Capone's CONFIDENTIAL interview with ART SCHOOL's Terry Zwigoff!!!
Hey, everyone. Capone in Chicago here. Any year that features a new release
by director Terry Zwigoff is a good year. It’s an extra-special added bonus
that his latest work, the wonderful ART SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL, features a
screenplay by Daniel Clowes, who wrote what is arguably Zwigoff’s finest
work, GHOST WORLD. Although, I think a room had been set aside to conduct
most of the Chicago interviews with Zwigoff that day, since I was his first
appointment of the day (9:15 a.m., ouch!), he opted to conduct the
interrogation in his hotel suite while he ate his raisin bran and coffee
But first he insisted on showing me his opulent bathroom, which he insisted
was far too nice for his purposes and was a prime example of the excesses he
tries to avoid whenever possible. After realizing he may have accidentally
stepped atop a soap box, he apologized for the speeches and sat down to eat
Capone: Starting with ART SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL, are you fearful that legions
of art school students will think you’re making fun of them, come and hunt
you down, and force you to pose nude for their drawing classes?
Terry Zwigoff: I’m fearful of many things--almost everything, thanks to my
mother--but that’s not one of them.
C: Did it ever cross your mind the reaction of the people you were making
the film about might be?
TZ: Never did. Truthfully, I never did. Today is the first time I’ve ever
had that question, which is a new one for me. But no, I always thought that
anybody in art school would want to go see this film. The trick would be to
get anybody else to go see it. What they thought of it, I don’t care. If I
like it, I’m happy. For them, it’s just like, it’s great if they like it, if
they don’t like it, well, whatever, what can I do?
C: The movie is an interesting bit of trickery--I mean that in the best
possible way--where it starts out being a comedy, perhaps a frustrated
romantic comedy, but you turn it almost into a horror film by the end.
TZ: That’s what I loved about the script. It was all intentional, all
intended. We were all conscious of it. Some people said they didn’t know
what we were doing. It’s like, “Euww, it’s just all...they’re all screwed
up, nearly half way through, the film doesn’t know what it wants to be.”
That’s EXACTLY what it wants to be.
People may not want to go there. I’ve seen it with a lot of test audiences
and other types of screenings. The stuff people respond to you can almost
predict. Well, if they audibly respond to it and you hear them laugh, which
isn’t always a foolproof method of judging what works and what doesn’t, but
I get the sense that they like things that to me are just “Eh, okay,” and
people would laugh there, but I don’t like that. It’s not very interesting
to me. It’s like an easy laugh or something. They probably don’t like the
stuff I like about it. For instance, in that scene where Jerome is home
having Thanksgiving with his parents and his little, bratty sister. And, his
parents find out he’s not gay, and they go in the kitchen and hug, and the
door swings open and you just get a glimpse of them hugging each other,
jumping up an down. That’s just like sitcom humor to me. I just wasn’t that
thrilled with that and yet, it’s okay, it’s fine, it’s humorous, you know,
and I filmed it that way, but the audience loves it.
C: I think the swinging door is what makes it funnier. That’s what separates
it from sitcom humor. It’s more of a glimpse of the parents’ glee than a
deliberate move. It’s almost like an afterthought.
TZ: I certainly had the opportunity in the editing room to cut it either
way. In fact, it was written, I believe, where it didn’t specify the door
swings open. It just said, You go in the other room, in the kitchen, and you
can hear through the door the response of audible relief and...I think we
filmed it once and the door swung, and I used that take. But, to me, its
like, yeah okay, that’s...whatever, it’s slightly humorous. It’s lighter
though, it’s lighter, it’s more sitcommy, it serves that moment, it’s
indicative of what the audience tends to respond to, whereas I like the
heavier stuff, the darker stuff myself.
C: Which really starts to creep in...I think the first time you really get
the sense that it might go somewhere darker is when we first meet the Jim
Broadbent character, the failed artist who still gives advice to new
students. At first you think it’s just going to be another funny scene, and
it gets psychotic before the boys leave the apartment.
TZ: I like Jim Broadbent. He’s a fantastic actor, a phenomenal actor. I
liked him very much personally, too. It’s a privilege just being in the room
with that guy.
