August 29, 2007
Watching Movies with Aaron Katz & Brendan McFadden
Quiet City, the second feature film from writer-director Aaron Katz and Brendan McFadden, opens at the IFC Center today. Back in November, I interviewed Brendan and Aaron when Dance Party USA opened at the Pioneer, and we wanted to do something in celebration of the new release as well. Brendan suggested that we borrow a page from the New York Times' old 'Watching Movies With...' series, in which filmmakers would watch and discuss a favorite film, relating it to their current body of work.
It was a fantastic idea. A date was set, and Brendan and Aaron chose Whit Stillman's The Last Days Of Disco to be the subject of our conversation. And so it was that, on Monday night, they sat down to watch the film in Brooklyn while I let it unspool here in Texas. The following morning, we got on the horn to talk about it.
David: So did you have any trouble finding a copy of the film?
Brendan: We actually just ended up watching my old VHS copy.
Aaron: Which actually felt sort of appropriate for Last Days Of Disco.
David: Did yours have the Elizabeth trailer on it?
Aaron: Yes! Yes. The Elizabeth trailer and Very Bad Things and that period 1920s British movie.
Brendan: The Land Girls.
David: I think this is the first time I've actually watched something on VHS in I don't know how long. I kind of miss it.
Aaron: It was kinda great. I kinda like watching things on VHS.
Brendan: I'm really nostalgic for the kinds of trailers that are on movies from the mini-majors from that time period. Like, it reminds me of being fifteen and watching Before Sunrise.
David: Just seeing the Polygram and Grammercy logos...
Brendan: Yeah, that too.
David: So what made you pick Last Days Of Disco for us to talk about? I've got a few ideas, but I'd like to hear from you first.
Brendan: We were talking about it and we were trying to search for something that had common ground but wasn't too obvious. I don't know, it just seemed right. We kinda just hit upon it, and I think that after picking it, more reasons occurred to us that we hadn't thought about.
Aaron: Yeah, it was kinda a pick on instinct. I'd only seen the movie once before, but I really loved it the first time I saw it. I don't think I saw it until the senior year in college. Brendan actually introduced me to Whit Stillman.
Brendan: Yeah, I think it was the summer between our junior and senior year. We watched a VHS copy of Metropolitan that the school had. It was the kind of thing where I had three friends who liked Whit Stillman in film school. Everybody else either hadn't heard of him or really didn't like him, so I always eager to introduce him to other people.
Aaron: And it's kind of an underappreciated movie, too, so it was something I was eager to think a little bit about.
David: I saw it when it first came out in 1998, which would have been my junior year in high school. Back then, I think the most important thing to me in the world was great dialogue. Which is of course what Whit Stilllman's known for, and I really loved the movie for that. I hadn't seen it since until earlier this summer, I was flipping through some TV stations and it was on. It was right at that moment when they were having that Lady In The Tramp discussion, and I was like "Oh my god, how did I ever like this?" It was pop culture references right out the gate! But then I watched the rest of it and realized that it was actually really good, as good as I remembered. And it reminded me that I've become so formal in my cinematic interests lately that I've forgotten what a thrill it is to listen to a really well written conversation! And even when it sounds very theatrical, as his stuff often does, it's such a pleasure to just listen to the characters speak. That's the joy of his films, in many ways.
Brendan: It's totally true.
Aaron: I think that the way people speak in Whit Stillman movies is really theatrical, and if you watch five minutes of it and you didn't know it was a Whit Stillman movie, you'd think it was really bad acting and bad writing. But somehow, watching the whole thing, it actually brings you into its own world. Where that's the speech pattern. It doesn't matter where a person comes from - if you're in a Whit Stillman movie, all of a sudden you have that speech pattern.
Brendan: He actually says as much, I think. I heard an interview with him on NPR circa this coming out, and Terri Gross mentioned the fact that the dialogue is stylized, and he was like "Stylized? Really? This is how people I know talk!" I think also that, because his world is so specific, you're sort of glimpsing this other world where people do talk like that.
