Art School Confidential: Interview with Director Terry Zwigoff

Art School Confidential is the latest film from director Terry Zwigoff, after Crumb, Ghost World, and Bad Santa. The film is Zwigoffs second adaptation of a comic story by Daniel Clowes, after Ghost World, for which they shared an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2002.

Art School Confidential follows a talented young artist Jerome Platz (Max Minghella) as he escapes from high school to a tiny East Coast art school. Here the boyish freshmans ambition is to become the worlds greatest artist, like his hero Picasso. Filling out Jeromes world are a host of offbeat characters, including: a self-involved art teacher (John Malkovich) who takes an extra-curricular interest in Jerome; a failed artist (Jim Broadbent), drowning in alcohol and self-pity; a regal art history professor (Anjelica Huston) Jerome approaches for advice; a worldly classmate (Joel David Moore), who introduces Jerome in the intricate mores of campus life; and Jeromes filmmaker roommate (Ethan Suplee), exploding with energy to create a cinematic masterpiece.

On Jerome

I think Jerome’s a good artist. Maybe not a great artist, but the best artist in his class certainly. Jonah is completely untrained, and I think maybe the kindest one could be to him is that he brings a certain distinctive primitive style or purity to his paintings. They’re difficult to mistake as someone else’s which is a plus, but beyond that”well, at least they’re different.

On Crumb

I made Crumb because I found the art of all three Crumb brothers to be so strong. I tried to get closer to the seemingly mysterious talent of all three and discover what was behind it. Charles’ work meant no less to me because he was not published or not as prolific as his brother Robert. His small body of work existed and I found it (as did an audience eventually) regardless of the fact that he’d given up drawing long ago. He is no less an artist because he wasn’t commercially successful. Van Gogh wasn’t commercially successful in his lifetime either. The art survives”the art is timeless.

First Film: Louis Bluie

My first film was about the brilliant mandolin and violin player Louie Bluie. He made two records in 1934. One of them sold so poorly that it has still never been found. The other one sold two copies. All it took was the one I found to confirm his talent and cement his place in history as one of the all-time Blues greats.

Authenticity in Music and Film

Quality and authenticity in music or films or art generally requires a little digging”you can’t usually go down to the Cineplex and find much of quality playing there. You often have to dig to find the good stuff because it doesn’t get promoted well or catch on with the masses. It helps very much to have heard some good music, and seen some good art and movies to begin with. If you develop a good eye, a critical sense, and reflect a little bit you can perhaps discern what has quality or authenticity.

Favorite Characters

I’m usually attracted to characters outside of the mainstream because the mainstream is so predictable, boring and generic. There isn’t much there of substance to relate with. I think the heroes of all my films have failed to fit into the mainstream to some degree. The protagonist of Bad Santa may not be an artist, but he’s a guy who sees the world around him for the sham it is. He may have tried to find a niche for himself in it, but now he copes by drinking himself into a stupor every day. Charles Crumb made a few attempts to fit in, but failed and coped by not leaving the house. Louie Bluie has his out-of-fashion authentic music and his private pornographic journals. So does Robert Crumb. Seymour from Ghost World buries himself in a dead-end job and escapes in his time off listening to his old 78s.

Robert Crumb claims many times in Crumb that the very act of drawing saved his life”how he has to express himself, to get it out there on the page. I’d have to say that it had much more to do with the fact that Robert Crumb’s art became commercially successful and that saved him. The recognition brought fame, money, self-esteem, and women. Charles spent many years drawing alone in a room”it didn’t do his state of mind much good.

Jerome returns to his own artistic instincts at the end of the film. His work improves”it is again a means of personal expression instead of just a contrivance to gain him notoriety.

Success and Failure in Art

This success and failure business is complicated. Sometimes an absolutely awful artist or musician or filmmaker will be able to achieve success. They usually have a gift for self-promotion or other business skills. There are many successful film directors who have certain technical skills, but not much of interest to express.

