Film

An Interview with Whit Stillman

by

Hey, thanks for waiting, sorry to hold you up. 

Oh, no problem whatsoever. Thanks for taking the time.

The Voice was my first job. I got
a summer job working, between freshman and sophomore year… I wanted to write
for it, but I got a summer job working in the advertising department. And then
I published my first pro article a year after… It was in the good old
days, it was still Dan Wolf and an editor named Ross Wetzsteon. I just walked
by where it used to be, it used to be at 80 University Place, on the corner on
University Place. I doubt if anyone continued from that period. I guess I
published my article in the Summer of ’71. They’d already been acquired
then, the original owners had sold out, they were still there, Ed Fancher was
the publisher, Wolf was the editor—wonderful guy. They sold out to Carter
Burden, the rich politician. I was down in Mexico when I wrote my piece,
um, and it was kind of a cool experience getting it in… 

I wanted to ask you probably the same question probably everybody
asks you in every interview, first off—I wonder, Mr. Whit Stillman, what
is the closest to becoming the next Whit Stillman movie? I looked at the imdb,
they tell me Little Green Men
is
in pre-production, is that true? 

No, definitely not, not to my knowledge, not with me as
director. I’m not involved in that anymore, and haven’t been in a long
time. Things continue on the internet long after they’re no longer
true. It might be a dark horse candidate, something’s that’s never been
mentioned, that I’ve kept under wraps, and that might actually be the thing
that goes ahead. 

Is it remaining under wraps? 

Yeah. Yeah. I think until… I’ve made that mistake, talking about things
before they actually happen and… don’t want to get more into that game. The
Jamaica film (Note: Dancing Mood) will
happen, I’m sure it will, and it’ll be good, but um—well, we’ll attempt
to make it very good, but—it’s very hard to detail. 

And are you back working in the States now? 

Yeah, I’m really back. I was away eleven years and then the last three
years I’ve been back quite a bit, and I’m really back now. 

Is there anything in particular influencing that move? 

Well my youngest child is just entering college, so… there’s no reason
to go back to Madrid where she was studying anymore. 

And you’d been in Paris for most of the expatriate years? 

I’d been in Paris about nine years and more Madrid the last two
years. 

You were attempting to finance through the European system there? 

Yeah, and that really helped me out because—I was very optimistic
about doing things out of London, and it was a bit of a chimera, a mirage, and
it took me a long time to realize that things don’t happen there the way they
should. It’s a subsidized industry, and there are actually very few people
making the decisions so… if you can’t convince the two people, you can’t make
your film, and the idea of getting independent financing which seems to be very
logical and a very good way of going is not common there at all, it’s very
uncommon. Everything is through tax-related or state-related financing and I
think it’s better here where there’s more freedom to raise money privately and
that’s what I’ll do and I think that’ll go well, and I wasted too much time not
doing that. 

I seem to remember hearing something about an English production that
was to combine two Austen novel fragments… 

Yeah, that was an interesting project… 

And is that an existent script? 

That one isn’t… 

I’ve got my new copy of Last Days of Disco
in front of me which is very beautiful…  I
love the cover art of both of the Criterion discs, which are both the same
fellow, Pierre le Tan… 

Yeah, he’s a friend of mine, Pierre Le Tan, he’s someone I represented
when I was an illustration artist’s agent… 

I saw he was actually thanked in the credits of Disco
.  

Yeah. I think we used one of his posters, a couple of his pieces of art
in the background in the publishing house. 

It’s just a beautiful package… is there any chance of Barcelona
coming out on Criterion? 

Yeah, I think there’s a very strong chance. I think they’re
negotiating. 

What kind of hoops needed to be jumped through in order to make Disco
happen again on DVD? 

I suppose it took a long time for Criterion and Universal to negotiate
the rights, just the slow negotiating process, because it involved a lot of
film titles. And I think with Warners and Barcelona, I think that Warners has changed their policy a little bit, they would not license before and now they will. I mean I hope
that’s true and I hope that’s happening. 

It would be nice to have them all of a piece. 

