The Enduring Charm of the Bourgeoisie: Whit Stillman & Chris Eigeman Talk ‘Metropolitan’ 25 Years Later
Photo courtesy of Rialto Pictures
Although Whit Stillman’s films may feel out of time—set “not so long ago”—it’s officially been 25 years since the premiere of his beloved Metropolitan. As Stillman’s first feature, Metropolitan gave birth to a voice that was casually erudite yet wonderfully witty, with an endearingly wry dialectical style performed by the characters who represented the “urban haute bourgeoisie.” Nominated for an Academy Award for best screenplay, the film remains one of the most important films of the 1990s—establishing a tone and style that continues to influence directors throughout the independent and Hollywood sphere.
Starring then first-time actors Chris Eigeman, Edward Clements, Carolyn Farina, and Taylor Nichols, Metropolitan is filled with Stillman’s “poised and learned yet worryingly aimless young adults hungry for love and social mobility.” The film takes place during debutante season when middle-class Princeton student Tom returns home for winter break and falls in with a tight-knit Upper East Side crowd. Perennially clad in tuxedos and party dresses, the group convenes after social events to drink highballs and discuss everything from their current philosophical bents to how many boyfriends Serena Slocum had last semester. But where some filmmakers would judge or vilify these types of haute society characters, Stillman always presents them affectionately as flawed young people trying to figure out their beliefs and desires in a world that has, perhaps, given them too many options.
This weekend, the Film Society of Lincoln Center will begin their exclusive re-release of Metropolitan in honor of its 25th anniversary. To celebrate, I chatted with Stillman and wonderfully talented actor Chris Eigeman to find out more about the making of movie, the particular world of Whit, and why Metropolitan has stood the test of time.
How does it feel to look back on Metropolitan now after 25 years?
Chris Eigeman: Honestly, I think the last time I saw Metropolitan was when it played at Cannes—so the 25th didn’t sneak up on me, I knew it was somewhere around the corner. But I’m just amazed and very happy that it’s stood the test of time.
Whit Stillman: Generally speaking, I look at every film I’ve made very critically. But there’s a sweetness to this film that I really like. I had a really great experience shooting it and once it got going it had a charmed life. So I enjoy watching it, which I get to do periodically when they redo the color grading or transfers, that kind of thing. Although I have a bit of resentment against it because it was used to quote every movie that came after.
Whit, why was this the story you chose to tell for you first feature? How closely was the world of Metropolitan tied to your own adolescent experience?
WS: It was one of the certain few periods in my life that seemed interesting and had a dramatic structure. There was also the social pornography element of it and dealing with class in that way. It felt uncomfortable, which made it potentially more interesting. There was also the idea of preserving something that would disappear. I also wanted to structurally encourage making something extremely low budget that would still look good—shooting on someone’s big apartment in a nice living room with everyone all dressed up from a party. It was inspired by a George Bernard Shaw play I saw on TV, “Don Juan in Hell.” We also tried to show as much vanishing New York in there as we could.
Everyone in the film has their own idiosyncrasies and details that make them interesting to observe. What was the casting process like for both of you?
CE: It was a huge cattle call, so I auditioned for it just like hundreds of other people in New York. I actually remember thinking I wasn’t going to go to the audition because if you’re asking for actors who can play young characters in their 20s, that’s the largest actor demographic there is. So I was just going to blow it off, but at the time I was living downtown and the audition was like a block from my apartment. I actually didn’t get cast originally though. They were a week into shooting and decided to shuffle around some actors and characters, so then I came in.
WS: One of the reasons why I really like working with stories in this age group is because there are a lot of really great actors who are incredible and just breaking out. For Metropolitan it was the ideal casting process because we did it ourselves. I think over 300 people showed up just for the first day and 200 for the second day, but most of the cast came from the first 50 people who showed up.
Whit, your films have a particular tone and meter to them—was that something you had to work with the actors on absorbing to or was it simply how they all reacted to the script and worked together?
WS: One of the great things about the type of audition process we had was that people were actually reading the script and performing the script. So each actor really brought their own interpretations, which were really great. So working in this way worked out from the beginning. Someone like Chris gave a tour de force performance in the first scene we shot, which was the scene in the hallway when he delivers a monologue to Ed Clements about being less the fortunate. Once we had that scene I knew Chris and I would work together again. But for all the actors, they were very fresh and many of them would just get better and better with each take and the more they got into it.
CG: We instantly worked together pretty well because, for whatever reason, I was always able to know where the joke was. So we got into a shorthand pretty quickly. We would talk about Nick and always try to figure out those long walk-and-talks he has. Somehow we came to the idea of “exquisite bullshit,” and I instantly knew, in the grand scheme of things, what that was all about. So we just worked well together and I’ve enjoyed working on his films. He has a unique style, but at the same time it’s all just acting.
Chris, because Metropolitan was your first feature, do you find that the acting style and type of character you played influenced the other roles you were offered?
CE: I was certainly associated with that style. There were Noah Baumbach films, but also even things like Gilmore Girls on television, which is very close to that style. I don’t know much I was influenced by it in my acting, but I’m associated with it, which is great.
Whit, how did the success of Metropolitan, as your first feature, affect how you went on to approach your work after?
WS: I really wanted to use it as the model for making other films, but it’s very hard to make each film the same way. I thought we would just do the next film on our own, but the other films actually ended up having some kind of studio arrangement. Fortunately for Barcelona, the same people that did the distribution for Metropolitan also did that movie as well.
Did you have any idea when making the film that it would go on to have such a huge impact and life of its own?
CE: I don’t think anybody had any expectations that the film would even necessarily be released. We thought maybe there would be one little screening somewhere, but certainly not like this. An independent movie about this particular group of people, it’s a very hard sell.
What do you think it is about the movie that makes it stand the test of time?
CE: I would like to think it’s because when something is done well it’s received with open arms. It’s nice when that happens, but there must be some little secret to it that made it endure this, but I don’t necessarily know exactly what that is. The film’s humor and charm just endure. And even though it’s about a specific group, there’s something very universal about people trying to find their way in the world and finding their friends and enemies and finding love.
Is there something you remember most about shooting the film?
CE: Everyone was incredibly sleepy because we only shot at night. I was working parking cars during the day, and everyone, if they weren’t acting, were sleeping somewhere. But I also remember we had to steal shots at the Plaza Hotel and right in front of the Plaza. So I remember sneaking into the hotel with a walkie-talkie, being told we were rolling, and then walking out of the Plaza starting to act.