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Writer/Director Whit Stillman on ‘The Last Days of Disco’

August 29, 2000
Posted at: 10:15 p.m. EDT

(CNN) -- Author and acclaimed filmmaker Whit Stillman has written a unique and unexpected novel with a twist: It is based on the characters and events in a movie, "The Last Days of Disco," that he himself wrote and directed in 1996. His book, called "The Last Days of Disco, With Cocktails at Petrossian Afterwards," is a humorous "response" to the film in which the characters attempt to set the record straight.

Stillman has written and directed several successful films with themes involving young urbanites. His 1990 film, "Metropolitan," received an Academy Award nomination. He has written short fiction for publications such as The Village Voice, Harper's, The Guardian, El País and Vogue. This is his first novel.

Chat Moderator: Thank you for joining us today, Whit Stillman, and welcome.

Whit Stillman: Well, thanks for having me in.

Chat Moderator: Please tell us a little bit about your book, "The Last Days of Disco."

Whit Stillman: Well, actually we like to emphasize the long title, to distinguish the novel from the movie. The title of the book is: "The Last Days of Disco, With Cocktails at Petrossian Afterwards." It is a novel that enters the fictional world behind the movie. The premise is that this fictional world really existed and it expressed itself in one way in the movie and now in a different and much fuller way in the book.

Question from Subpix: Does Mr. Stillman have a new film?

Whit Stillman: I'm working on a screenplay for an adaptation of the Anchee Min memoir of her experiences during the Cultural Revolution in China. It is titled "Red Azalea."

Chat Moderator: How did you get the idea to write a novel based on the characters and events in a film?

Whit Stillman: It's something I have always wanted to do. I had planned to turn "Metropolitan" into a novella. But that project never happened, though it is listed on some Web sites. With "Disco," I especially felt that there was a bigger story I couldn't tell in the movie.

It was my first ambition to write novels, but I never felt I could complete something so big. With a film script and all the material one invents in the process of writing it, you feel halfway there.

Chat Moderator: Tell us about Jimmy Steinway.

Whit Stillman: The eureka moment for me in the project was when the dancing adman character, Jimmy Steinway, stepped forward to write the book. He says that he always wanted to write novels, and gets the commission to do the novelization when Castle Rock Entertainment can't find anyone else.

Question from Allenerb: Whit, why did you use the same character names and actors across your three movies?

Whit Stillman: In "Disco" the movie, I wanted to show that the club was attracting people from all over, so a few of the characters from the other two films are in the background. Separately, Chris Eigeman plays different characters in all three films because I could never find anyone else to better play the "Chris Eigeman" part.

Question from Sandi: Have you ever considered a novel based on your films "Barcelona" and/or "Metropolitan"?

Whit Stillman: Yes. I had a contract to write "Metropolitan" as what I called a novella. But I never did it and canceled the contract. I started writing a first chapter to "Barcelona," too, but never took it further.

I felt that the fictional world behind "The Last Days of Disco" was potentially richer. Also, I was leaving this world in my film work and I wanted to complete the overall story. Finally, a brilliant editor, Jonathan Galassi, at a very good publishing house, Farrar Straus & Giroux, loved the idea of doing a literary novel extrapolating from the characters in the film.

Question from Did: Where does the novel find the characters from "Disco"? Is it a continuation from the film, or before that, or during?

Whit Stillman: Jimmy Steinway starts the novel as the film is being edited. He goes back and adds his own memories to the transcripts and interviews with the real characters upon which he says the film script was based. So he's discovering new parts of the story as he's also telling us what he knows.

The second half of the title refers to a rough cut screening of the film for the real characters, after which they adjourn to the restaurant, Petrossian, to have cocktails and talk about the film.

Question from Why: Why would you want to novelize your own work? Wouldn't it be more rewarding for both you and the public to create new art?

Whit Stillman: Easier said than done. Also, I, as a writer, felt that I couldn't tell the full story I wanted to tell in a movie. The novel is substantially different from the film. And it was the challenge of doing something that I don't think has been done before, and to have that work.

Question from Debbie: Are your films and books based on your experiences? Do people you know beg you not to air their dirty little secrets?

Whit Stillman: I did get a letter from a woman I knew at Harvard saying she couldn't understand why critics said people didn't talk the way the characters talk. She said, of course, that we talk that way.

She also said, "I always wanted you to write a Harvard novel. Now I think it might be better if you don't." This was in terms of some things that maybe she didn't want aired.

Question from Jeannie: Will we ever see Rick and Serena again? Please say yes.

Whit Stillman: I'm keeping the possibility of the "Metropolitan" novella as my retirement project. If you want to see them again, buy lots of copies of this novel.

Chat Moderator: Do you have any final thoughts for us today?

Whit Stillman: David Denby is a lousy film critic. To find out more, read the novel.

Chat Moderator: Thank you for joining us today, Walt Stillman.

Whit Stillman: Thank you.

Whit Stillman joined the Book Chat via telephone from New York City. CNN provided a typist for him. The above is an edited transcript of the chat.

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The Last Days of Disco, With Cocktails at Petrossian Afterwards
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