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

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After spending time in Hollywood and writing the medical books, what brought you back to doing literary writing?
ML: I think I just started feeling untrue to myself and sad, as if I needed to sort of reclaim some type of authenticity and autonomy about my life. You find yourself in the business because you need money or you need a job, and you find yourself on your knees sort of begging for things and it starts to feel sort of reprehensible. I mean, there are ways to do it, I think as Whit does it, that are strong and intelligent, but I'm not up to that level in that field, but I am in my own. It sort of feels lighter with books. But I was really just a hired hand [in Hollywood], just sort of constantly hustling. And I just started finding that despicable.

Two things involving cars happened, and I take signs very seriously. I’m like a tribal person. I was in a pretty bad accident in Bulgaria and then, doing post-production on this movie War, Inc., I was hit by a car in Culver City. I took that as a sign that I had enough of that stuff. When I was home, and I was kind of laid up, I couldn't really walk for a month in a half. And I started reading all kinds of things, like a grad student. I was reading Thomas Hardy and Melville and just thinking, "How wonderful this is?" Prose, I mean. How simple. What a mind-bogglingly efficient technology, little glyphs on a page. How much fantastic power can come just from that, and it's my show, and I just began thinking about that seriously and came up with this idea for this book.

What was the origin of The Sugar Frosted Nutsack? It's kind of a riff on gods, the oral tradition and people trying to control narratives.
ML: I originally had an idea about gods and goddesses who occupy the top floor of whatever the world’s tallest building is at the time. So in the book they're living in the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. Towards the end of the book, they get an inkling that there is going to be a taller building and they're sort of getting ready to leave. And I didn’t want this to be a parody or satire of other god characters. That's sort of old. But the book became much more about the bards, and about this guy, Ike Karton, who is sort of the hero of this so-called epic. He lives in Jersey City.

WS: He’s you?

ML: Essentially, yes.

WS: So what's your relationship with the gods? Or Ike's?

ML: Ike believes that the goddesses are constantly ogling him and masturbating. So he lives that way, he lives constantly posed in certain ways. Because he thinks he’s being watched by hot, moaning goddesses who can see him from the top floor of the Burj Khalifa. 

WS: That's a psychology I've never heard, that I've never even thought about.

So that's your metaphor for narcissism.
WS: It's almost not a metaphor.

ML: I was going to say, I don’t even think there’s that synaptic space between what it means. And I think I feel this way to a degree, not in a narcissistic way, but I think in a self-conscious way. I think I'm a shy, self-conscious person who thinks he's being looked at and tries to look okay. Not in a hottie, as I say, narcissistic way necessarily. You know, you transpose things for more drama. This is a very extreme version.

WS: How do you get started as a fiction writer?

ML: I've always wanted to do it. I wanted to just be a poet at the beginning. I would look at my grandparents' books and my parents' books. And in my family, a typical aspirational Jewish family, being a writer was very much exalted, and it seemed impossible to me, that I could ever do something like that.

WS: When did you write your first fiction?

ML: I wrote this book called I Smell Esther Williams, I think it was in the late Eighties.

WS: You started right away with a book?

ML: I was working in advertising and I wrote. I was just sort of collecting lines. I love Wallace Stevens. Someone asked me, "Who are your favorite fiction writers?" And I said, "Forget fiction writers."

WS: I think it’s really good and helpful to have the people you most admire in some other discipline than what you work in. It's too intimidating and derivative to be just totally gobsmacked by someone doing exactly the same thing as you are.

ML: I think that's completely true. How do you even get something from someone when you're doing the same thing? What are you reaping from that? And you say, "Oh, I love Godard." So what do you do about that? Make a Godardian film or something?

WS: I enjoy the cinema of the Thirties. I think maybe part of that is that it's there in the Thirties. It's not coming at me.

Let’s talk about your relationship with your audience. You’ve been away. You're doing your thing, but to the audience. you're gone.
WS: No, with the Criterion Collection you're never gone. That was really key for me. They sell shockingly few copies of the films, but they do wonderful promotions. When Last Days of Disco originally came out, I felt like it got an unfair ride. People put into this journalistic thing: oh these guys are trying to bring back disco, they're trying to revive disco. They put with another film that came out around the time and it got so much short shrift. Criterion put it out on DVD, and they had these screenings at MoMA and Lincoln Center. I think [Damsels in Distress star] Greta Gerwig came to one of the screenings. I remember thinking at the time of the screenings that I spend too much time with these retrospective things, but I’ve got to do new stuff. But it was really helpful to have a rising actress like Greta Gerwig enthusiastic about my project, and telling other people and sacrificing to be in my film.

ML: I think my absence has, as they say, made people's hearts grow fonder, in a way. I think there is an appreciation for what I guess feels from the outside as a kind of tenacity that I'm doing this still. I think at least in fiction it's a more contracted and more conservative environment so that what I do in a way is almost more unique and feels more conspicuous now than even before.

It felt vulgar somehow to just keep turning out a new book every couple of years like a car company or something. It felt like there should be some kind of – I don't mean to sound melodramatic, but some sort of crisis provoking a new piece of work, or why do it? It felt like reapplying for membership to the Writers Club of America or something. I didn’t plan on the hiatus being as extended as it was, but I did have a sense that it's not so bad. I'm not sure, but I suspect it will be the case with Whit and his film, that there's something to be said for having been away. I think the audience's attention for something is a little more heightened and acute when it’s not, "Oh, that guy, it's another…"

WS: I felt that when Disco came out, when though it was four years after Barcelona, the response was, "This guy is foisting another thing upon us."

Are there particular things you wrote for scrapped or unproduced projects that you wish your audience could see?
WS: I have five scripts that haven't seen the light of the day. Some of the best stuff I've ever written is in those scripts. So yeah, it's very frustrating if you get some sort of deal where the person own the underlying rights, and this person doesn’t want to vary a comma from the very literary plot line or whatever, and you're not allowed to show it because it will undermine confidence in the script.

ML: It's the opposite for me, I think, with a book. I can throw everything in. It's kind of a novel contorting itself to include everything.

WS: I yearn to go off to a mountain cabin and work on fiction. I yearn to do that.

Do you see a legacy for your older work in younger writers and directors?
WS: We don’t want to think about that, do we? We want to be the protagonist.
M: I agree with Whit about it. Also, it would be presumptuous of me to even say I have influenced people. There are other people who will say that, and that's wonderful that they’ve been inspired in various ways. I would say my stuff is deserving of inspiring other people, because you hope it is. It would be disingenuous to say otherwise.

WS: I think there is a funny thing that happens when you're new in your career, which is that everyone that made a film before you that you like is like your admired older brother or cousin. Everything they did is so great, and you love praising them. The next guy comes along and has a little bit of success, and the next guy comes along with a little bit of success. It's very hard to like that guy. It takes a while to like people. I mean for me, it's like, I feel like Lena Dunham is 24, and I think, oh she’s great, she is fantastic! But there has to be a big gap.

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