INTERVIEW: Comic Book Confidential; Zwigoff Returns with Clowe's "Ghost World"
by Daniel Steinhart
“Making a feature was the most stressful, tedious job I’ve ever had in my life,” gripes Terry Zwigoff, director of the new film “Ghost World.” From the sound of it, Zwigoff’s move into feature fiction filmmaking after his intelligent and strangely moving documentary “Crumb” (1995) was a strained progression. But in fact, “Ghost World” reveals Zwigoff’s graceful transition to fiction filmmaking. The film effortlessly moves from comedic situations to cultural criticism, from uncanny interludes to moments of
Based on cartoonist Daniel Clowes‘ wry and surreal comic book, the film is a humorous and insightful portrait of teenage girlhood and the strange world the lead characters inhabit. The story follows Enid (Thora Birch) and her partner-in-crime Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson), who both graduate high school with few plans for the future outside of hanging out, scrutinizing the town’s eccentric characters, and frequenting such modern
day nightmares as a strip mall’s “authentic” ’50s diner. Seymour (Steve Buscemi), a lonely record collector and employee of Cook’s Chicken Inn, comes into Enid’s life under peculiar circumstances, causing a rift in the girls’ friendship. Zwigoff and Clowes, who share a fascination with strange and marginalized characters out of step with the modern world, co-wrote the script and collaborated throughout the filmmaking process.
indieWIRE speaks with Zwigoff about Clowes, Crumb, culture, and the hardships of filmmaking.
indieWIRE: How did you first come across the “Ghost World” story?
“I had written two screenplays with Robert Crumb in the late eighties for some lunatics who commissioned us to write them. At first we were going to do it just for the money and not care about it, but Crumb got very personally involved.”
Terry Zwigoff: I always had comics lying around my home because Robert Crumb would stay at my house when he came to town. He’d bring over a pile of comics from this comic book distributor about a mile away from my house called Last Gasp Publishing, where my wife used to work. I read them all. The only ones I liked were Crumb’s, Dan Clowes’ stuff, and a few others. I thought “Ghost World” was very strong, but I didn’t find it as funny as Dan’ s other stuff. I didn’t think it would make a good movie, but my wife kept telling me it would. So I got Dan’s phone number, went to meet him in Berkeley, and we hit it off right away. I found him to be very smart and very funny. We talked about different ideas and we eventually came to “Ghost World,” which seemed the most adaptable.
iW: Was this your first attempt at writing a screenplay?
Terry Zwigoff: I had written two screenplays with Robert Crumb in the late eighties for some lunatics who commissioned us to write them. At first we were going to do it just for the money and not care about it, but Crumb is such a workaholic that he got very personally involved. We labored on this thing for like six months straight. We both loved it, but we couldn’t get it made. It was too weird and noncommercial. So we did another one that was more like a WC Fields film script, if anything. People looked at me like I was crazy when I tried to pitch that. In hindsight, I think I was crazy.
iW: How was the experience of writing “Ghost World?”
Terry Zwigoff: Dan and I spent about a year and a half slaving on this thing. We met twice a week and then we worked independently. First we tried to get the story and structure down, which was the hard part. Our producer Lianne Halfon was instrumental in that process. She’s an old friend of mine. She was very much a collaborator with both of us, so she deserves a lot of credit. She was a stern taskmaster. She’d give us notes, but they were always smart notes, not like you get at studios generally. But it was a really great screenplay. I thought Dan did a great job; he’s a really talented writer.
iW: The film differs from the comic book in a number of ways. How did you decide what to change and what to preserve?
Terry Zwigoff: It was a very natural process; it wasn’t intellectual at all. If I connected with something, then I included it in the script. If I didn’t, I tried to shy away from it and lose it. And I added characters to the script. I added the Seymour character who’s basically me. At first, I added him because I wanted an excuse to have a soundtrack of old music, which is what I collect: ’20s blues, jazz, and country music. A lot of the stuff you see in his room is actually just dragged down from my house. The set dresser couldn’t find anything that we could clear [the rights for] or from the prop rental house, except generic antiques. It just didn’t seem right, so I had to bring my own stuff down. I had to sweat every night, worrying that somebody was going to steal it all.
iW: We’re the relics of the Coon Chicken Inn in Seymour’s room from your collection?
Terry Zwigoff: Yeah, I collect old Coon Chicken Inn memorabilia. I collect black memorabilia, like old minstrel posters. It was a real place. There was one in Seattle, one in Portland, and one in Salt Lake City. They started in 1925 and then they went out of business around 1958. The visuals are so strong, but it’s sort of horrifying at the same time. It’s just the way things were; it’s history. What we did that isn’t real about the Coon Chicken Inn is that it never transformed into the Cook’s Chicken Inn. We added that whole plot line.
iW: What happened to your documentary about collectors?
“Saying that all documentaries are the same is like saying all foreign films are the same. I didn’t make documentaries in a very cinema verite fashion, like Frederick Wiseman. I staged, manipulated, and controlled.”
Terry Zwigoff: I gave that up. I started shooting it years ago, but it was too difficult. Good collectors, the really interesting obsessive collectors, are such a pain in the ass. I just didn’t want to deal with them. My hat’s off to documentary filmmakers. I don’t know if I’m ever going back to it. You’re treated like a second-class citizen at most film festivals. You take the bus while everybody else is flown first-class. If you’re a feature film director, you’re put in a five-star hotel, and if you’re a documentary director, you stay in a Motel 6. You’re totally ignored by the press, nobody goes to see your films, and you don’t get any money from making them. Maybe if I found something I was really passionate about, which is entirely possible, I would make another documentary, but it’s not a good career choice for anybody. I don’t recommend it.
iW: Do you think your documentary experience prepared you for directing this film?
Terry Zwigoff: Some of it crosses over. The acting doesn’t. But I always made documentaries in such a different way than most documentary filmmakers. Saying that all documentaries are the same is like saying all foreign films are the same. I didn’t make documentaries in a very cin