Weekend, October 21-22, 2000
enaissance man Whit Stillman wrote, directed, and produced a trilogy of films, Metropolitan, Barcelona, and The Last Days of Disco. In August, his first novel was released, The Last Days of Disco, With Cocktails at Petrossian Afterwards, which is based on the characters in the films. He is currently working on a film adaptation of Anchee Min's Red Azalea, on the Cultural Revolution in China.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: What made you want to do a novelization of the The Last Days of Disco, and in such an unusual way?
Whit Stillman: The idea is that it's not really a novelization it is sort of two things at once. I had always wanted to write novels that's where I started. I had been writing fiction from 17 through my 20s, and meanwhile, I thought that I wasn't really cut out to be a novelist, the life of solitude and dedication, writing long form.
I got into the film business and I wanted to direct films as a way of telling the story without having the obligation to write it all. But as can happen in life, I worked backwards. To direct my first film, I had to have a script and I couldn't afford anyone, pay anyone to do it, and no one was submitting scripts to me. So, I decided to try to write something after having given up writing, and I came up with the script for Metropolitan. In that process, I overcame some of the problems I previously had in writing long stories, and the idea came to use since the hardest thing is to come up with a fictional world of a story the fictional world that one develops to write a movie, to go and make it a novel because so much more can be done in a novel than in a movie. And each of the films had its sort of novel story that in each case was terminated before I got very far. But I think there's a Metropolitan novel listed on the Internet websites because I was going to do that, but I ended up not writing it, and they didn't publish it. And then in the case of Disco it seems to me that the richest material is the three stories. And I found an editor who's really helpful.
Lopez: You wrote a Wall Street Journal piece not too long ago about your book tour. Has it been hard to get through people's heads that this is something different from the movie?
Stillman: Yeah, that's been the big thing. I was sort of trying to say in that piece how much fun it is selling it. A book tour is a lot of fun actually. But it is true that this idea that it's connected to the movie has been a handicap. The fact that it's sort of someone writing a novel and pretending to do a novelization at the same time is hard to get across.
Lopez: Are there a lot of similarities between writing a movie and writing a novel that have surprised you or are they really different?
Stillman: Well, I think the most exciting thing, the pleasure moment in each case, is coming up with some idea that you have a feeling is an idea that is going to work out, usually some sort of comic idea or some sort of funny inconsistency that can be built into part of a scene or a thread running through something. So that sort of happy moment is the same in both. And I think also, for me, the most important thing in both is coming up with a voice of each character, and it the case of a novel, the voice of a narrator. And once they are sort of speaking in their voice, you are liberated. I guess a reason to continue the characters of Last Days of Disco rather than starting something entirely new, is that I already had the voices. And sometimes you feel you are wasting your time until you get that. Why not start when you already have the voice?
Lopez: Do you see yourself revisiting these characters again?
Stillman: It's possible. There's been some talk of turning the new parts of the story into a kind of short film that could be shown on the Internet or on pay TV. Often when a pay-TV company licenses the film to show, they like the idea of something short they can put with it, and there's been some talk of filming the Cocktails at Petrossian chapter when the characters get together 17 years later and talk about the first cut of the film.
Lopez: Professionally, have there been surprises for you juggling the roles of writer, director, and producer in your movies?
Stillman: As far as acting as a novelist versus acting as a film writer/director is concerned, it's interesting how separate the worlds are. In the publishing world, they just want to know, "Well, are you going to do another one"? They just want to know your seriousness, and it's easier selling the novel abroad if they think I am writing another one. "Are we going to waste time on this guy or not?" "Is he going to do another one?" And it's a whole different way of approaching things. And the film business, it's just sort of irrelevant that I have done this. I think they find it profoundly uninteresting. It's amazing how focused on its own industry each group is.
Lopez: Why did you choose the '70s to make a movie about?
Stillman: It's more the '80s in this particular case the early '80s. I try to emphasize that.
Lopez: Okay, the end of the disco era.
