To celebrate the release of his first new film in fourteen years, Damsels in Distress, here’s the interview we conducted with filmmaker Whit Stillman in 2009.
Good Times! – Whit Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco has finally made its long-awaited DVD debut in an exquisite edition from the Criterion Collection. The final (and some might say finest) entry in his “doomed bourgeois in love” trilogy, Disco received nowhere near its proper due when it was released in 1998, getting swallowed up instead by a media-fabricated “disco revival” (an especially tragic fate for a film that’s not really about disco) and left to wallow unreleased while studios bickered over the rights.
A supremely touching and frequently hilarious story about young professionals coping with love and work in NYC in the very early 80s, the term “romantic comedy” would almost apply, if that label didn’t carry all the associations it carries these days. Very few stones are left unturned: identity, romance, free will, advertising, the importance of group social life – it’s all here. Not to mention the most inspired discussion of Lady And The Tramp ever committed to film (once Stillman’s sense of humor grabs you – and it doesn’t grab everyone – you will never turn back).
Watching it again, one realizes how much Disco represents the culmination of Stillman’s style: the inimitable dialogue, the superb ensemble acting, the use of music, the endearing snottiness of Chris Eigeman, the astounding eye/ear for detail, etc. Call me a super-fan, but I cannot think of another movie of the same era that manages to pull off being both tasteful and honest, humane and ironic, smart and emotionally accessible. I can certainly think of a number that have knocked it off.
The good news is, this release actually does the film justice! Criterion have knocked it out of the park once again – surprise, surprise – presenting Disco with the same care, precision and charm that Stillman brought to the film itself. The transfer is gorgeous and the extra features are a revelation. Of course, for our purposes, it should be noted that this movie features not one but two Protestant hymns (“Amazing Grace” and “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind”). As in all of Stillman’s films, religion hovers around the edges, bubbling up sympathetically in moments of crisis but never in the hysterical or patronizing way that lesser directors employ it. I had the opportunity to speak with Whit recently about Disco, biographies, church and a number of other subjects.
It’s been ten years since The Last Days of Disco. What happened when it was first released?
An interesting thing. We were released by Gramercy pictures and it was a bit of an uncomfortable situation. In theory Gramercy had the right profile for this kind of film, but they were kind of collapsing and didn’t have much money. The fellow who was going to distribute it came in, and said, ‘I think we should change the title. It’s not really about disco, and people are going to be disappointed if they come in thinking that.’ We were just shocked. We felt like the title was the best thing we had going for us. And then later I saw all the grief we got from journalists about the disco era and this and that – all the focus on this one really unimportant detail. The film is about the characters and the story. It’s about New York, it’s about apartments, it’s about jobs. Not this journalistic obsession with disco. So when the executive said we should change the title, I thought he was crazy. But in retrospect, he was probably right. And for foreign releases we thought a lot about using the original sub-title, “History Is Made At Night”, which I think would have been a good title, as it was a great 30’s film directed by Frank Borzage and had an approach and romanticism that we really admired.
It seemed like a real mistake that everything about the film was being related to a style of music. That wasn’t the heart of the film. Then later, someone told me that that same distributor wanted to change the title of every film he gets. A compulsive title-changer, and often to very bad titles. In any case, when the film came out in the States, we didn’t really do what we had to do as far as connecting to an audience. It seemed like it was a hit in the big cities and then didn’t pan out in its full distribution.
It’s a very detailed movie, the kind that benefits greatly from repeated viewings. I would guess that you would be pretty excited about a DVD release after all these years. It seems that of your three films it gets the shortest shrift.
It’s really surprising what a difference it makes. I thought the film was pretty well available on TV and lately it’s been available in other ways. But it’s great having a DVD come out. And associated with that there’s been these screenings.
It must have been heartbreaking to lose those scenes with Jimmy stealing Des’ secret diary/Last Testament [included as deleted scenes on the DVD].
At the time we were under the gun in the editing room, so to lose anything was just, ‘hallelujah, we lost something’.
I remember reading the wonderful “novelization” of the film [that you wrote] and Jimmy Steinway’s line about Brutus in the final cab ride made much more sense to me in the context of those scenes. Seeing it on screen was really great. I love that Des is eating cereal. It rings very true. Can we expect any more novels from you?
