Director Terry Zwigoff’s 1994 film Crumb garnered a degree of critical acclaim and audience support that typically proves elusive for other documentary moviemakers. Yet Zwigoff — about as anti-Hollywood a figure as one could envision — waited seven years to follow up that success with another feature (a timeframe elongated by the director‚s involvement in an aborted Woody Allen documentary). Surprisingly, this new film is not only Zwigoff’s first fictional endeavor but also a teen comedy for a major studio. But Ghost World is hardly your typical youth-geared laugh-fest, and the film is closer in spirit to Crumb than one might think. Crumb, of course, offered a portrait of the legendary underground comic artist, and Ghost World is adapted from Daniel Clowes‚ alternative comic. And both films share a fascination with American society‚s misfits and outcasts; there is also a link which goes back to Zwigoff’s 1985 debut Louie Bluie, in that all three films demonstrate a love for vintage blues and old 78s.

Like the serialized comic on which it’s based, Zwigoff and Clowes‚ screenplay for Ghost World is not a heavily narrative-driven affair. The film chronicles the friendship between jaded cynic Enid (the marvelous Thora Birch) and her less acidic companion, Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) during the summer following their high-school graduation, a time which finds their bond increasingly strained. Enid develops an odd relationship with socially inept record collector Seymour (Steve Buscemi), and Ghost World‘s other disaffected malcontents move through a landscape of dead-end service jobs and suburban strip malls. Zwigoff has created not only an evocative character study but also a pointed satire of the corporate homogenization of modern American society. The increasing blandness of pop culture (his barbs are at their most pointed during the sequence wherein Enid gets a one-day job at a hellish multiplex) is the background for a film that is at times uproariously funny. Ghost World, though, is ultimately defined by its sweetly melancholy tone as it observes Enid struggling to connect with her environment.

Travis Crawford (MM): What prompted the shift from documentaries to fiction features?

Terry Zwigoff (TZ): Besides the money? Besides being tired of being poor my whole life? (laughs) I find it hard to group documentaries into a general whole, and I make documentaries a lot differently than somebody like Frederick Wiseman. I was so controlling. With Crumb, because I had so little money to make that film, I was forced to stage a lot of things and prompt things, encourage things to happen — I was almost trying to get the people in the documentary to be amateur actors playing themselves, and it was very hard to direct that. So for that reason, I became interested in making fiction films. After Crumb became a hit, I started getting a lot of screenplays, and I would read them and some of them were very well-written, but they seemed so contrived, and my wife kept suggesting I make a film out of this comic Ghost World. Dan Clowes and Crumb were the only cartoonists I was really excited about, because their work is very un-comic-book-like; they‚re good with dialogue and character.

MM: You and Dan still made some considerable changes when you adapted the comic to screenplay form.

TZ: The comic doesn‚t really have much of a plot, it‚s a very episodic slice of life that holds up well in a four-page comic, but would never sustain a feature film. We had to find a storyline structure, but I wanted to keep all the things in the comic that I connected with. It took a year and a half to write, and it was rather difficult. It wasn‚t the details that were so hard, as it‚s easy to put in the jokes, but structure and a good ending are tough.

MM: Steve Buscemi’s character, Seymour, barely appears in the comic, but is a central character in the film. What is the significance of this addition?

TZ: Yeah, he’s me; that’s me making fun of myself. I exaggerated my record collecting friends and my troubles with women. One of the first reasons I made him an added character is I wanted strongly to have a Lolita-type romance in the film; the Nabokov book has always been one of my favorites, and I love the Kubrick film. It also gave me the opportunity to put in things that had happened to me, and I also wanted an excuse to put old 78s in the film because I hate pop music. We spent five years going around to studios to pitch this film, and they all said ‘Oh, teenage girls, great’ we can put in a pop soundtrack, and I told them I can’t do that.

MM: She’s great in the film, but I’m not sure Thora Birch would’ve been the first actress I would’ve envisioned as Enid, based on the comic.

TZ: When you‚re with a studio, they give you a list of 10 people to choose for each role, and the list I was given for Enid always had Jennifer Love Hewitt at the top, and all these other happy, well-adjusted girls and I just didn’t see that character being that untroubled. And you point it out to them, and they don’t care they’ll tell you that’s your problem, we need box-office stars. Luckily American Beauty came out and then Thora Birch was on the list. I met with her, and I didn’t think she could do it; it took me about three meetings with her because she wouldn’t read for me. At that point in her career she didn’t have to read for anyone. But she’s very smart, and every meeting I had with her, we talked about the character until she was transformed closer to Enid.

MM: One of the key themes in Ghost World is the corporate-driven blandness of contemporary American life. Why have we gotten to this point where our popular culture is so homogenized?

TZ: It’s all about money. America has more shallow traditions than, say, Europe, where people take a certain pride in their food and their language. In America, they welcome a McDonald’s, they welcome a Gap, and on the surface these things seem like a good idea until you dig deeper. It’s a very bad trend. There’s no choice left in America anymore. Anything that’s authentic and genuine, anything that grew out of any sense of tradition, is wiped out. We’re left with this bland monoculture that’s swept over the whole country.

MM: Was it difficult to get financing and work with United Artists on such an unconventional film?

TZ: United Artists didn’t enter the picture until after it was made; they had a negative pickup deal, so I didn’t have any feedback from them at all. My producer, Lianne Halfon, worked out some complicated financial deal where she got a lot of money from Europe, and these European producers technically had final cut. They were two very smart and civilized women who didn‚t agree with everything I did, and we got to a point in the cutting where they were very adamant about changes. I told them that the only way I can work is to do what I think is right; that this is
a very personal film. And to their credit, they left me alone. I’m not out there to make a calling card to Hollywood, and I don‚t have any great drive to be a famous film director, I just wanted
to make something different that makes you think — and that’s very hard to do in Hollywood.

MM: I like the fact that much of the film’s satire is directed at the pseudo-counterculture as well as mainstream society.

TZ: I’m a very angry person; I didn’t want to spare anybody. Part of the reason this country is going down the toilet is people aren’t critical enough. The whole country is so dumbed down that my wife and I are seriously thinking of leaving.

MM: Were there critical differences between making documentaries and fiction films that surprised you during Ghost World?

TZ: I was most surprised by how fond I became of the actors. I had been warned by the few directors I knew that actors could be a tremendous headache: they’re skittish, temperamental people, and there’ll be nothing but confrontations and trouble — but I didn‚t have that at all. I was greatly relieved. It helps if you have a good script, too; if you’re telling them to do some dumb thing and say some dumb line, it’s going to get irritating after a while, even if you are making a million dollars.