Terry Zwigoff's newest and most mordantly comic view of the world turns toward the ugliness of schools—in Art School Confidential, opening May 12.
In person, Zwigoff looks like a Charlie Chaplin who'd finally wised up, a Bad Chaplin, because of a small dark mustache and a well-earned look of suspiciousness.
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A Bay Area-based documentary maker turned to fiction, Zwigoff is a longtime member of the intrepid string band the Cheap Suit Serenaders. Zwigoff previously made Crumb, Ghost World, and the holiday classic Bad Santa. Art School Confidential is his second collaboration with Oakland-based cartoonist/writer Dan Clowes.
METRO: I'd expected something high-spirited from Art School Confidential, but this is seriously dark—maybe your darkest film.
Zwigoff: It starts playful and silly and then it gets a little darker as it goes. I like that about the script. I discussed that with the director of photography from the start; let's initially reflect the fact that it's getting darker in the lighting and the costume design.
METRO: At the same time, it's about a student who goes to college and tries to lose his virginity. I guess it could be sold as National Lampoon's Art School. Did you think any of the teachers in your film had a valid method of teaching?
Zwigoff: There's only so much you can teach, you know; a lot of it is so much has to do with natural technique, and the rest comes from something that's harder to put your finger on. Robert Crumb used to complain bitterly about Frank Frazetta, a tremendous draughtsman, and cross-hatcher and artist... but his stuff is just crap. And Crumb would always have it thrown at him the "Frazetta is the best comic-book artist, you're the second best." To him this was a huge insult. What's so good about Frank Frazetta besides technique?
Technique isn't everything, though it sure helps. The same thing is true in cinema. There's a lot of stuff out there that's very flashy for my taste. The kind of films I wind up really liking are generally from the '40s and '50s ... It's difficult to do what these guys did directly, and yet it's not quite as gimmicky. It's more elegant.
METRO: I find the pacing in old films is faster, despite modern-day cutting. Today you've got more momentum, but all the editing is used to reiterate the dumber material.
Zwigoff: This is the little I learned in the acting classes that I went to: if a performance seems really slow, your tendency is as a director is to ask the actor to do it faster. Truthfully, the problem is that what's going on isn't very good, and the actor hasn't made the right choice yet.
METRO: Velocity does help, sometimes. I like the Gilmore Girls as television, but I think what makes it special is just that it's better-than-average sitcom material played double-time.
Zwigoff: I'd never seen Lauren Graham's TV show when I cast her. She came in audition for Bad Santa. It's an underwritten part, and I'd been worried how to cast it. She did as good a job as anyone I could think of.
METRO: She has that bewitching smile and that air of naughtiness, so it's easy to believe her. Sure, why not, she's a Santa fetishist. I thought the last shot in Art School Confidential was the most astonishing thing you've done so far.
Zwigoff: I like that end shot. That's what hooked me, that and the beginning shot, when the audience gets punched in the face. My interpretation—I don't know if Dan Clowes thinks this is what it's about—but to me, I approached the film, as a collector of records and other objects [would]. It's like, this thing you're obsessed with, you're trying to get close to, and there's this distance you can't quite close...
Years ago, there was a record I had by Whistler's Jug Band. A black jug band, a great record. I'd listen and think, "Too bad there isn't a photo, I'd really like to see what they look like." And then a few years later, a photo turned up. Some collector found it. I thought, "Wow, unbelievable! God, it's too bad a film doesn't exist." A few years later a film turned up. These guys are playing a whole song, three minutes long, and it's intense. I watch the film, and I'm elated. For about three minutes... and then 10 seconds pass, and—the way my mind works—eh, it's nice to see the film, but it really would have been great to see them in person. I wish I could go back in a time machine—but of course if I did go back in a time machine, I just would have sat there and gone, "Ah, it's really nice to see these guys play, but I'd really like to be in that band."
I just can't close that distance. There was something going on in that Crumb film... I was trying to get close to this mysterious source of talent that all three of these brothers had, and I didn't quite know where it was coming from, that's what was driving me. It's hard to even talk about this stuff...
