Skip to main content

The Making of "The Castro."

Peter L. Stein is producer, director and writer of the documentary "The Castro." It will air nationally on PBS this Friday, June 12. "The Castro" is the name of a San Francisco neighborhood that is at the heart of the city's gay community. His film recently won a Peabody Award. He serves as Executive Producer of KQED's series Neighborhoods: The Hidden Cities of San Francisco. AND We'll also hear from Cleve Jones who lived in the Castro district where he became involved in the gay-rights movement. He is featured in Stein's film. Jones' role in the fight against AIDS has been described in Randy Shilts' best-selling book "And the Band Played On." He is also the founder of the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt.

21:41

Other segments from the episode on June 11, 1998

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 11, 1998: Interview with Peter L. Stein and Cleve Jones; Interview with Whit Stillman.

Transcript

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: JUNE 11, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 061101np.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: The Castro
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Tomorrow night, many public TV stations will air a documentary called "The Castro." It tells the story of how a working class neighborhood in San Francisco was transformed into the most famous gay neighborhood in America. The Castro became a center for gay bars and shops. The residents organized into a gay political and economic force.

My guest Peter Stein wrote and directed the documentary. He says the Castro is one of America's great immigrant stories. But these immigrants weren't fleeing persecution in other nations. They were fleeing intolerant families and neighbors.

Cleve Jones, who is joining us by phone, is a good example. He moved to San Francisco in the early '70s to escape harassment in his home town of West Lafayette, Indiana. After moving to the Castro, he worked with Harvey Milk, who was one of the nation's first openly gay elected officials. Jones also originated the AIDS Memorial Quilt.

Peter Stein and Cleve Jones had different takes on the early days of the Castro.

Peter, you grew up in San Francisco. I think it was for college that you left. You returned as an adult in the '80s. But you never lived in the Castro. In fact, you describe the Castro as being "too claustrophobic, homogeneous, and relentlessly sexualized." Can you expand on that?

PETER L. STEIN, PRODUCER, DIRECTOR, AND WRITER, "THE CASTRO": Yeah, well when I was growing up in San Francisco in the '60s and '70s, the Castro wasn't even known as the Castro. It was called Eureka Valley and it was a pretty nondescript neighborhood. My closest memory of it was that just -- it was a place to transfer the streetcar when I was going to junior high school.

By the time I came back, which was the early '80s, it had been utterly transformed. It was a gay mecca and pretty much 24 hours a day, it was a place where there was a -- it was go, go, go all the time. And I think for gay people who were first moving here, it probably was extremely exciting to find each other in that neighborhood and to be able to get whatever you need from, if it was just a service that you needed or if it was a sexual service.

The fact that it was, as I say, kind of relentlessly oriented toward gay life was I think to me a little bit claustrophobic. And I know many gay people all around the country who come to the Castro and sort of wonder, well, what's the big deal here? What is the importance of the neighborhood?

And I think in a way it's the history of it, once you get to know it, that actually brings out what is significant about it. But when I first came back to San Francisco, I chose not to live in the Castro. It was a great place to go visit, but I didn't really want to experience it 24 hours a day.

GROSS: What did you mean when you said it was "relentlessly sexualized?"

LAUGHTER

STEIN: You're gonna nail me on that one, aren't you Terry?

GROSS: Yeah, I'll try.

STEIN: I think my feeling was that in all the shops -- for example, you couldn't get a gift card for somebody, a birthday card, without being assaulted by a lot of, you know, either soft- or hard-core pornographic images. There was a lot of cruising on the street going on. And there was something very titillating and exciting about that.

But for me, it just felt that I wouldn't want to choose to be there 24 hours a day.

CLEVE JONES, ACTIVIST: And I wouldn't have chosen to live anywhere else.

GROSS: Yeah, Cleve, what did you like and is there anything you didn't like about living in a gay neighborhood, in the Castro?

JONES: The only thing I didn't like about it were the straight kids that would come in periodically to beat us up. It certainly was a sexually charged environment. You can't deny that. But it was much more than that. I think for me, what was most significant about it was to be in a place where gay people were the majority. That was astonishing to me.

And to come there from Phoenix, Arizona in 1972, where you had to enter a gay bar through a back alley through an unmarked entrance -- to come to this place where the gay bars had big open windows right on the street, and where the majority of the people that you saw on the street were identifiably gay or lesbian. It gave me a great feeling of security and safety.

And of course, we were out on the street all of the time, but it wasn't just to find sexual partners, it was to meet your neighbors and be friends. And that was quite extraordinary. I found myself never wanting to go home. I just wanted to be out on the sidewalk putting up posters for the next rally or meeting my friends, exchanging gossip. It was a great time.

GROSS: Peter, your new documentary looks at how the Castro became a gay neighborhood. Why of all the neighborhoods in San Francisco was it the Castro?

STEIN: Well, a combination of factors really led to the Castro springing forth. It wasn't the first gay neighborhood in San Francisco. The old North Beach section of San Francisco, which was always the bohemian enclave, really marked the first place where gay people knew they could find each other, even as early as the '20s. And later, an area called Polk Street was a place where a lot of clubs and dance clubs and bars were.

