Spend the Afternoon with ‘Wilson’ Screenwriter Daniel Clowes

(PCM) When Daniel Clowes was sitting at his father’s bedside as he was losing his battle with cancer, the graphic novelist and screenwriter he started drawing comic strips about the hospital.

The film, from Fox Searchlight Pictures, opened on Friday, March 24, to the delight of movie goers who were looking for something with more meat on its bones. This story, about a cantankerous middle-age eccentric man, with few filters, was directed by Craig Johnson, best known for his indie film, “The Skeleton Twins.”

“Wilson,” as a result of stellar performances, is endearing, often charming, and offers a few life lessons along the way, such as: don’t wait until your life amounts to nothing but a storage locker filled with old junk to take stock of your situation. In other words, if Wilson, the misfit, can persevere, there is a great deal of hope for the rest of us.

Clowes, a Chicago native, lives in Oakland with his wife, Erika, son, Charles, and beagle, Ella. He published the first issue of his seminal comic-book, “Eightball.”

His graphic novels include: “Ghost World,” “David Boring,” “Caricature,” “Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron,” “ Ice Haven,” “The Death-Ray,” “Mr. Wonderful,” and “Wilson.” His screenplay for the film adaptation of “Ghost World,” starring Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson, was nominated for an Oscar. His most recent graphic novel is the highly-acclaimed “Patience,” which he is working to adapt for next film.

PCM: I heard that you had been thinking about this when your own father had gotten ill. Had you actually met Wilson or seen composites?

Daniel Clowes: Wilson was deep in here. Yeah, when my dad was in the hospital on his last legs, just sort of like in the movie where I was hoping for that kind of final reckoning where he’s going to look at me and you know, here’s the advice I’ve always wanted to give you, and I realized sitting there that that was not going to happen.

PCM: Yet, something positive came out of that experience for you?

DC: Yes. At the very same time, I had just finished reading a biography of Peanuts author Charles Schulz, and he said in there, ‘I believe that every cartoonist worth his salt can come up with a serviceable comic strip in five minutes that would be good enough for the newspaper’

PCM: Please tell me more.

DC: So I thought, ‘wow, maybe I’m not as good as I thought,’ and so I sat there next to my dad with a notebook that I bought at the gift shop and just tried to, without any thought at all, draw four-panel cartoons, and that character just was there. It was like my filtered angry version of being in the hospital at first. Then it was about the airport shuttle getting there. Then I kept expanding what I was writing about. That was in 2008, and by the time I left, went back home, I had this whole notebook full of these comics that I felt…they felt more real than anything else I was doing at the time, so I got rid of everything else I was doing and tried to make that work.
PCM: Is there anything, putting yourself in your dad’s place, that you would say to somebody to give them closure?

DC: No. I certainly have no advice to impart to anybody. But, actually my goal would be to talk to my son enough throughout his life that he wouldn’t be waiting for that moment, because that was my dad’s problem. He was so closed off, and Midwestern, and this World War II guy who didn’t share his emotions. So, if we had a normal relationship, I wouldn’t have needed that last-minute Hail Mary.

PCM: I know that people record their loved ones voices, make a video or do other things to capture the memories before a parent dies, but it can be a little creepy if the person is sick.
DC: No, I couldn’t do it. Yeah, my dad would’ve been just like, ‘I don’t want it.’ But the thing about when people die is if you know them well, you hear them. You hear their voice, and I can talk to my dad today just as easily as if he were alive, because he said the same 10 things pretty much all the time, and told the same jokes, and so it’s very much like writing a character like Wilson; they become alive, and you hear their voice, and they talk to you in a very similar way.

PCM: I think Woody Harrelson, and the rest of the cast, are perfect for their roles. Why did you want Woody, and how did that happen?

DC: I turned in my script, and it was all, the director’s ideas. I can’t take any credit for it. Craig called me one day, and he goes, ‘what do you think of Woody Harrelson?’ And it had never occurred to me. It had just never even popped into my head, and I really didn’t have a good idea for the actor. It was driving me crazy, and then, all of a sudden, I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, why didn’t I think of that?’ I guess I felt like Woody had moved to this phase in his career where he wasn’t doing comedy as much. I was of him on “True Detective,” and he was being more like a serious guy.

PCM: What else was involved?

