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Daniel Clowes

Cartoonist Daniel Clowes. Drawn in 1950s pop culture style, his comics are darkly humorous satires of middle class America. His graphic novel Ghost World (first published in 1993) is the basis of the new film of the same name. His first comic book series was Lloyd Llewellyn, followed by Eightball (both published by Fantagraphics Books). Clowes was the first cartoonist to contribute a comic story to Esquire annual fiction issue.

21:33

Other segments from the episode on September 6, 2001

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 6, 2001: Interview with Daniel Clowes; Interview with Terry Zwigoff.

Transcript

DATE September 6, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Cartoonist Daniel Clowes talks about his comic Ghost
World being made into a movie and reminisces about his childhood
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

One of the summer's most favorably reviewed movies is "Ghost World." It's
based on a comic book by my guest, Daniel Clowes, one of today's most highly
regarded creators of comics for adults. He co-wrote the screenplay with the
film's director, Terry Zwigoff, who we'll meet later in the show. "Ghost
World" is about two teen-age girls, Enid and Rebecca, who have just graduated
high school and are in that limbo between school and whatever happens next;
maybe college, maybe a job. Who knows? The girls are smart and cynical.
They're alienated from their families and the kids from their high school.
They identify with the losers and misfits of the world. Although these two
girls are best friends, they're starting to drift apart for reasons they don't
quite understand.

Enid is played by Thora Birch, who played the daughter in "American Beauty,"
and Scarlett Johansson plays Rebecca, who played the daughter in "The Horse
Whisperer."

Daniel Clowes, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Mr. DANIEL CLOWES (Cartoonist): Hello there.

GROSS: What's your description of the two girls in "Ghost World"?

Mr. CLOWES: Well, I always think of Enid as sort of representing my id
somewhat. She's sort of this uncontrolled character who sort of reacts
impulsively, and she's sort of unable to fit in in the world. She has this
sense that there's something in the world that's better than what she sees,
but she doesn't exactly know what that thing is, and she's constantly
searching for that thing, whereas Rebecca is sort of the kind of character who
sort of sees things as they are and tries to accept them as they are and tries
to make the best of it and, you know, make the best of what is around her.
And so there's this sort of conflict between these two characters. It's like
an id and a superego battling it out.

GROSS: In some ways, Enid feels like a loser and identifies with losers, but
at the same time she looks down on losers, like she looks down on a lot in the
world. It's kind of contradictory in that sense.

Mr. CLOWES: Well, she's a real person. I mean, I think of her as a real
person. She's not an archetype. I mean, mostly you see characters like that
who are, you know, just sort of one way. They are the kind of girl who just
mocks everything and looks down on everything and they tend to be very
one-note, and I think of Enid as a very rounded character. She sort of
both--you know, sort of hates herself and hates the world and loves the world
and loves herself. And it all, you know, combines in this weird mixture that
makes for sort of a much more interesting character, I think.

GROSS: What connection do you feel to teen-age girls, a connection strong
enough to enable you to create them for "Ghost World?"

Mr. CLOWES: I think I have a very sort of adolescent sense about me. I
think if you were to wake me up in the middle of the night and ask me how old
I was, I would probably say I was 18. I think I got sort of stuck in that
part of my life emotionally, to some degree, and I really identify with that
time in your life when you're sort of ending childhood and you're beginning
adulthood and you don't really know what you are or where you fit in or what
you're doing. I think there's this certain confusion and sort of heightened
excitement at that time in your life that makes for some really interesting
drama, and I think it's something I keep sort of looking back to in my own
work, in my own sort of daily thought patterns.

GROSS: When you were in high school, and shortly after high school, did you,
like Enid in "Ghost World," carry a sketchpad and sketch people who struck you
as particularly interesting or particularly ridiculous?

Mr. CLOWES: Oh, sure. Yeah. No, I drew all the kids in my high school
class, you know, in a variety of, you know, sexual positions with, you know,
animals and things like that and, you know, drew all the teachers. And, of
course, once a year one of the teachers would pick up my notebook, you know,
while I was obviously not paying attention in class, and read it out loud to
the whole class, you know, humiliating me. But, you know--and, of course, I
still do that. I still, every day, draw little notes and pictures about
people I'm observing.

GROSS: The colors in the movie adaptation of "Ghost World" are really vivid
and wonderful and contribute a lot of energy to the movie. The comic book of
Ghost World is in black and white with, like, a blue tinge cast over it. What
did you think about what the pallet should be like for the movie? Did you
participate in that at all?

