Kelly Jane Torrance: The return of an independent

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Entertainment,Movies,Kelly Jane Torrance

America might not run on Dunkin', but Whit Stillman certainly does.

The writer-director is known for making talky films about neatly dressed, overly introspective neurotics -- yes, he's been compared to Woody Allen. He was born to a Kennedy assistant secretary of commerce and raised in upstate New York before getting his degree from Harvard.

Yet he's clearly something of an addict of the coffee sold by Dunkin' Donuts.

"I walked up 15th Street this morning to find a Dunkin' Donuts up on U Street," he says in passing on a recent Friday afternoon in a Washington hotel suite. He was in town to promote his latest film, "Damsels in Distress," along with star Greta Gerwig.

Before we've barely begun talking, he's already bouncing back up from the sofa, ambling over to the room's large window. "I was just bowled over yesterday and this morning by how pretty the town is," he says. He points across the street. "Are those cherry trees or are they something else?"

Washington is beautiful during cherry blossom season. And Stillman was born in the city. But over the course of the conversation, it becomes clear that the man is enthusiastic about a great many things -- and that caffeine might be helping him communicate that enthusiasm.

He pictured a Dunkin' tie-in to his latest film. "The Damsels run on Dunkin'," he laughs. He was told that the donut executives liked his film, but were committed to a different one. "They gave us a credit for $50, which we went through in one morning."

It allowed him to make at least one convert, though: "The Dunkin' was much better than whatever the on-set swill was," Gerwig notes.

Stillman made a loose trilogy of films in the 1990s: "Metropolitan," "Barcelona," and "The Last Days of Disco." They earned him a loyal fan base, but the last one didn't make executives much money. So he found it difficult to make a fourth film: This year's "Damsels" marks Stillman's return to cinemas after 14 years. That doesn't mean he wasn't living a creative life, of course -- mostly in Paris and Madrid, no less.

"You can be doing what you think is great work and no one will ever see it," he notes of the peculiarity of the film business for a writer. He wrote a number of scripts. None was produced until "Damsels," which is a hilariously witty comedy of manners and has the same feel as his earlier work.

"Metropolitan" was released in 1990, a year after "Sex, Lies, and Videotape" and part of the same independent film movement that changed the industry. "Damsels" was a return to that low-budget filmmaking, keeping the emphasis on the plot and people he, as a writer, created.

"We had such an efficient shoot," marvels Gerwig, who starred with Ben Stiller in 2010's "Greenberg." "It was really fun," Stillman says of those 28 days.

Gerwig adds, "I do remember there were a couple of days when we actually ran to our final location because we were losing light. There were moments when it was under the wire."

Kelly Jane Torrance is The Washington Examiner movie critic. Her reviews appear weekly and she can be reached at ktorrance@washingtonexaminer.com.

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Kelly Jane Torrance

Washington Examiner Movie Critic
The Washington Examiner