Director Whit Stillman with actresses Analeigh Tipton, left and Greta… (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles…)
With a trio of sharp, literate films that mapped the emotional landscape of the young, American and upscale, Whit Stillman emerged from the '90s independent film scene as one of the decade's most distinct voices. His 1990 debut, "Metropolitan," earned him an Oscar nomination for screenwriting, and his follow-up examinations of the lives of the "urban haute bourgeoisie," as the characters of his movies were dubbed, "Barcelona" and "The Last Days of Disco," only cemented Stillman's reputation.
Then he seemed to vanish for more than a decade.
Now he's returned with the daffy coed comedy"Damsels in Distress,"his first film since 1998. Opening Friday, "Damsels" is willfully silly and a bit strange, though still concerned with social climbers, self-invention and the use of manners as a mask.
Over a recent lunch in Beverly Hills, Stillman, rakishly dapper at a youthful-looking 60, referred to his 14 years away from the screen by noting: "It's not as bad as it looks, although it's pretty bad."
It's not that Stillman wasn't working during his absence. Following the release of "Disco," he wrote a novel based on the film. Then there were a series of projects — including adaptations of the novels "Red Azalea" and "Little Green Men," plus an original story set in 1960s Jamaica — that almost came together. There were also assorted writing projects for film and television taken on for money that went unproduced, as Stillman moved from New York to Europe and back to New York.
Following this series of thwarted endeavors, in early 2008, Stillman returned to the pieces of an earlier idea involving a group of college women, writing "Damsels" around his work on paying assignments. He set the film at a fictional East Coast liberal-arts college where a transfer student, Lily (Analeigh Tipton), falls into the orbit of the daft Violet (Greta Gerwig) and her circle of young women who run a suicide prevention center.
The story ends — "blossoms," Stillman says — with two musical dance numbers.
"It was pretty clear as I was writing that there was some overlap with the other films, but it had this whole, complete comedy thing happening," Stillman said. "I guess I just like silliness."
The oddball sense of humor in "Damsels" — there are jokes about soap, suicide and the sexual positions favored by the French religious sect the Cathars — could seem a surprising mix of urbane dryness and screwball absurdity to most anyone, but maybe most especially to fans of Stillman's earlier projects. Yet it was the movie's singular sensibility that star Gerwig found most intriguing.
"When I first read it I had the ideas of the characters that Whit writes in my head," Gerwig said. "I kept trying to place the words into a more conventional world. And I realized that was wrong-headed. He's doing something totally different. It's not in the same world as 'Last Days of Disco' or 'Metropolitan' or 'Barcelona.' It's in this heightened, fever-dream ecstatic, comic, almost mental breakdown world."
Tipton had no such prior connection to Stillman's work — she was convinced to take the role in part by the enthusiastic response of her "Crazy Stupid Love"costar Julianne Moore to hearing that the director was making a new film. She said Stillman helped her find the right tone for many of her quippy verbal exchanges with Gerwig.
"I went into it thinking she was much lighter," Tipton said of her character. "Where Lily questioned Violet, initially I would bring an innocent question and Whit would come in and say, 'Maybe be mean about it, have a judgment behind the question. And smile less.'"
The film was shot in the fall of 2010 in a warren of Greek Revival buildings known as Snug Harbor on Staten Island. Producer Martin Shafer, who financed "Barcelona" and "The Last Days of Disco" through his position at Castle Rock Entertainment and the new film through private funding, gives the budget for "Damsels" at around $3 million. Stillman warned, however: "I wouldn't go with any budget figure except 'low.'"
Money, and the lack thereof, is a consistent theme for Stillman — his films have an awareness of class seldom explored in American cinema. A Harvard graduate, he is no stranger to the rarefied world he depicts on screen, though he hastens to add that after his parents divorced when he was a teenager, "we became significantly less affluent."
In the years that Stillman has been without a new film, his creative standing has grown through home video and revival screenings. His influence can be seen too in the work of such literary-minded filmmakers as Noah Baumbach and Wes Anderson and on television shows including "Gilmore Girls," "Gossip Girl" and the upcoming HBO comedy series"Girls," in which the young and affluent chat about the world, social mores and themselves.
"In a strange way, making so few films, there's some kind of admiration out there for that," Shafer said. "He's not making movies all the time, and it becomes sort of an integrity thing."
"Damsels" was greeted by a mostly positive if slightly confounded response when it debuted last year at festivals in Venice and Toronto — the Hollywood Reporter called it "flawed but frequently hilarious." Stillman says he hopes to build on the momentum of the film's release with a follow-up soon. He has a handful of scripts ready to go, before he once again attempts to mount his long-simmering Jamaica project.
Still, it’s hard to imagine he’ll craft a more personal and specific expression of the flaky fringes of the upper crust than preppy paradox Violet, the outsider looking to make her way in.
"I think people can be presumptuous and condescending and seemingly self-confident even though they are their own creations," Stillman said.