It’s very rare when a comic book creator gets to personally craft a screen adaptation of their work, but it’s become a standard practice for Daniel Clowes.
For decades, Clowes has been one of the most acclaimed graphic storytellers in the industry, bypassing the fantastical trappings typical to comics fare. Instead, he's been creating tales and characters that feel entirely true to life. Not only have his works both won or been nominated for an array of prestigious awards within and without the industry, his underground stylings have broken through to a considerable mainstream audience.
Along the way, he took the opportunity to adapt two of his most admired works, "Ghost World" and "Art School Confidential," into feature films, both directed by Terry Zwigoff. His latest screenwriting effort is “Wilson,” a cinematic take on his 2010 graphic novel of the same name. The story is relatively straightforward yet engaging, centering around an outspoken, socially maladroit man who becomes consumed with the notion of his legacy after his father dies and he discovers a daughter he never knew about.
Clowes joined CBR for a wide-ranging discussion about bringing his own works to the big screen, and Wilson’s special place in his creative pantheon, the next potential adaptation on his plate. We also dig deep into how, in a world filled with comic book wonders exploding into film and TV, he remains happiest focusing on the half-century old works of Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko.
CBR: There was such an inherent structural conceit that you used in the graphic novel, in your page-by-page allusion to comic strips and their structure. Did you try to preserve any of that as you had started on the screenplay? Or did you know immediately, “Okay, that’s just got to go?”
Daniel Clowes: I knew within the first half hour of talking to somebody about writing it. The first time I met with anybody about it, we thought, “Is there any way to translate that to film?” In a comic, you’re using comic book styles that sort of make sense to that. So I felt like if we were going to do that in a film, it would have to reference film styles. I didn’t have any good reason to do it.
I felt like in a comic, it’s a very different thing. A lot of people read the comic, and even though the styles shift drastically from page to page, people would get to the end, and I’d say something about the different styles, and they’d go, “Oh, I didn’t even notice that.”
People read comics in such a strange, subliminal way, and movies are the exact opposite, where your eye is going over every inch of the frame, and everything’s all visual. I thought it would just be overwhelming and sort of pretentious to translate that to the film. I was happy to not have wasted a lot of time trying it, because I know it wouldn’t have worked.
The comic and film versions ended up being very close, but ultimately different stories. Tell me about the evolution of the original path you took for the graphic novel, and then where you ended up with in the movie.
When I wrote the graphic novel, it was the first time – and the only time – I’ve ever had a lot more material than actually saw print in the final book. Often I’ll cut out a page or two here or there, pare it down. I had strip after strip after strip all drawn in kind of stick figure form. I kind of found the story within all these strips that I had done, and then cut out everything that wasn’t kind of a perfect moment. I wanted it just to be 72 kind of strips that all had a certain perfect integrity to them.
So in starting the film, I felt like, “Well, okay, this is a good way to start, because I have sort of an outline based on these 72 strips, and I have a couple characters that I know really intimately well.” I imagined that I would then go way off from the story and kind of find a new story. Everything that I tried, I wound up liking the original way better. There was something about paring down all those strips that made it seem sort of indelible in a way that I felt like I couldn’t stray from it. It felt like it was actual reality, and not just a made-up story.
The Wilson of the movie is a few degrees less misanthropic than the Wilson of the book. How much of that was intentional on your part in the writing, and how much of that is part of the alchemy of Woody Harrelson’s acting?
It’s really all Woody Harrelson. [Laughs]
On the page, the way that the script was written, it’s really pretty close to the comic book Wilson. There were lines and things that are cut from the film just because that’s the way editing works, nut really, Woody brought a Woody Harrelson-ness to the character that made him both more palatable than the character in the book, and somebody that we can’t help but like on some level, I think.
I think he’s sort of impossible not to like, even when he plays an evil cop in “Rampart” or something like that. There’s still something about him that you connect with. He’s such a sort of a part of our culture.
This is your third time around adapting your own material to the screen. Is it a process that you jump into with relish? Or is it an odd transition, and you have to kind of back your way into it?
It’s kind of both. I’ve turned down adapting several of my books. The ones that I do adapt are the ones that I feel like I never got enough of that character. When I was done, I felt like if somebody put a gun to my head and said, “All you can do is draw a daily comic strip for the rest of your life – pick a character,” I would have certainly picked Wilson, because he would give me material for any subject.
I could just sit here in this room and write a strip about Wilson getting something out of the minibar, and he would do something surprising and something I can’t even predict until the words kind of would just pop into my head. He’s one of those living, breathing characters that you only come across once in a while.
Is there a scene or a sequence in the film that perfectly reflects your vision of Wilson from the book, that captures everything just right? And is there a scene that you really love that is far afield from the book?
That’s a good question. I have to think about it. Certainly, there’s a few scenes that are pretty straight out of the book that I felt were really closely adapted, like where he sits next to the guy on a commuter train and is sort of bemoaning the state of the modern world. That felt pretty close to what I was going for in the comic.