David: Where people use these rarified speech patterns that are so effete and refined that sounds awkward in a way but also sounds very sophisticated, where you're kind of like "Oh, I wish I talked like that."
Aaron: I wish I talked like that.
Brendan: I often have that reaction after watching his stuff. And also, it's so obvious that the characters are immensely guarded and it's a form of protection, almost.
David: The funny thing about his movies is that you can tell he's of that world that he depicts, and he's very critical of it, but I think he definitely loves it. There's a definite affection for this sophisticated upper class, but he knows how to hit them where it hurts at the same time.
Aaron: It's kind of like P.G .Wodehouse in that way. He has a great affection for the British upper class, but it's filled with these sort of semi-satirical humorous characters.
Brendan: I think also a big influence for Stillman is Fitzgerald. I think he kind of has a similar relationship to that world that Fitzgerald had to the world that he wrote about. He sort of adores it, isn't one hundred percent a member, but sort of yearns to be. And is also distanced enough that he has some ability to be critical of it. I've always sort of sensed that the protagonist in Metropolitan is a good indication of Whit Stillman's role in things.
David: I just watched Metropolitan yesterday, as well, which I'd never seen before. It's always fun to go back and see that kind of independent film, back when people were limited to shooting on 16mm and making this sort of film that you really don't see anymore. And then, to watch that and Last Days Of Disco back to back was really cool, and to realize that they weren't that far apart -- like five years? They were closer together then we are now to Last Days Of Disco.
Brendan: I think Metropolitan was '91 or '92, and Disco was '98. So it's kind of like, in a span of six years, he made three films, and has notably made nothing since.
David: Did you read the press he did last year when he was talking about making a new film?
Brendan: Yeah, actually, when I was working at IFC he came in and had a meeting. I've heard about four or five different reports about different films he was going to make. Like a science fiction movie, a movie about ancient China....
David: I'd heard about the science fiction one.
Brendan: There was a point where he was going to adapt two unfinished Jane Austen novels into one film.
Aaron: That sounds like a really good idea.
Brendan: They're all over the map, and it's so hard to picture him doing anything else rightly or wrongly, because what he's done so far has been so specific and is set in this specific world.
David: So when you guys look back at this sort of movie, can you trace its influence in your current work?
Aaron: We were actually talking about that last night. There are a bunch of filmmakers that we all like in common. Like Matt Dentler asked us for his blog, people talk about Godard and Truffaut and Cassavetes and Malick and so on and so fourth, but do they really influence us? I don't know. I think the answer is that we all like those people, and we like Whit Stillman and -- I don't know, I'm not really a good job at explaining. Brendan?
Brendan: Well, I know that when Aaron first wrote the Quiet City script, we talked a lot about Antonioni initially. At least aesthetically. But then it just became clear that the aesthetic we were talking about wasn't feasible, because essentially what we could do was shoot it handheld and shoot it very quickly, just based on necessity -- for the better. I think there was that time in my life where I was watching Slacker and trying to duplicate that when I was fifteen or sixteen. Or Pulp Fiction, or whatever. And doing so very slavishly. I don't know if you had similar experiences, Aaron...
David: I did, and I definitely tried to duplicate things that I saw. But I think that by not trying to fit those kind of things, whether it's Pulp Fiction or Slacker or anything else, into the kind of movie we were making, we ended up responding more to what was really in front of us. Just as an example, in the park scene in Quiet City where they run, we knew we were going to shoot it up at Prospect Park, but we really didn't know where until we got there. And it was us actually being there and going, "okay, let's look at what we have here, let's look at the layout" instead of being like "it's gotta be shot like this," or "let's take this shot from this movie." In fact, that's a scene that we were going to steal a shot from La Notte for --
Brendan: Actually, it was L'Eclisse.
Aaron: Oh, yeah, it is from L'Eclisse. It was sort of like a wide shot of them running up a hill, if I recall correctly, and and we were thinking about trying to duplicate something like that. But then Reed [Andrew Reed, cinematographer] suggested shooting right into the sun and having them run over the horizon and then back. And he suggested that three minutes before we actually shot it, and I think that some of the most interesting things in the movie, and some of the most exciting things, came out of being there and disposing of any preconceived notions that we did have.
