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Exclusive Q&A: Filmmaker Whit Stillman

In 1990 Whit Stillman gained both critical acclaim and a cult following with his debut film, Metropolitan, a low-budget, high-comedy masterpiece about a group of college-age Upper East Siders who talk their way through Christmas break, riffing on everything from strip poker to Lionel Trilling’s take on Mansfield Park, all the while attending debutante balls. Subsequently, Stillman completed a trilogy with Barcelona — perhaps the greatest movie ever made about the American experience abroad — and The Last Days of Disco, a haunting, hilarious meditation on lost innocence and the end of the disco era. Disco was released last week by Criterion Collection – an honor rarely bestowed upon recent films, and the second time Criterion has chosen a Stillman film; Metropolitan came out a few years ago. Stillman, who currently lives in France, but was in route to LA to help fight the forest fires, was gracious enough to answer a few questions over email.

Flavorpill: With the Criterion release of Last Days of Disco, has it been exciting to re-visit the film so long after making it? As a director you’ve always seemed interested in nostalgia — the title “Last Days of Disco” reflects this. Do you feel nostalgic about the films you made eleven, sixteen, and twenty years ago?

WS: The experience of finishing the film under the gun of the competing Miramax film 54, and putting it in the hands of two companies — Polygram and Warner Bros. — which didn’t care much about it, was too hair-raising to inspire nostalgia.

FP: Disco feels particularly relevant in the current economic climate. Certainly, for members of my generation — twenty-somethings not unlike the characters in Disco — the Wall Street crash has provided a similar “last days” feeling; we went to the right schools, did the right internships, and still have incredible difficulty finding employment and making enough money to live in New York — especially now that some of our parents have gone belly up, and can’t provide the financial security that might previously have been taken for granted. Any thoughts on this?

WS: It’s surprising how rarely the economic and job worries of the characters enter into most film stories. And I suppose it’s odd that two films supposedly about “elite” Manhattan milieus — Metropolitan and The Last Days of Disco — are full of these worries. In Metropolitan Tom is shown with no money, skipping a cab ride — the kind of thing that happens all the time but almost never on film. But, to be honest, a James Bond plot is probably more interesting.

FP: If Alice and Charlotte were publishing house underlings today they would live in Brooklyn, not uptown. Could you see them in Williamsburg? Or could they — with parental assistance — afford Park Slope?

WS: Maybe Williamsburg or DUMBO, though I don’t know the actual prices. In Manhattan I’ve heard that the far east Upper East Side is actually one of the cheapest areas, thanks to the Rupert Brewery area building boom and the remaining tenement buildings such as those in the film. I used the premium from a “flipped” apartment to start filming on Metropolitan and had to move out of my low-cost Soho place the weekend The Last Days of Disco opened. So I ended up taking that Queensboro Bridge cab ride to more reasonably priced housing — in Europe.

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Film still from The Last Days of Disco

FP: What kind of extras will fans find in the special features on the Criterion DVD?

WS: 1. There is a sort of “production journal” in the form of captions for the still photos, with some mysteries partly revealed. 2. A sycophantic mini-documentary on the making of the film, of the sort that is used as promotion at the time of release. 3. A “sizzling” commentary track with the stars Chris Eigeman and Chloe Sevigny. 4. The film’s original trailer, but from a video source, not re-transferred unfortunately (a bit sub-par — sorry). 5. A wonderful and insightful essay on the film by the novelist David Schickler, who’s not prone to exaggeration or excessive praise (fortunately). 6. Four or so deleted scenes featuring a storyline we had to scale back and a great Chris Eigeman performance — as it turned out, Chris can talk and eat breakfast cereal at the same time, very well. 7. An audio track of me posing as the “Jimmy Steinway” reading the final — and concluding — chapter of the faux-novelization, The Last Days of Disco, with Cocktails at Petrossian Afterwards. 8. A digital retransfer of the feature itself, theoretically supervised by me but without the counsel of cinematographer John Thomas. That’s all.

FP: Let’s discuss Last Days of Disco, with Cocktails at Petrossian Afterwards. What prompted your decision to re-write the film as a novel? One thing that interested me in the novel was your choice to make Jimmy Steinway — an ad sales rep who, as portrayed in the film, is not a particularly intellectual or insightful character (i.e. he thinks that Brutus was a true friend to Caesar) — the novel’s narrator. In the novel, Steinway is allowed insights one wouldn’t expect after seeing the film. What was your motivation to make him the narrator? Was it his unlikely yet well-intentioned earnestness? Certainly it would have been a much different novel if narrated by, say, the cynic Des ( Chris Eigman), or Alice (Chloe Sevigny), who, as the film’s protagonist (if it has one) might have been the obvious choice.