Yeah, exactly. I like very much the cover art for Barcelona, but I think it’d be cool to have a Pierre Le Tan version too. As a sidenote, I think the film might get a better reception with
this new artwork, because I think this artwork is sort of self-selecting as far
as the audience who will watch the movie, so people looking for a dirty disco
movie who watch it and are terribly disappointed and make outrageous comments
on the internet, there’ll be fewer of those, I think it’s sort of truth in
packaging, the new cover. 

It’s funny, I actually… When I was about twelve or thirteen years old
I rented Metropolitan
, a VHS of Metropolitan
from the Public Library… 

With the dirty cover? 

Yeah, as a bursting adolescent I was somewhat disappointed with the
film. I subsequently revisited it and it’s very good indeed. A very
frustrating rent. 

Well-put. Definitely false advertising. 

I have come around since age thirteen. 

I think some people haven’t. They’re still bitter. It’s funny because a
friend who works running a home video operation for a big company, he called me
when that came out, congratulating me on how brilliantly it opened the film up
and made it commercial, he thought it was fantastic and I suppose maybe they
got a few more sales and rentals but… with the sort of backlash of disappointed
customers… 

Was that the actual poster art? 

Not at all. No. The original poster’s actually what’s on the Criterion
edition, it’s what we commissioned first to go… and it was used in the
international campaign, New Line didn’t want to use it in the States. The other
first artwork I used was just a postcard I had at Sundance when we first
screened, essentially the same scene which is black and white, kids sitting
around a dinner table became the New Line poster, a photograph of the cast
around a table. It’s very true to the film, the picture that’s used in the
original theatrical release of Metropolitan

I wanted to talk a bit about Disco, and Chloe Sevigny, who’s an actress I really adore— 

Yeah, me too. 

And as good as she’s ever been, she is in that film… she’s the
“identification character,” the ostensible protagonist let’s say, and she’s
really your first female protagonist— 

Well I would say that Caroline Farina in Metropolitan, the Audrey part that Caroline Farina plays, although it’s not the dominant role in the movie, I think—in terms of
screentime, I think in a sense she’s closest to… I think the heart and soul of Metropolitan
is more Caroline Farina than it is Ed Clements
playing Tom; Tom is the identification character but the heart of it is
Audrey. 

I know she does have several scenes in the movie to herself, the
first scene in the movie is actually hers, running and throwing herself down on
the bed… in rewatching, paying especial attention to what Caroline Farina does,
it’s a great performance, you sort of wonder why she didn’t crop up in more
things. 

You know what, I was thinking that the other day—I have something
to write on commission, and I was thinking of some way of trying to get
Caroline into it… I think I need every motivation possible to be aggressive and
make things happen and the idea of getting someone who I think is really great
back into film or television is a spur to trying to make things happen… It’s
outrageous that she hasn’t had a bigger career. 

Do you feel you needed any outside consultation when writing for women? 

No, it’s odd, I find it kind of easier writing the women characters, and
I find them more sympathetic—and I think this is touched on in the DVD
commentary, there’s something about the predicament of the woman in a romantic
comedy that’s more interesting than the situation of the guy. I think the
combination of being active and passive—a guy can pretend to be just
active—and the situation that women are in seems more interesting and
compelling for me. 

Do you think there are deeper consequences for women?

They’re in a more sensitive crossroads situation and… it’s interesting, being the target of guy’s fantasies and thoughts about them and guys approaching them, guys who are trying to lull a girl into their lives—and
yet at the same time they have their own ambitions and their own aspirations,
the people they like and how they put themselves in the way of—inviting a
guy to a dinner party or, you know, something’s happening when people get
together, how that’s conducted and how the female role is more subtle and more
interesting than the guy just getting up the nerve to make a phone call.
Fortunately now, guys can send e-mails and texts. The dread phone call has
become unnecessary. Women complain if guys don’t call them but guys don’t call
them for good reason…      

Something you do which is sort of singular—I don’t want to say
that you renewed the virtuous heroine but… it’s very difficult putting a “nice”
character on equal footing with snide and backbiting and difficult people, who
also tend to make more magnetic characters.

