Whit Stillman on The Last Days of Disco, and Being Fed Up With New York

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The Last Days of Disco. Photo: Gramercy Pictures

Whit Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco is a quintessential New York fantasy: college classmates Alice (Chloë Sevigny) and Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale) aren’t even sure that they really like one another as friends, but they get dressed up and go out all the same. They drink overpriced cocktails with boys who are a little bit boneheaded just for the experience of living and dancing in New York City. They say silly, naïve things with authority, and complain about the rent. “Before disco, this country was a dancing wasteland,” Charlotte announces at one point. Disco isn’t their church or even necessarily a lifestyle — it’s just where their friends are.

I have a deep, misplaced nostalgia for this movie about deep and misplaced nostalgia. “People will laugh about John Travolta, Olivia Newton-John, white polyester suits, and platform shoes, but we had nothing to do with those things and still loved disco,” a young white guy, fresh from accompanying his friends to collect their unemployment checks, announces to a mostly empty sidewalk near the end of The Last Days of Disco. “Those who didn’t understand will never understand: Disco was much more, and much better, than all that. Disco was too great, and too much fun, to be gone forever.” The guy — Josh, played by Matthew Keeslar — is partly serious, and partly just exercising his ability to care about things. It’s the movie’s parting message: Disco was great, and glamorous, and most of all, it was ours.

Twenty years after the movie’s release — and ahead of a few anniversary screenings in New York, Los Angeles, and London — I caught up with Stillman to revisit his movie about New York and nightlife. “I think there’s an idea of what people who went to discos were and what discos were like that were widely held but not specific to clubs,” Stillman told me. “So I really like the fact that over time that people who are 30 years old have gotten to like the film.”

What was going on in your life when you were writing The Last Days of Disco script?
It sort of came out of the editing of the prior film we worked on, Barcelona. When we were in Barcelona, we had a really tough shoot physically with a lot of night shooting. Then we had a wonderful day in a chic, old-style European disco club, Up & Down, and did a big disco scene there and really had a great time shooting. If you’re doing a film like this set at night, if it’s a disco you can actually shoot during the day, so it’s the easiest day for night. It’s really sort of fun. Normally on these films, you’re exhausted all the time. We were looking at what we shot in the two disco scenes in Barcelona and it just seemed so visual and so cinematographic. In our kind of films, you have to strive hard to make it look like anything — it’s people talking and things like that. In this case, those scenes had a sort of action and beauty, and we had the idea of two lovely girls in nightclubs. I myself loved the disco era. I loved the music and the atmosphere, and it gave me a chance to go back to that time.

Do you remember the most difficult scene to shoot for The Last Days of Disco?
I wanted to knock people’s eyes out with how spectacular the disco was. We got this huge space on the inside of the Jersey City Lowe’s. It’s a spectacular place. Then we had to fill it with dancers to make it look like they were getting into a nightclub. It was just so hard to make a big space look like it was crowded with a lot of disco people. That was a huge challenge for us. Just making a big disco scene with people looking like they belonged. And I think, from a production point of view, it would have been better if we had done one of the chic, small discos that were popular before that era and popular after that era. But in that era, it was kind of the big places, so we represented that.

A lot of actors are insecure about dancing on camera. How did you get around that, or make them feel more comfortable with the dancing scenes?
Well, there are actors who don’t really like it, like Chris Eigeman who was in all of the first three films. He doesn’t really like dancing on camera, and he sort of had to in the Barcelona scene where he dances with the Mira Sorvino character. I wrote Des, his part in The Last Days of Disco, in a way that Des never dances. Des doesn’t dance. [Laughs.] I don’t think Matt Keeslar, who played Josh, loved doing it, but he did a kind of funny thing in that last scene in the metro.

Some people were really comfortable with it. I think all the women were really comfortable with it and Matt Ross, who has become a director, he really made it a great comic thing. And then, Robert Sean Leonard was just sensational. And that’s my favorite scene in the movie: Kate Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny are dancing and having a really good time, and then the camera pushes in on them through a whole crowded dance floor. It’s a Chic song, I think “Everybody Dance.” Robert Sean Leonard arrives playing the Tom character and he and Chloë start dancing.

Are you a good dancer? Do you like to dance?
I do love to dance. I went to boarding school where the only way we saw people socially was at school mixers, so you had sort of survival of the fittest. It was sort of Darwinian. You had to like dances if you were going to meet anyone.

