This weekend in San Francisco, SF Sketchfest, the people behind the San Francisco Comedy Festival, are producing a day’s worth of holiday-themed programming at the historical Castro Theatre. The centerpiece of this day-long event is a director’s cut screening of “Bad Santa,” the insta-classic by “Ghost World” filmmaker Terry Zwigoff that stars Billy Bob Thornton as a boozing, thieving St. Nick. Zwigoff will be at the screening, along with Tony Cox (who plays Thornton’s midget sidekick) and Lauren Tom (who played Cox’s wife), to do a post-screening Q&A. We got the chance to talk to Zwigoff about the movie’s surprising cultural longevity, where he’s been since 2006’s “Art School Confidential” (a “fiasco,” according to Zwigoff), what projects he’s been offered, what it was like working with the Coens (who produced “Bad Santa”) and the Weinsteins (who produced and distributed via Dimension Films), and how when he read “Juno” he thought it was ‘a retarded version of ‘Ghost World.’ ” So yes, Zwigoff is nothing, if not candid.
What have you been up to? We haven’t had a movie from you in so long.
It’s hard to make films that are $10-$20 million films these days. Everybody wants to make “The Hobbit” or these films that cost between $100-$200 million, but they have the chance to make a billion dollars. But I just finished a script and the producer likes it. So we’re going to go out with some actors with it. I have some high hopes but anything can happen. A couple of things fell through. One thing fell through because of rights, this Elmore Leonard book that I was supposed to direct and adapt and it got hung up in the legal department.
What Elmore Leonard novel?
It’s called “Maximum Bob.” Great book, would have made a great film. But it is hopelessly stuck in the legal department.
You don’t get enough credit for directing “Ghost World,” one of the all-time great comic book movies. Have you ever been approached to do something bigger?
Oh yes, I’ve been approached to do all sorts of nonsense. How about a remake of “West Side Story“? They wanted me to remake [Budd Townsend‘s] “Alice in Wonderland,” which was a big hit in the early ’70s. It was one of the first soft-core porns that was distributed by a major studio. 20th Century Fox put it out and it ended up making $100 million. But it’s ridiculously unwatchable today. They wanted to remake it as a 3D musical and they wanted me to direct it. I said, “I’d like to take your money but I really have no interest.” But I wish I did. I wish I could take the paycheck and go home.
What was the most ridiculous thing that you were the closest to sign on to?
You know, I got the script for “Juno.” And my producer who I had worked with on “Ghost World” called me and said, “I’ve got this really hot script I want to send it to you.” And the same week I got a call that same week from somebody else that said they were sending me this really hot script in Hollywood that was written by a 12-year-old girl. And I said, “Well, what’s it about?” And they said, “It’s a coming-of-age story.” So I said, “Yeah, okay, whatever.” So a couple days later I got this script called “Juno” and since I saw the name Diablo Cody I thought, “Well, this must be the 12-year-old girl.” Who else would have a name like that, right? And I read it and thought, “Well this is pretty good for a 12-year-old girl trying to imitate ‘Ghost World.’ ” So I told my producer, who went on to do it, “This is a retarded version of ‘Ghost World.’ I can’t do it. I can’t stomach it. Sorry.”
Have you ever regretted turning something down?
No. A lot of things I have turned down ended up being a big embarrassment. Like that script “The Beaver.” I thought that was one of the worst scripts I had ever read. But everyone said, “Ooh it’s on the Black List.” Yeah, well, good for it. They’re a bunch of idiots. I saw the final film and there were no surprises.
It would be cool if they ever wanted to do a silver age “Fantastic Four,” to call you.
I have no interest in that stuff. I’ve never read a silver age comic book in my life. People think I have an interest in comics but I’m only interested in comics from the ’40s like “Donald Duck” comics. Plus I’m friends with Daniel Clowes and Robert Crumb.
Would you collaborate with Clowes again?
Maybe. Now is not a good time to collaborate after that last fiasco. That didn’t go so well. “Art School Confidential” nearly ended my career for good. It was very hard to get another film going after that. Still trying.
Was it that big of a blow?
It was really negatively received both at the box office and critically. Everybody hated that film. I didn’t think it was so bad. At least compared to all that other shit out there, anyway. It was certainly just as good as any film in the marketplace. And I’m not saying it’s a great film. I’m just saying it’s better than most of the dreck. You have to go back to the ’30s and ’40s to see a film that’s any good.
Have you seen anything this year that you’ve liked?
The last film I really liked was “The King’s Speech” — just two guys in a room talking. Two great actors and great dialogue; I thought it was a terrific film. And it won the Oscar! That was a real rarity for me. Almost nothing gets nominated lets alone wins an Oscar, that I like. I was thrilled that year.
You’re presenting the director’s cut of “Bad Santa” this weekend. That’s your preferred version?
That’s the filming of the script, basically. That’s the script I was given. That’s all it is. The studio wanted to mess with it and make it more mainstream and pour some fake sentiment on it for the people that stumble around the mall. Go to Target some day and look at who your target audience is. Look at the people who are out there going to films and you realize you are totally fucked, you don’t want to do anything these people like. But that director’s cut is exactly the script I got. I wanted to protect the script. I like writers a lot. It was a lot darker.
