An Interview with Whit Stillman

The full transcript of our conversation with the recently returned director

Oh yes. I think the idea that disco really disappeared was exaggerated… In the same way the night life that began then, took a hit in ‘80, '81, essentially continued in one way or another until now, the whole "going out" madness has continued definitely in full force for several decades.

Do you still have an active interest in contemporary pop music?

Well, I like nightclubs. And when I was in Europe I loved European nightclubs, I like nightclubs and dance places. But… Off and on. My interest is music, but it's different periods ,and what happened in the last ten years was that I took kind of a Jamaican detour because of the music we started using outside the club in Last Days of Disco … Started using early 60s Jamaican music that I really, really liked. Sometimes I can't tell whether I'm listening to new stuff or discovering periods I didn't know at all about and, y'know, for me the music of the last ten years is early 60s Jamaican music. But yeah, there are individual pop songs that come out that I really like a lot… That was one of the things about Little Green Men, that if I ever were to make it, there's a lot of pop music that could be really fun in that movie.

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When you talk about Jamaican music, it's particularly the early 60s ska music…?

Yeah, I don't really have a feeling for reggae… I sort of can admire it, but it doesn't interest me, really. I find I get tired of reggae immediately. While the ska and rocksteady pop songs of the first seven years of the 60s, I don't get sick of. It's the same as the appeal of disco music for me, where it takes different elements that I like and it puts them all together. So, they're very rhythmic, it's an interesting rhythm that you don't easily get tired of. They're melodic, there's a clear melodic strain. Normally very good vocals. Kind of good feeling. They're different experiences because disco, the reputation of disco is more processed and this Jamaican music is wonderfully acoustical, one take, the band in a one or two track studio. But there's a lot of similarities of things coming together with black music… Jamaican music of that period takes our music and then puts it through something tropical, something Jamaican… And so, yes, we know it we like it, we're presold much of it, but it's something else, it's different, it's elsewhere. It's very attractive, dangerous territory for me, the Jamaican film, because I'm not at all into ganja or rasta or reggae… and that's normally what Jamaica's associated with, or Negril, and wild times there. My interest is this kind of square, traditional Jamaica, that then came out in the great music scene in the early 60s… A lot of those guys playing were really well trained musicians who had good careers playing in the big resort hotels and the big nightclubs that were catering to those travelers and so, you know, they were well-paid successful musicians who then went into the studio and did a fantastic job.

And are you writing in patois when dealing with this milieu?

No, I mean, I think that that has become really dominant, but back then, the striving middle-class, lower middle-class characters in our story, would plausibly not be speaking that much in it… maybe this would be another cheat. But when I'm around people there, say I'm in a gospel service or something like that, they're speaking completely understandable English as far as I can figure… It's not going to be a film with subtitles on dialogue.

One of the things you address in the Disco commentary is the sort ofComedie humaine element, where characters from the other films are starting to crop up. IfDisco had been more of a popular success than it was, do you think you would have continued in that direction, in expanding and building onto that existing universe?

No, I really felt that this was the last of three and the Comedie humaine element is… pretty light and tentative, it's clearly an afterthought. Not quite an afterthought, but almost. And it was something we liked having—one of the qualities of a very popular disco of that period is that you run into people from all over, all through the years, and everyone would be passing through, and the characters from both the other films would've been attracted to a nightclub like that and would've at some point. Ted Boynton from Barcelona passing through town and the people from Metropolitan on a more regular basis… People I knew from the Metropolitan world, they said when Studio 54 and clubs like that hit, for them it was debutante season all over again, it was just like… return of the party life.

So maybe it's more a way of tying a little bow on a completed project.

Exactly. Because I didn't really want to go back to it. And I needed… I'm not that happy, I mean I'm—I'm definitely not happy—but I'm not entirely unhappy that I didn't just keep on keeping on with the same series of films, because I really felt I needed to have a life, I needed to have material, I needed to see something else, and do something else. And eleven years in Europe was definitely that.

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