Daniel Clowes on Creating Wilson and Translating Him to Screen

The legendary cartoonist talks about turning one of his most irascible protagonists into someone who could be the hero of his own film.

Woody Harrelson plays Wilson in Craig Johnson's 2017 film. (Fox Searchlight)

Daniel Clowes’s 2010 graphic novel Wilson was a masterful joining of two of its creator’s greatest talents—his blunt, savagely funny humor and his ability to elicit sympathy for the most outwardly miserable characters. Wilson is told in single-page vignettes, following its protagonist through his seemingly dead-end life as he strikes up irritating conversations with strangers, struggles to connect with various estranged family members (including a father, wife, and daughter), and dotes on his dog, the only creature on Earth he doesn’t have an embittered rant readied for.

Wilson might seem like an odd choice for a film adaptation because of its punchline-heavy narrative and intentionally choppy approach to storytelling (huge chunks of time often pass in between each page). But Clowes, who hasn’t written a film since 2006’s Art School Confidential (which was directed by Terry Zwigoff, who also made Ghost World in 2001 with Clowes), has returned to Hollywood with his irascible anti-hero, this time collaborating with the director Craig Johnson (The Skeleton Twins). As played by Woody Harrelson, the on-screen Wilson is a little more playful and charismatic than the character might seem on the page. But Wilson, which opens in theaters Friday, is still a singularly acidic work that tries to capture the dark humor, the misdirected passions, and the deep frustrations of Clowes’s character.

I spoke with Clowes about how he first created Wilson, then translated him to the screen, all while trying to steer clear of the actual filmmaking process itself. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

David Sims: Was there any reason that you stayed away from films for a few years, or is it just because of how the business works, that it can take forever to get a project going?

Daniel Clowes: Certainly, that’s always true. I can’t imagine a project where I’d go, “I’ve got an idea!” and 18 months later there it is. But also, writing movies is like my hobby. It’s not like I’m constantly cranking them out and making deals—I haven’t even been to L.A. in 10 years. I told my agent, “I don’t want to take a meeting, I don’t wanna meet with anybody, I only want to work with someone who already knows who I am and likes me.” I don’t want to convince anybody.

Sims: What was the original conception of the character of Wilson in the comic?What was the spark that created him?

Clowes: It’s one of the few characters I can find the origin story for. My dad, much like Wilson in the book, was dying of lung cancer. He was in the hospital, and I was flying to Chicago and just sitting next to him in that vain hope that we’d have this final epiphany, that he would tell me, you know, the secrets that he’d never told me, offer me something that would be profound. I had imagined that moment since I was like, five years old. (Laughs.) “Maybe when the pressure’s on, he’ll finally crack his shell!” He was just a very old-fashioned Midwestern guy who didn’t share his feelings in any way. So it was that kind of tension, and it was so maddening. Then I realized at a certain point that he was on a different level—he’d moved on to the higher level of the video game, and I wouldn’t get what I wanted.

So I was sitting there with nothing to do, and I thought it disrespectful somehow to check my email while he’s there, so I thought I’d draw little comics. So I bought a notebook and started drawing little stick-figure comics, and this character Wilson just emerged, without any bidding or thought at all. He started as a sort of id character of myself, and then took on a life of his own. It’s one of those things that emerges, and you don’t stop it when it happens. I went home, threw away the thing I was working on at the time, and just started drawing comic strips with Wilson. He’s one of the few characters that just does his own thing, and I don’t have to think about it. He’s just there.

Sims: That’s interesting, given how old-fashioned he is in presentation—in that he always ends with a one-liner.

Clowes: Yes. Even though some of them are tragedies rather than regular punchlines, but yes. I wanted him to have the feel of a lost comic strip. My very original conception of it was that I would present it as a collection of an obscure comic strip that ran from the ’50s to the ’70s, with pieces missing. I wanted to have these huge gaps where all of a sudden, the next strip you see him in completely different circumstances, and you have no idea how he got there. Then that seemed a little too cute for the way the character was, and I couldn’t come up with a uniform style to draw him in. I kept changing the way I was drawing him, and at a certain point I realized that was the answer. But just the fact that he has a single name and an unexplained life, he’s very much like a comic-strip character.

Sims: And that he announces his feelings, which is such a classic idea from the funnies—obviously you think of Peanuts first—that idea that everyone just says what they think to each other, and that that’s part of the joke. That Lucy is calling everyone a blockhead, and that it doesn’t need to be implied, she just yells it to their face.

Clowes: Right, because you only have a limited amount of space! It’s funny, because when I was starting to write the script, I found that most of the strips are just Wilson yelling out to the world, just talking to himself. And I thought, even if you show that in his own apartment, he’s just going to seem demented. When an actual human being is doing that, it’s not going to read. There’s something about the language of comics where you just accept that; it’s just a stage trick, almost. Where characters speak in a stage voice, and you accept that nobody can hear it.

Sims: When I heard the movie was getting made, I was surprised, because I had read the book, and it wasn’t something that immediately presented itself as a movie to me. Obviously it has a narrative, but it’s less narratively focused. It’s more vignette-y, and it’s extroverted in a strange way. So what was the challenge in changing it up for a screenplay?

