The Last Days of Disco (1998)

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The Novel

The Last Days of Disco, With Cocktails at Petrossian Afterwards. Read more about this on the Books page.

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From the now offline Official The Last Days of Disco website:

The Scene:

Since THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO’s inception as a title and a few scripted scenes in March 1994, a lot has been written about disco, the seventies and even the early eighties, the period of the film. The accounts have tended to the wild side, often making for very good reading or watching but not always matching the memories of nightclub civilians who rarely wandered into an amazing anecdote or celebrity-packed VIP lounge.

THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO is a Pilgrim’s Progress of a particular subgroup of not-quite-innocents from the era, recent college graduates who were — maybe — smart academically but merely no dumber than everyone else when it comes to their own lives.

It is the final of writer-director Whit Stillman’s three nightlife comedies, lightly linking the earlier “Metropolitan” (1990) with the chronologically later “Barcelona” (1994). Here the debate is between the virtues of group social life vs. “ferocious pairing off.”

“We get obsessed with those things we feel are in too short supply,” Stillman says. “As an adolescent moving between Washington, Manhattan, and several underpopulated Hudson Valley towns, there seemed far too little ‘group social life.’ The three films are about times I know about when group social life really operated.”

The Void
While there’s been a lot about Disco, what’s less discussed is what came before Disco — the dancing wasteland of the early 70s and late 60s when people were no longer dancing in bars, Peppermint Lounges or even Whiskey-a-go-gos.

Charlotte: “Did people ever really dance in bars? I thought that was a myth.”

The Woodstock Era had Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles’ Abbey Road album and aspirations to peace, love & understanding — but where were the dance places?

Josh: “I was just starting law school when the first up-tempo Philadelphia International hits broke. Some people don’t consider that ‘disco’ — because it’s good — but I remember feeling absolutely electrified and thinking, finally, dance music’s back — dance places can’t be far behind.”

The very early 1980’s…
In the last months of the disco era, a popular dance club becomes the center of nightlife for a group of young people who recently arrived in Manhattan.

ALICE (Chloë Sevigny) and CHARLOTTE (Kate Beckinsale) are recent Hampshire College graduates who, living on meager book publishing pay, are forced to room together with a third roommate (Tara Subkoff as HOLLY) in a cramped railroad
apartment in Manhattan’s Yorkville section.

Charlotte consoles Alice for having been a boyfriendless social failure in college — but things are looking up for her since she met two interesting Harvard guys at a party in Sag Harbor.

The first night, intimidated by the throng outside the club, Alice and Charlotte take a cab around the block to try to improve their chances.

Charlotte: “We look really good tonight. I’m sure we’re going to get in.”

Later, inside, they run into both objects of Alice’s affection: JIMMY STEINWAY (Mackenzie Astin), the “dancing ad man” who’s hanging onto his agency job by getting clients into the club, and TOM (Robert Sean Leonard), a handsome corporate lawyer with an interest in the environment and Scrooge McDuck.

Both were college friends of the club’s underboss, DES (Chris Eigeman), a seemingly bisexual lothario who lets friends in the back way if they have any trouble with the front door-nazi, VAN (Burr Steers). There’s also JOSH (Matt Keeslar), a neophyte prosecutor in the Manhattan D.A.’s office with an inordinate enthusiasm for disco and dance places.

All have been out of college long enough to have gone on to law or graduate school and then come back to get jobs in the city — in fact, they’re at about that point many people lose their first jobs.

It becomes apparent that the club is not being run according to conventionally accepted accounting principles. BERNIE RAFFERTY (David Thornton), the oddball club owner, pockets cash from the till and has an odd vendetta against people who work in advertising: they’re “too nice,” he says — he doesn’t want “that element” in the club.

Meanwhile, at their publishing day jobs Charlotte and Alice study formulas for finding bestsellers while fending off the critical interest of anti-disco DAN (Matt Ross) who then shows up in their night lives, too.

 

 

Behind the Scene:

The Beginning of “Disco”
THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO came about as the merging of two story ideas — one about young people just out of college and graduate school coming to Manhattan for their first jobs and bad apartments; the other concerning a popular dance club in the last days of the Disco Era. The day and night stories would intertwine through the characters of ALICE and CHARLOTTE.

The project’s first stirrings were at the darkened Barcelona disco Up&Down during BARCELONA’s shoot in 1993. “For a costume party disco scene with Mira Sorvino and Chris Eigeman, we picked through the first volumes of the Rhino disco anthology and found one terrific song after another,” Stillman remembers. “With cast and crew moving to the rhythms of Boogie Oogie Oogie all day, it reminded us of how great and how much fun disco music was. The beauty part of discos, for the filming of stories, set largely at night, is the welcome absence of any connection with the natural world, such as windows. Night shoots can start at a decent hour like 8 a.m.”

