Ahead of yet another season of pummeling superhero movies promising to share more with video-game teaser demos than their pen-and-paper comics of origin, Craig Johnson’s adaptation of Daniel Clowes’s Wilson is a pleasant surprise. Clowes’s original graphic novel (published by Drawn + Quarterly in 2010) switched pictorial styles from one page to the next, whereas Johnson’s film—starring Woody Harrelson as the eponymous Gen-X misanthrope who discovers a long-lost child named Claire (Isabella Amara), put up for adoption by his burnout ex, Pippi (Laura Dern)—proceeds at a deceptively steady, and riotously funny, clip. For someone whose work dabbles so consistently in a phantasmagoria of misanthropy, Clowes was remarkably easygoing when we sat down to talk. Ensconced in a spotless hotel suite high above midtown, he looked every bit the reluctant philosopher-king of a generation of alt-comix. We discussed the treacherous straits of adapting from page to screen, the new hegemony of superhero fandom, and his favorite actor in his favorite film.
So, how long are you cooped up like this?
Three more hours? I don’t know what possessed me to agree to this. [Laughs]
Are you doing more interviews for Wilson than for your previous two films?
I think it’s about the same. I do enjoy it, actually. I’m not gonna be doing this for the next whatever-many years, and there’s just something so strange about sitting here. It’s like speed dating.
I was stricken by how some things were reproduced very closely from the book while watching the film. Others seemed like completely new creations. Pippi’s character changed a lot.
Ghost World was my first screenplay, and I just didn’t know how to end a film scene. I didn’t think it through: how film scenes actually end is by segueing into the next scene. But I kept ending each of them with a comic joke, like a vaudeville skit. Let’s say it ends with a guy’s legs flying out of the panel, and the producer’s like, “What are you doing!?” She made so much fun of me that I’ve been really aware of not doing that. I try to make the jokes flow into a more naturalistic series of events, as opposed to the kind of boom-boom-boom rhythm that the book has.
When a book gets optioned like this, is there an opportunity to go back and fix something you wish you could have done different in the writing?
You know, Wilson is the only book I’ve done like this, but I wrote maybe three times the amount of material than what’s actually in the book. I just pared it all the way down. So there’s a lot of stuff in the film that I thought of for the book. Not that it played out in the same way, but for example, when Wilson is going out on dates, the scene where he deliberately rear-ends a woman’s car in the parking lot, things like that—stuff that was cut from the book but felt like it would be useful or compelling for a film. So those were vague half-ideas that had never been fully worked out, but they were certainly organic to the film. And then some things were pure creations for the film: Laura Dern’s character, for instance, was to me the toughest hurdle. In the comic, Pippi is this kind of dour introvert; the joke is that she’s impossible to love and he loves her. But you see very little of her in the book, really. I knew that wasn’t gonna fly in the film; you see like a one-scene joke, and then you’d never be able to get past that, and I didn’t wanna write the character as a bigger one back then. I didn’t think she deserved it. So it was really hard to try and make that believable and expand it. And Laura Dern is the solution to all problems, fortunately.
The daughter, Claire, has a much more fleeting presence in the book. In some ways it’s more haunting.
In the book I felt she had sort of a trajectory, which is played out in the film as written but expanded. But the Laura Dern character is really rethought.
Given the last two decades of superhero movies, I get the impression comics are as influential as they’ve ever been, but it’s not actually comics—just characters, properties. Any thoughts on that?
Yeah, nobody is reading the comics. I mean, I don’t follow the mainstream business that much because it’s just so boring. But I get it: Nobody is buying actual Batman comics. My son isn’t really into superheroes, but he likes Star Wars and stuff. I go, “Hey, wanna read these comics about other characters?” He’s like, “Why would I wanna read that?” [Laughs].
Is it the medium itself?
I think it’s just, people see it as impenetrable. If it’s on issue #37 and you don’t know what’s going on, you get five minutes of material at a time. It’s a very weird, unsatisfying medium.
Does this mean you have more interest in making graphic novels than you did 10, 15 years ago?