C: He keeps busy, too. He pops up in movies you don’t expect sometimes. I
don’t even think I knew he was in this film when I sat down to see it.
TZ: He’s so phenomenal an actor, though, he’s so humble. It’s so rare to
find. The British are so...they have this whole different attitude, British
actors that I’ve worked with, versus American actors, where they’re sort of
in service of the director instead of vice-versa.
C: Did he have to audition for that, because it’s a tricky...?
TZ: No, no way. I’ll tell you how he got cast. I read the script, and for
some reason, the first guy that popped into my head to play Jimmy was always
Broadbent. John Malkovich read the script--he’s one of the producers--and he
expressed interest in playing Jimmy, instead of Professor Sandiford. Dan
[Clowes] had actually written the part of Professor Sandiford for him,
tailored it for John, and John, of course, wants to do this other part. I
said, “Nah, nah.” I didn’t want to see him do stuff he always plays like a
menacing, crazy guy. I thought it would be more interesting to have somebody
else do it. So, the first guy that popped in my head was Jim Broadbent. I
don’t know why, and I think it’s because of the way looked, because he looks
sort of mild mannered and always plays, like, a Milquetoast husband, or
whatever, oftentimes. Very dignified and, obviously, he’s clearly one of the
great actors alive, so I thought it would be interesting to see what he does
with it. Certainly, you don’t ask a guy like that to audition. You see what
he’s going to do.
He came to the set, and the first day, we just had to rehearse...we were
setting up lights really. We set up the lights, and we went off to
rehearse...or vice-versa really, we sort of sit in the set, walk through it,
rehearse a little bit, and then you figure out where the camera’s going to
be and set the lights accordingly...but I didn’t quite know what he was
going to do until we started. I didn’t give him that much direction.
There’s one point where I did 26 takes of one little thing, and he thought I
was crazy. He went off muttering that day, “You are the most obsessive
director I’ve ever worked with.” But, I took that to be a good thing. He was
sort of, you know, pleasant about it, he wasn’t frustrated, but you know
that thing where he’s supposed to pick up a newspaper after Jerome pucks and
just sort of toss it on the floor. He kept doing that, real directional so
it would hit in the right place, but it gave the impression he was angry,
like he was upset over it. I said, “No, no, that can’t be angry. This is
like an everyday occurrence to him.” He said, “Why would it be that? Does he
often throw up himself?” I said, “Well, I sort of based him on this girl I
met in San Francisco years ago.” Someone wanted me to do a documentary on
this woman, who was a heroin addict, and they said, “Her life’s really
interesting...she lives in this squalor...you gotta go meet her.” They took
me to her house. And, she had these newspapers all over the floor,
magazines. “Pick one of those up.” I couldn’t pick one up, it was stuck to
the floor with vomit, dried vomit, right. And, then later, I had occasion to
actually see her first hand vomit. I guess heroin addicts, when they shoot
up, get nauseous, and they vomit. So, I saw her do this thing, and she threw
the newspaper like she was, like literally, taking out her comb and combing
her hair...it was such a natural thing that I loved it, and I wanted to
recreate that. He thought I was insane.
C: The impression I got was that he didn’t even really look where he threw
TZ: Didn’t even look, because he was such an expert...
C:...just throwing it in that direction.
TZ: Yeah, whatever, we’ll get half of it covered. That’ll be fine.
C: When Malkovich signed on, how much easier did it get to make this film?
I don’t mean financially, I mean in your head...
TZ: I thought he was a big deal. The studio always gave the impression...I
have to preface this that the studio was very nice to me, so...I don’t want
to knock them, United Artists. This was their last film, and I loved United
Artists, and I hope the name doesn’t disappear. But, I have to say, they
were...I thought once, you know...okay, we have Johnny Malkovich, I thought
they would just say “Here’s the green light, here’s your money.” And, it
wasn’t that easy. He didn’t have a starring role, he had more of a
supporting role. They really want an ensemble cast of names, and I had no
aversion to that, I mean, it’s great to work with actors of that caliber,
like Anjelica Huston or Jim Broadbent or Steve Buscemi, John Malkovich. It
just makes your job so much easier as a director. It’s just often hard to
get all their schedules to line up, and get into town at the same date, sell
them on the script, and sell them on you as the director. The biggest
problem I had was early on when I cast Jim Broadbent. I really fought for
Jim Broadbent, and the studio, they said, “We know who Jim Broadbent is, but
American public, nobody knows who he is. Nobody cares.”
