Terry Zwigoff didn’t set out to be a filmmaker, but a fascination with blues musician Howard Armstrong led him to make the 1986 documentary Louie Bluie, and then a friendship with underground cartoonist Robert Crumb led to the 1994 documentary Crumb. From there, Zwigoff moved into feature filmmaking with two movies based on Dan Clowes comics, Ghost World and Art School Confidential, and one gloriously profane cult comedy, Bad Santa. This week, Criterion is releasing Zwigoff’s Louie Bluie on DVD for the first time, and releasing Crumb on DVD and Blu-ray. Zwigoff recently spoke with The A.V. Club about those releases, and his offbeat path to becoming a director.
The A.V. Club: On the commentary track of Louie Bluie, you mentioned that you’d originally planned to tell Howard Armstrong’s story in a magazine article. What made you think “No, I can make a movie of this”?
Terry Zwigoff: I couldn’t convince anyone else to do it, and it was something I felt had to be done, so I knew I’d better figure something out. I very quickly burned through my life savings. I had some help from a couple of friends of mine who lived in town who were documentary filmmakers. They advised me about the basics: What to do when you get to the editing room, how to cover things, how to get cutaways, where to put the camera. They didn’t have film school when I went to college.
AVC: Had you done anything on an amateur level, like home movies or photography?
TZ: Just a little bit of photography, but I was no photographer.
AVC: About how long did Louie Bluie take to make?
TZ: It was over a period of three or four years, but it was shot in only two trips to the Midwest. The rest of the time was spent trying to raise money to get it finished.
AVC: This would’ve been the early ’80s, before there was much of a market for independent films. What were your expectations for Louie Bluie when you finished it?
TZ: My expectations were to show it in my living room to friends. [Laughs.] I submitted it to a few film festivals when it was done, and they almost all turned it down. The first festival to show it was the L.A. Film Festival, back when they called it Filmex. I think it was the last year they called it Filmex. They had one afternoon screening on like a Tuesday, and I think 12 people showed up. It was very disheartening. But somehow it got accepted to the Telluride Film Festival, which I knew nothing about. It’s up in the mountains; it’s very beautiful. One of the most perfect film-festival experiences you’ll find. And the people liked the film there; it was very well received. I actually got approached by distributors who wanted to show it theatrically. They got it distributed to most major cities, where the typical run would be about a week. In Boston at The Brattle, they showed it for a couple months; of course, they never paid me. Some of those places, I would actually go and help promote the film.
But it never came out on DVD. It came out on VHS through this company called Pacific Arts Video for a short while, but then they went out of business. The company was owned by Michael Nesmith, one of the Monkees. They went bankrupt and gave the rights back to me. And I kept thinking I should put this out on DVD, but I didn’t really have the wherewithal to do anything about it. With Criterion, I love a lot of their older films, so I wanted to be part of that label. They wanted to put out Crumb, and this too. Of course I’m sure everybody thinks this should’ve been tacked on to Crumb as an extra feature.
AVC: It is only an hour long.
TZ: I cut it down to an hour because at the time, I was misinformed about showing it on television. People told me I had to cut it down to an hour for television; it’s actually intended to be about 80 minutes. I put deleted scenes on the DVD, and of course I could’ve gone back and put those scenes into the film to make it longer, but I just didn’t want to. If I’d done that, I would’ve gone back and corrected a bunch of things I would have done differently. Better to leave it alone.
AVC: I’ve seen listings for Louie Bluie at 74 minutes. Was it ever that length?
TZ: No, no; there’s so much misinformation out there. When Harvey Pekar died a few days ago, I got a lot of phone calls from the media, assuming I had directed the film American Splendor. And no, I didn’t. I directed Crumb, and there’s a guy who portrays Robert Crumb in American Splendor, but I had nothing to do with that film.
AVC: Did you know Pekar at all?
TZ: I met him once, for like 10 seconds. And I witnessed a funny phone call from Crumb’s receiving end, where Harvey was badgering Robert to illustrate one of his stories. I wished I’d had a camera on.
