Terry Zwigoff: An Interview

Still Ill
by Nick Pinkerton

Terry Zwigoff makes very, very sick movies. This isn’t meant to fall on him as a personal slag; in our brief conversation, he was as kind and avuncular as a jet-lagged, interviewed-to-death man could be expected to be. But in the field of American film comedy, I think he is among our last great sickos, torch-bearer for a proud tradition of misanthropy including W.C. “Gin blossoms” Fields and the great Redd Foxx (the almost melodic profanity of Zwigoff’s Bad Santa resembled nothing so much as a Sixties “party” record).

To articulate what I mean by sick, it’s important that I should touch on an idea of “healthy” comedy. The Farrelly Brothers furnish a good example—obviously they have their penchant for slapstick, toilet humor, inventive raunch, but there’s an essentially good, gallant streak in their comedies that none of that can cover up. I can just see them as kids, wrestling in the crisp fall leaves in the back yard of some handsome Rhode Island house, robust, happy. They make films that radiate (albeit with considerably more depth and human understanding than most) with that idea, prevalent more-or-less across the board in our cineplex screen comedies, that “everything is going to be all right.”

Everything is most pointedly not all right in the very specific, balefully funny worldview that Terry Zwigoff has articulated in the years since his 1994 documentary Crumb was a festival hit—I’m excluding his 1985 doc Louie Bluie, which, as it dwells in the past, the place Zwigoff seems most comfortable, is his most anomalously warm work. Things are not all right in his films because that world is increasingly, irrevocably regimented, smoothed of eccentricity, chartered, noisy, insipid, invasive. Because everyone around Zwigoff’s protagonists are idiots. And because, well, Zwigoff’s protagonists are sort of assholes themselves.

And I like all of that very much. Amidst all the nagging insistence on the importance of health, I am glad someone can make work so proudly sick—movies about and for that segment of the population that stalks down the sidewalk coiled in rage, sweeping eyes over a perceived wasteland; those who seek to buttress themselves from the world with collection and compulsion; the perpetually squirming and out-of-place. All of whom are well represented in his latest outing, Art School Confidential, about which we spoke…

Reverse Shot: I wanted to start out talking about the germination of the script. Was this something that, when Dan Clowes was writing the script, you’d always had it in mind between the two of you that you were going to direct?

Terry Zwigoff: Not really, no, the way it sort of came about… we worked together and had such a good time on Ghost World, we always wanted to do another film together. We had originally started talking about this film—we were originally thinking about writing it together. We started talking about how endings are so difficult in films, and that we should think of the ending first and work our way backwards, so we thought about the ending and we got it generally talked out, and then I got the offer to do this Bad Santa film, I went off and directed that, I came back and Dan had written the entire script.

And that was sort of a different experience, it’s much harder to direct in many ways when you don’t write it yourself or write part of it… To some extent I kind of felt like I had to find a way in to this that makes it personal to me, even though it’s clearly on some level [Dan’s] autobiography.

RS: And when he was writing it you were…

TZ: I was gone. I didn’t see it until it was finished… I gave him a few notes which he ignored or fucked up, but I liked it, I thought it was good, I especially liked that ending, the way he eventually brought it there, that was the strongest thing to me, that ending.

RS: Now obviously what wound up in the screenplay was vastly different from the source material, which was what, a four-pager?

TZ: Yeah, I always remembered Art School Confidential as one of the funniest things he’d ever drawn, but I’d read it years ago, and I went back to check the original, and I realized, yes, it’s like this four-page little thing of these gags that really wasn’t much to work with, and I think we’d already stolen the gags for the art classes in Ghost World, largely—the “tampon in a tea cup” gag is in there, you know…

RS: This script is a very strange mélange of different moods and genres: ardent romance, there’s a thriller aspect…

TZ: We never tried to make it much of a thriller or a mystery; at some point I think the producers wanted us to put in more red herrings, put it in that direction, but it was never about that to me. It was more of a device to get Jerome to wind up where he winds up, not about trying to make a scary murder mystery or a tense thriller at all, it wasn’t trying to combine any genres—it’s just a comedy. A romantic comedy.

RS: Why was it important for Jerome to wind up where he winds up?

TZ: It was important to make a statement, for me, about what an artist was willing to do for the sake of success, how far was he willing to go.

RS: It’s interesting you say the movie was never designed as a nailbiter, and there’s definitely not a big sense of “Whodunit?”… Was that something you were consciously sidestepping?

TZ: Well, there’s a certain style in Dan’s writing, something inherent to his writing, where he withholds from the audience what they expect from most mainstream films, like even the kiss at the end is thwarted by this sheet of glass; the “murder mystery,” we never try to hide the fact of who the murderer is, it’s really obvious if you go back and watch the film, we never try to give any false clues to anything. I liked that, it was different; it’s a combination to me between a mainstream film and an independent art film, it fell somewhere in between, it had elements of both… And that art school setting was something to me that had never quite been done before—it was ambitious. It’s an ambitious film.