An interesting set of factors happened to create the Castro. One was that there was just available housing there. A lot of the middle class families, second and third and fourth generation Irish and Scandinavian families, had moved out by the late '50s and early '60s to pursue the, you know, the great American suburban dream.

You also, at the same time, had this tremendous influx of new, young residents to San Francisco because in the mid-'60s, we had this huge explosion of hippie culture, and that brought a lot of people into the Haight-Ashbury, which is just right over the hill from the Castro.

And I think at first it was just by happenstance that a few gay bars started to open along Castro Street. But very soon, it coincided with a whole movement in America that had gay people not just wanting a place to rent and then go somewhere else to have a bar or to meet folks, but to actually claim a neighborhood as a meeting ground; as a place to have shops and businesses and elect political officials and so forth.

And I think the fourth factor that really helped push it over the edge into a true mecca was it ended up having a leader in Harvey Milk. Now that -- Harvey Milk came in 1973, but within a couple of years, he had emerged as in some ways the -- the neighborhood champion. And he himself was advocating the neighborhood becoming a true building block for gay power, not just political power, but also economic clout and a place to have a voice.

GROSS: Peter, one of the interesting things about your documentary is that you interviewed a lot of the people who used to live in the Castro back when it was still called Eureka Valley, when the neighborhood was predominantly comprised of Irish and Scandinavian families. What was the reaction of the people who were still there when more and more gay people started moving into the neighborhood? What was the reaction of these families to the gay newcomers that were coming in and transforming the place?

STEIN: Well, I must say I went into this documentary assuming that I would hear a lot of resentment of people feeling that their neighborhood was usurped. The fact is, Eureka Valley was a very tight-knit neighborhood for 50, 60 years, and people spoke to me very fondly of their time growing up in this sweet American urban pocket.

But I gotta say, I didn't hear a whole lot of resentment. That may be because the people who really did resent the idea that gay people were moving into the neighborhood had left -- and left early on. But I think it's more the case that most of the residents of the neighborhood profited enormously by the real estate improvements that happened.

I talked with one fellow who had sold the rights to his bar -- not even the bar itself, but just the rights to run a bar -- in the late '60s for $7,000 to what then became a gay bar. He then re-sold it in 1978 for $700,000.

So I think that tends to mollify a certain amount of the resentment that people felt.

The other factor, I think though, is that many, many San Franciscans really did not see the gay community in their midst as a threat. There may have been a sense of "gee, we'd rather not have this so public on our doorsteps" -- and I did hear from that. And we hear some people in the documentary who felt that the kind of openness was distasteful to them. But for the most part, I think, people accepted it as part of the city that they love.

GROSS: Cleve, you worked with Harvey Milk in organizing the Castro community into a political force. That community, in turn, elected Harvey Milk as a supervisor in San Francisco. What was your approach to organizing? How do you think it compared to kind of standard political organizing in a neighborhood?

JONES: I think it -- that we followed a pretty traditional model of building precinct organizations. But I think we started it a bit differently. It was a time of many crises. There were the votes -- the anti-gay referenda for example that occurred in Dade County and Wichita and St. Paul and Eugene, Oregon.

And one of the ways that we organized people was whenever there was a crisis, no matter where it occurred -- whether it was in the Midwest or down in Florida, if gay people were denied their rights somewhere, we would call big spontaneous marches in the Castro. And we got people very energized.

For a while -- for a couple of years, it seemed like every other week, there would be 50,000 people marching up and down Nob Hill blowing whistles. And so we were able to mobilize a lot of people, and there were so many folks that had moved here from towns where it was just unheard of to even consider proclaiming your true identity; and they were very excited and energized. It was sort of the first wave of gay political activism.

GROSS: What was the impact of Harvey Milk's assassination on you, Cleve Jones, after having worked so closely with him? Were you worried that you'd be killed? Or another associate of yours would be killed next?

JONES: It was very frightening. I'm very close to my mother and father now, but at that time, I really didn't have much of a relationship, especially with my father. Harvey was a dad to me. He was a real mentor -- encouraged me to go back to school; got me a job working as an intern for college credit in his office.

So personally, I was devastated. I had never lost someone before. I had never seen a dead body even in my life. And it was very frightening. And the fact that the murderer, Dan White, had been a police officer was very, very scary. During that winter between the murders and the verdict, the police came back into our bars for the first time in years. There was a lot of police harassment on Castro Street.

I felt targeted. And then, when the verdict came out and the riot occurred, and I was widely blamed for that, I felt very, very threatened and in fact at Gay Pride 1979, I actually had bodyguards when I was walking in the parade.

So it was scary, and I think that up until Harvey's murder, the whole thing had seemed sort of like this grand adventure. And then with Harvey's murder, we suddenly saw just how terrible the consequences were. And I remember people talking about how, of course, Harvey was not our first martyr. We had lost thousands of people to brutal violence, to alcoholism, to suicide. But Harvey was the first public martyr that was shared by this new community. And his death was very important.

