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Terry Zwigoff Talks Battling Over 'Bad Santa,' His Preferred Director's Cut & Much More In Candid Interview

by Drew Taylor
December 20, 2012 1:13 PM
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Bad Santa, Terry Zwigoff

This weekend in San Francisco, SF Sketchfest, the people behind the San Francisco Comedy Festival, are producing a day's worth of holiday-themed programming at the historical Castro Theatre. The centerpiece of this day-long event is a director's cut screening of "Bad Santa," the insta-classic by "Ghost World" filmmaker Terry Zwigoff that stars Billy Bob Thornton as a boozing, thieving St. Nick. Zwigoff will be at the screening, along with Tony Cox (who plays Thornton's midget sidekick) and Lauren Tom (who played Cox's wife), to do a post-screening Q&A. We got the chance to talk to Zwigoff about the movie's surprising cultural longevity, where he's been since 2006's "Art School Confidential" (a "fiasco," according to Zwigoff), what projects he's been offered, what it was like working with the Coens (who produced "Bad Santa") and the Weinsteins (who produced and distributed via Dimension Films), and how when he read "Juno" he thought it was 'a retarded version of 'Ghost World.' " So yes, Zwigoff is nothing, if not candid.

What have you been up to? We haven't had a movie from you in so long.
It's hard to make films that are $10-$20 million films these days. Everybody wants to make "The Hobbit" or these films that cost between $100-$200 million, but they have the chance to make a billion dollars. But I just finished a script and the producer likes it. So we're going to go out with some actors with it. I have some high hopes but anything can happen. A couple of things fell through. One thing fell through because of rights, this Elmore Leonard book that I was supposed to direct and adapt and it got hung up in the legal department.

What Elmore Leonard novel?
It's called "Maximum Bob." Great book, would have made a great film. But it is hopelessly stuck in the legal department.

You don't get enough credit for directing "Ghost World," one of the all-time great comic book movies. Have you ever been approached to do something bigger?
Oh yes, I've been approached to do all sorts of nonsense. How about a remake of "West Side Story"? They wanted me to remake [Budd Townsend's] "Alice in Wonderland," which was a big hit in the early '70s. It was one of the first soft-core porns that was distributed by a major studio. 20th Century Fox put it out and it ended up making $100 million. But it's ridiculously unwatchable today. They wanted to remake it as a 3D musical and they wanted me to direct it. I said, "I'd like to take your money but I really have no interest." But I wish I did. I wish I could take the paycheck and go home.

What was the most ridiculous thing that you were the closest to sign on to?
You know, I got the script for "Juno." And my producer who I had worked with on "Ghost World" called me and said, "I've got this really hot script I want to send it to you." And the same week I got a call that same week from somebody else that said they were sending me this really hot script in Hollywood that was written by a 12-year-old girl. And I said, "Well, what's it about?" And they said, "It's a coming-of-age story." So I said, "Yeah, okay, whatever." So a couple days later I got this script called "Juno" and since I saw the name Diablo Cody I thought, "Well, this must be the 12-year-old girl." Who else would have a name like that, right? And I read it and thought, "Well this is pretty good for a 12-year-old girl trying to imitate 'Ghost World.' " So I told my producer, who went on to do it, "This is a retarded version of 'Ghost World.' I can't do it. I can't stomach it. Sorry."

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More: Terry Zwigoff, Bad Santa 2

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  • Gabe | December 30, 2012 5:10 PMReply

    Ghost World and Art School Confidential are both terrific films. But I attribute that to Daniel Clowes, who is a great writer and artist.

    Zwigoff, on the other hand, sounds like a bitter old fuck.

  • Joe | December 27, 2012 5:47 PMReply

    ZWIGOFF took the job for the money and because he liked the script. There was no trade off of money for final cut, and getting him final cut after one film was a struggle. He was told by everyone that, despite the best contract, the Weinsteins would find a way to mess with his cut, and they did. There was no such conversation about litigators, since the dga had jurisdiction. Terry lives in his own, marvelous world.

  • Alan | December 23, 2012 8:39 AMReply

    You guys got an interview with Terry Zwigoff, one of the most underrated directors of our time, and you ask him about doing a fucking Fantastic Four movie?

  • honest rob | December 26, 2012 11:24 AM


  • Eagleeye | December 22, 2012 3:45 PMReply

    I did rather see the choen brothers direct a sequel to Bad Santa than Steve Pink enough said!

  • Claude Riban | December 22, 2012 12:08 PMReply

    I'm shocked to learn the Coens didn't grasp the oddball potential of Tony Cox. He made the movie for me, and I figured him for a Coen Bros discovery. guess not.

  • Anonymous | December 22, 2012 11:49 AMReply

    I've always been a big fan of Bad Santa, but as the sequel goes in a slightly different direction with Steve Pink in the chair, do not have too high expectations it will never be the same without Zwigoff.

  • Alan | December 20, 2012 11:07 PMReply

    "I thought that was one of the worst scripts I had ever read. But everyone said, "Ooh it's on the Black List." Yeah, well, good for it." This is the greatest piece of film criticism. Ever. More broadly, I admire a lot of what he has to say in this interview. He's got a no-bullshit attitude to filmmakers and studios, and it's quite clear that he isn't willing to play the Hollywood game. First of all, it impresses me that he was willing to go out on a limb to cast Tony Cox. Then again, it also depresses me that it isn't just dumb fanboys who can be so limited in their thinking about casting. What the hell is so white about that character? 'Hey, we're not racist, OK. We're the least racist people in the world. Our best friend is a quarter Chinese, OK, so we can't be racist, but we really can't see ... blah, blah, blah'. He's also right about 'Art School Confidential': it's a disappointment in comparison to his previous work (the central plot about a serial killer on campus is pretty dumb), but all the details about that world are amusing and interesting like the student who refuses to do his homework because his "work has nothing to with form or light or color, but with questioning the nature of aesthetic experience." As a whole, it probably doesn't work, but it's a lot more interesting than some lesser filmmakers' successes.

  • rotch | December 20, 2012 3:26 PMReply

    nice interview, but suggesting him that it would be cool if they asked him to direct a silver age Fantastic Four movie came off awfully amateurish.

  • David Klein | December 20, 2012 3:00 PMReply

    Love this film, but I think Zwigoff's version saps too much humor when he swings the pendulum away from Badder Santa. The theatrical release is sadly still the best I think. Great read, but I was a bit repulsed at Zwigoff vilifying everyone else other than himself in the creative process.

  • Stephen B | December 20, 2012 2:42 PMReply

    I love this man and I love Bad Santa. I think I read that Bob Weinstein hired Todd Phillips to shoot a lot of the extra footage that they ended up cutting, but I could be wrong. Interesting stuff about the Coens. I can't see anyone other than Tony Cox playing Marcus. He's perfect.

  • Benjamin | December 20, 2012 2:24 PMReply

    Fascinating interview. Thank you!

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