The Damsels in ‘Damsels in Distress’ Discuss the Film, Director Whit Stillman, and Women in Films
In a roundtable discussion hosted by The Daily Beast, the four female stars of Whit Stillman’s new film—his first in 12 years—talk about what it was like working for the acclaimed director, how the film sent them all back to dancing school, and the (slightly) warmer climate for women in films today.
Simply finding a movie with a single interesting female role can feel like a major discovery. But stumbling upon a film with four vibrant, fresh, funny female characters is cause for celebration.
The college-set comedy of manners Damsels in Distress—the first movie in 12 years from ‘90s indie icon Whit Stillman (the unique mind behind Metropolitan, Barcelona, and The Last Days of Disco)—shines a spotlight on a quartet of equally exciting breakout stars, who just happen to be women.
Greta Gerwig stars as Violet, the self-appointed leader of a small band of coeds intent on making the historically male-dominated Seven Oaks University a more refined and better smelling institution. After establishing herself as the unofficial Queen of Mumblecore in films by Joe Swanberg (Nights and Weekends) and the Duplass Brothers (Baghead), Gerwig garnered even more attention as a quirky romantic lead opposite Ben Stiller in Greenberg and Russell Brand in Arthur.
Former America’s Next Top Model contestant and Crazy, Stupid, Love. costar Analeigh Tipton plays the latest addition to Violet’s gang: the sheltered and painfully “normal” Lily. TV veteran Megalyn Echikunwoke (The 4400, CSI: Miami) is Violet’s right-hand gal, the suspiciously English-accented Rose, and newcomer Carrie MacLemore rounds out the group as dim-witted but cheerful Heather.
The Daily Beast sat down with all four damsels the morning after their Los Angeles premiere, when they freely admitted to still feeling tipsy from the revelry the night before.
Since Whit Stillman hasn’t made a movie since 1998, were any of you familiar with his work before you signed on for Damsels?
Greta Gerwig: Yes. I’d seen everything and I knew every line. I was obsessed with him. Metropolitan was the most quoted film at my college.
How did the rest of you get to know Whit’s world?
Megalyn Echikunwoke: I think you get a sense of his style from reading the script. I wasn’t familiar with him and I read it and was like, “Oh my god, this is so unique and funny.” After that I started researching [the earlier films].
Carrie MacLemore: Mine was similar. I got the script and then freaked out, “Who’s been holding out on me? Who didn’t tell me about Metropolitan until now?”
Analeigh Tipton: I didn’t know his work either. People were like, “Before you read the film, you need to actually see his other films, because you have to realize what you’re going to be a part of.” I was sitting in a trailer and Julianne Moore was like, “What’s your next project?” I said, “This Whit Stillman thing ...” She got so excited, “Whit Stillman’s making another film!?” You realize what kind of respect he has in the industry.
The rhythm of his dialogue is so specific. Is it easy to pick up from the script or does it help to watch his other films?
Gerwig: I was so obsessed with him to the point that the one episode of Homicide he directed I watched. It was full-on craziness. For me, the big thing was I had to unhear the rhythms in my head of the way everybody else had done it. I didn’t want to be imitating Chris Eigeman or Kate Beckinsale. I think that’s something that happens especially with writer-directors who have really strong voices. I think that’s why a lot of people wind up sounding like they’re imitating Woody Allen when they do Woody Allen [films]. They’re looking for a rhythm they already know in their head.
You know how they say Christopher Walken eliminates all punctuation when he works on a script? I almost tried to memorize [the dialogue] without meaning so that I could go back and try to find it. Otherwise I would fall into a sing-song, it was so easy to.
MacLemore: It was just so refreshing to read something intelligent. It was easier to learn it because you wanted to respect every word.
Was the goal to make the dialogue sound like everyday conversation, or something more unique?
Echikunwoke: I think we wanted it to sound unique because it is unique. We just wanted to honor the script.
Gerwig: If you went through dailies we always started out more animated and [Whit] would say, “Do less.” Because he’s not a very animated person actually. He’s very even keeled. He speaks in the same tone, he’ll say an entire sentence at the same pace. He loves things to be said like that. So we’d do things like [very animated] “Isn’t it great!?”
MacLemore: Yeah, and he’d be like “Can you say that normal?”
Gerwig: And we’d realize he means, do it like him.
MacLemore: Whit normal.
Tipton: At random moments he’d let us sort of break out, which is also very much Whit. Whit will just become suddenly extremely animated and then just go back like nothing happened.
Echikunwoke: Especially after a drink.
Gerwig: I have memories of times he’d come up and say things like, “Greta, whatever you’re doing now, don’t do it anymore.” I think everyone at some point the first week cried. I always felt like I wanted to get a take in that was more animated, because I thought to myself, “He’s gonna want this as an option. I don’t know which scene he’s gonna want to use it in, but he’ll use it.” And he did.
Even though you were such a Stillman superfan, you didn’t mind questioning him?
Gerwig: I don’t know that I questioned. But I did do it my way.
Echikunwoke: I think he supported that. He’s very collaborative. He was always asking what we thought of things, directorial choices. He’d say “What do you think of this choice?” And it’s like “I don’t think a director has ever asked me what I thought about something that didn’t have anything to do with my performance!”
