The Director's Chair Interviews
That Funky Music Whit Boy!: "The Last Days of Disco's" Stillman
by Tom Cunha
He followed that up with the equally-lauded "Barcelona," which chronicled the escapades of a young American businessman and his Naval officer cousin in Spain, and also featured an early screen appearance of then-unknown Mira Sorvino. Stillman's latest effort is an $8 million homage to the fading disco scene of the early eighties and stars up-and-comers Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny and features a soundtrack full of fabulously nostalgic dancefloor tunes.
indieWIRE: Why did you choose the end of the disco era as a backdrop to this film?
Whit Stillman: This was really the merging of two ideas. Back in the '70's when I was working in publishing in jobs very similar to those of Alice [Chloe Sevigny] and Charlotte [Kate Beckinsale], I remember, after living at home for a year and half, finally getting a terrible apartment, but being very happy to have a terrible apartment. The publishing houses in those days had skyscraper offices over Park Avenue. [I remember] getting out and walking uptown to my new apartment and running into people that I knew from college and all over who were in town working at other jobs. It was a beautiful spring day and I thought "This is sort of an exciting time when everyone is passing through in Manhattan and maybe in five years they'll start going out to suburbs or other cities, but that there's this moment where a lot of people are together again." That's one story I always I wanted to do. And then when we were making "Barcelona," we had some disco scenes and we really enjoyed shooting them and editing them. We got to remember how we really liked some of the music from that period . And we also liked that time. I had a lot of fun back then. I'm always thinking of ways to tie characters together in groups so that it's not just about people going out on dates or having lunch or dinner together, that kind of thing. That it can be that situation when couples haven't really formed and there's a group of people meeting, changing and tearing off in different ways. The "Metropolitan" subjects provided that and "Barcelona," the social life there is very communal. And this period also did too.
iW: You took a very non-conventional route into filmmaking.
Stillman: Yes. I think the first day of shooting "Metropolitan" was my 37th birthday.
iW: So, was filmmaking something you became interested in later in your life?
Stillman: Not really. I just think its sort of the in-direction of a kind of timidity. When I got out of college in the summer of '73, there was no independent film world that I could discern. I guess occasionally John Cassavettes made an independent film, but there was no industry or community. It was all Hollywood and the old Hollywood. It seemed like you had to be either incredibly aggressive and active and able to break into an industry that was sort of closed, or you had to be related to someone. Later, when I got to meet people, when "Metropolitan" was breaking, a lot of the people I first met had gotten into the business through relatives. So it was sort of true. So even when I was in college and going into book publishing, I sort of thought I wanted be in the production of film or television comedy. It just took me forever to get around to doing it.
iW: Didn't you live in Spain for awhile and work as a cartoon agent?
Stillman: First there was book publishing. Then magazine and a nightly news summary gig I had. That coincided well with the disco period. I minded very much the period when there was sort of solitary social life and head music and there were no dance places. So when disco came back, I was excited because now there were places to go. I had this late night job where I got off at one or two A.M. I thought, "This is perfect. My schedule is perfect for going to discos." Then after that I got into selling Spanish films. I had an uncle who had started a cartoonist agency then died and I was the only person in the family with publishing experience to keep it going. So while I finished selling the Spanish films I had taken on, I took over the cartoonist agency and that really gave me the platform with which to produce "Metropolitan," because having a kind of ongoing business gave us certain revenue and a copy machine and a fax machine and telephones.
iW: So you had no experience working behind a camera before you shot "Metropolitan."
Stillman: No. I took a night course in film production at NYU and I didn't sign up in time for the second part of it. So I audited six classes of the sound part of the film production class. And I did have sound problems with "Metropolitan."
iW: This is a very different depiction of disco as we've seen in films like "Saturday Night Fever."
Stillman: There aren't actually that many films that depict disco. I think people have this idea of what a disco film should be. I loved "Saturday Night Fever." I remember seeing it really late, months after it came out. I was really electrified by it. It was really fun. This is more a Manhattan night club story. I did watch the other disco films and most of them are just sort of marketing ploys. There's one called "Thank God, It's Friday." It had an amazing cast, Debra Winger, Jeff Goldblum, but its just dreadful. "Grease," in a sense, was very much a disco period movie, although it was '50's, it had a weird combo going. By the time Studio 54 and those others were opening, it was no longer so much that set disco dance step, it was more what they called freestyle. We're not trying to do Studio 54 specifically, but its pretty accurate with how the upscale Manhattan nightclubs were. Not just Studio, but there's a revived El Morocco that's kind of smaller.
iW: There's also a nostalgic feel to the film, especially since you focus on the era as it dies.
