Dan Clowes, the renowned cartoonist behind the comic-book series “Eightball” and graphic novels such as “Ice Haven,” has a knack for creating characters that jump off the page and onto the movie screen. After “Ghost World” and “Art School Confidential,” his latest character to make the transition is Wilson, a solitary, cynical, and hilariously blunt middle-aged man living in a nondescript American town. Craig Johnson’s adaptation of Clowes’s graphic novel, from a screenplay by Clowes and featuring Woody Harrelson and Laura Dern, will be released in New York on March 24th. “Wilson” the book is being reissued in softcover by Drawn & Quarterly. Originally published in 2010, the book is a series of one-page comic strips that follow the main character as he clumsily navigates a series of life-altering events, beginning with his father’s death. In the excerpt featured above, Wilson, certain that his estranged ex-wife has fallen into prostitution, embarks on a quixotic mission to reunite their family.
We talked to Clowes about the conception of the original book, the making of the movie adaptation, and the travails of his irascible anti-hero across the page and the screen.
The New Yorker published a “Wilson” strip in 2010. Can you explain how that came about?
Well, right after I’d finished the book of “Wilson,” I was looking through all my aborted notes and things and I realized I had ten to fifteen little one-page stories that just didn’t fit into the continuity of the book. I thought I’d do one of them as a two-page strip for The New Yorker. In the end, I ended up combining seven or eight into that one strip.
The book version of “Wilson” is made up entirely of one-page strips. What did you have to do to imagine converting the project to a film?
Well, my original idea for that book had been that it would be presented as if “Wilson” had been a strip running daily in the newspaper, but imply that a bunch of them had been lost so that the remaining ones were the only evidence of this character. And so there’d be all this missing data in between the events of the strips that would somehow add up to this kind of enigmatic graphic novel when you put them all together.
When I began that, I couldn’t come up with a style that worked for every strip, because each page was different from the others in tone. Some are stupid, over-the-top jokes; others are supposed to be poignant moments. Not one style was ever quite right. So I ended up trying out all these styles and in the process came to the realization that that was how I needed to do the book, in a variety of styles—and it somehow didn’t affect the reading.
And the narrative gaps, is that something that the reader was bridging?
Well, that was my hope. There’s always talk about how it’s what goes on between the panels that gives life to a comic. I was reading an interview with Elmore Leonard and he talked about how he’d write very detailed books, and then he’d go back and eliminate all the boring parts.
I knew exactly what he meant—what they call the shoe leather in a film script, where it shows somebody walking or just the logistics of how the story works. And I wanted to just get rid of all of that. And hope that the story would somehow still hold together.
What happened when you were approached to turn it into a movie? Did you think, Oh, no, now I have to go back and make an entire shoe?
Well, on the very first day I met with the first director who approached me, and we talked about the different styles represented in the comic, and within fifteen minutes we decided that that would be a really annoying thing to try to transpose to film.
Because it would never be invisible.
It would never be invisible. It would just feel mannered, and it would fall apart under analysis. It wouldn’t have any actual meaning. It would seem like a film-school exercise. When I sat down to write the script, I realized that the comic was like an illustrated outline of bullet points. The events represented in the comic are the moments in Wilson’s life that are worthy of dramatization. And I realized that’s kind of how I should start writing the movie script: just make an outline of all the beats.
And I had this character whom I knew very well—I can hear his voice inside my head. He’s not controlled by me; he has his life beyond me. It’s something you hope for in a character, that you can just throw him into a situation and he surprises you. So I had those two things going for me, and that’s really what you want when you’re writing a screenplay: to have a sense of where you’re going and who your characters are.
And then what happened?
Then it was a matter of trying to turn Wilson, this guy who spends the entire book talking to himself, into an onscreen character. People might think that Wilson’s lines in the book are like thought balloons, but that’s not it at all. He’s saying everything out loud to himself or to whomever happens to have themisfortune of standing near him. But it would be insane to have a movie where an actor’s doing that. The audience would feel like they were watching a madman who has no grip on reality, and that wouldn’t be interesting.
So I had to turn all of Wilson’s lines into dialogues with other people. That was a lot of fun, because it allowed me to create forty or fifty new characters who aren’t in the book. And I tried to give each of them their own moment and weight and back story.
Do you expect that readers and people who love your work will be able to appreciate both the book and the film? Are you concerned that the film will overtake the book in people’s minds?
I mean, certainly people care more about movies than they do about comics. But that doesn’t really affect me, because I don’t feel that way. To me, the book is done, and it’s indelible, and it’s my own thing, and I don’t feel like it can be affected by anything else. It may color people’s perception of Wilson if they see the movie before they read the book. But I didn’t feel that way about “Ghost World.” I knew the characters in that film were different from the characters in the comic. People didn’t go back to the book and read it differently.
Now that the movie is about to come out—and maybe it’s not O.K. to ask—do you feel that it really fulfills what you wanted from working on another film? Are you surprised by the result?
You know, I’m used to working in my own little room, my own little world, with a pretty clear vision of what I want to achieve. And I don’t always achieve what I’m hoping to, but at least I know what it is supposed to be. And with a movie, it’s more like creating a line of clothing: you see fifty different people in a shirt and it looks completely unique on each person. Or it’s like writing a play and then having fifteen different productions of it—they’re all totally separate from each other and from what you wrote. Only one version of a movie gets made. It’s sort of overwhelming, because you watch the movie and you think, this is the way it’s interpreted and there are other ways it could be completely different. But most of all, I wanted it to be funny, and I think it’s a very funny film. So, yes, I’m pleased.