Johnny Dufort, M Le Monde magazine, December 2018, styled by Suzanne Koller
How is it going?
It’s going well.
[2 seconds of classical music are playing in the background of our google hangout, then fading]
Ooh, a bit of music, that’s festive for the beginning.
Yes, I know. I thought was yours, I was like, oh cool, a little intro.
Just a little thing I’ve prepared in advance [I did not, and I still don’t get where the music came from]. I’m really glad that you’ve agreed to do this.
Oh, yeah. I’m super excited.
Good. Where is that, the cool place where you’re at, if I may ask?
I’m in our supply closet, at GQ. There’s pretty much every issue of the magazine here. You have stuff like – I was just looking through this:
Oh my god, that is very cool.
Lots of magazines. And then just a bunch of grooming products. For beards. Like beard oil.
Just the necessities, you know.
I’m recording this on audio and also on video. Is that OK with you?
Good. So you’ve been back in NY… Well, first of all, just like, hi, bonjour. It’s the first time for me doing this long distance, and actually it’s not that long distance because it’s been a very short while since you’ve left the city. Just a few short days. So I thought we can begin by having your very, say, instant point of view, of what you’ve been through in Paris. A basic questioner. So what was the best thing you ate, which was not like, in a restaurant?
You know, it’s funny – when you’re in Paris for fashion week, you don’t really get to go to the great restaurants. So definitely: champagne. Because everywhere you go, every fashion party has champagne. And in Paris, France, of course they have actual champagne, whereas here it’s like, “oh, we have that sad, slightly carbonated sweet thing”. And so it’s real champagne – it tastes dough-ey, sort of like bread – and every time someone offered me champagne, I accepted it.
That’s excellent. What would you say was the best, umm, I want to say “look” but it’s not the right word. Let’s say, you’re on the street, and someone passes by – not in a show, just on a Paris street – and catches your eye with his or hers, “look”, or complexion… A moment of seeing someone and saying to yourself, “yeah, that’s a good one”. Was there a moment like that?
Probably the best moment in that regard, I’d say that there were two things – one on the runway and one off the runway. We’ll start with off the runway. Just going to the Rick Owens show, and seeing the people that assemble, basically in worship of this incredible fashion designer, and they’re wearing — it’s not simply that they’re wearing head to toe looks, the really wild Rick platform boots, the really avant-garde unusual shapes, but that they’re also wearing the prosthetic makeup that he often has in his shows. So there’s a transformation of their body that is happening as well, and a lot of intense makeup. And while it’s not going on at nine o’clock in the morning, it is noon. And there are all of these people dressed as true aliens. I assume maybe some of them are friends, and maybe some are working in the fashion industry, but for the most part I think that they are just people who found, who discovered Rick Owens, and felt a real affinity for him. It’s a true convergence of all of these incredible personalities with these really wonderful looks. And then you also see it – that’s what I was referencing when I was mentioning the runway – you’re watching people in the show, and you say, “ok, I can see that this woman is going to wear that coat with these big shoulders”, “everyone’s going to want these boots”, or this sort of thing.
And was there also something that was not connected to fashion week which was like that, that you saw in Paris – not attached at all to the industry, to a fashion show?
Yes. Well, I’ve been obsessively thinking about socks —
Let’s talk about this.
What happened when I was walking around Saint Germain, was that there were so many women I saw, Parisians of course, who had a perfectly fitted trouser, that was cropped just above the ankle —
Oh my god.
And they were wearing it with a loafer, with a sock. I think that in the United States we don’t have – we just don’t have – the right socks.
And you end up seeing some part of the sock under the trouser, or bunching up, or making the loafer look too full. So just seeing these three pieces working together: trouser, sock, loafer. I saw three different women that really caught my eye – one of them was riding a bike, and I was like [rolls eyes], give me a break – where the shoe was fitting perfectly with the foot in the sock, and then the sock, it was just peeking out to meet the trouser.
This is wonderful.
I need to crop all my pants.
That’s a good takeaway. Thank you. Where did you stay?
I stayed in the 1st, in a hotel – everyone at our magazine was staying there.
How is it, the experience of travelling this way, with a magazine? Is it like a school trip?
It’s interesting, I never worked at a place where I liked the people as much as I like the people that I work with now. Where it’s, if we’re not doing the thing that we’re there to do, the work part of the trip, I would want to hang out with them outside of that. If we weren’t going to shows, or between shows, we all wanted to spend time together. So it doesn’t feel like a consulting trip, when you’re in a soulless town, and you go “I guess I have to go that restaurant – how am I going to get out of that?”. It’s a lot of fun, and the best part about it is, in between the shows, once you leave the show, you take a car and you all get in it together, and you’re all like, “ok, what did we really like about that”, or “what do we think was different and interesting”, “how is that new”, “how is that rehashing what this designer has done before”, “what do we think is going on there – are they using a new stylist?” or that sort of thing. This type of conversations is so interesting,
That should be a podcast. Press record right when you get in the car.
I know. We can also all get fired.
I found that it was a lot easier to write about what I saw, because you could talk things out with everyone. And also, in menswear, people tend to theorise a bit more about what they’ve seen.
That’s interesting. Really?
Yes. You may not know the person sitting next to you, but they’ll just start talking to you, and say “oh, what did you see that you liked”, “did you like that show that was somewhat controversial”, blah blah blah. When I was covering women’s fashion, which I did for three years before this, you would go to Paris, and you sat down next to someone, and you’re given an assigned seat, and it was like, ugh. Much different experience.
Regarding ‘writing about what you saw’, that’s a good moment to say how much I appreciate, and like, and love your writing. Texts, words, it’s a commodity that has never been so superfluous, and that’s why it’s hard and precious to find a voice in the noise. I think I even told you that, the first time was when I was reading Garage magazine, just swiftly eyeing things, and even the subject wasn’t that interesting – Art Basel, t-shirts, whatever – and I remember reading the first paragraph, and it had, like, capitals, and it had exclamation points, it just had an energy. In the true sense of the word, not abstract, it really had energy. And from that I was like, “who wrote this?” – it was very intuitive, to pay attention to your writing. Writing, for you, is it something you’ve always wanted to do?
For sure. When I was really young, I wrote fiction a lot of the time. When I was in the second and third grade I would write mini-novels.
I’d pay to read that.
My parents must have some of that. I always kept a diary, since I was in middle school – I just find that it helps me make sense of things, unpack things, work through ideas, things that are happening around me – whether it’s someone who’s mad at me, or a fashion collection, or a work of art, or something that’s going on in the culture and I’m like “oh, what’s really going on with that?”. The idea with a fashion week piece, whether it’s criticism, or reporting, is to give a snapshot of what is happening in that season, and what people are talking about. What are the kinds of issues that the designers are thinking about, what are they working through. The runway photographs are wonderful, and now anyone in the world can look at that, but I think that it’s such a helpful supplement, to know that for instance, everyone, at least this season in Paris, were really thinking about – not sustainability per se, because people are feeling a little cynical about that – but about doing less, and maybe feeling a bit more restrained in their designs, and more purposeful. So I think that the goal is to give that kind of context. To compliment the imagery and the clothing that you’re seeing. I know in just three minutes I jumped from being six years old to being thirty —
And when you were six years old, what were your mini-novels about?
They were fictionalised versions of what was happening in my life.
Which was like, what? First love? Teacher problems?
I think that the first one that I wrote, we were getting ready to move from Delaware to California. And a lot if was about what our life was like at Delaware, and how it would change when we got to California.
When I was at about that age, my mom wanted to renovate the apartment where we were living at, and I did something very French. I’m not French, I got here a few years ago, but now I know that it was something very French to do – I manifested. I had a dollhouse, a kind of a ‘Barbie in Hawaii’ vacation house, and there was the main pole of the dollhouse, so I took that, and attached to it a piece of paper, so that I can have a real sign, and I wrote something like “we don’t want any works in the house”.
Yeah, so I also as a kid, I really objected to the idea of changing the environment that we were a part of.
I don’t know what it is, if it’s that we’re attached – it can’t be that we’re attached to something as it was, because you’re only six years old, it’s not that long of a memory – but maybe it’s just the human fear of change.
Yes, more of an instinct, it’s not sentimental at all.
There is also something really sacred about where you live. So the idea that that is somehow mutable is incredibly threatening.
Exactly. And so, did you move to California?
We did. I hated living in California. It’s pretty awful – I don’t know why so many people want to move there. And French people want to move there, too. I don’t know what’s going on with that.