“After BARCELONA, I had been aspiring to make a different kind of historical adventure film — something that would be dramatically challenging but ‘cinematic,’ full of horses, great uniforms and important conflicts. Real moviemaking – dialogue films no more! Maybe still some talking, but on horseback.”

“Then editing another dancing scene of an especially radiant Tushka Bergen in a Barcelona disco, it struck us: Young women in discos! That could be ‘cinematic,’ too. Recent college graduates. Railroad apartments. Manhattan in the early fall and late spring. A publishing house in modern offices over Park Avenue near Grand Central, like Doubleday when I was there. Music and lots of it.”

Bernie: “I care about ideas, Des. I care about ideas a lot.”

The Eighteenth Century would have to wait. This would be the third — but final — film in the Doomed-Bourgeois-In Love series; the middle panel in a sort of triptych. “We’d promise there would be no more.”

About the Club
The name of the club is never stated in the movie –it’s always just “the club,” which is not Studio 54, Xenon, Nell’s, or the revived El Morocco of that period. It’s just the place which, at that moment, everyone who cares about that kind of nightlife wants to get into. It resembles the others in the excitement of those who manage to get in and the disappointment or feigned indifference of those who don’t — and as a crucible of relationships.

“There was a lot of exaggeration about what the clubs were like at the time, and even more in retrospect,” Whit says. “I first went to Studio in the spring of 1978, dragged by a girlfriend, fairly terrified of both not getting in or what we might find if we did. There was no crowd or problem at the door, and inside the cavernous space was entirely empty – it must have been early – except for one couple we had known for years.”

“We should remember they had to let in a lot of people to fill up those spaces, and the ‘boring – preppie’ element was heavily represented.” Cocktails were the drug of choice.

While the focus inside the club is on the post-college sub-set, the story principally concerns the background on most nights in a sort of multi-ethnic United Nations of Cool that includes many actual Manhattan club types and the sorts of exotics who allegedly filled the discos of the period.

Some extras became Nubian guards or silver or gold people – – often to get them out of nonperiod clothes or hairstyles. “Many of the actual drag queens were so good at what they do, they’re hard to make out in the final film,” Co-producer Roch says. One background actor who showed up with too short hair and lots of tattoos became a flamboyant ‘Marie Antoinette’ whose dexterous footwork and large costume helped cover the track in dolly shots.

Hat designer Ivy Supersonic appears with her troop of naked hat models, ‘the Groovy Girls.’ As Chloë and Robert Sean Leonard leave the dance floor talking about the Tiger Lady (Jaid Barrymore), they pass George Plimpton enthusiastically recommending a James Salter novel to an interested model wearing only a striking hat.

Perhaps the crew’s favorite dancer was resident British journalist and New York nightlife historian, Anthony Haden-Guest. When a choreographer questioned whether Haden-Guest’s dance was too contemporary and post-disco, he insisted he’d been doing the same step, a crab-like herky jerky, since his Whiskey-a-go-go days in London in the 1960s.

“Haden-Guest’s book, THE LAST PARTY, was very entertaining and got a deservedly positive [VOGUE] review from me,” Stillman says, “but by definition such racy accounts are collections of the most interesting, colorful, outré stories possible. To some stories there were about three witnesses; the other five thousand people there the same night saw nothing. Similarly, the published photos tend to show gold and silver people, Nubian guards and exotics as in the background in the movie, but most of the photographic coverage shows a lot of quite normal types dancing in a club. Overall our club was, if anything, a little heightened from what I remember, as well as, having aspects of different nightspots. Seeing café society types dancing to ‘Disco Duck’ at the late 70’s El Morocco is not the kind of thing you easily forget.”

For Michael Weatherly, who plays the ad client “Hap” in the film, “It’s the hair. The hair is very important ‘cause it’s not the 70’s hair. It’s not that Andy Gibb, down to the shoulders, feathered out sort. It’s this weird 1980 hair. When I first signed on, I was thinking wide ties, and wide lapels, but it’s not. If you look at a tape of 1980, 1981, it’s skinny lapels, skinny ties, and Rick Springfield and what’s going on? Weird time. And it’s just like Whit to pick a wacky time.”

About the Production
THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO is the third production of Westerly Films, the second after BARCELONA to be financed as an independent production by Castle Rock Entertainment. In post-production Polygram Filmed Entertainment joined Time Warner in an agreement to co-finance and co-distribute the Castle Rock production slate, of which this is the first film.

THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO was shot entirely in and around Manhattan on a budget of approximately eight million dollars, almost all “below-the-line” — hard production costs. Unit production manager/Co-producer Cecilia Roque worked with the support of the New York production unions to keep the production in town.