Stillman: In a way, the title has always been unfortunate. The distributor of The Last Days of Disco, the first time he saw it, really reacted well to it. But he said that maybe the title was more trouble than it was worth. And I think he's right. One thing I noticed is that you can't fight a big popular-culture cliché. The popular-culture cliché can always win, and so we're really talking about something much different than what everyone seems to think of as the disco era. And we were criticized when the film came out that we didn't have the typical John Travolta, polyester clichés, even though it was four or five years later in a very different place with different characters.
Lopez: And the guy who wrote Saturday Night Fever made some of that stuff up, didn't he?
Stillman: Exactly, he made it all up. He wrote an article in New York magazine and he confessed on the 20th anniversary of the movie, that he had never been inside Studio 54 and never met that character. He saw someone in the door from the limousine he was in, and he imagined the character from that. And now we all have to be true to that.
Lopez: Your club experience as portrayed in the movie was different than the caricature of it, in other movies like Ice Storm, wasn't it?
Stillman: Yeah, I hated that movie, Ice Storm. I thought that was a typical cliché version of the period. It just didn't ring true to me. I didn't believe it.
Lopez: Didn't you meet your wife at Studio 54?
Stillman: No, but it was sort of like our first date.
Lopez: And you didn't see the drug culture that we have come to believe was at its essence?
Stillman: I didn't see anything. I frankly did not see anyone take cocaine until this year. To me, the drug epidemic is in the year 2000 as far as I can see. I was aware of people going off to places to do stuff, but I never saw it. I think in those days, there was a real polarization between the cocktail crowd and the drug crowd. And in college, sometimes people really reacted against the hippie/druggie feeling and went the other way where any of that was. They sort of took a stand.
Lopez: In popular culture, we sort of have a different image of Ivy Leaguers, don't we? But we have an image of upper-middle and upper-class kids who go off to college and are taking drugs, etc. What accounts for that, and how unreal is that?
Stillman: Sort of the Less Than Zero scene. Very often they are either bad guys, snots, or twits. I think it's people's need to have the "other" to dislike and to fight against and to hurt their feelings so that they can fight back. It's sort of a fake set-up.
Lopez: In your movies, you try to fight against that, don't you?
Stillman: I try to undermine that stereotype because I think that there are those tendencies. You are talking about an upper-middle-class portrayal, and how the upper-middle-class is portrayed in movies and television. And it is always really bad. It is not true and it's very negative. I think there are things that can be commented on and made fun of, but they tend to get all the wrong stuff.
Lopez: There is an "unobtrusive" as one critic put it quality to the portrayal of religion in Last Days of Disco. Was there a cultural message that you were trying to get across there?
Stillman: Probably. But I found it harder when I came to the novel to do that sort of thing, because in the films, their religion is an atmosphere, it's not really explicit. There are little things done to give it an unobtrusive presence, often with music or things like that. Or it's used in a way that maybe seems a little comic or incongruous. In the book, there might be less of that because there's no way to be unobtrusive in a book. If you are saying it, you are saying it. You can't just have it on the soundtrack in the background. There is a hymn sung at the end of Disco. It is sort of a cowardly way of interjecting religion around the edges without actually saying anything.
Lopez: If you were to make a movie about New York life in 2000, would religion play a more prominent role?
Stillman: I don't know quite how it can be done on film and work correctly. I'm not sure if things come across the right way. It would be interesting to find a way of doing it because I don't think that the explicitly supposedly religious things on television, or that have been done on film, really get where people think they are going or where people want them to go.
Lopez: You grew up in New York?
Stillman: I grew up in three places. One was Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York, a village right above West Point, which was where the heart was, that was home; when we lived other places, we would always come back there for vacations and holidays. And then we were a Manhattan family, but we weren't there that often because my father was a Democratic politician and so he would often have to go to Washington, D.C. to work during Democratic administrations. I was born in Washington, where he was enlisted to work for FDR Jr., the congressman. And then we went back for Kennedy-Johnson.