Right. Even though I think that it’s very deep, the French mythologizing of New York – I mean, sure, in the past few years obviously there’s “L.A.” in the sense that you get that it’s the zeitgeist, you understand that, but the connections of Paris-New York, as a mythology, in films, or in music – you know, the whole “jazz was born there but here it’s been ‘received’.” And also I think that it’s still true in the sense that Americans can only go abroad if it’s to Paris.
I don’t mean it at all as a “world traveler”, like, not at all. Obviously, I’m speaking of it as an idea, as “what is abroad”, “what is foreign to you”. Americans, you are hegemony, and so once you’ve changed the world’s culture, what now. You’ve made it, but now how is it going to be special for you. And so even in the silliest movies, in the 80’s comedies, I found that Paris always pops up as the idea of abroad.
The housewife always wants to go Paris, right? I mean, they don’t seem to want to go to Rome that much. That’s all I’m saying.
I see what you mean. The only people who want to go to Rome are like, Beat poets, or might-be communists.
Exactly. So, you’ve moved as a kid, you always had this connection to text, and now you’re in GQ, a big magazine, a big name – but it does feel like you have the freedom to write, to engage in things that seem interesting to you.
It’s definitely true. At GQ, our editor-in-chief, Will Welch, has a really specific vision, and also likes weirdos. He likes interesting people, and he likes smart people. Someone actually said to us, at one of the fashion shows, “you guys have the most non-corporate magazine staff, it’s so cool”. I think that there are a lot of magazines where it works a little like an advertising agency, which is good because I guess you’d be making money, but it can be bad because it’s not necessarily… I guess the thing that is so wonderful here is that when I have ideas, there are so many incredible editors and thinkers and other writers around, who are able to help me shape them, and make them better, and give them a sense of direction. With the jobs that I’ve held previously, that wasn’t necessarily the case. What I felt was the big benefit of coming here was that I could be ambitious, and try to push myself to do new or more interesting things; but also that there would be people who would say “ok, take it in this direction, hold back a little bit on this, have you thought about talking about it with this person”. So, I have a lot of freedom, but everyone here helps me to maintain that in a certain way.
Yeah – it’s a good definition of what an “editor” or a “magazine” and all these functions can do for you as a writer. So you have that freedom editorially, but with you, what is interesting to me is your style of writing. Like, a style. This is a very hard — I mean, it’s an issue. I feel like it’s important for you to say things – not to talk about things, but to say things. How do you see style in this sense?
The development of how I started writing, when I started to write about fashion – there was a lot of mediocre fashion writing. I don’t even know if there was a lot of mediocre fashion writing, if it’s fair to say that, it’s more that there was all of a sudden a lot of fashion writing, because a lot of people started to blog, and there was a lot of what, as you were saying, “describing things”. And I thought that that’s weird, I mean, I can just look at the picture. So I started going back and reading earlier fashion writing – I had grown up reading Judith Thurman in the New Yorker. She’s a staff writer but she has primarily written about fashion. So I grew up reading her, in the very classical New Yorker style: very erudite, elegant, where there’s a great amount of time that is spent with the subject, and sentence construction is laboured over. I felt that I could probably write like that, but it wasn’t natural to me, even though It’s a really luxurious place to be in, the New Yorker, but also everywhere that you spend that much time with a subject and really work with your sentences in that way. When I went back and read things, the things that were really exciting to me, there were two – one was Kennedy Fraser, a longtime reporter for the New Yorker, and Amy Spendler, who was Cathy Horyn’s predecessor at the New York Times. And with the both of them, well – Kennedy Fraser is a pretty elegant writer, but there was something almost punching in each of her sentences – every sentence was like, “bam, bam, bam”. And I was just, “wow, instead of describing stuff, I could just really say what it is that I mean”. I can just push away the weeds of trying to say what this gold amazing couture dress looks like, and just say the effect that it has, or what it made me think. Because also, I’m a pretty normal person, so I think that a lot of the things…
What do you mean by that, a normal person?
I think that generally I try to keep my engagement with fashion pretty – it’s not even “limited”, but I try not to get too deep into that universe. There is this terrible thing that some people do when they look at art or look at fashion and they just say, “well, I would want to wear that” – and of course you don’t want to do that – but it is about having a sense of “ok, when I think of myself, with dignity and respect, looking at this garment, what do I think of it, as a person with a little bit of taste.” This, rather than “well, you know I know that this designer was thinking of x, y and z”. That’s important to know, contextually, and I think your work always gets better if you know those details, but it’s really essential to be able to look at things not as a fashion insider but as someone who just, well, likes to look, I guess.
Exactly. Likes to look, likes to live. In that sense, it’s interesting to me to hear about your influences outside of fashion writing. It seems like you read. You read. What do you like to read?
I like a lot of stuff. Once or twice a year, I’ll pick an author and read all of their books. I did that last year with Evelyn Waugh, and I did that the year before with Nabokov.
It’s actually really helpful, because you always know, “this is the next book”. There’s no “what am I going to read next”. But of course in between those things, I read other things.
I like your twitter – it’s not a craft, but it’s something – and it’s not something that writers would do in the past. You know, Nabokov wouldn’t have this communal stage of transcribing, of notes that are public. How do you find it, how does it sit along with your process of writing?
It’s almost like a scratchpad – you’re suggesting ideas that maybe at another point you would carry forward in some other way, in a longer, more critical or analytical way. I don’t cover womenswear anymore, but I do follow – not so much the ready-to-wear, but I follow couture closely – so it’s fun to identify certain themes, shifts that designers have made, or if someone had a particularly interesting season. It’s also because it’s the part of women’s fashion that is the least available in a certain way, yet I feel that people are fascinated by it, obsessed by it. And also, a lot of times, when you say “oh, I looked at this collection and I felt this”, people will respond – not a full-fledged conversation, but it’s always interesting to see what other people think. Usually, people will DM me, and say “well, I actually hated that”, or things that they wouldn’t be putting on the main timeline. It’s not something that I take super seriously. I know it’s a great source for a lot of people of intense anxiety, so for the most part, there are at any given time five to ten people that I will I look up individually – and I might glance for two minutes at the feed each day. But other than that, I don’t really look at it.
That’s a good strategy. Checking it individually, the retro Google Reader way, the RSS feed where you choose what to read, and avoid being afflicted by the algorithm, and the feed’s power to determine your mood. Going beyond that, there are three words you’ve mentioned in our conversation up until now, which I think are interesting as keywords: review, then the S word – sustainability, and then the L word – luxury. I feel that these three words have a certain connection. With reviews, it’s just funny how in fashion, it’s like a force of nature. I mean, in films – the Safdie brothers will have inspiration, they’ll work on a movie, it gets out, whatever. I mean, how come fashion has a schedule? It’s crazy in a way to think about it. When the French invented it, I mean, what were they thinking? And this force of nature, you as a critic are supposed to react to – does this format of gathered reviews, “this show had tees, this show had big collars” – do you feel restricted by that? Is the system broken?
I think that the system of writing traditional fashion reviews is pretty broken. But I think that the system of writing restaurant reviews is also broken.
Right. In what way?
In a bad or boring fashion review, you are knowing as a smart person, “ok, this is all happening one day and each of these shows is fifteen minutes”, but also, air quotes, this is “determining” things for the next six months, so you have to write something that at once captures that moment, but doesn’t make it seem so indesposable. It’s just such an impossible thing to do. With the fashion reviews which I like a lot, which are mostly written by Cathy Horyn, she’s looking at the evolution of the clothing itself. It’s something that not enough people do. Not looking so much at the atmosphere, at the soundtrack, the changes that are currently happening at the company – with her, all these things somehow link together to inform what the clothing looks like. It all comes down to the clothing, the changes in the silhouettes, the innovation of the fabric, the construction. That, I think, is really incredible, but I think most people can’t do that. It’s the same as in any place – many people who write about art can’t approach it that way, either. There are very few people who can. The way I tried to approach it, is having this understanding that it is a momentary thing that happens, it’s a day that you’re writing about, a handful of 15 minutes shows you’re writing about, and you’re able to convey that sense of tempo… Not temporality, but temporariness, instantaneousness, spontaneity – while you’re also thinking about how there are things that go into that, and that are coming out of that, that will say something larger about what is happening in the world right now. That can be a delicate balance, and I think that most people approach to that is to say “oh, everyone’s gonna wear these boots now”. But there are more emotional calibrations and recalibrations in these fashion seasons.
In one of your recent pieces, “what the heck does luxury mean right now?”, you obviously looked at the shows, but it was definitely also about a vibe, a concrete one. Luxury is a curious word, ridiculous – no one who is rich would describe an item to his or her rich friend by saying “that’s luxurious”. It’s kinky. I found that in what you wrote, in looking seriously into this word, the S word, sustainability, also came up in that context. And it’s funny, as these things might seem contradictory, but basically you put them together – you said, let’s treat ourselves with more restraint and have things that mean more. And on your twitter, you said that you wept at a Yohji Yamamoto store. So I got something from all these things together. In which part of the city was the store?
