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The secret history of The Last Days of Disco

Young, overeducated, and living for the weekend? Whit Stillman’s ode to NY disco is for you – he talks Chloë, club culture and why nothing good happens after 1am

As I set my dictaphone down on a marble table and am offered a coffee by a French waiter, I realise my first conversation with Whit Stillman – the creative mind behind some of cinema’s chicest milieus – is looking as stylish as I always imagined it would.

So we might in fact be sitting in the home of set meals-for-Francophiles, Côte Brasserie. And sure, the conversations in earshot hardly suggest incisive pop-cultural critique on the level of the director’s typical witty coteries. But with Stillman in town to discuss what is probably his glitziest film, The Last Days of Disco, it seems apt to imagine our surroundings as a starrier production than they actually are. As the director himself says of his distinctive cinematic world, it’s simply “one version of authentic things”.

In Stillman’s small but perfectly-formed body of work – low-budget breakthrough hit Metropolitan (1990), Barcelona (1994), Damsels in Distress (2011), and the upcoming Love & Friendship – the lies that young people tell themselves as they get older is a recurring theme. Of all those films, it is 1998’s The Last Days of Disco whose youth-culture appeal spans several generations, something evidenced by the overwhelming turnout of fanatics at the recent screening organised by the Barbican Young Programmers, which brought Stillman to town and saw him in conversation with fellow cinematic singularist Richard Ayoade.

“I didn’t like the idea of disco as this sort of bad-taste, polyester version… I saw that at the beginning of the 80s, I really liked how things looked” – Whit Stillman

The Last Days of Disco tells the story of friends and recent college graduates Charlotte and Alice (played by Kate Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny respectively), the local disco they frequent every weekend, and the men they meet there. A tale of knowing when to go out, and maybe not knowing when to stay in, it perfectly captures that universal aimlessness in life and love that occurs in the years immediately after graduation. Charlotte and Alice, working low-paid jobs in book publishing by day, live for the night time, hoping to find romance with a motley crew of Harvard alums. The characters are flawed, their career progression shaky, and their living situation “a little awkward”: in part because, as Alice sagely notes to Charlotte, not only do they barely know one another, it’s hard to say whether they even like each other.

Awkwardness is a good word to describe the movie’s main concern. Young people falling in and out of one another’s purviews, desperate to figure out where – or with whom – they are to fit in, is ultimately what makes the film so true to life. That is to say, ‘life’ in the sense of the painful inbetweenness of one’s 20s. The title sequence, playing out to the tune of Carol Douglas’s “Doctor’s Orders” as Charlotte and Alice approach the nightclub (“We look really good tonight. I’m sure we’re gonna get in”), places events vaguely in “the very early 1980s”. It’s as though Stillman is deliberately resisting the urge to be historical.

“We set the film a little later than prime-time disco,” says Stillman of the film’s setting, a decision informed by rifling through fashion magazines of the era as much as his own memories of the latter days of the scene in Manhattan. “I didn’t like the idea of disco as this sort of bad-taste, polyester version… I saw that at the beginning of the 80s, I really liked how things looked.” Besides, when our associations of a period are undeniably filtered through the lens of everything that began there, it’s worth trying to put oneself in the position of those who didn’t know what was coming next. “I don’t think that, when people are living in a period, they feel like they are living in a period,” he adds.

If Stillman’s work proves anything, it’s that style and substance are never mutually exclusive when it comes to creating on-screen moments to remember. That Beckinsale and Sevigny cast a spell as they shimmy and shake through crowded dancefloors is as much to do with their fashion sense as their admittedly enviable moves (just watch the scene in which Alice (Sevigny) downs a Pernod and dances into bed with her crush, Tom, to fall in love with the actress all over again). Stillman worked closely with costume designer Sarah Edwards – who went on to work on the 90s remake of Lolita – to achieve the most authentic interpretation of late-disco fashion possible. From the casual way in which the roommates occasionally swap outfits, to the sense you get that these girls know that exposing shoulders and backs is key to success in dancefloor politics, the attention to detail in dress is key in expressing the characters’ inner lives. “I remember a debate about whether Chloë’s character should wear blue eyeshadow”, remembers Stillman. “I thought, she’s not a blue eyeshadow girl.”

