As part of the ramp up to promote her terrific new HBO series “Girls” -- which we really can’t say enough good things about -- BAMcinematek in Brooklyn invited filmmaker Lena Dunham to program a series entitled “Hey, Girlfriend! Lena Dunham Presents” featuring a diverse slate of films all centered around female relationships. The series features little-seen gems like “Times Square” and “Girlfriends” as well as more established cult films like “Clueless,” “Mulholland Drive,” and Whit Stillman’s 1998 indie-classic “The Last Days of Disco,” which until today had been the filmmaker’s most recent feature (read our recent retrospective on the filmmaker here). If you’ve never seen it, ‘Disco’ stars at the time virtual unknowns (though never better) Kate Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny as friends and roommates in early '80s New York. Featuring an ensemble cast including Robert Sean Leonard, Jennifer Beals and Stillman regular Chris Eigeman, the director’s largest budget to date ($8 million) and a wall-to-wall disco soundtrack, the film was expected to click with the same crowd that made “Boogie Nights” a hit the previous year and were (in theory) anticipating that year’s similarly set “54.”
Unfortunately, audiences at the time weren’t ready for Stillman’s hyper-literate comedy and the film collected just under $3 million at the box office. But over the years, the film’s reputation has only grown thanks in part to the filmmaker’s Salinger-esque disappearing act and a recent Criterion Collection DVD release. “Criterion kinda overprices things but if you search enough sites, they might have it at a reasonable price,” Stillman advised in his typically wry deadpan. Already making the rounds for “Damsels In Distress,” his “Jane Austen meets ‘Animal House’ ” comedy, Stillman dropped in to BAM along with his longtime muse, actor Chris Eigeman, for a loose, shambling Q&A with Dunham, discussing the now 14-year-old film, casting that never came to be, and harboring old grudges.
Dunham opened the Q&A by saying that the three of them were fighting, “You think I’m joking, but I’m not.” She went on to say that she’s loved the film since its original release, Stillman was one of her favorite directors and Eigeman one of her favorite performers (true to her word, he appears in her series “Girls”) but that Eigeman had pointed her to a recent interview with Gothamist where Stillman had called both of them “ingrates and traitors." Stillman quipped, “I didn’t mean ingrates,” and went on to explain the origins of their spat. “The story is I tried to get both these thespians to perform roles in my film [“Damsels In Distress”] that were key and important to me, although it wasn’t enough screentime and importance for them,” he said to laughter from the crowd.
Dunham responded by reciting from memory a bruised letter she’d received from Stillman at the time and had since framed. “How could you decline to be in my film which will be seen worldwide for decades to come in exchange for the utter ephemera of a TV pilot?” The pilot in question was Dunham’s own series in which she is the star as well as writer and director of many of the episodes, which had forced her to pass on ‘Damsels.’ Stillman’s deadpan demeanor made it difficult to gauge the degree in which he was only joking but he closed the sore subject by saying, “these people are great talents and I hope to work with them someday.”
“I really like big personalities.” Stillman said. “Chris Eigeman is a guy who can be very funny playing a role with a big personality, so I thought, ‘How interesting would it be to have a very attractive woman who is also a big personality?’ So maybe it’s a bit plaid for plaid with Kate Beckinsale as Charlotte and Chris Eigeman as Des in the same movie, but having them end together is sorta poetry in my book.” It was this idea combined with his experience on his previous film “Barcelona” (featuring a scene set in a discotheque) that made him want to make the film. Eigeman, for his part, agreed that dancing would create an interesting contrast for Stillman’s trademark dialogue. “I think that dancing is perfect in a way. On the one front, it’s a very codified way of genders intermixing. It’s both intimate and very, very public. It’s a great way for people to express themselves in a very safe way. The other thing is that you look incredibly silly if you do it. And so you get it both ways which is fantastic.”
