A conversation with Terry Zwigoff and Daniel Clowes

The director of "Crumb" and the acclaimed cartoonist-author of "David Boring" team up on "Ghost World," a new film specifically for weirdos.


Rex Doane
July 27, 2001 11:00PM (UTC)

"Ghost World," now in limited release, is not a summer blockbuster. It is not a remake or a sequel; there are no kung fu sequences or shower scenes. No Sandra Bullock. No Freddie Prinze Jr. No laser guns. There are no pop hits on the soundtrack. And as yet, there are no "Ghost World" action figures, board games or beach towels.

The film's protagonists, Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson), have just graduated from high school and don't know exactly what they want to do with their lives, but they do know what they don't like -- most other people. Two chronic misfits, they traipse through the blighted cultural landscape of America in search of meaning or at least a good garage sale. They hang out in sleazy diners and seek out oddballs like Seymour (Steve Buscemi), the obsessive record collector whom Enid eventually befriends. "Ghost World" is a collaboration of noted "Crumb" director Terry Zwigoff and screenwriter and acclaimed cartoonist Daniel Clowes. In the words of Clowes, it's a film by and for "weirdos in the midst of this oversaturated corporate world."

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I know you both spent nearly five years trying to get "Ghost World" produced. There must have been some pretty horrific pitch meetings along the way.

Terry Zwigoff: Unfortunately, most people who are successful in Hollywood or any other business are not oddballs at all. They don't get the type of characters we have in the film -- the misfits and the alienated. They relate to some guy who drinks three beers, shoots some hoops and goes and sees "Shakespeare in Love." That's what their lives are all about. Now that's something I can't relate to at all.

Daniel Clowes: It was hard to convince them because they'd read my comics and watched "Crumb" and would think, "There's no way these guys are going to make anything but a really depressing, slow art film." One time we went to a meeting that we instantly knew wasn't going to work. Terry and I were in such a horrible mood that you could almost feel this black cloud entering the room. Then, when the meeting was finishing up, when everybody was in a bad mood thanks to us, one of the executive guys noticed that one of his tropical fish had died -- like our psychic energy had killed his fish. It was a great moment. I felt kind of proud of that.

Were there any particularly inane suggestions from prospective production companies when it came to casting?

Clowes: Oh yeah, sure. We were with almost every studio at some point and they all had their casting ideas -- it was just whoever was the actress of the moment for the lead. "We see Jennifer Love Hewitt as Enid." And I'm thinking, "Well, that's sort of the opposite of Enid. That's who Enid should not be, basically." And it went from there to Alicia Silverstone to Claire Danes. There are very few actresses who have any sort of oddness to them or texture that was appropriate for this film. They also had these crazy ideas like Nathan Lane as Seymour. And I'm thinking, "Well, how about Dom DeLuise while you're at it?"

Zwigoff: Yeah, at various times they were pushing Sarah Michelle Geller, Melissa Joan Hart. Everyone on the list they gave us was wrong for the part. A character like Enid should be a little bit of an outsider, and I don't quite see Jennifer Love Hewitt in a role like that. She should be in a Gap ad. It was pretty ridiculous. I mean, there's a reason we chose Scarlett and Thora. There's something about both of them that's a little eccentric. The subtle, idiosyncratic way they deliver their lines was just perfect.

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Terry, you must have received several scripts following the success of "Crumb."

Zwigoff: For a long time there was this rumor that I turned down doing "Austin Powers," which is not true. While they did send me the script, I don't think I was ever a serious consideration to direct it. I'm sure they probably sent it to 20 others as well. I did turn down "The Virgin Suicides." I talked to the producers about it and I just honestly told them that I didn't get it. Is it supposed to be funny, is it a thriller, what is it? Most of the scripts I was getting after "Crumb," however, were just so false and contrived. It was stuff like a nuclear physicist named Dupree and he's also a mountain climber. So, of course, when I read Dan's script for "Ghost World," it was so authentic, and it had characters that acted and talked like real people. You don't know how rare that is to find.

Were you entirely comfortable developing a story from the perspective of two 18-year-old girls?

Clowes: It's nothing I ever considered doing until the characters came to me slowly as a drawing I did in a sketchbook. The way you draw a character sort of indicates their personality and [Enid] sort of came to life in my head in a weird way. If I had to write a story about her right now, I could do it very quickly. I just hear her voice in my head -- it's a schizophrenic kind of thing, I guess.

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Zwigoff: I tried to avoid thinking about them as 18-year-old girls. I just tried to think of them as people with their own set of problems. One of Enid's dilemmas that I could certainly connect with was her inability to find a place for herself in this culture.

Much of "Ghost World" considers the overwhelming effects of consumer culture in America today. In fact, the film has a sense of anti-product placement.

Clowes: That sense of omnipresent corporate commercialism was something Terry and I both wanted in the film. We wanted that stuff to be viewed as oppressive. I mean, that's the kind of world we live in, where we're defined by the objects we choose to surround ourselves with, and I think that's what the movie is about and what the character Enid's about. She's trapped in this world of very limited consumer choice. She doesn't want to pick Pepsi or Coke; she wants some weird soda that she's never heard of. She has a bigger imagination than what she's offered.