Yes, I think so. At a certain point, it becomes impossible to make films and you have to head in another way.
As one of the special features on the DVD, you read the epilogue from the novelization, “The Moon Worshipers”. What made you choose that chapter over the “Cocktails at Petrossian” one [which narrates a reunion of the characters 17 years after the events of the film]?
We had already done the “Petrossian” chapter for audible.com. And when we read through it, there was a lot of performance of different characters, and I found it awkward in my own voice to quote Jimmy, to quote Des, to have their dialogue. It seemed better to have the Jimmy voice as a monologue in his account in that final chapter.
The bias against advertising executives that is depicted in the film, I thought it was funny in the commentary when you confirmed that it was true (Mad Men notwithstanding). Where does that come from?
There are two aspects. I had a friend who was this cool guy, very stylish and fashionable. He had a good friend who was doing the party design at Studio 54, so he was completely on the inside. As a result, he had that experience of being called upon constantly by the ad agency he worked for to get out-of-town clients into the club. There were people like that, who had some angle for getting folks into the club; they were popular but it became a worrisome obligation for them.
Another aspect of the advertising thing, which we get into a bit in Barcelona, was that I had one friend who was in advertising and really was interested in it. He’d quote all sorts of things: Rosser Reeves, Unique Selling Proposition – what’s the USP for this product? – a lot of Jimmy Steinway is based on his experience. I had another friend who had the experience of getting jobs out in Dallas or Atlanta and came to realize that once your career is out of New York, it’s very hard to come back. Which was part of the idea for Jimmy Steinway’s trajectory. Would you have preferred to have the Cocktails at Petrossian chapter [on the DVD] rather than the final one?
Personally I prefer the one you chose, the final one – mainly because I find the stuff about Hungarian Calvinism so funny and touching. But I do think people would be curious about that interaction between Des and Jimmy.
I think the chapter that we read has more serious content. It’s more serious stuff.
I’ve looked and looked and there’s no book named The Lean Years: Hungarian Calvinism in Crisis [referenced a number of times in the novelization], is there?
There is and I own it. I was really obsessed with that book. I found the idea of Calvinism in Hungary so fascinating. There’s a whole neighborhood in New York, the Yorkville area, which has a real eastern European feeling and was very anti-Communist. I kept seeing that book in windows and I finally did buy it. I just found it so evocative. Even though only the cover was in English and the rest was in Hungarian.
I also prefer the final chapter for that priceless line, “I’m sure there are some cute Huguenot girls out there”.
When I was in France I had sort of an experience of that. I love those French Protestant churches. They’re really great. There’s such an austere, lovely feeling in those churches. And I knew socially from Harvard some French Protestants and found it interesting how they would almost invariably marry American, Canadian or German Protestant women. They would never find those cute Huguenot girls.
Jansenism was one of my father’s obsessions when I was growing up, and as kids he would drag us to all these Huguenot churches when we were on vacation. The nostalgia of seeing something that has ended – is it a stretch to say there’s a similar thing with the disco era?
When we are younger we’re overwhelmed by nostalgia but as you get older you actually become less subject to it. And I think the idea of things dying and ending and all that, when you’re younger you see it just in sad ways – but then you come to see it as part of the process of dying and renewal and good things come out of that. I hate it when people think they should cater to and play along with whatever is trendy and dominant. They’re sycophants without realizing that things that are trendy and dominant are ephemeral too. Max Beerbohm had a wonderful remark, “It distresses me, this failure to keep pace with the leaders of thought, as they pass into oblivion”. And it’s so true.
The Last Days of Disco depicts young people trying to form their identities in some way. Some are forming them based on things that are trendy/silly and some on things that are more substantial. Do you think New York exaggerates or amplifies that identity search?
I remember coming back to the city and seeing how people were interacting socially, and it was a really poisonous atmosphere. It’s well illustrated in a movie set in LA, Swingers – maybe it’s a Los Angeles/New York phenomenon – where there’s all these things about how a guy couldn’t call a girl immediately, that he had to wait three days. And if a guy called a girl, she couldn’t call him right back, etc. My gosh, that’s poisonous for people getting to know each other in the right way.