WS: I had always wanted to write a novel, and in writing film scripts found that I would come up with far more story and material than could be well used in a 100 minute film. I always thought that the only way I would write a first novel would be as an expansion of a film script. I had intended this with Metropolitan and started writing that novelization under contract from the Soho Press, but pulled the plug when the editor got antsy and I was in Barcelona way behind on that script.

The Jimmy Steinway character was, in a sense, the inception of the Disco story. From the discotheque scenes in Barcelona we had the idea of a film of “pretty girls in discos,” but for there to be a story there had to be guys too, and the first to appear was Jimmy Steinway. His predicament was to be with one ostensibly wonderful girl but actually feeling more in sync with her roommate. I had been in an analogous position in the period. And a friend had the experience of being used at an ad agency as the fellow who got clients into Studio 54. Jonathan Galassi at Farrar, Straus & Giroux liked the idea of the novel, but when I came to do it I had the blinding insight of making it Jimmy Steinway’s actual story.

FP: Are you interested in continuing to re-visit the characters from your previous films? As a fan, I’d love to know where you see them ending up, but I also think it might an interesting climate in which to investigate the current state of these characters’ lives. For example, was Charlie Black on-point when he predicted the fall of the UHB (Urban Haute Bourgeoisie — a term Charlie coins to replace inaccurate and derisive terms like WASP)? Did Fred Boynton vote for Obama? Does Charlotte have health care?

WS: Well, I would if anyone would pay me to, but I think I’ll have to earn money in other ways.

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Film still from Metropolitan

FP: Much has been made (and rightfully so) of your skills as a screenwriter. Often overlooked in this discussion is your ability to get great performances out of actors, particularly the comedic genius Chris Eigeman. Could you talk on working with Eigeman, and your approach to working with actors?

WS: Maybe it’s not deserved, but as a director I feel that I’ve lost out on paying industry jobs by being inextricably linked to this screenwriter who’s only ostensibly done one sort of material. As such I’d have a hard time convincing the powers that be that I could do anything else. Directing your own material is great, when it’s happening, but would Steven Soderbergh have had such a good career as a director if he’d become overly identified with the material he’d written? It gets to be a major barrier to having the chance to go off in new directions.

As to directing actors, I think that much of what happens in a film is decided far upstream. Choice of subject is the most important decision for the writer, choice of cast for the director. What happens on set gets a lot of attention, but you are so often doomed or not well before that. A great advantage of no-budget and low-budget cinema is that you can make casting changes outside of the glare of the industry’s attention. I had wanted Chris to play Nick in Metropolitan — then got sidetracked by Will Kempe’s audition: Will seemed Nick in life. Chris struck me as a great dramatic actor, with an impressive gravitas, but I was not entirely sure he would get the comic, verbal quicksilver required of that character. The one scene of Nick and Tom speaking in the corridor on the first evening we worked on quite a bit. Chris got it and was wonderful. We almost haven’t had an acting conversation since. But I feel that Chris was type-cast as this comic, snobby, highly-verbal character which, in a sense, is not his own self. He has great resources as a dramatic actor which he has not been given the chance to show.

FP: According to IMDB, your next project is a film adaptation of the Christopher Buckley novel Little Green Men. The novel is about alien abduction. This seems like quite the departure from your previous work. Will Little Green Men be obviously recognizable as a Whit Stillman film? Also, it says you’re directing the film, but that you didn’t write the script. What’s that been like?

WS: I’ve been off Little Green Men for quite a while. We had gotten a wonderful cast involved and I’d still love to work with them. I wrote a new script, based on the novel’s title and set up, but heading off into a different story. That version would certainly be a departure and it has lots of supporters, but not the producer who controls the rights.

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Film still from Barcelona

FP: One of my favorite moments in Barcelona is the idea that (I’m paraphrasing) Europeans think Americans are philistines because we eat hamburgers, but that’s just because the hamburgers in Europe are terrible. Have you found a good burger in France?

AW: Yes, I think this is one of the essential ways nations misunderstand each other, because they evaluate the wrong things. If Europeans try to live a good European life in America they are going to be frustrated, angry and critical — as we are when we try to live the good aspects of American life in Europe. It’s helpful to be in a place long enough to learn accept and appreciate its nature on its own terms, without applying the standards of somewhere else. People get confused and misled by politics and the political divergences of, essentially, a moment. The question really is, why are trying to find a good hamburger in Europe? Be happy with your steak au poivre.

FP: Simpsons writer George Meyer said in The Believer that, “I thought that sincerity and individuality were going to be the next wave of comedy. Obviously, I underestimated cynicism’s appeal.” Though your characters are often cynics, the films themselves tend to be ultimately hopeful; Disco ends with an entire subway car dancing to “Love Train.” Do you think it’s true that cynicism has overwhelmingly ousted sincerity in American Comedy? Maybe we should be nostalgic for films like Last Days of Disco?

WS: Yes.

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