David: I've experienced the same thing. Like there'll be a certain shot that I can't help but want to 'pay homage' to or lift, but if I do rip something off, it usually ends up being the weakest part of the move. And also, I'm working on a film right now and someone asked me what it was going to be like it and the only thing I could think of was Ernest Scared Stupid. It's like you said, you always have Malick and Cassavetes and all of those guys, but I think there are all these other movies that aren't necessarily good but they're influential because you saw them at a certain age, and they give you a little jolt of inspiration.
Aaron: And I think it's just a mish mash of stuff bouncing around in your head. Whether or it's a little bit of Can't Hardly Meet mixed with a little Sergio Leone, and even though neither of those have anything to do with anything, they're totally in there.
David: You totally beat me to the punch, because I read that you liked Can't Hardly Wait in Karina Longworth's interview, and man, I love that movie.
Aaron: I love that movie too.
David: And it came out the same summer as Last Days Of Disco, so they're intrinsically linked in my memory. I actually haven't seen that one since it was in theaters either, but it was encouraging to see that you think it's held up.
Aaron: Yeah, I actually own it. I think it's great. As I said on Karina's blog, the whole thing's a long party. And obviously it's based on...not Pretty In Pink, but Sixteen Candles, right? What's the John Hughes movie that's like a nonstop party?
David: I'm John Hughes illiterate. All I've seen is The Breakfast Club.
Aaron: It's been a really long time since I've seen any of them, but obviously Can't Hardly Wait is informed to some extent by the teen movies of the 80s. It has this heightened stuff in it, but it's weirdly natural and it's just kind of about relationships. It's not that wacky.
David: I remember Roger Ebert gave it like half a star, which I thought was horribly unfair. It felt so accurate to me at the time, being seventeen. The movie actually meant something to me! And these days, all I really remember is the emotional quality of it, and I don't know if I were to go back and watch it...but I think that the Jenna Elfman character showing up, that stripper angel or whatever she was, definitely had a big impact on me, storytelling wise.
Aaron: Yeah, I forgot all about that part. The last time I saw it was two years ago. I also watched it with commentary, and the commentary's kinda good too. It's directed by two people, and Seth Green was there, and the directors were talking about operating the camera. I'm sure it was a real movie with a semi-big crew, but it sounded kind of like there was a casual thing to how it was shot that sounded a little bit out of the ordinary.
David: They went on to do Josie And The Pussycats.
Aaron: I don't think they've made anything since.
Brendan: Going back for a second to the trailers for late to mid 90's indie films -- watching those trailers reminded me of what a big influence those films had on my life when I was in high school, because that was my first gateway into independent and foreign films, those American indie films of that period.
David: I don't know if you guys followed the same path, but Pulp Fiction comes out when you're like thirteen or fourteen and just sort of rocks your world...
Brendan: Very much so.
David:...and gradually from there, throughout high school, you just start discovering more of these independent and foreign films. And that period was just sort of an epoch, in my development, at least, because you had all these independent films coming out, and I was getting my driver's license and being able to drive to the theater for the first time...
Aaron: I remember Lone Star came out and I hadn't seen a John Sayles movie before. That was in '96.
David: Yeah, that was the first art house experience I ever had. My dad took me to see it, and I'd never been to an art house before.
Brendan: I would go with my dad a lot as well, or I'd go to the multiplex and buy a ticket for something else and sneak into R-rated stuff like Pulp Fiction,
David: I did exactly the same thing.
Brendan: I remember seeing all these films, and I remember seeing Before Sunrise in the theater in 8th grade was a really big deal.
Aaron: To go back to what you were saying, David, about how you watch one thing, like Pulp Fiction and then you branch off from there to other stuff. I think that's true. I remember I'd see Pulp Fiction and then I'd hear Tarantino talk about something he was influenced by - or stealing from - and then I'd go out and watch that, and that would lead to something else. But in retrospect, I'm kind of surprised at the people I never heard of back in high school.
