Graphic novels, aging hipsters and the Midwest–a perfect recipe for a indie dramedy
It has been over a decade since Daniel Clowes, the graphic novelist-turned-Academy-Award-nominated screenwriter, had adapted one his signature comically angst-riddled works to the big screen. Delving back into the world of his roots, illustration, the cartoonist seemed to have left the screenwriting world for good. But with the recent release of “Wilson” and the forthcoming “Patience,” it seems that Clowes is ready to plunge back into the world of penning his stories for film.
Having previously worked exclusively with Terry Zwigoff–who had previously done the wonderfully strange “Crumbs,” and the riotously blue “Bad Santa,” to name a few–it seems that Clowes is ready to try working with a new director, one who also finds his narrative muses in the uneasy, ennui-filled world of adolescent cognizance. Enter Craig Johnson, the affectionately funny director whose last film, the touchingly humorous “Skeleton Twins” was a sweetly funny blurring of comedy and drama–a quality that shines through in the narrative and characterizations in “Wilson.”
The Knockturnal had the opportunity to sit down with both Johnson and Clowes to discuss their upcoming film, “Wilson,” adapting the bizarrely enriching graphic novel and giving Laura Dern the freedom to define her character.
On Adapting “Wilson” for the Silver Screen
It seems that many awful source materials turn into fantastic films. From “Jaws” and “Die Hard” to “The Godfather” and “Psycho” there are a myriad of movies that have found their voice originally in something closer to a pulp fiction than a great novel. But it appears infinitely more difficult with a graphic novel–especially a good one.
After all, the graphic novel exists as a visual medium for its story–it has a vision, execution and stylization. What else can a film really add other than transform it to moving pictures? Whether it is “Spawn” and the droves of other superhero films or “Watchmen” and “300,” the graphic novel seems to have its own existence that seldom fluidly translates to the cinematic experience.
In a quiet, deliberate tone, Daniel Clowes explained the way in which he would combine the pages together and visual the narrative. The writer elucidates, “I had many hundreds pages that I paired away. It was the first time I have ever worked in that way, where I was pairing it down to this essential story.”
Craig Johnson jumped in to say, “when I received the script, I was already a huge fan of his. I had ‘Wilson’ on my shelf. I thought ‘I can’t wait to read this’–that was one part of my brain. The other part of my brain was saying, ‘how the hell are they going to turn this into a movie?, Just because of the nature of the graphic novel!” The director added, “the book is in this Sunday, Funnies style comic strips so when I read [the script], I was thrilled that not only did it maintain its acerbic sense of humor, but it was also infused with a humanity.”
Why the Last Page of the Graphic Novel was Left Out
Adaptation can be hard. Whether it’s cutting down a character’s depth or shaving away at an interesting subplot, it seems that a great deal can be lost in translation between works. That job can be especially difficult if it is your creation–your baby. But it seems that for Daniel Clowes, that was never a problem, having left out a crucial last page of his novel.
When probed about this deliberate decision, the writer explains, “it’s not in the script either. I felt the whole symbolic thing in the comic–that works in a comic. It requires you to be able to stop on that page. I wanted people to read that page fifty times to analyze what’s going on and go back through the book and come back to that moment. That’s just not something that works for a film. You can’t be out of the flow of the story in a film.”
The director chimed in to say, “the way that Daniel [Clowes] had written the scene, it was infused with a bit of existential crisis and in filmmaking, your movie tells you what it’s going to be.” Johnson elaborated by realizing, “when we were shooting these scenes with Woody [Harrelson], Woody has so much connection and charisma that we realized he was connecting with the moment. He’s looking at a screen at his grandson.” The director went on to say, “as we were putting the movie together, we realized the movie version of Wilson in those final moments was a little bit more about connection to a future and to a past and that maybe he’s beginning to understand his place in the world a little bit more.”
It’s Not Always Autobiographical
Many comic book artists are self-proclaimed recluses who seldom offer interviews, have eccentric personalities and are generally socially awkward. And when one looks at all the works of Daniel Clowes, one might assume that the same traits and beliefs of his characters are perhaps a shade of his own world views. Well, think again.
Thee sharp, eloquent and sociable Daniel Clowes certainly doesn’t believe so, explaining “He began as a [Freudian] Id creature. He’s a version of myself that’s buried somewhere in here but I’m much more socialized. I’m a much more reserved, Midwestern, polite person. I’m more like Wilson’s victim.” The writer went on to reveal, “my wife said, “you are everybody whose table he sits at in the book.” But I also admire him. I wish I was like that. To me, Wilson is an admirable person, even for all his difficult qualities. I must admit I have a very high tolerance for the Wilsons of the world.
Craig Johnson takes over, saying “I grew up in the Seattle area. There’s a high density of Wilsons in the Pacific Northwest. It just breeds them up there.” The filmmaker turned to Clowes, asking, “probably in the Bay Area too, right?” to which the writer jokingly replied, “yeah, but they’re getting priced out [laughs].” Johnson went on to explain, “I had friends in the artist and music community in Seattle when we were all coming up who were budding Wilsons. These were guys who I thought had brilliant minds and great world views.” The director concluded that, “but the actual ability to get off the couch and put the bong down and make something of your life, that was not there. They ended up on the road to becoming more centric. They’re people whose worldview rattles around in their own head. I admired those folks so when I read “Wilson.” I said to myself, ‘boy, this is like my buddy from Seattle.”
Wilson hits theaters this Friday, March 24.