Gerwig: He was very protective of us, he was very on our side.
Tipton: On set and off. I had a little apartment that they put me up in, very kindly, but my bed didn’t have blankets and it was the fall. It was freezing because the heater didn’t work. I was really cold all day on set. For the next three days he was in a panic making sure I had a blanket. He was giving me his jacket to take home with me.
Gerwig: Occasionally he would get upset with someone on set but it was always a technical thing. He would never get mad at us, even if we—I mean, I—forgot a line or messed something up, he’d never lose his patience.
Echikunwoke: He’s a real gentleman.
Gerwig: He also has daughters our age.
I wanted to ask about that. He’s of a certain generation but he also has daughters in their twenties. Were there aspects of his directing that felt fatherly or did that impact his work in any way?
Echikunwoke: I think that’s just how he is. He’s a special person who really understands women and respects them as interesting people with ideas.
Gerwig: He really does respect women. We were doing the DVD commentary yesterday, he was talking to me and Adam [Brody]. He told us he was offered to direct Sex and the City episodes and he didn’t do it because he thought they were humiliating for women. He thought the sex stuff ... he felt it was not respectful.
He doesn’t seem to be interested in raunch or vulgarity.
MacLemore: I think it’s his principles.
Gerwig: But he will make an entire plotline about anal sex. [Tipton’s character Lily has a fling with a friend named Xavier, whose Cathar religion advocates nonreproductive sex.]
Tipton: During those scenes there was no debate. We were in bed about to have sex and I was clothed. It was never going to be any different. Which was kind of awesome.
Gerwig: He’s so particular. You can’t invent those kind of contradictions.
Echikunwoke: I feel like the four of us represent different aspects of his personality. Rose is the very principled one, with very strong ideas about sex and smells and fashion.
Are they Whit’s ideas?
MacLemore: Totally. All of these theories have occurred to him.
Gerwig: A large part of him is like Lily, who wants to fit in and be normal. He puts his ideas in characters’ mouths and he lets them have the debates he has.
Last year with The Help and Bridesmaids female ensemble casts were seen as a hot trend. Was that weird for you as actresses and how do you think that impacts Damsels as a movie with four really strong roles for young women?
Echikunwoke: Just reading this script before those movies [came out], I was thinking it was really cool, kind of unprecedented. It is weird that it’s a trend. It should be normal.
Gerwig: This isn’t Whit, but a lot of it is also [work created by] women. Bridesmaids was written by women and The Help was based on a book written by a woman. Lena Dunham’s show Girls, written and directed by her.
I just had an interviewer ask me this morning, a foreign guy, [puts on a foreign accent] “Do you think that because you’re a writer, it’s OK you’re not pretty?”
Gerwig: It was like, “Well, I didn’t think that until you just said it.”
Echikunwoke: What did you say?
Gerwig: I just sort of clammed up and fumbled around. I think it was a sort of confusion with the language, I think he meant something less insulting than it sounded. I also think we have to expand our notion of what a movie star is. Two months ago Meryl Streep was on the cover of Vogue. On the inside it said, “This is Meryl’s first Vogue cover.” I was like, “She’s in her 60s, this is her first Vogue cover!?” She’s a movie star in that sense now, with Mama Mia! and everything. She was obviously a hugely respected actress before but now she’s a cover girl. Do you know what I mean? I feel like that’s a shift. People have an idea of women or male movie stars ...
Echikunwoke: Glamorous and selling sex.
That’s a product of a male-dominated industry, right? The idea that women need to be selling sex or who would be interested in watching them?
Echikunwoke: Yeah, but I think we can be both.
Gerwig: Whit also made us all look very pretty. He really likes a girl to look like a girl.
Echikunwoke: You can be feminine but you don’t have to be trashy, with your cleavage hanging out.
MacLemore: [The dress code] was so modest, it was very strict. No cleavage, the skirts had to be a certain length.
Gerwig: But it’s also we were characters, we weren’t objects.
Echikunwoke: Exactly. I think what’s happening now is people are realizing women can be interesting characters and be sexy and beautiful and smart and engaging.
Tipton: These characters are personal and relatable. You forget that you’re watching a bunch of women. That’s kind of key, too. I hope that things get to a point where it doesn’t matter, like it did with Bridesmaids—“You’re watching women being funny!”
From an audience perspective if it’s funny, it’s funny. But the media loves to latch on to trends.
Gerwig: When I’m looking for a movie to watch on a plane or after a night out or something, I’m always looking for a movie about women. And there’s so few of them. Look at HBO On Demand, there’s not that many. So you want to watch Sex and the City 2 again?
Tipton: There are so many things that don’t revolve around loving men.
Gerwig: I want to watch women doing stuff together. I loved The Help because I was watching women talk. My favorite times are with my girlfriends, and I don’t see that on the screen.
Let’s talk about the men in the movie. They are the distress of the title and in some ways they’re all sort of idiots, jerks, or liars, but in a lovable way. They’re ultimately not such bad guys, but there’s still a sense that the women are superior.