GROSS: Do you think it had a permanent effect on the community?

JONES: Oh absolutely. Even today, 20 years later, the man's name is mentioned constantly in the Castro; constantly referred to. And I think, you know, it would be a mistake to say that Harvey created the Castro. He moved into it after it had already begun. But he certainly represented the community, and his election was an extraordinary victory for us.

So we -- you know, we tend to call him the first openly gay elected official, and he was not. A woman named Elaine Noble (ph) had been elected to the Massachusetts legislature a couple of years prior. But Harvey was our first -- the first on the West Coast. And he represented a type of in-your-face populist style that was really brand new for us.

GROSS: My guests are Peter Stein, director of the new documentary The Castro, which will be shown tomorrow night on public TV; and Cleve Jones, who lived in the Castro for many years. More after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with Peter Stein, director of the new documentary The Castro. Joining us by phone is Cleve Jones, who lived in the Castro for many years and helped organize that gay neighborhood into a political force.

Peter Stein, your documentary on the Castro also looks at the impact of AIDS on the neighborhood. And I'm wondering if you could tell us a little bit about what you think that effect has been.

STEIN: Oh, well it's been absolutely enormous. In fact, I think I -- I don't believe I could have done this documentary even two or three years ago. I think the neighborhood and the people who made the Castro what it was in the '70s and '80s were still reeling from the shock of this epidemic.

It's hard to imagine it. This is a very small neighborhood. There may be 50,000 or 60,000 residents in it. By 1990, 10,000 San Franciscans had died of AIDS, and we can't say exactly how many of those were Castro residents, but a great majority were either denizens or certainly knew of and were familiar faces in the Castro. So this is almost incalculable, the loss -- not just the sheer numbers, but the political leaders; the shop owners; just the everyday faces on the street.

And it really is only in the last couple of years that people have begun to emerge from some of this trauma to look back and see, well, how did we get here? So I think that AIDS created first of all a much more sober culture in the neighborhood. A lot of shops did close down. People didn't go out as much at night, and there was that kind of shutting down of some of the exuberant culture that had made the Castro really delightful.

There are people in the documentary who describe it as being unbelievably depressing. I'm not sure it was the neighborhood per se that was depressing. It was their lives. People were going to funerals every week.

GROSS: Cleve, during the height of the AIDS epidemic when the Castro neighborhood was so hard-hit by it, it -- for residents like you there, it meant that you were just totally surrounded by the impact of the epidemic. You know, the whole neighborhood was hard-hit.

Did that make the epidemic even more difficult, living in a neighborhood that was constantly registering the impact of it? At that time, did you ever entertain the idea of like moving to a neighborhood where you could, like, just mentally have some attempt at getting away from it for a little while?

JONES: I did leave for a while in 1985. I went -- took a break on Maui, just for a year, to try and get my emotional strength back. It was very, very difficult because one could walk down the street in September, see a friend looking rather thin, and then two weeks later or in early October, you'd read his name in the obituaries. You saw people walking around; you saw people in the cafes who were obviously very, very close to death. There was this constant, visual reminder.

So it was impossible to forget, even for a few minutes, what was happening. I mean, Peter was not exaggerating. There were many, many years of my life where close, dear friends died every week. And it was very difficult. But you know, when I went away, I wanted to hide from it for a while, and Maui's a beautiful place, but every morning I woke up thinking of what was happening back on Castro Street and wondering who was going to be gone by the time I got back.

And it became very important for me to go home and keep fighting.

GROSS: Peter Stein, what's the Castro like now compared to what it was in its early days as a gay neighborhood in the '70s?

STEIN: Well, it's facing a real challenge now, because it's become extremely popular and successful as a tourist attraction. And so you've got rainbow flags flying everywhere. You've got a street car line that brings tourists and sort of vomits them out at the corner of Castro and Market every hour on the hour.

And a lot of the residents and the gay community at large is wondering: is this going to become just another upscale pocket that really has little relationship to the gay community that created it?

There's also an element of the Castro that is -- that feels a little bit like a gay theme park, where the fact is that like neighborhoods now in Chicago and in Los Angeles and New York, people want to see "where the gay people live," even though the Castro itself now has -- has become very mixed. There are lots and lots of straight folks and traditional families, as well as alternative families.

I think the big challenge is going to be: can the neighborhood retain a neighborhood and mixed-class feel? Housing prices are just sky-high, as are rentals. So -- and this is an ongoing problem. Harvey Milk couldn't afford to stay in his camera store in 1978 because the landlord kept raising the rent.

GROSS: Cleve Jones, you're now living in Palm Springs. Why did you leave the Castro?

JONES: I left the Castro in 1992 when I got sick with AIDS. And I thought I was going to die and did not want to die in the city. And I moved out to the country, up in the north on the Russian River, and lived there for several years until my health began to return. And a couple of -- I've had ongoing lung problems and my doctor suggested that living in a desert would be better for my health. So, that's why I'm down here.

GROSS: How's your health now?

JONES: Excellent now, thank you.

GROSS: Good, good. And what's the status of the AIDS quilt, which you originated?