Mr. CLOWES: Terry and I spoke--you know, talked about that quite a bit in
the beginning when we were trying to visualize the look of the film. I mean,
you know, there was some sense that it would have been cool to sort of
replicate the look from the comic in the film where there's this sort of eery
blue light that looks sort of like the light from a TV set through a window at
dusk or something, which was sort of the look I was going for in the comic.
But, you know, we thought that would just seem really pretentious in a film.
It would just seem very arty. And we wanted the film to have this kind of
beautiful look, but not like, you know, the typical Hollywood movie, and not
like the typical, you know, replication of that comic book pallet that you see
in a lot of Hollywood movies when they try to sort of camp it up and do--you
know, like in "Dick Tracy" where everybody's sort of primary colors and it's
all sort of overdone. We wanted it to have this kind of exaggerated look, but
the exaggerated pallet of like a modern strip mall kind of where everything's
kind of screaming for your attention and everything's in these like bright,
you know, sort of candy colors that are trying to attract you, and we wanted
the world to sort of look like that. So it was sort of the outside kind of,
you know, trying to appeal to you in this sort of almost childish way, but
underneath it all, it had some sort of big, sinister quality, which it's a lot
to ask of a cinematographer, but I think Affonso Beato did a pretty amazing
job.

GROSS: You collaborated with Terry Zwigoff on the screenplay adaptation of
"Ghost World." Did he have any insights about your stories or the characters
that showed you things you didn't realize about your own creation?

Mr. CLOWES: Well, I have to say that Terry really never did tell me what the
story was about. Terry was the most amazingly collaborative person I can
imagine, especially for what I've heard about movie directors. I mean, he
encouraged me to move down to Hollywood with him. I wound up living in a
shabby, old, film noirish hotel for six months in Culver City, going to the
set every day at 5 in the morning, working with Terry pretty much non-stop
throughout the whole process, till, you know, about halfway through editing, I
couldn't stand it anymore and I went back home. But he was amazingly
receptive to anything I had to offer, and really let me sort of dictate those
two girls. He really knew that I knew those two characters, and he let me
sort of, you know, pick their costumes and, you know, sort of `Tell me what
the intent was with their lines' and things like that. So it was, you know, a
great experience. I mean, few screenwriters get than kind of an opportunity,
I guess.

GROSS: You've said that you learned that a good actor can make pages of
dialogue seem extraneous with just one look. Is there an example you could
give from the movie "Ghost World"?

Mr. CLOWES: Oh, just--well, Thora does that constantly. There's pages and
pages of Enid's dialogue that have been cut out. You know, you can see--you
know, we have just shots of her sitting in her room, sitting on the floor,
looking off into space, and those are often scenes that had lines and lines of
dialogue of her explaining her dilemma at that moment. And, you know, you
just see her expression, and in one second it registered as, you know, what we
were trying to say and all the lines seemed just totally extraneous. You
know, you can see just the way when those two girls are finally sort of a
starting to break apart, there's a scene where they're sitting in that Quality
Cafe Diner(ph), sort of staring at each other, and there's just a moment where
you see Thora realizes that Scarlett isn't quite getting what she's talking
about and they're not quite as close as she thought, and she just registers
that with this subtle look, but it's--you know, we wound up cutting out two
pages just because of that look.

GROSS: Now this realization that you had in making the movie, that just the
right look can make pages of dialogue unnecessary, did that affect your
drawing style in subsequent comics? Did you try to get that precise look on
the face of a character to make some of the writing unnecessary?

Mr. CLOWES: Well, I've always tried to do that in my comics, and
it's--comics are just such a much less visceral medium than film, and film,
you know, you respond to it very emotionally and very immediately and you kind
of have to be in the moment in a film. And the audience is so much more in
tune to everything in a film. And in a comic, it's sort of more cerebral. I
mean, you're sort of reading these symbols. You're not really looking at real
life in the way that you are in a film. You're looking at these kind of icons
that represent things. You know, you're looking at symbols of trees and
symbols of people and symbols of buildings, and you have to sort of bring to
it your own experience, and you have to sort of collaborate with the
cartoonist when you're reading a comic. And when you're watching a movie,
you're really being sort of dictated to, you're being sort of, you know, led
through it in a much more emotionally direct way, I think, so it's just not
the same thing.

GROSS: Now the character of Enid has a scene in a comic book store. She
doesn't like the people who work in the store. They mock her. And the people
who work in the store are all young guys. What's your experiences with comic
book stores and with the culture inside them?

Mr. CLOWES: I try to have as little to do with that whole culture as
possible. I mean, I find it very alienating. I feel like it has very little
to do with what I do. I mean, the typical comic store sells mostly only
superhero comics that are geared for an audience of sort of perpetual
adolescents, most of which are not adolescents, but 30- to 40-year-old men
who, for some reason, are stuck in this part of their lives where they really
need these kind of power fantasies, and it's just sort of endlessly annoying
and alienating to me. I've really no relation to it. I feel very separate
from it, and I find it sort of ascetically vulgar or something. I mean, that
sounds a little snooty, but it's not something I want to be attune to at all.

GROSS: My guest is comic book artist Daniel Clowes. He co-wrote the
screenplay for "Ghost World," which is based on his comic of the same name.
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is comic book artist Dan Clowes. And his comic Ghost World
is the basis of the movie "Ghost World." He co-wrote the screenplay with the
director Terry Zwigoff.

When did you start drawing comics?

Mr. CLOWES: Before I could read, actually. My brother left me a giant pile
of comics in his room, and I used to look at those and sort of try to piece
together the weird archetypes you'd see in these old comics, which are all,
you know, superheroes and monsters and idiots and hags and caves and all these
strange, sort of mythological archetypes, and, you know, I tried to sort of
draw my own versions of these very crudely when I was four or five years old.