Echikunwoke: The roles are reversed. In most movies women are the objects, they’re dumb and don’t have that much to offer, can’t have conversations.
Gerwig: I think it’s that Whit is almost like Tennessee Williams or something.
Echikunwoke: Oh definitely, women are his flowers, the things that are interesting.
Gerwig: The men in his world are so much more obtuse.
Echikunwoke: Basically he’s really smart and a thinker. Most men aren’t.
Gerwig: Thinking back to Barcelona, he identified at that moment with the guys trying to find love. I think he realized, “I can just write a movie about the girls, I don’t need to worry about the guys.” And Last Days of Disco became that.
There’s a real teamwork element to the ensemble acting in this film. Did you enjoy being in your character’s skin even when you weren’t the focus of a scene?
MacLemore: I did. I loved putting on a Heather suit. I loved what all the characters were saying so it was easy to be an active listener.
Tipton: I didn’t always love being Lily. You guys would have the freedom to be a little whimsical in things. The only time when I really felt I could break out was in the dance numbers. You can see it if you watch, I’m just like deliriously laughing the whole time to get it all out.
Gerwig: Sometimes we had that element of moving as one organism: the damsels. The lines were right on top of each other and we’d be walking all together. It felt like a relay team or something.
Echikunwoke: Those walk-and-talk scenes were so technical, a lot of it was just making sure you’re not getting hidden, staying in your spot and also listening to what’s going on.
Gerwig: More than a lot of other filmmakers, Whit loves a three shot and a four shot. He loves getting a lot of people on camera at the same time. I like it so much, it’s a really nice way to shoot. It really lets the scenes play as opposed to feeling like they’re edited.
Analeigh mentioned the dance scenes. All of you have some kind of dance background, how exciting was it to find an opportunity to use that in a movie?
Gerwig: So exciting.
MacLemore: I got to put my childhood to good use!
Echikunwoke: When I got to the end of the script [the big dance finale] I was like, “I have to be in this!” It was just the most exciting script I’d read in a long time. Just the way he incorporates the dancing is so whimsical, it’s like dreamy.
Tipton: How often do you find that? You don’t ever. To be in these big ridiculous dresses.
Gerwig: One of my favorite scenes [is when] we’re doing a walk and talk in those dresses with no explanation. I just remembered something … It really was like we were all really supportive. I remember the first week I was having a doubty moment like, “I don’t know, does it seem like I’m bad?” and [Megalyn] said “Now I can’t imagine another person doing it.” It made me feel like I owned it. I think we all kind of helped each other, had each other's backs.
Tipton: I also remember really loving the moments when we’d just be sitting around and it would be quiet and someone would whisper, “This is so cool!”
Gerwig: There were so many things we just didn’t know how they’d turn out. Like I’d look at the camera and say, “Hey everybody, let’s do the Sambola!”
MacLemore: [Imitating Stillman] “Just say it normal.”
Gerwig: That was the best moment of Whit saying, “Just say it normal.” Because I launch dance crazes I make up all the time.
What are the odds of Violet’s dance craze the Sambola actually catching on?
Gerwig: I think [Whit] cares more about the Sambola than the movie.
Tipton: At the premiere, Justin the choreographer was teaching everyone.
Gerwig: I was so happy to see Justin! I feel like we did more dance rehearsals than regular rehearsals.
MacLemore: We definitely did.
Tipton: There were days when it was like school. If we weren’t doing anything, people would say, “You need to be in rehearsal!”
Gerwig: If you weren’t shooting, you were in the bottom of a building doing a two-step.
Carrie, this was your film debut, and Analeigh, you’ve only made a few films so far. Did you have a sense of how unusual this movie was when you were making it?
MacLemore: I haven’t done another film since, so there’s that. I compare everything to it, that’s been hard. I feel spoiled. The writing is so good and special. [Other] stuff is so two-dimensional and you have to work harder to find something. That’s kind of a downer. I really do get worried it’ll never be that thrilling again.
Tipton: I was just filming Crazy, Stupid, Love. when I got cast in this. That was a big studio film so I had no idea what to expect [with Damsels]. It was a completely different experience but absolutely wonderful. I can’t tell you how much I learned, the most relevant to how I approach my work now. The biggest thing is how exciting it was to be around someone as passionate as Greta. She would talk about her writing—I actually moved to L.A. for writing and I kinda got sidetracked and I didn’t meet a lot of girls writing. [To Greta:] I think I told you this?
Tipton: Oh my god, I was so amazed. I went and watched Hannah Takes the Stairs and I got into mumblecore because I wanted to see how you started. It was so inspiring. As soon as I got back, I started to pick up writing again.
Gerwig: I’m not saying this like pat on the back—but when [Caitlin Fitzgerald, who costars in Damsels as distraught coed Priss] was on set, she was complaining parts are so shitty and normal actress stuff. I was like, “You’re too smart, make your own movie.” And she did! She went and shot it.
Tipton: That’s what I took away. And also it’s amazing to me, on my resume, people will look and see Crazy, Stupid, Love. and that’s cool, but it’s a whole different group of writers, producers, directors that go, “You did a Whit Stillman!” I think all of us are really proud to have been cast in this film. It says something.