Interviewed by Charlie Rose, 27 Sep 2000

A transcript of the interview, previously available to view on Google Video.

Charlie Rose: Whit Stillman is here as the writer and director of films such as Metropolitan and Barcelona he has gained a reputation for creating articulate and comical characters. Now he has written a novel entitled The Last Days of Disco, With Cocktails and Petrossian Afterwards it takes the point of view of one of the characters from his last film. I am pleased to have him with us now in France where he has moved to live and we’ll find out more about that in a moment. Welcome to the programme.

Whit Stillman: Thanks a lot.

CR: What are you doing here?

WS: Well that’s a good question, it’s a wonderful place to live and work.

CR: Or better said, why is everybody else moving here?

WS: I hope they don’t.

CR: No, why are you here?

WS: There are mundane reasons and secret reasons. The mundane reasons are that you can actually live here better, cheaper than in New York. I got priced out of New York, I lost my loft in Soho and schools were getting very expensive and actually the situation here is much better in the macro scale. I think when people go to cafés they think it’s all very expensive, but when you’re paying tuitions and rent it’s much cheaper. The more you get.

CR: And how about for working?

WS: For working it’s ideal, it’s a wonderful place to write, it still is. And you don’t get calls until six o’clock in the afternoon so you have a working day without interruptions, and there are just so many places to work, if you’re a writer.

CR: Exactly what is it that you want to do with your life?

WS: Well I was talking to a friend and I’m sort of copying his line. He said he wanted to be productive. At our age we just want to be productive and start getting things done and I hope I’ll be able to be more productive here.

CR: But I mean do you want to be a writer, do you want to be a filmmaker, do you want to combine all of those things?

WS: Any of them, you know, all of them and any of them.

CR: Because what’s really amazing about you, I mean, a lot of people dream about making a movie, a lot of people dream about writing a novel. You have done both of them.

WS: It took me a while.

CR: I know, but still, you’re a young man. But you just went out and put some money together and sold your loft as I remember, or your apartment at least and made enough money and made those films that I suggested and it got you a lot of attention and some very good reviews. And yet it seems to me that it also should have made you a bankable film director.

WS: Yeah, I was pretty lucky. It could have gone the other way real easily. Metropolitan, we couldn’t get a respite with Metropolitan for quite a while and in fact it was our initial failure that set up the final nice release. It all went better because we waited and could go ahead on more favourable terms.

CR: How about Barcelona?

WS: Barcelona was a great experience because I had a company behind the film, Castle Rock, it’s a great company. It was a very tough experience because finally we had a budget and we were shooting abroad in a city where they don’t shoot that many features. Madrid is the film-making capital in Spain, Barcelona is the commercials capital. So I was new to a job of shooting a film with a budget, I’d shot a film without a budget which is a different proposition, and that was one of the toughest experiences I’ve had, shooting Barcelona, in a town I knew very well.

CR: And what’s this novel about then?

WS: Well the novel is a long-standing project. I think I started the whole thing wanting to be a novelist at age seventeen or whatever and gave up writing so many times and came back to it to write the script for Metropolitan and that kind of unlocked the idea of writing long-form comedy. I’d just been into the process of writing very short stories, very silly stories and with Metropolitan I realised I could think about writing long-form, writing maybe a long work of fiction. And I found an editor who loved the idea, Jonathan Galassi at Farrar, Straus and he really supported this novel through all the stages of really making a novel, it’s not a novelisation.

CR: Is it harder than making a movie?

WS: I thought it was going to be but it turned out to be, I guess, the happiest writing experience I’ve had, it became very fun.

CR: Is it a movie?

WS: What happened is, to write the script I had to have tons of material, I had to have the whole world of the characters and then it had to be brought down into a screenplay and from that brought down, in a sense, into a movie. I mean, it’s expanding in other ways, you have the actors adding all sorts of nuance and details, but in an intellectual way you’re pulling it down, to contain in a movie. With the book I could go back to the original material and let it develop in different ways and I was really lucky to have a narrator step forward out of the cast. Essentially he is one of the characters in the original story, he’s a real guy, they’re all real people, and he’s a frustrated novelist working in advertising agencies trying to write novels, and Castle Rock can’t find anyone to write the novelisation, which is very plausible, and they give it to him, they let him do it. And so he’s doing two things really, he’s doing his story, as he remembers it, his own take on things, plus he also feels he has to do the scenes in the movie, and so it’s a hybrid, and I think I escaped two of my traps. One is to write too much in the first person, just a monologue going on forever, and the other is to just have scenes from the movie.

CR: Tell me about living in Paris.

WS: Well, I don’t want to tell too many people about how great it is, and I think one of my obsessions has been how…

CR: Do we think we’re the first person to come over here and live in Paris and talk about it?