RS: Thriller or no: one thing that struck me is—though I’d never thought of you as an archetypal “movie brat” director, there’s that murderous interlude that recalls Strangers on a Train [a murder scene in the film seems to visually cite Kasey Rogers, seen being strangled by Robert Walker through the reflection of her glasses]—

TZ: You know, I told this story just last night, somebody else asked me about that, they asked “How come you have this homage to Hitchcock?” And in truth, I had never directed a scene where somebody gets murdered before, and I thought, “Well how do I research this?” I looked at a bunch of police crime photographs of strangulation victims and tried to read about how long it takes to strangle somebody, what marks would be left on their neck, and then of course none of that was very helpful, so I started to think “Okay, let’s see what films I should go check out”… I watched The Boston Strangler, then I remembered Frenzy, and so I looked at that, and what I liked about Frenzy was that it had this sort-of comedic undertone to all the stranglings, there’s this dark, weird, comedic element to that film even in the murders, where the girl’s tongues are lolling out of their mouths.

RS: Enormously grotesque, that movie…

TZ: Very grotesque, but clearly he finds it funny on some level, which is how I found that murder scene that I did funny on some level, and that’s how I wanted to keep it in tone, so that made a strong impression on me. So then I finish shooting that scene, cut the whole film together, it was two months later, I was changing channels at home with my wife, going through our cable TV, and Strangers on a Train came on—I hadn’t seen it since I was a kid—and we actually changed the channel just as the shot came on where the glasses fall on the grass and bounce, and I said “Oh my God.” I totally was just not conscious at all. And one of the things I did in shooting that scene, and one of the reasons I had so much fun actually shooting it was because I—originally I intended to shoot it in a different style, in more of a jump-cut style where I didn’t worry about continuity at all, which is why it was so much fun to shoot, where I just was freed from that whole constraint of continuity, and in fact I did about 42 set-ups that night, and got sort-of giddy on the whole experience—the crew was starting to look at me strange… But it was not conscious homage, on some level I must’ve remembered that. But you could do worse; you gotta learn from somebody, it might as well be Hitchcock…

RS: Another classic Hollywood thriller that I thought about while watching Art School Confidential—in a sort-of abstract way, but I feel like it could almost be a spiritual cousin of sorts in its focus on artistic plagiarism and transference of crime—is Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street.

TZ: I love that film. They finally came out with a good print of it on Kino Video… I used to look at that film on television when I was a kid; I was always interested in that film, because somebody takes credit for somebody else’s artwork, and that was very strong to me—I always feel when I’m directing a film… the director’s considered by many critics the sole author of a film, I always thought that’s not quite true, it’s such a collaborative art form, so I always feel a little bit like I’m taking credit for other people’s work, whether it’s the writer or the director of photography or the actors… But that film always resonated with me. As a kid I could never quite see it, the prints were so bad because it had fallen into public domain, and so all the prints I saw on television were so low-contrast, but finally a good print of that has come out, I was very excited about that, it’s a beautiful film… I thought you were gonna say Vertigo, actually, when you were thinking of a film… Maybe there’s a connection to that in the romantic obsession.

RS: Really? There’s definitely that Jimmy Stewart-looking-at-Kim Novak swooniness to Jerome’s first look at Audrey when she’s disrobing in the classroom.

TZ: Those films are so good… I see films like that I just don’t even want to direct any more, I just want to throw in the towel and get a job working in a video store or something, or selling shoes, I dunno. It’s discouraging to see films of that caliber.

RS: One of the things I quite liked was the unabashed pleasure in that scene of just looking at a very beautiful woman, a pleasure that isn’t at all scurrilous.

TZ: The music had a lot to do with the way I shot that scene, I found that music first for that scene, and that sort of dictated the mood, and the sort-of respectful, classical, timeless manner I tried to do that whole scene in… Beethoven, just the best classical composer, far above the others, I think, nobody compares to him.

RS: There always seems to me to be a very highlighted Us vs. Them quality to your work, a very sharp deliniation between the protagonists you tend to be drawn to and the world around them.

TZ: It’s funny you say that, it reminds me of a drawing I saw that Charles Crumb did, that I wanted to put in that Crumb film, it was something he did when he was about 12. It was a drawing of a school bus, with him and Robert on the school bus, and all these other kids outside looking at the school bus going by, and an arrow pointing to them and the school bus saying “Us” and then “Them” outside, it’s interesting… Yeah, I always feel that way to some extent, certainly.

RS: There’s a rather famous epigram by the critic David Thomson that concluded his negative analysis of the art of Charlie Chaplin, saying Chaplin’s work was “based on the belief that there are “little people. Whereas art should insist that people are the same size.” What do you make of that?

