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Talking Art School Confidential with Terry Zwigoff and Daniel Clowes
By Tony DuShane
May 12, 2006 - 6:41 AM PDT

"I'm trying to have a better work ethic."

Art School Confidential is the latest film from director Terry Zwigoff, whose previous work includes Bad Santa, Ghost World and Crumb. Art School Confidential is adapted from a short comic that Daniel Clowes wrote in the early 90s, marking Clowes and Zwigoff's second collaboration after Ghost World.

Jerome (Max Minghella), who otherwise finds art school frustrating and pretentious, becomes obsessed with an artist's model in his figure drawing class. The film is populated with quirky characters and a few laugh-out-loud scenes. It's got the feel of Ghost World in the way it dwells among outcasts, but also a hint of Bad Santa humor.

I spoke with Terry at the San Francisco International Film Festival.

When it came to casting, did you have actors in mind for the various parts, or did you do an open call?

Since John Malkovich was a friend and one of the producers of the film, we wanted to have a part for him in the film. So Dan wrote the part of Professor Sandiford with him in mind. The other people, I don't think we really discussed. We wanted to have Steve [Buscemi] in the film, but we really couldn't find him a big part. We managed to give him that small part for Broadway Bob.

When it came to casting Jimmy, the part played by Jim Broadbent, everybody had a different idea than me. But for some reason I always wanted Jim Broadbent because most of the films I've seen him in, he plays this rather mild mannered sort of type. Did you ever see that film, Iris?


He usually sort of plays a very sweet good-natured faithful husband and he's such a good actor. I wanted to see what he would do with something so different. Indeed, I thought he was a remarkable actor, one of the most amazing actors I've ever been in a room with, and a very sweet humble guy too.

I couldn't imagine anybody better than him.

So he's a guy I always fought for. I don't think the studio was too keen on him. They wanted... I don't know who they wanted, probably a bigger name for the box office marquee, but I couldn't imagine anybody better than him.

Anjelica Huston came to mind just because she's one of the few characters that's sort of the voice of reason and truth in the film. To me, when I see her in films, she always has this sort of regal bearing that's a little bit intimidating but at the same time it has some substance to it and you trust what she's saying.

It turned out to be 83 or 84 speaking parts in the film, so the casting was really tough. It took a long time and all these little characters were really tough because some characters only have a line or two.

Was it intimidating to work with an actor the caliber of John Malkovich?

It wasn't intimidating because of his talent as an actor. I was very intimidated by John mainly because he has this... Well, he would always be very kind and complimentary to everything I said, no matter how stupid, on the set. You'd make a suggestion and he'd smile and say, "That's a wonderful idea." And you'd just think, Oh my God, there's so many layers of sarcasm going on there. He's just so inherently sarcastic that it's hard to ever feel at ease around him. There's something about him that really is unnerving. But I love him dearly and he was great to work with and really a great actor. I didn't think he was that great of an actor until I worked with him. I would think, Yeah, he's a good actor, but until you whisper something in his ear and in two seconds he just does it, you know, and you just think, Oh my God, that's pretty impressive.

He was great, he was terrific, and the more I watched his performance, it really stood out. I've had to see this film hundreds of times and I thought he was really layered and nuanced.

Daniel Clowes co-wrote Art School Confidential, and you've worked with him before, but what attraction did you have to this particular script?

Of course one of the big attractions was getting to work with Dan and Mr. Mudd Productions again. Mr. Mudd is Lianne Halfon and John Malkovich and Russ Smith. I guess what I liked most about Dan's script was the beginning and the end. I really liked the opening scene where the first shot is like a fist punching the audience in the face. When I read it, I thought if I put the opening titles in just the right place, then whatever studio is making this film is going to be followed with a punch right into the camera lens. So that was appealing, but I really liked the ending. I thought the ending was really strong. It was something to me that was about how, if you covet a piece of artwork, how there's this separation, that you can't quite get close to it, and how you have this desire to get closer to it.

The best way to describe it is that, years ago, my first film, Louie Bluie, was about some old blues guy and I was looking around for some old newsreel footage or any sort of footage I could find of old black string bands, jug bands, anything like that. I saw a still in a book of an old jug band that I happened to have a record of, Whistler's Jug Band, that was recorded in the late 20s. And I called Movietone News, which had seemed to own this piece of film and I said, "I'd like to license this for my film, can I see the footage?"

And they said, "Ah, you know, somebody stole the footage years ago. We made this blowup of a still from one of eight remaining frames of film."

I said, "Oh man, that's a shame."

Then years later, I found a private collector who lent me a copy of the film. He must have got a copy from somebody who stole it or somebody down the road who somehow got their hands on it. I looked at this film; it was unbelievable, it was like my dream, first of all, just to see a photo of this band because I thought their records were so great, and then to see this photo come to life in this old archival film of this band actually playing this great record. But the way my mind works is like: I'm so desperate to get close to this talent in some way. Or to think, you just want to get closer and closer to this object. I immediately started thinking this is really terrific and all, but it would be really great if I could go back in time and see this band live. And then of course if I were back in 1928, then I would be thinking, God, I'm watching this great band, I wish I could be one of the musicians. You just can't get close enough.

It's hard to talk about, but something about Art School Confidential's ending was what it was like for me. Where you try to connect with this object of your fixation. In this case Jerome's (Max Minghella) obsession on this art model and he has this desire, but he can't quite get to it. It was very strong to me.