GROSS: What kind of stories would you make up?

Mr. CLOWES: Oh, I mean, mostly they were just very imitative. You know, the
early ones were kind of--I'd do stories that were sort of like Jimmy Olsen
comics. He was sort of Superman's friend. And so I would do these stories
about a kid who is like the friend of the superhero, which is--you know, it's
fairly obvious. And then as I got older, I started becoming more and more
interested in things like MAD magazine and I would do like my own bad movie
parodies and things like that. And I was looking through some old drawings
the other day and I found I had drawings of people like Spiro Agnew and Dean
Rusk and like people who I don't even know who they are. They were like, you
know, political figures of their day. And for some reason, that's what I
thought I should be doing is like drawing caricatures of like 50-year-old,
balding men.

GROSS: You went to art school. You went to the Pratt Institute in New York.
And one of your early comics, the first edition of Eightball, had a story
called "Art School Confidential."

Mr. CLOWES: Yes.

GROSS: And in it you write `Art School Confidential blows the lid off a
million-dollar racket. See rich guys who draw worse than your seven-year-old
sister. See has-been famous artist professors who couldn't teach a dog to
bark; self-obsessed, neurotic art girls who make their own clothes.' And you
write, `The teachers aren't there to help you. Most of them are still
free-lancers, and the last thing they want is more competition. They're there
because they need a steady paycheck, and they hope to score with the
students.' Does that kind of sum up your reaction to art school?

Mr. CLOWES: Yeah. I mean, I'm not exaggerating with that. I mean, that was
how I felt. I mean, when I went to art school, it cost me, I think, $8,000 to
go for all four years, and now it's like that much for one unit. You know, it
costs like $60,000 or $100,000 to go to art school. And I think, you know,
one out of 500 people actually make a living as an artist, so it's definitely
a racket.

GROSS: Let me play an art school scene from "Ghost World." Well, this is an
art class, I should say. Enid is taking an art class and her teacher, played
by Illeana Douglas, at this point is reviewing the student's art projects.
And she's holding up Enid's class submission, which is Enid's comic
sketchbook.

(Soundbite of "Ghost World")

Ms. ILLEANA DOUGLAS: (As art teacher) What can you tell us about this piece,
Enid? Enid.

"ENID": Well, it's kind of a diary, I guess.

Ms. DOUGLAS: Colorful. Hmm. I think that Phillip and Enid can help us to
see that there are many different ways we can express ourselves. We can do
things like these cartoons that are amusing as a sort of light entertainment
or we can do work that is more serious in scope and feeling and that deals
with issues--emotional, spiritual, political--of great importance.

GROSS: In the comic book Ghost World and in the movie "Ghost World" there's
one student artwork that consists of a tampon in a teacup. And in the movie,
it's submitted by a woman student, and it's supposed to be making a feminist
statement. In the comic book version, it's submitted by a male student, and
it's called "Tangerine Ameba Apartheid Heartbeat No. 4." Was this based on a
real art submission in high school or college?

Mr. CLOWES: Yeah. I'm actually afraid I can be sued for that by the poor
guy who turned that in.

GROSS: And what was your reaction to the piece when you saw it in real life?

Mr. CLOWES: I just thought it was one of those brilliant things where he
obviously hadn't done his homework and he was sitting there at the breakfast
table that morning and he got the brilliant idea to put a tampon in his teacup
and bring it in. To me, that's the beauty of art school is you can--he sort
of got away with it. I think he probably got, you know, like a C-plus or
something for that.

GROSS: Well, in your comic Artbook Confidential(ph) you write, `Seldom will
you be afforded the chance to scrutinize such an array of losers in an
environment that actually encourages their most pretentious inclinations.'

Mr. CLOWES: Yeah, that's the beauty of it all. I mean, it's this world
where, you know, you're not going there to learn to do painting techniques and
things like that. You're going to learn how to express yourself and to--you
know, you're being taught by people who are sort of abstract expressionists or
conceptual artists who have no sense of how to, you know, paint a horse or to
draw in perspective or anything like that. So God forbid you should learn
anything useful like that. You're taught to sort of fit into the art world in
some way and everybody goes with this sort of intention of showing what a
genius they are, and it can be quite amusing.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Daniel Clowes. He's a comic
book artist. His comic Ghost World has been adapted into the film "Ghost
World." He co-wrote the screenplay for the adaptation with the director,
Terry Zwigoff.

Tell me if I have this story right. When you were very young, your
stepfather, who was a race car driver, was killed in an accident during a
race.

Mr. CLOWES: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: And then you were sent to live with your grandparents for a while.

Mr. CLOWES: Well, no, I lived with my mother a couple days a week, and then
I'd go live with my father for a couple days a week, and then I'd live with my
grandmother for a couple days a week.

GROSS: Oh, I see.

Mr. CLOWES: So it's fairly confusing.

GROSS: Oh, it must have been confusing.

