Whit Stillman's 1998 film, The Last Days of Disco, has been restored and re-released on Criterion this week. Its ensemble cast includes Chloë Sevigny, Kate Beckinsale, Chris Eigeman and Mackenzie Astin. Tomorrow night, Stillman will appear at the Walter Reade Theater for a screening of the film, and a real life disco party will follow in tribute.
Two of Stillman's films take place in New York City, where he lives with his family. And though he hasn't made a film since 1998, it doesn't mean he hasn't been productive: Stillman talked with us last week about upcoming projects, the odd triumph of Wikipedia, Dunkin Donuts as a writer's nook, the closing of Beatrice Inn, and the understated allure of Freddy the Pig.
The Last Days of Disco Criterion DVD was released this week, and you're appearing at a Walter Reade Theater. You're also doing something at the Jacob Burns Center in Westchester on September 1 with the film critic Janet Maslin, who really liked the film. Do you come face to face with professional critics on a regular basis? Not normally. Owen Gleiberman is the only person I know and he comes into my local Dunkin Donuts. I write at Dunkin Donuts, one downtown, and normally it's a place that provides delightful anonymity. Occasionally I get a cup of java. He gave Metropolitan a C+ [laughs]. That was a bad review.
So you recognize him when he walks in, he's buying his frosted crullers or whatever, but you've never had any words with him? Oh, no, I know Owen. When he comes in to chat, we chat.
Did you ever talk about the C+ review of The Last Days of Disco over a box of munchkins? Normally I think he's in a rush. I'm there in writing mode and he's grabbing coffee and off to work, and his life. And I've gotten over the C grade.
I've read interviews you've done where you talk about how you read all the reviews of your films and take them very seriously. That must have been Gerald Peary's interview, he said that.
It was. Gerald Peary knows all the critics, so when I saw him I was talking to him about these triangles, certain personalities you run into. But I don't think that it's really that true.
That's funny. I think it's like the first sentence of that interview. Well, I've haven't worried about reviews in ten years [laughs]. I haven't really worried about critics for a long time. I'm worried more about financiers than critics these days.
People are looking for you on the internet. Do you consider yourself a reclusive person? No.
Because The Last Days of Disco was the last movie you made, in 1998, I wanted to ask about your next film project. I found reference to this adaptation of Christopher Buckley's novel Little Green Men, and then a movie you're writing called Dancing Mood. Can you tell me about those? I don't think Little Green Men is happening, at least with me. That's been true for a long time. Things stick around on the internet, though. Dancing Mood is a way serious project I've been working on for a long time but there's all sorts of steps that have to happen so it may get postponed again. But I can't wait to make that film.
There are books about your films, critical essays. Then on Wikipedia, you have a pretty healthy size page, and at the same time you're not always in the public eye. Do you read all of the things people write about you and your films as they come across them and watch them? I've read most of the stuff about the films.
Is there anything Wikipedia gets wrong? It's pretty correct, I guess. Is it accurate you mean?
It's just sort of strange. I don't know what it would be like to have a Wikipedia page. It seems like every person in the world has a Wikipedia page these days, don't they?
Not really. I think they have a rigorous kind of self-review, so that if say my friend made a page about me, it might get deleted within a couple of weeks for not being Wiki worthy. Really? [laughs] I didn't know that.
The self-policing aspect is pretty strong, I think these clean up crews, sort of like internet armies of the night, go around and take people's pages down. Then others constantly revise existing entries and correct things. Gosh. I thought it was totally ad-lib, with people just putting stuff up. It seems like they're getting a lot of free labor, and people do a good job putting things up. I think it's great in one way, because when I got out of college there was no way to get your voice heard anywhere, or an easy way to write for anyone, and everything was really closed off. I think it's perfect. If you want to be a journalist, you're absolutely free to be a journalist. You can freelance and not make any money, but in one way it seems that at least you can do what you want to do.
That describes a lot of my friends. It's the great age of glorious amateurism.
Have you seen any great movies recently? I liked Tyson and Moving Midway.