WS: No, no, but whenever you go back, you know, and when you’re in London, when you’re in New York you just hear nothing about how terrible the French are. And I think people should modify that and they should say, “I had an unpleasant experience with a waiter at a tourist café,” and that doesn’t mean you hate the French.

CR: Joe Queenan just wrote one of those pieces.

WS: And part of that experience of the waiter in the French café is that you’ve been rude without knowing it, because they have their own system of politeness that I don’t think we know when we first arrive here, and we have to learn that stuff.

CR: So there are codes of conduct that Americans and others should learn that can be offensive, if violated, to the French and you don’t even know you’re doing it.

WS: Yeah, I think we’re being rude and we don’t realise it and they train us, and after a year or two you start enjoying it a lot more.

CR: Some people come here to work as journalists and don’t want to go back. So the paper says or the television station or the network says, “OK, come back to New York or Washington or Los Angeles,” and they say “No, no”.

WS: It’s happening all the time.

CR: What happens? I mean, is it the quality of life that grabs people?

WS: Yeah. What’s that song from World War I? You’re not going to get them back on a farm once they’ve seen Paris, but also they’re not going back to Washington either. I didn’t really believe it before I came, now I can understand it, now I feel free or happy to go anywhere I think part of it is I really like being in new cities and new countries, so I can imagine going to Dublin or Rome or back to the States, all very happily, but I really like it here, if you like cities it’s the loveliest city.

CR: It is. Lovelier than New York do you think?

WS: It’s a very interesting city. I haven’t plumbed all the depths and nor will I for maybe twenty years, and there’s so much here, and it’s fascinating.

CR: You got to know Barcelona I guess?

WS: Yeah, I got to know Barcelona. I mean I think there is a level of culture, of social organisation here that really is unprecedented anywhere in the world.

CR: Social order?

WS: Social organisation. I mean it’s sort of fascinating the way everything’s well organised. There’s a book in the States I really object to, it’s called Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff. I met the author when I was on a book tour and I think here people really are sweating the small stuff. They really care about detail and maybe sometimes when we get offended by the way they’re acting it’s because they’re worrying about small stuff, but the result is that life can be very pleasant here, and it’s very beautiful and I think they’re arranging things very nicely and I think we should maybe be more respectful of those things we don’t understand when we first get here.

CR: How often do you go back?

WS: I go back a lot now because I have a book coming out. And I like that too, I love being in New York, and it’s kind of nice being deracinated in New York, not just having the daily life of school and work, but going there and just doing special things.

CR: You’re getting this wonderful cultural experience here, you’re having a great time, you just finished a novel which you’re going to promote now. Is a movie next?

WS: Yeah, there are a lot of scripts I want to do. And I’m trying to get myself in a jam where I really have to be productive.

CR: We need that kind of incentive?

WS: Yeah, I do. I can take forever on things. And so I really want the idea of people screaming about where is it, where’s the script.

CR: So editors and studio heads are very good for you?

WS: Yeah, I like that. I like little clauses in the contract where it says that if you don’t hand it in…

CR: …we’ll cut off one of your fingers.

WS: … we’ll deduct, you know, a few thousand dollars from the fee.

CR: [Holding book] You said this was easier than you expected.

WS: Yeah, it was, once there’s the voice. There’s this character Jimmy Steinway, who’s the dancing ad man in the film, and I think he’s a funny character, and he can bring a warmth to the story that I couldn’t really have in the movie. The sort of coldness of the camera got in the way.

CR: Who’s influenced you the most, as a novelist and as a filmmaker?

WS: Well the two masters I look back on all the time are Jane Austen and Tolstoy. There’s just so many and with this book it was actually John Marquand with late George Appley[?], that was sort of the inspiration for having this narrator who’s a little bit dim, who’s not getting everything, but becomes a very happy observer for all the events.

CR: And as a filmmaker?

WS: As a filmmaker I don’t know, I really don’t know. I mean, if you go back to Samuel Johnson, what he thought, he said you should try to look at life and whatever you do should be based on your experience and the way you want to see the world and not really be influenced by other people and what other people do. I think that I was seduced by the films of the thirties, the sort of elegant films of the thirties, some set in Paris, you know Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, black and white films directed by Mark Sandrich, he’s my favourite director of musicals in that period. And I think as a kid you don’t know that it’s not real, you think it’s the way it really was and in a sense you want to reduplicate that in your life and in your work.

CR: The Last Days of Disco, With Cocktails and Petrossian Afterwards a novel by Whit Stillman, he also made the film The Last Days of Disco, also Barcelona, also Metropolitan, we’re in Paris, back in a moment.