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.