Which character in The Last Days of Disco do you feel resonates the most for you personally?
Generally, there are sort of three or four characters that I feel very close to in a movie, and not necessarily the male characters. So in Disco there are characters where you parcel out different things. I related to Chloë Sevigny’s character, Alice, because I worked in publishing. I lived in an apartment like the one Alice had. Jimmy Steinway, the dancing ad man character played by Mac Astin, too. The nutty character played by Matt Keeslar. And then the Des character played by Chris Eigeman, who gets the funny line that I wouldn’t get in real life, but I can think of them when I’m writing.

I love how this movie sees friendship, and how they’re shaping their identities through these awkward pairings. Who was your best friend when you were in your 20s?
The film is kind of a utopian fantasy of an ensemble of friends who are together going out and having a good time and going to all these places. When I arrived in New York after graduating from university in 1973, there just seemed like nothing. It was just a wasteland socially, which we talk about in the film quite a bit. The film is a bit my dream fantasy of what it could have been like. I had really good friends who were in the city and I’d see them a lot, but they weren’t interested in the same things I was.

My best friend from the first day of college to now was never in a disco, according to him. I remember when I showed him and some other people the film and asked, “Does the disco seem accurate to you?” He said, “I wouldn’t know. I’ve never been in a disco.” [Laughs.] At one point I decided that the only way workaholic Americans get to see their friends is if you do work with them, so he became a key investor in the film. My two best friends from college invested in Metropolitan and it gave me an excuse to see them a lot, more than I would have ordinarily.

Chloë Sevigny has said that this film is the movie people ask her about the most. Is it the same for you?
Oh, that’s fantastic she says that. I just love hearing that. That’s great. No, no. Metropolitan is definitely the film people talk about the most.

Have you noticed anything about people who really love The Last Days of Disco?
I’m really pleased that it is my younger friends, my daughters’ generation, that really seem to embrace the film. The idea for it was directed toward them. It had an ambivalent reputation when it came out. It got really good reviews in important papers — the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the Washington Post — that was great.

But then all the other journalistic comment was sort of negative. Even though we benefited from pretty good reviews, there’s kind of a bad taste about the reception of the film. There was a lot of talk about whether it’s accurate or not. But when I asked people what discos they were thinking about when they’re saying it wasn’t accurate, they said, “Oh, I never went to a disco. I only like punk music.” I think there’s an idea of what people who went to discos were and what discos were like that were widely held but not specific to clubs. So I really like the fact that over time that people who are 30 years old have gotten to like the film.

Can you tell me about the costumes?
We really were lucky because we got a really important costume designer at the beginning of her career, Sarah Edwards. Really dedicated, really good taste and imaginative. Sarah got what I wanted to do and had these incredibly beautiful outfits. I remember this black dress that Kate Beckinsale had that looked like it had been chopped with scissors. It was really pretty, like a Starburst. She found troves of new clothes from the period that hadn’t been worn. I think her parents were in the business, so she had access to all these interesting angles for finding new clothes.

You wrote a novelization of The Last Days of Disco a couple of years after the movie’s release — did you ever think about where these characters ended up later in life?
Yes, I put that into the novel. People were saying, “Oh, there’s not enough time for you to write this novel before the film comes out,” and then a very good editor at Farrar Straus, Jonathan Galassi, said, “No, I don’t want you to write it to come out with the movie. Take your time. Make it as good as you think you can make it. Do something else. Not exactly like the movie.” So he waited for it and published it two years later.

It is narrated by the Jimmy Steinway character, as if it were written by the Jimmy Steinway dancing ad man character, as if he’s a real person. He’s gotten the gig to write the novelization, but he’s also talking about the way it really was. The full title of the book is The Last Days of Disco With Cocktails at Petrossian Afterwards. There’s a really fun screening room in the basement of Planet Hollywood on 57th Street, near Carnegie Hall. When we were editing this film, we could invite people to see the movie in the evening, and they could have cocktails, they could have something to eat, and it’s very relaxed and kind of fun to get people in the right mood for the movie. We really loved having our Planet Hollywood screenings. The novel imagined that the characters, that the real characters in the story, had watched a rough cut of the film and afterward they’ve gone nearby to the restaurant Petrossian to have cocktails.

