San Francisco filmmaker Terry Zwigoff made a pair of marvelous documentaries (“Louie Bluie” and “Crumb”) before making a deft transition to narratives with the altogether wonderful “Ghost World.” Zwigoff worked with cartoonist Daniel Clowes on that film, and its success led to a second collaboration. “Art School Confidential” stars Max Minghella as a frustrated art student alternately under the sway of his teacher (John Malkovich), a blonde model (Sophia Myles) and a dissolute older painter (Jim Broadbent). Zwigoff used to be a notorious pessimist and curmudgeon, but success has softened him a bit. One thing hasn’t changed, thankfully: He’s still the most candid and unvarnished interview in movies.
SF360: Since this is Clowes’ story and not yours, how did you connect with it?
Terry Zwigoff: I never went to art school. But I approached it as an artist myself, y’know? ‘What struggle do I go through as an artist?’ My films often aren’t judged on their own merits. They’re judged on how well they’re marketed, or how well you can become like Eno in ‘Art School Confidential’ and give a good spiel of bullshit about your own work instead of letting the work speak for itself. It’s a little bit of luck and it’s a lot of self-promotion, which I really don’t like to do. I don’t like to have my picture taken.
SF360: The art students in the film seem obsessed with getting famous and rich. That seems like an East Coast emphasis that we wouldn’t find at the S.F. Art Institute. Am I wrong?
Zwigoff: All I can tell you is that on the East Coast they tend to wear black more and on the West Coast they wear pastels. That’s about it.
SF360: Let’s talk about the role that casting plays in your films.
Zwigoff: Casting’s a big thing to me. If you have a good script and you cast it correctly, a large part of your directing job is done. I’ve walked away from a number of films that had great scripts. People think I don’t work much. They think it’s because I’m lazy or something. It’s because you go to a studio and say, ‘This part is perfect for Jim Broadbent’ and they want Harrison Ford.’ It’s just too depressing to go through two years of work with something that’s wrong.
SF360: It was a treat to see Broadbent in your film.
Zwigoff: It was a treat for me to work with him. That guy was truly one of the greatest actors I’ve ever been in a room with. You just know you’re in the presence of somebody really special right away. He’s a guy I had to fight for ‘cause I’d already cast Max Minghella, who’s British, and Sophia Myles is British.
SF360: Had Broadbent ever done an American accent before?
Zwigoff: I don’t know that he had. He played it almost like a debauched blueblood, like William F. Buckley lapsing into alcoholism and hard times. I didn’t know how he was going to do it, and I thought, ‘Wow, that’s really great.’
SF360: In what way do great actors make your job easier?
Zwigoff: I didn’t do anything with Jim Broadbent. Once in a while I’d say something like, ‘You’re throwing that newspaper onto the pile of vomit on the floor very angrily. Just sort of toss it, very casual.’ And he’d say, ‘OK.’ And he’d do it. Or I’d tell John, ‘Can you say that thing about the triangles more whimsically?’ Instantly he’d do it and it would be great. ‘Could you try one where you’re bitter?’ and he’d do that. [It’s a] temptation when you’re working with actors of that caliber because you can tell them anything and they can do it. At a certain point they’re going to look at you and say, ‘Don’t you know what you want?’ ‘Yeah, but it’s so much fun to see these different things appear.’
SF360: Can you explain your fascination with flawed characters that behave reprehensibly?
Zwigoff: That’s true to me. It seems so false that most films are about a hero.
SF360: Agreed. But the great thing about “Ghost World” is that Thora Birch’s character realizes she’s a poseur like everyone else. Her self-awareness is profound and resonant.
Zwigoff: Maybe so. I won’t disagree.
SF360: I was waiting for Jerome in “Art School Confidential” to have a similar revelation.
Zwigoff: He never quite does that. (laughs) He’s a liar, he’s a plagiarist, he’s a stalker, he’s delusional.
SF360: I can just imagine what focus groups had to say about Jerome, and the way the plot plays out.
Zwigoff: It’s one of the worst experiences, to sit through screenings with some audience of mall walkers telling you, ‘We don’t like this ending. You should change it to this.’ And then [you’re] worried that the studio’s going to force you to change it to that, which is oftentimes done. Probably more often than not, going back to Wallace Beery and “The Champ,” when they changed the ending. He doesn’t get knocked out in the ring and die. He wins the fight. And suddenly it wins an Oscar and makes all this money and it’s very successful. People want a very upbeat ending, whether it’s truthful or not.
SF360: So do you have a couple drinks in order to endure the test screenings?
Zwigoff: No, I’m just in such a bad mood. The audience fills out their little cards, and they tell you what they like and what they don’t like. Truthfully, I don’t care what they like and what they don’t like. I don’t make the film for the audience. I make it for me, and if I like it I’ve succeeded. And then if they like it, great. I don’t want them to dislike it. But you really can’t make a film second-guessing what the audience is going to like. It just doesn’t work that way.
SF360: Maybe the studios should test your movies in the Haight instead of Pomona.
Zwigoff; I don’t think there’s a science to it. If there was, I’d be much more agreeable to it. I understand it’s a business, I’m not showing this in my living room. I understand you’ve got to get your investment back. But there’s no direct relation, so I don’t see why they follow [test scores] so closely. And the scores in my films are always miserable. Miserable. Every film I’ve ever done has tested in the low 20s. When I was editing at Saul Zaentz in Berkeley, Carroll Ballard was editing “Duma” across the hall. His film was testing in the high 90s, some of the highest test scores ever and the studio gave it a terrible release for some other arbitrary reason.
SF360: What are you working on now?
Zwigoff: I’m writing something for Johnny Depp, [who] wanted me to adapt this French novel he owns. I’m writing it with Jerry Stahl, a really good writer in L.A who did “Permanent Midnight.” We’ve been writing it via email. I wrote the first act and he’s starting the second act and then we critique each other’s stuff and change the dialogue up and back.
SF360: Johnny Depp? That I wouldn’t have guessed.
Zwigoff: He called my agent and said, ‘I like this guy’s films. Can I have a meeting with him?’ And I truly expected not to like the guy, ‘cause I don’t like most movie stars or celebrities in general. And I really liked him. I had a good feeling about him and I said, ‘Yeah, OK, I’ll give it a try.’
SF360: In closing, would you name a favorite bit from one of your films?
Zwigoff: There’s this long moment in “Ghost World” where Seymour’s looking through that Coon Chicken scrapbook and there’s this music playing. My friend [and producer] Lianne [Halfon] said, ‘You got to take this out. I feel you’re losing the audience there.’ I said, ‘I don’t care if the audience walks out of the theater. That is the strongest moment in the whole film.’ And I look back and I’m really happy that I stuck to my guns. Not everybody’s going to like that, but too bad. I’ve got to have some reason to do this besides furnishing the house with a better-looking dining room table.
“Art School Confidential” opens Friday, May 12, at the Embarcadero.
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