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STILLMAN, WHIT : Last Days of Disco

Writer/director Whit Stillman discusses disco with PAUL FISCHER, in a chat about his latest film, The Last Days of Disco.

Speaking from London for the film's British opening, the quietly cerebral Stillman doesn't see this as being necessarily a disco movie, or his interest is in disco per se. "I'm really not interested in the disco period historically, and I hope this is not seen as a historical film. I was interested in it personally, as a change in night life. I generally don't feel at one with whatever's happening in popular culture. When disco music came in, I thought there would be night life and people would dance again. There had been about six years when it all seemed very solitary and very individualistic. So I liked the period for people going out, seeing other people you knew, and dancing."

"There are elements of autobiography"

The Last Days of Disco is set during "the very early 1980s," a time when friends gather at a popular Manhattan disco club reminiscent of New York's once fashionable Studio 54, where getting past the velvet ropes and inside was the first step. Edgy ad-executive Jimmy (Mackenzie Astin) can sometimes get his clients in with the help of the club's womanising assistant manager, his pal Des (Chris Eigeman), who lets them enter via the rear door. Beautiful brunette Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale) and her former college classmate Alice (Chloe Sevigny) move about the club. Attorney Tom (Robert Sean Leonard) takes an interest in calm, reserved Alice. Both Alice and the opinionated, assertive Charlotte hold day jobs as entry-level editorial associates at a small book publisher. With Holly (Tara Subkoff) as a third roommate, the trio rents a railroad flat in the Manhattan's Yorkville neighbourhood. Charlotte throws dinner parties in an effort to solidify a social circle as an alternative to "the ferocious pairing off" around her. Fired for letting people in the back door, Des is soon back on the job, but an era begins to wind down. Alice loses her virginity in exchange for both the clap and herpes, while Charlotte's bad back puts her in the hospital. Josh (Matt Keeslar), with the D.A.'s office, takes part in an IRS investigation of the club. The publishing firm vanishes into a merger with Simon & Schuster, and "Disco Sucks" T-shirts mark the final countdown to closing time during the last days of disco.

Stillman sees Last Days as "the third chapter of a detailed story" following the writer/director's two previous films, Metropolitan and Barcelona. Asked if the trilogy is autobiographical, Stillman says "there are elements of autobiography in all three films. In this movie, I guess my point of view is the Josh point of view. Everything Josh (Matthew Keeslar) says I believe, though maybe not in such an exaggerated, comical and ridiculous way."

"Its screenplay earned Stillman an Academy Award nomination."

Born in New York City in 1952, Stillman is the son of an ex-member of John F. Kennedy's Presidential administration; he was raised in the upstate New York area of Cornwall, and later attended Harvard University, where he wrote humour pieces for the college daily. On graduating in 1973, Stillman relocated to Manhattan and began working as a journalist. While in Spain in 1980 for his wedding, he met a group of film producers and attempted to convince them that he could sell their movies to Spanish-language cable television stations in the U.S. The producers ultimately agreed, and Stillman spent the next several years as an international sales agent for Spanish.

Upon returning to the U.S. in 1984, Stillman began working in an illustration agency. Over the course of the next four years, he spent much of his free time agonising over the screenplay of Metropolitan, his debut film as a director. A droll comedy of manners set in the crumbling New York debutante society of the late 1980s, Metropolitan quickly established its creator as a unique voice in American cinema, a wry social ironist with a low-key comic style shunning easy comparison, and its screenplay earned Stillman an Academy Award nomination.

Four years in the making, the followup Barcelona is an autobiographical tale about American cousins living in Spain at the height of anti-NATO sentiment.

"It's a great soundtrack."

One of the many appealing aspects of his latest film is the classic soundtrack which enhances the flow of the piece, and reminds us of that bygone disco era.

Stillman and his team listened to some 2,000 songs before coming up with the final selection. "The music director schmoozed with everyone to get a ‘most favoured nations’ kind of blanket deal that everyone could plug into. Some of the songs we knew we liked going in. The discovery process goes back years, and the whole theme of the movie grows out of the process of making disco scenes for Barcelona. Then we got just every disco collection we could and listened to everything. There were a couple of things we couldn't get, but generally, we did pretty well, and it's a great soundtrack."

Disco might be dead, but it's been reborn on the screen. The era will be immortalised in the upcoming 54, a star-studded film about the famous Manhattan nightspot. "I'm glad that's happening, and that film is coming out. I wasn't interested in telling that story specifically, but I'm glad somebody has."

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