Harvard Crimson, where we had three printing presses downstairs. I already had a relationship with Amazon because one of the first things they had done was option Metropolitan for a remake. They wanted something in Paris, and I was really keen on it, and then we shot it very quickly.

EB: Are you reading the Amazon reviews?

WS: Yes, and I see there are clearly paid thugs coming over from “Hand of God” to maul us. But they haven’t been given a very good briefing because they say things like, “oh it’s so boring I had to stop watching after 30 minutes,” when in fact the action ends at 24 minutes, then the credits start. So the paid thugs from “Hand of God” should get better writing notes.

EB: How do you feel about reading bad reviews?

WS: I try to be thoughtful about it. And I hope they might change their minds. I’ve actually reacted very negatively toward the first books I read by my ultimately favorite writers. 

EB: Like who?

WS: I loudly complained about Evelyn Waugh and Jane Austen for quite a long time before I read a second work years later and got clued in. Part of it is being too young. I was a sophomore in college when I read Northanger Abbey. But I like it now! And the one that I haven’t reread is Decline and Fall—was it Decline and Fall? It was a very depressing Evelyn Waugh novel, I think it was his first. I didn’t get it at all, and then I got to love Waugh. And I think that maybe “Cosmopolitans” has a bit of an Evelyn Waugh vibe to it at some point. Vile Bodies was something that he wrote which had some similarities—it’s very broad and very funny. Though in a way maybe Damsels in Distress is more Evelyn Waugh because it’s departing from reality.

EB: What other writers influenced “Cosmopolitans”?

WS: Well, I think a lot of it is marked by Salinger. Salinger wouldn’t allow his works to be adapted for film after his experience with "Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut," and I think that’s great for us because then we have to do our own Salinger stories. You know, Salinger was really taken to the cleaners by nasty critics in his day. I think Joan Didion was one of the people who attacked him in a very unfair way. And Mary McCarthy and that Mr. Intellectual kind of guy … Dwight McDonald? And they were really mean about Salinger, and oh they were going to destroy him, and just look how thoroughly they destroyed him! No one reads Salinger anymore! 

EB: So did you want to be a writer before you wanted to be a filmmaker?

WS: I originally wanted to be F. Scott Fitzgerald, but failed. Actually the thing I did in my early days that was closest to what I ended up doing was writing scripts for Hasty Pudding shows. Unfortunately, they didn’t get accepted—the president of the Hasty Pudding theatricals reluctantly decided to use his own scripts. Mine had a lot of supporters, except the guy making the decision. Al Franken had a competing script: his was called “Seamen on Broadway.” And mine was called “When You Wish Upon a Tsar.” You know, people were weirded out by Damsels, but I think Damsels was sort of a Hasty Pudding show done as a film. 

EB: What TV shows do you watch now?

WS: I don’t really watch a lot of stuff. I find it really disturbing to be watching a lot of the medium that I’m trying to work in. I prefer to be doing things that are farther away. So I always like reading biography and history, and I adore movies from other periods. I love watching the romantic comedies of the late ’50s and early ’60s. I used to have a rule that if Tony Randall’s in it, it can’t be bad. I call the ‘70s the “golden age of television”; in the early ’70s there were sensationally good shows.  

EB: So your next movie is a Jane Austen film, an adaptation of Lady Susan.

WS: It was extremely difficult to adapt. I worked on it for years, for, like, ten years, before I started showing it to people. This was my back-burner project. And it’s set in an interesting period because it’s earlier than the other Jane Austens. It’s 1795. You know that powdered wigs went out of fashion then for political reasons? The Tories imposed a tax—those Tory bastards, they imposed a tax on the powder, and so the Whig opposition decided to boycott using powder on their hair, because they were protesting the horrible Tory tax.

EB: Do you have a favorite Jane Austen adaptation? 

WS: Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility is just breathtaking. I just love that movie. I think Sense and Sensibility as a book is a little bit flawed, and Ang and Emma Thompson did an incredibly good job with it.

This interview has been edited and condensed.