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Bay Area Writer Daniel Clowes Talks 'Wilson'

WILSON

(L-R): Woody Harrelson, Writer Daniel Clowes and Director Craig Johnson on the set of Wilson. Photo by Wilson Webb. © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

When life hands you lemons, sometimes the lemonade turns out sour. In Wilson, a film adapted from comic book writer Daniel Clowes’ graphic novel of the same name, the titular character (played by Woody Harrelson) brushes through his days sowing the seeds of his cynicism. After his father dies and his only friend moves away, Wilson faces a rude awakening when he realizes how lonely he truly is and seeks to fill the hole his own grouchy tendencies dug for himself.

According to Clowes, Wilson is based not on one individual, but is an accumulation of his own id and a collection of other artists and people he’s known over the years.

“My entire address book is full of Wilsons,” he said. “Those are the kind of people I really cherish. I love that kind of personality because they have interests in things that you don’t tend to think about and that can give you interesting characters.”

Clowes is a celebrated cartoonist responsible for books such as Eightball, David Boring and Ghost World, which was adapted into a 2001 film that starred Thora Birch and served as Scarlett Johansson’s breakout role.

Just as Ghost World is a black comedy on teenage angst and aimlessness, Wilson is one rooted in mid-life crisis and neurosis.

The story is set in Oakland, Calif., where Clowes currently resides. The town is a perfect backdrop for Wilson’s anti-tech, pessimistic inhabitance, though as the movie progresses, you see his eyes open to being left behind as the city – and the people he knows – move forward.

“He sort of feels like the last relic from a forgotten world,” Clowes said. “I wanted to capture this guy that’s stuck in a certain era of Oakland and seeing it shift under his feet a bit. He gets the sense that his world is not going to be there much longer.”

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Courtesy of Fox Searchlight.

In his desperate search for genuine human interaction, Wilson makes feeble attempts at re-lighting old friendships and forming new ones before he tracks down his ex-wife, Pippi. Once he finds her and the two have a reconciliation of sorts, Pippi (played by Laura Dern) reveals the baby Wilson thought she aborted 17 years ago was actually given up for adoption.

After he finds their daughter – a teenage outcast named Claire, who was adopted by inattentive suburbanites – Wilson tries to manufacture what Pippi calls an “insta-family.” As the story unfolds, events take a turn for the worse, ultimately throwing Wilson through the wringer.

The film’s memorable moments mostly exist in Wilson’s interactions with strangers. He chastises anyone using technology, disrupts corporate commuters and rams his car into a woman’s bumper to get her attention. When adapting the comic to a screenplay, Clowes said he had to “devise [these] scenarios where he’s talking to people in every scene and not talking to himself.”

“Often there’s no one else in the comic, it’s just him blabbering out to the world,” said Clowes. “Somehow in a comic that works and so when I was making it into a movie, it just seemed like he was schizophrenic. It almost became about a guy who has serious mental illness and not who he really is.”

He said writing the comic itself was “largely an experiment.” Initially the book was supposed to read similar to newspaper comics, a bunch of gag cartoons and jokes day after day.

“You wouldn’t necessarily look for a story, but then you become aware that there is one beneath it locking it all together,” he said. “I feel like that’s how memory works. I felt like it was a real way of capturing the way I remember my life: You remember the jokes and the tragedies and not much else.”

Throughout his own career, Clowes has had a way of turning those lemons thrown his way by life into award-winning comics and film work. His graphic novels reflect much of their author – bright, playful, introspective and humorous. He said while being a comic book artist is a tough job, he simply couldn’t envision himself doing anything else.  

“There’s so many things you have to do; you have to be able to draw, you have to be able to write, you have to be able to do a combo of those where it’s not divided,” he said. “I feel like it’s something you do only if you can’t not do it. You have to have it in you in some way where you wish you could do something else, but you can’t not do it. I think all the really good comics are like that.”

Wilson is now playing in San Francisco.