AVC: You were both pretty big record collectors at one point, though, right? Just like Crumb?
TZ: According to Crumb, Harvey collected bop and more modern stuff. I collected stuff from the ’20s. He was like an LP collector, and I liked 78s. It’s a whole different breed.
AVC: The Criterion edition of Louie Bluie includes an approving quote from Woody Allen on the back. What’s your association with Woody Allen?
TZ: I was asked to do a documentary about him by his producer Jean Doumanian, years ago. I met him, and spent about a week out there with him, and he was very nice, very generous. But she clearly wanted to do a film about his band touring Europe, and I was more interested in other aspects of his life. So they got Barbara Kopple to do that thing she did, Wild Man Blues. I liked the last scene in that movie, with his parents. That’s more like what I would’ve wanted to do.
AVC: Was that after Crumb?
TZ: Yeah. Right after Crumb, before I made Ghost World. One of the reasons I bowed out of doing it was because I wanted to make a fiction film, and Ghost World was my chance. It was either do this documentary on Woody Allen, who I admired very much, or do Ghost World.
AVC: How long after Louie Bluie had its run did you start pestering Robert Crumb to let you make a movie about him?
TZ: Probably three years. The idea was to do a documentary on the three Crumb brothers. It was never a documentary about Robert Crumb in my head. I had met Charles and Max and liked them both, and I collected artwork from all three brothers. I even spent a night at their parents’ house, and met his father when he was still alive. So it started taking shape in my mind, and it seemed to me like a good idea for a film if Robert would do it. Not so much because I had access to Robert and he was willing to cooperate, but because I felt comfortable knowing that as his friend, I’d been exposed to facts that other people wouldn’t have known. And there were some things Robert never even thought to tell me about, not because he was trying to withhold information from me, but because he couldn’t tell what would be interesting and what wouldn’t. He couldn’t be objective about it.
For instance, midway through filming I stumbled on this artists’ talent test that Charles had done, stuck in a drawer in Robert’s studio. I was spending the night there one night, and I think I was trying to find a pen or a pencil, and I found this thing. And the next morning when we woke up, we were having breakfast and I said, “I was going through your sketchbook and I found this. Why didn’t you tell me about this? This is unbelievable, it has to be in the film.” And he said, “Yeah… I don’t know.” [Laughs.] Yeah, I don’t know. I felt, again, like the responsibility had fallen to me to do this thing and do it right. And it’s arguable whether I did it right. I always tell people it’s a very subjective film. The BBC did a film recently on Crumb, and it’s not at all like my film. It shared the same subject, and they didn’t do a bad job, but it’s just different.
AVC: Did you have any conversations with Crumb while you were shaping the film? Or did you keep him in the dark until it was complete?
TZ: I didn’t really want to show it to him until the picture was locked and he couldn’t really say, “Could you take this out?” I didn’t want to be in that position. And I think he was okay with that. It’s a major pain in the ass to have somebody following you around with a film camera, especially if you value your privacy, but part of him was always willing to do things for the sake of art, and that helped quite a bit. But I didn’t show it to him until it was actually on videotape. I think he was already living in France at that point. And I said, “What did you think of it?” And he said, “It was mortifying.” I said, “Is it a bad film?” And he said, “No, but I’m looking at myself in a mirror, so what am I supposed to say? Is it good? Is it bad? I just don’t want to look at it.” Something like that.
But I don’t want to misrepresent him or what he thought of it. There’s a lot of publicity and stories still circulating on the Internet that we had a big falling-out, but there was never any falling-out, there was never any argument about anything. It’s typical. They don’t even have my birthday right on the Internet.
AVC: Were you surprised by Crumb’s success? How well it was received?