“We met Cecilia in the fall of 1988 when she turned down the chance to production manage METROPOLITAN but recommended her location manager, the late Brian Greenbaum, who did a brilliant job,” Stillman says. Four years later Cecilia ran the U.S. side of BARCELONA’s production as its Associate Producer.

Co-producer Edmon Roch came to Westerly Films’ attention when, as a 22-year-old film journalist, he gave METROPOLITAN its best Barcelona review. Edmon started work on BARCELONA’s production as a literary jack-of-all-trades and ended as its key man and Associate Producer (he also has a cameo at the end of that film as the bride’s motorbike-riding brother).

Westerly Disco Inc. was created to make the film, its first hire location manager Daniel Strol, a Romanian emigre long resident in the city who found the film’s authentic Manhattan locations — most of the characters (Tom excepted) inhabit the truly constricted apartments many New Yorkers put up with, but film companies normally avoid.

“The wardrobe department saved on footwear — in some locations there was too little space to get the camera far enough back to shoot anyone’s feet,” Stillman says. “Having Josh sit down while ironing his shirts might seem like attempted comedy but it was also the only way we could get both actors in the same shot.”

Those responsible dreaded shooting the girls’ Yorkville railroad apartment in an actual Yorkville railroad apartment, but others feel the film came together there. “That tiny location was like a pressure-cooker for performances — it was so small and so real — maybe we had just reached the point in a production when it was time to happen but the cast seemed to become one with their characters there.”

The girls’ apartment kitchen was actually two kitchens. “A third floor apartment on East 91st Street had been offered to us, but the apartment below it had a bathroom/kitchen arrangement exactly as in the script and final film,” Stillman says. “When Dan, back to the rest of the apartment, complains about ‘yuppie roommate combos’ he’s on the third floor — when Charlotte, back to the bathroom, replies ‘well, that’s just tough,’ she’s on the second. Initially there was some, uh, skepticism, but the kitchen scenes ended up cutting together well and the apartment geography had its significance in the story.”

To find the disco exterior location the production team and some friends wandered on summer nights from Chelsea to Tribeca checking out club ambiances and looking for quiet streets, alleys and courts. Coming from Jet Lounge and “289” on Spring Street, they found the tunnel leading to Van Dam Street which in the film became Van’s posting.

During the shoot, “whenever we had questions about crowd dynamics or how many extras it would take to make our club look busy we could just look down the street at some of the clubs in the neighborhood, then try to make it look bigger,” comments Roque.

Production designer Ginger Tougas’ art department built a faux wall and front and back doors to match the club interior, which was constructed within the opulent Loew’s Jersey Theatre in Journal Square, across the Hudson from Manhattan. A baroque structure completed in 1929 and now being restored, the space resembles the theatres remodeled as discos in the late 70s and early 80s — Xenon, Palladium, Studio 54.

“We were offered the actual Studio 54 location and between scouts and other occasions I ended up visiting it a lot, bringing back memories of its heyday in 1978-79,” Stillman says. “However, since we always wanted our club to be ‘real’ as a fictional place it seemed counterproductive to shoot at the actual ‘Studio’ and then say ‘well, it’s not that.’ Also: it was expensive, 54th Street doesn’t look like much, and as a whole structure the Loew’s Daniel Strol found had it all over the actual clubs we visited.”

A good omen for Alice’s and Josh’s on-screen romance were the magical shooting days of the scenes involving Chloë Sevigny as Alice’s dates with Matt Keeslar as JOSH. Their lunch date was shot at the Brassiere Restaurant, a favorite publishing haunt of the period which closed three years ago after a fire but whose management Strol persuaded to re-open it for the production.

The clean-up and restoration of the Maine Monument at the corner of Central Park adjacent Columbus Circle was completed just in time for Alice and Josh’s walk there, with the required wet-down provided by a natural downpour.

But, appropriately for THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO, the most exhilarating were the many disco dance scenes, for some of which crew members and anyone who happened to be visiting on or near the set were dragged onto the floor to provide “deep background.” They tried to hide the Executive Producer, independent film lawyer John Sloss, in the back but strobe lights and the “B” camera raises him to visibility in the brief “He’s the Greatest Dancer” strobe montage.

THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO was principally filmed in 50 first unit and 3 reduced unit days between August 12 and October 27, 1997. Other shots and inserts were picked up during post-production — the last an insert of the Maine Monument in March, 1998.

 

 Cast:

In contrast to BARCELONA, for which Taylor Nichols and Chris Eigeman were cast before there was a script, the intention with THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO was to see what an entirely new ensemble would do with the material. There was also a plan to have actors from METROPOLITAN and BARCELONA appear in the fictional “club” as their earlier characters, to show it attracting – in Josh’s words – “everyone you know and everyone you don’t know.”