There are scenes where he’s interacting with his daughter before he goes to prison that feel more deeply emotional than anything in the book, I think, that are really kind of sweet moments that I wouldn’t have expecting to see in this movie, that were sort of Woody creating those. It all sort of loosely follows the template that I gave them in the screenplay. It goes in and out of focus in a certain way, and it just becomes its own thing.
Tell me about your relationship with your director, Craig Johnson, and how that was fresh and different from your previous ventures into the film world.
The other two films working with Terry Zwigoff, he was somebody I sort of knew before we even worked together. He comes from underground comic scene in San Francisco. We had a lot of things in common, a lot of connections and people we knew together – and j ust sort of a shorthand of humor that we had. Craig’s younger than I am. He’s somebody that I met when he really already wanted to do the film, and we got together. I just sort of immediately felt comfortable with him. I felt like he had a good sense of humor. He kind of got the book.
The most encouraging thing to me was just his casting ideas. I thought that was sort of the key to the whole movie is getting the right actors, and I thought he came from a theater background. He just wanted to work with these actors and had a real sense of how to do that. I thought that’s what sold me on it.
Where are your creative energies most focused right now? Are you back hard at work on your books, or is there another Hollywood project that kind of looms right ahead?
I’m sort of slowly working on a screenplay for my book “Patience” from last year. That’s something I’d like to do and film. I’m sort of percolating a kind of a bigger graphic novel that I want to get to work on very soon. It’s something that I wrote over the last year or so, and then when Trump won the election, I realized that it was going to change my view of the world in such a profound way that I needed to kind of rethink what I was doing. I’m in the process of kind of re-examining this thing I wrote with a new lens of living in a dystopian future already.
Your work is so intensely personal that you must often have to stop for a second and re-evaluate your approach when something changes societally or politically.
Yeah. I know how my brain works, and when I’m working, it’s all about the things that are just churning through my brain on a daily basis. And I know how much time I have now devoted to thinking about this whole debacle that we’re involved in. I know that’s not going to go away anytime soon. So I have to definitely write something that at least has within it the space to respond to whatever crazy atrocities are coming our way.
At the time that you committed to a career in independent comics and telling stories that didn’t have to do necessarily with superheroes or the fantastic, you had to do it out of love – it wasn’t a venture of fame or fortune. But you’ve hit the mainstream. Tell me about that evolution in your life: to go from it being a passion to also have this extra added layer of social acceptance and of a huger audience.
It's funny, because I still am just the same kid who in 1978 was sitting alone in his room thinking, “I’m going to do comics to change the world!” I just can’t respond to anything outside of it. It all seems like I’m in the Matrix or something. It all just seems unbelievable. I just can’t accept like, I wrote something that Woody Harrelson is saying out loud. It doesn’t compute, somehow.
I only feel real when I’m in my studio inking comic panels. That’s when I feel like that’s who I am. I’m sort of shouting out at the void when I do that, but that feels much more real than actually connecting with people. The numbers of people – if it’s ten people or a million, I don’t feel any difference there somehow, which is probably all good. It’s like a cognitive dissonance that keeps me from losing my mind, I guess.
All your comics works come from a very personal place, but “Wilson” was prompted by a pretty major life incident. At this point, what does that project mean to you, the graphic novel, and how does the movie sort of take that feeling to another place?
I think it’s very much about both fatherhood, both from the sense of being a son, and from being a father, because those were two things I was going through right at the time I wrote the book.
In fact, tonight my son’s going to see the movie for the first time, which I’m a little nervous about, because he’s only 12 years old. I wouldn’t let any other 12-year-old see the movie. So it feels very much like I did some heavy thinking about that subject, and it came out in this weird aggressive way, of this creature inflicted on to the world. Something positive came from that. I feel like I know myself better, both as both a son and a father based on that, certainly.
Do you still connect to the kinds of comic book fare that you discovered, like we all do as kids that got you excited about the medium? What do you think about the sort of big permeation of comics culture in mass media right now?
That’s another thing I can’t really wrap my head around. It’s like, I think of myself at 13. If you told me, like, “There’s going to be a Silver Surfer movie,” I would have had a heart attack. I would have been like, “No way!” The fact that I couldn’t be less interested now, it’s that weird feeling of, like, “I should force myself to love this for my childhood self,” but I just somehow, none of it interests me.
I’m still only interested in Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. I’m stuck on those two guys, and nobody else after that is of interest to me. They’re all weak imitations.
Fortunately, both of those guys can sustain interest all these decades later.
Forever, yeah. Forever.
Your book “Patience” was so well-received and embraced by the audience. What are you hoping to be able to do with the film version of that?
I feel like all the books I’ve done are really about the writing, and the plot, and the character, and that one, “Patience” is really about the visual world of that. I’m finding as I write it that, for the first time, I’m writing three or four pages in a row without any dialogue. It’s all description and things that are happening rather than people talking. So it’s a real different thing for me, and I feel like…I don’t know. I feel like i of all the things I’ve ever written, it could be a really cool movie, if the right people do it.
"Wilson" is in theaters now.