TZ: I was, because again, it was a film I couldn’t get a single film festival to take. I was turned down repeatedly, including by the Telluride Film Festival, which had a standing invitation to me after the success of Louie Bluie, saying, “Please let us show your next film here.” And I approached them with this, thinking confidently that I had made a good film and that they would love to show it. And they turned it off after 20 minutes. [Laughs.] I couldn’t get anyone to show it! My producer was getting nervous, and she thought the film was too long, and she was putting pressure on me to cut it down, and I didn’t want to do it. Somehow the New York Film Festival took the film. And the New York critics liked it, and Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert seemed to like it. Siskel especially. And I guess it went from being a film that nobody would show to being a great film. I don’t know, you tell me. I can’t figure it out. I always liked Louie Bluie too, and thought if people saw it, they’d be blown away. But it’s esoteric, the things I’m interested in. The things I want to make into a film, they’re personal, esoteric things, and I don’t expect anyone else to like them as much as I do. I generally like my films more than anybody else will.
AVC: You mentioned the programmers at Telluride turning Crumb off, but there’s also a famous story—possibly apocryphal—about how the Academy Award documentary committee switched off Crumb after two reels and didn’t watch the rest of it.
TZ: Well, the Academy Awards thing had much more to do with the fact that at the time, a lot of the documentary membership was made up of distributors of documentary films. The rules have changes since then. But they would just vote for the films they distributed, because it was in their financial interest to do so. I came to learn that later. At the time, I just assumed they were disgusted with the film.
I’m always surprised when I show a strong film to somebody and they get offended by something I don’t find particularly offensive. I mean, I don’t want to see dogs murdered in a film; I would find that offensive. But I had to go to a film festival in Europe a few years ago and show some of my favorite films, and one of the films I took was Dog Days, by Ulrich Seidl, which is a pretty remarkable film. Yeah, it’s got a couple of scenes that have violence in them, but they’re clearly not real, they’re just staged for the film. But the guy starts slapping his girlfriend around in the movie, and half the audience walked out in a huff. One lady spit on me on the way out. “Jesus, lady, it’s just a film!” [Laughs.] I guess I don’t share most people’s taste. One of the reasons I did Louie Bluie and Crumb with Criterion was because I like a lot of their older French films. That’s the only reason. I watch these films by Jacques Becker and Jean-Pierre Melville. Touchez Pas Au Grisbi, stuff like that. I’m always trying to turn people on to those films. For some reason, I find those very strong.
AVC: Was Crumb actually a financial success, or just a critical success? How would you qualify it?
TZ: Well, it made its money back, so I guess it’s financially successful. I don’t know. It was successful to me, that’s all I cared about in my mind. I made a film that was satisfying to me, at the end of the day, that I worked very hard on. So that’s what I cared most about.
AVC: Unlike when Louie Bluie was released, Crumb came out at a time when there seemed to be a broader interest in independent film, including documentaries. Do you think Crumb would have done as well 10 years earlier? Or now?
TZ: I don’t know. It’s certainly a difficult time right now to try to make small, smart films. I’m not trying to be self-serving, but you know, you get to Hollywood, and if you want to make something big and loud and dumb, it’s pretty easy. It’s very hard to go down there and make a film like Sideways, which I thought was a great film. They don’t want to make films like that anymore, even though that film was very successful. It’s more of a financial risk, basically. Most of the corporations that decide which films get made hedge their bets that they can make bigger, louder, dumber films, which the people stumbling around the cineplex want to see. Nothing subtle about them.
AVC: That frequently erroneous Internet has you down as making a movie called Happy Days next. Is that true, or has that project fallen through?
TZ: That’s not true. That project fell through.
AVC: Are you working on any projects now?
TZ: I have a couple projects I’m working on right now, but I don’t like to talk about any of them. They’ll probably fall through as well. [Laughs.]
AVC: Without being specific about the actual projects, are any of them going to have to go back to the Louie Bluie and Crumb mode, where you’re lugging around cameras and working more DIY?
TZ: Probably not. I don’t really have any other documentary projects that I’m dying to do. That’s not to say that I won’t some day, and if I stumble upon something, I probably won’t be able to help myself, whether it’s a good career move or not at that point in my life. You get caught up in something, you can’t help yourself. But at the moment, I’m working on fiction films, not documentaries.
AVC: Did your experience working on Louie Bluie and Crumb inform your fiction filmmaking at all?
