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In Whit Stillman’s first film, Metropolitan, his young preppies discuss Jane Austen. In the new The Last Days of Disco, the writer-director’s third film, his slightly older preppies talk of Bambi, Lady (and the Tramp), Spiderman, the Green Hornet, and Scrooge McDuckfigures that Stillman and his sister idolized as children. “For positive bourgeois role models, you’ve got to look really, really far,” he says. “And Uncle Scrooge, with his joy in extreme wealth, was one.”
The serious discussion of comics and animated films is “something that began in popular culture during the ’70s, the idea of the importance of comics,” says Stillman. “The problem with using Jane Austen and War and Peace for conversations is not everyone’s read [them].
“The great thing about Disney films and comic books,” he adds, “is that almost everyone knows about them, all over the world. Also, it’s particularly on my mind because I have small children. With the 6-year-old set, you see these things over and over.”
Yet he seems to have given his competitors good ideas with the more highbrow material. After all, Metropolitan was followed by a flood of Austen films, and Stillman negotiated to direct Sense and Sensibility, though the post ultimately went to Ang Lee. The Austen craze was “in the air,” he recalls, just as the reprise of disco is in movies today.
Stillman bristles, however, when it’s suggested that he’s not so far ahead of the disco-era film curve. “This is the first disco film, I believe, since Flashdance. It’s the first dance film of this kind.” He declines to accept comparisons of Last Days of Disco to Boogie Nights, which evokes the same period but a very different subculture. “There’s one disco sequence in [Boogie Nights],” he protests, but then concedes that “Boogie Nights is an issue for us because the expectations are porn-industry expectations, not disco expectations. Essentially, what Boogie Nights had that overlaps with us is a title, a great opening sequence in a disco, and a great disco song at the start. I think they have two disco songs in that movie. The perception is that we’re connected, but I don’t think that’s the reality.
“You have to deal with perception,” he concedes. “Perceptions are reality. There’s a lot of worry on certain people’s part about the other New York disco film, 54.”
Stillman’s new film follows a group of recent college graduates making their way in Manhattan; its central characters are nice-girl Alice (Kids’ Chloë Sevigny) and petulant back-stabber Charlotte (Cold Comfort Farm’s Kate Beckinsale), both fledgling book editors. Among their suitors are Des, played by Stillman regular Chris Eigeman, and ad-man Jimmy, played by Mackenzie Astin. “He’s the star of Iron Will,” the director notes. “Did you know there’s a craze of dog-sled adventure films? White Fang, White Fang 2, Iron Will, and Balto. My youngest daughter is nuts for them. Mackenzie Astin is a star in our house.”
As in Metropolitan and his other film, Barcelona, Stillman’s protagonists are upscale, uptight, and pretty normal. “The reality wasn’t Boogie Nights reality,” he recalls of the disco era. “Maybe somewhere, sometime, there was something really amazing. I think there was something in the air that was exciting and stimulating. But there were thousands of people in those clubs who were not seeing any weird stuff.”
Like the previous films, The Last Days of Disco features a lot of chatter, which sometimes seems incongruous among the club’s pulsing lights and booming bass. “There were a range of clubs,” says the director. “I think some people’s memories are of rock-and-roll clubs, where it’s all about volume. These were dance places where huge volume wasn’t necessary. Some of the clubs had side areas where the music wasn’t loud. I guess if there was license taken, it’s when they’re in a banquette right next to the dance floor and they’re having a conversation. But they’re often having conversations in the balcony, or deep in the recesses of the women’s lounge, or in the backstage area, where they talk behind closed doors.
“Our film is really ’80s,” he continues, “and at the end of the early ’80s, there really were some clubs where it was very conversational, like Nell’s. And there was a revival of El Morocco. They would play disco music, but that was very much banquettes and talking. So our club is a composite, and within the fictional world of this club,” he says triumphantly, “there is talking at banquettes.”
Stillman insisted on placing the film in the early ’80s; yet he says the period isn’t as important as the people and the plot. “I think characters are characters and stories are stories. From my point of view, there’s nothing very important in this film that couldn’t be set earlier or later. What you need is someplace that’s very popular at night, and people coming in from college and graduate school to work in the city. Those are the two stories, and they could have been reconstituted in different ways.
“I think the advantage to that period,” he adds, “is that you can play the music from ’80, ’81, and you can go back and play it from ’79, ’74. That was all in the mix at the club. And the precursors of disco had more heart, more soul. They had a sweetness that was real nice.”
The Last Days of Disco is, of course, built around musica strategy that can lead to disappointing encounters with music publishers and record companies. But Stillman says that only two songs he really wanted got away. “One was Diana Ross’s ‘Upside Down.’ Which is very much of the period, and which we used in scenes in Barcelona, but then replaced in the final film with other things. On this film, we also ended up replacing it, but I think we replaced it with better stuff. And there was a song playing in [the film’s after-disco bar], the Crystals’ ‘Look in My Eyes,’ which we then repeated when Alice jogs. We replaced that with a Jamaican song, ‘Queen Majesty.’ But it’s remarkable, in a movie that’s as music-dependent as ours, that we only had to search for alternatives for two songs. And actually, before I heard that we couldn’t get ‘Upside Down,’ I was already trying to replace it because I’d gotten so bored with it.”
Because most of the disco scenes were filmed in a windowless theater, they didn’t have to be shot at night. “It’s so much better,” Stillman says with a sigh of relief. “You get to work mostly during normal hours. You also have more room to go late. We had to shoot at night only for those scenes where they went in and out of the door.”
Characters from both of the director’s previous films appear in this one. “The films aren’t a trilogy, because it wasn’t really planned,” he says. “But in the course of writing this film, I wanted to have some tangential tie-in. And the time of the film would be just before the action of Barcelona. So Taylor Nichols is playing his Ted character from Barcelona, and two of the hardcore Metropolitans are in the club at all times. We also have a conversation where Charlotte is talking of [Metropolitan character] Audrey Roget, the youngest editor in the history of Farrar Straus. A lot of people missed that. There are people who’ve noticed that in the credits and gone back to watch the film again. We wanted to make it completely unobtrusive to anyone who hadn’t seen the other films, or hadn’t remembered them.”
The Last Days of Disco is billed as the last of Stillman’s “nightlife comedies.” “That’s a promise,” he grins. “The idea is do something completely different. I really do hope to make a 1780s story. I know there’s nothing I’ve done that would reassure anyone in the film-financing community that I can bring it off, but I think I’m so aware of the pitfalls, how almost everything goes wrong when [films] get into the past, that I’m optimistic that we’ll be able to make it work. I really detest almost all historical films, and I think I can use that as a prod. And going at it as an independent film, having to reduce the scope of things, will make it believable.”
Of all this film’s performances, Stillman seems most taken with Beckinsale’s Charlotte. “I thought her American accent was dynamite,” he says. “It’s so funny. There’s an edge of parody in some of the stuff. It actually wasn’t that easy to get American actresses who could have done precisely that accent, that New England college-girl accent. The British have this capability to do this accent, that accent. It’s not the sort of discipline American actors have had to do so much.”
The director also reveals a strong affection for the detestable woman Beckinsale plays. Since so many of his characters are based on acquaintances, Stillman is asked if there’s a real-life model for Charlotte.
“Autobiographical,” he smirks.