An Interview with Whit Stillman

The full transcript of our conversation with the recently returned director

It seems like there's a strong dose of fatalism in Disco , the idea of the prison of character… Not only in Eigeman's "To thine own self be true" soliloquy, but also the analysis ofLady and the Tramp which posits the essential irredeemability of The Tramp, it's a heavy theme in the movie…

Yeah, I think there's some sense in it—or was, depending on which draft, which draft we filmed, which draft we didn't film… I think that it's very hard to change ourselves without also putting ourselves in different contexts, I think when we do put ourselves in different contexts we can change ourselves a lot, but if we just stay in the same context we've been in, change becomes very difficult. And in the deleted scenes there's a lot of the Chris Eigeman character struggling with his destiny as a bad guy, and trying to reform himself and… it's the journal that he writes in that becomes his undoing.

Even in Metropolitan , that phrase so-and-so is "basically a good person" keeps cropping up, that idea of people being inclined one way or another, basically a good person or basically not a good person.

Yeah. True to life.

I like very much that Kate Beckinsdale's Charlotte, in some respects the nastiest person in the film, provides the transcendent moment with her ‘Amazing Grace'

Yes. And that was very controversial that it was at the end of the end credits, the record company was furious. They wanted to sell their neo-disco song with their re-record of "I Love the Nightlife." I hated having anything out-of-period that way—from a later period. And it seemed to re-run Kate at the end of the credits, it seemed like the right thing to do. And also, her character, she is the nasty character in the movie, but as far as changing with a different context, I think there's an indication in the next-to-last scene when she's with the Chris Eigeman character, when she's with Chris on-screen, that these two big egos, these two big personalities, if matched up with other could kind of balance each other, and they could come to a good modus operandi where they would be both on their game in a good way and that… she'd be a better person with someone like Chris who could dish it out just as well. And so, when she's with nice people, she can dominate and sort of incites her to more nastiness, but with someone as tough as she is, she'd be kept in line, and I think that's pretty well explicitly said in that last scene.

You don't, at least to date, do terribly plot-point heavy movies… I wonder how much of your writing is a matter of plotting, and how much is a matter of devising personality types that you know can produce friction, and letting those personality types go to work, and letting the story come from there?

Well that's the only way that works for me… There was a bit of plot mechanics in Disco, and I'm not sure how well that works. And that was thanks to Anthony Haden-Guest's book about the tax problems at Studio 54 that we added that element. But yeah, I think you're right, the best way I find is to have the characters start to operate and speak and then let them run and conflict and end up one way or another. And I really don't know how things will turn out, generally, in the stories. It's the reverse of what Robert McKee used to say in his course, which is, he used to say you don't want to create story through dialogue… and the only way I know how to create the characters is to try some scenes with dialogue where they do stuff and say stuff, and then you start getting a sense of the character and what they might do and how they might think, and if you get to the point where they seem to be operating autonomously then it feels much better and much more authentic and worth exploring.

And that's the process you've continued with since?

Yeah. And it's a slow process, because there're a lot of cul-de-sacs that have to be gotten out of. I think in dialogue, what I find really helpful is trying to sort of tell the truth about things, have the characters tell the truth from their point of view and then, sometimes you make a statement in dialogue and then you realize, "You know, that's not quite true, there are these exceptions, there's this other aspect…" and then send another character to say that, or they can themselves reconsider what they said. Sometimes by being a little bit tormented by something you wrote that really probably isn't true, you can use that anxiety to come to a solution that helps you in dialogue, helps you in character. And often there's a joke in there, often you can come up with some response that'll be a punchline and you can see them get out of it, get on to something else. But then, editing can destroy a film. Someone was telling me about watching a cut of a film, and they really had good material, but the people editing it somehow didn't have a feeling of comedy, of cutting after the joke, highlighting a line by cutting away after it…

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