What is “Badder Santa,” which is also on the Blu-ray?
They just wanted a marketing gimmick. I think “American Pie” on DVD years before that had released an unrated version that they touted as being sexier and raunchier that they sold a lot. So they wanted that. They went back and looked at all the profanity that I had cut out, because I thought it had gotten to be a little bit deadening with so many fucks. It was too much. Then for that cut they added it back in and some other stuff that was cut from the original script.
But you aren’t crazy about that version?
It’s alright. I haven’t looked at it in ten years. I remember looking at it and not being completely disgusted by it. I like my version better. It works better as a film.
Can you talk about working with the Coens?
They were executive producers. They had originally sent me the script and said, “We’re interested in you directing this but we think it still needs some work.” And the story I had heard was that the original writers, who wrote about 90% of what you see in any of the cuts, John Requa and Glenn Ficarra, and they met the Coen brothers and said, “We want to write a script that you guys direct.” And they said, “We only direct our own writing but we’ve always had this crazy idea about this drunken Santa Claus and this little person elf that has to keep him in line.”
So John and Glenn wrote this script with the hopes that it would tickle the Coen brothers enough to direct it. And the Coen brothers read it and they told them, “We don’t want to direct it. We think it’s great but we don’t want to do it.” So they asked them if they could give them some notes. And when the Coens sat down to try and give them notes over a weekend, eventually they just thought it would be easier if they take a pass on it and rewrite it. Because what they do is they go and tweak the dialogue. That’s what they largely do in this case. Like the kid would ask Santa, “Do you and Mrs. Santa ever think of having kids?” And in the original script it was just, “No thank god.” And the Coens made that into, “No, thank the fuck Christ.” That’s their gift. They have a gift for dialogue.
I got that script that still had problems – there were a bunch of flashbacks and the kid would babble endlessly about going to the bathroom on mommy’s dishes, it went on for pages. They and I agreed that stuff should go. So I edited that out and worked on maybe four or five other things that I wrote originally, like that scene that was highly inspired by David Sedaris’ “The Santaland Diaries,” where Billy Bob is on his lunch break and this woman comes up and he starts screaming at her. A bunch of other scenes my wife and I worked on to inject a bit of warmth into them. It was a very cold script when I got it and believe it or not it’s much warmer after I took a pass at it.
Have you kept in touch with the Coens?
I haven’t kept in touch with them. We had a very strong disagreement about casting Tony Cox as the black elf. They said that they couldn’t see the guy being black. I said I don’t see the guy being black, I think the fact of him being three-foot-six is the overriding characteristic of the guy. I don’t think it matters. I just think this guy is really funny in the part. And they thought that would ruin the film. They argued with me for a while and finally said, “You’re the one who has to direct it, so good luck.” They knew the Weinsteins get really heavily involved in editing and they didn’t want to be involved in that. At one point the Weinsteins asked them to watch a cut that the Weinsteins had done that made it much more mainstream. They had added a bunch of scenes, some of which I refused to film, and they cut them in and the Coen brothers watched it. They said, “Well, you tried to make this film into ‘American Pie.’ It’s a piece of shit now.” That was their response and they got into a heated argument with the Weinsteins that ended with everyone yelling “Fuck you” at each other. They didn’t want any part of it after that so I was stuck with it. It got pretty nasty.
Who shot that other stuff? Did you ever want to leave the movie altogether?
I went and had a Director’s Guild arbitration about it. Because my lawyer had originally traded off half my salary to get me final cut of the film. When these guys tried to cut it I called her up and she said I would have to hire outside litigators at $35,000 a day to try and fight that, that her office doesn’t do that. And I said, “Well the contract you got me was worthless.” I felt I was entitled to my cut of the film and I went to a DGA arbitration because I couldn’t afford litigation. Under the terms of that arbitration I can’t tell you any more than what I’ve told you. A lot of what they shot they tested and it didn’t work so they got rid of it anyway. Then I got to work to push it closer to my original version. It was damage control at that point.
Would you ever work for the Weinsteins again?
I don’t know. It depends, I guess. If they had a script I really wanted to do or enough money.
Are you surprised by the longevity of “Bad Santa?”
I’m more surprised by its cultural impact. Every time I look at the newspaper or online there’s some sort of “Bad Santa” happening around town. There’s a “Bad Santa” bar craw, there’s a “Bad Santa” party, there’s “Bad Santa” rap music, there’s “Bad Santa” porno DVD…
A couple of years ago the Weinsteins made a commitment to make a bunch of sequels to things.
Right. They wanted to do a “Bad Santa” sequel. I’ve read about that for years. I don’t know if they’re ever going to do it or if it’s going to go straight to video. The other sequels they’re doing is like “Rounders.” Who wants to go to a sequel to “Rounders?” Or “Shakespeare in Love?” I think they just got the rights back to a bunch of stuff in their library. I think they will probably do direct-to-video stuff just to make some money. I have no interest in sequels.