What are your current influences? What are you watching now that you’d recommend?
I think if you’re working in one area, it’s good to be influenced by another area. If you’re making movies, you shouldn’t be looking at other movies for inspiration. Unless it’s movies from a radically different era or epoch or country.
The great influence is the great things in the world. The most appealing thing to read is good biography, and I think you always should avoid going by subject as opposed to quality of treatment. So if there’s a book written about a subject that you’re interested in, but it’s written by an author whose understanding is flawed, it’s better to avoid that and go to the good book written about something of some value, though it may not be precisely your interest. It’s a little like when you go to university, do you take the courses you’re interested in or do you find the great teachers and follow their courses? I would go with the great teachers.
So if you can ever find something that is a great author on a great subject, then you’ve struck gold. Boswell’s life of Johnson would be that. Johnson was so profound and so great, so perceptive, so devout. And he’s so wrong-headed in a very funny, enlightening way. He could be contentious of Americans in a very bigoted way, and yet we can get energy and stimulation out of that. You can get it from Evelyn Waugh too. All of his dislike of Americans and contempt and all his prejudices are all part of the amusing parcel. We can enjoy his deprecation as much as some moron’s praise.
What is your favorite Evelyn Waugh?
Any more biographies to recommend?
Robert Conquest’s . People should also look at the big biography of Mao that came out in the last five years. It’s impossible to read that book straight through, it’s just too appalling. But it completely demystifies the cult of Mao. It’s important to know how inhuman they were in their evil. I think so often people try to put their violence in the context of their ideology, when I think you really have to put their ideology in the context of their violence. The violence is there and comes first. The hatefulness is there and the violence comes out of it.
The casting of Disco is so incredibly perfect. How important is that to you in making a movie?
It’s absolutely terrifying. You can spend years on something and get it pretty close to where it should be and then you can throw it all away by having the wrong cast. And it was one of the great things about working in the old independent film business, that your people were not so well known and their contracts were pretty open and it was kind of under the radar so there could be recasting and changes without people getting hurt. Without it hurting people’s reputations. We actually had a major recasting early on in the shoot (it’s obliquely mentioned in the commentary). The freedom you have for recasting and changing things in independent film is very important. If something doesn’t work you can make a change. Which we did in both Metropolitan and Disco.
I read an article that you wrote for the Wall Street Journal a while back where you talk about church-going and focus on the services of the late Dr. Maurice Boyd [ed. note: read it now!]. Care to comment?
A lot of us discovered Dr. Boyd at the 5th Ave Presbyterian Church [in NYC] and loved him and the services he conducted. His orders of worship were immaculate. He kept refining the services, making them better and better. And he’d say that it was the first time that he’d had things just as they should be. I remember when I interviewed him for the “Suffering Sundays” piece about the pain we go through on many Sundays when we have go to a church that we don’t really like, and we have to put up with it. And the difference in finding someone who both is eloquent and insightful, with a completely uplifting sermon and service. I asked him why there was no sign of peace, and he said, “I find it embarrassing and awkward, I leave it out”. He was really pretty scathing about it. And I just find that so true. I find it false and embarrassing. There’s so many things in churches now which are so much the opposite of where we should be. He had the courage completely to do it exactly the right way.
That’s very, very rare.
And he paid a price for it. It was wonderful while it was happening. I think he retired in 2007. And it’s really a shame that there are some people who are really very good and have great things to say, but will be surrounded by a service of worship that’s so mediocre and off-putting.
So that you want to come in late to avoid the awkwardness and leave early to avoid it again.
The traditional service we’ve been handed down is so beautiful and so wonderful. And the fact that people think they have to dumb it down or corn it up, it’s so disrespectful.
There’s a lot of hope. The more noise we can make the better. They’re negotiating with Warners. It’d be great because then we could have the boxed set.
Well, that’s the one that I hope will happen. But there’s another one that’s in pretty good shape too. I need to get a website up so we can collect money from would-be investors. I think it’s really important to develop a network of investors in the right kind of independent film. They can do very well as investors and we can make some really good films. We shouldn’t go through the industry. It’s much better to do it yourself.