While it’s not uncommon for independent filmmakers to be absent from the big screen for a long time as they get new projects off the ground, Whit Stillman is raising eyebrows with the huge 13-year gap between "The Last Days of Disco" and "Damsels in Distress,” opening Friday.
Happily, despite the lag, Stillman's themes and obsessions are still intact, and the two movies nicely go hand-in-hand.
"Damsels in Distress" takes place at an East Coast college where the boys are drunken idiots and a small group of girls try, in their polite, refined, educated way, to make things better.
On the first day of school, Violet (Greta Gerwig), Heather (Carrie MacLemore) and Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) discover Lily (Analeigh Tipton) and induct her into their group. One of Violet's dreams is to make the world a better place by starting a dance craze, the "Sambola."
"I had a lot to do with the Sambola. I did not write the music, but I did co-choreograph the dances," Stillman says.
The Oscar nominee for best screenplay for "Metropolitan" has been labeled a brainy, verbose filmmaker, but his works often deal with the point at which the intellect gives way to more carnal, physical things, like dancing.
"I love dancing, even in John Ford movies. It's just fantastic," says Stillman, who listens to music while writing. George and Ira Gershwin and Fred Astaire provided the inspiration for "Damsels in Distress."
Gerwig, who volunteered to tap dance during her audition, even has a tap number, which Stillman thinks is a bit too short.
"We did a longer cut but it was kind of awkward and there were cinematic defects to it," he says. "Now leave them hungry for more."
In addition to music, Stillman finds inspiration from life. "Damsels in Distress” stems from a story his ex-wife once told him, and his memory of learning colors as a pre-schooler.
"It was my proudest academic achievement," he says. "Some very absurd things in movies come actually from life. But the 'Eureka' moment comes when this thing you strangely remember could actually relate to a character."
Now that he's back, Stillman hopes not to be away so long again.
"It's very tough to get stuff going," he says. "I hope I have figured how to get things off the ground. I do have five scripts in the trunk, and no one has seen them yet."
IF YOU GO
Damsels in Distress
Starring Greta Gerwig, Adam Brody, Analeigh Tipton
Written and directed by Whit Stillman
Running time 1 hour 39 minutes