That’s Chloë’s genius, isn’t it? She’s so natural and
likable on-screen. Thanks to the editor of the—the amazing thing about
the film business is that when something good happens, ultimately there’s some
person making it or helping it happen—and the editor of Metropolitan
and Barcelona, Christopher Tellefson, even though he’s not the editor in this film,
he had read the script and he said to me “You know, Chloë Sevigny would be a
very good actress in your film. She’d fit right into the world of characters
you like to have.” And that was totally counterintuitive or not at all what
casting people were thinking about, they would not have thought of Chloe… Very
Downtown, Harmony Korine, edgy, Kids
reputation and… it was considered very surprising that Chloe was cast to play
the sweet, nice girl part—now it seems like she’s almost typecast in it,
but then it was considered completely against her image.

And what was the particular quality—when you
say that she’s just able to exist on-screen…

The thing I noticed… The things I like filming are like
surf, Chris Eigeman, and Chloe Sevigny. Because they all do their own thing,
which is almost always interesting and fun to watch and doesn’t take direction
(laughs). In the case of Chris, yes, there was directorial-actorly work to get
the right tone of the character in Metropolitan, but after that it was pretty easy because the character is kind of a throughline, a similar operation… Chloe, because she’s existential on-screen,
it’s not as if she’s working or trying hard or being kind of dramatic in a way
that’s false… I suppose she’s so good in certain ways it could get to be a tic
or something she’d rely on too much, but it hasn’t. She’s so expressive with
her eyes and—her eye looks are so good, there could be a temptation
perhaps to use that but…

I have to say, from what I’ve read of your likes and
dislikes, Kids
doesn’t
necessarily seem like a movie you would positively react to…

I saw it… I had avoided it, I’d been sort of scared of
seeing it… I avoid a lot of films… I don’t want to be shocked. But I watched
it, I watched that and Trees Lounge after I met Chloe in an audition, thought she was fantastic and told people at
Castle Rock… And there was actually an offer out to Winona Ryder that was
withdrawn before her agent called them back, the offer wasn’t out but… the
studio had called Winona Ryder’s agent to make the offer and the agent didn’t
call back for 4 days and by the time they called back we’d found Chloe and
decided to go with her so… we didn’t get in trouble with Winona Ryder.

When you say there’s a lot of things you avoid seeing
to avoid being shocked—are you easily adversely affected by movies?

Yes. Yes. I really like watching Code movies. I’m Mr.
Breen’s biggest fan.

You couldn’t cross the threshold in a theater playing
a horror movie or something like that?

Not willingly. Several times I was—I felt tricked
into seeing films, and every time people would say, “Oh, no, this one really
isn’t that shocking, it’s really an important film, you have to see it, you’ll
find that—” And I just have been shocked so many times, that I had to say
“No, no, no, I’m not going to be talked into it anymore.” But you have to see
things for various reasons. I remember about two-thirds of the way through Goodfellas
, when it really gets horribly violent and
nihilistic, I thought “I never want to see anything like this, ever again.” And
then they faked me out about Silence of the Lambs
. I spent most of the time it was playing in a
restaurant. I’m really surprised people willingly put images like that in their
heads.

I think it’s something to do with getting acclimated
to it, some people are and some people aren’t… My mother will flee a living
room shrieking to this day at the sight of stage blood.

Good for her!

I’ve read of your reaction to the critical reception
of Disco
, that you felt a lot of
the commentators who self-identified during the period as rockers, punk
rockers…

(laughs) Punk rockers…

…you felt people brought that umbrage back up to the
surface when reacting to the film.

Yeah, exactly. I think maybe the film came out too soon.
Too soon after the period. I don’t know what it was. Unfortunately there was
this story that there was a disco revival going on, with two disco films and
some other things happening… And it’s bad to be a trend.

There might have been some kind of K-tel compilation
advertised around the time… (Note
:
K-tel’s seminal Disco Fever was released to CD in 1994. Polydor’s Pure Disco
came out in Oct, 1996. I can only presume this is what I was thinking of).
There was a virtual disco revival, sure, in think pieces if not in actual fact.

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.

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 of Comedie
humaine
element, where characters
from the other films are starting to crop up. If
Disco
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.