Mr. CLOWES: Yeah, although it was kind of fun. You'd never get bored with
any one place.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. CLOWES: You always had a different--you know, I'd always get three
birthday parties and all that stuff.

GROSS: You know what I was wondering, if it affected your sense of
risk-taking to have your stepfather, who was a race car driver, which is a
kind of risky profession, actually die in an accident.

Mr. CLOWES: Well, definitely it made me aware of mortality at a very young
age. You know, I don't think most kids think about, you know, violent death
that much when they're five years old, but that was something that sort of
preoccupied me my whole life.

GROSS: Moving from house to house between your mother, your father and your
grandmother, did you have a different visual world in each of those
households, different tchotchkes on display or different pop culture things,
different records, different TV shows that were on?

Mr. CLOWES: Yeah. I mean, I think I've had an entirely different persona
really in each household, and they were all sort of valid parts of myself.
But I think I acted differently in each scenario, and I think, you know,
that's a bit where the Enid thing comes from, of her sort of constantly trying
out all these different roles and different--you know, different--and in her
case, it's things like outfits and, you know, just interests and things like
that. And I think that's a bit where that character comes from.

GROSS: What have you done to interact with teen-age girls so you could really
understand how teen-age girls talk today and what they talk about and what
slang they use?

Mr. CLOWES: Well, I tried to write it in this more sort of universal
language. I tried to use the kind of slang that kind of stays around for a
while. I didn't want to have stuff that was up to the moment. I didn't want
to use kind of hip-hop slang and whatever's current right now. I wanted this
movie and the comic to be something that people could read in 20 or 30 years
and still have some idea of what they were talking about and have it not seem,
you know, dated and something of its era, necessarily. And as far as, you
know, hanging around teen-age girls, I don't really know any teen-age girls.
I just--I remembered them. You know, I remember how they were when I was in
high school, and I--you know, my wife is sort of a proto-Enid type, and I
always, you know, would sort of check things with her, you know, and see if
she thought I was being accurate about the way these girls were acting. But,
you know, it's all sort of through osmosis, just sort of picking it up here
and there.

GROSS: Did you meet your proto-Enid wife before or after you created Enid?

Mr. CLOWES: After.

GROSS: Did she think of herself as being like the character?

Mr. CLOWES: No. I think she's greatly insulted by that.

GROSS: Well, Dan Clowes, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. CLOWES: Well, thank you.

GROSS: Daniel Clowes co-wrote the screenplay for "Ghost World," which is
based on his comic book of the same name. His latest graphic novel is called
"David Boring."

We'll hear from the director of "Ghost World" in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

(Announcements)

GROSS: Coming up, we meet the director of "Ghost World," Terry Zwigoff, who
also directed the documentary "Crumb." Although, "Ghost World" is based on a
comic by Daniel Clowes, Zwigoff created the film's character Seymour, played
by Steve Buscemi. Seymour is a middle-aged guy who collects blues 78s and is
uncomfortable around people, kind of like Zwigoff.

(Soundbite of music)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Director Terry Zwigoff discusses his new movie
"Ghost World"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest Terry Zwigoff directed the film "Ghost World" and co-wrote the
screenplay with Daniel Clowes who we just heard from. "Ghost World" is based
on Clowes' comic book of the same name. Terry Zwigoff also directed the
acclaimed documentary "Crumb" about the underground comic artist R. Crumb.
Zwigoff has seen a lot of comic books over the years. In part, because his
wife has worked for a comic book distribution company which puts out work by
Crumb, Clowes and many other artists. After the success of Zwigoff's film,
"Crumb," he was sent a lot of screenplays and received offers to direct
Hollywood films, but he said the story seemed generic, false and contrived. I
asked Zwigoff how he chose "Ghost World" as his next film.

Mr. TERRY ZWIGOFF (Director, "Ghost World"): As I was struggling to find
something to make a movie out of, my wife kept pushing me to make "Ghost
World" into a film, and I went back and re-read it and thought, `You know,
this doesn't really have a story. It's just this little episodic slice of
life, vignettes of these two teen-age girls,' but I really loved the two
characters. I thought they were really well written. I thought the dialogue
was terrific.

And, in fact, I wound up asking Robert Crumb about Dan Clowes 'cause I knew he
lived, I thought in Berkeley. And since I lived in San Francisco, I wanted to
meet the guy and talk to him about the possibility of just working together on
a screenplay instead of adapting this "Ghost World" per se because I
actually...

GROSS: What did you l--go ahead.

Mr. ZWIGOFF: Well, I actually liked all of Dan's work. I had read
everything he had done. And he's a pretty prolific guy. And I was impressed
with his writing skills, the fact that he could write such good dialogue and
the fact that he was so good with characters. It was very uncomic book like.
It was much more like a novel, you know, where the characters are much more
three-dimensional. And then when you go to pitch it in Hollywood, the irony
is that they want very one-dimensional characters. And it's sort of why they
like comic books, I guess, down there, but this was very uncomic book like in
that regard.

GROSS: What did you think were the most important changes you needed to make
in order to adapt the comic book into a movie?

