Combustible Celluloid

Interview: Terry Zwigoff

For Art's Sake

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

April 10, 2006—Terry Zwigoff has done it again. He's taken all his obsessions, worries and fears -- as well as his curmudgeonly sense of humor -- and wrapped it all up in a terrific new film, Art School Confidential.

Based on a script by Ghost World scribe Dan Clowes, the film takes place at the fictitious Strathmore University, where wannabe painters and filmmakers "study," look for girls, and obsess over each other's work.

Zwigoff, who has now been a successful filmmaker for 11 years without ever once compromising his vision, says he understands where the artists' insecurity comes from. Zwigoff's friend, and the subject of his famous and extraordinary 1995 documentary, Robert Crumb, is a perfect example.

"He's very deeply insecure about his work to this day," Zwigoff says during a candid conversation last month. "He would show me the original art for something before it's published, and I would say, 'Eh. It's not one of your better things.' I thought I'd be helpful, and he would be depressed for a week. And I said, 'How can that bother you? You must know at this point that you're a great artist.'"

Zwigoff encountered this again while directing John Malkovich, who plays an art teacher in the new film. Malkovich had served as a producer on Zwigoff's great Ghost World (2001), but this time their roles were reversed. "I was a little intimidated by working with him," Zwigoff says.

The director set up a shot that would allow Malkovich, an accomplished stage actor, to move about as he wished. "He has so much stage experience, and I've made three films. He knows better than me. And I wanted him to be comfortable. I didn't want to give him a bunch of excuses and props. But he said, 'no just tell me where you want me to go.' And he wouldn't do it until I told him."

"But he's such a good actor," Zwigoff continues. When he and Clowes watched the finished footage, they realized just how precisely Malkovich knew how to play to the camera. At one point, Zwigoff was worried his head would go out of the frame, but the actor instinctively knew to hunch down. "He's way ahead of the game. He knows exactly what he's doing."

Though Zwigoff may feel like an insecure amateur, he too is way ahead of the game. He's very excited that his approved director's cut of the brilliant Bad Santa (2003) is finally coming out on DVD later this year. "It's the one thing in my life I'm looking forward to," he says. "It was literally killing me to have that other version out there."

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

Movies Unlimtied