Interview

David Jenkins

@daveyjenkins

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Sophie Mo

Terry Zwigoff: ‘Hollywood responds to the three Bs: bravado, bluster and bullshit’

We talk to the director of 2001 comedy masterpiece Ghost World ahead of an immersive London screening and soundtrack re-release.

There’s not a day that goes by where I don’t wonder whether Terry Zwigoff will announce another film project. His immaculate directorial cannon includes 1994’s Crumb, considered one of the great profile documentaries of the modern era, 2001’s Ghost World, arguably one of the great (if not the greatest?) comic book movies ever made, and the Citizen Kane of drunk, dyspeptic Santa Claus movies, Bad Santa, from 2003.

Following the release of Art School Confidential, things went a little quiet, but Zwigoff himself seems to suggest that he wasn’t really a Hollywood guy, and working within the system was tough. Yet, with such a superlative personal catalogue of film works, his legacy remains untainted. And so we speak to him ahead of a visit to London, for a special “immersive” screening of Ghost World where he’ll be joined by no less than Robert Crumb to play music and a new limited vinyl soundtrack of the film will be available for purchase.

LWLies: As this is a celebration of your film and music work, I’d like to first ask you about Blueshammer. How often do you encounter Blueshammer-like bands in your life? What is your take on the world of contemporary popular music?

Zwigoff: I pretty much steer clear of any place that would have a band like this, but have stumbled onto my share of nonsense over the years. Contemporary popular music? Have always found it to be tasteless slop for the most part. When I was a kid my father would control the TV and he’d always watch shows like The Perry Como Hour with music like the McGuire Sisters or Paul Anka. So dull and uninteresting – just part of the bland, whitebread, mainstream culture. There was always some pop music that was a little more interesting like Buddy Holly or Roy Orbison or the like. Chuck Berry was good. I don’t know if you consider him pop or not. I don’t. Today, I have enough great music on 78s I can listen to for the rest of my life. I wouldn’t know Rhianna from Adele, and I’m not tempted to invest the time to find out. I’d rather sit here and listen to my Jelly Roll Morton and King Oliver records.

Can you talk about your decision to open Ghost World on Jaan Pehechan Ho? How did you first encounter the song, and what’s the process of getting it on the soundtrack?

Dan Clowes had a VHS tapes of a bunch of weird clips he’d saved, things like farting TV evangelists, old campy commercials, that sort of thing. Mixed in there was a very grainy, 5th-generation clip of 30 seconds from this. I made him play it over and over – I just loved it. I obsessively figured out a way to force it into Ghost World. I think Dan thought I was crazy, but I finally made it work. I was able to obtain a pristine copy of the film thanks to the original producers in India. They actually hand-carried the original film elements over to LA so we could use them.

Enid becomes fixated with the Skip James track Devil Got My Woman, and I’d love to know the last time you just played the same song over and over and over.

I’ve done that trying to learn a tune. After being in a film editing room and sound mix, though, I’m aware how much that can turn your favourite tune into something you never want hear again. When my wife puts on a CD in her car of old reissues, I force her to skip over the ones I own on 78s as I don’t want to get sick of them. I would rather not use it as “background music” while we chat in the car, and save it for home where I can hear it on better equipment and really enjoy it and focus on it.

The line, “It’s America dude. Learn the rules.” has echoed through the years. Watching the film now, the nun-chuck guy now comes across as a vision from the future. It’s chilling. Was it strange to re-encounter the film’s many prophetic elements when you worked on the Criterion release?

I liked Idiocracy a lot for that reason – still do. I always thought it would make a good double bill with “Ghost World”. Quentin Tarantino’s theatre in LA recently put them together for a double bill a few years ago.

In the period after Art School Confidential, were there any other graphic novels you had interest in adapting for the screen? Did interest in non action comic book movies wane?

No. I don’t read graphic novels. If someone I trust recommends one occasionally I’ll take a look at it, but haven’t been excited by what I’ve seen. The action comic book films continue to mystify me with their popularity. How can anyone suffer through them of their own free will? Is it the increased lead levels in the drinking water?

In interviews you come across as a candid and logical person who speaks his own mind. Do you feel that’s antithetical to succeeding in the modern film industry? Or any industry for that matter?

It does’t help, but I usually can’t help myself. I’m too straight-forward and self-deprecating. That doesn’t fly in pitch meetings. They seem to respond to bravado, bluster and bullshit… the three B’s.

Did you ever find yourself playing a game, or having to pretend to be someone you’re not, while working in Hollywood?

Years ago I expressed my frustration to a producer friend about a film we were pitching with no success. I ‘how come the same studio is turning this down while they continue to make films by the likes of ______ _____?! His films are always terrible and never make money! My track record is a million times better than his.’
My producer: ‘Oh, that’s because he’s so good in a room! He really knows how to work the room!’ I admit I’m no good at pitching, but anyone with any sense should realise that being good at pitching does not necessarily make you good at making a film.

Do you remember the last time you laughed in the cinema?

Last week. I laughed at Tarantino’s latest – at the end when Brad Pitt has a big showdown with the Manson girls. Brad Pitt was terrific in that film. So was the hitchhiker, Margaret Qualley. Very funny.

What advice would you give to someone starting out to build a collection of 78s?

Go back in time to when they were affordable.

What is your current sound system set-up?

I’ll take a photo and attach… (above)

Thrones TD 124 turntable (made in Switzerland) late ’50s
Marantz Model One tube preamp late ’50s
Marantz 2270 amp.
Large old RCA speaker.
The only guy left on the planet who can still make the correct stylus for 78s lives in Ashtead, Surrey England – Expert Stylus Co., Paul Hodgson.

Has the internet destroyed the fun of record collecting for you?

In the old days when i first started collecting, you could sometimes feel like an archeologist making some important discovery and preserving it for posterity. Now with eBay and all the info online, not as much. But it’s still fun.

Terry Zwigoff will be in London on 28 Sept at the Troxy for an immersive screening of Ghost World where he will also play music with Robert Crumb. Limited edition copies of the Ghost World soundtrack will also be for sale. Tickets are for sale here: smarturl.it/zwigoff 

Published 17 Sep 2019

Tags: Comedy Ghost World Terry Zwigoff

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