Whit Stillman Brings 'Damsels in Distress' to Austin


Whit Stillman on the set of Damsels in Distress

I waited too long to grab a ticket to the Sunday happy-hour discussion with director Whit Stillman hosted by Austin Film Festival, but happily made it into the screening of his new film, Damsels in Distress, the next night at the Alamo Village. The last time I watched a new movie of Stillman's was a videotape of The Last Days of Disco many moons ago, so I've eagerly awaited his next project. I think it was worth the wait, honestly (but let's not have such a long break between this and his next film!).

In Stillman's short intro before the film started, he said he knew folks had to get home by "ferry, bus or train" (obviously he's used to being in a city with more mass transit options!) so they should feel free to leave before the Q&A started. But he promised the audience that the ending of Damsels in Distress is the best part. Jette will have more on the film (which I loved!!) in her review later this week, but I wanted to share some of what I learned from the Q&A after the screening.

When asked about the influence of The Gay Divorcee on Damsels in Distress, Stillman noted his favorite things about the 1934 Fred and Ginger musical are the super-long dance number (the "Continental"), the quality supporting characters and the score by Cole Porter. He was happy to discover recently that A Damsel in Distress is now available on DVD. This 1937 musical comedy stars Fred Astaire and Joan Fontaine and includes the Gershwin song used in Damsels, "Things Are Looking Up."

Stillman said that for the last sequence in his film, a Gibraltar crane was used and part of it was shot in the Staten Island Botanical Gardens. All of Damsels in Distress was filmed in the area in and around Snug Harbor, with a budget of under $1.5 million in 28 shooting days. To work a little under the radar, they would tell people they were filming webisodes. Damsels in Distress was the title Stillman wanted from the start, but he had to get the okay from RKO (the company behind A Damsel in Distress). An alternate title would have been Diorissimo.

His initial plans included the four main characters having floral names, the college's fraternity system being Roman, and that the movie would end in a dance number. Stillman discussed the visibility of the dancing platform in the fountain and asked the audience if we were bothered by it (the answer: no). He pointed out that the show is supposed to be a college production, so it could be intentional.

An eighty-something woman commented that she enjoyed this film and it reminded her of great classic movie musicals. Stillman responded by saying that while The Gay Divorcee is his favorite Fred and Ginger film, one of his favorite cinematic experiences was attending a "revival" screening of their movie Top Hat at Radio City Music Hall. He dreams of making a "Gold Diggers of 2015."

Towards the end of the night, a 14-year-old girl gushed about her love for Damsels in Distress and asked how she could get a copy. I assume she wanted to go home and re-watch it multiple times; even as I watched the film, I wanted to see it over again. Stillman encouraged her to check it out at the Arbor when it comes out on Friday. (It's also screening at Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar.)