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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 breakfast.

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 and chat.

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 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 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 it.

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 essential?

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 did.”

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 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 research.

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 weak?

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 racket?”

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 something?”

“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 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 with it.

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 outfit.

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 BOONDOCK SAINTS.

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 British actors.

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.

TZ: Right.

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 pile.”

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 subject?

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 two.

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 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 retarded.


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