David: I wish I'd been more adventurous. Pulp Fiction lead me to Godard because Tarantino's company's name was A Band Apart Productions. And actually, one of my prized possessions is a letter from them, because when I was fourteen I wrote to them asking if they'd produce my next film. I got a letter back stating that they didn't accept unsolicited submissions, but I was just like, "wow, it's the official Band Apart letterhead!" That's what got me into Godard, and I did see Breathless at that time. But I almost wonder what kind of person I'd be if I sought out more of these art house films and classics back in high school, instead of taking such a gradual route to where I am now as far as my tastes and understanding of film history are.
Aaron: Yeah, but I think I'm more patient now than when I was in high school. I had never heard of Ozu in high school, and maybe it was better to find out about him later on.
Brendan: And I think in terms of foreign films and older films, you have to get used to the idea that they're acting and behaving in a way that's often different from what you're used to. I think when you're younger, that can be a little more difficult to come to terms with.
Aaron: Last Days Of Disco is actually interesting in that way, because it's set in New York and there are a million movies set in New York, but people are behaving differently from how any of the three of us behave.
Brendan: It's interesting in regards to Quiet City, because I think they're both New York movies.
Aaron: And with Last Days Of Disco, obviously I wasn't there then and I'm not part of whatever that world might be now, but it captures something that feels very true. At it's best, when they go to Rex's and then when they go to breakfast and when they're not at the club, when it's the morning after...it's kind of a cheesy thing to say, but I feel like I'm there. I know how that feels, even though I haven't experienced it. And one of the other things I was thinking about is that there have recently been a lot of articles and discussion about Mumblecore and so on and so forth, and I think that a lot of us are very different, not only in our approach but in our finished product. Some of the articles' take is that if you've seen one film, you might as well stop there because they're all exactly the same. So I was kind of thinking about that, and then I was thinking about, "okay, what are the actual similarities?" And I think the actual similarities are an interest in being true to the world around you, whether it's the world around us or the world that Joe sees around him, and being true to our instincts and trying to be as unmanipulative as possible not only in what the film is about but what it's sensibility is. And I think that Whit Stillman actually achieves that, too. It's his world, and it's also achieved in this way that, if someone else set out to make a movie about that world, it wouldn't be that way. I think he stays true to how he perceives things.
David: Very much so, and in that sense his is very much a sort of personal filmmaking.
Brendan: Aaron and I both own but haven't read the novelization of Last Days Of Disco. I bought it on Amazon a few years ago and never got around to reading it...
Aaron: I'm fascinated by the idea of the book -- I don't know if you know, but it acknowledges that the movie exists, and then says "and here's what really happened."
David: I read interview with him where he said that because it was such a personal story and he was so wrapped up in that world, he couldn't abandon it, and that's why he wrote the novel instead of making another film.
Brendan: I also remember reading that his ambitions initially were to be a writer, kind of in the mold of Fitzgerald, but he felt that he didn't have the chops for prose. He felt that writing screenplays was a little more doable, and I think that's in part how he ended up making Metropolitan.
David: I haven't seen Barcelona in years, but Metropolitan and The Last Days Of Disco are both so nostalgic for a time that's passed and never to be had again. They're very precipitous.
Aaron: Yeah, we were talking about how the whole film of Last Days Of Disco feels like, not the last song at a party, but the song where you realize that it's almost over, and you realize it's at the height of the fun but you know that the song's going to be over pretty soon. It's kind of slipping through your fingers and you can't quite grasp it. It's something that you don't want to go, but it's inevitable.
Brendan: I think the movie has that quality, but disco music, at least the music in the film, also has that quality. Of always feeling like it's the last song and everything's at it's apex, but then that feeling continues throughout the evening. That might have had something to do with it being cocaine fueled, but that seems to be the tone of the music.
