The Beatrice Interview

Whit Stillman

"Frankly, The Last Days of Disco was a bad title for the movie, for the book, for everything except the soundtrack."

interviewed by Ron Hogan

Whit Stillman has written and directed three motion pictures: Metropolitan, Barcelona, and The Last Days of Disco. His first novel, The Last Days of Disco: with Cocktails at Petrossian Afterwards, is a novelization of the film, purportedly written by one of the characters, Jimmy Steinway, who takes the opportunity the film's producers have given him to look back at the "real-life" events of the narrative and fill in some areas that Stillman hadn't explored previously. I spoke with Stillman by telephone a few days after his first public reading, at Manhattan's Temple Bar.

RH: Why wait three years to publish the novelization of the film?

WS: Well, actually, I was just doing the films in order to get a higher profile so when I finally wrote a novel, I could get some attention. (beat) I always wanted to write a novel. I did have a conventional idea of just doing a novel that would accompany the film out into the marketplace, where maybe I could say more stuff than I could say in the film, do it in a different way. But it would be a rush job. There wasn't enough time; the film was being rushed [into release] to come out ahead of the other disco film, I forget what it was called [54 --RH]. Although it was very well received by every house we sent [the proposal] to, they were thinking along the same lines, too.

There was one editor who reacted in a different way. Jonathan Galassi was the most enthusiastic; he thought there was something, a novel, happening already in the screenplay, and he said he didn't want it to come out with the movie at all. He didn't want it to be a novelization. He wanted it to just be a novel about the same subject. So we did the deal with him, and he gave me permission to take longer with it, do it in a different way.

I guess the thing I really regret about it is the title. I don't think [the book] should be called The Last Days of Disco. We've been getting good reviews, but one thing that the sales force is concerned with is that they've been sometimes very, very positive, but very small. (There was one that was not positive, which was The New York Times Book Review, but no one reads that anymore.) I think if we didn't have the title of The Last Days of Disco, if we didn't have that phrase in the first half of the title, I think we'd get more serious attention. I refer to the book by its subtitle, Cocktails at Petrossian... frankly, The Last Days of Disco was a bad title for the movie, for the book, for everything except the soundtrack.

RH: Who are some of the writers that you found either influential or inspirational?

WS: For this book, the big inspiration was a novel by John Marquand, The Late George Apley. It's in the form of a biography written by Apley's best friend after his death. The best friend is kind of dim, so there's a filter of the sensibility of this dim friend who doesn't quite get everything. The reader can figure out what's happening, though the "writer" hasn't quite figured it out. There's an element of that with Jimmy Steinway... I mean, he's pretty close to a reliable narrator within his limits, but there is that filter of sensibility that might be defective occasionally. The fact that he writes awkward first novelist purple patches, too... my faults as a first-timer could be masked, or made amusing, by having this other first-time would-be novelist be responsible.

Otherwise, the works of fiction I most admire, most suggestive, are War and Peace and other works of Tolstoy, Jane Austen, Salinger. I was terribly affected by Fitzgerald when I was very young and I still admire Fitzgerald, although I found the novels that I liked when I was in my twenties, I don't go back to very much any more.

RH: How early on did you hit upon the idea of having the book narrated from a different perspective, that of Jimmy Steinway?

WS: It came surprisingly late, and for me, it was the thing that really unlocked the whole project. It just solved so many problems and made it flow and made it fun. What's kept me from writing novels for about 20 years is my aversion to description. It just bored me to tears doing descriptions. So now, when I had to write a scene I knew all too well, I'd have to describe things to give the dialogue a context. But once it's Jimmy Steinway describing things, it's kind of interesting because it wasn't just about description. It was about Jimmy Steinway describing things, what he noticed. He would come and unlock different insights and sideshows and background stuff.

Occasionally, I'd have to find a novelistic substitute for something missing without the actors. The actors--with their reactions, with expressions, et cetera--bring a lot of meaning and pathos and sympathy to certain scenes that might not be fully communicated simply by the dialogue. One example is the misunderstanding between Alice and Jimmy early in the movie. He's going on about how stupid he was to have done something that he thinks might have insulted his boss. And Alice is going, "No, it's really understandable. I don't think it's stupid." He insists, "No, really it was stupid." So, finally, to sort of please him, she says, "Well, I guess it was stupid." And he flies off the handle because he really doesn't want her to say it was stupid. He wants her to reassure him that it wasn't. He's drunk and kind of weirded out and reacts really badly, gets up as if he's going to leave her, then reconsiders and says, "Can I get you a drink?" I really couldn't communicate all the pathos of this guy making such a fool of himself with just the dialogue. And I had to find a novelistic equivalent for that.

RH: When you hit upon the idea of Jimmy as the narrator, was that how the "cocktails at Petrossian afterwards" idea emerged?

WS: Yeah. I really like the idea of these fictional worlds being real; in the film The Last Days of Disco itself, that's made manifest by characters from the other two films appearing. It would be logical for some people from Metropolitan or even from Barcelona, when they're in Manhattan, to be attracted to this very popular club, to show up in other corners while the main characters are doing their own thing--and from there, the idea that these were real people, that the filmmakers had just done a reconstruction of their real experiences. And eventually, they were going to see a rough cut of the film and react. There's not that much they could do at that point because they already shot the scenes, but the filmmakers would want to know, is this pretty much the way it was?

It's very interesting for me when friends whose experiences were filtered into the story see the thing and I get their reaction. One of the funniest reactions I had was from Metropolitan. There's a fellow portrayed in that as sleeping through all these after-parties. He came to one of our first screenings, and at the end, he said nothing to me. I was weirded-out that there was no reaction, and then I found out that he slept through the screening, too.

RH: In choosing to tell the story this way, you also get in some sly digs at critics who panned the film when it came out. David Denby in particular.

WS: I think he's the only one named. I found no one has said, "Oh, how could you have said that about my poor friend, David Denby?" Actually, it's been just the opposite. "Oh, that guy is so mean. Oh, he's such a bastard. Oh, he really . . ." There's this extra dimension of meanness in his comments, this personal, vindictive quality about what he writes. I think it's fine that people write positive or negative or mixed reviews of movies. They react as they want to react. There are plenty of people who, my defensive posture would be to say, they don't get the film, but it doesn't enrage me that they give the film a pan. There's something about what Denby writes... you feel that the knife has been sharpened. He says that these characters are so uninteresting and unlikable; well, I notice that when people say that these people are so disagreeable and unlikable, it's usually very cantankerous, disagreeable, unlikable people who are making that observation. People who are nicer and more generous are also nicer and more generous about the characters. You know, we all have our faults, we all have our stupid sides, but it doesn't mean that we are intrinsically unlikable. (beat) Except for David Denby.

BEATRICE Suggested further reading
Libby Schmais | Complete Interview Index | Laura Catherine Brown

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