Are there any actors out there that you'd really like to work with? Will Ferrell, Chloe Sevigny, Steve Martin, Emily Blunt, Bill Murray, Anne Consigny, the cast originally lined up for "Little Green Men," and about 47 others.
I saw you on Charlie Rose, three times, and it was like he asked you what you wanted to do with your life. Not menacingly, but like, directly. Oh yeah, what did I say?
During one show you said you wanted to be productive, and that you borrowed that line from a friend. The last time I said that was when I wrote the novel in 2000 [laughs]. I'm having a hard time living that one down. The thing is, and the reason I'm not too subtly depressed about not having made a film in so long, is that the really tough part of creation is working on the scripts and all that. And in an odd way, I have been productive and I have been doing stuff. Just because no one else has particularly seen it, you know, doesn't mean there's been no productivity. A lot of times I am being productive and doing the right stuff as I see it. I just have to have all the stars aligned so it can become a movie.
Around the time you made your first movie, Metropolitan, you were running an agency for cartoonists? It was an illustration agency, and they did a wonderful job. They're great people who were there and it had a great momentum. An uncle of mine who was a brilliant fellow, he died suddenly. He ran the agency, I was the designated family member to keep it going because I'd helped with some stuff. It was a terrific agency. The fellow who did the artwork for Last Days of Disco and Metropolitan Criterion DVDs is one of the artists from the agency: Pierre La-Tan, a French-Vietnamese artist.
In one of the office scenes in The Last Days of Disco, that's one of his works hanging in the back by the file cabinets? Yes, it's a portrait of someone. That's my uncle Ted Riley. My uncle was heading towards publishing a certain way—putting books together and creating things. The name of the house, Riley Publishing, in both the film and the novel, is a tribute to him.
Do you illustrate? I wish I did. That would be pure creation, that would be the greatest thing. But I can't draw.
So the agency— It still exists. It is now run by someone named Teresa Shelly, whom my wife worked with in Spanish TV. She had a lot of connections to the world of illustration, so when we went to Barcelona to work on the movie, she just took it over. And she has a really great list of clients, she got back a lot of the clients my uncle had back in the old days. Edward Koren, and a bunch of other really wonderful people.
I had a kid's book called Don't Talk to Strange Bears that he illustrated and wrote. It was one of my favorite books. Edward Koren? He's a massive genius. What some of these guys do with humor and comedy is just superb. Koren, Pierre La-Tan, they're really great.
Do you have a favorite children's book? I really love the original Dr. Doolittle books. But my reading list is odd. I read Animal Farm at age ten and really liked it. After liking Animal Farm I was looking for good pig stories and found the Freddy the Pig detective series—he was the porcine Lord Peter Wimsey. Just because wanted to read more about pigs. It was kind of a lack of discrimination.
That's cool. Have you ever seen the cartoon version of Animal Farm? No, is it good?
I don't know, I was supposed to watch it in seventh grade but missed school that day. Or I don't remember it. [laughs]
You spend your time between Barcelona, London, Paris and New York? [laughs] That's out there somewhere?
And now you're back. Pretty much.
Okay, so with regard to nightlife, Chloe Sevigny's brother Paul was a partner at a bar/club, the Beatrice Inn, which has closed— I know, that's a shame because I really like that place. I hope he gets a new one going, he's great at that.
Though there are all kinds of flaws in the inner workings of the club in The Last Days of Disco, the club is nonetheless important, or even essential in different ways to the lives of the characters. On a bonus DVD feature you narrate the epilogue of your Last Days of Disco novelization, and that idea of an intangible value is reiterated. Like an ideal. Is it an essential part of life to have a place to go at night, whether it's a darkened club or some place to go have a drink? Absolutely. Absolutely.
And New York is filled with those places. Now it is, but there was a period when things were really dead. Before disco, it was a nightlife wasteland. People go on and on about how disco is dead and it ended but it's not really true. That whole trend of going out at night took a hit when disco came into fashion, it became strange for a while, but then reestablished itself as something essential. I think it's good that it's available and it's fun. Maybe there's too much emphasis now. But the pre-Disco era was grim. Now it's miles better. Though there's not a lot of good dancing and Beatrice Inn being closed is a big hit to that.