Aaron: That one song comes to mind, Doctor's Orders [by Carol Douglas]. It's a happy song and it's fun, but there's a lingering sadness to it.
Brendan: I don't know if it's because a lot of those people began in R&B and soul and there's a certain sadness on some level to that music.
Aaron: And although the movie is nostalgic, it doesn't look back at disco in a kitschy way. And I think that it might be the only film I've seen that doesn't look back at disco in a kitschy way. They discuss it in the movie; it's not Olivia Newton John and John Travolta in white bell bottoms and all that.
David: You know, I think that was the same summer that 54 came out, too.
Aaron: What did you think of the ending?
David: With the subway?
Aaron: I had forgotten about that part.
David: I really like it. It's a nice grace note. It's totally unprecedented in his work - he never goes into surrealism - but when a filmmaker does something like that, especially after three very similar films, it's a way to say "hey, I'm moving forward. Let's try something new now."
Aaron: It's almost like a release of all the mannered stuff from his previous films.
Brendan: I had forgotten about it as well, but I feel like it's a celebration of everything that's coming from.
Aaron: It's almost a bad idea. On paper, all these people dancing on the subway platform -- it's almost such a bad idea that its actually amazing that it made it in.
David: It's really beautiful, and I think what actually helps sell it is that the lead characters disappear almost immediately. The lights flicker, the rest of the subway starts dancing, but they're gone. And that gives the scene the same bittersweet quality that we were talking about with the music. It's a very happy, ebullient thing, but our characters have moved on. They've passed.
Aaron: And before they go, they dance, but it's a very tentative dance.
Brendan: It's like a weird music from a musical. Like a Whit Stillman musical.
Aaron: Oh, man -- The Last Days Of Disco is so good!
David: And now that we've been talking about it, I really can't wait to see him make another film.
Brendan: I think it's funny - when you just know a filmmaker by their work, I think that you have this very particular idea of what they like, and I think it's completely untrue. I'd be curious to know what Whit Stillman is watching.
Aaron: Yeah, did Whit Stillman watch The Bourne Ultimatum? I can't fathom it, but maybe. I imagine him only reading F. Scott Fitzgerald books and living in Metropolitan...
David: You picture him sitting in that drawing room, wearing that tuxedo at all times.
Brendan: I think that's one of the reasons why we chose The Last Days Of Disco for this, because I don't think you would necessarily assume that would be the pick from watching Quiet City and Dance Party USA.
David: I'm really glad you guys picked this. We could deconstruct their influence all day, but it's just really fun to go back and look at these formative films.
Brendan: The other thing we talked about is that, being at the apex of all these newspaper articles and hype and already knowing that there's going to be an inevitable backlash, it's interesting to watch The Last Days Of Disco, which is about very much about experiencing something and knowing it' about to end and having mixed feelings about it ending.
Aaron: Hopefully, no one will blow up a bunch of a Mumblecore DVDs.
David: That would actually be a great SXSW intro next year!
Aaron: I think the difference between disco and mumblecore is that the characters in the film have unabashed love for disco, whereas I think mumblecore is just...we don't need to go into it here, but it's just a a stupid, stupid term. I can't believe it caught on.
Brendan: We've kind of resigned ourselves to it.
Aaron: Yeah, it's too late.
David: We'll look back on this a year from now and brush away tears of fond remembrance.
Brendan: The halcyon days of the New Talkies.
Posted by David Lowery at August 29, 2007 5:31 AM
Speaking of fond memories, this just reminded me of how much I miss this feature in the Times. Great discussion, guys. It made me think of that Eigeman line from KICKING AND SCREAMING, "I'm nostalgic for conversations I had yesterday. I've begun reminiscing events before they even occur. I'm reminiscing this right now."
Oh, and JOSIE & THE PUSSYCATS is an unjustly neglected classic. To my mind, it's the closest we've come to modern-day Tashlin.
Posted by: wells at August 30, 2007 10:36 AM
"The Pop Star Girl Power Cartoon Adaptation That Wasn't!"
Posted by: Ghostboy at August 31, 2007 2:03 AM