In the 1st. The Yohji flagship, the 3-story corner of building. It was in the morning, and I had actually been thinking about the things that I ended up putting in that piece. That Yohji show has been one of my favourite things of the week – the Yohji show, the Loewe show and also the Emily Bode show. I’ve always loved Yohji, I have a couple of vintage Yohji pieces, and I thought – “I want to go in the store, just check it out, see what they have”. I really like to go into stores – really, really like that.
Yeah. I was going to say “if you can’t go to a fashion show, then…”, but they’re actually better than fashion shows, because you can look at everything, you can pick it up, you can see how it’s made – and then, they’ll let you put it on!
That’s crazy, actually! Now that you say it…
I remember looking at Comme des Garçons’ flat collection from 2012, how I saw it online and thought it was so crazy and cool. Then, six months later, I walked into Barney’s and they had it. I was like, “wait a minute! Wow, these stores, they have all this stuff!”
I tried a bunch of things on, and felt that I had a totally different understanding of what that collection was about. I just can’t recommend that enough, going into stores. So, I decided to go into the Yohji store, which was not far from where I was staying – a five minute walk. I walked in and there was a really wonderful woman – I went to second floor, where the women’s department is, and she followed me, and said “if you want to try anything, just let me know”. We were talking – “what do you do, what are you working on here in Paris”, that sort of thing, and then we talked about Yohji. You know, the cool thing about stores – especially about a monobrand store – is that the philosophy of the designer is practically drilled into everyone who works there. If you go into a Prada store, at least Prada in downtown New York, everyone is obsessed with Rem Koolhaas and are like, “Mrs. Prada would say”…
It’s today’s video store.
So I’ve been in there for about an hour: she explained everything I tried on, “he really likes asymmetry, so you can wear it like this – but Yohji-San would really wear it like that”. It was just really fun.
Fuck. Stores, man. Were there other stores in Paris which you’ve found exciting?
I like monobrand boutiques – going into flagship stores. I’ll always go to the Dries Van Noten store, I’ll always go to Chanel. And I like to go into specialty boutiques – where you go into the place and you can tell that the people who were putting it together have a real point of view. Obviously, Collette was the great one, but The Broken Arm has cool things, and there’s a place called Anatomica that I really like. I’m not as well-versed in this kind of stores in Paris as I wish I were.
And in New York?
I would say that the very best one is Dover Street Market. Unbelievably wonderful. I mean, yeah, it’s cool and all, but it’s also just wonderful. Everyone is so kind, and it’s somewhere where you can discover things, and find new designers, and they have a lot of special pieces that aren’t in any other stores. So, that’s unusual. Overall, though, we need better stores in New York. If you want to come here and open up a store – be our guest.
That’s cool to know. When you look ahead – I mean, you talked a bit about art criticism. In a recent piece, you’ve also mentioned the art discussion as, and excuse this expression – a lifestyle [this is Rachel’s quote that I was referring to: “Your clothing doesn’t need to have a “higher purpose” other than the one that clothing was created for, and your job doesn’t have to be who you are. You can wear this perfect, slightly oversized corduroy coat, and take some time on the weekends or during your lunch hour to see some art, and ask interesting questions of smart friends. You’re doing great.”] Do you see yourself expanding in this direction, thinking of venturing beyond fashion?
That’s an interesting question. When I think about “talking with your friends about art”, I think that what is really important is to have these kinds of interests, and passions, that don’t become a part of your work. It could be because you have an amateur awareness of them, or simply because some things are just for the mind, and for conversation. It happens often where I’ll find myself thinking, “oh, wow – I wish that instead of saying that on twitter, this person would have brought it up with their friends.” There are so many things that are just bizarre, and controversial, and inappropriate – that should be said aloud amongst a comfortable group of people, but not necessarily said online. Actually, I feel that those opinions are often expressed when people are talking about art. I find it valuable that you can just sit down your friends, and it’s not even about being pretentious – because being pretentious is the worst thing in the world – but just trying to reach for the highest and most rewarding level of engagement. Whether it will be analysing a bizarre thing that your friend said or did, or “oh, did you see that thing at the Met – it’s so good”, or “did you see the Da Vinci thing at the Louvre – it was way too overwhelming” – those types of conversations. Let yourself go. Just talk about stuff. I think it is so important.
OK, so I think we’re starting, that’s good. Well, hello, Dasha, thank you very much for joining me here today. If it’s OK with you, I’ll just have one sentence about the place and time we’re in.
So, we’re sitting in Paris, the 11th arrondissement, in a place called Le Servan. People left, they’re after lunch, right? It’s like, afternoon, chill, it’s cold but not too cold.
It’s not raining.
It’s not raining. Dasha is having a brioche with salmon. And I want to say I feel very lucky, seriously, to sit here with you and have this chance, so thank you.
The pleasure is all mine.
So, you’ve basically come to Paris from Geneva, right? Can you… what did you do there, how was it for you… Geneva?
I was in Geneva to do a play, for Centre d’Art Contemporain: it was sort of a performance piece, very much structured and produced like a play. It is for the artist Aria Dean, who’s a friend of mine in New York, and it’s sort of what you’d call a dinner party play, with two couples who gradually start dissociating from themselves and from one another, and making less and less sense… The play is relinquished in the inane conversations that contemporary people have.
It sounds really good.
Yeah. It was a lot of fun to do. Aria Dean is a great writer, and I hope I’ll get to work with her more, actually. I hope we stage this in New York because we rehearsed so much.
How was it?
The play itself?
Yes, and theatre slash cinema. How would you say, very vaguely…
It depends. I think theatre acting is the purest form of practicing my craft. It’s more what acting is.
Did you feel like Geneva functioned as a set, a film set, in ways that cinema lets you experience “hashtag set life”?
No, it’s very different. It was only the director and the four of us, and we all stayed at the embassy for foreign artists.
It sounds better than reality. Any room can be an embassy, it turns out.
As Juilan Assange would testify.
Yeah, so it was just a terrible little house where we all were living.
But we made the best of it. My friend Annie… The actors in the play are my friends from New York, so we really made the best of it.
And then you came from Geneva to Paris, like two days ago.
Right. On the train.
And how was it?
Well, Geneva also?
Geneva is atrocious.
I mean, it’s one of the worst places I’ve ever been to.
Right. How would you describe it?
Well, I came to Geneva from Bangkok.
Yeah, because I was there to shoot a television show, so I was in Bangkok a few weeks prior, and then I went back to New York, and then I went back to Bangkok, and then… very Cosmopolitan. So coming to Geneva, especially after Bangkok, where you are confronted with global poverty, to go from that to Geneva, just the most bourgeois, with all the banks – it’s hideous. It’s charmless. I’ve never felt more alienated. I thought I felt alienated in Thailand but in Geneva I really felt that.
Yeah, let’s see her do a “Lost in Geneva”, huh? No, I wouldn’t want to see that movie.
You know, Geneva has the highest the highest density of wealthy people per capita in the world.
I didn’t know that.
Everyone there is extremely wealthy.
And you can feel it in the air, in a way, I mean, the wealth.
Yeah. Sort of pervasive…
[Here we started getting looks from our neighbours, a young couple who stopped, listened to us carefully, and smiled knowingly. Dasha noticed it before I did.]
I’m sorry, are they from Geneva? Did I say something wrong?
No, no, no. Plus we’re in Paris, so it’s encouraged to have strong opinions about places, whether it’s… I mean, I don’t see here a positive or a negative, really. You can trash Paris also.
I would never trash Paris.
But Geneva… Yeah, it was a challenge for me. In a post-Epstein world, I don’t think we can turn a blind eye to the activities of the ruling class. Especially being in a contemporary art setting, which is very connected to finance. It made me question that connection.
So you describe this travel experience. Another experience that’s like, abroad, appears in your movie ‘Softness of Bodies’.
Right. Which is sort of a good word, but it’s actually not a good word, really.
Yeah, I don’t know why, but first of all, there’s the ex-… It’s like, why? Anyway, what I wanted to ask you about is this frame of going to another place, to live in – did you have that experience?
Have I lived abroad?
Yeah, I guess maybe that’s what I’m asking.
No. I was in Berlin for 5 weeks making that film, but I wasn’t really living there. The director who made the film lived in Berlin for a few years, and I think he would identify as an expat.
And when you made that film, how did you approach the part of someone who is misplaced?
