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
Mark Leyner and Whit Stillman
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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.

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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