DC: Well, I was only thinking of comedians, but then I remembered that Woody was like the funniest guy in “Kingpin,” and I thought of all these movies, and I remember early on somebody said, who do you want to be in the movie? And I said, you know, I just want somebody who’s exactly my age, because you know how you have the same connections with people who are born in the same year as you because you watch the same TV and all that? And so I said, I want him to be born in 1961, and I look up Woody on IMDB that day, and he was born in 1961.

PCM: So it felt like kismet?

DC: Yeah, I have to say that except he’s in a lot better shape than I am in.

PCM: Now, you handed in a script. You knew there was going to be a movie, or you hoped there would be a movie. How does that compare with the finished product?

DC: Oh, it’s completely different than the way I imagined it, but also like in the realm of possibility of the way I thought it could turn out.

PCM: Please explain this to me.

DC: When you’re writing it, especially somebody like me, who’s used to writing things and then drawing their own comics, I have a really clear vision of how it would look, and since I drew this as a comic, I had a clear vision, and the movie is an interpretation. It’s somebody else’s vision of my thing, but it felt comfortable with it. This feels like it gets across what I was going for. It wasn’t far out from that vision. It’s another way of seeing it, but you realize, you give the material to 500 directors, and you’d have 500 totally different films; and this is true even if they couldn’t change a word of dialogue.

PCM: Were you on the set of Wilson?

DC: Yes. My wife and I came to the set. I wanted that experience of like, turning in a script and buying a ticket to the film like everybody else in it and having that, because with the other films I worked on, I was so involved. I still can’t watch them to this day without being taken out of it, and so we just went to the set for two days and got to see maybe two minutes of film being shot and meet everybody and everything. It was a great time.

PCM: Do you know what you’re doing next?

DC: I’m working on a new graphic novel and writing a screenplay for a book I did last year called “Patience.” It’s a science fiction movie.

PCM: Excellent. Do you know when that’ll come to be?

DC: Well, I have to finish it first.

PCM: You do seem extremely busy. Back to the movie, “Wilson,” would you say that there are there life lessons here? I saw quite a few of them in the film, such as seizing the day, and not looking back on your life and having regrets.

DC: I try not to think in terms of life lessons. I don’t have any lessons to impart, other than what emerges from trying to be truthful with the characters. I feel like there are things that, when I look at my stuff after I’m done, I get stuff out of it, but not necessarily anything…I’m not trying to propagandize anything.

PCM: Yeah, I didn’t mean it in that way. I just meant sometimes you see sometimes like this either a tearjerker, or a comedy, or a quirky type movie, and it says, you know what, I don’t want to be that person sitting in front of that storage unit going, this is all I have to show for my life.

DC: Yeah, I have a storage unit, too, that always depresses me.

PCM: Yeah. Well, because they hope you’re just going to forget about it.

DC: I know that one day I’ll just be like, I’m tired of paying for it, and just all the money will be out the window, and it is just all my parents’ stuff. You know, just it’s very depressing. It’s like putting part of your memories off to the side and repressing them somehow.

PCM: Tell me about the amusement park scene where Woody and Laura’s character take the teen daughter she gave up for adoption as a baby to create the family fun day they never had when the girl was a child.

DC: I have a 12-year-old son. So I’ve been to those kinds of places with kids, little kids, big kids, and first of all, the whole book is set in Oakland, where I live, and we have this wonderful amusement park called Children’s Fairyland that’s for little kids and their families. I think you can’t go if you’re older than eight. It’s for really little kids, and it’s very crude, and weird, and old fashioned, and the parents are all just looking around kind of in awe at how sort of low key it is, and the little kids just love it, so it’s this great old-world thing, and originally, we were going to shoot the movie in Oakland, but it was too expensive. So they basically made that amusement park…I mean, they found an old amusement park, and they set-dressed it to make it look kind of like the one in Oakland. So it has a real poignancy to it.

PCM: What kinds of movies or experiences do you like to share with your 12-year-old son?

DC: He’s just getting to the age where I could take him to see, like, a real movie, not just a Pixar, or a Star Wars, or that kind of thing. We’re having a screening of “Wilson,” and he’s going to see Wilson, which we’re a little nervous about. He’s going to learn a few things, learn a few things about daddy’s comics. He’s never read any of my comics, so it’ll be interesting to have him there.

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