Well, the character I play, she is also defined by the fact that she refuses to learn German.
Yes, and there is the officer who is really mad at her for that, which is a great scene.
The scene where she is making her case in court, and she has to translate it to German, is one of my favorite scenes.
Mine too. I have screenshots of that scene.
Oh, cool. I wrote that.
Okay. Nice. You also wrote the poems.
Right. And a lot of the things that Charlotte says. Charlotte’s voice is very mine.
How is it like? I mean, because Wobble Palace is also a co-creation. How do you approach that kind of work?
Well, it depends. Eugene and I wrote Wobble Palace together, but it’s an improvisational film. So we outlined the story together – we had bits that we wanted to hit and things that we wanted to say, and the voiceover we did after. But it was very collaborative, improvisational. With Jordan, who directed Softness of Bodies, he wrote the script based on conversations we had. We wrote it in L.A, I would go to his studio a lot, just hang out with him, talk.
Did he know he was gonna do a film about someone’s who’s not… an American who’s not in the US?
Yes. Because he was living in Berlin for a while.
I mean, in Thailand – I’m the only American actor on that tv show. Everyone else are either from the UK or Australia or France or New Zealand. It’s a BBC production. I’m the only American actor, and I have become very aware of my American identity.
In what ways?
Just things you stupidly take for granted. An arrogant American. An Australian friend of mine, when we were in Bangkok, he said to me – you always say literally, like all the time.
You just see yourself, see the way other people look at you, and, wow, really, I’m just like, blond, vocal fry, adderall, pill-head, American girl. You know? You feel like such a cliché, but not in a bad way, I guess.
Yes. Not in a bad way.
No. It feels good to be an American.
I wonder about… I mean, you said you were going to L.A., for the movie, and also Wobble Palace is a very L.A film.
It’s a very L.A film.
It just felt like, a place. What I mean to say is, do find that you can be an expat in your country? I mean, can you feel in a way, on your way from New York to L.A – this a word I prefer – an immigrant?
Well, the etymology of expat is ex-patriot. And patriot is an American to begin with, right? Are you only an expat when you’re an American, is that the idea?
That’s what I think. That’s why I prefer to talk about it in terms of immigrating.
Well, I was born in Belarus, so I am an immigrant.
When I was three years old, my parents came to the US.
And you grew up in…
Las Vegas. I went to school in California, I’ve lived in California most of my “adult life”, and I moved to New York about a year and half ago.
Just a year and a half ago?
Yeah. And when I lived in L.A, I mean, I didn’t feel like I was an Angelina, but in New York… I really feel like a New Yorker, and I think I’m gonna keep living in New York.
That’s very good. You found your, like, territory.
So I don’t feel like an immigrant there, I feel like — I know this is corny.
It’s not. It’s not.
I mean, I know how to live in New York.
And what would you say configures that thing of knowing how to live in a place?
Hmm. Well, I don’t know how to drive. And in New York a lot of people don’t know how to drive. I’m a pedestrian. I love walking around. I feel very overwhelmed by the physicality… It suddenly got very quiet.
[Voices in the background are saying “merci”, and people are getting out of the restaurant] It’s good for us.
I feel often times overwhelmed by the physicality of space, materiality is hard – in New York it feels very manageable. I know how to accomplish things. It’s the only place on earth I was able to make money. I was very poor in L.A. In New York I feel like resources circulate more freely. In L.A. I always had this feeling of like, marginal. I was afraid I’d be forgotten, that I’d slip away somehow and not be able to make it.
And in New York you feel…
Safe. Very safe.
I love New York.
There is this sense of – I would use the word basics, getting get back to basics. What you said about American identity, when you say “I feel safe in NY” – I feel like there are things that were taken for granted, that became clichés, but now we have to verify them, again. For nowadays. Your films, and your roles, are doing kind of the same thing. Like, it’s a general thing to say, but I mean – cinema. Can you tell, for example, what do you think about cinema vs. tv? We talked about cinema vs. theatre, so do you have a certain regard over the landscape?
Yes, the art of cinema – as a landscape to work in versus other fields?
Yeah, I think cinema is a way of – you can really say something with cinema which that you can’t with tv. I started calling it “the entertainment arts”. It’s not that it’s illegitimate. I said it on my podcast recently, about that show Euphoria, I just think that television is very, you know – and people make fun of me for this – it allows people to sort of reset, that’s why people binge watch. It’s escapism, and cinema, ideally, isn’t about escapism. It’s about feeling more fully. Movies should make you want to change your life. Give you perspective, a sense of empathy, of understanding. Films have, like, a virtue. I read an essay – The Spiritual Frontiers of Film – and it was very meaningful to me. I’ll send you a link.
This is a really good point, because the spiritual, the complete sense of experience versus other, more exploitable things: “the entertainment arts” is good for that. I think it’s toward the end of Wobble Palace when you talk about “being basic” – and this question of basics, sometimes I think about this word, which can be very negative –
Yes. But in “basics” maybe there’s also this intention of – let’s talk about what’s real. Of what’s Important. What you said – what makes you feel. What makes you experience the world. And, this is also another word which isn’t being mentioned at all – ethics. Like, you can say “spiritual” very easily these days, but what about…
What responsibility do we have.
Responsibility is a very good word when you talk about tv versus cinema, because, you know – an artist has to say when something ends. A point. An end to a sentence. Like, Succession can now go on for 5 seasons more, and people will consume it – it’s entertaining. But where’s the question mark, the exclamation point?
Where’s the spine of it.
Spine is a term which Elia Kazan uses.
Which is also a moral word.
Right. It doesn’t necessarily have to be like someone with spine —
It could be about the story.
He talks about the spine of characters – but it can also relate to a story, like there is something grounded inside of it.
That’s something I found in both of your films – Wobble Palace and Softness of Bodies. You watch an indie film, but basically the experience of the story is very classical. When you watch whatever Netflix shit it’s very broken, very mathematical, directed towards the moments that are supposed to give you pleasure.
Algorithmically generated, almost. Manipulative. I think television is manipulative.
It is just manipulative as a perspective. And movies, well – talking about this essay that I read – the responsibility to bear witness to one’s time.
This is the thing. My boyfriend has very much influenced my thinking about the responsibility, the spine which you talked about, and it’s also about watching the time – and having a sense of “I’m supposed to reflect this”.
I think a lot of people are not… Well, not to get much on a high horse –
Not at all. It’s very important to say these things. This is why I wanted to talk to you.
Yeah. I think a lot of people don’t make films out of a sense of responsibility. It’s narcissistic, and also an ego. I think acting should be about ego death, in a way. You have to be comfortable being a vessel for something. I think a lot about that.
You recently wrote on twitter something that seems to be generated by, I wouldn’t say agony, but by trying to deal with that. It was about the profession you chose – is it taking something from you.
Does acting take away something from you that you can never get back.
Right. So in my last trip to Bangkok, I was already feeling very nihilistic because I was flying to play a corpse.
I’m only in one episode, but I had to spend there all this time – because of the way tv is produced, it’s like a factory, it takes a tremendous amount of – well, also in films – but in tv, just the scale of production is so much bigger. There are so many people that their job is to figure out teeny tiny things. And so somehow I had to go to Thailand to play my character’s dead body – so I’m already like…
Yes, this is already a setting that is…
Yeah. And when I get there, basically what happened was that someone made a mistake and I wasn’t supposed to be there, at all.
As a corpse, which even more…
Right. I mean, they used a body double, which they should have done anyway – it doesn’t make sense to fly an American across the world to lie under a sheet.
So it was just a little mistake someone made, but there was no reason for me to be there. So they were like “we’re so sorry, but that’s it. You’re just here, you’re in Bangkok”. And I didn’t want to go Geneva earlier than the other actors, because I knew that Geneva was going to be excruciating. So I just stayed, and because I was in such a nihilistic place, I just went on like, a bender. But I met these two really wonderful actors, who were actually working in Thailand and have been there for a month, and spent a lot of time with them – and I had a conversation with one of them about, yeah, does acting take away something from you that you can never get back. And I think that it does – but I don’t think it’s finite. I do think you can regenerate it. But I think I’m being a vessel – and a lot of actors are uncomfortable with that language – even outside acting, I feel like a vessel. I think if you’re a director then you’re a vessel, in a spiritual way I feel I’m a vessel for God’s will, or whatever you want to call it. So I said, even if it’s not finite, being a vessel means being empty in a way. That emptiness can be something that is difficult to live with, and it is a kind of void. That’s why a lot of actors are chaotic, because they have to reckon with this void more than normal people do. Simone Weil said that to love is to endure this void. And acting, as a labour of love, is enduring the void. I sound so pretentious. I’m sorry.
