“Damsels in Distress,” writer-director Whit Stillman’s first movie in almost 14 years, is set on a college campus — and in a sort of time warp.
“I didn’t want to make a period film,” says the D.C.-born director, who visited his childhood hometown last week with the film’s star, Greta Gerwig. But the story was inspired by the young women who arrived in the 1970s at such formerly all-male schools as Stillman’s alma mater, Harvard.
When the filmmaker returned there after his 1973 graduation, “everyone was really excited about these girls. They wore strong French perfume, they dressed up and they gave great parties. They just made everything fun. In my day, it was very political, and very depressing.”
So he scripted the comedy’s four damsels, led by Gerwig’s Violet. “The girls are so enthusiastic about forms and styles from the past,” Stillman explains. “They’re trying to re-create a kind of ’50s Grace Kelly/Audrey Hepburn utopia.”
For motivation, Gerwig tore photos of Grace Kelly from an old Life magazine and taped them on the walls of her dressing room. “I loved all the ones of her getting married,” she says. “I thought that Violet would love a beautiful wedding day. That would be her pinnacle.”
Violet’s fixations include suicide prevention and scented soap, but her top goal is to create her very own international dance craze. Gerwig has other interests, yet “I identified with her passion. She’s a woman of ideas, even if her ideas are different from my own. But I do love tap-dancing and musicals. That we share.”
Stillman, whose previous film was “The Last Days of Disco,” also has a thing for dance. “It looks really good onscreen. It’s sort of cinematic. It’s also good for linking characters and showing characters pairing off.”
Choreography was helpful in preparing for the movie, Gerwig says. “We didn’t have a lot of rehearsal time, because it was a very short shoot. But we did have dance rehearsals.”
The actress, a ballerina as a child, sounds a bit like Violet when she extrapolates on that experience. “I think even in films where you don’t have dancing, you should have dance rehearsals. It makes you get over yourself. And it’s a really nice way to get to know people.”