Mr. ZWIGOFF: I thought we had to add more of a story, more of a plot. And I
also just didn't want to do the same thing he'd already done in comic book
form. It just wasn't interesting for me to repeat something, so we started
going through and talking about different stories and different plot lines and
I was, at the time very, much influenced. I think in retrospect I was very
much influenced by this movie "Scarlett Street" by Fritz Lang, this 1945
Edward G. Robinson film, and I started throwing out plot ideas based on that
film where this older guy gets involved with this young sort of femme fatale.
I was also influenced a lot by that Vladimir Nabokov book "Lolita" and I loved
the Kubrick film, of course, and that sort of worked its way in as well.

I don't know. All these different things sort of things worked their way into
the story and we talked and talked and worked this thing out and just wound up
coming up with something new where this Enid character gets involved with this
older guy who's a record collector. And I think originally I added that
Seymour character who's played by Steve Buscemi so well in the film because
that was just some world I knew very well, that record collecting world, and
he's rather based on myself. It was very easy for me to write him because I
just sort of exaggerated things about myself.

GROSS: This Steve Buscemi character in "Ghost World" collects blues 78s.

Mr. ZWIGOFF: Blues and jazz, yes.

GROSS: And he's a character who has no real social skills and he's
particularly self-conscious and insecure around women. So what are some of
the characters of yourself that you heightened in him?

Mr. ZWIGOFF: Well, I didn't think I heightened all that much sometimes, but
when I read it in the press it's sort of alarming because I remember the first
couple days we--I hired this woman who was the costume designer who was really
great, Mary Zophres. She did the costume design on "Fargo" and also
"Kingpin," two of my favorite films and two very divergent films in terms of
costumes. She said, `How do you want Seymour to dress?' I said, `Oh, just
look at the way I dress, you know, sort of normal. Just look at the way I
dress for the next three days and base it on me.' And she did. She had him
wearing, like, sort of dark, conservative clothes, you know, long-sleeve
shirts and stuff. And then I read in the press, everybody says, `God, he has
the most pathetic wardrobe of any human on the planet.' I said, `What? What?
I'm sort of normal looking. I don't understand it. I don't get it.'

GROSS: Well, it's also that everything--well, some of his clothes seem
slightly too big and they seem to be droopy on him. I think that's part of
the look.

Mr. ZWIGOFF: I guess that's--maybe she based that on me. I don't know. I
thought he looked pretty normal to me. At the same time, every time we'd get
done with the day and we'd wrap for the day, Steve would immediately change
clothes and change the way he combed his hair. I could tell he was very
uncomfortable inside that character.

GROSS: Let me play one of the early meetings between Enid, the teen-age girl,
and Seymour, the middle-aged record collector played by Steve Buscemi. And
earlier in the movie, at a garage sale that he has, she's bought a blues
anthology and she's coming back to say that she actually really likes it. So
here's the scene.

(Soundbite from "Ghost World")

"ENID": Yeah, it took me a while before I got a chance to actually play it,
but once I heard that song, it was, like...

"SEYMOUR": You liked it, huh? Yeah. There's been some really rare
performances. What about the--did you like "The Memphis Mini"?(ph)

ENID: Yeah, that was good, too. The whole record was good, but that one
song, "Devil Got My Woman," I mostly just keep playing that over and over. Do
you have any other records like that?

SEYMOUR: There are no more records like that. Actually I have the original
78 in my collection. It's one of maybe five known copies.

ENID: Wow.

SEYMOUR: You want to see it? I can run upstairs and get it.

ENID: Sure. Yeah.

SEYMOUR: Watch my stuff. There you go. It's only about a B minus. It's got
an incipient ...(unintelligible) crack, but it plays decent, as I recall.

ENID: Oops, I dropped it!

SEYMOUR: Oh, geez.

ENID: I was only kidding.

SEYMOUR: It's--yeah.

ENID: Seymour, you all right?

SEYMOUR: Yeah, it's just very valuable.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: The rare 78 from Seymour's collection that Enid really likes and that
gets her kind of interested in early blues is Skip James singing "Devil Got My
Woman." Why did you build the scene around that particular recording? What
does that mean to you?

Mr. ZWIGOFF: To me, it was the first record I ever heard that really
affected me deeply. It was very shocking to me when I heard that record. I
was in New York. I was at this guy Nick Perls' house who's now dead, but he
used to run Yazoo Records and he was a rich guy. He had the world's best
collection of prewar blues records, and he was just playing records. And I
was in this room looking through his trade pile in a corner and I just stopped
dead when--you know, like, two bars into that record, I don't know. It was an
electrifying record to me, shockingly weird and strong.

GROSS: Why don't we listen to it. This is Skip James singing "Devil Got My
Woman."

(Soundbite of music)

SKIP JAMES: (Singing) Oh, love be the devil. Love be that woman, man. Oh,
love be the devil. Love be that woman, man. Oh, nothing but the devil change
my baby's mind. Oh, nothing but the devil change my baby's mind.

GROSS: That's Skip James singing "Devil Got My Woman." It's included on the
soundtrack of the movie "Ghost World." My guest Terry Zwigoff directed the
film.

