Terry Zwigoff

Terry Zwigoff


Terry Zwigoff

By Metrograph

The filmmaker joined Metrograph in 2019 to discuss his melancholy 1994 documentary about comic artist Robert “R.“ Crumb.

Crumb plays at Metrograph Friday, January 28 and Sunday, January 30


ALIZA MA: Please welcome Terry, everyone.

Hi, thanks for coming. Audiences out here are so different than anywhere else—for my films. The typical audience for my film is fat, bald, pasty white guys that smell like mothballs, that’s 90% of the people who show up at my films. Everybody looks minimum regular to attractive here. Weird. Wait, I have to take a picture to prove this.

I wondered if you could start by talking a bit about your friendship with Crumb?

Well, let’s see, God I’ve known him forever. Since moving to San Francisco in the early 70s. We were both interested in collecting records and that kind of old music. I used to be a printer at a comic book place, printed some of his covers and met him that way, and just became friends at some point, around 1975 maybe? We went on a record-hunting trip through the South, like in Mississippi, hoping there’d be Charley Patton records there, Robert Johnson, that kind of stuff. We found almost nothing; we would go we would go door to door in older, Black neighborhoods that looked like people had lived there for a while. We’d knock on the doors and say, “Do you guys have any old blues records we could buy, these old Victrola records?” And at one point, a cop stopped us, the local sheriff. He asked us what we were doing down there, and we said, ”We’re down here looking for old blues records, we collect, we like the music.” He paused for a second, looked at us, and said, “You boys must be Jews.” Anyway, we didn’t find any good records.

At one point we actually broke a piece off, we had like a junk record. It had a piece broken out of it, so we used it to take door to door because people didn’t know what we were talking about when we’d ask them for old records, they’d bring out Beatles LPs. So we had a broken Bessie Smith record. We would say, “You know, old records like this.” This one guy said, “I can get you all the records you want. How much do you pay?” And we said, “Well, depends, you know.” He said, “Okay, I’m going to find some, come back here in an hour.” We went back to see him, and he had got a pile of records and he had broken a piece off the edge of each one because he thought that was what we wanted.

Anyway, we were on our way to New York after that to visit this guy that recorded our record with the Cheap Suits Serenaders, who lived not too far from here in the West Village. And on the way up there our car started having problems around Philadelphia. It was getting to be around dark, and we didn’t know what to do. He said, “You know, my parents live within like five minutes of here, I haven’t seen them in years. Maybe we should just go there for the night. They’ll put us up, and we can look at the car in the morning.” So he made a call and set it up. We went over there and his father was still alive at that point, who was a pretty scary guy. He didn’t say much; we had dinner downstairs, they had spaghetti and Charles came down and ate. And then after dinner we went up to Charles’s room and talked, just like in the film. Everything was pretty much the same subject, the same sort of discussion. I thought somehow this was an interesting subject for a film.

You guys played music together?

Not Charles. But me and Robert, yeah.

"I showed him that book, The ABCs of Pornography, and he just flipped out. He spent the next couple of days trying to find a place to get a good color Xerox of it, which in those days was sort of hard."

Your first film, Louie Bluie, about Howard Armstrong, shows his illustrations. You mentioned that the Crumb drawings share a similar style. Was Crumb aware of Armstrong’s drawings?

No, it wasn’t aware of Howard Armstrong’s record even, it was so rare. I showed him that book, The ABCs of Pornography, and he just flipped out. He spent the next couple days  trying to find a place to get a good color Xerox of it, which in those days was sort of hard. But he color Xeroxed the whole thing. And him and Howard actually hit it off pretty well. Howard was in town for the San Francisco Film Festival, and we did a show there. I remember, it was one of the first times I ever had to speak in public, and there were 1,500 people in the theater. I was so nervous that I was just pacing up and back, knowing I had 10 minutes until I had to go out there, and what am I going to say? And Aline, Robert’s wife, was out there with me. She said, “Here, take a Xanax.” I’d never taken a Xanax in my life. Those were the days. So I took a Xanax, pacing around, and I said, “I don’t feel anything, give me another one.” By the time I went out there, it hit me; as soon as I stepped up to the microphone, I just was like what the hell? Where am I? I still have no memory of what I said.

