Urbane Whit: Stillman on life beyond the preppie world

In 1990 his debut film, Metropolitan, displayed Whit Stillman's talent for intelligent humour, tender empathy and sharp social observation of a privileged New York milieu. Critics drew parallels with Jane Austen. In later works he took his characters to Cold War Spain and disco-era Studio 54. But Kevin Jackson discovers the screenwriter and director has plans and enthusiasms well beyond the preppie world
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Reviewers sometime praise Whit Stillman's films as minor masterpieces of sociological observation. This makes them sound painfully dreary, which is very far from the truth - they are as dry, delicious and intoxicating as a chilled vodka cocktail - but you can see why the glum "sociology" tag has stuck. Stillman has a lynx eye and an even sharper ear for the folk-ways of contemporary Western tribes. His principal field work, so to speak, has been among the young, the leisured and the hyper-articulate, and he looks on his privileged characers with a combination of detachment and fondness that is rare in American cinema. Or in any cinema, come to that.

Stillman's debut, Metropolitan (1990), examines a group of wealthy college-age New Yorkers as they while away a Christmas vacation with formal dances, late-night drinking, gossip, earnest ethical debate and low-level anxiety about the future. The most anxious of them has coined the acronym UHB - "Urban Haute Bourgeoisie" - as a more accurate tribal denomination than the vulgar "preppie", and he worries that all UHBs of his generation are doomed to failure. Metropolitan itself was anything but a failure, and earned Stillman an enviable reputation which he consolidated with two further films depicting the same type of young Americans, in very different circumstances.

Barcelona (1994) followed two idealistic male UHBs, one in business, one in the military, through the uncomfortable ideological climate of Spain, shortly before the end of the Cold War. The Last Days of Disco (1998) looked back on the Studio 54 scene of the early 1980s, and put on record the fact that many UHBs who had once waltzed through debutante balls were now shaking their refined booties to Giorgio Moroder productions. This annoyed disco snobs a great deal, but Stillman was there at the time and, he insists, saw what he saw.

In brief, he is a director much possessed with the nuances of period and milieu: precisely calibrated levels of society, unique moments in the ebb and swell of ideology and fashion. Centuries from now, if anyone still takes an interest in such matters, historians will use his films to show what it was like to be young, affluent, American and a little confused at the end of the 20th century. Naturally, then, our interview begins with a discussion about Samuel Johnson (1709-84).

"A great figure. When I was at Harvard there was a lecturer called Walter Jackson Bate, who wrote a magnificent biography of Johnson and was a magnificent teacher. It was as if we had Johnson himself, or another figure from the period in front of us... There's been such a long gap in my career since Last Days of Disco because I took a couple of years to write a novel using those characters and that world, and there was a big chapter which was a long debate about Boswell, Johnson and their background..."

He recently published a list of his five favourite books, and headed the quintet with Boswell's Life of Johnson. (The others were Pope's Essay on Man, Tolstoy's Childhood, Boyhood, Youth, S N Behrman's book about Max Beerbohm and an edition of previously uncollected stories by F Scott Fitzgerald - an early idol, as one could have guessed.)

The English literary figure with whom Stillman has most often been associated, though, is not Johnson but Jane Austen. Metropolitan is, I suspect, the only recent film in which the central romantic story turns on the issue of whether or not the critic Lionel Trilling's arguments about Mansfield Park are essentially sound. Tipped this wink, most reviewers grasped the notion that Metropolitan was Austenesque, not only in depicting young people of good fortune caught up in a collective dance of endogamy, but also in its concern with old-fashioned questions about candour, the virtues of convention and true goodness. All handled, of course, with wit and exquisite manners.

In person, Stillman proves to be so very much the urbane soul you would have expected from his movies that it is almost a disappointment. (What a hoot if this most Austenesque of directors had lurched in reeking of bourbon, clad head to toe in black leather.) He is polite, quietly and fluently spoken, and - though well-groomed by the informal standards of his calling - he insists on changing into a dark suit and tie for his portrait. He had dressed down a little that morning for the trip to London from Paris, where he has lived for several years now.

The crucial topic of Dr Johnson now settled, we proceed to the question that most admirers of Metropolitan ask: is it autobiographical? Answer: very much so.