Clowes: I felt—and a lot of people said exactly what you said—that I had a story that I liked. I spent a lot of time working out this narrative that doesn’t seem like a narrative, but had a certain something underpinning it and was the right length for a movie. I had a character that I knew would speak back to me from the page without my having to force it. Those are the two main things you hope for when you’re starting to write a movie. But the movie has so many speaking parts, because I had to devise all these characters for him to talk to, rather than to speak at a street sign. So it was a matter of coming up with all these scenarios and sounding boards, but also giving them their moment—letting all these actors have two-minute moments where they can be a real living character on the screen.

Sims: Did you ever have an actor for Wilson in mind? Was Woody Harrelson a serendipitous thing, or was he someone you could picture as Wilson? Wilson has such a defined look.

Clowes: He does, but he’s also sort of nebulous. (Laughs.) It’s really tough. There are obvious people that were suggested early on that you could imagine—people like Paul Giamatti, guys who have sort of played similar characters. But it was always like their persona was just enough, but not quite who Wilson was. Too affected in a weird way, so they were just them, rather than Wilson, somehow. I never had any good ideas. I couldn’t even think of someone from history, like Walter Matthau or somebody. So one day I get a call, and they say they’re thinking of asking Woody Harrelson. And I thought, “He’s such a likable guy,” it literally never popped into my head. And then early on when they started working on the film, they asked, “How old is Wilson?” And I said I wanted him to be exactly my age, because I wanted him to have all the same references I had. I was born in 1961, and I looked Harrelson up on IMDB, and he was born in 1961. That’s the kismet factor right there. Though he’s in better shape than I am.

Sims: There is a friendliness to him, and he is a little friendlier as Wilson than perhaps I imagined, but he found his own take on it. Did you advise him at all?

Clowes: No. I turned in the script, and I told everybody, “I want to go to the premiere, and see it with everyone else.” I wanted to have the experience of seeing this film, because with the other two films I worked on [Ghost World and Art School Confidential], I could never watch either of them. Even to this day, I can’t watch them without getting lost and remembering where I was on the set in every moment. So I had no input.

Sims: It’s interesting because Woody’s a Southerner, and I think of Wilson as so Midwestern, partly because of how disruptive he is to that area’s gentle manners. So many of the scenes in the movie are him behaving oddly simply because he’s talking to someone who he has no reason to talk to.

Clowes: Yeah, I wanted Wilson to live in a nice world, where everything is as nice as it could be in a regular American city. So that his anguish wasn’t about his environment. I didn’t want him living in a dying Rust Belt town or anything; I didn’t want it to be a comment on anything beyond his own self.

Sims: It could take place at any time, except I guess people have smartphones.

Clowes: When I wrote it I was living in Oakland, and it was right when Oakland started to become a tech satellite city after San Francisco got all filled up. So we were seeing a lot of that, moving from an old dowdy working-class town to a trendy doughnut-shop place.

Sims: It’s always the fancy fringe item that sends that up the best.

Clowes: Yeah, the thing we didn’t know we needed! Now all those stores are going out of business, of course. And I liked the idea that Wilson would go away for two or three years, then he’d come back, and how confusing that’d be. How the mom-and-pop video store would turn into a weird pita place.

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Sims: The other thing I think about with Wilson in terms of his humanity, and his lack of humanity, is his devotion to his dog and to animals in general. Is that a trope you’ve observed over the years, how the way we interact with animals can be so drastically different from the way we interact with people?

Clowes: That’s all based on my own experience with my dog. (Laughs.) That was the stuff in the book that I wrote without even thinking about it; it’s all based off my own life. My dog now is 16 years old. I’m so deeply attached to the dog in a way that I almost feel I’ve never been attached to a person, except close family. There’s a real poignancy to it, and a sadness. There’s that moment where the dog-sitter says “Oh, you must get stopped on the street all the time with this cute dog,” and he’s like, “Yeah, but I’m a human being. I can do math and all this other stuff and nobody seems to notice.”

Sims: So how did you feel when you saw the movie, if you stuck by your guns and just went to the premiere?

Clowes: It was overwhelmingly weird. I was hoping for that thing where I’d be like, “I’m just going to sit and watch a movie!” And I couldn’t take myself out of the weirdness of, “Wait, that’s that scene! Where’s that other scene I wrote!” The first time, I was just thrown by the weirdness. I’ve now seen it three times, and really liked it much better each time. You get into the rhythm of it, and I love to see all the actors, to see Laura Dern play a character [Wilson’s estranged wife] that in the book is so introspective and doesn’t offer much, to see her make that a character who’s really something.

Sims: In the book, the point is that Wilson’s projected everything onto her; you can’t even tell if what he’s saying about her is true.

Clowes: Right, and in the very first meeting, I was like, “That’s not going to work in a movie, we can’t have this character that we just don’t care about, we’ve gotta give that character some life.” That was one of the hardest things to bring out—to create someone who would plausibly have ended up with Wilson.

Sims: That speaks to the ending, not to get into the particulars, but it’s a little more hopeful—did you want to be pointing toward something?

Clowes: I wrote something that was closer to the ending of the book, and it didn’t resonate. I’ve seen this with every movie I’ve been involved with in every way, that the ending requires just endless hours in the editing room, trying to get that moment right. It’s almost never what you imagine when you’re writing it. So that was how it came to be—it’s very hard to do that kind of ending that’s downbeat and hopeful at the same moment, but I think he [the director Craig Johnson] kind of got it. There’s just a nod to the fact that his hopefulness is a kind of acceptance of who he is, and that’s sad in a way.