So when did the idea to make this documentary begin?

Well, before I met his family, I knew Robert’s artwork, of course. I was a big fan of it and collected. I don’t know if you guys saw but a couple days ago, at Heritage Auctions, one cover that he drew for Fritz the Cat, a comic in the late ’60s, sold for &700,000. Or $717,000 to be exact, Jesus. And I remember him offering me that very cover in trade for a $4 record at the time. And I said, “Nah. I like it, it’s not as good as your other stuff.” God is right. But I’m sure he’s freaked out by that, I haven’t talked him since that happened. That was very strange.

Yeah, I forgot to add that he had shown me Charles’s artwork. And then meeting Charles, Charles had saved me a bunch of his artwork. And I love that too, so I started trading Crumb records for that artwork. And he traded me some of that stuff that he had. And I knew Maxon [Crumb’s other brother], I used to go visit him when Crumb would come to town in that hotel, and I liked his paintings quite a bit, too. So I collected all three of the brothers’ artwork. And then when I met the father and started to talk to Charles, I thought it was a really interesting story. That it would make a good film.

You mentioned there was a lot of set-up for Louie Bluie in order to get the scenes you wanted. Was it the same for Crumb?

It wasn’t exactly the same. But you know, film was so expensive in those days, and we just had very little money. You’d buy a roll of film, it’d be 400 feet and be about $100. And then to develop it would be another $100. And that’s just the beginning, then you got to sync it, etc., etc., it starts to mount up. So I tried to be very thrifty with the film.

I knew Robert pretty well at that point. I sort of knew what he did; when he came to visit me in San Francisco, he’d come down, he lived up north in Winters, Dixon, about an hour and a half north of San Francisco, and he would come down maybe once a month and stay for a couple days to a week. Sometimes I would go with him, sometimes I wouldn’t, but he’d go to a cafe and draw, like on Haight Street, or go down to Market Street and draw. I knew that would be a good thing to recreate, it’s not something that would just happen on its own;  he’s just not going to show up and I’m going to happen to have a camera crew there, Maryse Alberti and her husband won’t be there to film this.

And so Lynn O’Donnell, who was the producer of the film, and I would try to figure out what we could do to make this happen. We would arrange for Maryse to come up from New York, and Scott [Breindel], who was her husband, it was a two-person crew. And occasionally we used this guy, John Ellis, who is a great filmmaker, who lives in Palo Alto, who helped us out. But it had to be arranged. We had to figure out in advance what day is he coming, and make sure they’re going to be there.

I actually went as far as location scouting to the point of I want to film him waiting at a bus stop. I want to pick a bus stop that’s sort of interesting, that was not just any bus stop. I would try to find something with an ironic or humorous bus stop ad that commented in some way on the film. Of course, the one he sits under, which is pretty good, of this model-like woman, and him grimacing under it while he draws—but there was a better one there when I location scouted the week before, they had taken it down and changed it. Anyway, so I asked him to sit there. And you know, he’s somewhat co-operative with that kind of stuff. But he honestly confessed to me that he couldn’t draw with the camera on him. He just couldn’t think straight. So a lot of what I did is stuff that I’d seen that he already had drawn in a sketchbook. I had gone and made good copies of it, and pasted it into a blank sketchbook at different stages; I would wipe stuff out and ask him to act like he was finishing it up. Sometimes, he’d occasionally draw something. But a lot of that stuff was sort of faked.

You brought up Les Blank in another Q&A. Was he an influence for these early documentaries?

No, he was just a guy who had made a couple documentaries. And he’d made one on Lightnin’ Hopkins, a blues guy, and one on Mance Lipscomb. And they were nice. They were sort of poetic, you know, very different to what I would do. But he’s one of the few documentary filmmakers that I even knew existed. But that wasn’t a direct influence. I was more interested in doing something like Frederick Wiseman and just letting the camera run, but I was never able to make that kind of documentary.

R. Crumb

You’ve worked with Dan Clowes a couple of times, on Art School Confidential and Ghost World. Thinking about drawings in the Louie Bluie documentary and in this, is there something that you’re exploring with regards to the affinity between illustration and film, or comic books and cinema?

