If Terry Zwigoff has a guiding principle as a director, it is “create your own world, because you can’t control the one you’re living in.” That sounds a lot like something Enid, Thora Birch’s alienated teen artist in “Ghost World,” would say. And as Zwigoff talks about his film, the separation between the helmer and the characters gradually blurs.
It’s all the more remarkable since Zwigoff didn’t create Enid or “Ghost World.” The film’s dry, observant and slightly melancholy take on contemporary American life, pitting a conformist monoculture against a quiet, frustrated subculture of marginalized outsiders like Enid and record collector Seymour (Steve Buscemi), was originally hatched as a comicbook by Daniel Clowes, who co-wrote the script with Zwigoff. It continues Zwigoff’s relationship with art comics, which began with “Crumb,” his 1995 documentary on the life and mind of Robert Crumb.
“I had a strong connection with Dan’s work, because we’re kind of alike,” says Zwigoff. “We’re both reserved and shy, and it became a natural process together, to the point where we almost didn’t need to talk with each other. We began with the comicbook, and built up some human relationships from there. I added the Seymour character, and soon, it became strangely personal to both of us, even though it all started in Dan’s head.”
Both grew up in Chicago, and, according to Zwigoff, were so lonely they’d play alone, throwing a ball against the wall in a game called Pinners.
“It probably kept us both sane, because we were in a cultural wasteland,” Zwigoff recalls. “All I had near me was a dumb convenience store, and TV for stimulation. Outside of watching W.C. Fields on the tube, it was all pretty depressing.”
Under the strip mall surface look of “Ghost World” — for which Zwigoff repeatedly praises his production designer, Edward T. McAvoy, and costumer Mary Zophres — is a range of people searching for a different culture: Enid starts by dancing to Bollywood movies, goes on to paint images that shake up her art class and winds up leaving town; Seymour is absorbed in period blues music of such a different era that he hardly seems to be living in the current one. Enid’s friend Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) seems rebellious like Enid, but tries to find accommodation with monoculture.
“Dan wrote the dialogue for Enid and Rebecca, because he realized that they’re the two sides of himself,” Zwigoff notes. “He also did most of the art class scenes, venting his anger. Teachers used to look down at his work. Seymour is bits of me and others I’ve known, guys into collecting who really love their records, maybe sometimes more than other people.”
Zwigoff suggests that these people are ghosts for a reason. “We don’t get to see people like this in movies, ever. I had never seen these record collectors portrayed before, or the need by some young people to get away from the crap that’s stuffed down their throats by TV, movies and record labels.
“It was very therapeutic, actually, to make the film. Getting this out of my system,” he says, sounding sincere, “has actually made me less angry as a person.”