There's a record-collecting theme at a party that Seymour gives, and, you
know, everybody there except Enid is a collector of rare records. And all the
conversation they're having is about the condition of the records in their
collection. And she kind of thinks it's pretty cool and Seymour says, `You
think it's healthy to obsessively collect things? You can't connect with
other people, so you fill your life with stuff. I'm just like the rest of all
these pathetic collector losers.' Do you really think of collecting as being
pathetic?

Mr. ZWIGOFF: Yeah, in some ways. I had a hard time writing that line as
well. I almost took it out 'cause I actually wrote it with Charles Crumb in
mind. I wanted to make Seymour have this sort of tragic self-awareness that
Charles Crumb had.

GROSS: Charles Crumb is R. Crumb's late brother.

Mr. ZWIGOFF: Yeah. And I thought that would be very strong in the character.
So I can't really be that objective and tell you whether or not I really have
that quality or not. I guess to some degree I do, but I kept waivering on
whether or not to do that, to keep that line in. It seemed too obvious and,
otherwise, it seemed very truthful. So I don't know. I wound up going with
the line, but it was a little bit of truth in it, sure.

GROSS: My guest is Terry Zwigoff. He directed and co-wrote the film "Ghost
World." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Terry Zwigoff. He directed the film "Ghost World" which
he co-wrote with Daniel Clowes. The film is based on Clowes' comic book of
the same name. It's about two smart and cynical teen-age girls who see
themselves as misfits. Steve Buscemi plays the middle-aged guy who collects
blues 78s.

I really love the record-collecting scenes in this. There's a scene that I
particularly like later on in a bar. You know, Enid and Seymour are going to
a bar to hear an old perform who Seymour quite likes and is really
disappointed that this guy isn't the headliner. And the headliner is this...

Mr. ZWIGOFF: Like, Blueshammer is the headliner.

GROSS: Yeah, they're this really awful bar band. And so Buscemi is sitting
next to a woman at the table, and she says, `Oh, I really love the blues,'
after this performer that Buscemi likes has performed, and he corrects her.
And he says...

Mr. ZWIGOFF: Can't help himself.

GROSS: Yeah, he says, actually...

Mr. ZWIGOFF: He has to correct her.

GROSS: He says, `Actually, technically what he was mostly playing would more
accurately be classified in the ragtime idiom, although, of course, not in the
strictest sense of the more classical ragtime piano music like that of Scott
Joplin or Joseph Lamb.' I thought it was really funny the way he corrected
her. And then she goes on to say that she really loves the blues and that,
you know, if he loves the blues, he's got to see this band Blueshammer because
they're so great. And, of course, they're really horrible and they're
everything probably that he hates about Airzat's(ph) contemporary blues bands.

Mr. ZWIGOFF: White guys singing about plowing behind mules.

GROSS: Yeah, and singing in black dialect and singing about being old and...

Mr. ZWIGOFF: I've been through that experience many times.

GROSS: Have you? Uh-huh.

Mr. ZWIGOFF: I cannot tell you how many times I've been dragged to a bar by
some--usually not a girl I'd met at the bar, some girl I just started dating.
And, `OK. We'll go hear some blues,' try to find some middle ground in the
relationship and something like that would happen. The problem in that scene
was how far to push it before the audience actually got it. I could have made
that a lot more subtle. But it's hard to tell, hard to be objective.

GROSS: Is that as alienating for you as it is for the Buscemi character when
someone says, `I really love blues,' and you think, `Oh, a bond, a
connection,' and you realize what they love isn't anything like what you would
call blues?

Mr. ZWIGOFF: Yeah, I don't even bother to try to turn people on to old music
anymore. They come to my house, they always, out of politeness, say, `Oh, all
these old records. Let's hear some.' I said, `No, that's all right. My
record player isn't working.' I'm happy to keep it for myself. I don't care
if anybody else ever hears that stuff. It just drives the price up. What do
I care? I can't afford to buy the records I want on eBay anymore.

GROSS: Now you wrote or co-wrote the bar band's song, the Blueshammer song,
didn't you?

Mr. ZWIGOFF: Yeah. Yeah, I did.

GROSS: Tell me about writing it. Did you write the lyrics and the music or
just the lyrics?

Mr. ZWIGOFF: It's just sort of a generic, you know, three-cord, 12 bar blues
things that a friend of mine, Craig Ventresco, who did a lot of the soundtrack
on "Crumb" actually did most of the music behind it. He actually played the
slide guitar part. Even though he only plays like old-fashion music, he's
able to like play all the parts of that modern band. And I just came up with
those stupid lyrics. They're were jsut so offensive to me that some white
guys--but it's not that far from reality, white guys singing like that in
black dialect, talking about, you know, plowing behind a mule, lordy, lordy.

GROSS: Well, let's hear the recording. It's actually on the soundtrack of
"Ghost World."

(Soundbite of music)

BLUESHAMMER: (Singing) Well, I've been plowing behind a mule, son, picking
cotton all day long. Yes, I've been plowing and picking cotton all day long.
I said, `Lordy, baby, oh, my woman, she be gone.'

GROSS: Now the Steve Buscemi character was largely your creation, the record
collector character.