Oh my god, you do not sound pretentious at all. This is totally the conversation. I mean, I said ethics first, so you have the right to —
And then we sort of started talking about celebrity, and the way that famous people, really famous people, like Brad Pitt, creep me out. Because it feels like there’s nothing inside of them.
You know, the first time I went to Paris as an adult person, was to go to a David Bowie concert, and it was scary as hell, because of what you’re talking about. I really tried to grasp why it was so scary to see him live, and it was that – like, how can you be alive? What is “David Bowie Live”?
What is supposed to be inside of David Bowie. What does Brad Pitt feel like when he wakes up inside of himself.
It’s creepy. And as an actor, you work to become famous, and to proliferate your image, and then what happens to it? I think this actor, the one I was talking to, is going to be extremely successful, I think he is going to have a huge career — and I felt afraid for him. I was like, I really don’t want you to lose too much. There’s something inside of you that is really precious, which is why you’re an incredible actor, and this charisma which is a gift that you’ve been given – and celebrity seems like such toxic thing to have as a person, really.
It’s like you need to bear the charisma – that’s not even owning it. Like a baggage, something to deal with.
And then we were trying to think of actors that are famous and didn’t seem to have this, I don’t know, abyss.
Yeah, abysmal quality. So there’s Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who was able to retain it, but then horribly tragically died. I don’t know who else. I watched in my hotel By the Sea, the Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt film.
I just watched the trailer a few times.
It’s,,, interesting. It’s beautifully shot, it’s very luscious, the story is very straight forward, Melanie Laurent is there, who still has a quality of — I don’t think she’s lost too much of whatever you want to call it.
Yeah, I want to say that, it’s a big generalisation to say that, but, French actors and French cinema in general, I don’t know why but it has less, I feel like it drives people less towards the abyss than the classic Hollywood machine.
Yeah. UK actors as well.
Are there UK actors?
[Laughs] Well, they have a tradition. Becoming an actor in the UK is – you go to drama school.
Well, or you can just have a Mike Leigh film.
Well, and all the BBC business, which is a good business.
Right, which is entertaining and good. I do think that the show I’m on is gonna be good.
BBC programs – this is content that I think you can binge on and not feel horrible, so this is very good to have. But in the sense of cinema, really, it’s funny that they have the drama school, but the real artist, the real auteur which is Mike Leigh, has this crazy improvising system.
So it’s like, don’t ever do something you’ve learned. But I also think that French creators deal with it. Like, they deal with everything, in a way? French deal. Like, Lacan deals.
People deal here, in whatever ways, and also you see it in films. People, girls, lose their shit all the time, they have a good time losing it with each other.
What do you mean by losing it?
I’m saying like, I’m really far from having a broad education in cinema, but I love what I’ve seen so far, and I’ve also tried to make my journey in French cinema to be, also very generated by, “ok, where’s the romantic comedy?”, where’s the mainstream stuff? Because I’m not from here. So, for me it’s also a lesson – how do people act?
How do people live.
How do people live. How do people do that thing, which is owning a place. And I don’t think there are many American movies that can teach you that in the same way. Maybe the American is more pure cinema – it’s not like I’m saying one is better than the other, but there is a sense of practicality, like here are these things you will see in French movies which are over and over being played out, but not because they’re the “I love you” scene, just because it’s: here is how people live. And girls, like —
Are you talking about the show Girls?
No, like French girls in movies, they’re having fits. You have this way of dealing. So if I’m coming back to this idea of fame, of how do you carry this baggage, I wanted to ask you about something you said in an interview you did with Civilization magazine — which is a very very good magazine. It’s a chance to say: buy Civilization magazine. Buy Softness of Bodies, which is on Vimeo, and you can buy it. it’s important to buy these things which are good.
Thank you. And thank you for watching them.
Well, I had the pleasure of watching them, so it’s really me that should be thanking you. But you said in that interview, “it’s a lot easier when you’re cute girl”.
And it seems that in the same way that people don’t talk about fame, because it’s not polite – like, you’re famous, fuck you, you will not have the right to complain – so, and this is more relevant for actresses, where do you think comes in the beauty part? Why is it not talked about? Is it shameful?
I don’t know. Do you think it’s different in France?
Well, this is very cliché, but I think that beauty is really different here. There are different expectations of what is beautiful.
Right. Well, one of the actors in the play which we did in Geneva, is extremely beautiful.
Like, model beautiful?
Like, doll beautiful. He just has a very photogenic, striking face, and when any of us posts a picture of him we immediately get tons of dm’s – who is he, who’s that guy. He goes to places and girls constantly want to talk to him.
And we were at dinner the other night, and we all ganged up, and we were like, can we talk about the fact that you are extremely attractive?
And he got extremely uncomfortable, and was just, I don’t want to talk about it. And we were like, no, let’s really talk about what it’s actually like for you to live your life like this. And he was like, no, but you’re beautiful Dasha, and we were like, no no no. Like, whatever, I’m fine, but you — are notably beautiful. And he really didn’t want to talk about it.
Do you think it’s the same as money?
Yeah. People don’t want to talk about being rich as well. I feel rich – I made money for the first time in my life, and I am feeling like such an obnoxious retard. I lost my wallet in Qatar, on the way to Geneva, and then when I got to Paris I wired myself 4,000 euro, because I really wanted to spend money in France.
And you could do that.
Right, I could do that, and it’s ok, it’s not a big deal – and that’s never happened to me before. So I buy my friends stuff, I pay for the hotel, I’m really splashy. Having that much cash, putting it in a safe, then going and opening the safe, taking out money… I do feel, because I’m new money, I do feel this rush, and I will say “I’m rich, I’m rich, I’m rich – look at my boots”. And my friends like it, because it’s fun and chaotic to be crazy or whatever, but yeah. You’re not supposed to say that. You’re not supposed to say “I’m rich”. And I’m not even truly rich, I mean, I don’t have wealth. I have, like, thousands of dollars.
But that to me feels rich.
It feels more complicated than saying “I’m privileged”. There’s something else happening there.
It almost feels like rich people have to carry this burden.
It’s like a moral rot.
Do you think beauty is the same thing?
Ooh. I don’t know. Maybe because you want beautiful people to be — you know, you project something onto them. You want them to live up to how they look on the outside. Everyone has the capacity to be in an amount of pain, but beauty doesn’t alleviate, really. Yeah, your life is easier if you’re good looking, sure, but I think that maybe people don’t want to live with it, with the fact that they’re beautiful, because they don’t want it to diminish from who they are inside of themselves, which might obviously be more complicated and painful. Just a guess. I am not shallow, but I am very smitten by beauty. I will become erotically fixated, romantically fixated, on people purely based on the fact that they’re beautiful.
I found in your roles something that is very honest about it. There’s something honest about the way that you carry yourself, and in the films, that feels different. “I’m here to deal with this body, with this thing, with the look I got”.
With the corporeal form.
Yeah. And there are many people who are on film, on camera, who don’t — I mean, which I get, I’m not criticising. But I think there’s a lack in this kind of “let’s deal with that”. Let’s deal with the flesh.
Right. An awareness, self-awareness.
We mentioned being “aware of the times”, and regarding that, beside the films, there’s also the podcast you do. Cultural commentary.
Bearing witness. Conversation. You know, people get mad at us a lot, for various reasons, but something that people neglect to understand is that we’re not pontificating. We just really try to talk through things. We admit fully to be uninformed, or misinformed.
It’s just called “people talking”. I think you have these media entities, classic magazines, that would try that. You know, the very-very old Vice, Gawker, certain moments of Hopes & Fears, you had like, Buzzfeed in the beginning —
Can I have another champagne?
Sure. But drink mine first. Dasha is drinking my champagne, which I’m really happy about. I mean, what I want to say is that in this moment, something like a classic magazine is missing. When I see Civilization, which is so so good, it’s also super demanding. It’s like an art form, in a way. I would hesitate to call it a magazine.
It’s more complexed. More like an art object.
Definitely. I’m still trying to find my way to the second issue.
It’s very special. And very New York also.
And in that sense, it’s very attuned to bearing witness, and so, respect, right? Ooh, here’s a person who looks like the Oliver type, like Oliver in Softness of Bodies. I saw another one like this on my way here.
Like Morgan Krantz. Who I’m very smitten with.
Yeah. I was very obsessed with Morgan because of the way he looks. I probably shouldn’t say this, but I wanted him to play in the movie so that we could go to Europe together.
No, that’s good.
