Sunday, November 13, 2005
Whit Stillman interview:
__Salon interviews Whit Stillman, the director of
____________"Metropolitan" and "The Last Days of Disco."
___BY LAURA MILLER | 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 techno.
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 way.
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.
SALON | May 28, 1998
Posted by John Zahl at 2:52 AM