On a recent afternoon in New York City, director Whit Stillman — the chronicler of what, in his 1990 film Metropolitan, he archly termed the "urban-haute bourgeoisie" — had ducked out of his publicist's office on the seventh floor of a slightly down-at-the-heels Midtown building to get, his publicist informed me, something from Dunkin' Donuts. Dunkin' is a treat unavailable in Paris, where Stillman has lived on and off since 1998 and where his new Amazon Studios pilot, The Cosmopolitans, was shot and is set.
Stillman — dressed in a white button-down shirt tucked into white pants, his hair fully gray but seemingly undiminished at age 62 — soon entered the room, coffee and egg sandwich in hand, and proceeded to recall a dinner that a former colleague and I had had with him at The Odeon, the restaurant in Tribeca, in 2007, or perhaps it was 2008, in which this colleague and I had both, according to Stillman, spoken "very coolly about either a husband or a boyfriend."
Having no recollection of the details of the discussion, I could only aver that the gentleman in question was no longer in my life.
"It's intimidating for guys to hear women complain about their boyfriends," Stillman said. He took a bite of his egg sandwich. "Guys imagine that girls are thrilled to have them around, and this is what they really talk about."
But perhaps it should not have been surprising that Stillman recalled the evening with such specificity. He has, after all, made a career of exploring the often messy interactions among a certain class of young white people, particularly when it comes to love, in his four films: Metropolitan (1990), Barcelona (1994), The Last Days of Disco (1998), and Damsels in Distress (2012). His particular strength is to lay bare the delicate social dances performed by those who hope to be accepted by another, higher-status person or group, and the misadventures that befall them. His movies have generally happy endings, though more than one snob has been known to get his or her comeuppance.
The Cosmopolitans is Stillman's first television show, but the pilot episode, entitled "The Broken-Hearted," is like a condensed version of a Stillman movie. "This is the best opportunity I've had since Metropolitan" — which is about a clique of Manhattan debutantes — "to portray a world that I really know every aspect of."
Here, the group of generally charming, upper-class young people — a group of American expats in Paris — is led by Adam Brody's Jimmy, a young American whose bluster is reminiscent of the roles Chris Eigeman played in Stillman's films in the '90s. Jimmy's friend Hal (Jordan Rountree) is in the midst of a torturous on-again, off-again relationship with a French woman named Clemence (Clémentine Baert); the third member of their trio is the rakish, possibly troublemaking Italian, Sandro (Adriano Giannini). They are all in the orbit of Fritz (Freddy Åsblom), the slightly mysterious, very rich, very young man who hosts parties at his family's beautiful Parisian mansion. Then there's Chloë Sevigny's Vicky, a beautiful American fashion journalist, and Aubrey (Carrie MacLemore), the sweet, naïve Alabaman who came to Paris only six weeks prior to escape a breakup but who has already managed to be exiled to the apartment upstairs by her new French boyfriend.
"Paris is the destination for brokenhearted American women," Stillman said matter-of-factly. "I think men go there and have their hearts broken, but women come there with their hearts broken. So many times, I would meet people who had a bad divorce, or a bad breakup, and they'd sort of come to Paris to recover, to look for something else."
The characters and the world of The Cosmopolitans are based on Stillman's experiences with an "amazing group of expats" he met after his marriage to Irene Pérez-Porro ended in 2002. "By accident, through misfortune, I had another life when my marriage broke up. Suddenly, I was seeing people."
As he gathered material, he assumed it would eventually become an independent American film. "When I was trying to get TV jobs five years ago, everyone was saying no one would shoot abroad, you have to re-set your Paris stories in New York," he said. "So I actually did re-set a story about a group of Paris friends in New York, and I had a job to do that." That project (he refused to say what it was or who was producing it, but it seems likely that it was a "male-focused" pilot at Sony) never got made, but its contract issues had to be resolved before he could move forward with Amazon Studios.
Once they were, things moved quickly. Stillman wrote and directed the pilot, and the feedback cycle of television was something he had to get used to. "The creative executives are very, very involved, all the time. It ended up being very positive, but I wasn't really used to having everything commented on. It turned out to be very lucky that I got along really well with the three creative executives."
He also needed to adapt to the speed of television. "With all my films, the pace is not very fast, and so people get bored with them and comment that they're just people talking in rooms and all that," he said. "I think the pace in this is very fast, and that's definitely due to intense creative executive involvement, where they question the duration of every scene. I think maybe there could be a few more sentences here and there, but I think it worked out really well."
The show is not guaranteed to go to series — Amazon decides which shows it will eventually green-light through a combination of reader reviews and audience viewing numbers, though prestige is an intangible that the studio seems to also take into account. So Stillman hasn't quite yet figured out what the show will look like if he does get the order for six more episodes, but said he envisioned the series as two short indie film scripts of three episodes each.
"One of the problems in television is they normally try to lock everyone into these very long-term contracts, and I think I would like to do it a different way, where it becomes an anthology of characters, so if Chloë has some big film to do, her character could go away for a few weeks," he said. "You would try to keep a group of people, always have some of the familiar faces there to give it its texture, but then bring in new people. There could be the new brokenhearted girl and the new brokenhearted guy."
The only certainty, if the show gets picked up, is that Stillman would return to Paris to write and shoot the rest of the episodes — which, after two decades abroad (he lived in Barcelona prior to Paris), he is resigned to, if not necessarily happy about. "I've gotten to really, really like being back in the States. It's so easy being in your own country, and I really like Americans — typical American towns and provincial college towns are my ideal place to be," he said.
"And then now I have all these projects potentially in Europe. And I really like it too, but I was feeling so comfortable being here, and having my Dunkin' Donuts and seeing the Dunkin' franchises expand across the country." As he says it, he looks momentarily, and actually, sad.
"My favorite thing in New York is my church, the Église Evangelique Française," he said. "I went to the Protestant churches in Paris, sort of these Calvinist churches. I love them, they're really cool. But I had no church in New York. My pastor died, so I was at loose ends. One day I came out of the 14th Street subway station, and there's this big map of the neighborhood, and it said 'French church,' on West 16th Street. So I went to it, and it was essentially a black church — it was mostly people from Haiti and Cameroon, the best-dressed people, very formal, distinguished men in their seventies. And [the service] is all printed out, so with my French, I can follow it all. One thing that's not printed out is the Lord's Prayer, so I had to get it off the internet — the Lord's Prayer in French. I have it in my wallet for that. It's just such a lovely experience, just lovely people."
I thanked him for taking the time to do the interview. "Thank you," he said. Then: "I really like Dunkin'. I think Dunkin' is the best in New England. The Dunkin' is much better in Connecticut than New York. I don't know why."
Perhaps it's the water, I suggested.
"New York water's good. I think sometimes they cook it too hot. And I think sometimes they don't put enough coffee beans in," and he sipped his coffee thoughtfully and shook my hand.