He was someone that I was just smitten with, like “Oh, Morgan”… I would look at pictures of him. And we’re friends, but I have love for him that is completely misplaced and weird. But I just thought that he was so beautiful. Wrote about him in my diary, wrote to him love letters. Just act stupid.
[Laughs] So, with Red Scare, do you — I mean, I do feel like pop culture writing, that there’s more ways to do it, and be more wild about it. You have mainstream like The Cut, Rachel Tashijan at GQ, Kaitlyn Tiffany at The Atlantic…
Kaitlin Phillips is great.
Exactly, Kaitlin Phillips. And they just, like, write, and they have a stage to do it. But where’s the magazine? Where is all that as a voice?
I mean, maybe magazines are just not a good medium. The reason why podcasts are so popular is because – people do so much menial labour, they do so much commuting. I’m not the first to say it, but podcasts have a social quality to them that comes out of a profound loneliness. And people listen to them because they want to have a simulation of a relationship.
Isn’t that sort of like binging?
Definitely. I don’t think it’s the healthiest way of being in the world. But people reach out to me and say that the podcast has alleviated a lot of pain for them, and that’s nice. Again, I’m not on a high horse or something, but when people say “it helped me deal with something, the way that you guys discussed something, re-evaluate” —
Right. Totally. I get how and why we’d listen to podcasts more than, whatever. So when will Žižek appear on the podcast?
He just went on Chapo.
Who cares? It’s you guys who should…
I know, we love him. We want him more than anything. We went and saw him in Toronto.
What was your favourite moment of that trip?
I really liked when he dared Peterson to tell a joke. I’m such a fan. I’m really not a fanatical person. I’m very rarely starstruck, I wouldn’t consider myself a fan, but Žižek does inspire fanatical feelings in me. Seeing him, I was like, screaming, like The Beatles. I really like, love him. Just see him do his thing was cool. But also Peterson, now that he’s in rehab, his Benzo addiction and whatnot, you could even see that he was him as profound because he was so human. Watching him, bumble around – I had so much contempt for him as a figure, and then actually seeing him was the inverse of what you’re talking about with David Bowie. Like, oh, he’s probably a nice guy, just… human.
Me too, I found myself also surprised by it. Also with Slavoj – there is such a compassion which he inspires, so I think it surrounded him also.
Totally. There was an aura of understanding something. So yeah, we’d love to have Slavoj, we’d love to have Camille Paglia. She doesn’t do podcasts, but I think eventually, we’ll get there. But for now, I’m travelling – we pre-recorded some episodes because we knew were both gonna be gone, and I honestly don’t know anything that’s happening in American politics right now. I haven’t been on my phone, Social commentary does require a massive investment in being online, and when I don’t do that…
But does it also feel good, not to have takes?
Oh yeah. Definitely. It feels great.
But Anna is terrific. She’s like a hot take machine.
Yeah. The input-output ratio is impressive.
I’m really lucky to work with her and I really love her a lot.
That’s cool. I’m also lucky that you got to Paris and said yes to me. Can I just ask you about future projects? The writing together with the acting, will there be more of that?
Oh, I want to start directing.
This is such good news.
I’m working right now on a script with my friend Madeline, for a short we’re gonna do tentatively in December, that is about Jeffery Epstein, and Eyes Wide Shut, about satanic elites, friendship, mania.
That sounds amazing.
It’s very much about bearing witness. I’m trying to make things that are very motivated by out of and respond to ethics. Of bearing witness, of spirituality. I think the subtext for these things is really “hope in the dark”. I want to make something that is like, I don’t know, true. That has virtue in it, basically.
I really like that. Thank you.
Our Lady Zurich, photographed by Lukass Wassman. Interview magazine, September 2019
I think we’re good.
Let me me know if I need to talk louder.
I think we’re good.
You don’t want to check, so that you know how it sounds?
If it’s okay I’d rather converse.
If it’s fine with you.
Nothing’s fine with me. Have you seen Damsels in Distress?
[Laughs] I did. Of course I did.
Okay. Nothing’s fine. There is no ‘fine’ in the world.
There is no ‘fine’ in the world. That is a very good beginning to our conversation. So hello Mr. Stillman. I want to thank you for being here today. I feel lucky and also honoured. I am a fan of your work.
No, el gusto es mio.
And we’re in this… I’ll just describe the place where we are.
We’re in one of Paris’ prettiest streets.
Rue de pont Louis Phillipe.
And it is pretty marvellous. They say “on a de la chance”, so, we do – I definitely feel this way this morning. So thank you.
I’d like to start with… It’s funny, you know, I’ve been having your work as something that interests me for a while and I found…
How did you discover the films?
Well, if it really interests you, in ’98 was the first time I watched a film of yours.
Was it Last Days of Disco?
Yes it was.
When it released in Israel?
Yes it was.
You’re one of the 10 people who went?
That’s right. And if you’re really interested to know, then I can tell you that I had a very hard time. I was 15 years old. I was with my friend, my best friend, who – like me – was a big lover of disco. And as two very stupid, very silly 15 year old girls, we would go every week to this disco party – you know, a sort of a weird revival, but very pure disco. And so watching the film, as two very silly girls who thought this film was going to be about sequins, we had no idea, right? And so I thought about it, when I read that you discovered Austen in an immature stage, in a way – that you’ve read ‘the wrong Austen’.
And then you had this sort of, I wouldn’t say epiphany, but then you got to the right works at the right time.
Yes. I read Northanger Abbey at the wrong time. I was a sophomore in university, and then after university I read Sense & Sensibility and got to love it.
So you hated Last Days of Disco. You were disappointed.
I did not understand what I was, like… I think that was it, I did not understand what I’m seeing. Which is very different than not liking a film. It does not happen that often. I mean, mainly in films that you go to see in the cinema, and you expect to be, I don’t know, entertained, or…
But afterwards, when a friend asked you whether she should see it or not, what would you say?
Well, obviously today…
No, no. The next week.
When I was I 15. Okay. I would say, this is a very bizarre movie, but. But… You know, I don’t think that when I was 15 years old I was able to say what were those the three dots after the but were.
Well, what’s your favourite disco film? Saturday Night Fever?
Saturday Night Fever is a very very good film. I would say that my favourite is… This is a very-very good question. Now I can’t think of anything but Last Days of Disco, it’s complicated.
But don’t you consider Grease kind of a disco film?
Grease is sort of hybrid 50’s nostalgia film with…
Oh, of course, Grease. I’m used to people pronouncing it with a Z. I didn’t know the S is soft.
It came out in the disco era, and it had a disco song as the central song, but it was referring to stylized 50’s nostalgia. What about Flashdance?
Well, Flashdance is the awesomest, I would say. I think this is a very good choice.
I had a great experience with Flashdance. I was just starting to sell Spanish films, and I was travelling, and I was in Helsinki when Flashdance opened…
Oh my god – you watched Flashdance in Helsinki.
In Helsinki cinema, with all of these albino blonds.
Isn’t that a movie in itself, “Flashdance in Helsinki”?
Yes, it was really great. I loved it. Actually, one of my Helsinki experiences is in Last Days of Disco. It’s when the pharmacist is giving medicine to Chloë, which suggests she has a sexual transmitted disease, and he says, “sorry”.
Because I got kind of, you know, gastro, when I was in Helsinki, and I went to the weekend pharmacy, and the guy said – what are you symptoms, and I told him, and he said, “I’m sorry”.
[Laughs] That is such a great diagnose to get. I would say that my right Austen, my right Stillman, came when I was about twenty-something-young, and I saw Metropolitan.
No. I definitely downl… [stopping]
How did you know where to stream it?
It was a torrent downloaded from the internet. That is the truth.
But how did you know to search for it?
Oh. Well, this was the time where I first became interested in cinema, which I wasn’t when I was 15, not in this way. And I watched a lot of Woody Allen, and I watched a series called Gossip Girl.
And obviously Metropolitan deals with… Well, suddenly, I got it. I even got…
Retrospectively, Last Days.
Yes. In a way I hadn’t gotten before. And watching Metropolitan, it has, I would say, a very curious structure – it leads you to think that the movie is about an outsider.
It sort of plays on that very classic tale. And yet, later you understand that it really isn’t about the one person. It is the story of a group. Can you tell me about this complex structure?
