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Filmmaker Takes Off for 'Barcelona' : Movies: On his second time out, 'Metropolitan's' Whit Stillman is backed by Hollywood but is still breaking the conventional rules of comedy.

September 08, 1993|DAVID GRITTEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

BARCELONA, Spain — Whit Stillman's in town, making his second movie for 15 times the cost of his first--and still he's in the world of low-budget movie making.

Producer-director-screenwriter Stillman managed to deliver a print of his 1990 debut "Metropolitan," a wry, accomplished comedy about young Manhattan debutantes and their tuxedoed escorts, for an astonishing $230,000. He made it in his hometown of New York, cajoled friends and relatives to invest, and shot scenes in the borrowed apartments of acquaintances.

Things are very different for Stillman the second time around. For one thing, he's shooting in an exotic place--this ravishing, vibrant, cosmopolitan Catalan city with its broad boulevards, imposing plazas and wildly varied architecture, which hosted last year's Olympics. Also, this time out Stillman's paying for locations. And his new movie is being financed entirely by Hollywood.

Not that this second film, "Barcelona," is exactly a high-concept project. The story, for one thing, defies easy definition: It's a subtle comedy about two Americans in their late 20s, one a businessman, one a naval lieutenant, both working in Spain in the early 1980s. The duo, Ted and Fred, confront choices about love and careers against a backdrop of anti-Americanism and terrorist attacks in the city.

Forget star power, too. The leading roles of Ted and Fred are taken by Taylor Nichols and Christopher Eigeman, two attractive but largely unknown actors who were featured in the ensemble cast of "Metropolitan."

And while the money for "Barcelona"--around $4 million--comes from Hollywood, there are no nervous studio executives in suits trying to muscle in on Stillman's often obliquely comic approach to the story.

Instead, the money has been put up by Castle Rock, the company that made the hit movies "When Harry Met Sally . . . ," "A Few Good Men" and "City Slickers." Part of its deal with Stillman has been to maintain a hands-off policy; after discussions with him at the script stage, Castle Rock agreed to a specific draft of "Barcelona," and has left Stillman alone to shoot it as he wishes.

"They (Castle Rock) have been wonderful," Stillman enthused over lunch at a neighborhood restaurant just off Via Laietana, one of Barcelona's main streets. "There has been no interference at all. I've even offered to show them part of what we've been shooting, and they've said, nah, we'll see the movie when you're through.

"Castle Rock are people who appreciate, respect and love comedy. A lot of people took 'Metropolitan' very seriously, but I consider it a comedy. Same with 'Barcelona'--I think maybe there's a pretentious element in the film, but my sense is it's a normal comedy about people."

Perhaps "normal" is stretching a definition somewhat. While several reviewers lauded "Metropolitan" and acclaimed Stillman as an important new auteur with a distinctive voice, some audiences were left perplexed.

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Even its cast members can see why. Christopher Eigeman, dressed in Fred's naval uniform for the night shooting of a disco scene in a rooftop garden, says of Stillman's style: "It's all language. No one takes pratfalls. Read it on the page and you can miss the humor completely.

"In 'Barcelona,' I knew he'd written the part of Fred for me. Yet the first time I read it, I still didn't get it. Whit's interested in burying the joke. He's said on more than one occasion the people who don't get it, don't get it. There's a real element in his writing of 'I don't want to laugh with you, I want to laugh at you.' It's 'I'm OK, you're so-so.' "

Nichols, who plays straight-arrow businessman Ted, says Stillman has told him he is reminiscent of silent screen star Harold Lloyd. "He wants me to play deadpan, almost stilted. I want to do more, more, more and Whit keeps saying 'less, less.' Of course, he's right."

Eigeman relates that Stillman has told Nichols not to make Ted too sympathetic in the early scenes of "Barcelona." "That's pretty brave. If it was my second movie, I'd want people to love my lead character from the word go."

But if Stillman is breaking conventional rules of comedy in "Barcelona," no one at Castle Rock seems too concerned. Martin Shafer, one of the company's principals and co-founders, said: "Financing 'Barcelona' was one of the easiest decisions we ever made. It took about five seconds."

So what's in it for them? "A real good movie, hopefully," said Shafer. "We want to be in the Whit Stillman business. He's a very talented guy. And the price of admission was relatively low."

Columbia Pictures has an agreement to distribute Castle Rock films, but it excludes those with a budget of under $6.5 million. So "Barcelona" will be distributed by Fine Line in the United States and Castle Rock will have the rights to foreign sales.

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