As a first-year undergraduate, afflicted with profound late-adolescent depression and hoping that hard drinking was a cure, Stillman had spent many nights as an eligible escort, generously fed and watered just for showing up in DJ or white tie. But there is no single autobiographical figure in the film. "I parcelled myself out three ways, between the three male leads." Tom is the apparent outsider to the debutante scene, and a follower of the obscure French socialist Fourier, He is in fact only relatively impoverished (his parents have separated; he lives with his mother), and is rapidly seduced both by the surface glamour and the genuine kindness of his new crowd.

Then there's Nick, who initially seems rather loud-mouthed and obnoxious, but proves to be a man of surprisingly strong moral principle, and a shrewd detector of charlatans, frauds and Euro-trash. "The titled aristocracy are the scum of the earth", is one of his key maxims. Nick is something of an amalgam of Stillman and one of his oldest friends, a witty fellow who now writes a real estate column for The New York Times.

Finally, there is Charlie: scholarly, intense, comically preoccupied with the extinction of the Urban Haute Bourgeoisie, and hopelessly, chivalrously in love with Audrey - the most thoroughly virtuous character in the piece, herself silently smitten with Tom.

It's the interplay between the idealist, the realist and the scholar which helps give Metropolitan its uniquely beguiling tone. That, and the slightly unreal, dreamy look of the piece. Stillman recalls that he asked his director of photography to play up the creams and golds: icing and ball gowns, tree lights and tinsel: a fairy tale of New York. The setting is deliberately vague: thanks to the relative timelessness of formal dress, it could be set at almost any date in the last 40 years. In fact, Stillman points out, the first half of the film is supposed to represent the fairly innocent early-to-mid Sixties, the pre-drug phase, and the second half a more decadent early Seventies, when drugs arrived and were joined by rock and roll (most of Metropolitan is scored with light orchestral jazz) and unladylike promiscuity.

Stillman began shooting Metropolitan on his 37th birthday: not an advanced age in the greater scheme of things, but quite late for someone with almost no prior involvement in practical film-making and not a shred of technical training. He had originally hoped to be a novelist, he says, but lost faith in his ability to tell stories in prose alone, and hankered more for the collaborative work of the cinema.

His route to the screen was circuitous. He was raised in upstate New York: his father worked in Democratic politics; his mother, originally from Philadelphia, had been a debutante. After majoring in history at Harvard, he spent several years in New York publishing, then relocated to Spain where he did a little screen acting but mainly earned his living by working in film sales. This is the period of his life which eventually bore fruit in Barcelona. After returning to New York, he set up as an agent for illustrators, writing in his spare time. The screenplay for Metropolitan took him four years to perfect in "caffeine-driven" sessions, in which he frequently re-read Jane Austen "to clean the palate".

Today, Stillman is in an optimistic mood, partly because of the re-release of Metropolitan, partly because barely 24 hours ago he completed the screenplay for a new film, provisionally entitled Creation: "It's set in Jamaica in the early sixties. I fell in love with the Jamaican music that I discovered when we were looking for something for the non-disco scenes in Last Days ... but when I went there I found myself most comfortable in the gospel churches. There will be a lot of varied music in the film, but it's really about the church community, and the people who leave it and do other things."

He is also determined to find the funds to produce a long-cherished project, his script about the American War of Independence. "An inspiration was an interesting remark from one of our generals, Nathaniel Greene. As it was defined then, it was a civil war between Whigs and Tories. They [Greene's side, the revolutionaries] were the Whig army, and they were fighting the Tories. It was reflected by the politics of Britain: Edmund Burke and others were articulating the Whig cause. Greene said that by the end of the war it was an American army with British soldiers fighting a British army with American soldiers. There had been so much side-switching, and sociological internecine warfare. This could be really fascinating." Moreover, as Stillman has observed elsewhere, "it's about time for a film with a Whig hero." Now, I couldn't let this pass unchallenged, especially when Dr Johnson had already phrased the challenge for me: "I perceive, Sir, that you are a vile Whig..."

"Oh, I'd definitely have been a Whig."

"Despite having Dr Johnson as a mentor?"

"Despite Dr Johnson, I would have been a vile Whig in 1778. A Burkean Whig... I feel very close to him, through his French experience and my French experience. But there are several Burkes, aren't there? You can find whatever you want in Burke. I particularly admire the Essay on the Sublime and the Beautiful. I think it's time to bring the Sublime and the Beautiful back." m

Metropolitan is now showing at the ICA, London. The DVD will appear on 12 June