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 of
Lady
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…

The word that comes to mind when I think about the
movies you’ve made is ‘articulate’—not only in how well-spoken the
characters are, but in the clarity with which you cover them, which makes them
stand out, I think, within the context American independent filmmaking, where
there’s a tendency to equate fumbling or hoarsely-emotional performances and
handheld camera to “raw truth”…

I’m explicitly coming to feel that realism is a problem
in cinema. It is the criterion for many people’s judgment of films, and there’s
a lot of static about anything that doesn’t seem verite to people, or
externally verite. And I think… it’s led people a lot of wrong roads, they
dismiss some things that are good, and over-value some things that are rather
empty because of the infatuation with “the real.” That “real” we really get
every day, every day we open our eyes. And it is true that the unreal can be
artificial in a very bad way, and therefore it makes us appreciate those film
that seem real in what they’re showing. I’ve just seen a series of
highly-praised very realistic films and… there’s just a feeling of emptiness,
of hollowness, there’s no humor in them, there’s no joy, there’s no romance… I
don’t think it’s true to life because I think we bring those emotions and
aesthetic exultation to life as we observe it instead of just having this
critically-negative camera covering things…

I don’t think outside the “book this clown” police
raid in Disco
, there’s a handheld
shot in your movies…

You noticed that. It’s funny because we were up against
the gun as far as the schedule there, we had no time to do this, and so John
Thomas (DP), he knew I’d directed an episode of Homicide
before, so he said, “Okay, let’s shoot this Homicide
style.”

Your one foray into police procedural.

It was kind of a joke, yeah, because that’s our moment
of arresting the guy, and the drugs, and… so we go into Homicide
for a moment.

It absolutely blew my mind, because I’ve been to that
Loew’s in Journal Square where you shot—

You have? How come? Is it still operating?

They show movies there now.

Oh, great! It’s just special things or all the time? We
should try to get a screening of our film out there. Is it good projection? We
had two films shooting there the same Summer, because John Turturro
filmed—Illumanata or Illuminati
? I think we shared the cost of the carpet. I liked
shooting over there.

Make the trip on the PATH train sometime. Did you
frequent the Journal Square Pub?

I don’t think so… We got out of there pretty quickly.

It’s a charming little boîte. There’s also a sister
theatre up in the Bronx, a Loew’s on Grand Concourse…

I love that they keep these buildings, they’re wonderful
buildings.

It’s something to compare that theatrical architecture,
as silly as it could be, to the multiplex, a grim study in contrasts.

Yeah.

The idea of decline runs through your films… I know
for Metropolitan
you said you
went to a lot of New York landmarks that you felt had a limited lifespan to get
that kind of closing time atmosphere…

What we were trying to do there, also, is establish more
of a period feel than we really could afford. We couldn’t really afford to do
much period work there but by trying to get some stuff that might be
disappearing, we’d give it more of a period feel.

Do you have a heightened sense of decline?

You know, I think I have less and less of one… I mean, I
think it could be true that you are more imbued with nostalgia and regret when
you’re younger than when you’re older. It’s one of those perverse things. If
you’re somewhat inclined to nostalgia, anyways.

Are you now or have you ever been an Evelyn Waugh
fan?

Yeah. I am. I’m a big Evelyn Waugh fan. Though… the
first novel of his I read, right out of college, Decline and Fall
, I detested. And it wasn’t until I went back and
read him some more that I got to like it. And I had the same experience with
Jane Austen, I read Northanger Abbey—not
one of her great works—in college, and I didn’t like it at all, and very
loudly told people I didn’t like it. And then read her after college and loved
her. So… I think people can be misled, and if their friends recommend something
to them, and they don’t get it, it’s good to try again sometimes. I just wasn’t
ready to figure out what his point-of-view was and understand what was going
on.

I felt there was a tenuous affinity…

No, there’s a definite affinity. But I mean I
think—the conscious affinity, the first conscious affinity was
Fitzgerald, but Fitzgerald’s not very funny, so I think for me and for just
millions of other people the affinity was J.D. Salinger, because it’s both
dramatic, interesting, confessional, and funny…

I’ve had a few laughs with Scott Fitzgerald…

Really?

Pat Hobby’s a riot!

