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When Whit Stillman‘s Metropolitan was released in 1990 it became a sleeper hit, grossing nearly $3 million after being made for $230,000 and receiving an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay.
The film, which centers around a group of upper-class Manhattan teenagers attending debutante balls and their Park Ave. afterparties over Christmas break, was Stillman’s first but has gone on to be regarded as one of his signature movies. But neither Stillman nor star Chris Eigeman, who went on to make two more movies with the writer-director, can explain Metropolitan‘s enduring appeal.
“I don’t know how we’ve been lucky to have it stay in people’s consciousness,” Stillman says, joking that perhaps a still of the film’s strip poker scene on the home video box turned people on to it. “A lot of people were tricked into watching the film because it looked like something sexy and alluring…I’m not sure. We’ve tried to keep it on TV as much as possible and available on home video as much as we can.”
Eigeman says that he’s pleased that it’s still part of pop culture, but as to why that is, he admits, “I honestly don’t know the answer to that.”
“None of us expected it to be released at all, in any way, shape or form. And the fact that it did get released and the fact that it’s endured — and hopefully will be seen as a living, breathing thing and not…some sort of fossilized thing from the way back machine — is great,” he says. “What I truthfully hope is that anything that is well done is celebrated, but we all know that isn’t true. There are plenty of times when things are well done and are completely forgotten about…It’s also possible that part of its endurance might have to do with its odd subject matter. I mean there might be a relationship between its stamina and that very, very small subset of society it’s talking about. Maybe its stamina is a result of its specificity.”
Dylan Hundley, who had a small but significant part as Sally Fowler, whose role as frequent hostess of afterparties gives the group its “Sally Fowler Rat Pack” nickname, ventures that its “funny and smart” take on a memorable time in people’s lives is what has made audiences connect with it.
“When you’re in your late teens, early 20s, that’s a really magical time and I think has a tremendous lifelong impact on whatever it is that you’re doing. At that time in your life, it’s going to live very deeply in you, for the rest of your life and frankly inform the way you look at things and even do things. Even after you’ve acquired knowledge along the way, still you’re going to go back to that place. And in your heart, for me at least and I think for many, it’s this magical time,” she explains. “So when this movie came out it resonated so profoundly with people of that age group, ’cause it was thoughtful and funny and smart and frankly there’s not a whole lot of that in the world. Our offerings aren’t usually that.”
It was certainly true for Stillman that his own experiences when he was 18 were still something he thought about when he was writing Metropolitan. Although he explains that he initially thought he was making a film about debutante parties because it was “it was the cheapest film I could make because you could have people who were dressed up and looking good,” he realized that he was unintentionally drawing on his own two weeks attending such parties, which were the highlight of an otherwise bleak freshman year at Harvard.
“In a really miserable period in my life, the two weeks that stood out as different and happy were the two weeks that I was involved with [debutante parties over] the Christmas vacation of my freshman year in college,” he says. “I was already in my 30s when I was writing [Metropolitan], so it was a good hazy memory. It was like 15 years before and that’s I think sometimes a good perspective where you don’t remember everything. There’s sort of a mist and that’s a little easier creatively than this thing that happened yesterday.”
Looking back on filming Metropolitan, Stillman recalls the ease of working in Manhattan in the middle of the night in the late ’80s.
“There was an incredible freedom of working when no one else was around, so you’re in a big city that’s normally very complicated, but we were so small and the city was so deserted,” he says. “An exterior at a Park Avenue building where a doorman gets them a cab, we just went up to a doorman at a building and said, ‘Can we have our actors walk out and you can help us get a cab?’ And we gave him some money, and he just watched us and was very happy to help us. I think now it would be different but everybody was very helpful to us in the city.”
But, Stillman adds, that assistance, particularly when it came to being able to find filming locations for free, required a bit of flexibility.
“If we asked the right questions everyone helped,” he explains. “If we asked, ‘Can we shoot here [at a certain time]?’ They’d say, ‘No.’ If we ask, ‘Is there any time we could shoot here?’ … They’d say, ‘Sure, you can shoot here any time between 9 and 5 Monday through Friday.’ And that happened again and again. If we asked a specific question, we’d get a ‘no.’ If we asked, ‘Well, is there any time we can shoot?’ They’d say, ‘Oh yeah, sure, fine.’ So it was really a question of not painting ourselves in a corner.”
While they might have had a great deal of freedom, Stillman himself and the actors didn’t feel at ease when they first started making what was the first movie for the writer-director and his cast.
“The first week was just nothing but mistakes and some of the locations, we were just so scared of breaking anything that the actors were terrified and we were all very stiff,” he says. “I had no idea what I was doing…The first three scenes of the movie, the first time we went out to shoot, I was totally paralyzed…I was just sort of standing there like a bystander making comments.”
Eventually he relaxed. And Hundley recalls the bizarre fun of making a movie in the middle of the night in one room in a brownstone where the rest of the house is dark.
“It was kind of like going to camp, as it is with making almost any independent film because resources are limited. So you’re all really stuck together at all times. That was really fun,” she says. “We were all kind of rattling around in this huge brownstone all night long, and we had one room which was essentially our green room, dressing room [and] makeup room — for all of us…We spent a lot of time just hanging out — hours and hours just bonding and that had a tremendous effect on how we worked together and how comfortable we all were.”
Eigeman, who was a late addition after Stillman shuffled the cast a few days into filming, doesn’t remember his first day or any of Nick’s monologues (although some of the witty character’s quips sometimes float back into his mind), but he does recall a conversation with Stillman that helped him get a handle on Nick’s many speeches and his inspiration for the character.
“Very early on, Whit [and I] were talking about one of those long monologues about whatever, collars or something, and we came up with this idea of ‘exquisite bullshit,’ and I remember with the notion of ‘exquisite bullshit,’ everything sort of made sense. Once I had a handle on ‘exquisite bullshit,’ it all sort of fell into place,” Eigeman says. “For Nick, that character, I always based him on the kids who would just torture the hell out of me in high school. The very confident, aggressively confident fearlessly verbal that were a special form of bully. That’s what I based him on. That’s what he was. And every time you got around one of those people, they’d say, he’s really got a good heart. I was like, I don’t care. He’s just scary as shit…If you wanted him to be nice to you, you had to play the game he wanted to play. He was always sort of the one who called the game.”
On Friday, Metropolitan began a week-long run at New York’s Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center. On Aug. 14, the film will be re-released in L.A., playing at Laemmle’s Royal theater and the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center in Silver Spring, Maryland. It will then expand to select cities across the U.S.
Watch the trailer for Metropolitan below.
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