I’ve never had the benefit myself, so perhaps I’m wrong in being so optimistic as to think they can be beneficial. I would think so. It’s nice to learn the basic rules of any art form before you try your own hand at it. But it’s also quite common to see technical proficiency without there being much else on display, and that doesn’t add up to much. Great art has something less tangible involved, matters of heart and soul. I think that’s a common misconception. In truth, I’m not really interested in comics too much.

I just happened to be friends, through a shared interest in old music, with Robert Crumb. My film Crumb explores issues of family and the artistic experience in general. It has much less to do with comics. The only other comic artist I read or appreciate is Dan Clowes, who lives near me and who I met through Crumb. Both Robert and Dan do comics that are very much unlike most other comics in that they have good dialogue and have complex characters.

Thematic Continuity

After Ghost World, which was a lot of fun, I’ve always looked for the opportunity to work with Dan and producers Lianne Halfon, Russ Smith and John Malkovich again. There were also many aspects of Art School Confidential that attracted me to directing the story as well. Elements that I’ve been drawn to in just about every film I’ve made: a flawed hero, moral ambiguity, obsession, and the nature of art. I like the idea of a main character who is characterized by a lack of traditional heroic qualities; a character who does the wrong thing sometimes, goes down the wrong path. Also, the setting of the art school, a little world outside the mainstream, was something that I’d rarely seen depicted in film before.

Terry Zwigoff’s Career

Tery Zwigoff began his film career accidentally in 1978, when he found a rare 1920’s recording by an unknown Chicago blues musician. A musician and record collector, Zwigoff was so impressed by this old 78 that he began what was to become two years of detective work to discover who the artist was and what his life had been like. Louie Bluie, a documentary film which premiered at Sundance in 1985, was the result.

His second film Crumb, about the cartoonist Robert Crumb and his two brothers, was a complex meditation on family, art, success and failure. The film won virtually every award for documentaries in 1995, including the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival as well as citations from the New York and Los Angles Film Critics and the Directors Guild of America. Over 100 film critics hailed Crumb as one of the Top Ten Films of 1995.

Zwigoff turned to fictional features in 2001 with Ghost World, adapted from Daniel Clowes’ comic book about two female teen misfits, played by Thora Birch and Scarlett Johanssen, and added an aging, antisocial record collector (Steve Buscemi) to the story. The film won AFI and Golden Globe awards for Buscemi and Birch, and a Best Adapted Screenplay Academy nomination for Zwigoff and Clowes. Ghost World appeared on over 150 Top Ten Lists for 2001.

He followed with the offbeat comedy Bad Santa (2003), which starred Billy BobThornton as a dissipated, womanizing crook posing as a department store Santa, executive produced by Joel and Ethan Coen . Thornton was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance, and the film was highly praised and a commercial success.

Daniel Clowes (Screenplay/Co-Producer)

Danie Clowes began his career as an underground cartoonist in 1985 with the private detective comic book series Lloyd Llewellyn. In 1989, he created the seminal comic book series, Eightball, which has since housed almost his entire body of work. The first among many stories to gain notice were the darkly comic Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron, and his savage take on the comics industry, Pussey! followed by the breakthrough hit Ghost World, David Boring, and the short story collection, Caricature. Eightball has earned the artist a large following and amassed multiple Harvey, Eisner and Ignatz Comics Awards, more than any other cartoonist during the past twenty years.

Clowes short comic story Art School Confidential first appeared in Eightball 7 (1991) and was reprinted in Orgy Bound (1996), House Magazine 3 (2001), and most recently in his 2002 collection Twentieth Century Eightball. In 2001, the film adaptation of his graphic novel Ghost World, from a script by Clowes and director Terry Zwigoff, was released to great acclaim, earning an Academy award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay and an Independent Sprit award, among many other prizes. Clowes latest book, Ice Haven was published by Pantheon Books in 2005. An illustrated screenplay for Art School Confidential is due out in April 2006.