(laughs) That’s true… but that’s just so, I don’t know…
really low Fitzgerald. What’s really good actually, there’s an extraordinary
collection called The Price Was High,
and it’s his commercial magazine fiction, and it’s an odd book, because the
editor has such a deprecating attitude to the stories he’s
anthologizing—I think it’s the great Fitzgerald editor, Matthew
Bruccoli—but it’s this conventional idea sort of started by Edmund Wilson
and others that Fitzgerald sold out his talent to commercial magazines and only
his more artistic stories were worthwhile, and then you read these
theoretically empty stories and they’re really good, really worth reading. It’s
a great book and… I’ve recommended it to a lot of people I know and almost
everyone likes it. (with gusto) The Price is High.

As you mention Edmund Wilson… I noticed the Alfred
Kazin reference in Disco
, and of
course the presence of Lionel Trilling in
Metropolitan
… it seems like you have some scores to settle
with New York Intellectuals…

(laughs) Yeah. But those are both people who I just love
reading. I think actually it’s a misreading of Lionel Trilling by the character
in Metropolitan—I was aware of
that. Actually, Trilling, I think he loves Mansfield Park
, but this guy was just reacting to the setup where
he’s sort of beginning to lay the grounds for his argument and overreacts to
the setup of the premise…

Possibly didn’t read it all the way through.

(laughs) Yeah, exactly. He doesn’t even read the
criticism all the way through.

I find it interesting that the sinking of the Maine
in Havana harbor found its way into two of three films… What is it about the
Maine?

I guess I have a bone to pick about that… it’s
fortuitous in Disco that I was writing
under deadline for some days holed up in an apartment in that neighborhood and
I walked by that monument (Note:
The Maine Monument at Central Park’s Merchants’ Gate) and it just knocked me
out it was so strange and beautiful and evocative. And it’s just where they
would be walking in those days and at that time… So it seemed to work in a lot
of ways, so it came back. But yes, it’s an interesting thing, the debate over
the Spanish-American War—I mean there’s not much of a debate over it, but
it’s really not as it was represented. And I was sort of confronted with it a lot
living in Spain and visiting Spain a lot, it’s when our two countries were at
war with each other and—this blithe idea was it was some trumped-up thing
that we did, that we knew the Maine… No, it was a legitimate conflict, the
American involvement in that war was not just something cooked up by William
Randolph Hearst and Pulitzer and the yellow press, there were matters of
conscience and policy and terrible things were happening in Cuba, the
oppressive hand of the remnants of the Spanish Empire had fallen very heavily
on Cuba. It’s a very interesting case, you know—what did happen to the
Maine?—there’s some people who say it’s this or it’s that, but we don’t
really know. We’re not really certain what happened to the Maine, and in any
case there were many reasons to intervene on the side of the independent
movement.

So it’s a safe assumption you don’t subscribe to
“9/11 Was an Inside Job” conspiracy?

(laughs) No. But I was in Paris… there was a big
bestseller with that thesis which, um… Well, I think in these societies prone
to fascism, they love thinking of conspiracy theories. I mean, I think there
occasionally are conspiracies and paranoia is sometimes justified but—the
habit of mind, thinking in terms of conspiracies, I think is often people who
want to justify some fascistic or totalitarian ideological bent, to excuse the
inexcusable of some kind or another. Please erase all that.

Consider it gone.

Where did you come from? Did you grow up in New York?

No, the Queen City of the West, Cincinnati, Ohio.

Oh, cool. The Athens of the Ohio.

Mr. Winston Churchill called it “the most beautiful
of America’s inland cities.” Built on seven hills, like Rome. Great display of
19th century Italianate architecture.

Yeah, it is a great place. I was only there briefly, I
think at Christmas, and I wish I’d seen more of it, but it was great what I
saw. I spent some time in the Midwest and—I think Chicago, Pittsburgh,
and Cincinnati are cool cities, they’ve got great stuff.

There’s some beautiful shots of Chicago in Barcelona
… I wanted to ask, when Metropolitan
came out, 1990, did you feel at the time that you
were a part of some kind of “indie” groundswell?

