Movie Interview: Celebrated Whit

Salon interviews Whit Stillman, the director of "Metropolitan" and "The Last Days of Disco."

By Laura Miller
May 28, 1998 10:42PM (UTC)
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Although Whit Stillman claims to long in vain for the wit of his own
characters, he does pretty well for himself. The simplest question will set
the boyish-looking 46-year-old off into long arcs of highly amusing talk,
often about the most surprising topics. Between explaining his habit of
reading the middle of a book first ("there's all this stuff going on that
you don't understand and that's kind of exciting") and his childhood
devotion to a "Whig hero" he refuses to name (but who may well be the
subject of his next film), Stillman had plenty to say about the lost
age of disco, the fleeting pleasures of group social life, the sometimes
harsh honesty of his characters and his own antipathy for a certain
full-length animated feature about canine romance.

How nostalgic are you for the disco era?


Well, I'm not insane. But I liked it. I like disco music and would love it
if something growing out of disco music would happen now. In a new period,
you can often go back to something and make it new. It would be great if
this summer became "Disco Summer" and they were more imaginative about what
they play in nightclubs. After midnight it's really dreary. There's an old
guard of DJ stars who are committed to a kind of music and have a lot
invested in not being retro at all.

Where have you encountered this?

In the past year we've had a number of parties for this film, and to get
them to play disco music is like pulling teeth. We were having a party in
this one club and it was so great when they were playing the best of this
music. Then, they put on their techno music and just killed it. We asked
them to put the disco back on and it revived the party. Some of these guys
are pretty narrow and prejudiced and so ignorant. All they could figure out
to put on was the most obvious "Saturday Night Fever" music. It would be
great if our movie and whatever else of its ilk is going on prompted a
return to music that's more melodic, more romantic, more interesting
lyrically. What people criticized disco for at the time is much more true
of techno than disco. Repetitive, boring, percussive, mechanical -- that's


Were you part of the disco scene yourself?

I didn't have the exact experience in this movie. I didn't have a gang of
mine at Studio 54. I went to Studio 54, and to other clubs, and at other
times I had a gang of mine. It pulls together different elements. There's a
writer trying to piece together the different nonfictional elements of this
for an article, and at times I have to remind them that this is a fictional
story. I don't want people to think I experienced all this stuff.

The New York Times has described Chris Eigeman as the actor who plays
your alter ego.


I love that character he plays in my films, but actually that isn't me. I'd
love to have that way of talking. When he says, "I'm not an addict, I'm a
habitual drug user," I love that way of thinking. But actually I'm not an
addict or a habitual drug user because I've almost never used
drugs. In real life, Chris has become my best friend among actors, but the
characters Chris plays would be the older, impressive, funny cousins that I
had -- people in college who were two years older than me. Now I'm 20 years
older and still they're the cool older people who say funny things.

You've made three films about group social life. What makes the topic so
compelling for you?


It's pining and wish fulfillment. I've always felt that we lacked that.
There's too little of it in our country. I think that we're kind of square
and solitary in a way. We go about our business and don't see each other
very much. At any excuse we'll cut out our social life to head toward our
family life or our working life. There's something very nice about finding
the right person and being in a couple, but there's also something that's
being lost. There's a nexus of life, from age 17 to 28, where a lot of
decisions are being made, identities are being formed, a path in life is
being chosen. I'm also writing about it because that's the period 10 to 20
years before the time I'm writing. As a writer I like to look back. I don't
write about right now. Once I'm looking back from, say, 12 years later, it
seems dramatically interesting, but at the time I wouldn't have felt that

Do you want to stick with ensemble pieces?

No, I'm trying to make a radical, probably foolish, departure in the next
film. It's going to be a historical adventure film, which I hope to make
for a low budget, set during the Revolution with Whigs versus Tories. I
think it's time we had a good Whig hero in American cinema. We haven't
really had that except for "Drums Along the Mohawk," a rather slight John
Ford film. It will be a real departure, and I'm definitely unqualified, but
that doesn't mean we can't pull it off. I was unqualified to do
"Metropolitan" until we did it.


Why has it been so long between films? You've completed three in the
past eight years.

I get frustrated because I do observe procrastination and lazy behavior,
stuff like that, disorganization. Then sometimes I think that that's a
mechanism to take the time to get the right ideas and have things develop
and grow. I put it aside, I pick it up. Maybe it's just how I have to work.
I find I don't really like the combination of two and a half years of total
solitude, a year of frenzied production warfare and however many months of
being in the feeding pen of the editing room. That's like you're European
veal being fattened for the slaughter, immobile in a chair, eating and
worrying. The best part of film for me is a combination of individual
effort and group effort.

Are you nostalgic as a general rule?


Yes. I'm even nostalgic before moments actually pass. I get nostalgic for
the future. I kept trying to write a piece for the New York Times op-ed
page that would be published on January 1 and would be nostalgic
about the coming year. We had a press junket recently and we were together
with these journalists for three days, an intense thing, and it was kind of
fun. Then on the day they were starting to pack up I thought [dejectedly],
"The junket's over." I was nostalgic for a press junket!

Does that make you a melancholy person?

Not at all. It's a positive thing. It's not that you didn't like it and
you're sad about it -- you're just sad that it's ending. There's also a
nonpandering, anti-schmaltz element to the films. So, yes, there's nostalgia
but also a coolness -- I hope not a coldness -- in our approach to things.
We're not checking our brains at the door or losing our critical faculties.

There's an edgy quality to "The Last Days of Disco" that keeps it from being sentimental. Sometimes
the characters are quite cruel to each other


That's naturalism. That's accuracy. I get, "Oh they're so mean to each
other," and then I'm just observing the wrangles people get into with each
other and ... [shrugs]. People get into real wrangles. At least I do.

Alice mostly doesn't do that, though.

There's a scene early on that I thought might make people find Alice
unsympathetic. She's telling Charlotte that she didn't like the guys at
Hampshire because they were hippy-dippy and they thought that the guy who
created Spiderman was a serious writer. Some people are going to hear that
and think she's just a snot. But I want people to see that she was hurt,
rejected. She didn't have a good social life. She's being defensive. If
people are criticizing other people because they're feeling threatened, I
think that's sympathetic.

What was the origin of that incredible "Lady and the Tramp" argument
between Des and Josh?


I have small daughters, so I've seen the source material a lot. I've always
had a bone to pick with that movie. When I was a kid, I guess I liked it,
but then it started to really irritate me. I see it as a sort of
template for all Hollywood movies, with the Tramp character and the Lady
character. It's a national archetype. And since I really identify with the
Scottie dog, my nose is out of joint.

Whenever people are talking about something like that, they're really doing
something else. In this case, Josh, who's ordinarily very nonaggressive,
is using that conversation to very aggressively attack Des and convince
Alice of the value of his courtship.

Some characters from your earlier two movies appear in "The Last Days of
Disco," but the one I really wanted to see, the archfiend Rich Von
Sloneker, from "Metropolitan," doesn't.

He's dastardly! Actually, that actor, Will Kempe, showed up on our set, but
he's in a soap opera now and he had to leave before we could shoot him
going into the club. Rich really would have gone to that club. He and Van,
the awful doorman, would have been friends.

Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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