No, no, it’s very hard to film that kind of stuff; the aspect ratio is all wrong. You know, the film aspect ratio is rectangular and wide, and comics are vertical. It’s very difficult to film it. That wasn’t the intention. It was just I thought he was a really great artist, one of the great artists of our time. I still do. Apparently, the public’s catching up to me with the $700,000 bid there. I just think of that show at Modernism that you see in the film where I remember those covers were all for sale, and hardly any of them sold. They were between $1,000 and $1,500 each. Who had that kind of money in those days, even if you wanted them?

What was David Lynch’s involvement?

Somebody told me that this guy, John Wentworth, who gets a credit in the film, who was some post-production manager in Hollywood and had met him in a bar or something. He said he knew David Lynch, and that David Lynch had a poster of my film Louis Bluie on the wall of his office. And I said, “Oh, it’s interesting, I like David Lynch.” Then years later, when we were trying to raise money for this film, when we finally got it edited, and we’re looking for money to get to the lab, which was like another $30,000 or something for the sound mix. I thought, well, he either likes that film, or maybe he’s just a fan of Crumb, who drew the poster. Either way, I should contact him and see, maybe he’ll give us some money. So I called him up. And he said, “Well, yeah, I mean, I’d like to see the film.” I had a VHS copy that next time I was in LA I gave him gave to him, and he said he’d watch it within a couple of weeks. A couple weeks went by and he hadn’t called me, and so I thought he’s not going to give us any money. Then somehow the financing came through somebody else. Lynn had set it up as a limited partnership, selling shares for like $7,000 apiece, and we pieced together enough money to get it through the lab. And then David called and said, “So I saw the film and like it, and what can I do for you?” I said, “Well, we actually just got the money. So thanks, anyway, really appreciate it.” And he said, “You know, any other thing I can do to help you?” I had seen that Francis Ford Coppola had just put his name on some film to present it, and I thought maybe that would help us get the film distributed, or noticed. I said, “Well, would you consider doing something like that?” He said, “Yeah, sure.” So I said, “Okay, thanks.” And I did that. And then every single review of the film, every piece written about that film of which there were many, almost every single one credited to him as the producer of the film and Lynn got no credit whatsoever.

What about Walter Murch?

Walter Merch, he’s a character. So we got the picture, the way all three of us liked it. And Lynn said, “Why don’t we have a little informal test screening. I’ll invite 100 people, and we’ll see what the reaction is. So we did that, but it didn’t go so well. We didn’t hand out cards or anything, but we could tell. She was a little concerned about it. and thought, maybe the film’s a little too long. Is there anything we can cut? I was like, “Oh, brother, I don’t know.” And she knew Walter Merch, who was sort of considered this editing god, on the West Coast anyway, he won a bunch of Oscars for editing. And Victor Livingston, the editor, knew him. in fact, I think he was in one of his classes. Sp Victor called him and said, “Would would you consider coming, we’ll have a screening, and you can give us some advice?” He said, “Sure.” I thought, ‘Oh, I’m dead. He’s just going to give me a 45-minute lecture of what to change, and what does this guy know, and fuck him.’ I was already so prepared. And we had about 100–150 people show up, and he was one of them. People filled out audience cards. While they were filling out cards, he came up to me, and Lynn and Victor, we went off in a corner, and I thought, ‘Here it comes.’ And he said, “So, there’s one shot at this bus stop. It’s got to be a little longer. And that’s it.” I said, “That’s it?!” So I was off the hook at that point.

And then the audience, they filled out like a one-page survey: what do you like best? What do you like worst? Do you like the ending? Is it too long? Is it too short? That sort of thing. And Lynn said, “Do you want to take half these home and read them tonight, do you want me to take them home first?” I said, “Let me take them home first.” And I took them home and started reading them. This is already about 11 o’clock at night by the time I got home. And about 80% of them wanted Charles Crumb out of the film. They said he’s too depressing, to get rid of him and focus more on Robert Crumb, and the upbeat stuff and Fritz the Cat, and put in some animation, then you’d have a good film. I just thought, ‘Oh my God, I don’t want Lynn see this. I don’t know what to do.’ So I didn’t have a blank one. I was going to fake a bunch of reviews that said the opposite. M my wife will attest, she filled out a bunch of them. I went to a Kinkos right before it closed at midnight, and had whited out one of the cards so I could Xerox a bunch of blank ones. And we faked a bunch of them. That said, “We love Charles! More Charles!” I just I couldn’t deal with it, I just didn’t want to fight for that. I just knew in my heart that I had to have him in the film, whether other people liked it or not. I feel sort of bad about it, I don’t think I ever told Lynn that…

Did Robert have much input?