JONES: Well, you know, I started that in San Francisco, and I had the idea for it on the night that we had the candlelight march for Harvey Milk. I was standing at the corner of Castro and Market and picked up a copy of the Examiner, which said that 1,000 San Franciscans had already been killed by the new epidemic. And I knew that those 1,000 -- almost every one of them had lived and died within a few blocks of Castro Street. And I was so frustrated that you couldn't see any evidence of that.

The quilt grew rapidly and only in the last couple of years has the growth of the quilt begun to slow due to the new drug treatments. But it's interesting -- as the number of new quilts coming in declines, the number of requests for displays of the quilt around the country and the world have increased. So, we're doing major displays of the quilt almost every week somewhere in the country. We're taking the quilt into high schools trying to educate young people.

And now a big challenge for us is that this project, this quilt that came really out of the Castro, and I think the Castro is probably the only place in the world that could have produced this work of art -- now we're really trying to shift to make sure that our message can be heard by young heterosexuals who are now at great risk of contracting HIV. So we're focusing more and more on getting into the high schools with the quilt.

GROSS: Peter, one of the things that I learned from your documentary on the Castro was that "I Left My Heart In San Francisco" was actually written by two gay men in the 1950s.

LAUGHTER

What's the story behind the song?

STEIN: Oh, it's a charming story and it was something I learned in doing the show as well. It turns out that the songwriting couple, George Corey (ph) and Douglas Cross (ph), lived in New York. They were partners in life as well as in their career. And they paid frequent visits to San Francisco in the '50s when, of course, gay life, though very underground, was quite active and exuberant.

And they came back to New York and wrote this little Valentine to the city that they had left behind. And it wasn't until about four years later that Tony Bennett recorded it. But it's a little piece of subterranean gay history that now we're able to shed some light on.

GROSS: Peter Stein, Cleve Jones -- thank you both very much for talking with us.

STEIN: Thank you, Terry.

JONES: Thank you.

GROSS: Peter Stein's documentary The Castro will be shown on many public TV stations tomorrow night.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Peter L. Stein; Cleve Jones
High: Peter L. Stein is producer, director and writer of the documentary "The Castro." It will air nationally on PBS, this Friday, June 12. "The Castro" is the name of a San Francisco neighborhood that is at the heart of the city's gay community. His film recently won a Peabody Award. He serves as Executive Producer of KQED's series Neighborhoods: The Hidden Cities of San Francisco. We'll also hear from Cleve Jones, who lived in the Castro district where he became involved in the gay-rights movement. He is featured in Stein's film. Jones's role in the fight against AIDS has been described in Randy Shilts' best-selling book "And the Band Played On." He is also the founder of the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt.
Spec: Cities; San Francisco; Homosexuality; AIDS; Culture; Politics; Government; Media; The Castro
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: The Castro
Show: FRESH AIR
Date: JUNE 11, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 061101np.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: The Last Days of Disco
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:40

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Screenwriter and director Whit Stillman looks back on the nightlife of the early '80s in his new romantic comedy "The Last Days of Disco." It follows a group of single people as they look for friendship and love at an exclusive Manhattan disco. In this scene, a young assistant DA is talking with a friend at a coffee shop about why he loves disco.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, SCENE FROM "THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO")

ACTOR: I was just starting law school when the first up-tempo Philadelphia International hits broke. Some people don't consider that disco because it's good. But I remember feeling absolutely electrified.

ACTOR: You feel electrified often.

ACTOR: No, but this was different. I loved the idea that there'd be all these great places for people to go dancing after the terrible social wasteland of our college years. Uff.

ACTOR: You've been to a lot of discos?

ACTOR: No. In fact, practically none. For me, law school wasn't easy and I haven't had much of a social life since coming to the city either. But I still consider myself a loyal adherent to the disco movement.

ACTOR: It's a movement?

ACTOR: Sort of. What I found terribly encouraging was the idea that when the time in life came to have a social life, there'd be all these great places for people to go to because as you'll remember for many years there were none. What I didn't realize was that they'd get so impossible to get into.

GROSS: Filmmaker Whit Stillman started going to dance clubs when he was a teenager traveling in Europe in the late '60s, and picked up with them again here in the late '70s. Stillman considers The Last Days of Disco the conclusion in a trilogy of his films about young single people and their group social life. "Metropolitan" was about debutantes and their escorts; "Barcelona" about Americans living in Europe.

Stillman told me why he wanted to set his new film in the disco era.

WHIT STILLMAN, WRITER, DIRECTOR AND PRODUCER, "THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO": It was when I was in the throes of trying to find the right significant other, the way the characters in the film are. It was this sort of apex of our single social life. And I think it's rare in our country when we have places and moments when groups of young people congregate after college.

I think we often live sort of solitary social lives where there's a date and dinner and a movie or a party. But a place where you can semi-anonymously go and run into people you like or meet new people is not something we always have.

GROSS: It's the ambition of some of the characters in The Last Days of Disco just to be admitted to the club. And some of the characters are so angry and insulted that they can't get in, or even worse that they've been thrown out, that they compare the bouncers and the guards to the Nazis.