C: I disagree with that.
TZ: I disagreed with it, too. I said, “Well, smarter people know.” It was
also right after I cast the two young leads, Max Minghella and Sophia Myles,
who are both British, and then the studio said, “You know you’re casting all
Brits, right?” This is the third guy I cast—another Brit. And, they just
thought I was going to cast the whole film British. They thought I was
insane. They said, “No, that’s the last Brit...the Brits are good actors,
but...” Believe me, I’d love nothing better than to put together my own
little repertory theater of them, but I’ll do the rest with Americans.
C: Working with Daniel again as your screenwriter...
TZ: He was screenwriter, coproducer, and artistic consultant on this film.
C: As a screenwriter, what does he bring to his screenplays that you find so
TZ: Good dialogue.
C: Is that it? Or, is there more to it?
TZ: For me, I don’t care about the plot. Never interests me in a movie. I
remember seeing that movie with Jessica Lange, THE MUSIC BOX, where she
doesn’t know if her father was a Nazi criminal or not. At the end...I still
don’t remember. They open the music box, oh, was it this way? Who cares?
It’s all about the character, about the performance, the dialogue. That’s
what’s interesting to me.
Somebody wants me to do a remake of this great Louis Malle film ELEVATOR TO
THE GALLOWS that I thought was a great film.
C: They just re-released that in theatres not that long ago, in advance of
the DVD release from Criterion.
TZ: I have to get it. Criterion does all the great stuff. They just did this
film, QUAI DES ORFEVRES, did you ever see that Clouzot film, 1947? One of
the great masterpieces ever, a truly phenomenal film. The first half is set
in a music hall, the second half in a police station. It has Louis Jouvet in
it as the police inspector. Just a beautiful film.
C: ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS is a fantastic film.
TZ: Yeah, that’s a beautiful film, too. And, I said, “Remake this? How am I
going to get the....Jeanne Moreau, you know, she’s the whole film. What am I
going to do?”
“Well, we’ll just get like some young ingenue. We’ll get Mandy Moore to play
the part or...Lindsay Lohan or something.” Yeah, that’d be good!
C: Speaking of Daniel, I know he’s done a draft about the kids that did the
RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK remake in the 1980s.
TZ: Right, he’s doing that for Scott Rudin. I’d be very interested to see it
myself. I met those guys briefly; they certainly are likeable guys.
C: They brought the film to Chicago last year and played it at Columbia. It
was a benefit event that sold out in very quickly.
TZ: They’re the kids you want to root for, you know.
C: Between you and Daniel, which of you had the idea to turn Daniel’s comic
ART SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL into a film? What was the appeal?
TZ: He wrote it. He drew it. It’s a four-page comic strip he did years ago.
And, I didn’t remember it very well, but I did remember of all the things he
had ever drawn--I’d probably seen most of them--it was the funniest comic he
had ever done. So, we were looking for another project to do after GHOST
WORLD. Then, I was about to go do BAD SANTA, but, we had talked about doing
another film together, we always wanted to work together. And, I said, “What
about ART SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL? That’s one of the funniest things you ever
And, I went back and looked at it with that in mind. It’s just these little,
like, Mad magazine gags, and we stole them all for GHOST WORLD anyway...you
know, tampon-in-a-teacup gag.
But, he said, “You know, I’d really like to do a film set in art school,
‘cause it’s a whole little world that nobody’s really set a film in, It
could be really interesting.” I said, “Well, see ya’ later. I’m going go to
do this BAD SANTA thing. Take a pass at it, and then I’ll give you notes,
because I’m not going to write it with you.” It’s not a world I grew up in.
I don’t know it, which put me in an interesting predicament, directing it.
It was very much a challenge to me to try to get that world correct, not
having ever witnessed it first hand really, except for a little bit of
C: So in terms of doing the research and preparation for making the film...
TZ: I didn’t do much!