METRO: I understand completely. What's kept me going as a film critic for all these years are similar obsessions, trying to find that mystery. George Cukor says that a movie star is a person with a secret, you never find out what it is. But you keep looking and looking.
Zwigoff: One scene I liked is Jerome's scene with Jimmy, played by Jim Broadbent.
METRO: Broadbent was sensational.
Zwigoff: He's a dream to work with. Such a sweet guy, so humble. What a privilege to be in the room with this guy.
METRO: His character is drinking slivovitz, and that makes me wonder if Jimmy was supposed to be a Central European in the original script.
Zwigoff: Dan had had the idea that he could be like that Hungarian comedian, Dr. Irwin Corey, with the long necktie.... I was also thinking of Stanislav Szukalski (1893-1987)* who did these giant bronze sculptures. He was an obsessive deranged individual, with crazy theories of racial supremacy.
When casting the part, I thought of Jim Broadbent. I was real stubborn about it, and the studio gave me a hard time. The lead actors are both British, so they expected me to cast John Malkovich in the part. But I thought that Malkovich would be too much what the audience would expect in that particular role. I thought: let's get someone who looks like a milquetoast. And Jim Broadbent is a good enough actor, that he'll certainly be able to do something with the part.
I hardly had to tell him anything, except a few tiny little things, like using the newspaper to cover the pile of vomit on the floor. He kept throwing the newspaper like he was angry. I said, "Do it casual, like you couldn't care less." It took 26 takes. He said, "You're the most obsessive director I've ever worked with." A great compliment, of course.
I used to know some girl who was a heroin addict, she'd used to puke all over the floor of her apartment. You know, you do heroin, you vomit. I picked up a magazine, and it was stuck to the floor with dried vomit. If she puked, she'd just throw a magazine on the floor over it and nod out.
METRO: Making Jimmy the mad artist not Slavic, or not comic-Slavic, seems a crucial decision. Unfortunately, when American audiences hear someone with a Central European accent, they can dismiss what he's saying, "Eh, another hyperbolic Hungarian..."
Zwigoff: That's exactly what I thought. Let's have him be a failed artist, but not a crackpot. I saw him as a failed blueblood, like if William F. Buckley hit the bottom.
METRO: Can you tell me about the use of classical music in your films?
Zwigoff: I didn't go into this film or Bad Santa thinking about classical music, but music from the 1920s didn't fit. The first version of the title sequence, starts out like a mainstream Animal House, with a college campus. My editor found some music that made the picture cut so perfectly. But it wasn't me, it was like a film by Harold Ramis or Rob Reiner.
I like those guys' films, don't get me wrong, but it didn't seem like my film anymore. We searched and searched. Dan had this one CD of a marching band that he was saving for a TV show he was going to do with HBO that never got off the ground. He brought it into the recording, and that's what we used.
I'm not 100 percent musically happy with Ghost World, either. If I have any criticism of my earlier films, it's that the music didn't quite work. It's as much my fault as the composers. The only films I thought the music was fine in were my first two films, the documentaries.
METRO: You're not even happy with the scene of Billy Bob Thornton throwing up in the snow to the music of a Chopin nocturne?
Zwigoff: There's this music in Sophie's Choice that is so haunting and beautiful. That's what I wanted. I didn't know anything about classical music, apart from the really well-known compositions. I went to a classical music store in Berkeley when we were cutting the film out there. I wanted something with a very strong melody but simple. We combed through stacks of CDs. It was like trying to find a needle in a haystack. What we found was probably not the right needle, but it works.
METRO: Did you go to school yourself?
Zwigoff: I went to the University of Wisconsin at Madison. I didn't take any art or film classes, they didn't offer them anyway back then. I took the easiest things I could find. I looked over the majors and decided psychology would be easiest. I decided against English lit. I didn't want to read the complete works of Chaucer.
I just goofed off so much, and did the bare minimum to get by. And I didn't have many inspiring teachers except for Irving Saposnik. He taught us Lolita, and I remember thinking, oh, this guy can talk about it, and get you thinking and really pick your brain. He was a good instructor. So layered, that book.
