How do you go from making “Crumb,” a documentary, to a narrative feature like Ghost World? ^ Not much carried over. There’s not much overlap. The one thing that helped me a lot was going to acting class. Early on in this five-year odyssey to get this film made there were a couple false alarms where my producer Lianne Halfon would call me and she would say, “It’s happening.” I started thinking, “Holy Christ. Jeezus.” The main thing I like about films are the performances, I like character driven films. I never worked with actors, I didn’t have a clue how to do it and I know there is a lot to it. So, I went and took this acting class here in San Francisco. I went up to the guy and I said, “I need a crash course in directing actors.” And he said, “You may as well be asking me for a crash course in playing the violin. It takes a while. Go to acting classes whenever you can. Sit in on them, it will be very helpful to you.” So I started going to acting classes every day for that month and then the film fell through again. I went to acting classes for three years. I cannot tell you how helpful that was. Basically what you are trying to do is learn how to relax the actor and get them to actually affect each other in a scene, to actually listen to each other and be in that moment. It’s very hard to do that. There are a million tricks and a million ways to do that. It takes a good deal of time and experience and I didn’t have much of either.
Every single position on the crew requires some kind of specific technical skill but for the director, there’s really no specific criteria. ^ Directing is directing actors. They’ll cover you visually, you’ve got ten guys checking for continuity, you’ve got a DP that helps you out with lenses and composition and the framing, a first AD that helps you out with the shot list. You get help with all this stuff, but the one thing that nobody helps you with is the acting. You’re on your own. And, boy, that’s the most important thing. ^ They asked me to go speak at this NYU Film School after this “Crumb” thing came out and speak to their graduate film students. And I said, “They all went to film school, I don’t know anything about film. These people know more than me.” ^ “Oh, but we’ll pay you $2,000.” All right, I need the money, so I went. And I met these kids in film school and I just realized that Jesus Christ, none of them were interested in character, dialog, story, anything that’s important in filmmaking. All of them were interested in the technical stuff. They wanted to know lenses and F-Stops and dolleys and cranes. It was just crazy. The best advice I can give you is to go to acting class.
What attracts you to the world of alternative comics? ^ I thought that both Dan and Robert Crumb were better writers than any of the screenwriters who were sending me work. I was getting these scripts after that “Crumb” film and they were just badly written. And I couldn’t relate to them. I have nothing in common with them. I didn’t share their sense of humor, I didn’t share their worldview. Some of them were fairly well written but I just didn’t connect with them. I like Dan’s stuff. I actually wrote two scripts with Robert Crumb in the late 80s that never got produced.
What are they about? ^ One of them is called “The New Girlfriend” and the other is called “Anything for Money.” Robert is not a very commercial artist. He’s a very talented writer and he’s great with dialog and very smart of course. One of them was commissioned by the Mitchell Brothers. They tried to get us to write a screenplay for a porn movie. They gave us a lot of money in cash. Robert at first said no. Then his wife started spending the money and he got guilted into it. Then he got into it. We spent about six months writing this thing together and we actually put a lot of care and work into it. We went back and proudly showed it to the Mitchell Brothers. Jim Mitchell didn’t even look at it and said, “Okay, let’s start shooting it next week.” We said, “Wait a minute. You have to read the thing. This is a little different than a porn film, we’ve made it X-rated but it’s dependent on really great actors and really great performances. It’s mainly dialog/character driven.” It’s not a porn movie. It’s an X-rated adult film but it’s like an art film. They said, “Well, we don’t want to spend more than $10,000 bucks on this. You can’t make it for that. So, they gave it back to us and we took it around a little bit in Hollywood and it got nowhere. I would never want to make it now. I don’t think they could ever be successfully produced as films so I haven’t pushed them since.
Get the complete story in part three of CRUMBY DIRECTOR: A TERRY ZWIGOFF INTERVIEW>>>