In the Marais neighborhood, where I am meeting movie director Whit Stillman on an unseasonably sunny late afternoon, the terrace at La Chaise au Plafond is bustling with a vibrant joy at the first hints of spring.
Briefly tempted by one of the 18 red wines by the glass, I decide on a demi (a draft beer). Stillman orders a Perrier.
As it turns out, the small bistro where he’d offered to meet was one of the locales where he started to build his social life in Paris. Some twenty years ago, having just moved here with his marriage falling apart, he responded to screenwriter Max Frye’s invitation to join a Franco-American film group, and from there a circle of friends slowly grew.
It is easy to picture Stillman finding inspiration for his films in his new Parisian life. When asked how he met a certain extroverted friend, he replies, “I met him at Michael Edwards’, an older English writer type who would host these cocktail parties on the eve of Bastille Day and serve Pimm’scocktails, a very English thing. He had a magical little apartment at the prowl of the Ile Saint Louis, the type my French friends would say only an expat would have!”
Through his portrayal of the habits of Americans and American expats, Stillman’s body of work reveals a sort of sociology of drinking spanning the past several decades. “There are little markers about drinking that can define a character, a stage of life,” he says. For example, in The Last Days of Disco, Alice (Chloë Sevigny), is shocked when she realizes that ordering Vodka Tonics makes her a bit of a cliché—something that Stillman observed during his own early days of drinking and socializing. “At the end of the ‘60s, in my world, at first people had either a kind of Trader Vic’s fruit drink or a Gin &Tonic—not in a classic way such as a summer drink with quinine [to fight] against malaria. No, it was anytime. It’s all they knew. Then in the ‘70s it was Vodka Tonic.”
In his films are only a few glimpses of specific brands, notably in Barcelona when Fred (Chris Eigeman) hilariously plans to replace a stolen bottle of Old Crow from the American consulate with Jim Beam. These two whiskies happen to be what Stillman’s parents would drink. (His mother eventually shifted to Beefeater Gin, which shows up in his movie Metropolitan.) I was surprised to learn from him that Pernod, (featured in The Last Days of Disco) was “used by girls in New York if they thought maybe they were going to be kissed, because it wipes out anything else—it’s like a mouth wash.”
With drinks showing up in so many of his films, does it play a role in his writing process? “A lot of us who write, I think we use a lot of caffeine to try to get our imaginations going,” he says. “Then in the evening, we really want to drink to come down from all the caffeine, and you start to think ‘well, this is part of writing for me, so what will happen when I will become a permanent teetotaller?”
He recalls one his favorite moments of screenwriting research, when, having to decide which drink Alice would pick as a replacement for her shameful Vodka Tonic, he left the historic Cable Building in Manhattan and stepped out for an impromptu Whiskey Sour. It was“a little bit too early, not even 5 in the afternoon,” he admits. (His general rule is to not drink before 7 PM.)
On a day when he is drinking, he’ll usually start with a vodka on the rocks, followed by a couple of glasses of Bordeaux wine at dinner. What brand of vodka? “Most hard liquor I buy the cheapest,” he admits. “My inspiration for that is a lovely family I knew in New York; the father went to Harvard and had been in the OSS. They were very UHB [urban haute bourgeoisie, a term coined in Metropolitan],but at the same time maybe there was not a lot of money around. They would give these old family kind of parties with these impressive friends, and I am so used to cocktail parties where they have only the most impressive brands, but here the bottles would be ridiculous names, like Kamchakta Vodka, these down market names, rotgut alcohol. It showed me that a lot of expensive brands are just social insecurity.”
He does, however, pay attention to the quality of the ice, remembering being favorably impressed once at his parents’ cocktail party by a southern gentleman ordering bourbon with branch water. And if he’s not drinking vodka, then it’s generally rum. Goslings Black Seal from Bermuda to be exact, which tastes so good “that it almost makes it dangerous,” he says with a smile. His backup is Bacardi, which he claims “picks you up.”
He credits a week-long writing seminar at Château Beychevelle in Bordeaux for his taste for “heavy red wines,” which he often drinks in Paris cafés (La Palette, or Le Progrès.) One of his go to bottles of wine these days is Baron de Lestac, a Bordeaux bottling that sells in supermarkets for around 5 euros.
For someone who claims to have “no palate,” which he states several times during our drink, he has very specific tastes. And the names of his favorite Italian, Spanish and French wines unravel poetically from his lips.
There are also the drinks that he doesn’t like. You will not find him ordering a glass of Côtes du Rhône anytime soon. In fact, in a scene from the original script of The Cosmopolitans, his Amazon pilot about expats in France, there is a dig at a friend who always orders the wine.
You get the sense that Stillman is your elegant friend who enjoys giving you a hard time about your drinking preferences, which he thinks may be as much for show as for taste. During our conversation, he charmingly makes fun of the drinking habits of a wide range of people, including himself as well as the “French aristo” who make a point of ostensibly choosing Bourgogne over Bordeaux; drinkers of Maker’s Mark Bourbon; and a Frenchman who criticized the serving of wine in low glasses during the shooting of his film Damsels in Distress. I swallow my beer silently, having been conditioned since birth to make such statements about drinking wine.
Speaking of The Cosmopolitans (more episodes are in the works), some people in France criticized him for portraying the sort of Paris where one goes to the Café de Flore and walks along the Seine. His answer to that charge is that he was not necessarily “trying to avoid a touristic postcard.” But in real life, he explains, the Flore, although annoying to some, is still a convenient and sometimes exciting meeting place where you often run into people from the French film industry. And, he adds, “they have a great Bloody Mary.”
Upon leaving, as I take a detour to slowly make my way to a housewarming party in the grittier—yet probably as cliché—Strasbourg Saint Denis. I look around and take it all in: tourists staring at a restaurant menu; ancient wooden doors adorned with carvings; and an old gentleman reading a book by the river…The postcard Paris with its languid beauty certainly has its charms. And that’s not to mention that it looks just like a scene out of a movie.
While watching his films, Whit Stillman suggests drinking:
Metropolitan: An inexpensive starter drink, such as awhite wine spritzer.
Barcelona: Tinto (red wine) in a low glass with Manchego cheese.
The Last days of Disco: Whiskey Sour. Which Whiskey? The cheapest.