Can you tell me more about those Planet Hollywood screenings? Who showed up?
They were really fun screenings, but sometimes you get in a panic when people say the movie is too long or this doesn’t work, that doesn’t work. One time we did this radical cut that was really a mess. We just took out stuff that we shouldn’t have taken out, and it made the film actually seem more claustrophobic and longer. The foreign investors, PolyGram, had flown in from England to see that cut. The backer — Lorne Shafer from Castle Rock — came to me and said, “The people from PolyGram don’t want to see you at the end of the film.” The only place I could go and not be seen as they came out was the men’s room! So I hid in the men’s room while the people from PolyGram left the screening, which didn’t endear me to them.

That’s so wild!
Yeah. I don’t understand why people can’t come out of a screening room and just lie to the filmmaker. “Oh, I loved it!

What’s your favorite song in the movie?
I have to say two: “Doctor’s Orders,” which opens the movie. The composer Mark Suozzo did something really interesting. We got permission to continue the music that’s not in the song — they took the melody and the elements in the song and created an orchestral bridge — so “Doctors Orders” continues. So we start with a real song, then it goes into an orchestral score of the song, and then when the girls get into the club, it comes back to the actual song.

I love that Chic song, I think it’s called “Everybody Dance.” Which has that great dance scene with Chloë, Kate, and Robert Sean Leonard.

A lot of this dialogue is really endearingly serious, but sometimes nebulous. Was there a line or a monologue you thought wouldn’t go over?
I guess you just worry about everything, and then when people get it, then you’re relieved. The two sort of key moments as far as dialogue, were the big Lady and the Tramp scene, which was a really intense scene for Matt Keeslar. Keeslar, playing the Josh character, had the two big monologue scenes. He had the Lady and the Tramp scene, and he had the “disco will never die” scene. He really revved up for those and got them, but it was an intense experience of director-actor, working through those scenes.

What was that back-and-forth like?
It was very intense because I had worked with Chris Eigeman on a lot of [dialogue] like that, and the first time we did one of those scenes in Metropolitan, it was very intense. With Matt, who I had not worked with before, it was a question of getting what that character could be about. I can’t describe that directing experience, but generally we’ve had the luxury of people coming to the films from auditions where we’ve already kind of done the work in the audition.

In the case of The Last Days of Disco, we were rushed as far as the casting. We were really under the gun because Castle Rock was financing it and it was really important that we come out before the Miramax film called 54. We had to start shooting this film before we had finished all the casting. People like Matt Keeslar and MacKenzie Astin, I really like them, but I wasn’t sure where they’d fit. I wanted them to play a part, but I wasn’t sure what the part would be, so they kept being moved around in the cast. I really liked them and it was a question of what they wanted to play. It meant that there was more work on set than the other films I’d done.

One time Vulture wrote up a comment someone left of The Last Days of Disco when it was on Hulu, and I’d like your take on it: “[Last Days of Disco] is a great movie to put on if you want to impress a wannabe socialite girl. She will think so much more of you than you deserve, you little wannabe clever guy.” 
I don’t know about that. I don’t like the things that categorize the movies too much in sort of class terms. I think everyone goes through some of these experiences, and yes, it is a yuppie descent film, but a lot of people are yuppies. I reject that comment.

Disco is a movie about social animals — this group goes out to these clubs and dinners — but millennials sort of pride ourselves on staying in and binge-watching Netflix. I wondered, if you made a movie about youth today, what do you think we’d need to tackle?
I have sort of a different experience because I have two daughters in that age group and I don’t know what movie I can make. They just work all the time. All the time! [Laughs.] One is an incredibly hardworking lawyer and one is a medical student, and all I see is work, work, work, work. So, I don’t know!

I think it would be good if people would reflect on long-term priorities, and maybe not get into the situation of the job where people are forced to work more than really should be necessary. I wish there were jobs where people can have a private life and pair off happily and have families and spend time having those families. One of the advantages of having kids when you’re young is you can get grandkids when you’re not too old. As someone pining for grandkids, I have a different perspective on what people in their 20s should be doing now.

You’ve been living in Paris for the last few years. Do you feel very nostalgic for New York?
No. Since about 1982, my ambition in life was not to live in New York, so I can’t say I’m nostalgic for New York.

What happened in 1982?
I just got fed up with New York. I found a cool, funky apartment in Soho in ’84 and I decided, I like this down here. This will give me a few more years of living in and enjoying New York. And then I discovered Tribeca, which I like, too. I discovered places that I liked. I said, Okay, I can live in New York for a few more years. It’s not so bad. I had a seven-year period of falling back in love with the United States and traveling all over and living in different places, and I really like the United States, but not necessarily the huge cities.

Whit Stillman on Last Days Disco, Being Fed Up With New York