TZ: Some things carry over, on the technical side of things. The first scene I ever shot for Louie Bluie, on that first day, I had never seen the camera before. I didn’t know where to put it. I just knew what was strong about these guys and what I wanted to capture, so I tried to work backward from there and figure it out. Trial and error. Hopefully I got a little bit better at it. And it helps to watch a bunch of movies. You’ve got DVDs these days where you can go back and look at how the great film directors did it. But other things don’t carry over from documentaries, like working with actors, and that’s important for getting a good performance. And getting the writing correct. I’m more interested in dialogue; most of the scripts I’ve gone after to direct, there’s generally just something about the dialogue. Like Bad Santa, there was one line in the script that was so good that I was desperately trying to get the job. It was something like, “Sweet Jews for Jesus!” [Laughs.] One of the most inspired lines I’d ever read. Any regional dialect like that in a script really appeals to me, if it’s done right. One of the things I’m working on right now is an Elmore Leonard book that I’m adapting, and I love the dialogue. The Coen brothers do a lot of movies with a very strong regional dialect. I love the movie they did with Tom Hanks, Ladykillers. That woman Irma P. Hall, I could listen to her all day.
AVC: You said before that you have different tastes than most people in movies, and that would be a case in point, since nearly everyone else seems to dislike The Ladykillers.
TZ: They don’t like The Ladykillers? Huh. Well, it’s better than the original English film, though I’m sure I’ll be crucified for saying that. Mainly because of Irma P. Hall. And I liked Tom Hanks in it, too; I thought he was good.
AVC: When you’re working with strong actors, like Billy Bob Thornton in Bad Santa, can you tell on the set how well the performance is going to work on film?
TZ: You better have that sense, or you won’t be able to put together the film. You won’t know if you’ve got it or not. And I thought Bernie Mac was good in that film too, and Tony Cox as well. But it’s a very subjective thing. The film went over mostly favorably with critics, and a lot better than I thought it would, considering the subject matter. But a lot of critics singled out Tony Cox’s performance, and I would say half the critics said his performance was great, and half said it was terrible. There was no in between. I thought overall, he did a tremendous job in that film. He wasn’t a trained actor. People’s takes are so subjective, about films especially. To be able to look at a performance and say “Hey, this is a great performance,” that’s not always easy.
Like the last film I did, Art School Confidential, which not too many people liked. John Malkovich had one scene I was trying to cut together, and he’s one of those actors who give you a wide variety of takes. He would do a scene six times and give you six different takes. Six ways of saying the same thing, and they’re all great. And we had some visitors to the editing room that day, and they wanted to know if they could watch. And I said okay. So they’re sitting on the sofa and I’m sitting at the AVID with the editor, and we’ve strung together these six takes that Malkovich had of this 20-second scene. And I said, “Let’s do an experiment. Before I pick which one I like the most, why don’t we all write down our favorite?” And of six different clips, I think we got six different answers. It’s always curious to me, and I don’t understand it. To me, the choice was obvious.
AVC: Why didn’t Art School Confidential go over so well? Your earlier collaboration with Dan Clowes on Ghost World was very well-liked.
TZ: Well, for one thing, it was a bit harder for me to direct it, since I hadn’t written it. But please don’t mistake that as me blaming Dan. I remember Woody Allen, during that week I spent with him, he was shooting the film Everybody Says I Love You, and there was this particularly complicated scene he was blocking and staging with a lot of people and a lot of cameras. It looked like a ballet. He just came in that morning and did it. I met him there, and he was having coffee, and he just did it. So I asked, “Last night, were you thinking about this scene? Did you sit down with a piece of paper and figure this out, how to visualize what you just did?” And he said no, he visualized it when he wrote it. He said, “I wouldn’t be able to do that if I was working from a script somebody else had done.” Now I don’t think that’s entirely true for Woody Allen, though I think to some degree, that’s true. To some degree it’s true for me. A script I wrote would be a lot easier for me to direct than a script Dan wrote. I see it all as I write it.