Yeah. I get more and more into it. Right now I’m on a regimen of trying to expand my world and doing different kinds of comics, working on my drawing techniques. I mean, to me it’s still a wide open field, with so many things that haven’t been done.
I’m constantly seeing, now, in big-budget comic-book movies, this attempt to reproduce what works as a two-dimensional panel in a moving image. But they’re opposites in a way: The flow of a comic stakes everything on individual, even still images, while film keeps the flow moving. I mean, obviously…
Well, with this film I wrote it almost like a play. There’s no description at all. There’s a location established, and then it’s all dialogue. I wanted it to be as wide open as anything I’ve ever written. And I wanted Craig Johnson to be able to interpret it how he wanted. I didn’t want to inflict anything on the film. So I didn’t put anything, at all, into how I wanted the visuals to look. Because I put a lot of that thought into some of the earlier films, and that never ends up translated on screen—like, never. [Laughs] It was almost fought, what ended up on screen, because the director was interpreting my writing as a visual, and not quite getting it. I find it’s a kind of silly way to work. Because I can just draw it, it’s hard to describe what I’m trying to lead somebody to do.
But that’s the golden goose, right? The Dan Clowes Flavor. As we’re defining it, anyway.
Well, I don’t know that that’s true. Everybody’s trying to do their own film. Maybe keeping the spirit of it but not necessarily trying to replicate my world.
Alexander Payne was interested in Wilson before. When you were adapting the script, had Woody Harrelson or Laura Dern already signed on?
Nope. I didn’t write it for anybody. I couldn’t think of the right Wilson. It was tough. People kept asking me, “Who do you think…?” It’s not like all of the sudden there’s gonna be a new 55-year-old actor who emerges. [Laughs] It was really tough. When Craig suggested Woody, I was like, “Oh yeah, of course!” But it had never occurred to me before, and then it seemed inevitable—and I had never thought of Laura Dern because, of course, we were thinking more along the lines of someone who resembled the character in the book. Once those two were suggested, I went back and rewrote it with them in mind—and they added plenty to it that I couldn’t even have imagined, either. They ad-libbed lines and scenes that are perfectly in keeping with the characters, which I would normally be opposed to.
You’re not trying to be precious about the material.
I’m not. That’s a fool’s errand. If I really wanted to be precious, I’d need to direct, produce, maintain full control—make the film in my own house, probably.
You must have thought about doing it at some point.
I did, early on, but I realized that I don’t have the personality to be a director. You have to be a real asshole at times, when it calls for it, and I can’t. When somebody works real hard and presents their set design or whatever, I can’t be like, “This sucks! Do it again!” It would pain me. I’d be up all night. I’d rather make a bad film than hurt somebody’s feelings, I think. And I love doing comics because I don’t have to worry about anybody’s feelings. It’s all just me, you know?
I have a vague recollection of Robert Rodriguez describing comics as storyboards, which always seemed unfair in both directions. But it’s worth asking: At the beginning of your career, were you influenced by films outright?
Well, for Wilson I was thinking in terms of a Hal Ashby kind of feel. I re-watched Harold and Maude, The Landlord, all the early stuff. That kind of lovable antihero stuff is something I had in mind. But yeah, I’m a film buff, for sure. At Sundance we had to do this bullshit Hollywood Reporter thing where they called us all together to answer these really stupid questions. One of them was: “What’s your favorite actor in your favorite film?” All the actors are trained to know that you give somebody current as your answer, one of their fellow actors in a current film, you know? I said, “Edward G. Robinson in Scarlet Street!” They looked like I had just maced them, or something. [Laughs] I noticed when it was played online, that part was completely cut out.
Since you brought it up, what are we supposed to make of Robinson’s artwork in that film? Are the paintings supposed to be good? Director Fritz Lang plays it so close to the vest.
I think they are, right? It’s hard to interpret. To me, they look really good by today’s standards, they’re real interesting. But back then, I think they were intended to be a little weird. It’s hard to say what Lang thought of them. I doubt he thought they were great paintings, but I take it as you’re supposed to see an artist being laid to waste. [Laughs]