Having a place to dance is important. I think so. I wish the convenient small places can have dancing without falling afoul to the city authorities. It would be really great if there was actual dancing at Old Town Bar. That would be a dream, a cheap beer and a cheap dance.
So that was Old Town in the movie? Yeah, that was our mecca.
My girlfriend said that when we watched it, just lit up and said "Old Town" repeatedly when that scene came on. She said nobody dances there. I haven't seen it happen there except for when we were shooting the film. I think juke box bars kind of do that. Beauty Bar does that, I think.
All photos courtesy the Criterion Collection
That's one of the nicest things about living here. Oh, and there's a cool place near the Corner Bistro when that's too crowded called, I think, Tavern on Jane.
Do you have a favorite restaurant that doesn't exist anymore? I think, I regret the old Brasserie before they trashed it. It used to be great, full service, 24-hour place. Really standard, really good. Beautiful design, and then they just junked it up.
I have a funny book from the 60s that describes the after-hours scene at Brasserie as "worth attending occasionally to see what slithers down those stairs at dawn and you’ll view some of the more colorful dregs and minor dignitaries of our times making entrances worthy of an underwater budget epic.” That sounds like a really cool book. It would be great to do a systematic appraisal of what's been lost and what's been gained.
A lot of places have become Subway sandwich shops or sports bars. It's shocking. Hasn't La Côte Basque disappeared? When we looking for an Old Town style bar, I was shocked to see how Dorrian's Red Hand had been turned into a sports bar, too.
I don't know that place. It's on 2nd Avenue and 84th Street. It became notorious because the Preppie Killer drank there and then the two were associated. Same family ran it forever. I think the sports bar thing has evolved everywhere.
What are some of your favorite spots in New York City? The Battery, Governor's Island, and the steps of the Metropolitan when no one's there, ie around 5 a.m.
Gothamist did an interview with Isabel Gillies earlier this year. For her book? That's a very good book.
It was about the book, but she also talked about being in Metropolitan. She said “you have to remember that independent film wasn't sort of the sexy thing it is now. It just didn't exist really and anybody making a film for $200,000 you were like, "What is this a porno? I mean, what is this?" But I got the script and I was 18, and it was a very wonderful script—it reads more like a novel. And so I read it and thought, "Well, this certainly isn't a porno, I better give this a go." That film was social pornography [laughs].
Can you talk about that? That was one of the great things, finding someone like Isabel to be in the film. Most of the actors came to the first auditions backstage and ended up in the film. They just showed up and it was sort of self-selecting, and people like Chris Eigeman and Carolyn Farina became part of the film. We wanted the authentic New York private school world, so we went to a lot of private schools for casting, and some of them didn't help us at all. There was this great English and Drama teacher at the Nightingale school and students interested in acting came in. One person we thought would be great for a part just wanted to be a doctor, not an actress, and so her parents turned us down. Then the teacher told us about this girl who graduated the year before and was now at RISD and arranged for her to come down on the weekend. She came from this kind of world in the film, in a way, and she was working in the film and one of the problems we had was that we weren't SAG and didn't have adults for the adult roles. Her mother came to the set—Linda Gillies, the Executive Director of the Astor Foundation, Brooke Astor was her boss. She was doing a lot of the heavy lifting and hard work at the foundation. She came to the set and I asked her if she'd play the mother in the first scene of the movie, and so she did.
Wow. It was a real effort to get real Manhattan people in the movie. That was good. In the case of Isabel Gillies it paid off, and a young woman named Dylan Hundley, same age, private school kid, but with a kind of a downtown cool background.
Have you seen Gossip Girl? I don't mean to be flippant but in terms of culture there's this dominant, sexcapade-y, exclusivity thing now pinned to private school life. It's the usual garbage. And people describing, inaccurately, things they don't know anything about. Unfortunately, garbage creates more garbage. People imitate it because that's the way they feel like they should act. I think Metropolitan is the antithesis to Gossip Girl.