Film Notes

Director Takes His Tales Personally

"You have to have something you want to tell, a story you want to express. Something personal," says "Art School Confidential" director Terry Zwigoff. (By Suzanne Hanover -- United Artist/sony Pictures Classics)
Friday, May 12, 2006

As a kid, independent film director Terry Zwigoff took the role of schoolboy loner, "just looking at everybody else -- sort of reclusive, withdrawn," a neighborhood pal once told him.

It's a role he has largely maintained through adulthood and passed on to the young characters in two of his feature films, including his latest, "Art School Confidential" (see review on Page 33), a dark comedy satirizing the absurdities of the academic art world.

The film is Zwigoff's second endeavor with graphic novelist Daniel Clowes, who drafted the tale and wrote the screenplay. The two first teamed up to create the film "Ghost World," a coming-of-age-and-disillusionment story starring Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson.

Zwigoff, 57, a native of Wisconsin, never went to art school. ("It would help me as a filmmaker, in some ways," he says. "In some ways it might be damaging.") He fell into the industry rather haphazardly.

After spending a couple of decades drifting from "one terrible blue-collar job after another," Zwigoff found himself employed as a welfare intake worker, a gig that left him time for his real passion -- listening to old records and writing for obscure music journals. When he happened upon a rare Louie Bluie recording and discovered the musician to be still alive with stories to tell, Zwigoff tried to recruit experienced filmmakers to make a documentary about the old man. No one would, so Zwigoff did it himself. The result was the 1985 film "Louie Bluie."

Almost 10 years later, he came out with "Crumb," a reputation-making documentary about cartoonist Robert Crumb and his mentally ill brothers. Zwigoff would go on to make "Ghost World" (2001) and "Bad Santa" (2003), the latter starring Billy Bob Thornton.

Zwigoff's only real brush with art school came after the release of "Crumb," when he was invited to teach a filmmaking class at New York University.

"I was completely intimidated . . . then I realized, 'Wow, these kids don't know anything. All they want to do is use lenses and start shooting,' " Zwigoff said by phone from Chicago. "You have to have something you want to tell, a story you want to express. Something personal. Otherwise you're just shooting all this film for no reason."

"Art School" is the tale of a young man's entrance into a hyper-intellectual world with teachers and peers who could find meaning in a ball of laundry lint but don't seem to be able to recognize genuine talent. As in "Ghost World," "Art School's" malcontent hero, Jerome (Max Minghella), is defined by acute self-doubt coupled with smug superiority. "All of humanity is too stupid to live," a drunk Jerome seethes after his work is belittled and the object of his infatuation trots off with a stocky, blond beefcake.

Jerome's goal, put simply, is "to be the greatest artist of the 21st century."

Zwigoff's ambitions are a bit less lofty. "I just hope I don't embarrass myself," the director says.

One trait Zwigoff does share with his latest protagonist -- and Jerome's brandy-soaked confidant, Jimmy (Jim Broadbent) -- is an intimate understanding of human suffering. For three years during the making of "Crumb," Zwigoff slept with a loaded gun on the pillow next to him, "just trying to get up the nerve to kill myself," he said in a 1995 interview with Roger Ebert.

"I was suicidal because of this chronic [back] pain," he said. "I had been to every doctor I could see. . . . I didn't know what else to do."

Eventually Zwigoff did find a doctor who eased his agony enough to allow the director to sit in a movie theater with just a little discomfort. That's key, because although Zwigoff has a reputation for being decidedly un-Hollywood, he admits it's in Hollywood movies -- the bad ones -- where he looks for inspiration. "I like to go see [expletive] at the cineplex, and then I walk out of there saying, 'Well, I can do better than that.' I may not be a good film director, but at least I can do better than that."

-- Ellen McCarthy

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