Terry Zwigoff: 'Every guy wants a teenage girlfriend'

When the director filmed Ghost World, he couldn't resist adding a middle-aged nerd into this tale of teen love. 'I wanted to put myself in the story,' he tells Charlotte O'Sullivan
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Terry Zwigoff doesn't look like a sad old perv. Sad, maybe. Where other people have spines, he appears to be hanging disconsolately from a nail, while his shoes curl together like earwigs. Old? Well, he wears his 53 years heavily. And the Albert Einstein moustache doesn't help. But pervy? Witty and friendly ("Shall I shut the door," he says at the beginning of the interview, "would that be helpful?") the director strikes me as a total sweetie-pie. As it turns out, though, he's quite able to play dirty.

A love of teenage girls hovers in the background of Crumb, Zwigoff's award-winning 1994 documentary about the cartoonist Robert Crumb. Snarls Crumb, scribbling a portrait of a girl he once knew: "I wish she was here now, the 17-year-old Winona, instead of this film crew." In Ghost World, Zwigoff's feature debut, the love is right up front. A depressive, old-fashioned nerd, Seymour, falls for vital, post-modern teen Enid and eventually sleeps with her. There's no such affair in the brilliant underground Daniel Clowes' comic the film is based on (the book's focus is on Enid, her best-friend, Becky and a sweet boy, Josh, with whom they toy). It was introduced because, as Zwigoff says in his Wisconsin drawl, "I wanted to put myself in the story."

But Zwigoff doesn't want a teenage girlfriend, does he? "You think?" he giggles. "Every guy wants a teenage girlfriend!"

Crumb, of course, was about much more than middle-aged lust – examining the cartoonist's art and the dysfunctional family that spawned it. Ghost World, too, ranges far and wide, (and boasts the soundtrack of the year, not to mention three stunning performances from Thora Birch, Steve Buscemi and Scarlett Johansson). The point is that even Zwigoff's wife had problems with her husband's "input". "She freaked out when she saw the dailies for Ghost World," he says cheerfully. "She said, 'this is way too personal, you're making a big mistake, you're laying yourself open...' But I said 'how can it be a mistake, I've got nothing to hide.'" The rest of the world would seem to agree. As one outraged US critic wrote "Ghost World is getting better reviews than the re-release of Citizen Kane!"

No wonder Zwigoff's feeling so bold. "Seymour's actually based on a lot of memories," he says. "When I first started collecting records, like 31 years ago, I had teenage girlfriends. I knew women my own age but I didn't have much in common with them. These teenage girls seemed much more responsive to my tastes, they were very interested in my crazy persona. They weren't as closed off to the stuff I was interested in as older adults who were already shaped."

This explanation strikes me as a little Terry-centric. But Zwigoff has already moved on. The New Yorker, he says, wrote a very "dumb" article about him, and rang old pal Robert Crumb (who now lives in a remote area of France) for a quote.

"They rang him up and asked him what he thought about Ghost World and he said [Zwigoff adopts feathery whine]: 'Oh, Terry's got this whole fantasy of a teenage girl falling in love with him, a middle-aged record collector, and that's what the whole film's about.' And he hasn't even seen the film!" says Zwigoff, indignantly. "All he knows is that superficial fact."

What The New Yorker also chose to ignore, he says, is that he and Crumb's relationship is "complicated". The pair wrote a couple of screenplays in the late Eighties, one of them for porn kings The Mitchell Brothers, called The New Girlfriend – "a really X-rated, visceral, ugly, messy version of Cast Away" – but, for various reasons, neither got made. The success of his collaboration with Clowes, Zwigoff believes, has opened up old wounds. "Crumb's a genius," he says, "the way I see the world was largely formed by knowing him as a friend. But to be quite honest he's a deeply insecure guy who wants to feel..." He chuckles, "I don't know, I shouldn't even talk about it, but there's this rivalry between us... He just gave up when he went to France. The cartoons he did out there just weren't as strong, they've got more and more diluted and now he just does business cards... I told him that would happen. He was completely fuelled by this culture in America. I think Robert's rather jealous that this film worked and is getting such great critical acclaim."

