The Soul of Whit Stillman

For Whit Stillman, writer and director of the motion pictures 'Metropolitan' and 'Barcelona,' and now 'The Last Days of Disco,' conversation carries the action of love and life itself.

By Hara Estroff Marano, published May 1, 1998 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Writer and director of two of the most relentlessly intelligent movies of the decade (Metropolitan and Barcelona), aptly-named Whit Stillman is about to release his surprising take on The Last Days of Disco. PT Editorial-at-Large Hara Estroff Marano caught up with him on his--and our--favorite topics: love life end conversation.

PT: Films are a great screen where we can look at human behavior and see who we are. Through them, we can see ourselves more clearly. Is this why you got into film?

Whit Stillman: My aspiration was to be a novelist. I tried doing that in college, and I really didn't like the solitude. I didn't like the prospect of an entire life spent writing a novel for four years, having lunch with your editor, getting a telegram that it's published, and then going back and writing another. I didn't feel cut out to be a novelist, but I wanted to be in storytelling. I thought that maybe in film I could do something where I wouldn't have to write all the time, where I could be involved in stories in an industrial production line.

PT: Are you just telling stories? What are you showing us?

WS: To make a low-budget film, you have to have a script. So I wrote the script for Metropolitan. It was a cheap way to get a script that I could direct. But by coming back to writing later in life, I found I had something I didn't have in college: subject matter. I could think back ten years and have stuff I could write about. You can write a romantic comedy and lie about the way people live together just to make it entertaining, or, with the same amount of work, you can try to tell absolutely the truth as you know it.

PT: When you have your characters acting, and you're deciding whether something rings true, what is it about the human experience that you want us to get?

WS: When you're dealing with fiction, it's important that it not be explicit, that it somehow be intuitive. If it's conscious, it offends the audience. So you come at it indirectly. I think often you're reprocessing through your own experience the stuff you've read and loved in the past. The writers I most love--Jane Austen, Tolstoy, Samuel Johnson--had their desire to observe life and recommend, through their own means, certain paths, certain types of people, certain types of conduct. At times, I felt that The Last Days of Disco was a social guide for young women, or a sex-education film. It is set in the waning days of that period we call the sexual revolution, which was not about feminism or equality of the sexes, but about sexual conduct. It was just before the change in behavior in the eighties. Setting it there meant I could talk about much more in a short amount of time, because people were having a lot of experiences and learning lessons quickly, abruptly--lessons of commitment, of premature commitment, and of biological problems that were solved. We really touch on--I hope lightly--almost everything that can go wrong. In times of more tranquil activity, those lessons come, if at all, much more slowly.

PT: You've made three films. If I had to sum up in one word what your films are about, I would say--and you may laugh--friendship. Discos can come and go, foreign assignments can come and go, debutante balls can come and go, but a circle of friends stays. Mating dances seem to take place within the circle of friends. There are individuals, but there is a group. There are alliances, but there is a group.

WS: This is something we hunger for in the United States. We're living in times that are a bit atomized. When we find those groups, it can really mean a lot to us. I think that's the really great thing about certain schools and colleges. Whatever the academic program, whatever their prestige, if they can put together productive, constructive groups of people, then they've succeeded.

PT: This is something that you had, I presume. You're not writing about friendship from the outside.

WS: And, to go back to the process, at the age at which I'm writing this, in terms of looking for subjects, I'm looking back to those periods where friendship was so important. Now I'm at the age where family is more important, and children--in ten or fifteen years I expect to be writing about something else. But for these films, I'm looking back to that period of friendship when you are forming your identity and your world. I think that is the way you evaluate certain professions and certain schools: what kind of human network do they give you?

PT: That may be the best part of the appeal of a school like Harvard.

WS: I think so. Harvard was quite underwhelming in a lot of ways, despite its reputation. In actual experience, there were a lot of people having nervous breakdowns, and a lot of people who were very depressed and suicidal. But you did come out of it often with these wonderful people the school had selected from all over and put with you in forced habitation. Being abroad is another time for making friends because you're again isolated, and foreigners abroad are pushed together as a colony. These three films [Metropolitan, Barcelona, and The Last Days of Disco] are trying to set up situations where people are together as groups--at the debutante parties in New York; in Spain, where group-life socializing is very normative; and at a very popular club. You've graduated from college, you come to New York, you're together around the city. It's a bit like freshman year in college all over.

PT: The Last Days of Disco. It's so promising of decadence and depravity, and yet there's very little drug use, not a whole lot of sex, no bacchanalia, one nude lady, and only one couple in the act. Are you being a prig about this? Were you really there?

