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

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

Daniel Clowes started his career writing and drawing Eightball, a comic book series that was published by Fantagraphics Books alongside indie comic book legends such as R. Crumb. Clowes's screenplay for Ghost World was adapted from his comic series of the same name, and his latest, Art School Confidential, is also directed by Terry Zwigoff. I spoke with Daniel when Art School Confidential screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival last month.

Is Art School Confidential the first screenplay you've written without having a comic attached to it?

Well, actually there was a four-page comic I did in 1991 that was called "Art School Confidential." But it's more like a Mad magazine. It's the lighter side of art school rather than an actual story. So if I had adapted that directly into a film it would've been about four minutes.

What's the process like, going from comics to writing screenplays? Do you actually do any sketches while writing your script?

Yeah, you know I found, coming from comics, I had to sort of have a visual idea of what the characters looked like in order to write it. I started out writing this art school screenplay, and I just didn't quite have a handle on the characters. I got a sketchbook and I did sketches of every single character. I did 60 little drawings until I got them to look exactly the way I wanted them to look, and then it was much much easier to write after that.

Did any of those drawings help for the casting?

You know, it's funny. I got out the sketchbook to show to the casting woman and we got the idea that it was just sort of throwing her off because she figured we wanted people who looked exactly like these people. It wasn't really about their looks but about their overall feel. We kind of took it away, and then later, after the film was all cast, I went through the book and it was really amazing how some of the actors looked exactly like some of the drawings and some were so diametrically different. It was really interesting they were either exact - or way off.

Will your sketches be included on the DVD release?

Maybe so. There's actually a book of the screenplay where I put in a couple of those. Maybe I'll do a facsimile edition someday or something.

How autobiographical is this film? Especially the character John Malkovich plays as the art school professor - did you have anyone in mind while writing him?

Yeah, though I really shouldn't get any more specific than that. [laughs] You know I did go to art school in the late 70s, early 80s, and my experience was as a kid from Chicago moving to the heart of Brooklyn, New York, right during the most crime-filled years. So my experience in art school was sort of this crazy scene. I was in this art school world where we were in the throes of the early 80s art boom. Then I was living in this really scary, dangerous pre-Giuliani New York. It was really this kind of exciting trial by fire experience for me. This movie in some way is sort of a dream version of that, where it's almost like having a nightmare about my years in art school.

What's that like for you, seeing parts of your life on the big screen?

It's a very strange experience. It's like being able to project your thoughts in a way. And of course, I have such specific ideas how everything would look that for something to be even slightly off is very frustrating. Of course, the process of making movies, especially when I'm not directing the movie myself, it's a very collaborative thing. It's an odd experience to see your vision of the world as filtered through somebody else's vision. It can be very disconcerting in a way.

Were you on set when Terry was shooting?

Yeah, both this film and Ghost World, I was pretty much around the whole time to give him moral support.

Were there last minute rewrites on the set?

Yeah, especially on low budget films, you're always having to rewrite. You get there in the morning and there's horrible street noise and you have to move to a different location all of a sudden and you have to rewrite entire scenes based on a new location or you realize you don't have time to shoot four pages and you just have to cut it down to two, things like that. So you really have to think on your feet, which is not easy when you have to get up at five in the morning and go to the set. It's a crazy experience. You have six weeks or so of daily insanity for twelve hours a day. It'd be fun to make a movie if you could work three hours a day on it. But I could sort of see why they wouldn't want to spend the money for that.

And the continuity of haircuts and beard growth would be crazy.

There's a job for a guy to look for that type of stuff, but even so, the guy is always missing stuff because there's so much going on. I would find myself saying, "No, that pen moved in that shot."

A lot of it doesn't really matter. People would say don't worry, nobody will notice that.

If you watch movies, after having made a movie, like a restaurant scene where they're cutting back between two angles, you'll see glasses moving all over the place and stuff just flying around. Even in really good director's films - like the Coen brothers. Nobody really cares about that stuff, and I don't think you really even notice it until you've had to watch movies in an editing room hundreds of times and all of a sudden that stuff becomes very, very prominent. It's very frustrating as a movie watcher.

I love cigarettes. If there's a cigarette in the scene, I want to see ash continuity.

[Laughing] Yeah, and since this movie's set in art school, every character smokes, so please don't watch the ashes in this film, that's all I can say.

I watched it last night and I didn't notice any issues.

[Laughing] Good. Watch it four more times.

I probably will because I really like the film. What's it like collaborating with Terry Zwigoff and how did you hook up with him?

Terry was a reader of my comics years ago and thought I might be a good guy to work with after he had finished his film, Crumb. We just got to know each other and wound up working on Ghost World together. I find him the funniest guy in the world, sort of unintentionally sometimes. He's got this really hilarious dark worldview. Almost everything he says cracks me up, even after all these years. My main goal in writing this film was to write something that Terry would respond to. It was really the only thing I have ever written in my whole career that was written for a very specific audience, and that was for Terry Zwigoff. I'm not sure he's emblematic of the audience at large out there, but for me it's gratifying to hear him laugh when he's reading the pages anyway.

Ghost World was your first comic adapted into a film. What was it like finding out it was going to be a film?

We started working on it in 1997 or '98, and then we had a pretty decent version of the script, I would say, by 1999, if not earlier. Then it was two long years before we got the financing for it, so it was just a horrible, draining experience. Now I can go through it because I sort of know what to expect. But at the time, when you hear things like, "Yeah, on Wednesday they're going to make their decision," and then you sit by the phone all day on Wednesday and you can't get anybody on the phone, and then it's Thursday and Friday and another two weeks... It's just draining because you're gearing your whole life for this thing to happen, where you're going to have to move to LA and work on this film for two months or whatever. By the time it was actually made I was so beaten down that I kind of lost the excitement of having it made. It was almost like a consolation prize.

In your writing there's a lot of loneliness, repressed sexuality and characters who are generally outcasts and you write it all with such authenticity. How do you tap that creatively? Is it a reliving of experiences?

Yeah, I'm writing the kind of things that are sort of primal in my unconscious. I think I was quite a lonely, repressed adolescent and I think that certainly lingers into adulthood. I'm interested in exploring those kinds of issues and those things have sort of a visceral appeal to me. Really, especially in writing the comics you have to devise stories that will keep you interested in the span of a year; sitting in a drawing room alone by yourself, looking at a blank piece of paper. So the stories better have some sort of primal emotional interest to you or you'll never get through it. So it all comes from stuff that's part of me I guess.

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"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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