Hmm... It's not that I don't believe what Zwigoff's saying, more that I wonder why he's saying it. Even talking about the competition between him and Crumb, he sounds competitive. Later, he talks with the same flaying bluntness about another über-nerd, Woody Allen.

The latter, many years ago, asked Zwigoff to make a documentary about his jazz band (Barbara Kopple eventually took the job and it became Wild Man Blues). Zwigoff backed out of the deal. "I was pretty frank with him," he says. "I said: 'We love the same music, early New Orleans black jazz. Even if your band were as great as those bands, what's the story? And frankly, I find your band to be mediocre. So then I have a mediocre film.' " The only part of Wild Man Blues he found interesting was the bit where we see Allen wheedling with an Italian museum curator to let him buy an antique clarinet. "It's a very telling moment. You can tell that for the last 20 years he's been given anything he's ever asked for. I'm surprised he let that stay in the film."

Zwigoff goes on to observe that, if he'd made the documentary, he would have focussed on Allen's mother. "Allen is this workaholic – he told me that when he's not working he feels so incredibly guilty he can't stand his life. So I said: 'hmm... [he taps his lip, Sherlock-Holmes style] let's see, you're Jewish, the guilt would probably come from the mother. I'll film her!'"

Which reminds me, Ghost World's Seymour has a horrid mom. What's Zwigoff's like? Until now, Zwigoff's sails have been full of wind. Now they collapse. Mrs Zwigoff, it turns out, was "very critical, very negative, everything I was wildly passionate about she had no interest in whatsoever". She didn't get to see Ghost World ("she died, luckily"). She did, however, get to see Crumb, at its world premiere at the New York Film Festival. When the lights came up, she turned to Zwigoff's cousin, Sherwin, and said, "So, are you still awake?" I tell him she sounds hilarious. He shakes his head morosely. "She was a very depressed person."

It's the first hint of vulnerability. And the last, because time's up. As for me, I'm more in the dark than ever. Zwigoff's so open, so very open. And yet...

In desperation, I call up Scarlett Johansson, the gravelly voiced, 16-year-old New York actress who plays Becky in Ghost World. I tell her about Zwigoff's claim that all guys want a teenage girlfriend. He was kidding, right? "Oh, well," she says, his wife is a lot younger, like 20 years," adding quickly, "she's a real cool girl, very into Seventies punk-out gear. She loves The Ramones. Poor Terry, he can't stand that kind of music. But, you know, the thing about them is they're both outcasts. And they have a couple of cats..."

I tell her, too, that Zwigoff described his role in relation to the actors as that of "father, psychoanalyst and friend" and her snort of amusement is so loud it makes me jump. "God, I doubt Thora would agree. I mean, he's not like our fathers. We spent the whole time saying, 'Terry, what's wrong? Are you depressed?' We were always saying 'what will you do without us?', and after the film finished I think he had a nervous breakdown. I always imagine him and his wife sitting together at home, totally depressed. He called me a couple of months after we'd finished shooting and said, 'my life's gone to shit, it has no meaning, it went down the shit-hole, I'm gonna kill myself' and I was like Terry, don't worry, we'll see each other for looping!"

It sounds comical, which is fitting really – Zwigoff's films invariably see despair as a joke, as a means of connection. But Johansson has other things to say. She thinks it a shame, for example, that the focus of the film moved on to nerdy Seymour. "Terry wrote that for himself – there was all this other stuff with the Josh character, played by Brad [Renfro]. Yeah, that's right, Brad actually had a part. Enid has sex with him and I'm into him, but all that was cut out. Terry just didn't think Brad was right." Zwigoff, it's my guess, couldn't take the competition.

Johansson, though, is far from dismissive. "We worked together closely for two months and I think of him as a really good friend. He was always saying 'I'll kill myself' but luckily he didn't, so maybe we'll get to work with each other again. He's a great guy."

How apt that the last word on Zwigoff's "crazy persona" should come from one of his beloved teenage girls. I'd say she's got him just about right.


'Ghost World' is released 16 October