Your first couple of films were documentaries. How was the transition for you, going from documentary to narrative films?

It was tough. I had tried to actually contact a bunch of film directors who I admired. Everybody from David Lynch to Woody Allen to the Coen brothers, and I asked them, "Look, I have a chance, because my documentary Crumb, made some money, to direct a feature. I'm co-writing this thing and it looks like it's going to go and I have no idea how to get coverage and I have no idea how you're supposed to direct a film. I've never been on a film set. I've never been to film school. Can I come watch you shoot a film for a week? I won't get in the way. I won't say anything."

And they all said, "No, we don't allow anybody on the set."

Finally, I knew somebody who knew Francis Ford Coppola, someone who was working with him on Rainmaker, and she said, "He's shooting in Treasure Island. I'm sure he'd be happy to let you come."

He welcomed me there and it was the first time I saw Matt Damon, who was in that film. I think it was his first film, and I thought, Wow, this guy's really a good actor, this guy's going to be a movie star. You could just tell instantly. But it was this whole scene that took place in a courtroom and this jury is deliberating on whether or not this corporation is guilty and blah, blah, blah. I'm sitting there watching, and it was so complicated. And he had four cameras going at once.

He [Coppola] came up to me afterwards and said, "So did you learn anything?"

And I said, "I didn't learn a thing, what the hell is going on?"

And he said, "I should've warned you. This is the worst possible day you could've come to observe because frankly this is one of the hardest days I've had as a director, one of the more difficult days. What I'm doing is I'm picking up coverage for a scene I shot last week. I shot the master last week and now I have four cameras going at once to pick up little pieces to fit together."

God bless him for letting me watch anyway. And, you know, some of it carries over from documentary to feature, but dealing with actors is a whole other thing.

When we were talking before the interview, you mentioned your huge collection of 78s, similar to the Steve Buscemi character's in Ghost World. Was Steve's character based on you? [Terry was dressed exactly like the Steve's character when I interviewed him.]

I don't think I was really conscious of it at the time but through of series of circumstances it sort of shaped up that way. The costume designer, Mary Zophres, is always just top notch. She works with the Coen brothers and she's always sought after. She's just a brilliant woman. Early on, in pre-production, she'd ask me questions like, "How would the girls dress and how would Seymour dress?"

I said, "For the girls, you can just sort of look at the comic, that's a good start." But since Seymour isn't really in the comic and I added him to the script she wanted to know how he would dress. I said, "Well, he would just dress normal."

And she said, "I don't know what normal is to you."

So I actually took her out to a shopping mall in LA and we just sat there by an escalator where hundreds of people were coming, passing by us every minute. As they passed by I would talk about the way they were dressed or the way they looked and how it looked to me. What looked silly, what looked normal, what looked this, what looked that, and she sort of got an idea from that. But then after the film was over she confessed to me that the way she came up with his wardrobe was by just studying what I wore to the set everyday and just dressed him like me.

What's your work schedule like? Are you working everyday on your current or next project?

I'm trying to have a better work ethic. I used to be a lot lazier, but I'm trying to really work now. I've been co-writing a screenplay based on a book for Johnny Depp with this guy, Jerry Stahl, who did Permanent Midnight. He's really good writer in LA. He actually came to the Ghost World premiere in LA and introduced himself and I had never read anything he had written at that point. He gave me a couple of his novels while they were still in galley form like Perv, A Love Story. But I've never read Permanent Midnight. I'm actually reading it now; it's really a great book, so we've been emailing and writing that way and I'm going to go down there and try to spend a little time with him in person. But it's sort of been an interesting experience, working on that.

There was one scene in Art School Confidential that had me laughing so hard... It was the scene where the first nude model comes out for the class and his pubes are totally shaved and he has an arrogant stance. How did you keep from laughing during takes on that particular scene?

It was hard. That guy played a part in Ghost World. His name is Ezra Buzzington Jr., and his grandfather actually recorded records in the late 20s. One was a really great record, that I don't have a copy of, but Crumb has; and when he came in to audition for the part in Ghost World, where he played Weird Al the Waiter, I remembered seeing his resume and asking him, "Ezra Buzzington, Jr. How come you adapted this fake name from this old record, which is a really obscure record? How do you know about this record?"

And he said, "What do you mean?" He didn't even know there was a record. He said, "This is my grandfather." And it turned out his grandfather had this band, and he went home and got somebody to give him a photograph that he brought in and showed me. It was him. Unbelievable story.

So, he wanted to do this part [the nude model in Art School Confidential], and I said, "Man, you certainly have more courage than I have." I didn't want him to undress in my office. I didn't want him to audition. He doesn't really have any lines; he's just got to sit there. I asked the casting director if she could take a Polaroid of him naked because I needed to see what his body looked like to see if it would be funny or not - and he had shaved his pubes. I said, "Hire him, he's great." Yeah, he was great.

So he shaved his pubes for the audition?

[Laughing] I don't know if he did it for the sake of the film or if they were already. I didn't want to ask.

"The stories better have some sort of primal emotional interest." >>>

"I'm trying to have a better work ethic."
"The stories better have some sort of primal emotional interest."

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Tony DuShane
A frequent contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle, Tony DuShane hosts the radio show Drinks with Tony and edits the literary zine, Cherry Bleeds.

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