C: Maybe Daniel would have more of an opinion on this, but, having many
people in my family attend art school in New York and Chicago, is it a
useful institution in your estimation or is it just a place to weed out the
TZ: Well, I wish I had gone to some sort of art school or film school. I
can’t help but think it would be beneficial in some sense, just to learn the
basics of your craft, whether it’s composition or perspective, whatever. All
that stuff helps, whether you’re making a film or making a painting. Buy,
yeah, it has its [merits]. Certainly, the art school that Dan experienced
was fraught with these elements that he was still angry about. He still had
an axe to grind about the injustice and it not being very fair. I mean, art
is so subjective, which is sort of what the film is partially about. One of
the themes of the film is how subjective the nature of art is.
C: I was going to ask you about that. What do you think in the art school
world is more important--talent or connections or some kind of notoriety
surrounding you, like in this film?
TZ: Sometimes the notoriety and the connections outweigh the merit of a
piece. I mean, I went to some really rich woman’s house--and I mean really
rich, I won’t give her name, but probably one of the 100 wealthiest families
in the world--for dinner. She had hanging on the wall a canvas that was
about the size of that wall [points to a large wall in his hotel room], and
it was just all black. And, there was somebody there who was an art critic,
and I asked him, “So, what’s the deal with that over there?” And, she had
terrible art all over her house. The guy said, “She paid $2 million for
that. Really great, isn’t it?” And, I said, “Omigod, how do I get in on this
There was a guy who handles Robert Crumb’s artwork, this gallery in New York
that was selling these placemats he used to doodle on in a restaurant in
France, and he used to leave them there at this restaurant in this village
where he lived. And, the American guy that owned the restaurant--unbeknownst
to Crumb--saved up about 50 of them, sent them to an art gallery in New
York, and they started selling for 6,000 bucks a piece, like that. And,
Crumb found out and was sort of peeved about it and made the guy give him
free meals for life after that. I talked to the gallery owner, and I said,
“Well, which of these sell, because I have a couple drawings of Robert’s
that I think are just unbelievably more detailed, and there was more thought
and time...these are just sort of doodles he’s drawing there, and these sell
for $6,000. What could I get for this portrait of Robert Johnson that he
spent a lot of time crosshatching and looks like Hogarth did it or
“Oh, that isn’t very valuable. What’s valuable about these...” And, then he
tells me how he sells them to the customers. It’s like...here I can say,
“Look, he spilled a little bit of his breakfast...The artist actually
touched it.” And, then the rich idiot who buys it can say, “Aw, I’m closer
to the artist. I must have this one.” It’s all sort of how you position it
and how it’s sold and how it’s marketed and promoted. That has a lot to do
C: Did you find any parallels between that world and, say, filmmaking?
TZ: [Dripping with sarcasm] No-o-o-o. We don’t see any parallels there.
[Laughs] There are quite a few actually.
C: I like Ethan Suplee’s character of Vince the film student.
TZ: Somebody in Film Threat magazine gave this film the most scathing review
I’ve ever seen, and I really believe it’s because Vince is wearing a Film
Threat t-shirt. It was one of the few things we could clear; I didn’t have
an axe to grind...
C: By the end, he turns into Kevin Smith, though. He’s wearing a Kevin Smith
TZ: Someone told me that, yeah. To me, it was always more about this
guy...there was a documentary called OVERNIGHT--did you ever see this thing?
It’s about a guy who gets signed to a three-picture deal--bartender, THE
C: It’s the best documentary I’ve ever seen about letting a little bit of
fame go to your head.
TZ: Vince is more based on that guy. He becomes insufferably arrogant in
about 30 seconds. He goes from bartender to Quentin Tarantino, he thinks.
C: I just heard that guy is doing something else now that’s related to...
TZ: Oh-h-h, God. I hope it’s not film.
C: It is. I don’t think it’s his film though, but it’s something related to
the film industry. Part of a documentary project. I don’t know if it’s a
reality show or something.
TZ: That was a great documentary. I loved it. It was more influenced by
that...then I realized, Oh yeah, he sort of looks like Kevin Smith. That’s
alright. The guy from Film Threat was so angry...he was like, “Terry Zwigoff
really craps his pants on this one, and the stench that follows will invade
theaters everywhere”...and on and on. What did I do to piss this guy off so
much? It’s funny.
