Love & Disco - Turning Your Films into Novels, by Whit Stillman

It's quite common to hear the story of how a novel was turned into a film, but writer and director Whit Stillman has twice performed the rare reversal of that story. In anticipation of this weekend's special screenings of The Last Days of Disco and Love & Friendship, Stillman has curated a collection of some of his favourite films over on Curzon Home Cinema, and here he tells us about the surprises and delights of turning his two much-loved films into novels.

One day I hope to write a novel not based on a film. The setting will be Manhattan in the mid-1970s, with a group of young people like those from Metropolitan but after university, and for inspiration I have begun re-reading Anna Karenina but am so entranced with the initial character, Stiva Oblonsky, I might stop with the start.  

Until I get that Tolstoyan Manhattan novel done I am stuck with the two novels I do have: The Last Days of Disco, with Cocktails at Petrossian Afterwards and Love & Friendship: In Which Jane Austen's Lady Susan Vernon is Entirely Vindicated. These were my two novel attempts completed and published, though I had actually started with one for Metropolitan which the Soho Press put in their catalog, leading to its ghostly presence as an online offering for many years.

Writing a novel based on material you have worked on for years has an enormous advantage: the sweat and torment of creating a world from bleak void is past; one can proceed with the characters and world without re-hurdling the daunting abyss of nothingness that is the start of almost any project (greatly ameliorated in the case of the last film by having a delightful Jane Austen text in hand; but still a world has to be populated, motion simulated).

So many of one's original reasons and rationalizations fall away, however, once the real work gets underway. Because as it turns out you really, really don't want to do the same thing, merely in a changed medium. To just represent and somewhat-expand what already exists comes to seem a fraud on the reader, even if some readers might prefer that.

One misapprehension comes from the massive overwriting that is part of the normal screenwriting process. All that "good" and "pretty good" material that will end up left out of a final script — and the good and pretty good material that will be left out of the final film — surely recuperating those lost tangents and profundities will make for admirable matter in an extended novel. In my experience it is just the opposite — nearly all the material winnowed out of the script and then winnowed out of the film will stay winnowed. The winnowing-tool should also fall on significant portions of the film story too.

The Last Days of Disco, with Cocktails at Petrossian Afterwards

For new novel versions to have real value there has to be the "thrill" of a big (perhaps somewhat crazy) new idea or change of perspective. For the Disco novel this was merely the conceit that all the characters were real and one of them, the Jimmy Steinway (Mackenzie Astin) character, got the gig from Castle Rock to write the novelization, allowing him to elaborate on the true story — including when, years later, the characters reunite to see a rough cut screening and go for cocktails at Petrossian to work out the conflicts from years before.

Chris Eigeman and Mackenzie Astin in  The Last Days of Disco

Chris Eigeman and Mackenzie Astin in The Last Days of Disco

And I suppose for me a great deal of the interest was all the material and stories not in the film and not suggested by the film, the world going off in its own direction.  All the "obiter dicta" —the comedy and thought — that can't really be in a film.

Kate Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny in  The Last Days of Disco

Kate Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny in The Last Days of Disco

Love & Friendship, In Which Jane Austen's Lady Susan Vernon Is Entirely Vindicated

For the Love & Friendship novel the transformation was a bit weirder. The contract for the novel existed before we even knew we would be able to do the film. Film scripts are usually painful to read but in this case, thanks to the engaging underlying Austen material, the script read well. For the publisher it probably seemed like an acceptable dramatized version of her epistolary original. The final version was supposed to have been completed before we started shooting so that it could come out before any film. But when preparing a film I find it impossible to do anything else - and thank Heavens for that.

Chloë Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale in  Love & Friendship

Chloë Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale in Love & Friendship

During the shoot a whole new dimension opened. The character Sir James Martin, as interpreted by Tom Bennett and greatly expanded — which along with some inspiration from research (the main biographical document on Jane Austen's life was written by her pompous Victorian nephew a half century after her death) — led to the birth of Sir James' stunningly foolish nephew, Rufus Martin-Colonna, who would narrate the absurdly revisonist story that became the novel.

Tom Bennett as Sir James in  Love & Friendship

Tom Bennett as Sir James in Love & Friendship

At some point almost all filmmaking seems the challenge of trying to escape from one box or corner or another — perhaps inside a house that, if not actually on fire, is at least beginning to smoulder.  Writing novels based on films is like boxes within boxes that have to be gotten out of, in the middle of a desert — because almost no one cares...

The two movie-novels were experiments in comedy that I am happy to have successfully gotten out of the laboratory: we didn't discover Viagra but there were some interesting helium-effects. Meanwhile, though, I greatly look forward to spending some time with the Stiva Oblonskys of mid-1970s Manhattan.

[Words by Whit Stillman]

Whit Stillman at Curzon Soho

The Last Days of Disco + Q&A with Whit Stillman

To celebrate the twentieth anniversary of its release, on Friday 20 July we welcome Whit Stillman to Curzon Soho for a rare 35mm screening of The Last Days of Disco, which will be followed by a Q&A with the writer/director himself.

Love & Friendship + Q&A with Whit Stillman

And on Saturday 21 July, Whit Stillman joins us again at Curzon Soho for a special screening, plus Q&A, plus book signing for his hilarious and idiosyncratic Jane Austen adaptation, Love & Friendship.