“When Chloë was casting this part, which was the goody-goody girl part, she really liked getting out of the downtown, cool-girl stuff. Her father had died very recently. I think she felt nostalgic for her earlier life” – Whit Stillman

Indeed, shy and serious Alice couldn’t be farther from Sevigny’s real life reputation in late-90s New York. Post-Kids, Sevigny had long cemented her reputation as “the coolest girl in the world” – the girl with the “street-smart style and down-low attitude” (so dubbed by Jay McInerney in a now-infamous New Yorker long-read), who, together with boyfriend Harmony Korine, represented the new New York underground redefining what it meant to be young and cool and to give very few fucks. Coincidentally, the editor on Barcelona and Metropolitan had also worked on Kids – and, despite the casting crew’s nerves about untrained actors, Stillman hired Sevigny. “We’d actually offered the part to Winona Ryder! But (the head of casting) said to me, actually, that’s no problem, because the manager never got back to me and if she calls me back I’ll say never mind, she doesn’t know what I was calling about.”

In fact, as the director reveals, playing a character like Alice – a preppy bookworm, trying to shake off a reputation as a bore that has stayed with her since college – was something of a relief for Sevigny. “Chloë, like anyone, has many facets,” he says. “She grew up in a really beautiful, nice town in Connecticut, where she and her brother were very popular in this upper bourgeois town. When she was casting this part, which was the goody-goody girl part, she said she really liked playing it and getting out of the downtown, cool-girl stuff. Her father had died very recently. So I think she felt nostalgic for her earlier life.”

Often, it’s difficult to watch nightclub scenes in films without feeling painfully aware of the artifice involved – ‘background people’, presumably sober, fist-pumping on dancefloors and pretending to laugh at one another’s jokes. That everyone on-screen in The Last Days of Disco looks like they’re having fun is testament to the film’s authenticity – even though, as it turns out, they didn’t film in a disco at all. “We actually looked at the Studio 54,” says Stillman. “But we felt it looked like nothing, just black interior. And if we’re saying that our club is not Studio 54, which is a big point we were making – it’s just something like it, you know – then to shoot in the middle of Manhattan becomes absurd.” The hottest fictional club in New York in the very early 1980s, then, was actually in New Jersey. “There was an empty, grand cinema in Jersey City, one of the movie palaces of the 20s and 30s. We found it at the same time another film had found it, a John Turturro film called Illuminata, so we divided the space with this other shoot.” In fact, the upside of filming a disco movie somewhere that was never a disco is that it could become just about anything. The fateful restaurant scene where Tom reveals his history of STIs with Alice was actually just a corner of the theatre, decorated as “a sort of trendy restaurant”.

But was the shoot really as much fun as it looks? “There was dancing, it was fun! It was fun for everyone except those who were paying for it.” The hundreds of extras may have been a nightmare to manage, but there have been unexpected benefits in the years since. “Whenever I go to a catered charity function in subsequent years the waiters always tell me I can have whatever food I want… because they all earned so much money (as extras) on Disco!”

In a year where two studio films about disco came out at once – Mark Christopher’s universally panned 54 was the other – Stillman’s understated approach circumvents exaggeration, instead cutting to the heart and soul of nights out in any city. Scenes in the club are often overlong, like the extended take of Charlotte and Alice topping up their make-up in the girls’ bathroom, and the strange conversations characters end up having when fuelled by the right cocktail of drink and disco (such as the now-infamous, oddly esoteric scene where the characters debate the insidious qualities of The Lady and the Tramp – “films like this program women to adore jerks”). Entire songs play through scenes, never superfluous to the dramatic moment but always given space to breathe and develop as they do on the dancefloor. The characters say things they immediately regret, order drinks in order to feign individuality, and stay too long until the lights come up. Every aspect is crafted to convey the futility of nights out as much as the euphoria. “We were really trying for that,” says Stillman. “I have an English friend in Paris who always says nothing good is going to happen after 1 am! But these people were leading a different life where they had to be going out very late… Both Metropolitan and Disco have that, that sort of true nightlife, not evening-life.”

And with that, Stillman seems to have achieved the impossible – a film about a small subset of people in a specific, recognisable era that nonetheless resonates across generations. “We did get a lot of criticism at various levels”, he says of the film’s initial reception. “A lot of people said, oh, disco wasn’t like that at all. So I’d ask them which disco they were thinking of… and they would invariably say, ‘Oh, I actually hated disco, I like punk, I despise disco!’”

In fact, it’s only after the characters make their final, bold clarion call for the movement – “Disco will never be over. It will always live on in our minds in hearts!” – and the credits roll, and the lights come up, that you might realise this film wasn’t really about disco at all. It’s about your manipulative best friend who you wonder if you’d be happier dropping, but never do. It’s about your other friend who denies that taking cocaine every weekend probably constitutes a habit. It’s about wondering what the hell you’re going to do with the rest of your life, and with whom. It’s about your 20s.

The Last Days of Disco was the first screening from this year's Barbican Young Programmers. The Focus Film Festival: Chronic Youth takes place from 19-22 March.