TZ: There’s a lyric in an old blues record I have saying, “Six feet of earth makes us all the same size.” I dunno. Could do worse than to draw a comparison with Chaplin in any way I guess; City Lights is probably the greatest film ever made.

RS: Another way to look at that deliniation in your work is as coming between the characters and caricatures; of course part of that is just a question of screen time; you can’t give every bit player the same kind of humanity…

TZ: Part of the thing that makes comedy so difficult is because to make something funny you have to slightly exaggerate it, which puts you into the realm of caricature to some degree, there’s always an element of that… There’s an anecdote about Tallulah Bankhead that always stuck with me, where some woman came up to her after she’d seen a play she was in, or a film, I forget, and this woman says, “Ms. Bankhead, your performance was so wonderful, you made me cry.” And Tallulah Bankhead just kind of dismissively said, “It’s easy to make someone cry. An onion can make someone cry; try finding a vegetable that can make you laugh.” Comedy’s difficult, very mysterious, I don’t quite get it to this day… It’s hard to even talk about.

RS: I wanted to ask—it’s easy to get the impression from interviews that you’re a total Luddite kind of guy, totally on the outside of what goes on in popular culture—but as a guy who’s working in the entertainment industry, you must be plugged-in to some extent.

TZ: To some extent… I don’t read the trades or anything. I can barely force myself to read Prostitution Weekly.

RS: But is there any element of contemporary popular culture that you find a glimmer of hope in?

TZ: It’s pretty bad. It’s pretty bad. The music’s pretty much turned to shit. Films are generally crap. There’s not much; I keep going back to the Forties and Fifties for films, I go back to the Twenties and Thirties for music. For some reason I really like these films from the Forties and Fifties, whether they’re American, French, whatever… I can’t quite put my finger on it, “dark” is the best way I know to describe the quality that I like in them. Now it’s just kind of a cultural desert out there, to me. My wife and I went to a restaurant the other night in San Francisco, this Italian place, it’s quiet, I think “This is really good.” Some DJ comes in, he sets up two big turntables like a foot away from where we’re eating, these speakers just start blasting this music and he’s playing these LPs… It’s completely absurd to me.

RS: That is mystifying—it seems like 80 percent of the restaurants you go to have a blaring techno soundtrack, which, even if you’re attracted to that type of music…

TZ: Yeah, you don’t want to yell over it at dinner. It’s crazy.

RS: Now, as a guy who’s made a name making movies about unsuccessful, thwarted people—does it strike you as ironic that you’ve been fairly successful and professionally fulfilled in making those movies?

TZ: I don’t feel I’m successful. Look at my bank account you’ll realize I’m not successful. I’ve walked away from a number of projects where—this is why I work so little—I think, “That would be a really good career move.” But I’m too old to care. If I were in my twenties I would’ve done certain films that I walked away from where the studio said, “Okay, here’s the cast you’ve gotta use or we’re not greenlighting the film for this level budget.” And you can tell yeah, it’d be a big hit film, and you’d make a lot of money, and you’d go on and do whatever you want, but I’m not gonna live that much longer so I’ve gotta choose very carefully now. I just walked away from a film that was very frustrating to leave, where I just knew I couldn’t make a film like that, I just knew it wasn’t gonna work for me. It’s very, very frustrating, because it was a great script.

RS: It’s safe to say casting is a big priority for you?

TZ: It’s the first thing you do as a director, it’s one of the biggest contributions you make, outside of choosing the material, is how to cast it, and it’s just… You cannot leave that stuff to businessmen who are deciding “Well, Austria’s worth this much if I get this actor, Poland’s worth this much, Asia’s worth this much.” And that’s how they cast it; it’s up to you to then somehow make it work as a film with that cast. That’s why so many films are bad, directors are pressured into that… And the money is very tempting, and if you get enamored of the script it’s very hard to turn stuff like that down. I’ve done it on a number of occasions, that’s why I work so little. Most of the cast for Art School were my first choices, which is very unusual… Broadbent was just the first guy who sprang to my mind when I read that script, I don’t know why. The way he looks, I guess, this mild-mannered looking guy, I thought would be interesting, and certainly I was a huge fan of his.

RS: Broadbent’s character Jimmy immediately recalls Buscemi’s Seymour in Ghost World, but decades more isolated, soured, turned dangerous…

TZ: It’s interesting, I saw an article in Film Comment that had photographs from a bunch of my films and there was a photograph of Charles Crumb wearing a flannel bathrobe with grease stains on his tee-shirt, then there was a photograph of Jim Broadbent in the same exact outfit and one of Steve Buscemi in the same outfit. It wasn’t conscious, it was just weird—first time I noticed it was looking at that article.

RS: That’s ripe material for an auteur study.

TZ: And they didn’t mention it, they just said “Yes, he makes films about marginalized characters,” but I’ll probably be pigeonholed as the guy who makes films about guys in flannel bathrobes.