Family & Companions
Whit Stillman wowed the American cinematic community as an indie auteur wunderkind in the early 1990s, known for his penchant for witty, semi-autobiographical examinations of America's privileged strata in a trilogy of films that would earn him the much-bandied sobriquet "the WASP Woody Allen." A product of New York society, Stillman spent his early youth in publishing and abroad before taking over an agency for illustrators, working on the side on a script for and financing "Metropolitan" (1990). The slice of debutante haute couture earned him indie darling status and real financing for his follow-up films, "Barcelona" (1994) and "The Last Days of Disco" (1998), each an ensemble piece reflecting different periods of his youth in comic kaleidoscope of social byplay. He moved to Europe at the end of the 1990s and spent the ensuing decade attempting to produce films. Little came of it, however, until his return to the United States and to his low-budget, no-star roots, bringing his comedy-of-manners oeuvre to a college campus with "Damsels in Distress" (2011). In spite of his short CV, Stillman would make himself much beloved in indie circles, creator of what The New York Times summarized as "odd, tender, uncategorizable films that must utterly confound the market researchers whose opinions shape Hollywood. Good."
He was born John Whitney Stillman in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 25, 1952, to an aristocratic pedigree; his great-grandfather James Stillman was the one-time president of Citibank forerunner National City Bank, and his father was a lawyer with the U.S. Department of Commerce in the administration of his Harvard University classmate John Kennedy. The family resided in Cornwall-on-Hudson, NY, where Whit enjoyed an idyllic upbringing until his parents divorced in 1965. Meg Stillman moved Whit and his two siblings to New York City. Though no longer endowed with the wealth of his old money family, he attended exclusive prep academy the Millbrook School in Millbrook, NY, and planned to follow his father into studying law at Harvard. He did matriculate at the Ivy League university, but reconsidered his course of study, mulling a literary future as he contributed humorous items to The Harvard Crimson. Graduating in 1973, he took a job with book publisher Doubleday. After four years there, he moved to Barcelona, Spain, where he worked for a time brokering Spanish films to U.S. Spanish-language cable stations. That affiliation saw him occasionally pop up in the films of his clients, including appearances in Fernando Trueba's "Sal Gorda" (1982) and Fernando Colomo's "La Linea del Cielo" (1984). He married Spanish television journalist Irene Perez Porro in 1980.
Upon the death of an uncle, Stillman returned to the U.S. in 1984 to take the helm of his business, an agency brokering the works of illustrators. In the meantime, he began working on a screenplay following the social hobnobbing of an eclectic assortment of characters from the New York swell set. By the end of the decade, he had sold his apartment for $50,000 and borrowed $175,000 more to make the film "Metropolitan," casting young unknowns from local drama schools. Released to the arthouse market in 1990, the slice-of-life comedy skewered debutante circles amid the questionable morality of the Reagan Era, running less on plot and more on the dry, stinging wit of characters devoid of much else yet still clamoring toward something approximating meaning - something which would become a Stillman theme. The New York Times review praised it for "a most unparochial wit and sense of fun. 'Metropolitan' is a comedy of manners of a very high order." More auspiciously, the film garnered Stillman an Academy Award nomination for Best Screenplay the next year.
Arriving amid a renaissance for independent film in the U.S., the success won Stillman a moderate budget of $3 million-plus from indie studios Castle Rock and Fine Line for his next project, which would revisit his days abroad. "Barcelona" starred two of supporting players from "Metropolitan," Taylor Nichols and Christopher Eigeman, as American cousins - one an expatriate working for the Spanish branch of a U.S. corporation, the other a less buttoned-down U.S. Navy officer visiting him, with both dating various locals (one played by a young Mira Sorvino), conduits of Stillman's witty deconstruction of the "ugly American" ethos, cultural and imperial. The film again won over critics and made back its budget twice over. Now something of a Golden Boy, Stillman's announcement of a new project after "Barcelona" drew offers of more production money and interest from name stars. Stillman eschewed the latter but Castle Rock, PolyGram Filmed Entertainment and distributor Gramercy Pictures came up with an indie-substantive $8 million for "The Last Days of Disco," his paean to New York's nightlife in the late 1970s and early '80s.
Stillman's script again followed a cadre of privileged youth, this time centered around two young women (Chloe Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale) working entry-level publishing jobs and their social swirl with various young wealthy gadabouts at their local nightclub. Seeking again to mine redeeming values from essentially vapid yuppies-in-training, Stillman again scored with critics but less so with filmgoers, as the movie only drew $3 million in North American revenues. In 1998, Stillman moved to Paris with his wife and children, though he and Irene would separate in 2002. In 2000, he published The Last Days of Disco, With Cocktails at Petrossian Afterwards, an ill-received, somewhat embellished novelization of the film. He spent ensuing years attempting produce a number of projects that never came to fruition. He returned to the U.S. in 2010, going back to basics with a low-budget film about snarky youngsters played by a raft of up-and-coming actors. "Damsels in Distress" premiered at the 2011 Venice Film Festival, the tale of four girls attending a small, only recently co-ed liberal arts college and attempting to offset a male-centric frat boy culture, including fielding the boys' mostly idiotic angst via the campus suicide prevention center. Upon its later opening in the U.S., The New York Times observed, "You could say that 22 years after his debut . . . [Stillman] has come full circle, returning to the romantic travails of ruling-class late adolescence. But the world has changed - perhaps more than some of us have realized - and "Damsels in Distress" is remarkable for feeling both exquisitely observant and completely untethered to any recognizable social reality." Stillman next moved to the small screen, writing and directing a pilot for Amazon's streaming service called "The Cosmopolitans" (2014), starring Adam Brody and Chloe Sevigny as part of a group of Manhattan friends.
By Matthew Grimm
Director (Feature Film)
Cast (Feature Film)
Writer (Feature Film)
Producer (Feature Film)
Misc. Crew (Feature Film)
Made film acting debut as an extra in "Hammersmith is Out", a Spanish production filmed in Mexico starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton
Left Harvard during his sophomore year to visit Mexican relatives; learned Spanish; published his first article, about political violence in Mexico, in The Village Voice (date approx.)
Left for Spain to woo his future wife, a Barcelona native
Returned to Spain to marry
Entered film industry representing Spanish films for foreign sales
Began appearing as "the quirky American" in Spanish films: "Sal Gorda/Fat Salt" and Fernando Colomo's "La linea del Cielo/Skyline"
First feature film as director and writer, "Metropolitan" (made on a budget of approximately $250,000), received Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay
While in L.A., approached by Castle Rock president Martin Shafer and president of production Liz Glotzer; they expressed interest in funding "Barcelona" while giving Stillman complete creative control (date approx.)
Started his own Spanish production company (date approx.)
Feature producing debut, "Barcelona"; also wrote and directed
Made third film, "The Last Days of Disco"
Signed contract with Farrar, Straus & Giroux to write novel based on "The Last Days of Disco"
Played a party goer in "The Imperialists Are Still Alive!"
After a long hiatus, returned to features as writer, director, and producer of comedy "Damsels in Distress"