Yeah. I felt I was following other people who’d gone
before who’d done a very good job and I think those of us who were making
independent films in that period, we looked back and studied what John Sayles,
Jim Jarmusch, and Spike Lee had done. And I suppose Steven Soderbergh, but I
think the other three were more directly related, because they seemed to be
operating on really low budgets and the material was coming right out of their
own writing.

Was there anybody, when you were first hitting the
festival circuit, who you felt was working along parallel lines with?

We were sort of thrown together—Hal Hartley and
me—but… and I like Hal a lot, and I worked in his post-production
facility on Disco, but I don’t really
see the similarities in the films. I don’t feel close to him and
what he does, but as a guy I like him a lot. There were some other people, I
think… Oddly, my identification was more the Madrid comedy directors whose
films I’d sold, and I’d been in a couple of their films. In the 80s, I was a
sales agent for Spanish films, overlapping the illustration agency… I felt
close to those guys, and the actors they worked with, and I got to play the
American Fool in two of their films (Note: Sal gorda
and La línea del cielo, both 1984)

One of the things that’s striking—and maybe
part of it is that you weren’t a fresh-faced lad out of film school, you’d had
a full professional life already—is that you seem you are so much
yourself, right away, with Metropolitan

It was a huge leap for me because… I sort of wanted
to—not “sort of,” I definitely wanted to be a novelist and write fiction
and then thought I couldn’t do that, was tempted by all kinds of things but I
was very impressed with film and television comedy, and I’d been writing short
stories… but it’s so hard with short stories, because it took me forever, and
you publish them, the places you can publish them, there aren’t many readers…
One of the great moments I had was when Tom Wolfe championed some stories I’d
written and got Lewis Lapham at Harper’s
to give me a commission, and the kill fee on that commission was the most money
that I’d made—I got rejected. But I really wasn’t a natural for writing
that kind of thing. I wanted to do a film, but I didn’t think I could write a
script for it and I discovered in the nature of film comedy, my disabilities didn’t
hurt, they might have helped a little bit. My sort of disconnect… I can’t be
very logical, I can’t go A-B-C-D-E-F-G in making an argument, but in a dialogue
comedy you don’t really have to do that, in fact it’s sort of best if you’re
not very logical, and you just jump ahead, jump into something else. I’m not
sure if it’s better but it’s less tedious for the audience if you have these
logical disabilities and so… for me to write an essay, for me to write an OpEd
piece in the Times would be
nearly impossible. It’s just much easier for me to write characters doing their
own thing, saying this and that.

It does seem there are a lot of fragmentary essays
scattered through your dialogues—the strong point isn’t in developing
them beyond a paragraph?

I don’t think so. I think they can stand, you know,
about two sentences before they… if I tried three sentences they would fall on
their face. It’s tough though because I grew up—when I was in college I
was on the paper and a lot of the people I was working with had really
successful journalistic careers very early, and they were very good at it, and
very prominent, and I was going away on these sort of tangential sales jobs
and… it was great to find something that I could do too.

I’ve read some of the things you’ve done for Wall
Street Journal
, and they’re good,
the piece that you wrote on Foster Hirsch’s Otto Preminger book—the fact
that you land on the final third and the redemptive narrative in that book, a
singular take on it.

I was really lucky I found something that hadn’t been
mentioned in the book that sort of unlocked that piece for me… I find it so
hard doing those pieces that I don’t mind stepping away from them. Because they
take—I think it’s really interesting to read a book on a good subject,
think about it, write about it, but it just takes so much out of me, I find…

Hanging up the hat?

I gotta make some films, I gotta raise the money, start
shooting.

If I fall into a million dollars in the near future,
there’s literally nothing I want to see more.

I’ll double it for you. But read the prospectus first.

It’s been a real pleasure, thanks for taking the
time—

Really appreciate it. It’s great having the film come
out again now, I think this is the time for it to come out, we’re getting a
much better—it’s a great reaction. Did I tell you we had this screening
at the Museum of Modern Art on August 5th… Some youth group… Hitler
Youth at the MOMA? And it went over really well. It’s been odd not having it on
DVD, because for many, many years it wasn’t available. The price got up to like
$250 sometimes—I actually met some people who paid like $200 for a DVD.