Combustible Celluloid

Interview: Terry Zwigoff

How Terry Zwigoff Stole Christmas

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

November 20, 2003—Terry Zwigoff is in a good mood today, which is unusual. The charmingly cranky San Francisco introvert is currently in Los Angeles getting ready for the Nov. 26 release of his fourth feature film, and his second fiction film, Bad Santa.

When we last spoke in 2001, Zwigoff had this to say of Los Angeles: "It's hell down here. I just hate it," adding that San Francisco is one of the last livable cities.

The 55 year-old Zwigoff began his career here with numerous odd jobs, including musician, shipping clerk, printer, and welfare office worker. Eventually his love of old records and his research into the life and work of musician Howard Armstrong led to his first film, Louie Bluie (1985).

Ten years later, Zwigoff landed a huge hit on the documentary circuit with Crumb (1995), telling the story of underground comic artist R. Crumb. The film was celebrated by nearly every critic and film festival in the country and caused a controversy when it failed to nab an Oscar nomination.

Zwigoff's first fiction film also came from a comic source, Berkeley resident Daniel Clowes' graphic novel Ghost World. It was the best American film of 2001 and earned Zwigoff and Clowes an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Today Zwigoff may be happy because he's poised to upset a lot of Hollywood people with Bad Santa, which is not only one of the year's best American films but also the year's funniest film. So astonishingly irreverent, Bad Santa stands ready to shock even the most jaded moviegoers back to life.

In the film Billy Bob Thornton and Tony Cox play a department store Santa and his elf, but in reality they're a safecracker and an alarm specialist, respectively. They work the Christmas season, wait until closing on Christmas Eve, rob the store and skip town.

Thornton's Santa is a nasty, surly drunk and can't help insulting the kids, having sex in the lingerie department and relieving his bladder while on duty (among other things that can't be described in print).

Moreover, he finds a place to stay with a pathetic loser of a kid, a fat, half-wit cherub with curly hair and a snotty nose. The kid lives in a huge house with only his batty grandmother to look after him, and Santa makes himself right at home.

"The hardest person to cast was always the kid," Zwigoff says. "The kid's written as a cretinous mongoloid who smells of pee. I told the casting director to find me the 2003 version of Joe Cobb, the first fat kid from Our Gang."

That, it turned out, was not an easy task. "The kids who had a good look couldn't act, and vise versa. Finally I had to make a decision in three days. They brought me an 8x10 of Brett Kelly, and I said that if he can walk and talk, he gets the part."

The problem with such a part is that poor Brett Kelly actually looks like this in real life. But Zwigoff had an easy way to console him. "I told him, this is the story of my life. The kids used to beat me up and look at me now; I'm a big film director!"

Zwigoff also faced a tough time casting the role of Santa's elf Marcus. "A lot of people of short stature wanted this part," Zwigoff says. "They all told me that this was the first real part they ever read, not just the usual sight gag. Some of the actors were top-notch dramatic stage actors and they could just blow you away, but they just weren't as funny as Tony."

In addition, Bad Santa marks the final film work of the late John Ritter. Zwigoff dedicates the finished film to him. "He just went around the set and buoyed people up," he says. "He had this uncanny knack for zeroing in on what people needed. It's really a mistake that that guy dies and all these a--holes are still walking around."

The strangest thing about Ritter? "He had a phobia of midgets. He confessed that to me on the first day. But he made the best of it. You can see it in the scene where he's describing Marcus' fingers."

Indeed, strange rumors have circulated from this movie for some time. One was that Bill Murray was originally cast as Santa and dropped out. But the fact is that Zwigoff could never reach him and finally gave up. "Now you can't see anyone but Billy Bob in the part," Zwigoff says. "It's an Oscar-worthy performance, but he'll never win."

Another rumor had the notorious head of Miramax/Dimension, Harvey Weinstein, tinkering with the film and toning down the offensive stuff. "He's a very stern task master, but very smart. They're very passionate about the film. They never tried to make it less than an R rated film. They said to go for the language."

The screenplay, originally written by John Requa and Glenn Ficarra -- and then retooled by Joel and Ethan Coen and Zwigoff -- features a kind of rhythmic profanity not unlike the kind used by David Mamet. "It's almost musical," Zwigoff says.

While Zwigoff added many details based on his own life and preferences into Ghost World, he says that his work on Bad Santa was minimal. "My polish included removing some flashbacks and writing two scenes that I cut from the film. One was considered by every test audience to be too violent and too disturbing. I also removed a lot of comments about Christmas commercialism. It was getting a little preachy sometimes."

The resulting film has a kind of leanness and a certain distance that makes it unbelievably funny. But it balances the line so delicately that another filmmaker surely would have toppled over the edge one way or the other. "I went onto the set every day with that feeling. If this doesn't work, it's going to be this hole in the film. Believe me, I was asking myself that every day: They're letting me make this film? How am I getting away with this?"

Partial Terry Zwigoff Filmography:
Louie Bluie (1985)
Crumb (1994)
Ghost World (2001)
Bad Santa (2003)
Art School Confidential (2006)

Movies Unlimtied