Whit Stillman and Mark Leyner on Their First Projects in 15 Years

'Damsels in Distress' filmmaker and 'Sugar Frosted Nutsack' author compare notes on their long absence

Mark Leyner and Whit Stillman
Julie Holder for RollingStone.com
April 6, 2012 3:45 PM ET

In strictly stylistic terms, filmmaker Whit Stillman and novelist Mark Leyner don't have a lot in common. Stillman came to prominence in the Nineties as the writer and director of three celebrated indie films – Metropolitan, Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco – that told the stories of urbane, witty young preppies. Leyner made his name around the same time with Et Tu, Babe and The Tetherballs of Bougainville, deeply absurd comic novels overflowing with meta conceits and peculiar jokes.

Though their writing is very different, Stillman and Leyner share a unique experience: their latest projects are their first major work to be released in nearly 15 years. Leyner's new book, the strange and hilarious The Sugar Frosted Nutsack, hit stores on March 26th, and Stillman's delightfully skewed fourth film, Damsels in Distress, opens in New York and Los Angeles this weekend.

Rolling Stone recently sat down with both writers to discuss their new work, find out what they were up to over the past decade and compare notes on their experiences in the movie business.

It's been about 15 years since you last released a major project. What were you doing in that time?
Mark Leyner: When The Tetherballs of Bougainville – which is the last novel of mine, before this one, The Sugar Frosted Nutsack – came out, I had just had my daughter. My wife and I had a sense, which was borne out of some anxiety but was prescient in a way, that the publishing business was gonna undergo changes. Certainly, some kind of contraction. I just started thinking this might not be a viable way to absolutely support this little family, so I thought about ways to make money. I think the two most typical ways for a writer are journalism or teaching. And I had done a bunch of journalism, and I did advertising early on.

Someone had gotten in touch with me about a book, a guy named Jeffrey Levy in L.A., and we did a script, and that didn’t really go anywhere. But then I had an idea about a punk surgeon. This was for MTV, and the show was called Iggy Vile, M.D. A pilot was made of it, and that kind of introduced me to the world of L.A. entertainment business. With the exception of the three books I did with a doctor friend of mine, which that were so much commercially successful than my fiction ever was or will be, I kind of made money with script doctoring and getting involved with some movies and TV whatnot.

Whit Stillman: Did that end up with some credits on screen?

ML: A film called War, Inc. which starred John Cusack, Ben Kingsley and Marissa Tomei and Hilary Duff – a kind of strange quartet – came out. 

WS: And you were a credited writer? What year was that?

ML: I think that's about four years ago.

WS: See, he cheated on his hiatus. He had actually published work that came out! I think you count publishing a novel or being credited or even not credited but doing credit work on a film or TV that sees the light of day as breaking the purity of your hiatus. See, I don’t date my own hiatus as 14 years, other people do. I try to shave some time off it. I published a novel based on the story of The Last Days of Disco in 2000 called The Last Days of Disco, With Cocktails at Petrossian Afterwards. Unfortunately, a lot of people in the press don’t count it as a real novel because it comes off a movie, but I count it as a novel and fully stressed it. So I count my gap from there. I sent in the first draft of this film, Damsels in Distress, in December of 2009, and they said in January of 2010 that they would do it.

ML: Who is 'they?'

WS: They were Mark Shaffer and Chris Glatzer, who for the films Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco were the executives of the company Castle Rock. They are still with Castle Rock but in this case, after commissioning the script with Castle Rock, they decided to do the film independently because it’s not a Warner Bros. film. And so I kind of date my decade of troubles, and I think in the old days you would call it the "naughty aughts" – I remember my father referring to the first decade of the 1800s as the "naughty aughts." That didn’t catch on for the 2000s, but I think we should bring it back. I was unproduced in the naughty aughts. Actually, many times during that decade, I thought I had a go project but it just didn’t work out.

What were those projects? I remember there was one, something based on Christopher Buckley's book Little Green Men.
WS: Yes. Very Green. That was really frustrating because we had a script and there was a producer involved who had not really made films, and he adored the novel. That’s always a problem. He adored every word of the novel, and he had very clear ideas of how he wanted to do it. We got into this jam where five distributors actually said they considered me a positive element for the film, but they didn’t see the script that these guys had with me as a director. And I said, "Well that makes sense, because I don’t see me with that script either." I decided to write my version of it to please these distributors and I really love what happened with that, but I only was following the first third of Little Green Men. I felt bad because a lot of the people involved just wanted to do exactly the novel without taking into account that people had been trying to do the novel for a long time without being able to do it. Most good screenwriting teachers say you cannot follow the book down to the oblivion of, you know, non-films. 

Mark, did you have similar experiences with projects that got mired in similar problems?
ML: I think people got in touch with me either knowing my work, or probably more frequently just knowing a plot or sort of buzz about something I did and sort of saying, "Get that guy that writes the crazy stuff in here." 

WS: There is a lot of that. One of the problems was a lot of the people didn't really know my films, and they just sort of heard that they were well-regarded and accepted that, but it wasn't their taste. So in the creative process, I could never please them because they might see that the finished films I worked on because other people liked them, but they had never been in the kitchen with me. They didn’t know like the first version of something was going to be.

ML: It's a big problem. You start to suspect that they just want to have said that they had a meeting with a kind of cool writer or something. But they don’t want to read anything by that writer. Then when you turn work in, they are kind of stupefied or appalled. I'm making a horrible generalization but they say, "What the fuck are we supposed to do with this?"

You both have very distinct aesthetics. Were you being encouraged to tone that down?
WS: Of course. It's terrible to write what are essentially comedies for people with no sense of humor. Everyone thinks they have a sense of humor, but observably not. I think I wrote the funniest scene I have ever written in my life for Little Green Men, and the person who is the development person at the company I was trying to do it for is foreign and very pretentious and very serious and very dramatic. Very dramatic, everything is dramatic. When he was explaining why he didn’t like my draft, it was just such a hilarious conversation; this person was sort of struggling to say, "This is weird, this is strange."

ML: One of the things that struck me as unique about Hollywood is that I never had bad meetings. There were all enthusiastic, but meaninglessly enthusiastic. I'll give you an analogy. I wrote these funny medical books with a buddy of mine that works at Bellevue in the ER. He’s a big, prestigious ER doctor there. When I met him, we were having a conversation and I asked him how he told people that a relative had died. He said you have to be very blunt with them and direct, and use the word "dead." You can’t use euphemisms because people don't want to accept that the person is dead and they will just grasp onto whatever metaphor you use, like "He's left us now." They’ll say "Where? I want to go see him, I'll get a cab there." So you have to say "dead." In Hollywood, no one ever tells you you're dead or that anything is dead. My experience was your agent will tell you at some point. It just kind of withers and withers.

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