'Barcelona' director at last rolls credits on litany of failure

August 16, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

To hear Whit Stillman tell it on the phone, his life has been one long bumble that has brought him to the strangest and least expected place in the world.

"I couldn't do journalism," he says. "I could get all the information but I could never figure out the logical way to string it all together. I couldn't get the transitions at all; I could never find any logic to it."

Then, he says, he tried fiction.

"It never worked. I'd do these little short stories in this weird voice, and it just wouldn't happen."

When he tried screenwriting, the results were even worse.

"I'd work intensely and I'd do, say, five pages of dialogue a day. The first 2 1/2 pages were OK, the second 2 1/2 were junk. I'd have to throw them out. I had terrible trouble getting the voices right. It takes forever and ever, a process of endless revision."

Yes, for Whit Stillman, 42 and a Harvard grad, it's been a litany of failure, folly, collapse and disappointment, which is why where he has finally arrived is so astounding to him: Success.

His second film, "Barcelona" -- which opened Friday -- is taking up where his first one, "Metropolitan," left off: great reviews, the spotlight on him and his highly unique sensibility, and profound respect for that dialogue -- rich, chewy hunks of sentences -- that is so hard for him to write. And again it stakes out the same territory: the intricately self-conscious world of well-educated young Americans who insist on discussing every single thing in their lives.

Yet for all his new success, Stillman remains the same fellow he was four years ago: modest, as comical about himself as he is about his characters, sometimes almost painfully honest.

He's the only filmmaker, for example, who will say, unbidden: "When we first showed the movie, the second half did not work. I mean nothing in it worked. It just lay there."

But, working with the skilled fellows at the studio that paid the bills -- Castle Rock -- he managed to figure out what was wrong.

"Rob Reiner [a partner in Castle Rock as well as the director of many of its films] has the best comedy mind in movies. He can help you figure out what to do. They really helped me. It's much better because of the studio."

He'll also say, "It's odd, but the lack of logic that ruined my journalism helped my screenplays. In a screenplay, iron logic hurts; the kind of non-sequiturs my mind would come up with actually helps in a screenplay."

Actually, "Barcelona" was supposed to be his first film, but as Stillman recalls it, he knew he could never make it -- a shoot in a foreign city. So he did "Metropolitan" first and found the experience invaluable. "I could say to people, 'Well, this worked in "Metropolitan," so trust me on it.' "

The film, like "Metropolitan," is remotely autobiographical: Like his hero Ted Boynton (Taylor Nichols), Stillman spent a long time in the '80s in Barcelona and eventually married a young woman from Barcelona.

"But even I'm not sure where the autobiography stops and the fiction starts," he says, pointing out obvious differences: He worked in the Spanish film industry, not for an American business, and he'd gone to Barcelona to pursue his wife, whom he'd already met in New York.

Some day, he says, he'll do a film that isn't so united to his own life and doesn't star Taylor Nichols and Chris Eigeman, as do both "Metropolitan" and "Barcelona."

Some day, he says, almost dreamily, and you suspect he really means . . . like maybe in the 28th century.

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