C: It certainly didn’t come across as a slam against Film Threat magazine.
Maybe he just didn’t like the film.
TZ: Film Threat gave me the first good review I ever had in my life for
Crumb. There’s a guy named Paul Zimmerman, who used to work for them. He
said, “It’s the best film of the year.” And, after that, Roger Ebert said
that, and I used Ebert’s quote on the poster. Zimmerman was a little...I
could tell he was a little disappointed I didn’t use his quote, ‘cause he
said it first, and I used Ebert’s quote. What can I do--Roger Ebert over
Film Threat. I gotta go with his quote.
C: You’re obviously not the first person to make a film about people who
aren’t typically film subjects. You mentioned art school doesn’t usually get
a lot of play on screen, but what is it about these characters, these sort
of outcast, isolated characters that draws you to them? I’m guessing there’s
something of yourself you see in them...
TZ: I don’t quite see them so much as marginalized outsiders. I always get
sort of pigeon-holed that I make films about the disenfranchised and the
outsider and the marginalized--and that’s true to some extent.
C: I’d say the characters might feel that way about themselves.
TZ: Well, maybe so.
C: Maybe more than you see them that way.
TZ: I don’t know why. I guess it’s more interesting to me than making a film
about a guy like Ben Affleck, the type of guy who’d usually play a much more
mainstream character. Those people aren’t that interesting to me. But, I
don’t know what it is. Somebody wrote an article that I just saw in Film
Comment about my body of work--be it as it may, it’s small, little body of
work of, like, five films--and three of the five films that they chose--they
had a photo from each film--and three of the five photos were of guys
wearing flannel bathrobes, filthy flannel bathrobes stained with food--Jim
Broadbent, Charles Crumb, Steve Buscemi. It was the first time I ever even
realized...and they didn’t make any comment about it in the article, but I
just looked at it and started laughing, like, Oh, wow, the flannel bathrobe
is a thing in my body of work here.
C: Let me ask you about some of the younger cast members. The character
Jerome goes through most of the film looking sort of naive and
desperate--desperate for fame, really--but, he makes probably the shrewdest
move of anybody in the film at the end. Was there something about Max
Minghella that made you he’s pull off playing someone that conniving?
TZ: Not really. I can’t honestly say that I saw that in him. His essence to
me, if you will, was just like a really pretty likeable, sweet guy, Max.
Very, very smart, very sensitive, very un-Hollywood. I’d been casting in
L.A. and couldn’t find a guy to play this part. There were certainly no big
stars that I could find who seemed right. Most of the guys I was
interviewing looked like they go to the gym and then put gel in their hair
and, you know, go work on their tan, and go clubbing. I met him in San
Francisco after he was on the set of a film that a friend of mine was
producing, and the guy called me up. This guy Albert Berger was doing this
film BEE SEASON.
C: Max played the young lead’s brother, right?
TZ: Right. He just called me and said, “Why don’t you come have lunch. I
haven’t seen you in a while. We’re shooting a film in San Francisco.” So, I
went down there at lunch, and I said, “Who’s in the film?” He said, “Richard
Gere. He’s over there. That kid, Max Minghella.” I said, “Hmm, how old is
that kid.” And, then I went and talked to him, and he impressed me, and I
asked him to audition, which he did up in his hotel room a couple of days
later at the Claremont Hotel in Oakland. He was good. I thought he could
actually pull it off. But, I hadn’t really seen anything he had ever done,
so I was little bit worried, and I was a little bit worried about the
British accent disappearing.
C: I don’t think I’ve ever heard him with a British accent.
TZ: Yeah, the studio wanted to meet with him before he got hired. I think he
went and didn’t try to hide the British accent, and they just didn’t think
he could lose it, but I think it’s pretty easy for actors to do, especially
C: The first two times that I ever saw him in SYRIANA and BEE SEASON, I
never would have guessed he was British. If I’d know he was Anthony
Minghella’s son, I probably would have guessed he was British.
C: And then, where did you first spot Sophia Myles?