I'm thinking, you must have felt ambivalent about a club scene where only the beautiful people get let in; where you have to like look right and be the right age and so on, in order to just get admitted.

STILLMAN: Well, I think there's more of extremes, so you could sort of play the extremes. And also I think there are times when it wasn't very hard to get in. I think if you go the peak time when everyone else is, it's like a traffic jam and you don't get in. But there were ways of slipping in -- in different moments; early in the evening; very late in the evening; the back door et cetera, et cetera.

And I think that it was justified in some of those clubs because it really worked, in a sense they created a party atmosphere inside. Unfortunately, the party invitation list was done right at the door. So, it was cruel that way. But it was very easy, also, to pretend that I didn't really want to go. And you know, maybe it's better we go to Rex's (ph) and have a drink. And so, I mean, I don't think we should read too much into the rejection.

For one of the characters, it's part of his career. He feels that if he doesn't get people into the club, he's going to lose his job because there's been a merger in his ad agency. We don't really talk about that. He's the last of the old regime and he feels if he can't get the clients in or the top brass of the agency in, they're going to let him go.

GROSS: Whit Stillman, are you a good dancer?

STILLMAN: I think so. But it was pretty embarrassing in our premier and there were a lot of photographers, and they wanted me to dance with Chloe and Tara Subcoffin (ph). I'm afraid whatever skills I had disappeared at that moment.

GROSS: Is there a connection between the disco era and the debutante era for you? And by that, I mean your first film Metropolitan is about a group of people in their late teens, I'd say -- late teens, is that about right? Mid-teens?

STILLMAN: Yeah. In -- it's kind of specific in Metropolitan because most of the women would be between 17 and 19. And the guys would be that age plus a little bit older. And so, there might be a two-year age difference between the guys and the women.

GROSS: And the story is about debutantes and their male escorts. And I'm wondering if the friends you had in like the deb days are the same friends you had in the disco days? Or whether those were two completely separate groups of people?

STILLMAN: Well, they were different people from the same sub-group. So, there was some overlap. And I think -- you know, it's a good question because there was, I think, the feeling of recreating the deb days in the discos. And there was a very strong element of that in the red velvet rope clubs. I think people if they had to go to some dressup party where they had to wear black-tie, they would think: "well, let's try to go to Studio afterwards, because maybe we'll get in if we're dressed this way."

So, we now become sort of special and extreme because we're all dressed up and maybe we'll be able to get in.

And so I think there's a feeling of that same alcohol-fueled, heightened romance, experience of life late at night. You lose sort of perspective in a nice way and have, you know, a very good time.

GROSS: I think one of the things that interests me about your movies, they're not about bohemians. You know, these are people who dress up, whether it's the disco era or the debutante era. And I have to admit, I never knew people when I was in my teens and 20s who voluntarily wore formal attire -- men or women. You know, I never knew people who owned tuxedos or even had occasions to rent them.

STILLMAN: Or even rented them?

GROSS: Yeah. And none of the women I knew when I was young had formal dresses in their closets either. You wouldn't have needed it for anything.

STILLMAN: Well, I think they're -- it's interesting you mention the bohemians because I think they're bohemians in their heads. And that's what I think I liked about this group, that they were -- the people I met and I had an unusual experience, maybe -- and maybe I would have not made Metropolitan if I hadn't fallen in with a group of people who were very friendly and funny and charming and bohemian and kind of unusual...

GROSS: Kind of intellectual.

STILLMAN: ... and they appreciated eccentricity.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

STILLMAN: And there are a lot of people who are not at all from that world who were attracted to it like moths to a candle. And there were odd types, often very funny and eccentric, and there was kind of a gay overlap, I think, in both worlds, which was a positive thing. And I noticed that a lot of the reactions to the movie and to the world of Metropolitan and the world of the disco is the same thing. I think there's a kind of a wet blanket approach where social life is not good and parties are not good.

And I remember in the '70s everyone saying: "oh, I hate cocktail parties. Oh, I hate cocktail parties." Everyone would say that. Still, people attended cocktail parties and I have to say that I absolutely love cocktail parties. I think they're fantastic.

LAUGHTER

And I really like parties of all kinds. And I think that the films really are about the idea of a party. And these nightclubs, when they're successful, were a party and that what was so good about them. And the debutante parties when they sort of existed organically and were actually about real people who kind of knew each other or got to know each other, they became parties in the good sense.

And I think parties are good not bad, and I remember getting very upset with a friend when I didn't get invited to a baby christening, of all things. And I was very upset and I was saying: "well, I'm not going to talk to him anymore and blah, blah, blah."

And I mentioned this to another friend who had gone and said: "well, you don't understand. There were only like 15 people there." And I realized that I'd been completely mistaken; that I was not within his group of 15 closest friends and why should I be there?

And I started thinking that really if people want to or do not want to invite you to a party or include you in something, you should accept that and like it when you want to go and go, and not be offended or upset when you don't go. So I really try hard. If I'm not invited to some premier that I'm interested in, that's no skin off my nose. I mean, that's fine. People should have whatever party they want.