Lopez: In terms of writing and filmmaking, do you have a special affinity for New York City, having based two of your three films and your book there?
Stillman: Yes. I like urban culture. I really like urban nightlife. And so I think in those three films, two in New York and one in Barcelona, they deal mostly with that. It's been interesting for the cinematographer, John Thomas, because he gets to control the lights in the city at night which is fun for a cinematographer and gives him more to do than the typical comedy, which is typically more bright light.
Lopez: Is there something universal about the New York experience?
Stillman: The thing that is universal is the stories of semi-young love. I don't know anything about the experience of Modesto, California, and yet everyone identified with American Graffiti. There are a lot of people who don't know anything about nightclubs in the early '80s who could identify with characters in the films.
Lopez: You currently live in Paris?
Stillman: I do.
Lopez: What made you move there and how do you like it?
Stillman: It is actually a great place. And I think it would be interesting for Americans to start to reconsider how they think about France and French culture because I think that we have an enormous amount to appreciate and to learn from how they organize their society. I think we often focus on strictly political measures, which is completely uninteresting and backward there. But there is something wonderful about the country, and it's not just buildings.
We went there for the mundanest of reasons, because the film was going to be coming out in Europe and I lost my apartment in New York. I had a rental loft that I could no longer afford. It was actually economically much easier to live in Paris than in Manhattan. I've been waiting for the stock market to go way down so I can buy a space in New York for a long time, but I bet on the wrong side of the stock market.
But since I got there, I have discovered a city and a process of adapting to a new country that I really like. So I think that living abroad could be somewhat permanent, even if I do move around from Paris at some point.
Lopez: As an American, have you experienced any hostility in France?
Stillman: No. Not really. I think that there is a really nice international community in Paris. It is different from Barcelona in that way. People from abroad are in Paris because they want to be there while in Barcelona it sometimes seemed like flotsam and jetsam that just ended up there.
Lopez: Will we see a Whit Stillman movie about anti-Americanism and the French in the tradition of Barcelona?
Stillman: No, I sort of changed my posture on that. I think the movie Barcelona was partly a Cold War product, living through those years when I felt they misinterpreted. I think a great American export has been things in the political realm, and it is precisely this that we were being challenged for in the '80s. I think that now that is over really, there's really not that Cold War mentality. I don't think people have really commented on how it's changed with the end of the Cold War, because there was so much official anti-American propaganda coming out of certain sources. And without that, the atmosphere is much improved.
On the other hand, now I can be fairer to the other side, because there are a lot of things coming out of the United States that I don't think we like that much. There's trashy pop culture that's really negative that is going everywhere and affecting every country. I think in our own country we don't like that, so therefore when it arrives in another country we're not too pleased about it either. And when we see their version of it, it is sometimes not that great. Although, I do like French rap better than American rap, there's something incongruously sweeter about it. But I think that you can start being more objective about what you like when it is no longer divided up in a global-conflict situation. You can start being more self-critical and more self-analytical.
Lopez: Would you ever consider moving to Hollywood?
Stillman: I would be perfectly happy to live there. I find Los Angeles a beautiful city and every time I go, I find something new that is fantastic about it. I think it is very tough because it is a company town, and I think that must get to you after a while, that must affect your way of looking at things. And I like to try to be impervious to the group-thought aspects of any industry. In some work, like television, it is hard to not do it in Los Angeles, it is too convenient there. And since it is a very pleasant place to live in, if it is not quaking, I wouldn't mind that. And yet I love being able to have the freedom to live elsewhere. For films, there's really no reason to live there.
Lopez: What is your next project?
Stillman: Red Azalea.
Lopez: What stage is that in? You're not producing it?