TZ: We were looking for somebody to play Audrey and, again, you get, like,
the typical Hollywood kids. They just look like Hollywood actors. It’s like,
I don’t want to cast Paris Hilton in this part, or the equivalent. So, I
started looking at video tapes of people the casting director or the
producer suggested, and, I don’t know, just something about her face
intrigued me at first. It just had this sort of timeless beauty to it. She
looked a bit like Kim Novak in VERTIGO, a young version, which I liked, of
course. There’s something about ART SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL that connected on
some level about romantic obsession with that film. Something, I don’t know
what it was. It wasn’t a real conscious thing. I just looked through a
million photos, and I said, “Ah-h-h, she’s in the ball park. Put her in the
I found her to be a really good actress. At first I had a conversation with
her on the phone in England, and I then sent her a couple scenes, and I
talked her through exactly what I wanted, just answered all her questions
about “Well, what’s the intention of this line?” and she put herself on
videotape doing them. She was good, and she took direction well when I
finally met her, which sort of cinched the deal for me hiring her, where a
lot of actors when you audition them, no matter what you tell them in terms
of direction, it doesn’t change their performance at all. You’d be surprised
how many accomplished actors, movie stars, that is the case for. They just
can’t do anything else. And, she’s very pliable, and you can do whatever you
want with her, and she’s a good actress. She listens, she reacts.
C: The serial killer aspects of the film in the back half of the movie, were
there any films you referenced or looked to for guidance covering the
TZ: We were told there was a film, not about the serial killer aspect, that
shared a similar ending to our. We were told after the fact--we still have
never seen it--HUSTLE & FLOW has a similar plot twist.
C: I guess that’s true to a degree. It does.
TZ: And, we were just horrified to learn that.
C: But, I don’t think you’re going to get a lot of comparisons between the
TZ: I hope not. But, in terms of the serial killer?
C: Just the way you manage that part of the story? Was there a film—or
films—that you were thinking of?
TZ: Well, before I shot the murder scene, the strangulation scene, I tried
to figure out how to shoot it, so the first thing I did was try to look at
any sort of reference material I could find. And, you can’t really see films
of people strangling other people--the real thing. So, the best you can do
is look at crime photos of people that have been strangled, and I looked at
the marks on their neck and compared those. It wasn’t all that helpful,
truthfully. And, then I read about it...how long it would take bruises to
appear, and what would actually happen, and what would kill you, and how
long it would take.
Eventually, I just started looking at movies like THE BOSTON STRANGLER and
FRENZY and any movie I could think of that had a strangulation in it. FRENZY
struck me as something closer to what I had in mind, where the murder was
done with a very dark sense of humor to it. You could tell Hitchcock was
laughing on some level. He wasn’t doing it seriously, and that appealed to
me. I didn’t try to copy it, it just seemed like, yeah, that’s sort of what
I’m going for. And then, I watched the murders in that film a few times, but
they always had the leeway to cut to the killer’s face, and that was some
creepy, red-haired, sweating guy, and I didn’t have that. I didn’t have
quite the same options. So, I actually decided I was going to do it in a
different style. I was going to film it in a fashion that I would cut in a
jump-cut sort of way, and then I wound up not doing it. I had enough
coverage to not do it. But, that was the plan.
And, somebody pointed out at one of the first screenings I did a Q&A
at...“Oh, you lifted the murder scene from STRANGERS ON A TRAIN. I had
happened to be changing channels--we have Comcast, we have about 100
channels, somebody’s always flipping the channels--actually flipping the
channels. And I hadn’t seen STRANGERS ON A TRAIN since I was a kid, and
there’s a shot, just as the channel changed, where there’s this murder at
the carnival outside at night. It might be Hitchcock’s daughter who’s being
strangled, I don’t remember, but she’s wearing horn-rimmed glasses, and they
fall off and they bounce in the grass. And, I have a shot exactly like
that--even the glasses are horn-rimmed--in my film. It was not at all
conscious. I was sort of actually amused to see it, that on some deep level
I had probably stolen it, you know. The horn-rimmed glasses were a conscious
choice, obviously. But, it was weird to see that. It was very obvious...“Oh,
so you were consciously doing that?” I said, “Nope.” Nobody believes it.
C: Maybe you’ve just had it stored in your blood and brains all these years,
waiting for the opportunity to direct a strangulation scene.
TZ: I don’t know about that. Maybe all the other shots in my film are just