It’s one of the reasons I don’t like the standard process which some people push for – to have an idea of everything that is happening in the story before you write it – and the idea of having a treatment or an outline which you start with, then fill in the blanks with screenplay. Because I find that our initial ideas tend to be very cliché, very familiar and very much derived from what we’ve seen before and what we think we’re supposed to do. And I think that sometimes when you get to the better material is when you go off the rails with an original idea – and then have to sort of fix it, and to go with what the material or the characters are doing, somewhat autonomously. When you’re guided by the material – rather than trying to sort of shape and form the material too much, or manipulate it, or jerk it around like a marionette. And so in the case of Metropolitan, I think I probably started it with the idea of Tom Townsend being the protagonist, being the outsider character who comes into the group and all that – but I had had that experience, and in the end of the experience I did end up being an insider, not an outsider – so I was writing it from an insider perspective defending the inside. Which means I couldn’t honestly take the outsider perspective, and do, you know, the conventional thing. Normally, one of the weaknesses of cinema, of popular cinema, is that it always tries to flatter the preconceptions and the biases of the audience. And it’s never, in any way, really educating the audience or really bringing the audience into a different world beyond their prejudices. And so the prejudice everyone would have going in is to hate the insider group, the debutante types, and to like the outsider Fourier socialist. But in the course of doing the story, I saw I was in a situation where the Audrey character was much more sympathetic in her situation than the Tom Townsend character. He was kind of thick, preoccupied with the wrong girl, ignoring the right girl, not being very nice to her. And the seemingly obnoxious Chris Eigeman character was getting all the funny lines and all the insights. And the heart character was Charlie, Taylor Nichols’ character, who’s also the sociologist. And so, at one point I said, “it’s really Audrey’s story, I’ll try to make it about her” – and I tried to make it about her, but I had already done so much with Tom, so I just said “I just have to let this be the way it is”. It’s four protagonist characters with their different points of view. It’s the first screenplay that I completed, and I got worried halfway through it – I thought, where is this going to end, so I wrote the melodramatic ending in South Hampton. And so I had to do a sort of transcontinental railroad coming from the both ends, meeting with a golden spike, to see if they’d ever meet. And they fortunately did. But what I found was that I kept getting ideas for new beginnings. The first beginning was Charlie talking to Cynthia about God – it was gonna be tight shot of him talking about God. And then it went earlier, and it was the meet-cute in the taxi cab, how they meet Tom Townsend. And then I said – we have to sort of look inside the predicament of the debutante. Because the Gossip Girl version of the debutante would be these heartless rich girls – when actually, the people who are least enjoying debutante parties are the debutantes. A lot of girls are having the party under the misconception that it’s about them, and that they’re the centre of attention, and they’re embarrassed, and awkward, and unhappy. When it’s not about them at all – it’s just people wanting to go to a party, you know, get over yourselves. Another thing about that period is that adolescents are very worried about their noses and their asses: their noses and their asses being too big. I think it’s because when we’re children, these areas are underdeveloped. And as you approach adulthood, and adolescence, suddenly your body and face change – your nose becomes bigger, your ass becomes bigger. And so Audrey is very worried about how her behind looks in the white dress, and there’s the obnoxious comment her brother makes. So that started being the first scene. And then we had an awkward situation, because we had no older actors, because we couldn’t have union actors – so we just had to ask people we knew to be in the film, so Isabel Gillies’ mother came to the set, and we asked her if she could play Audrey’s mom. Sort of sprung it on her. And it felt like an awkward scene – so we tried to take it out. But then the next scene felt awkward. So it was funny to see how that screenplay came together.
It’s very interesting – you present it in that natural way, but you follow these instincts – it seems like a very complex structure to get to. What you said about “defending the inside” – this is a very hard tone to grasp. This kind of structure, that you have in Disco, that you have in Damsels, that you have in Barcelona – well, it’s not about “an American in Barcelona”, I mean, in a way of course it is, but the end – when the Spanish girls and the American boys get back to America – proves to you that it’s not about that, it’s not about this structure you’ve described, which is designed to answer our expectations as viewers. You seem to have this ability, in each and every one of your films, to just nail this very delicate line. That’s what I’m wondering about, how do you weave this complexity?
It’s kind of a problem, because it’s a barrier to intelligibility and acceptance. I think it’s in the writing process which is just very long. Sometimes when a film is not being well-received by critics, and where I feel it should be better received by critics, I find that their approach is not actually to get involved in what’s happening in the film, but it’s like they have a checklist. “Well, maybe there’s some interesting dialogue and some funny jokes, but there’s no forward momentum, no plot, no tension”. And the thing is, everything that you have – is also gonna be a lack. And you have to have a lack in order to have something else. So, generally, if you have jokes or something funny happening, you’re not gonna have tension and plot and forward momentum. You sort of can’t. I mean, I think there have been a few cases where people have been able to do that and it’s really wonderful – I admit it’s wonderful. But generally, if you have one thing, you’re not going to have the other – and so this idea of checklist approach to evaluating something is a misfire. I think that what you’re talking about is just trying to work through the material as it arises, and allowing the material to go where it should go. At the same time, you are trying to shape it and make it work better for the audience – I mean, you want the audience to be pleased. But sometimes there’s no accounting for taste, and you get criticised or rejected for things which you’re actually doing right, it’s just that people don’t want it at that time. It’s very nice when people like you come back to the material and reconsider it, and that’s really what we want, I think. I have two writers where I rejected very passionately the first work of theirs that I read – the other was Evelyn Waugh, I hated A Handful of Dust. Since I’d gone back to read Northanger Abbey, after getting to love Jane Austen – and then I got to like Northanger Abbey, though not as much as the other books – I went back to A Handful of Dust. And in the first half of it I thought, this really is good, I am really enjoying this, this is well done – but then I got to the middle of it, and I said, no, actually, I still hate this. I just hate it. So I still hate A Handful of Dust.
I’m reading a Waugh biography right now, it’s a new biography that’s supposed to be sympathetic to him, and defending him of things people have accused him of in the past – and I am not being convinced. I just find him such a dreadful, dreadful person, and if this is the idea of what Catholicism does to people, then I don’t think that it’s a very good advertisement at all. It’s all a Protestant caricature of how awful Catholics are.
This is a very interesting point, I hope we will be able to get back to that. You’ve talked about “the checklist” – in this context, you’ve called your comedies, your films, “comedies of identity”. I’d like to ask you, how when one creates comedies of identity, does one succeed to escape identity politics?
Oh yes. Well, I try just to ignore it. As much as I can. I think one of the problems we get to is that if something goes too far, in a direction that’s not really right, there’s a tendency to take the other point of view and go in the other extreme direction. I think the real thing is to try to just ignore it, to exist in a world where this wrong thinking just doesn’t exist. Because you can get into two tracks of wrong thinking – one wrong thinking here and then wrong thinking responding to it. If you think something is not quite right and not perceived in reality in a helpful way, I think it’s best to just — I mean, I find it very strange when people are saying how important it is for them to have all their artists as the same background as themselves. Occasionally, you do hit upon a writer who’s sort of close to you in certain ways, but the great thing is just loving people who are just completely different. One of the first articles I wrote was “Isaac Bashevis Singer is the world’s greatest living writer” – I adored Singer. He was the only living writer I really loved – and I couldn’t have less to do with him. Well, except the fact that we both lived in New York at that time. I actually got to meet him a few times. I was working at Doubleday for four years in the 1970’s, and Eve Roshevsky, who was in the religion department, through an illustrator she knew, had been able to trap Singer to do a couple of his books and memoirs. She knew how much I loved Singer, and so she had me down to listen him in her office, and took me to a couple of speeches he gave. Singer was hungry at one point – and he’s a vegetarian, and so the only thing we could think to offer him in our canteen was pies. They were Drake’s pies, the kind of pies that have the pastry all around – tarts or whatever – so I got to run to the canteen at Doubleday and buy Isaac Bashevis Singer a blueberry tart.
That is so good.
And then also, Jane Austen, the writer I had identified most with – what is my connection to an 18th century British maiden woman? She is the only writer where I can’t think of a sentence she wrote that I don’t feel close to. I mean, almost every other writer, I guess the first writer who affected me a lot, was this sort of very romantic early novels and stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald. It really affected me – I was 15, I didn’t what the world was, so this fantasy was appealing. And at the the same time I was meeting with people from sort of that world exactly, so it created my interest in that world – but now I can’t really read those things.
The early works by F. Scott Fitzgerald, I find really, really flawed.
In what ways?
I mean, his first novel is nonsense. It’s really nonsense. It’s just really hard to get through. And the second novel too. It’s just crazy.
So 15 year olds have their own set of standards.
It’s great as a reader, because you can accept all kinds of things and imaginatively get involved with them in a way that you won’t later. You can sort of write your won story based on them.
Talking about the work from its intrinsic structure is one thing, and then there is, you know, this environment of checklist, we can call it?
The checklist is just the people very exterior to the process. The checklist is just about the people judging badly.
Exactly. Let’s say, you’re active on twitter —
To a fault. To a fault.
Do you think it’s a fault?