Mr. ZWIGOFF: Yeah, I originally added him to the story because I actually
wanted an excuse--we kept going down to Hollywood pitch meetings to pitch this
film, and the first thing they'd say is, `Oh, great, it's based on a comic.
That's good. We have "X-Men" and it's going to make a lot of money and "Lara
Croft" and "Spiderman," all this stuff, "Batman." It's all made money.' And
then they started talking about the soundtrack. They really want a pop
soundtrack. `That's great. We have teen-age girls, comic books, and we'll
have, like, this hit soundtrack with 'N Sync and the Backstreet Boys and
whoever's big this week,' you know? And I just said, `You know, got to figure
out some way around this,' so I wrote this main character into the film who
collects old music just so I could use old music.

GROSS: Now the director of photography in the movie is the same director of
photography who worked on Pedro Almodovar's "All About My Mother," which is a
beautiful looking film with color almost being almost like the characters in
the movies, the colors used so well.

Mr. ZWIGOFF: Yeah, it was great.

GROSS: So who's most responsible for the color, the director of photography,
yourself as the director, the fashion coordinator who's actually choosing the
clothes that everybody wears in the movie?

Mr. ZWIGOFF: It's all important to some degree, all those choices, and we
all talked about it. The first thing I did with the entire crew including
Mary Zophres, the costume designer, and the production designer, Ed McAvoy,
and Affonso Beato, the cinematographer--I dragged them all out to a shopping
mall in LA and we had a camera with a long lense on it and we just looked at
people walking by that I would point out going down this escalator that we had
a good view of from about 100 feet away. I'd just say, `Take a picture of
that guy. Look at this guy. Look at the clothes there,' and then we studied
these photographs, and a lot of the colors, a lot of the wardrobe itself, a
lot of the hairdos on the extras, all that stuff, I said, `I'm very interested
and concerned with creating an entire world down to the extras. All the
background details are very important to me,' so we studied those photos. It
was very helpful.

GROSS: What did you want from those background details, from the people, for
instance? What kind of look did you want the extras to have?

Mr. ZWIGOFF: It was really an homage to Robert Crumb. It was really
something that I had picked up from knowing him and from his comics, the way
he sees modern Americans as just these sort of fat, unhealthy, out of shape
slubby people shuffling along, most of them rather depressed and they're just
wearing these clothes that are ridiculous on them. They're either--have big
ads for, you know, Nike or The Gap on them, or they're some sports team or,
you know, some old guy wearing, like, a jogging outfit and, you know, he can
barely walk. He's got a walker, you know? He's shuffling along and, you
know, the stuff that's too stylish for their age or too stylish for, you know,
their body type, their hairdo. I don't know. All that stuff was important to
me, and that was completely an homage to Robert Crumb.

GROSS: What were some of the hurdles, if any, that you had to get over with
the studio, who maybe would have wanted the movie slightly more mainstream?

Mr. ZWIGOFF: Well, the studio that we wound up with, United Artists/MGM, had
a negative pickup deal, so they weren't too involved in the film creatively.
They got it when it was done. The people that were involved were Granada
Films in England, and domestically, a company called Mr. Mudd, which is my
old friend Lianne Halfon and her partner John Malkovich, and they held final
cut of the film. We had our disagreements in the editing room but eventually
got to the point where they all backed off and sort of said, `You know, this
film's got to have one vision,' and let me do what I want to do, which is sort
of remarkable in hindsight. I got to make this film and have final cut of it.

GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about the look you wanted the two teen-age
girls, the two leads in the movie, to have. You may disagree, but I thought
that they are more attractive in the movie than their depicted as being in the
comic book. And I thought, you know, that the slightly less attractive look
in the comic book helped explain their feelings of alienation from the other
kids in high school and, you know, from the world in general. Did you want to
make them more attractive?

Mr. ZWIGOFF: I wanted the best actors I could get--was my main concern. I
was less interested in what they looked like. It turned out that, you know,
the other main concern is getting the studio to finally green light a film
that, you know, you're going to have actresses in that they have no interest
in. They want the biggest actresses that are out there. And at the time we
started pitching this thing six years ago, the biggest actress they were
interested in was Jennifer Love Hewitt 'cause she had just done this film "I
Know What You Did Last Summer." So they all wanted her and I just said, `You
know, she's'--I didn't really--it didn't strike me that she was too pretty,
although I think she's very pretty. It struck me that she's sort of too perky
and well adjusted and happy. And I said that that alone would not make her
work in that part. And to me it was more important that these actresses sort
of got the mind-set of those characters which I thought they did very well.
There is something genuinely off and eccentric about Scarlett Johansson.
There is something genuinely of an outsider about Thora Birch. That was more
important to me than the looks. And maybe they are a little bit too beautiful
for those parts. I thought they were very good looking, you know, actors.
But to me, the performance supersedes that.

GROSS: My guest is Terry Zwigoff. He directed and co-wrote the film "Ghost
World." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is Terry Zwigoff. He directed the film "Ghost World" which
he co-wrote with Daniel Clowes. Zwigoff also directed the documentary "Crumb"
about the comic artist R. Crumb.