I picked up Nabokov hitchhiking. It was during Xmas break in upstate New York. Me and my girlfriend were staying in some hippie commune. You weren't supposed to drive because of the snowstorm. I had to get cross town, we were the only car on the street. There was this guy hitchhiking, and he was wearing that same parka Nabokov is wearing on the book jacket. I asked him if he was Nabokov, and he pretended not to speak English. I'd swear it was him.
METRO: Could be! I seem to remember he never learned to drive, and that Vera had to motor him everywhere. Incidentally, why is John Malkovich's production company called "Mr. Mudd"?
Zwigoff: John had a driver on location during the filming of The Killing Fields. He used to call the driver Mr. Mudd, I don't know why. The guy had told him he'd killed a bunch of people... sometimes he'd drive like he was going to run down a bicyclist on the roadside, and then pull back at the last minute: "Sometime Mr. Mudd kill, sometimes Mr. Mudd not kill."
METRO: As a collector, do you find that the Internet sometimes spoils the fun of the chase?
Zwigoff: The quality of the info you get is so low grade sometimes. The first thing I look up is myself, of course, and there's Terry Zwigoff trivia facts, and every one of them is wrong. "His first choice to play Bad Santa was Larry David." I like Larry David but where do they come up with this? It could have come from some interview where I said I liked him...
METRO: Now that there are portable cameras that are so easily available, do you ever think of making a film with one?
Zwigoff: Never. I tried doing that with Crumb, when I ran out of money for film, and I couldn't fly out [cinematographer] Maryse Alberti from New York to shoot. I brought a video camera to try to film Robert Crumb for the day. I just couldn't direct and film at the same time. It was terrible. Some of the footage was good., but it didn't warrant mixing the media to have the film shot on film, and a section of film shot on video and transferred. I've seen a few people who can do it, like Les Blank, who can actually shoot and direct at the same time and it turns out well.
METRO: What's next for you?
Zwigoff: I'm working on adapting this novel for Johnny Depp called Happy Days by Laurent Graff. I flew down to L.A., fully expecting to hate the guy; I don't like celebrities or movie stars too much, in general. I liked him, I had a good feeling about him. I talked to him about it, a hard book to adapt, and I don't know if I want to tackle this. For some reasons I was about to say, "Jerry Stahl." I like Stahl's writing. He's so completely opposite to the sensibility of this French novel. And Stahl's stuff is so gritty and crazy. Depp says, "I love Jerry Stahl, I love his writing," so they sent him the book. We're going to do the script together by email.
METRO: And there's a new version of Bad Santa due ...
Zwigoff: Disney will be releasing the DVD closer to Christmas. My version is not raunchier, just more consistent. I thought the studio's version ended up being choppy and not very smooth. I'm so thrilled to get it right, and it's very satisfied as a filmmaker. It's different, I like the Disney version OK; it's 85 percent my film, but [gesturing to a nearby glass of water] if this was 85 percent water, and I pissed in the rest of it, you wouldn't want to drink it.
METRO: Ah, no one notices the briny taste, it's Christmas.
Zwigoff: Personally if I see a film, and it has three good scenes, two good scenes, I'm happy to recommend it to people.
*from an essay by the artist Jim Woodring on Szukalski.com: "Ben Hecht in his 1954 autobiography A Child of the Century describes the 20-year-old Szukalski he met in 1914 as starving, muscular, aristocratic and smoldering with disdain for lesser beings than himself. When an influential art critic favored Szukalski's art studio with his presence and appraisingly touched a statue with the tip of his cane, Szukalski seized the stick, broke it, and roughly threw it and his potential benefactor out into the street. ... In fact he categorically loathed all art critics and invariably repaid their admirations with profound contempt." [Thus always to such parasites!—RvB]
Art School Confidential (R; 102 min.), directed by Terry Zwigoff, written by Daniel Clowes, photographed by Jamie Anderson and starring Max Minghella and Sophia Myles, opens May 12 at selected theaters.
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