GROSS: What do you like about parties?

STILLMAN: Everything. (Unintelligible). That's just too much, Terry. It'd be several shows. I think there is...

LAUGHTER

... the...

GROSS: Not everybody would respond that way.

LAUGHTER

STILLMAN: Oh, obviously not. I think there is just something exciting about meeting new people and seeing old friends. Perhaps it's alcohol-fueled. There's a sense of sort of release of this sort of extroverted, making contact with people and people ridicule it a lot in the film when the Josh character talks about the exchanges of ideas and points of view.

But that is part of the attraction of a party. My wife was amazed by American cocktail parties. She knew nothing like them in Spain. But she said there was so much information being exchanged. People talk about all kinds of things. And it was sort of like microwave data-transfers of people just blurting out all kinds of things.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Whit Stillman. His new movie is The Last Days of Disco. He also wrote and directed Metropolitan and Barcelona. Let's take a short break and then we'll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with Whit Stillman. He wrote and directed the new movie The Last Days of Disco. He also wrote and directed Metropolitan, which was about a group of friends during the period when they were going to debutante parties.

Now, you make films about the children of the privileged class.

STILLMAN: No, they're not a privileged class.

GROSS: They're not privileged.

STILLMAN: They don't have privileges. We got rid of privileges in this country I think in 1810, I think the last ancestral estates were voted out by the New York State legislature around then. James Fennimore Cooper was very upset about it.

GROSS: To put it in other words, one of your characters does -- you make films about the children of the haute bourgeoisie.

LAUGHTER

STILLMAN: OK.

GROSS: You like that better?

STILLMAN: I liked someone who commented on the penuriousness of the characters; that they're not necessarily rich.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

STILLMAN: That maybe there was money several generations ago or the memory of money, and now it's about something else.

GROSS: Do you think that people who are from that class, either the -- you know, the upper class or that just have the memory of money -- do you think that they're treated badly in pop culture?

STILLMAN: Absolutely. I mean, it's really like they're going to put them in camps and reeducate them.

LAUGHTER

And it's really shocking. I didn't see the entire movie "Titanic," but I think it's pretty immoral.

GROSS: Pretty immoral?

STILLMAN: Yeah, I think it was because they're essentially dancing on the grave of a very honorable people -- the people on the ship love and paid very, very well. They were very honorable in the way they died. And to have some, you know, jerk from Hollywood maligning those people I think was really disgraceful.

GROSS: Oh, maligning them because they were rich.

STILLMAN: That kind of misrepresentation. I mean, I think it's hateful when people destroy the humanity of other people based on externals. And I think it's hateful when it's done for reasons of race or ethnic group, but also I think people feel that they have a free pass when it's class.

So, if they can identify the people as a class in the upper range of the spectrum, then they're free to hate and you know "kill yuppie scum." Which is, you know, kind of a joke when people write "kill yuppie scum," but I think there's a lot of that emotion floating out there.

GROSS: Now, I think your grandfather was president of First National City Bank, which is not Citibank. Your father was a lawyer and Democratic County Chair.

STILLMAN: My grandfather actually was a research position. He worked at the Rockefeller Institute.

GROSS: Oh.

STILLMAN: He -- he was a doctor and he was -- I think a forming influence in his life was the Spanish flu epidemic after the war that killed so many people. So he spent his life researching that. And his father was the president of Citibank back then.

GROSS: I see. So...

STILLMAN: So it was my great-grandfather.

GROSS: Did you have what you've described as the "memory of money" in your family?

STILLMAN: Yeah, absolutely, yeah. And having a divorce in the family also meant that there's more of a separation. And for me, it was very positive because I think you get in very bad habits of mind when there's inherited money in a family. I think it's a very negative thing for people to deal with. And being released from that when my parents got divorced I think was a positive birth experience, as we'd say.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. So were you like downwardly mobile after the divorce? Did you have...

STILLMAN: I was -- I was very dramatically downwardly mobile, and...

GROSS: What was the experience like of having the culture and world view of a class that you no longer had the money to fit into?

STILLMAN: Well I'm not sure if there is a culture and world view of the class. I mean, it's a grab-bag of all kinds of things.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

STILLMAN: I think what separates Tobacco Road from Park Avenue is sometimes very thin. And I think that the upper middle class is actually much more interesting and amusing and sympathetic than would be represented in a James Cameron movie.

I think there's a lot of the lost souls who have enough money from some family connection never really to take the right chances and to touch bottom and to kind of build their own life and their own careers. There're sort of companies that don't really exist and jobs that are kind of mythical.

And I admire the will and the dedication those people can rise up beyond a trust fund to do creative, productive things, even though there's this huge incentive for them to live in a kind of a world of illusion where they just keep up appearances and try to sound interesting.

GROSS: One of the characters in Metropolitan, your movie about debutantes and their escorts, has to rent a tuxedo and wear a shabby raincoat over it, instead of a Brooks Brothers overcoat. Were you in that position?