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In response to the corporate cola world, both Enid and Seymour choose to seek out and surround themselves with old, neglected stuff. I know both of you are also chronic collectors.

Zwigoff: You really have to dig in this culture to unearth the good stuff. For me, art, music and design all came together in the late '20s. What would you rather have? In 1929 you could go see the latest Picasso exhibition and then go see Jelly Roll Morton play at a nightclub. In 2001, you can go see either 'N Sync or the Backstreet Boys. There's no comparison.

Clowes: Collectors like us are usually all really troubled people who find solace in their dank apartments filled with decaying old stuff, and they're often a trial to deal with. Of course, I live in my own little sanctum/sanatorium with all my books covered with Mylar. I collected a lot of sleazy '50s and '60s sex paperbacks and recently found one from 1968 called "Ding-a-Ling Broad." It has the dumbest-looking woman that I've ever seen on the cover. It's something that is an endless source of joy for me.

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That appreciation of the odd seems to have extended to some of the actors you chose for the film. Any favorites you couldn't land?

Clowes: Timothy Carey was still alive when we started writing this script and we thought we might get him in the movie. We actually had an amazing meeting with Lawrence Tierney, which was probably the scariest moment of my life. He basically went berserk in the office, smashing a lamp on Terry's desk. He was completely out of his mind. He was truly the personification of evil. He was truly devilish.

One of my favorite characters in the film was Doug (Dave Sheridan), the convenience store wacko. Where did you dig that guy up?

Zwigoff: We were at Mike Judge's office in Austin when he was interested in producing our film. He got interrupted by an important phone call and suggested we order some food or watch some videos he had lying around. So he was gone for about an hour, and I pulled out this unsolicited audition tape this guy had sent in of all these different characters he did. One of the characters was the guy with the nunchucks, and it literally had me on the floor crying because it was so funny. So Mike put us in touch with the guy and it turned out great.

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Clowes: Dave [the actor] actually showed up on the set with a sunburn and a tank top. He was a real trooper and he was really good with the nunchucks.

"Ghost World" features a scene involving a stuffed mongoose at a garage sale and that, of course, deserves special mention. Let's hope the academy remembers it come Oscar time.

Zwigoff: The stuffed mongoose was something I got from Robert Crumb many years ago, and I wound up giving it to an ex-girlfriend of mine when we broke up about 15 years ago. I lost track of her, but was desperately trying to get in touch with her because I wrote that mongoose into the script of the movie. I kept leaving messages for her but I was never able to reach her, so I told the prop guy, "I need a mongoose fighting a snake." At the last minute he turned it up at some antique store in Los Angeles.

Dan, did the scenes you wrote involving Enid's art class evolve from any of your own experiences at Pratt Art Institute?

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Clowes: Art school was four years of some of the funniest moments of my life -- just one after the other. It's such an absurd scenario to place kids who have no business being lofty and pretentious in a scenario where they have to be. They have to justify everything they do as being really meaningful and deep. There's something so funny about kids making sculptures out of Circus Peanuts and trying to justify it as being great art.

Illeana Douglas was perfectly cast as the art instructor. Did she share any Martin Scorsese stories in between takes?

Clowes: Yeah, anything you wanted to know! We had all these questions about his movies and she was only too happy to tell us what we wanted to know.

Zwigoff: My first question was about the scene in a Chinese restaurant from "The King of Comedy" -- just about my favorite film ever -- where this extra in the background is staring at the camera through the whole scene and acting weird. Illeana laughed and said that was some deranged friend of Robert De Niro whom De Niro had insisted be used in the scene because the guy needed the work.

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How did you come across that obscure Indian musical you use in the opening of the film?

Clowes: I had a 10th generation tape of that dance number and I would show it to every single person who entered my house. One day I showed it to Terry and he said, "We got to get that in the film somehow." But no one could track it down. Luckily, John Malkovich (one of our producers) had done some promotion for an Indian film in 1998 and had a lot of contacts in the Indian film industry. So we sent a copy of the tape, and they quickly identified it as being "Gunaam" from 1965. Eventually we got in touch with the kids of the producer of the film and they remembered being on the set when "Gunaam" was being filmed. They actually were there the day we filmed the opening sequence of "Ghost World" with Enid dancing to it. It was a great thing. They were so excited to have it resurrected and they couldn't believe how much we loved it. But we kept saying, "This is the greatest thing ever filmed, you don't understand!"

Any small detail in "Ghost World" that first-time viewers can cite to impress their friends?

Zwigoff: Well, there's a bit of genius that happened totally by accident (though we're willing to take full credit for it). Three weeks after we filmed the high school graduation scene, I picked out some really repressed, Republican-looking guys to use as customers in the porn shop sequence. If you study the film closely, you'll notice that the white-haired, respectable guy we have playing the high school principal during the graduation scene is the same guy I cast as one of the porn shop customers. Without knowing it I cast the same guy for both scenes! It's a paranoid, cynical moment I could have never dreamed up.

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Rex Doane

Rex Doane is a writer in New York.

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