In Between Days

Daniel Clowes and Terry Zwigoff Ghostwrite Teen Limbo

Ghost World strives to be as different as possible from the kind of Hollywood teen fodder you'd find in such a multiplex. Placidly paced, devoid of peppy kids-having-fun scenes, and with a pop-free soundtrack, it's the "anti-teen movie." "I find all those films insanely annoying," says Clowes. "Ghost World is very slow, no quick cuts, no gimmicky stuff." Like the comic book, "it's all about the minutiae of the world," says Zwigoff. "I spent a ton of time on the extras, always telling them not to look animated. Just stare at your food and look really repressed and glum. Because that's what most real people are like."

Needless to say, this was a hard movie to sell—partly, confesses Clowes, because of the pair's ineptness at pitching their screenplay. "We just didn't know the code words. We'd go into meetings and say our favorite films are Scarlet Street and The King of Comedy. And of course they'd never heard of the first, and the second was a commercial flop. In Hollywood meetings, you only refer to successful films. We're not salesmen at all, we'd act really downbeat, and by the end they'd almost want to kill themselves!" Meanwhile, the studio executives "would send us lists of who'd be great to play Enid, and it'd always be the most popular young actress of the moment. When we first started pitching this thing, it was so long ago that it was still Alicia Silverstone! Then a bit later it was Jennifer Love Hewitt. Never anyone appropriate." Christina Ricci, a plausible fit for the charismatic and acidly witty Enid, was mooted early on, but the film took so long to get a deal (eventually it was financed by the U.K. company Granada, with MGM signing on for a "negative pick-up") that she was too old. Finally, Thora Birch—freshly bankable after American Beauty, and just the right age—took on the role.

To make the project sellable, Zwigoff and Clowes also had to give the virtually plotless Ghost World more narrative thrust and some extra characters. One subplot involves Enid's summer school stint in art class and Illeana Douglas's deftly etched caricature of a trendy teacher. Like the Eightball strip Art School Confidential, the subplot was inspired by Clowes's own student days at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn during the 1970s. A budding cartoonist, Clowes arrived keen to study the craft of illustration, but was confronted with the reigning conceptualist discourse, "that whole dead-end syndrome where people are playing to the art critic and you have to be aware of the current history of conceptual art to understand what they're doing. I'd bring in my comics and the teachers would say, 'Nice, but we're going to steer you away from this undignified activity.' Meanwhile a guy who made a sculpture out of styrofoam peanuts is getting accolades. In the art scenes in the movie there are many veiled references that only my former freshman classmates will understand—almost all of those art assignments that the goody-two-shoes girl brings in are real things!" This subplot worked so well that Zwigoff and Clowes are now thinking of turning Art School Confidential into a movie. It'll be updated to the contemporary art scene, though, says Clowes, "so I'm going to pretend to be a visiting professor and snoop on some classes that friends of mine teach at schools here in Berkeley."

Above, from the comic Ghost World; below, director Zwigoff: "I'd hate to have anyone who knows me psychoanalyze the film."
Illustration from Ghost World courtesy of Fantagraphics, Photograph by Charlie Eckeert
Above, from the comic Ghost World; below, director Zwigoff: "I'd hate to have anyone who knows me psychoanalyze the film."

The most drastic aspect of Zwigoff and Clowes's adaptation will likely trouble hardcore fans of the comic book. The new principal character Seymour—a desiccated, middle-aged record collector, played by Steve Buscemi—gradually takes over the movie until his peculiar relationship with Enid eclipses the primary dyad of the girls' intense friendship. "That was one of the decisions we had to make," says Clowes. "On film, the girls' relationship is something you grasp immediately from their body language, whereas in the comic it had to be drawn very carefully." Zwigoff says the movie took its final shape in the cutting room, dictated partly by the chemistry of the Birch-Buscemi scenes, and partly because they had three hours of footage to condense. Scenes developing the relationship between Enid and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) got cut, as did ones unfolding a romance between Enid and passive love interest Josh (Brad Renfro).

Seymour's tumescing presence in Ghost World is slightly disconcerting. For starters, the character—who loathes modernity and is obsessed with 1920s ragtime and blues 78s—appears to be based on Robert Crumb, suggesting a sort of idée fixe aspect to the way Zwigoff works. When Enid leafs through Seymour's vinyl pile at a stoop sale, the camera even pauses on what looks like an R. Crumb album (actually, it's by the Cheap Suit Serenaders, a 1920s-style band that Zwigoff and Crumb play in). Zwigoff says the Seymour character is actually a composite of himself and Crumb's brother Charles, who featured in the documentary as "the guy who sat on the bed all day . . . Charles had that self-deprecating, shut-in, sardonic air, which I liked." Then Zwigoff added "elements of myself, all the things I knew about, like the record-collecting world." One of the funniest scenes in Ghost World involves Enid tricking Rebecca into attending one of Seymour's collector scum parties, where guests trade 78s and squabble about "incipient cracks" in the dusty shellac. This turns out to be another area where Zwigoff and Clowes clicked: Both are of the opinion that music went into sharp decline after 1933 owing to the influence of radio and phonograph recordings. "By the early '30s most of the stuff was getting pretty slick and homogenized," says Zwigoff, in his wry pained manner. "Before that there were these little pockets of uniqueness and eccentricity, unaffected by the mass media."

« Previous Page
Next Page »