What was most interesting and most upsetting to you working on your first
fiction film? Your other films have been documentaries.

Mr. ZWIGOFF: Right. Oh, the biggest challenge and the most fun was actually
working with actors. And when this thing was first starting up five years
ago, it seemed like it was a go project right away. We had this one studio
that was going to make the film. My producer, Lianne Halfon, called me and
said, `Pack your bags. You're going to move from San Francisco to LA in a
month and start pre-production.' So I sort of panicked and I went through the
yellow pages and found an acting instructor and went to them and said, `Can
you give me a crash course in directing actors in month. I have to direct
actors in this feature film. I don't have the slightest experience doing it.'
And to me that's what makes or breaks a film, you know, good characters, good
performances, so this guy looked at me and thought I was kidding. He said, `I
can't teach you how to do that in a month. My advice would be to start going
to acting classes and go to as many as you can before this thing starts up.'
So I did. I started going to acting classes here in San Francisco. Jean
Shelton has an actors' workshop on Sutter Street that's really good. She was
really nice to me, let me sit in the back and audit the class for free. And
we took a bunch of other acting classes, and when this financing fell through,
the thing dragged on for five years, I went to acting classes for years and
years. It was very helpful.

GROSS: How was it helpful?

Mr. ZWIGOFF: Well, you learn how to talk to actors. You learn how to help
them get a good performance. You have to learn how to relax them and get them
focused. And actually you're listening and affecting each other in a scenes.
And there's a lot of different techniques and tricks and methods for doing
that.

GROSS: Name one that you used in the making of "Ghost World."

Mr. ZWIGOFF: One method that I used?

GROSS: Yeah, to relax an actor...

Mr. ZWIGOFF: ...Well, sometimes--to relax...

GROSS: ...or get them in focus.

Mr. ZWIGOFF: I try to keep the set a very fun set. Everybody that was there
was always cracking jokes and laughing and having a ball. That was the first
thing, just to keep everybody relaxed. And then, you know, oftentimes with
Thora, I'd go to the script line by line, just tell her the intention of the
way it was written. If she didn't quite agree with it or didn't quite get it,
you at least tell her the intention of what you meant in this line before you
start and then you try to give them positive playable choices. You know, you
try to give them, like, a verb instead of, like, an end result, something to
play, something active to play in the scene so that they don't get too self
conscious and stagey with the performance.

GROSS: Thora Birch has a particularly clear way of letting you know what
she's feeling when she's giving a line by the slant of her eyes or by the tilt
of her head or the expression on her face. And it never looks like she's
mugging for the camera, but you know what she's feeling by watching her.

Mr. ZWIGOFF: A lot of it in film, they just have to think it; they don't have
to indicate it anymore. They just have to think it and you can see it in
their eyes. That's why I never liked plays as a kid. My parents used to take
me to plays. I was never that into them. I never quite got the idea of it,
like, `How can you get the same feeling from this performance sitting in the
front row as you do in the back row?' You know, it's different in films.
That's why I like films. You can be very nuanced and very subtle in film.

GROSS: So are you already thinking what your next movie will be?

Mr. ZWIGOFF: Oh, boy, I guess I better pretty soon. The standard of living
has been raised. My wife made us get some cell phones, new computer. The
overhead's going up. I have to pay the bills. I just turned down a $10,000
offer from The Gap to have my photo taken for The Gap. I said, `What do you
mean, have my photo taken for The Gap.' They said, `Yeah, we're doing an ad
campaign and billboards and magazines of young hip film directors.' I said,
`I'm 53 years old. I'm not young. I'm not hip. I don't even wear blue
jeans, you know? I'm this sort of short, disheveled, graying guy with white
hairy arms, and you're going to put me in, like, a Gap T-shirt? Think that's
going to sell, like, Gap clothes?' As tempting as that $10,000 was, you know,
they employ sweatshop laborers in Saipan. You're not going to endorse that
company. Screw them.

GROSS: Well, do you--were you flattered that they thought you could be a hip
model for their clothes?

Mr. ZWIGOFF: Obviously, they never even seen what I looked like and they know
nothing about me or my pothers. I'm sure then never even saw the film. If
they saw that film, it'd be clear to any thinking person this is the last guy
who's going to endorse The Gap. It's, like, six years of my life went into
making some big statement against, like, this corporate consumers and sweeping
the planet and ruining the earth.

GROSS: Terry Zwigoff, I thought we could end your interview with one of the
78s that's included on the soundtrack CD from "Ghost World." Why don't you
choose one that you would like to introduce our listeners to.

Mr. ZWIGOFF: One of my favorite records is the "The Palms of Maracaibo," by
Lionel Belasco and his orchestra. It's recorded in the late '20s and it's
west Indian calypso music, really beautiful.

GROSS: Well, let's hear it. Terry Zwigoff, thank you so much.

Mr. ZWIGOFF: Thanks, Terry.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Terry Zwigoff directed and co-wrote the film "Ghost World." He also
directed the documentary "Crumb" about comic artist R. Crumb.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of music)
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.

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