WS: I have to be true to what I saw. It's true that compared to the fifties, the seventies were decadent and druggy, yet a lot of people were not taking drugs. People I knew were mostly cocktail drinkers. Maybe people were going off into bathrooms and snorting cocaine or something, but it wasn't front and center in all our experience.

PT: So for you, Studio 54 and places of that ilk were places of social gathering.

WS: The feeling in the junior assemblies and in Studio 54, for me, was very similar. There was a kind of social crescendo, an incredible party that operated on a similarly magical level. It was a very romantic experience, not sordid, as far as I could see.

PT: So there was more to disco than just the music. There was this whole community side to it, this whole group social gathering side?

WS: Yeah. The club in the film is not explicitly Studio 54. It's a fictional club. In the days before disco, at the end of the sixties, there were very social bars where everyone would gather; Motown songs would be playing on the jukebox. I don't think people would really dance. Then things did become very druggy and psychedelic and solitary, at the very end of the sixties and early seventies. And then disco came out of that.

When I went to college, it was a social wasteland--the Woodstock era. Yes, there was an alternate consciousness. I participated in that. I dropped out of college and went to Mexico, where I had relatives. It turned out to do the opposite of what it was supposed to do. It didn't make me a mushroom-dropping pothead; seeing another culture and the way the less affluent in that culture coped with life actually made me much more conventional. It made me more respectful of conventional people in the United States.

PT: Respectful how?

WS: The people we derided in Cambridge were the Pine Manor girls who wore pink pastels and came in on Saturday nights sort of overdressed. The farm girls in Cuernavaca, Mexico, on Saturday night came in wearing the same colors. No politically correct Harvard person would sneer, because they're working class--and yet their aspirations were so similar to the aspirations of all the people we sneered at back in Cambridge. It makes you think about what it is you should really disrespect.

PT: What is it that you should really disrespect?

WS: I decided not to be disrespectful ipso facto of the bourgeoisie. The idea that the bourgeoisie is all bad is just not true. In the film of our culture, there are always these terrible upper-middle class people who are so snobbish. I think it's the absolute reverse. If there's any group that's a little bit kinder than other people it tends to be that group.

PT: So you are bringing us a kind of alternate consciousness.

WS: I'm trying to.

PT: I've never read a piece about you in which the interlocutor didn't make a big point of how at home you are in the living rooms of America's haute bourgeoisie, basically America's upper class, which was the setting of your first film, Metropolitan. As if you defied your destiny and strayed into real life as a filmmaker. Have you really defied your class? Or is the popular vision of our upper classes...

WS: ... completely false. That view starts with a fiction and there's no way to escape the fiction. I think that everyone's lives are very similar in many ways. My family was involved in the nitty-gritty completely. I was a born social climber and that developed in late adolescence. I like social gatherings, and the people giving those parties were often bourgeois people. Maybe if I was around people who were more on the edge, or the fringe, I might have gravitated that way.

My family chose to be in liberal Democratic politics, in government, in law. My mother is a community activist, and she helped my father's political career in Democratic politics when we were living in the Hudson Valley. I loved it. My father is gregarious; he loved those boring rubber-chicken dinners. We would go around in these canvassing trucks imitating the Harry Truman whistle-stop tours. At ten, I was very active in that and all my aspirations were towards politics and government. And then I found something--for me--hollow at the core: it's a battle that you either win or lose. You're never really producing things based on your own efforts. It's always based on what the voters do.

PT: And film?

WS: In a way, making films is like a political campaign in which you don't have to lose or win at someone else's expense. It's not like there are two films, and one film is going to win, and one is going to lose, and if you lose, you've got nothing, and if you win, all you have is power. The campaign is to make something that will exist and have intrinsic value. I'm glad if I can "pass" in those upper class living rooms and chat up the mothers and get asked back. But I think that because I don't feel particularly a part of it, it becomes an interesting subject matter for me.

PT: It becomes an interesting subject matter for the audience, because when people are totally secure about their place in the system, they often can't see the invisible webs that hold things in place.

WS: People who come from quite secure social backgrounds often go the opposite direction--to the underside, and make the gritty films. The harder-edged, toughest films often come from people who come from privileged worlds and have very secure identities and are going off and doing something else.

PT: In your films, it looks like you're telling us that life is a team sport. That's also different from what politics is, where it's win or lose and it's over.

WS: Absolutely. In friendships there can be situations where there are no losers.

PT: The hero of your newest film, Josh, is a manic-depressive. A lot is made of a manic episode that he had at Harvard. I'm sure you didn't go into this just to create a poster boy for lithium.

WS: Absolutely not. I really don't like problem movies. It's more respectful of people who have some sort of condition if they are not treated as a problem that the whole movie is about, but more obliquely and indirectly, as one of the many things people are dealing with--just part of life. Whatever Charlotte [another character] has, there's no message. She's going to be that way all the time.

PT: Yes. Just don't be her friend.

WS: There's also a girl, Alice, who is having venereal disease problems. People could criticize the film by saying we pick things up and don't particularly take them anywhere. But there's no huge solution to a lot of things. There actually was one solution to manic-depression: the medications. But still, the condition goes on, and people have to deal with that. So much of life is like that. There is no solution, but after a while, you stop focusing on it. Your whole life is not necessarily marred by this problem you have.

PT: So you're shifting the focus to human character--how do people adapt to what they have--rather than giving us a view of pathology. What's the function of the manic depression?

WS: One of the key moments, when a romance is getting serious, is often some sort of barrier, some sort of worry about the other person. My main interest in Josh's manic-depression is its function as a barrier for Alice in making a commitment to him. Is she going to grow up enough to put aside whatever Charlotte says about him, whatever Des says, and observe him for herself, make her own judgments, and see whether this problem he has is so bad that she cannot follow her natural instinct, which is to love him?

It's really understated in the film. There's a certain point when his behavior--which is really just rather charming, eccentric behavior, not manic behavior--triggers her worry. Sometimes people look for an excuse not to commit to someone. They're scared of the person; they're weirded out. That's really why the manic-depression came into the movie. But it also was rich and helpful to us. It's the way the group leader, Des, tries to marginalize and isolate someone who is a competitor, a threat. And it's also something Josh has to deal with or not deal with.

PT: How much of what you put into your characters comes directly from yourself?

WS: In my writing process, I feel an identification with bipolar experience. Not being a natural writer, in order to write, to get ideas, I feel I have to simulate almost a manic state--this may be Des's cocaine use, too--where I drink tons of coffee, I listen to music, I isolate myself, and I try to get on an idea jag to get material. That's a dangerous thing, because you take yourself out of your context; you mess with your head in order to become liberated, to get ideas, to stimulate that production of material. You get very high, very up. The downside is that you come down, too.

PT: So the manic-depression serves essentially a dramatic function in the film. Interestingly, the criticism of Josh comes from inside his circle of friends, yet they all still remain in the circle. Why do they put up with him?

WS: There's a certain kind of glib point of view towards lots of things in films. Film intelligence always seems to endorse a certain kind of behavior and not others that are more commendable. One behavior that's implicitly endorsed is the bold suitor who won't take no for an answer; in real life that person is a resistant pest. I thought, "How is a character who will take no for an answer?" So a lot of the behavior of my characters is to show there's another way of going about things.

PT: I think we need another model of men up there on the screen.

WS: Josh does mock himself sometimes. He has some perspective, and he's basically a good guy. It's completely fine that Alice ends up with him. I actually started the movie with the idea that she would end up with Des--the whole opposites-attract thing. He would be reformed by her in a certain way--enough so that they could have a relationship. I think it's true that in their twenties, people who are opposite will be attracted to each other, and then marry. But fifteen or twenty years later those opposite things become a problem, and they're out of there.

PT: What is your beef with problem movies?

WS: They're boring and obvious. If you say, "This is the problem," you know it's going to be about that, and you know there's going to be some solution. It is entering an explicitly didactic function in entertainment that I find depressing.

PT: In your film, among the characters who are psychologically interesting without being cases, none is more compelling than Charlotte. She's lovely on the outside, not so lovely on the inside. She is everyone's worst nightmare of a female or of a friend, saying things under the guise of friendship that really, truly undermine a person.

WS: In a way, it's also a critique of the idea that if people recognize a bad trait or problem behavior in themselves and are aware of it and talk about it and apologize for it, then they have solved the problem. In fact, Charlotte is always very aware of her downside and confesses to it, and yet she does not change at all. It's the idea that talking about things corrects them--when it doesn't. Being aware of some problem or some bad behavior doesn't correct that bad behavior. Maybe it makes it more criticizable if you're so aware of it but you don't end it.

PT: In the middle of the film there is an utterly hilarious conversation about "The Tortoise and the Hare" and The Lady and the Tramp. What's so funny is the utter seriousness of this conversation about kids' tales in the middle of an adult disco, and the contrast between the banality of the film and the grand themes of character that they're pulling out of it. Are we to make something of this conversation?

WS: Yeah. The Lady and the Tramp conversation connected to all the other themes in the movie, so it really helped the characters and moved the story forward. The truth is, after the one race where the tortoise surprises the hare, the hare is still a hare; it can still run faster. In normal circumstances the hare will always win. The tortoise is the more impressive achiever, but the reality is that people born with natural abilities and aptitudes have wonderful advantages, if they choose to use them. On the other hand, it's much more useful to identify with the tortoise, even if you are a hare. The tortoise's modus operandi is the right modus operandi. One step at a time.

PT: Your characters are all smart; they all talk; they don't just talk about what they do: they make theories about what's happening. Talking is their main exercise. It's very New York. Yet they feel light-years away from the very neurotic New Yorkers portrayed by Woody Allen. Are you the anti-Woody? Or the un-Woody?

WS: He made it a lot easier for us, in certain film terms, to gain acceptance--people are ready for comedies coming from New York where people talk. But it's true. The point of view is so different. The reality is that in our lives a lot of things really do happen through what we say to other people and how seriously they take what we say; talking really does create our stories and the progress of our lives. Erik Erikson would say that one of the definitions of young love or young romance is conversation. It's all about conversation, when people get involved with each other at a young age.

PT: So your New Yorker talks a lot, takes a lot of taxi cabs. ..

WS: A typical Manhattanite.

PT: ... but even though it has the signs, you're giving us a different vision of urbanity, a different vision of human nature. There's not an implosion into your own neurosis. There is an external reality that isn't coming just from our own psyche.

WS: Yes, and sometimes this is the only way these things can be portrayed on the screen. We can't really portray what goes on in someone's head as they walk solitarily down the street. We try to, by putting a character to music walking or jogging on the street, but we can only really portray them outside of their bodies and through their interrelations with other people. It's also true that, as Josh says at one point, we can't change ourselves, but we can change our context. I don't think people change that much, but you can be in some contexts that really don't work at all. In other contexts, things can work marvelously. We can't really use film to talk about what's within us, but I think we can talk about context.

PT: By showing us what you show us, by letting us hear what comes out of Charlotte's mouth rather than hearing her meditating by herself, aren't you making a value judgment that it's what happens between people and in contexts that really counts?

WS: Sometimes we're also inside, inside Alice's head, and inside Josh's head. Occasionally we're inside Des' head. There are personal, subjective, interior things happening to them. We can only show it on the outside.

Film can do some things but cannot do others.

Sample a Stillman Script

INT. DISCO BANQUETTE--NIGHT

A passing tray of cocktail glasses reveals the whole group packed into a booth: Alice, Jimmy, Charlotte, Des, Josh, Henry, Holly, and Dan. White Josh talks, a snazzy club waitress takes their drink orders (Holly: vodka tonic. Dan: domestic beer. Waitress: Bud? Dan nods, etc.)

JOSH

If you examine "fables" closely--Aesop, for instance--there's often something a little contrived about them, a little dishonest. Take "The Tortoise and the Hare." Okay, the tortoise won one race. But--do you think that hare is really going to lose any more races to turtles? Not on your life. By limiting the fable to an absurdly small frame--one race--a bogus lesson is learned--and then for centuries taught young people the world over.

ALICE

I liked that tortoise...

JOSH

So do I--"Virtue rewarded" and all that. But if you were a betting person, would you say that "turtle won against the hare--in future races, I'm backing him." No. It'd be absurd. That race was almost certainly a fluke. Afterwards, the tortoise is still a tortoise, the hare still...a hare.

Des gives Josh a hard look.

ALICE

(to the waitress's inquiry)

I'll just have a, uh, Coca-Cola, thanks.

Charlotte is amazed.

CHARLOTTE

You're not drinking?

Alice shakes her head.

CHARLOTTE

Alice is not having a cocktail? I can't believe it.

ALICE

Well...I'm not.

CHARLOTTE

What is it? Do you have strep throat or some...flu you're taking antibiotics for?

Alice, looking a little concerned, shakes her head again. Charlotte is bursting with excitement.

CHARLOTTE

Omigod...You've got the clap, don't you? You're on antibiotics and the doctor told you not to drink or something.

Stunned embarrassment all around, except Charlotte, who's thrilled and amused.

CHARLOTTE (cont'd)

That's why you haven't been drinking. Usually there's no coming between Alice and a cocktail.

Alice can barely speak.

ALICE

How...could--?

Charlotte gives her the most complacent of looks.

CHARLOTTE

No, I'm sure I'm right: the bottle of tetracycline on your bureau top--tetracycline's specific for the clap.

Alice breaks, gets up, and hurries away, very upset. Holly gets up and follows her. Josh stands up too, but goes nowhere, just looks after them, looking incongruous.

JIMMY

How could you say that?!

CHARLOTTE

Oh come on. Everyone gets something...

PHOTO (COLOR): Whitt Stillman

PHOTO (COLOR): The last day of disco