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"If there was a filmmaker that truly suffered for his art, it would be Terry Zwigoff."
"I make films to please myself first, and if the audience likes them, all the better."
"It's funny and entertaining and yet it gives you something to think about."
"I usually feel like a failure, a fraud, or a senile idiot..."
Terry Zwigoff  

Interviewed by Mark Sells
March 2006

If there was a filmmaker that truly suffered for his art, it would be Terry Zwigoff. Born and raised in Appleton, Wisconsin, Zwigoff grew up working a variety of dismal jobs, but managed to get by because of a fascination with rare comic books and music, interests that would eventually pave the way for his career in film. In fact, it was an interest in obscure blues musician Howard Armstrong that led to the creation of Terry's first film project, "Louie Bluie."

Yet, film success didn't come that easily. After nine years of chronic back pain and living off $200 a month, Zwigoff completed "Crumb," an unflinching portrait of underground comic artist, Robert Crumb. Filled with eccentricities, the film won over audiences, capturing the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. But rather than basking in theglory, Zwigoff went back to the grindstone, struggling for another five years to adapt "Ghost World," an unpretentious tale of two teen misfits. "Ghost World" went on to become the art house hit of 2000, earning several acting and achievement awards including an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. Then, Zwigoff retreated to his own world again, only to re-emerge with the cynical holiday hit, "Bad Santa."

In each and every film, Zwigoff finds solace in both real and fictional outsiders. Like Jerome Platz in "Art School Confidential." Platz is a talented young artist whose idealistic pursuit of artistic greatness seems to go unnoticed. Says Terry, "these characters seem more truthful and honest to me than the usual 'hero' you get in most films these days." In fact, they're the kind of characters that reflect upon a filmmaker whose own creative vision is nothing less than a work of art.

"Art School Confidential" Trailer

Reel Questions, Reel Answers

Jerome, Seymour, Willie, Robert Crumb. Many of your films are filled with eccentric characters, often isolated and misunderstood. Where do you look for inspiration? And what appeals to you about these characters?

I try and find characters I can relate to I suppose...these characters seem more truthful and honest to me than the usual 'hero' you get in most films these days. You know, some ruggedly handsome bruiser who just happens to be a scientist or some such escapist nonsense...

"Art School Confidential" is your second major collaboration with Daniel Clowes. How did the two of you meet? What is your relationship like? And do you see future collaborations with Daniel, perhaps an adaptation of "Ice Haven" or "Daniel Boring?"

I approached him about turning one of his comics into a film, and we sort of hit it off and became good friends - he's one of the smartest, funniest guys I've ever met. We wound up talking over the idea of adapting one of his comic stories and decided on "Ghost World." I'm currently working on something else with a different writer, but after that, Dan and I have another adaptation planned, although not either of the two you mention.

What specifically do you hope audiences around the world get from watching "Art School Confidential?"

I hope they get something of interest out of it, but I'd rather they all hate it and I like it, instead of vice versa...I make films to please myself first, and if the audience likes them, all the better.

You said, you've "stopped going to see art films because every critic gives them four stars and says things like 'masterpiece,' 'spellbinding,' and 'mesmerizing.' What would you like critics to say (or not say!) about "Art School Confidential?"

This was a paraphrasing of something I said to an interviewer years ago that got edited into something indecipherable...that's why I prefer to do interviews via email.

What I meant was that critics are usually way too easy on "Art Films" as long as they aspire to make some statement about politics or racism or whatever politically correct message - these films are almost always raved about, whether they're actually well-made films or not. It makes it difficult to decide which to go see, since no film about say, some tragic genocide in Africa is going to get a bad review even if it's poorly made.

What part or character in the film do you most identify with and why?

I'm afraid it would have to be "Jimmy", the self-pitying alcoholic failed artist or Jerome's "Doddering Aunt"...I usually feel like a failure, a fraud, or a senile idiot...

What was your favorite memory or moment from the making of "Art School Confidential?"

Hands down it would have to be filming the murder scene. I actually was so energized by being able to shoot it with jump cuts and no continuity worries, that I had a ball. I must have done over 40 set-ups that night! The crew was looking at me a little worried by the end of that evening because I was having such a carefree good time and they were used to me being rather more my usual worried, sour self. But it was so much fun - the murder victim was an actress I'd worked with before on "Ghost World" - (she was the woman who tries to buy Enid's dress at the garage sale) - and it was so much fun to work with her again. Plus, for once it was a relief not to have to do "comedy" which is so terribly difficult, although I suppose I couldn't help myself to some degree. The scene is intended to be funny on a certain level.

What was your worst or least favorite part?

That would be getting up at 5 am...I don't understand why film's shoot such brutal hours. I think it'd be worth it to not be so strictly cost-effective and have an 8 hour day. The film's would benefit in the end.

You've worked many difficult jobs in the past from shipping clerk to welfare office worker. Who or what inspired you to become a director? What inspires and motivates you today?

I was inspired to do anything I could to get out of what I was doing...today, I'm motivated to pay the bills.

Your relationship with Robert Crumb has certainly had its ups and downs over the years. How are things going today? And is there truth to a new collaborative effort, a la "The New Girlfriend?"

Another paraphrasing or straight-out bit of misinformation that found itself into print. I never had any falling out with Robert and remain close friends with him today. He had moments during the time I was following him around with a camera where he was getting sick of it, but it never changed our friendship. If anything, he became upset over how popular the film became, and how widely seen it was, but he didn't blame me for the film's success - it just caught him by surprise and brought him unwelcome attention. We wrote "The New Girlfriend" in the 1980's - it's a really good script that I should dig out now that I have some clout and try and get it made.

In your opinion, what differentiates an art film from the mainstream? And would you ever consider doing a mainstream film?

I suppose there's no black and white boundaries. There's actually the potential for a lot of gray area that overlaps between the two...that's what I liked about Dan's script to "ASC" - that it was a little bit of both, the best of both worlds to my way of thinking. It's funny and entertaining and yet it gives you something to think about - which is why the art house audience will hate it and also the mainstream audiences!

In "Ghost World," Seymour's record collection is actually a reflection of your very own. What is your most valuable or most cherished recording?

It would be hard to choose a favorite, but the Lionel Belasco recording of "Venezuala" that I used in "Ghost World" is among my favorite.

And what makes it so special?

It's a profoundly beautiful piece of music, that's all.

Lastly, what are you currently working on? What's next?

I'm writing something - I don't like to talk about these things...

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