A transcript of the interview, previously available to view on Google Video.
Charlie Rose: Film maker Whit Stillman came to the independent movie scene in 1990 with a movie Metropolitan made for $250,000, it went on to gross three million. It earned Stillman an Oscar nomination for best screenplay. He followed that success in 1994 with Barcelona. Now he is back with the middle part of his trilogy, The Last Days of Disco. As Newsweek magazine pointed out, “Stillman can always be counted on for an enchanting comedy of manners, if he wants to go dancing we’re going with him.” Here is the film’s trailer.
CR: Joining me now, Whit Stillman, I am pleased to have him back on this broadcast, welcome back.
Whit Stillman: Thank you.
CR: What is this about, The Last Days of Disco?
WS: It’s about two girls who come to Manhattan and get jobs in publishing, and they go to a club at night and run into five Harvard guys there, and it’s a roundelay of romance and affection between them.
CR: You wrote the screenplay?
CR: How do you go about writing these screenplays?
WS: Very, very slowly.
CR: Really? You come up with an idea you want to talk about?
WS: Yeah, I start with a time and a place that seems interesting, so the mist of memory, the characters start talking, scenes start forming, they start acting, and they never end up where I expect them to.
CR: Is the answer to what you want to do with your life make movies?
WS: I think so. I really like writing movies and completing them. The inbetween part, the actual directing them is not a barrel of laughs, but I like having done the film.
CR: So you don’t want to be a director, you want to be a film maker more than anything else?
WS: Yeah. I really want to do original stories. For a time I was tempted by a lot of scripts, to remake, well, make as a movie some novel I love from the nineteenth century, and I decided that the most important thing is an original story, and I’ve tried to stick to that.
CR: Is it surprising that you’ve been able to do this, to you?
WS: Yes, it’s really surprised me. I started late, the first day of shooting Metropolitan I was 37, I wasn’t the 25 year old wunderkind.
CR: You didn’t come right out of the NYU film school or something.
WS: [smiling] No, I took a night course there, my only film training.
CR: Did you go and talk to a lot of your female friends to say, just tell me, what do girls talk about, what do young women talk about, so that you get a sense, because there’s a lot of dialogue, dialogue is between these characters?
WS: Not really, I mean I lived with them in the time, and I find research not very useful, it’s really memory filtering through you know, the past, and I had the good fortune to have a wonderful elder sister that I got to observe at close range.
CR: You find research not very useful?
WS: No, I don’t think it’s very useful, not really personally in writing this kind of film. The great thing about this title is when I said I was making a film called The Last Days of Disco at any gathering or party I got a lot more anecdotes, but it was more confirmatory anecdotes than new material I could use.
CR: Do you think stars are very useful?
WS: Stars are really useful because often they’re really good actors. And I’d love to work with stars, and I think the cast of this film are the stars that are being created this year.
CR: Do you really?
WS: Yeah, not necessarily in this film but in a number of films I think they are stars and each came with a body of work and experience, and I loved the cast in Metropolitan and I think they’re as good as any cast I’ve worked with, but this cast also had a lot of background in the business.
CR: You started when you were 37, you were much later than everybody else, most of the people, I mean you see these young directors coming in and they’re 20, 22, 25, 27, I mean the guy who made Boogie Nights was what, 28, 29…
WS: Yeah, it’s amazing.
CR: …they’re amazing, and they’re all really smart and movies are their life, I mean, they came, at 13 they knew they wanted to be Scorcese, right? Do you find yourself, now that you’re in it, now that you have the opportunity, that you just want to know everything about movies, I mean do you spend a lot of your time just watching movies and trying to be informed by the movies you’ve seen?
WS: Yeah, I do, I really spend a lot of time, I read a lot of director biographies. I wish some of them were better, I think there’s this catch situation where you want to read about the subject but the book isn’t as maybe good as the subject and I think I end up getting more interested in the biography of writers, that seems to be sort of richer. I think the story of the careers of directors is kind of an external story, and in biographies of writers you get the internal story.
CR: So when you read these biographies, so when you watch these movies, so when you talk to people about directing, what are some of the important things that you’ve learned about directing? What do you get from all this?
CR: You don’t know?
WS: [laughs] No.
CR: [laughs] It’s not taking is it.
WS: I don’t get much.
CR: You don’t.
WS: No. I mean it’s really all first hand I think.
CR: Most of what you’ve learned about directing comes from doing it, not from having someone tell you anything.
WS: I mean occasionally from someone’s screenplay, books, you get interviews if people say something. Natalie[?] Johnson said a lot of wise things, Terry Southern said some great things. Noly Johnson said, “don’t reveal everything at the start, the bore at any party is the person who tells you everything at once.”
CR: Everything he knows right away. Is there one director who you’d like to emulate, to be like, to have his or her skill?
WS: Well, I think Hitchcock and John Ford. The way they controlled the narrative and the drama, it’s something that I would like to achieve.
CR: This is where Alice and Charlotte’s dance’s time approaches to dance with Alice [that’s what it sounds like]. My thanks to Whit Stillman, much success with your film. Here is a clip from The Last Days of Disco.
[Clip played in the disco, Everybody Dance.]