No, he had no input, but he made it very difficult in one particular way. He never asked to see the finished film, I certainly never offered before we locked it because I just didn’t want to, I didn’t know how he’d react to it at all. The reason he even agreed to do it in the first places he really thought my first film Louie Bluie was the best film I’d ever made. He’d only seen that; to this day, he still thinks that’s by far the best film I ever made. I don’t agree. I think this is the best film. But he was difficult in that when I was trying to get him to talk for the camera’s sake, to give us sort of a chronicle of his life that we could keep cutting back to in a studio, I was asking him questions that he knew that I already knew the answer to for the most part. And so he just wouldn’t play along, he’d make fun of me. Or I’d ask him, “Hang on, we had a camera problem, could you repeat that, or could you incorporate my question in the form of your answers so you don’t hear my voice,” and he just wouldn’t do any of that stuff. Especially at first. I wore him down eventually, but he felt it very false, and he thought he was cooperating in some sort of charade that he didn’t want to be part of some. He wasn’t deeply offended by it, but he was just sort of sort of making fun of it, like, “Nah, I’m not going to do that.” So he was a little difficult in that regard, but he was very helpful generally and, and really went the extra mile. And sometimes, like at that party that was in New York where these women are talking about him, he really helped that conversation flow. He knew that woman, Dian Hanson, who worked at Leg Show had all these theories about men, and big butts, and stuff. He got that out of her, and it was helpful. I’m glad I never showed him the film, though. He was disturbed by it when he saw it. He thought it was a good film, he just said, “I just can’t watch it.” I said, “Why? What did I… is it inaccurate?” “No, it’s like looking in the mirror. Do I want to look at myself in the mirror? No, I don’t want to see it.” In fact, then he changed his appearance for a while; he grew a beard, got a different hat, and moved to France, which helped.

Are you still in contact? What do you talk about these days?

We talk about matrix numbers of old records from the ’20s usually, that kind of stuff. What records we got lately. I don’t know, we talk. He comes to town usually once a year, in spring, stays at our house for about two weeks, goes back to France. He didn’t  come this year. He’s getting old, he says. He’s got a lot of aches and pains.

Was there much Crumb in Steve Buscemi’s role in Ghost World?

There was. Not Robert crumb, as most people assumed, but I wrote the role of Steve Buscemi based on, largely, my cousin whose name was Sherwin; a little bit of myself—most people just assume it’s me, or some people assume it’s Robert Crumb; and there’s actually a lot of Charles Crumb in there. That’s sort of tragic self-awareness, that rueful quality that Charles had, and I gave a lot of that to Steve Buscemi.

It’s weird, there’s this TV show called Better Call Saul, everybody’s seen it, right, it’s a great show and one of the best things on TV. I had read before the show aired that they had based the Chuck McGill character, Bob Odenkirk’s brother, on Charles Crumb, and this whole sibling rivalry that they have—this sort of mad, genius, brother with this great sibling rivalry. And I thought, ‘Oh, God, I hope I hope this thing’s good.’ And it was great, I thought. it’s different. They didn’t just copy it. And it was really well done, beautifully acted. Charles actually almost made an appearance in a David Lynch film. He sort of worked his way into a couple films in an odd way. He was a memorable person.

Thank you so much. It's meant so much to us to have you here.

Thank you so much for having us, this place is great. I joked the first day we got here, we’re never going to leave, and be like Julian Assange at the Ecuadorian embassy. Like, ‘Oh, you got a von Sternberg festival, and we get free food and cocktails, and it’s air-conditioned and dark. Sounds good. Not going anywhere.’ So thank you.

R Crumb