Although the role of the club underboss, Des, was always the “Chris Eigeman part,” Stillman says, both “Chris and I were under pressure not to work together. For him there was the problem of typecasting, and I got a lot of the ‘we love Chris but isn’t it time to work with someone new?’ So there was the hunt for the ‘new Chris Eigeman.’ But after extensive looking we found that by far the best ‘new Chris Eigeman’ was, in fact, the current Chris Eigeman. It turned out there was not ‘another Kate Beckinsale’ or Chloë Sevigny, either.”

sevigny

For the part of Alice, the rather square nice-girl, publishing trainee, who didn’t fit in at Hampshire, Chloë Sevigny – famous for her role in the dark KIDS — was not considered an obvious choice. The idea came from Chris Tellefsen, who edited METROPOLITAN and BARCELONA as well as Chloë’s KIDS and GUMMO and, knowing Chloë on screen and off, recommended her strongly. “When late in the casting process Chloë finally came in — I think she had been away shooting PALMETTO — we loved her instantly: Humorous, lots of quiet charm, extremely expressive voice and eyes,” Whit remembers. “Her previous films — Steve Buscemi’s TREES LOUNGE and KIDS — were rented and re-rented — and we got to see her in an early screening of GUMMO.”

Chloë remembers: “The night before the audition I went out actually to disco, stayed out too late, and woke up in the morning thinking, I’m such a wreck I can’t even go in – I really love this script, but I’ll look like an idiot. Then I took a shower and felt much better… So I almost missed it. I was almost not in the movie.”

Having worked herself as a costume designer on GUMMO, Chloë had the markings of what independent films especially like in their casts: troupers. She had appeared in music videos for Sonic Youth and The Lemonheads, as well as, serving as the model for the Miu Miu clothing line’s spring campaign.

Chloë’s downtown identity was actually formed as a teenager on weekends, in from Connecticut (Darien), where she was raised until, still a teenager, she became a permanent crasher in New York. Most recently Chloë received positive notices for her stage debut in Rob Urbinati’s site-specific play, HAZELWOOD JR. HIGH, at IS 70 in lower Manhattan, in which she played a murderous Indiana school girl.

Kate Beckinsale:

When we catch up with her the September after her college graduation, Alice’s disloyal friend Charlotte has already shed any artsier Hampshire coloration and is turning herself into a cool Manhattanite with a possibly big future in television – perhaps with kids, too, if that should seem indicated.Kate Beckinsale, who was cast out of Oxford for her debut in Kenneth Branagh’s MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, played Flora Poste in John Schlesinger’s adaptation of Stella Gibbons’ satirical novel, COLD COMFORT FARM, also released by Grammercy in the United States; and as the title character in the British Television version of Jane Austen’s EMMA, seen on A&E.Citing her French-language performance in Manuel Fleche’s MARIE LOUISE…, Stillman says, “Kate was clearly brilliant and the American accent she came up with for Charlotte is wonderful. She and Chloë can do the New England college talk better than anyone. Just Kate’s way of saying ‘howrible’ would crack us up.”Kate’s other credits include the British comedy SHOOTING FISH to open this May in the U.S. She recently finished shooting in the Philippines director Jonathan Kaplan’s BROKEDOWN PALACE, with Claire Danes.

eigeman

“I’m really grateful it’s ‘The Last Days of Disco,” Chris Eigeman says. “Not the Middle Days of Disco or the Early Days of Disco – – then I’d had to have worn an awkward haircut and terrible clothes. To our eyes styles began looking much better in the early 80’s.”

Des McGrath is the club’s underboss who brought in the vodka-tonic crowd in but, now that the club’s successful, he might be on the way out. He dropped out of Harvard after a failed romance, getting in the nightclub business early – – to which he owes his “success today.”

Charlotte sees through his “whole pathetic act…pretending to be gay to get sympathy from women while cruelly dumping them – – and to seem cooler than you actually are.”

Chris made his film debut playing the funny snob “Nick” in METROPOLITAN, cast like almost everyone else in the movie out of an open call. He followed up as the U.S Sixth Fleet’s advance man, “Fred,” in BARCELONA.

To a remarkable degree the directors who work with Chris end up casting him in everything they do. THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO is actually the fourth project he and Stillman have done together. When Whit directed “The Heart of Saturday Night,” an episode of the HOMICIDE television series, he called on Chris to humanize the stock bad-guy yuppie part.

Director Noah Baumbach has cast Chris in three films: KICKING AND SCREAMING, this summer’s MR. JEALOUSLY, and HIGHBALL. On the West Coast he is recognized for a series of commercials he did as the comic “spokesman” for the telephone company, Pacific Bell.

Chris grew up in Denver and got into acting seriously at Putney, the Hampshire of boarding schools, and then Kenyon College. After METROPOLITAN he did a stint at the prestigious Actor’s Theatre Company of Louisville, Kentucky.

He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Linda, who is part of the news operation at CNN in New York.