It's an uncharacteristically pleasant Saturday afternoon in San Francisco and Terry Zwigoff's home overlooking the city is characteristically dim. He's muttering, as he is wont to do, about an upcoming New York retrospective of his films.
"The more I think about it, the less I'm looking forward to it," he grumbles while pulling down a window shade to allow even less light in. "I'm tired of talking about the same five goddamn films over and over. I wish I'd made 50." He understates the significance of his small body of work. Regardless of his thoughts on the matter, five is an admirable number of films for someone who never really set out to be a filmmaker in the first place.
For the two years I have known Terry Zwigoff he has refused to let me write about him, claiming to be a "private person." He only tolerates being interviewed when absolutely necessary, in order "to help promote something."
Terry now has three things to promote—the retrospective (which runs May 19th through the 21st at the Metrograph, starting with an in-person presentation of "Ghost World" alongside one of the film's stars, Steve Buscemi), May 30th's Criterion Blu-ray release of the same film, and Budding Prospects, an Amazon pilot adapted from a T.C. Boyle book by his wife Missy, which he recently directed.
Now that he has things to promote, he is offering himself up as an interview subject. Another publication recently, he says, gracelessly asked him what he's "been doing for the past ten years."
"People assume I've been doing nothing but waiting for the fucking mail to arrive every day," he says. "I do try my damnedest to stay at home and avoid Los Angeles whenever humanly possible" ("It's like the Day of the Locust down there" he says), but he's "been working fairly consistently" on projects that ultimately never came to fruition—an adaptation of a French novel Johnny Depp asked him to co-write with Jerry Stahl; an adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel; he was attached to direct Edward Ford, considered one of Hollywood's greatest unproduced screenplays, with a cast fronted by Michael Shannon. None of the projects could secure financing.
Film companies no longer finance the "character studies" that are his trademark, the subject matter he says his career "boils down to." "The film business has changed in the last ten years," he explains. "It's very difficult to find financing for small and medium budget films these days." Hence him trying his hand at episodic television, which he views as the only plane of modern entertainment where character studies about social misfits can still be told.
"When my wife had this idea to do a TV show set in SF, that was sort of the perfect solution. I really loved shooting the pilot here—I found just about every location within a mile of our house. (I visited the set during shooting; sitting outside a location, I looked up how close we were to his home. It was 300 yards away.) We had a cast and crew I loved working with. It was great fun and I'm excited with how it turned out."
Excitement is not his default emotion. Even the things he enjoys he speaks about in a rueful tone, as if he resents them for eliciting feelings of positivity. He is always muttering. Whether or not people are in the room while he does so is inconsequential. I tell him he talks too much; he balks at this assessment. Missy, however, agrees with me. "You do talk too much," she tells him, "and you say very little." Upon reflection, he concurs that we are correct and goes back to petting one of his favorite cats.
While he may talk too much, he nevertheless has a lot of interesting things to say; amusing anecdotes to impart. Like the time the Mitchell Brothers, owners of the legendary San Francisco strip club the O'Farrell Theater, tried to hire him and his best friend (and the subject of his critically-lauded 1994 documentary) Robert Crumb to write a pornographic film based on one of Crumb's comics about a female sasquatch who is dragged from the wild into the culturally bankrupt world of modern America. The subsequent non-pornographic and ultimately unproduced screenplay they wrote, Sassy, contains Crumb-esque dialogue like "Wow! Lookit the musculature on those arms and legs… I'm in love with her!" and ends with the sasquatch being released back to the wild.
Or the time, post Crumb's success, Woody Allen's former producing partner Jean Doumanian asked if he'd like to direct a documentary about Allen going on a European tour with his jazz band. He turned the opportunity down. "I admired Woody Allen very much and wanted to make a film about him," he says, "but failed to see the inherent drama in a film about his band. I saw the finished film (Wild Man Blues) and really loved the very last scene with his mother—that's where the story would have been for me. She seemed eerily similar to my own mother."
Terry is, for better or worse, only capable of making projects he finds personally relevant. He got into filmmaking by accident. His first film, Louie Bluie, a documentary about the obscure blues musician Howard Armstrong, came about after Terry met Armstrong while profiling him for an English magazine called Old Time Music. After he spent two days with Armstrong in Detroit, though, he found him so interesting he thought someone should make a movie about him. He asked some documentary filmmakers if they would be interested in doing it, but none were. They told him to just do it himself, so he did, with the savings he had at the time.
Meeting Robert Crumb's talented, smart and profoundly damaged family was what made him feel an obligation to create the film that bared his friend's name—not because he considered Crumb to be "one of the great artists of our time" (which he does). The film took ten years to finish; he feels the intense expenditure of time ultimately benefitted the project and himself, allowing him to work through his own familial issues in the process.
Ghost World was another personal project. "What is this crap? Can it be played at volume below a din?" he asks when Missy puts rock music on, echoing the same indignant distaste for modernity employed by the film's record-collecting maladroit Seymour, a transparent proxy of Zwigoff.
Ghost World is a film about two teenage girls written by two adult men, himself and the comic artist Dan Clowes, the latter of which created the graphic novel it is based on. I tell him I consider it to be one of the most realistic depictions of teenage girlhood ever filmed, possibly due to the fact teen girls are similar to middle aged men in that they have the same world weary contempt for and distaste of society.
He tells me said contempt is "not something I imagine is particular to girls. I certainly felt that way as a teenager, and still do—maybe that's why it was easy to write. I never matured emotionally."
"Dan," he follows, "seemed more interested in doing a coming of age story about two teenage girls. I was more interested in a cultural critique of modern America, which is the direction I took the screenplay and film. How corporations created this contrived culture designed to sell you things. How the very fabric of this country is riddled with scams and cons and come-ons. Sixteen years later, things have only gotten worse."
I follow him around a newly built home, on sale for $3.2 million, that he can see from the balcony of his meticulously preserved arts and crafts-style house. It's on a lot which formerly housed a beautiful garden from the 20s that was razed in order to construct an, in his words, "IKEA box" of clinical modernity. The cabinetry is shoddy. The walls are flimsy. It didn't take ten years to build. It took two months. Wandering around the staged living room, he tells me he'd "hang himself in a week" if he had to live there.
I am nearly half his age, yet feel the same way. Anyone, regardless of age, can be a person out of time. Which is why his five movies, all of which are about people who share the same worldview, are enough to constitute a legacy. To necessitate a retrospective. To make him ineffably relevant, regardless of if he actively has something to promote at any given time.
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