Tomorrow night, as part of SF Sketchfest‘s pre-festival events, director Terry Zwigoff (of Crumb and Ghost World fame, swoon) will be presenting his director’s cut of Bad Santa (2003) at the Castro Theatre. After the film, Zwigoff will be holding a Q&A with actors Tony Cox and Lauren Tom. Tickets are available here.
We had the opportunity to chat briefly with Zwigoff, where we talked to him about Robert Crumb, Dan Clowes, the ties between comics and old-timey things, cynicism, and San Francisco’s changing landscape. Read the rest of the interview after the jump.
MM: You lived in San Francisco in the 70s, can you tell us what it was like and how it’s changed over the years?
TZ: [Laughs] I laugh because I hardly leave my house. I’m probably not be the best person to ask. But I’d say it’s more gentrified. In my neighborhood, anyway.
MM: What was the Mission like then?
TZ: It was a working class neighborhood. It’s strange to see it it now, especially Valencia Street. It’s like restaurant row now, like the Village. Mission Street still feels the same, especially around 16th Street. With the check-cashing stores and drug addicts and homeless people. Now, the homeless are being pushed towards Market Street. The skyline has changed, I liked it so much better before, it used to remind me of the San Francisco in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Now there are all of these awful skyscrapers and condos.
MM: How did you become friends with Robert Crumb?
TZ: We played in a band together, [the Cheap Suit Serenaders]. We both collected old jazz, blues and country records. It was much more uncommon then, but lately there’s been a resurgence of old-time music thanks to YouTube, you see kids from all over the world playing in jug bands and such.
MM: Why do you think there’s a correlation between comics, record-collecting, early roots music, and generally old-timey things? There seems to be a common thread.
TZ: I honestly think most of it traces back directly to Robert Crumb. I just had a conversation with Robert about this, and he thought that was crazy. But I think it had a lot to do with his interest in the music and him doing a lot of record covers [for that genre of music].
MM: Yeah, I actually own a jug band record that I bought because he did the album art.
TZ: Well, there you go.
MM: We all know of Robert as an artist, but how is he as a musician? Does he take the same level of virtuosity to music?
TZ: He’s pretty good. He mostly played chords and rhythm on the banjo. We definitely weren’t as good as the guys in the old records. When we were playing in the 1970s, there was nobody doing this music so we were just doing it as best as we could.
MM: Do you still play with your band, the Cheap Suit Serenaders?
TZ: Yeah, we’re performing on January 11th in Berkeley, at the Freight and Salvage. We perform about once a year.
MM: Is it the original lineup?
TZ: Yes, mostly. The original guitarist, Bob Brozman, was replaced by Tony Marcus, but other that it’s the same.
[Editor’s note: R. Crumb also no longer plays with the group.]
MM: Did Robert introduce you to Dan Clowes [Ghost World, Art School Confidential]?
TZ: Well, in a very indirect way. Whenever Robert visited, he’d go and buy a big stack of comics to read to sort of check out the competition. And he’d leave most of them at my house, somehow he didn’t find them worth enough to carry back to France. Maybe he’d take one or two, but I’d usually end up with stacks of comics that he’d bought. And Dan’s comics were among those. And I’d see him around. It’s amazing how much he’s improved when you compare his current work to his early Lloyd Llewellyn stuff.
MM: So you’re screening a director’s cut of Bad Santa this weekend.
TZ: Yeah, and a couple of the actors from that film are joining me for that, Tony Cox, and his screen wife, Lauren Tom. Tony’s actually a good friend of mine, we’ve kept in touch ever since the film and we talk once or twice a month. He lives in LA, so I’m excited to see him, he’s never been up here.
MM: How did you get interested in directing Bad Santa?
TZ: I got two scripts around the same time, one for Bad Santa and one for Elf, with Will Ferrell. I thought, well I like Will Ferrell, so I read Elf first. My agent was trying to get me to do Elf, it was a bigger film and probably good for my career. But I just didn’t think it was very funny. I thought, this is a movie for kids. Maybe they would think it was funny, but I didn’t laugh. When I read Bad Santa, I laughed all the way through. So I decided to take that. But there were all kinds of difficulties getting the film picked up by a studio.
MM: How come?
TZ: [Laughs] There’s a scene where Santa is having anal sex with a woman. There was all the swearing, and the idea that Santa is a guy who works at the mall, who is a criminal.
MM: Did you see a lot of corny Christmas movies growing up?
TZ: I liked It’s a Wonderful Life, but not really much anything else. I remember liking A Christmas Story, but not to the extent that other people did.
MM: A Christmas Story seems like one of the first cynical holiday films.
TZ: A lot of people say that Bad Santa is a cynical film, but I don’t see it that way. The cynical thing to do would have been to do Elf even though I didn’t want to, just to make a ton of money and further advance my career.
MM: You had some big names out there for the role of Santa.
TZ: Yeah, that was a studio thing, they were going after bigger names like Jack Nicholson or Robert DeNiro. The story is that Jack Nicholson was interested, but he was tied up with another movie. But we ended up with Billy Bob Thornton, and I can’t imagine anyone else in that role. He’s a great actor.
MM: Was there a lot you had to edit out for the theatrical cut?
TZ: It’s all a very long story. There are three different cuts out there [theatrical, director's cut, "Badder Santa" cut]. But the one I like best is the one we’re screening at the Castro [director's cut].
(A big thanks to Jackson Scarlett for setting this interview up.)