STILLMAN: I was. I mean, there was actually probably, you know, more resources than that character had, but that was the psychological feeling. That was exactly how it felt. And what I think I liked about it was that rather than just being the kind of person going on family vacations, just tagging along on with my family, I was in a situation where it was incumbent on me, I think, to make friends and to social climb, essentially; that I would be the friend who'd go along on the vacation; the cousin who'd be brought along as sort of entertainment for the other kids.

And it imposes sort of a discipline. You have to start dealing with other people in a positive way and being positive rather than negative; adding something to the equation, not just taking. And it -- it is good preparation for the film business. You end up being in a situation where you're kind of the unwanted guest in a lot of groups.

GROSS: What's the difference between being a "date" and being an "escort?" I don't really understand the process so maybe you could describe it a little bit.

STILLMAN: Well, a girl would call and I had a friend who was in the same orbit I was, and so girls could call either him or me, and ask if you'd be their escorts, 'cause normally there are two guys and one girl. And sometimes it was a mother who would call and say: "would you be my daughter's escort to such and such a party?" Or sometimes the girl would call. And we'd be sort of a package deal. We'd go sort of together.

And it created this feeling of social life in a group where we're all there as friends and we weren't stuck with each other. There wasn't sort of the identity crisis that we're committing to one person for this evening. We were all there together and I think a lot of these outdated social processes had their charms and their virtues. And it's kind of amazing that they continue so strongly in those places where they existed before.

GROSS: What were the sexual expectations if you were an escort? Did that mean that you were going to have a passionate kiss goodnight or not?

STILLMAN: Not necessarily.

GROSS: Not necessarily.

STILLMAN: No, I don't think you would.

GROSS: Right. So -- so all the kind of like sexual -- kind of like fears and insecurities around first dates wouldn't exist if you were an escort? Or wouldn't exist as much?

STILLMAN: Absolutely not. No. And once I went in a situation which was not like that, and it acquired the atmosphere of a first date and sort of a blind date. And that wasn't so good. But normally, I think that group feeling really was positive.

And of course, as represented in the film Metropolitan, after this sort of dances week, there was orgy week. And that was the week we hung out together in people's apartments when there weren't parties. And that's when things got passionate.

GROSS: Right. In the movie Metropolitan, the more downwardly mobile character is -- thinks of himself as a committed socialist who -- and he says he goes to the deb parties because he wants to see and understand that which he opposes.

The fact is, he's really enjoying those parties and really enjoying the people that he's meeting there. Did you feel that you needed to have some kind of intellectual excuse when you went to the deb parties?

STILLMAN: Yeah, absolutely. And also just to have a social life because in sort of straitened circumstances, moving back to the city without really knowing anyone here, it was the one way of having a social world and a social life.

And I went with all of those sort of attitudes of the (Unintelligible) socialist. I mean, I was reading Robert Heilbroner's book the summer before college, and each arcane -- each chapter about some arcane socialist of the last century, I was sort of converted to their ideology.

And my parents were left-liberals in politics, and so it came very much naturally. And I went with all those sort of chip on the shoulder attitudes I sort of decry and make fun of elsewhere, and had to sort of get over it myself. I had to sort of drop all that because it was so hypocritical.

GROSS: Did you change your politics or change your social goals when the two were incompatible?

STILLMAN: Well, what I tried to take out of my politics was something that we had in our family, which I think was sort of a character flaw, which was not only were we liberal Democrats and involved in politics and government. I think it's really the politics my parents preferred, rather than just the government.

And but with that went a whole sort of array of attitudes of you're supposed to despise Republicans and Episcopalians and golf players and country clubbers and conventional social people and people who went to Edgartown instead of Chumwerk (ph). And there's a whole sort of laundry list of things we were supposed not to like.

And becoming an adult and really seeing the way people were and falling in love a little bit with the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie, finding that a lot of these upper-middle-class people I was supposed to despise were actually very kind and generous and nice. I had to drop that and not hate people based on, you know, their club affiliation or what sport they play.

GROSS: My guest is Whit Stillman. He wrote and directed the new movie The Last Days of Disco. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with Whit Stillman. He wrote and directed the new film The Last Days of Disco. It concludes the trilogy of films that he began with Metropolitan about young single people and their group social life.

You didn't start making movies until you were I think in your mid- or late-30s. And I'm wondering if you tried different types of writing before you tried making movies?

STILLMAN: I did and I was really in a trap because nothing quite worked. I gave up writing so many times. And I only came back to it with the idea of getting a cheap script to direct so I could prove myself as a director and maybe get other directing jobs later.

GROSS: And Metropolitan was really cheap. How much did that cost?

STILLMAN: Well, it started out -- the dream was to make it for $50,000, which is...

GROSS: Outrageous.

LAUGHTER

STILLMAN: And then it, of course, creeped up from there and I think that to get it out of the laboratory cost $230,000, and then we paid about another $70,000 in deferments.

GROSS: What were you trying to write when you were writing fiction -- books or short stories?

STILLMAN: Well, in -- my first career path was to follow my father into politics, to be a lawyer, and work in Democratic politics. I became disillusioned with that and infatuated with novelists such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, and I wanted to write Fitzgeraldesque novels, and tried to write fiction in college.