Stillman: Yes. That's legitimate, it's not contrived. By the time I was really get into it, I felt it was gonna go on and on. I didn't have to go that much because it'd still be around. By the time I got around to going more, it was all disappearing. And it went really quickly. I think that dance music came back in a nice way around '83 or '84. There was Boy George, Cyndi Lauper, Madonna. A lot of pop music that was fun. But the places weren't the same. There was no longer that mix that everyone went to. Clubs became more downtown and just hard-core night people involved in all kinds of stuff you didn't want to know about. While the other clubs in the height of the period would attack all kinds of people and have the excitement of a mix. We just thought one group within that, a kind of sub-group of post-college, post-graduate people who, at the beginning of the film, still have their jobs don't try to cover everything. But we see everything in the background.
iW: There's a lot of similarities between the three films you've done.
Stillman: I really wanted to do a caper. Something that would finish a cycle and this is that film. I wanted to make this very much in the same spirit of the other two films. I thought, instead of celebrity cameos, where we get someone to look like Andy Warhol or Liza Minelli, which would be inauthentic in the spirit of the film, to suggest that people from different areas are coming into the club, we could use the characters from the other films. So Ted Boynton, from "Barcelona," could very well have known Jimmy Steinway, the ad man, when Jimmy was working at Leo Burnett in Chicago. And the Ted Boynton character could very well have been in an sales conference at the Americana Hotel. That becomes a plot point when they run into Ted on the balcony and Ted's there with his girlfriend, who sort of kicks off a story of Barcelona. But she's only seen in flashback in "Barcelona" and here she's there in the flesh. The "Metropolitan" crowd is in the background all over the place and we see them once, getting up to dance. And they talk about the character from "Metropolitan," Audrey Rouget, and she's the youngest editor at Strauss and she interviews Charlotte. I thought, in a way, to tie those worlds together was appropriate in the case of this film because those very popular clubs did pull in people from all the groups.
iW: These characters are very articulate and their dialogue is very witty. Do you think you could have written dialogue like that when you were in your early 20's?
Stillman: That's a big relief because I several times decided I wasn't a writer. That I could write something that people liked took me so long and it was so limited in its appeal. So I really gave up writing many times. If it weren't for the desire to have a cheap script for "Metropolitan," I wouldn't have discovered that in screenwriting, as an older person, someone who would look back on things, it was just much easier to come up with things than it had been when I was 18 or 19. I remember a tutor at Harvard telling me that people like him and me didn't have enough experience in the world. You have to have experiences. I think he's wrong in terms of going out and having colorful experiences, you know, driving nitroglycerin through the Andes. But I think that it's true that having tons of material is great. I was 34 when I started "Metropolitan," I could look back 15 years and have that material and that helps a lot. And that's one reason why the disco stuff is so attractive to me because it's sort of that 15 year period when I started working on it. It was 15 years ago and you remember enough to write about it but you've kind of forgotten some things too, so you get a kind of good prism to look back.
iW: You received an Oscar nomination for your "Metropolitan" screenplay. Were you surprised by the reaction to the film?
Stillman: Which reaction to it, because I couldn't get arrested for awhile.
iW: Really? I remember it getting great reviews.
Stillman: Ya, when they broke they were, but it was a long time banging around with the film. I remember getting turned down by Sundance originally. The producer's rep helped claw us in the back door of Sundance, and when we got there, it went really well. I remember all the people kind of not liking the film or not thinking it was commercial in the first screenings. People see anything that's kind of strange in what it's doing and it's very natural to kind of doubt its ability to survive in the marketplace. It's true, the critics really helped the film.
iW: Would like to direct something that you haven't written?
Stillman: Yeah, I'd really like to. I read tons of scripts. But there's a difference between a conscience wanting and the actual reality of what you get offered. There was one thing that was kind of a big issue for me when it came up, and it was "Sense and Sensibility." I was offered that. I was in the midst of finishing "Barcelona" and I just kind of couldn't think about anything. There was something unemotional about that draft of the script. I love Jane Austen and the woman who produced it said the comments I made, they were able to incorporate into the script. So that made me feel better. I really loved the final movie they did. I was also thinking, at that point, it's wonderful material, and there are a number of directors who could do a wonderful job with that, and Ang Lee did an especially wonderful job with it, but that I should try and focus on new stories that I could come up with that would be really different from other people's stories. Add to the stock of stories, not just adapt one story into another medium. But I don't really feel that way anymore, because I don't love the writing experience.
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