Stillman: In this case I was trying to get the rights and a producer named Christine Vachon was also trying to get the rights. She's done some killer films, she's done a lot of controversial, critically well-regarded films such as Happiness, Boys Don't Cry. Sort of the opposite of the kind of films than I do. We both liked this book a lot and the agent tried to play us off against each other. But when Christine found out that it was me, she called me up and we packed it to do it together. It has been a fun collaboration so far. Actually, the back-story is that her partner was the line producer on Metropolitan, and Christine actually showed me how to use the editing machine for the first day's dailies on Metropolitan. So from the downtown New York milieu, we're sort of friends. But don't ask me to watch her films.
Lopez: There is something optimistic about your films. What makes you so optimistic about the culture?
Stillman: I just enjoy optimism. I just enjoy being happy and enthusiastic rather than being depressed. I think you can use depression as a phase, often a comic phase to have people go through. There is a lot in the novel about the physical basis of emotion and states of mind. I really think that is true. Just this week, I was feeling so discouraged on Monday, worried about various things. And then I realized I was coming down with a cold. The moment that the cold really becomes clear is also the moment that it stops hurting so much. And so all these things that seem like problems, no longer seem like problems. I think that sometimes people get into funks for not-so-serious reasons.
Lopez: So, despite the fact that we are exporting this trashy culture the world over, we shouldn't be talking about the end of Rome?
Stillman: I think that we have a weird situation now. Society as reflected in film, television, and music couldn't be more destructive and negative and yet it seems like there is a core of morality and healthy attitudes in the actual society and culture. I think it is the reverse of what people like to say about the Victorian era, which is that everything was idealized in the cultural arena and how it was portrayed, but in real life all this terrible stuff was happening. I am not sure that I accept that model, but I think that now the entertainment media has taken the opposite posture. The Apollo 13's are too few and far between.
Lopez: You mentioned your father, and moving to Washington during Democratic administrations. You originally wanted to go into politics. Do you ever think that you might still want to?
Stillman: No, I don't think I would. I was actually in my Harvard interview with an interviewer who had no interest in talking to me whatsoever. And I was telling him what I was going to do with my life, and I was just repeating essentially my father's career. Talking to someone who doesn't care what you are saying or is not interested at all, is actually good training, because you start to question what you are saying and what you are doing. I realized after giving him this boring list of things what I was going to do go to law school, get active in Democratic politics, run for office, public service, all the cliches we might hear politicians talk about I realized that wasn't what I wanted to do at all. I wanted to pretend to be F. Scott Fitzgerald or something. And so this latest is sort of my attempt to do a F. Scott Fitzgerald for the '80s. That's essentially what The Last Days of Disco, With Cocktails at Petrossian Afterwards is.
Lopez: So doing the three movies first helped you become closer to F. Scott Fitzgerald?
Stillman: Well, I wanted to do that kind of short story or novel when I was in college and after, but I couldn't get it off. I think it was partly because I didn't have the material. For me, I have to look back 15 years before it started to make sense dramatically.
Lopez: Would you like to do more novels, or more films, or a combination of these as they present themselves?
Stillman: I would just like to be a lot more productive, whether it is movies, television, or fiction. I think maybe I will try to save fiction for when I am incapacitated from doing movies and TV shows.
Lopez: People say that you are a genius.
Stillman: Who? Give me their names and numbers. I've never seen the g-word!
I really strongly disagree with that idea, that kind of language, about anyone. I remember I had a casting person on one film and she kept saying this person is a brilliant actor, or this person's not a good actor. And, in the process of making films, I've just seen so much that is about selecting our best work and putting that forward, and having the process, and the time, and the determination to try to do that. We all do really, really bad work. We are not geniuses at all. The challenge is to try to hide that hide the bad work and show the good work.
Lopez: Some critics have referred to you as the WASP version of Woody Allen. What do you think about that? Do you agree?
Stillman: I think that to explain things to people, who don't know what you are talking about, you have to use a formulation like that. In large-scale terms, that's fine, it is very flattering, frankly. It's funny. I would say that he is a genius, in the sense that things just flow out of him. When he does an interview, he does really funny things. I would never say anything funny in an interview. And yet, the dilemma for him is the same that it is for anyone: Is he going to go with his first draft, and sort of on the set ad lib and edit the film together and present it every year, or is he going to maybe do a second draft occasionally.
