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Ghost World director Terry Zwigoff is a late starter but he’s making up for lost time with a truthful, if dark, view of the world, he tells Andrew L. Urban.

It’s late afternoon on a typical early spring Wednesday in San Fransisco, and Terry Zwigoff is waiting for a “film emergency” phone call as we begin our conversation. In Sydney, it’s a warm autumn morning, but the differences disappear as we comfortably hop, skip and jump through Terry Zwigoff’s life and career. The emergency doesn’t arise….at least not while we talk.

"not your average newcomer"

Terry Zwigoff is not your average newcomer to filmmaking. For a start, he has just made Ghost World, his first feature film, and he’s 53. He’s married, but “we are just thinking about having kids…” He is a late starter, he confesses, and he drifted into filmmaking – from blue collar jobs and music - by sheer naiveté. More on that later. But with the attention he has gained with his bitter sweet, unpredictable and melancholy Ghost World, he’s about to make his second feature film, Bad Santa, produced by the Coen brothers, no less. And they asked him to direct it. 

Bad Santa, he says, is “a pretty dark comedy about two conmen who case department stores before robbing them at Christmas dressed as Santa and his associate, a midget dressed as an elf, come across an 8 year old kid who influences their lives.” And to star in it, Zwigoff has one of the hottest actors around, in Billy Bob Thornton. 

It was going to be Bill Murray, but when the time came to start work on the film, Bill Murray was nowhere to be found. Even his agent didn’t know where he was. Then the schedule called for a Christmas release, given the subject and all, so Zwigoff went after Billy Bob, who he had just seen in The Man Who Wasn’t There and was impressed to bits. “He is just extraordinary in that film,” says Zwigoff, who also lists the film as one of his favourites “in a decade”. Billy Bob was in, but he had a narrow time window and Bad Santa just has to be shot around his availability. However, that means the film won’t be readyt in time for this Christmas. So it’ll be released in December 2003.

So here is Zwigoff enjoying a rapid rise in movies, slightly perplexed at how quickly it all happened. He grew up “an isolated, alienated kid, always brooding, watching bad television,” the grandson of Russian Jews. He was born in Wisconsin, where his parents were farmers. “They were an oddity…Jewish farmers in Wisconsin,” he admits. He hated high school, where other kids always picked on him. After school he started trucking and other “horrible” blue collar jobs and gradually took up music (he plays mandolin, guitar, cello – all pretty good at melancholy) and making friends with musicians, collecting 78 rpm jazz records….if this sounds a bit like Seymour in Ghost World as played by Steve Buscemi, it’s because Seymour is modelled largely on Zwigoff himself. 

The story of Ghost World, based on a comic book by Daniel Clowes, goes like this: High school graduate Enid (Thora Birch) is a non-conformist who rejects the superficial world she sees around her in L.A. but is a lost soul. With the support of her best friend Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson), Enid answers a newspaper classified, pretending to be the woman sought by eccentric record collector Seymour (Buscemi). Initially planning to humiliate Seymour from a distance, Enid decides to make contact and finds herself unexpectedly attracted to his peculiar ways.

But what the film is about is its characters and their search not only for their identity, but their place in a world that is losing its authenticity. All around them, society is living out a plastic replica of interaction and satisfaction. “I read the comic book a couple of times,” says Zwigoff, “but then I tried never to look at it during filming. And now I can hardly remember it, so people shouldn’t try and figure out how or why I made the film reflect the book. I just wanted to make something that was unlike the contemporary, MTV style of filmmaking. I like film noir and the classic films, where character drives the film.”

"a myriad influences"

There were influences, of course, “there are a myriad influences and some you are not conscious of. But I did steal from a couple of my favourite books and films, like Lolita and Scarlet Street [a 1945 movie with Edward G. Robinson]. . .” Both have at their centre the relationship between an older man and a younger woman. But Seymour, he says “comes from me. I’m not quite as self aware as he is, but I was so impressed by that element in Crumb (the subject of a documentary Zwigoff made in 1994), so I wanted to include that.”

Audiences respond to the film in their own way; it’s not a typical studio film where everything is spelt out, where the blacks are black and the whites are white. It is intentionally open to interpretation, says Zwigoff, especially the ending, which is ambiguous. “But we didn’t impose that on the film…we let it develop organically.” ‘We’ means Zwigoff and Clowes, with whom he wrote the screenplay.

The ending links together a minor character that appears in the film earlier, to Enid. He is an older guy, sitting at a derelict bust stop, and Enid has told him the bus service no longer runs there. You could read a metaphor here, representing the loss of community and social balance the film explores. But the old guy stays there, “with enough faith in himself and with the courage of his convictions,” says Zwigoff. 

This scenario has a unique payoff in the final scene with Enid, and Zwigoff admits that the ambiguity of it was hard to get past the studio, who was keen to provide a more definitive ending. “I just wanted to keep it pure and it felt right to me. It’s not intellectualised, but is satisfying emotionally.”

As to the title, it has an eerie echo with an Australian story about a mysterious man who would chalk the word ‘eternity’ on pavements around Australia some decades ago. In this case, writer Daniel Clowes was walking around “a really bad neighborhood of Chicago and in the midst of illegible gang graffiti, somebody had written Ghost World very clearly on a garage. I thought there was something sort of beautiful about that….it struck me as having a really evocative, poetic quality. It had so many levels of meaning to me. The America we live in is disappearing, bulldozed under our feet and constantly rehabbed and remodelled. It also refers more personally to the characters and the friendships that they’ve lost.” A sort of decline of Western civilisation, a sentiment shared by Zwigoff.

So – back to how he drifted into movies. “A film I made called Louie Bluei (1978) got me going. He was an unknown Chicago blues musician who’d made one record (1934).” Zwigoff spent two years trying to track him down, purely because he found the man’s music so impressive – even on the old 78 rpm record he’d found. “He was such a character I thought somebody should make a film of him. And of course nobody was interested except me - so I naively threw myself into it.” That led to his film about comic book writer and artist Robert Crumb (1994), which became a huge success, both creatively and commercially. “And that led to Ghost World…” based on a comic book.

"the imaginary gap between arthouse and mainstream"

Showbiz has some strange coincidences and sequences, and Zwigoff’s story is a good example. But in Ghost Story, he also bridges the imaginary gap between arthouse and mainstream filmmaking with the scorching power of a magnifying glass looking into the psyche of modern America. He shows us both the ugly and beautiful, the phoney and the real, through his characters. “I was always very much like the people in Ghost World, trying to connect with something authentic.”

Published June 27, 2002

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