I think it’s a little negative. I see it with journalists, where I just see how tendencious they are in their thinking, and narrow – and it undermines their credibility as journalists, I think. And I wonder if the same thing happens also with other people, like as a filmmaker – is it limiting to be on twitter, is it showing too much of your thinking. So with political stuff, if I sort of get an impulse, I try to take it down within the day.
Plus, we can also say that twitter, from all the social whatever – it’s even in a better situation than the others because it’s very text based, so even that forces people to somehow come up with something, and yet even this is, as you say, limited.
Also, if you let something stupid go, you could really hurt yourself, you could really hurt your career. Recently, I saw a word – I thought a word meant something, and I was going to use it. And I looked it ups I double checked, and it really meant something really different than what I thought. I could have just sent out a tweet that is just, you know – with absolutely no knowledge that I was saying something controversial.
In this context, the thing that interests me is, well, internet – it wasn’t there when you started writing. Would you say that a writer these days… How does living in a world where there’s a constant stream of, of things — you know that people know all the time what other people are thinking, in a way — does this, in any way, has to find its way into a creation or a work, or is it something that can be left out, and we will keep creating the way, if there is such a way, the classic way?
Yeah, I think everything can be ignored. I got on twitter and facebook when Sony Classics were distributing Damsels in Distress, and at a certain point they said that we really have no more ad budget, which we didn’t have a big ad budget anyway – so I knew there was a guy who was a guru for social media, and I went to him for advice. He was really great, unfortunately he hurt himself and been kind of inactive since, but he was really great – he put me on twitter, and facebook, and I found that I could support limited runs of a film in a certain areas just with support from those things. I’ve also had all kinds of good contacts through twitter, so an agent was telling me for my idea of a novel derived from Love & Friendship – that I’d have to write three sample chapters and an outline. And I’m really opposed to that, because those are your initial ideas before you have the time to think things through, and they’re gonna be terrible, and you’re just wasting your time on bad ideas that you won’t be able to chuck later and I really didn’t want to do that. I had a screenplay that was very readable because it was based on Jane Austen, and it was heavy in text at that point, and so the screenplay is enough to make a judgement about the novel, I thought. And so, on twitter, somebody immediately was interested. I mentioned the project, and I sent them the screenplay, and they wanted to do it. So I didn’t have to the sample chapters and the outline, which was good because when I finally came to do the novel after the film had been essentially edited but not completed, I had a much better for the novel than I would have had then. Much better. And so I really hate this thing where you’re supposed to set the structure before you do the work. You should do the work and the structure should come after that.
If we’re talking about outside/inside forces, influencing, reflecting or permeating the creation – well, this would be coming from the top I guess, but when we’re talking about groups, a very hyper-capitalised interpretation of that would be fashion. Fashion is the way to commercially dissect people in different, you know, groups. Does this thing – people wearing stuff – has a role when you work on a film?
You mean, the clothes people wear in the films?
I mean, yeah, you can say that, but it’s a bit more than that. I mean, you always try create a world – in Last Days of Disco of course, in Love & Friendship…
One of the tensions in doing films is that I like formality – I like uniforms, and traditional outfits of various kinds – and I’m living in a very. Very informal, casual world. Casualness, informality, grubbiness, are all really dominant – so how can I get away from that? How can I do the kind of world I’d like looking at, in the present day? So everything is sort of changed and stylized a little differently. I don’t really like the idea of… I don’t see realism, naturalism, as particularly virtuous. I think they’re without moral aesthetic content. The worship of various ideas of vérité – I find that really misplaced. So, in doing something, I’m trying to find some way that we can have these elements that I like, without it being completely distracting and implausible. So Metropolitan is very appealing, because there are very formal uniform that people wear, and that’s it. And also in that period they also dressed carefully somewhat outside of that. In Barcelona I had the businessman in suit and tie, which is the uniform of that moment – unfortunately the suit and tie are kind of under siege in the corporate world, and also the idea of uniform. I’m actually in Barcelona, as the navel attaché – I’m behind the consul, in my navy uniform. My father was in the navy, so I tried to keep that up. Then, in Last Days of Disco, again you get the girls in their nightlife uniforms. I guess the problem for me was that cliché version of the disco era is really bad fashions, in my view – these sort of fashions of 1977. So I had the idea of setting it in a really late period, early 1980’s, and – this is kind of a bit of a cheat: I went through fashion magazines from those periods – 1981 to 1982 – and found all the looks that I thought were good. It might have been 10% of the looks, which means I did take looks that were from then, but we just excluded the 90% that we didn’t like.
That’s how you aestheticise a world.
Yeah. And Damsels is interesting, because there the concept is stylized – I’m surprised of the people who didn’t want to get that. I mean, come on. What we’re doing is not very hard to see: we’re doing a retro-present world – it’s my idea of utopia. And then of course, I was home free in Love & Friendship. But there again, actually, I don’t really like, well… I mean, most of the Jane Austen novels are set in the Regency period, and I really think that women’s fashions were unflattering in that period. So, I was really lucky with Love & Friendship, because it’s from an earlier period. Again, we went through different looks of that period and just took what we liked, and ignored things that we didn’t like.
What would you say is the most flattering time of style?
It depends if it’s men’s fashions or women’s fashions. I think that the late 40’s, early 50’s was a very good time. You had Dior’s New Look. You had women looking very womanly and really wonderful – and men’s fashions weren’t bad. Men’s fashions were great in the 20’s, but I don’t think that the women’s fashions were very good. In the 30’s you had some really good periods. I think that the 1790’s – the period of Lady Susan’s Love & Friendship was great. In the Regency era – some great clothes for men.
How was it for you to do, for the first time in a way, a period film – period?
It was very interesting, because I was very intimidated by how are we actually going to execute that, on a small budget. I made the film for 3 million, but I intended to make it for less – I intended to make it for one and a half.
It does not look like it.
Yeah, I was really worried about it. But it turns out that if you’re working on this era, which has been frequently done, there are all kinds of resources that you will know. The people we working with in Ireland, the crew, they’re the key talents – very, very skilled and familiar with making things look great with period on a small budget, because they’re doing a lot of European tv things. They know all the tricks of the trade. It turned out to be incredibly easy compared to getting the right clothes for Last Days of Disco. And we had an absolutely brilliant custom designer for Love & Friendship – we had very good people working on other films, too: the young woman who started on Last Days of Disco, Sarah Edwards, had a sensational career – but Eimer, who worked on that movie, had a lot of experience and was really great at actually creating the dressed. A lot of Kate Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny’s dresses were created for the film.
You can’t miss it.
I tried to do it with some of the dresses in Damsels in Distress, I had a clothing designer friend who I got in to do some things, and it was kind of good – we weren’t really able to afford it, so we had the girls trade in the dresses, that’s what people do. I really liked the sketches, but the sketches weren’t really based on how people actually were, and their bodies. If I were doing that again, I would take the actresses for dressing their shape, and design things that are going to be great for them.
It’s two minutes to eleven, and I don’t want to formally take more than an hour of your time. I want to ask you about The Cosmopolitans – as a proud owner of the twitter account @ohcosmopolitans…
…Is this something that’s going to have continuation?
Yes, I hope so. What I’ll be doing in the next two hours before lunch is trying to add some scenes to the first episode’s script. I had seven episodes’ scripts done.
And we were going to go out, I think next week, to companies with the show – but it might be slightly late, because I got advice from someone, saying that they felt something missing from the first script. Immediately when they’re saying this, I’m just, “oh yeah, I really want to add something” – so I’m trying to add material in. And after I’ll do that with the first episode, I’ll have to sort of tweak the other episodes. So I’m revamping. I’m hesitant about rereading this – every time I reread it, I just hate a lot of stuff. And I’m not sure – I mean, in the rewriting process there is some of improvement going on, but sometimes you can hurt yourself. I had a Jamaican project I thought about for a long time, and one of the producers who was involved in it – his company is being really, really unfair about saying that certain developments cost that they expended, and they really shouldn’t have expended, have to be paid back before I can go ahead. So I just thought, well, I’ll do that. I had another idea – they can go to heck! It does make me a little sad, though, that the original Jamaica idea I will never do, and that that film will never exist – even though I hope I’ll have another idea sprouting from that fertilized material. If I had any questions about my authenticity doing the Jamaican film, then it’s soon going to be over 21 years of interest, which is breaking the Love & Friendship record. If I’m challenged about my background for doing it – I’m going to have to take out my machete and just, well, whack.
I’ll be there if you need me.
On that note – thanks very much for this. And thanks for your Cosmopolitans twitter account, I greatly enjoy it.
Thank you very much.