On the “Con” with cartoonist Daniel Clowes

Pub date May 5, 2006
SectionPixel Vision

It was so much fun talking to Eightball cartoonist and Ghost World and now Art School Confidential writer Daniel Clowes –- and so much conversation was left on the cutting room floor that I thought I’d resurrect a few choice tidbits here.

Max Minghella (left) sports a mean beret in Art School Confidential.

Bay Guardian: How did you get into the minds of teenage girls with Ghost World?

Daniel Clowes: I don’t know. I remember one day I did an interview with [Hate cartoonist] Peter Bagge, and they transcribed it word for word. Usually they’ll fix up our syntax and everything, but really it was like two teenage girls talking. It was really gossipy, “And then I went and she goes,” you know. I said to him, “We really sound like two teenage girls,” and he said, “Yeah, haven’t you ever noticed that that’s how we are.” And I thought, “Hmmm, ching-ching! Maybe I can make a fortune!”

BG: Maybe the differences aren’t that stark between teenage girls and older men?

DC: I think men have the maturity of a teenage girl when they’re about 30. I think that’s sadly true.

BG: And before then they have the maturity of…?

DC: A fetus. Yeah. To me, I had a revelation of those girls in high school, that’s why that girl cried at that time! You think back and think, now I get why they were like that! Now I’m at a 25-year-old maybe. At a certain point, women slow down and men get overly mature and turn into little old men. I think I’ve gone past that stage. [Laughs]

BG: On the other hand, the Steve Buscemi character in Ghost World seems like a character straight out of Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb.

DC: We thought of Steve Buscemi and just we kept expanding the character. There are a lot of great scenes that Terry wrote that we didn’t use that I wish we’d filmed. Just pointless scenes that had funny moments from his life, like we had one at an antique collectors’ faire. It was pre-eBay. Enid was like, “There’s a place where you’re going to meet a girl!” And it’s 600 overweight men, and this one woman, and she’s like this grotesque ‘20s flapper. I was reading it recently and laughing my head off, thinking, oh I wish to god we had filmed this. Totally inappropriate for the movie.

[We talk about how the movie might be scary for Clowes’ 2-year-old son, Charlie, and films that frightened Clowes like The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T]

BG: Do you cherish those movies like 5,000 Fingers, which scarred you?

DC: I was traumatized yet couldn’t wait to see it again. I was talking to some of my friends about this recently. Nowadays any movie you hear about. You just get it on Netflicks or rent it, or whatever. Soon it will be a computer click away. When we were kids, Night of the Living Dead or something was on, we’d hear about it and we’d scour the TV guide, and there it is, it’s at 2 in the morning on Thursday, and we’d have to sneak downstairs and not let our parents know and watch it really close to the screen so you could hear the sound. You were all alone but you had this weird communal feeling, like my friends are across town doing the same thing. And it was so much more exciting and it was charged with something. Its gone for me totally now. Now I’ll just Tivo it, and watch it whenever. I remember staying up late to watch the Wolfman or something. Literally, like, holding my eyelids open — so tired! “Gotta get through it! Gotta tell my friends that I saw the ending!” I don’t know, it’s gone.

BG: Whatever happened to Ghost World’s Thora Birch?

DC: She was a child actress, and did stuff from the time was a 2 or 3 years old, and it’s so much money. She didn’t seem that gung-ho about doing all that stuff. She’s like, “I can live without it.” She always said, “I never get scripts like Ghost World.”

BG: You ruined her for other movies.

DC: That’s our goal. Trying to destroy as many young talents as we can.

BG: Max Minghella in Art School Confidential is also great.

DC: We were friends with producer of Bee Season — Terry has known him for years. It was that old story you always hear and you never believe: We looked at a hundred actors and we literally looked at every single actor you’ve heard of or never heard of under 20. It’s just post-child actor, pre-adult actor. So it’s this very iffy area. It’s this awkward age because they change and they’re not who they were.

This producer said there’s this guy Max – he’s really good. and we met him and it just hit us right away, there he is. There’s Jerome. He was finally the guy we felt right about. Bee Season was first film he had ever done, and we gave him a lead in a feature, second time out. He’s a great guy — most kids that age are really arrogant and obnoxious and he’s just the sweetest, nicest, most modest guy. He was exactly 18 also. We always hit these guys at the right age.

BG: Young and impressionable!

DC: Yeah so we can mold them to our own devious ends! We were desperate to find somebody who was innocent and had sort of a charming quality but take it in this dark direction and not let the darkness kind of dominate him. It’s a very tough part – it’s all about who you really are.

BG: What about the other parts in Art School?

DC: John Malkovich produced Ghost World, and he said, “Next time give me a part.” “Oh we didn’t know you wanted one.” That’s the only part I ever wrote with an actor in mind.

Jim Broadbent was Terry’s idea. At first I thought that’s a very weird idea, but then actually it was pure genius. In the script it was supposed to be a very American guy, a Jerry Van Dyke or something. Someone who you know as being a real friendly, avuncular guy, but is seething with anger underneath. I once saw Jerry Van Dyke get really pissed off in a restaurant in LA — his hair was pure white and his face turned all red. That’s what gave me the idea.

BG: Speaking of your son, do you have an urge to do a children’s film or comic?

DC: No, I really don’t at all. I did a thing once, Art Speigelman did a thing once called Little Lit, kids’ stories, and I did a thing for it that was just not something I felt good about. It was not my way of thinking at all. I can’t censor what I’m doing. I just can’t think in terms of this is inappropriate for an 8 year old, so I better change it.

I do drawings for my son all the time but it’s not something I ever want to publish. People always say, “Oh, I wanna do a children’s book,” and I always thought, “Why? Why would you want to do that? Don’t you want adults to read your work.” [Laughs]


Longer discussions with the two artists who contributed paintings to Art School Confidential: his old friend Charles Schneider, who painted the serial killer’s workers, and Oakland painter and SF Art Institute instructor Caitlin Mitchell-Dayton, who made the protagonist Jerome’s pieces.