Then, I became more interested in humorous short story writers such as Isaac Bashevis Singer (ph) and J.D. Salinger and novelists like Jane Austen. And I tried to write humorous fiction. It was terribly limited because I'd always have a comical, ridiculous first-person narrator and I'd have to sort of invent an apparatus for introducing this person, and then have them tell the story, which is terribly limited and sort of precious.

I hated description, and to try and make description interesting, I'd sort of write parody description, which became sort of intense and overwritten and occasionally funny, but impossible to read.

And it was a huge release to find the comedy screenplay format, where every character is a ridiculous first person narrator and they're going to be played by actors who are gonna be up there on the screen and have to take most of the blame.

LAUGHTER

And that can have a lot of non-sequitur and jumping around, and you don't have to describe anything. The camera does that. So it released a lot of my inhibitions, but it still takes me about two or three years to write one.

GROSS: Well I love the kind of dialogue you write, and I was thinking that in some ways you're the opposite of David Mamet, whose dialogue I also love, in the sense that he gets to how people speak by kind of paring it down to its essential music; you know, to its like minimal music. And he also writes very street-wise kind of characters very often.

And your writing gets to how people speak, but you do it by writing more elaborately than they speak. Instead of stripping it down, you're kind of adding onto it. You're adding like more words and more descriptions than any articulate person could possibly pull off in real life.

And I think -- and it's also very entertaining -- the dialogue you write. Can you talk a little bit about your approach to dialogue?

STILLMAN: I don't know. I try to have it all talkable and like people talk. I think the objective is naturalism, to be truthful. And I guess I know a lot of people who talk that way. And I was really placing more...

GROSS: Kind of hyper-literate people?

STILLMAN: I don't know. Maybe they just take phrases that they've read and plomp them into sentences and form their sentences that way. I guess the problem is, what takes it from naturalism to sounding stylized is there's so much material I like to get in the movies. There's so much to be said, to be discussed, and that does change the realism of those scenes, I guess.

GROSS: Do you know what your next film is going to be?

STILLMAN: I do. The title I'm still trying to keep under wraps because I don't want the situation where everyone else has the same film coming out in four years. It's set in the -- I guess there's not much chance of that because I want to set it during the American Revolution. And I really want to go to a different phase. I loved doing these three movies and I hope they'll all stand up to public scrutiny. But now I want to go into historical films and the American Revolution will be the setting for the first one.

GROSS: Why the American Revolution?

STILLMAN: I've always been interested in it. And I love the 18th century. I love the way people wrote then and their thought. I think that we owe a lot of the political success of our country to the good thinking of that period. And I -- growing up I had sort of adventure heroes from that period and I'd like to make a quasi-adventure film. I know it's a bit of a stretch and people consider it implausible and I might not get immediate financing.

But I was obsessed with history in childhood and I think that as an adult you can reach back into the past and take those things you cared about as a child, even if they were your own experience, and invest the film with more feeling and emotion than you could if it was just a directorial assignment. I think Steven Spielberg did a wonderful job with that early in his career, when he'd take subjects he obviously felt very close to from his adolescence.

GROSS: This will be the first time that you're getting away from the kinds of stories that you know through your own life, 'cause you're writing about...

STILLMAN: Yeah.

GROSS: ... people who are basically your friends, and yourself.

STILLMAN: Yeah.

GROSS: So, are you looking forward to kind of breaking with semi-autobiography?

STILLMAN: I'm looking forward to that. It's kind of dangerous because one of the good things you can do if you're writing from personal experience is you can make it very specific and very, I think, new in a way. While when you go into experience that is not your own, it becomes very generic and stereotyped and a little bit dull.

And I think that we have to have characters who are plausible from that period who are living, exciting characters who change in the course of it; just the same process of trying to write one of these contemporary scripts or semi-contemporary scripts.

GROSS: Well Whit Stillman, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

STILLMAN: Thank you.

GROSS: Whit Stillman wrote and directed the new film The Last Days of Disco.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Whit Stillman
High: Whit Stillman is the writer, director and producer of the new film "The Last Days of Disco," which opened nationally late last month. The film portrays the disco scene in New York in late the 1970s to the early 1980s. Stillman also wrote and directed the films "Metropolitan" and "Barcelona." Stillman has also written for Vogue, The Village Voice, The Guardian, and El Pais.
Spec: Movie Industry; Culture; The Last Days of Disco
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: The Last Days of Disco
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

52:30

Padma Lakshmi, Model, Actor And TV Host, Says Above All, She's A Writer

As the host and creator of Hulu series Taste the Nation, Lakshmi travels around the U.S. to learn how foods from different cultures contribute to American cuisine. Among the places she visits: New York, to talk to her own mother about finding Indian ingredients and produce in Queens decades ago.

08:28

Seamless And Moving, 'Hamilton' Streaming Works Stunningly Well

Filmed in 2016 when the actors were at the height of their comfort and performance levels, the steadycam and close-ups make the Broadway sensation impressively impactful on the small screen.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.

Playing

Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue