Combustible Celluloid

An Interview with Whit Stillman

Disco Ball

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Well-groomed, well-dressed, and well-spoken, 46-year-old Whit Stillman in real life is not unlike many of his fictional movie characters. Stillman is the writer and director of the independent milestones Metropolitan and Barcelona, as well as the new film The Last Days of Disco.

Disco's large cast includes: Kate Beckinsale, Chloe Sevigny, Chris Eigeman, Robert Sean Leonard, and Jennifer Beals. It takes place in "the very early eighties" at a high-profile disco club in Manhattan. Stillman says, "I didn't hang out in a disco, going every night. [But] to a surprising degree, I did run into friends in the clubs. I like the idea of group social life, and that becoming the venue for the story. I think Alice (Sevigny) is in the club about five times, which matches about how many times I was in any one club."

As usual in Stillman films, the ensemble cast discusses the complicated nuances in dating and relationships. Kate Beckinsale plays Charlotte, a beautiful Hampshire college graduate now living in Manhattan, working in a publishing firm, and trying to fit in. Stillman believes her good looks are a handicap. "She attracts guys so easily because of her looks. She hasn't developed at all as a person. She has that easy thing with relationships. I think it's also the precociously popular person getting a little frantic when precocity is no longer working. I remember noticing people incredibly prematurely socially active. At 13, they were just dynamos of dating and they end up lost souls, never really hooking up with anyone permanently. And other people who are late bloomers, completely adamant and square, would sort of marry their second girlfriend and it would all seem fine. And they're well adjusted and happy."

The film's late bloomer is Alice, played by Chloe Sevigny, a veteran of the indie films Kids, Trees Lounge, and Gummo. "She's the observing character," Stillman says. "I think the guys are projecting on her. I think it happens that if people are a little bit quiet, and seem nice and innocent, certain guys will start projecting romantic fantasies on that person, and that's what's happening with Alice."

A regular Stillman cast member is the very funny and charming Chris Eigeman, who recently became a household face on TV commercials as the Pacific Bell calling card guy. "He works really well in an ensemble, and I really like writing ensembles," Stillman says. He doesn't necessarily want to exploit Eigeman's charm, however. "The best character for him to play, is the kind of character that some people are going to resist. A lot of people don't like that character. And to try to oblige the entire audience to care about a Chris Eigeman character stunts us too much dramatically in a movie. I think he's this great member of the group -- a sort of spark plug, [a] sort of ironical group leader."

A sort of spark plug himself, Stillman grew up in Cornwall, New York. After graduating from Harvard, he entered the publishing training program at Doubleday. He became a journalist, then moved to Spain and got a job working in Spanish movies. He was an actor in a few films there, including Skyline (made in 1984 and available on video in the U.S.). But he knew he had found his calling as a filmmaker on the first day of shooting Metropolitan -- his 37th birthday. Stillman later received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay for that film.

Although The Last Days of Disco is film number three for Stillman, and it is connected in a way to the first two, he's not calling them a "trilogy." "That's our promise with this film. One of the nice things about 'three' is that it seems to be a whole. If you do three of something, you've completed some cycle. I feel that I don't have stray ideas left over from this material. In both Metropolitan and Barcelona, there was all this material we hadn't quite gotten into and wanted to do, and this film is sort of the culmination of all these things we wanted to do we hadn't done before."

Stillman is now working on a historical film. The title is a secret, but it takes place exactly 200 years before The Last Days of Disco. "The idea of doing [a] historical film is a complete stretch. Nothing we've done particularly will inspire any confidence in anyone, including myself," Stillman jokes. "We'll have horses [and] uniforms. [The film will be set] in the Southern Colonies -- the Greeks vs. the Tories. We haven't had a good Whig hero in movies in a long time."

This is not going to be an ordinary costume flick, though. "I'm going to let some of the Tories off easily. I'm going to humanize the Tories the way we humanized the yuppies."

May 19, 1998

Movies Unlimtied