Lopez: What is the writing process like for you?
Stillmann: It's too infrequent. I need to get in a situation where I am obliged to write more. I have the excuse that I shouldn't force it, I should get the ideas before I write. But I really need to be put on the spot. When I was living in Barcelona, I had three bouts of writing a day that involved going to the international press center there. The day was divided up in interesting ways; that was helpful to me as a writer. I am trying to find that in Paris. There are really great places to write, but I need a way to put myself on the spot. I am trying to sign up for as many obligations as possible, so I will have people pressing me to be more productive. I really believe in external pressure as well as internal pressure.
Lopez: Does it come easily once you sit down to do it?
Stillman: Normally, when there is a deadline, there is a wonderful, horrible feeling when you have to do it, you have to have these ideas, you have to be productive. What I like to do is to have a series of false deadlines. I'll have some reason for the deadlines, and still will be able to clean up and improve the mess that you commit when you are writing helter-skelter.
Lopez: Just after The Last Days of Disco, you were working on a film on Colonial America. Is that still forthcoming?
Stillman: It was sort of blown out of the water because of The Patriot, and also the fact that I have no credentials for doing something of that kind. It was based on one of the many threads on which they based that horrible movie. I hated that movie so much because it is such interesting material. There is so much that we can learn from the story, from the material. It is so interesting and complex, multifaceted. I felt that that movie trashed absolutely everything in the most hackneyed way possible. And it is also sort of pornographic in its level of gratuitous violence that Mel Gibson really seems to have an addiction to. I observed that script from the original version to the Mel Gibson version, and he injects tons of needless violence in what he does. I think that's the way he protects his box-office status.
Lopez: Back in college, you worked on the Harvard Crimson with Michael Kinsley?
Stillman: Yes. I had an interesting relationship with Michael Kinsley in that I was his chosen successor to write the humor columns that the Crimson had. In fact, we collaborated, it was one of the few times I've ever written with someone. It was great. I really like him. In college, he was incredibly funny, he was the funniest writer. And he actually gave me a gig 20 years later writing a diary for Slate when Disco came out.
Lopez: Would you like to do more contemporary short writing, like the Wall Street Journal pieces you've done, and the Slate gig?
Stillman: Yes. I'm actually getting into it more. I really enjoyed writing the book-tour article because it was a very short deadline. The editor had already slotted it in a few days after I finished the tour, so I had to do it. And, it was based on stuff that I had seen, and it basically had a comic rather than analytical nature, and so I really like that and would like to do that more. In the past, I have tried to shy away from those assignments, because it is normally something like a book review, and I am really not qualified to write in a certain serious way. I'd over-research and spend way too much time on it, which, if you are being paid to write a script, really gets in the way, because you've spent all this time on a book review.
Lopez: You also wrote a piece last year describing the sermons of a Methodist preacher in New York for the Journal. How did that come about?
Stillman: Dr. Morris Boyd preaches at the City Church in New York, which occupies the space of the Ethical Culture building on 64th and Central Park West. At 10 A.M. every Sunday, he gets up at a service and gives the sermon. He's a Northern Ireland Methodist, but he has been preaching at Presbyterian churches. People from every denomination, including Catholic, go because he is just fascinating to listen to. I have never heard anyone so brilliant. He is just brilliant. I had completely given up expecting depth coming out of the pulpit. And it is not only that, it's the whole service it is absolutely immaculate. There is no embarrassing sign of peace. Everything is sincere and beautiful. There is a lot of stuff in Disco that comes from his services, the two hymns in the movie Amazing Grace and Dear Lord and Father of Mankind are in his top ten. And he is completely averse to publicizing what he does. I think that is a shame, because he cannot go on forever, and people who would really love to know about him do not.