In writer-director Whit Stillman's droll 1990 ensemble piece about New York debutantes, "Metropolitan," a dynamic, acerbic character named Nick stands out from the crowd of teenage sophisticates.
Nick attaches himself to Tom, the outsider in the group, and tries to tell him what an impression he's making on the introspective Audrey. But it's Nick, played by Chris Eigeman, who makes the impression on audiences.
"Nick was always in danger of taking over the film," Stillman said. "Initially it was going to be Tom's story, then it became more Audrey's, and then Nick sort of came alive. Ultimately that worked in the movie's favor, helped give it texture and kept it from becoming formulaic."
Eigeman is back in Stillman's witty new picture, "Barcelona."
It reunites him with Taylor Nichols, who played one of Nick's less impressed friends in "Metropolitan." They continue their feud, this time as American cousins, Ted Boynton and Fred Mason, living in Spain in the early 1980s. And once more Eigeman walks off with the picture.
Chosen for the prestigious closing-night slot at this year's Seattle International Film Festival, where Stillman and Eigeman introduced it, "Barcelona" will be back for a regular run Friday at the Seven Gables and Broadway Market Cinemas.
Like Stillman's debut movie, which was based on his experiences as a debutante escort, this one is loosely autobiographical. More than a decade ago, Stillman worked as a foreign sales agent in Madrid. His Spanish wife, Irina, is from Barcelona; they now have two daughters and live in New York.
Even before writing "Metropolitan," which earned him an Academy Award nomination for best original screenplay, Stillman, 42, began putting together a script about Americans in Spain.
He was intrigued by the situation because it's "a way of studying Americans by finding them in isolation." But he didn't get around to writing "Barcelona" until 1991.
"I started putting my notebooks together in the summer of 1983," said Stillman. "I had tons of material, so much that I had to stop the compulsive note-taking and start shaping it."
Knowing that Eigeman and Nichols had become friends after "Metropolitan," he shifted the narrative focus in "Barcelona" to the romantic rivalries and childhood antagonisms of two cousins who suddenly find themselves rooming together. Castle Rock Entertainment approved the script two years ago and Stillman returned to Spain with cast and crew in the spring of 1993.
Eigeman doesn't immediately warm to the idea that the unrelentingly conservative Fred is simply a variation on Nick: "I think things are not that similar. Fred and Nick are really different. But maybe Fred is Nick five or eight years down the road."
For him, the challenge is finding a way to make both characters likable in spite of their waspishness: "Part of the fun of playing Nick (or Fred) was getting to see behind all that. If he's a jerk consistently, you get tired of him."
"In `Barcelona,' one of the functions of the Fred character is making fun of Ted," Stillman said. "Anything negative about Ted is voiced by Fred. That takes the sting out of it for the audience. Only in the middle and the end of the film do you get to like them."
Stillman added that they worked with two versions of the script, "one a lighter, diet version." According to Eigeman, this involved "really only certain lines, which would be potentially funnier, and also hugely potentially not funnier."
Eigeman thinks the key to the cousins' characters is a scene in which Fred and Ted get into a spat and bring up their childhood resentments over a sunken kayak.
"The kayak story was hugely telling," said Eigeman. "It provided an enormous back(ground) story and maybe it gets you a laugh."