WHIT STILLMAN'S METROPOLITAN.
“What surprises me,” says writer-director Whit Stillman, “is how it was able to come together and look like a respectable movie.” Metropolitan, Stillman’s debut feature, premiered at the 1990 Sundance Film Festival and was released by New Line in August that same year. Part of the seminal sex, lies, and videotape wave of American independent cinema, Metropolitan famously put a sympathetic face on the “urban haute bourgeoisie” — a group of young New York aristocrats, fraught with insecurity, aimlessness and their own obsolescence. The film itself — spiffed up for a Criterion Collection DVD release this February — also recalls a bygone era, when a first-time director could cast a cadre of first-time actors, find a major distributor and gross up to $3 million.
A low-budget film about high-budget people, the movie was shot for less than $100,000 and finished for $300,000 more. Stillman’s costume designer, Mary Jane Fort, borrowed debutante dresses from Southern friends. And, as Stillman recounts on the DVD’s commentary track, the film’s fancy-looking apartments were often onetime locations, as the crew were frequently thrown out by angry co-op boards.
Speaking to Filmmaker, Stillman fondly recalls Metropolitan’s production, specifically its minimalist aesthetic. “There are a lot of things that we couldn’t afford — Steadicams, cranes, etc. — on Metropolitan that I later could afford and used,” he says. “But I found that many of these expensive technologies didn’t help you — they actually hurt you.”
Liberated by the limitations of working on a low budget, Stillman remembers the pleasure of “not showing dailies to anyone who could fire us,” he says. “There was a relaxed feeling that enabled openness.” The novice Stillman sought invaluable help from his d.p., John Thomas, on such elements as screen direction and background extras. (“I wasn’t very good at geometry,” Stillman admits. “I stopped reading the ‘How to Direct a Movie’ book at the screen-direction chapter, so I said to John, ‘Please figure this out, because I can’t quite get it.’”)
Stillman recalls one favorite shot, a close-up of actor Chris Eigeman (who plays the circle of friends’ arch-upper-cruster) which begins with him sitting down on a sofa. But before this piece of action, Stillman shot a minute of footage that showed an empty sofa. “The first editor saw that and thought I was an incompetent joker,” says Stillman. “But when Chris sits into that shot, it was great. So the shot that would have gotten me fired on a studio film was also among the best that we did.”
Stillman, who went on to direct Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco and now lives in Paris, feels Metropolitan’s simplicity is still its best element. “I’ve come around to thinking that the Metropolitan approach is the approach I want to take,” he says. “Even within the bigger stuff, I want to try to think of how it can become small.”
Now that it’s been over seven years since Stillman’s last film, he’s finally close to tackling a new project. “To justify the long silence, I’ve been working on a number of scripts that are in various stages,” he says, adding that one of them is ready to go. But his writing process can’t be hurried. Metropolitan, for example, took four years to write, on and off, in the wee hours of the night in a caffeinated haze. “I don’t think a script is very authentic until I’ve thought about it and gone over it a few times,” he adds. “For me, time is the biggest luxury.”