Eigeman said that although he was happy to collaborate with his director for the third time he gave him one stipulation for the project. “I’m happy to do this film, couldn’t be more happy but I’m not dancing,” Eigeman recalled, explaining this was a decision which “saved a lot of pain” for himself and the audience. Stillman has no plans to stop utilizing different styles of dancing in his films. “Damsels In Distress” features an extended tap dancing sequence and an upcoming project set during the birth of ska music in Jamaica will also feature dance sequences, with Stillman’s modifications of course. “During [the ska period], if you see how people ska danced it looks just terrible. It looks ridiculous. So I want to invent an alternate ska dance that looks cool. And we’ll say, ‘that’s the way they danced ska.’ ”
“We almost didn’t do this film together.” Stillman said, pointing to his frequent muse Eigeman. “We came very close to not doing it together,” he said, setting off a rat-a-tat exchange that wouldn’t have been out of place in one of his scripts.
“We agreed to not do it together,” Eigeman responded.
“I thought that was just a face saving agreement.”
“No, it was a sincere agreement. I think it was a thing where we both thought, you know, ‘Enough already.’ Part of us both felt like we were diluting the broth a bit [creatively], we were watering it down and it was okay. And from both our standpoints I thought it was a good decision [not to do the film together]. It was a decision that didn’t hold up as it turns out.”
“I actually hadn’t made that decision but I let you think we’d made that decision.”
“But you said that to me, didn’t you?”
“In case you didn’t do it, I wanted there to be no hard feelings. I always wanted you to do it.”
“But I thought you had hired somebody?”
“No, we never hired anybody. We were sort of under pressure from the financiers to have stars in the movie. And we were also under pressure not to work together.”
That pressure was apparently from one of the financiers who had wanted to cast some movie stars in the film to ensure its profitability. “There was a bankable movie star who really wanted to do the role, a flavor of the month... or decade or maybe two decades, who wanted to do it,” Stillman continued. IMDb Trivia reveals that Ben Affleck was interested in the role of Des, which was written for Eigeman, and the description seems to fit. “So [the financiers] wanted him to get serious consideration so don’t give it to Chris right away because this guy should get serious consideration. And all these people came in and read for the part and they were not close to Chris at all. It was night and day, it would have been [nails on chalk]board to have someone else do the Chris Eigeman part. If you have the Chris Eigeman part in the script, maybe Chris Eigeman should do it.” Though Affleck was blowing up in the post-”Good Will Hunting,” “Armageddon” phase of his career, we can’t imagine anybody but Eigeman in the role.
But Affleck wasn't the only actor who narrowly missed appearing in the film. It’s fairly well known that Winona Ryder was offered the role of Alice (played in the film by Sevigny) but her agent had taken several days to respond during which point Sevigny auditioned and won over Stillman. On the Criterion commentary Stillman revealed that another actor had originally been cast as Josh (played in the film by Matt Keeslar) and during the Q&A was asked to reveal who that actor was. “I can’t say but they were both playing in a TV show recently” and wondered, “what was the dynamic like on that set?” Eigeman added, “Google!” prompting many in the audience to make a mental note to do so when they got home. Another glance at IMDb reveals Keeslar’s most recent small screen credit was on the TNT heist drama “Leverage,” though which actor might have been his predecessor is still anybody’s guess.
Though the late '90s was flush with '70s nostalgia, ‘Disco’ always stood out among the pack due to Stillman’s unique stylization. “I have a problem with period if it’s too hermetically, perfectly done.” he said. “I like to have some life in it and maybe take some liberties with it. I really hated the way things looked in the mid-to-late '70s and there was some music I wanted to use that was very early '80s. And I really liked the way people started to dress and look in the early '80s so I shifted the period from what people think of as the disco period to the very last days of disco.” He went on to stress that it was important for him to “allow New York to exist.” He said, “We’d have some old signs to try to block and cover up things that were obviously anachronistic but generally we’d let New York City go on [around us] because it’s even more false to have a totally fake set and all that. So it’s a compromise.”
Disco may have been the butt of a lot of easy jokes but it’s clear watching the film, peppered with autobiographical details from the time, that Stillman has a real affection for the era. “I had warm feelings toward [New York] city then,” the director reminisced. “I had come back from a stint in the midwest and I had a night job in a nightly publication in the building of the Apex Technical School on 6th Ave and 21st St and I got out of work at 2 a.m. One of the places I could go for a drink was Studio 54. I had a friend that had gotten into the [famed fashion designer] Egon von Fürstenberg set for some reason, so he could get me in and know the ropes. I loved that place. I loved the disco era,” he said summing up. When asked if he thought dancing would come back, he answered definitively, “Yes, it’s coming back.”