How Death Breathed Life into Daniel Clowes’ Wilson

"Charles Schulz said something about any real cartoonist worth his salt can come up with a serviceable gag cartoon in five minutes," Daniel Clowes says.

Sitting helplessly by his dying father’s hospital bed, graphic novelist and Oscar-winning screenwriter Daniel Clowes was getting overwhelmed. To ground himself, the Oakland-based Eightball, Ghost World and Art School Confidential author told SF Weekly he did what many do in such troubled times. He threw himself into his work, grabbing a sketchpad from the hospital gift shop and doodling.

Clowes’ life-altering experience and the “light and funny comic strips” he developed that day would inspire the Gen X cartoonist’s 2010 graphic-novel-turned-film Wilson, about a lonely, middle-aged curmudgeon of the same name (Woody Harrelson) whose father’s death inspires him to reconnect with his estranged wife (Laura Dern) and newly discovered daughter (Isabella Amara).

In advance of Wilson’s opening, the real-life married, father of one also opened up about his longtime fear of ending up alone (like Wilson) and more recent concern that Oakland will eventually become unlivable.

You’ve said that Wilson is inspired by an experience you share with the title character: losing your father to cancer.

I was having an experience kind of like Wilson does in the film, where he’s waited, like I had waited my whole life. …Even as a little kid, I thought, “When my dad’s on his deathbed, we’ll have this bonding experience that we never actually had in real life.”

My dad was a very reserved, Midwestern World War II vet. He just wasn’t someone who connected on an emotional level with anybody, and I just felt like that’s really going to happen.

But you’re sitting there in the hospital with him, and it’s not happening?

I could see in his face that he was not thinking about that at all. He was moved on to a different plane and was trying to figure out how he was going to exit the world. So I actually went down to a little gift shop in the hospital and bought a sketchpad.

What was your goal in that moment?

I had just finished reading this Charles Schulz biography, and he was very similar to my dad, so I felt very connected to him. Charles Schulz said something about any real cartoonist worth his salt can come up with a serviceable gag cartoon in five minutes, something that would make the papers. So that was my goal, to sit there and draw up these little five-minute doodle cartoons and see what I could come up with.

So Wilson was this id creature that emerged onto the page without me thinking about it. He was a stick figure scrawl, and by the time I left the hospital, I had the entire notebook filled with these little one-page cartoons that wound up taking over my life when I got home. I eventually knew this character better than any other I had ever created and turning it into this book.

Wilson is troubled by the fact that he doesn’t have a wife or child or legacy. As someone who’s married with a child and an amazing body of work, do you ever think about what your life might have been like, otherwise?

It definitely feels like Wilson is my natural state that I should have wound up with, but I had some miraculous lucky breaks along the way that led me not to be him. But if you were to have asked me at 22 years old, if I could have seen this movie then, I would have definitely thought that that’s where I was headed, except without the gregariousness that he has. It’s his saving grace that he keeps trying to connect. He doesn’t shut himself off inside, which is probably what I would have done.

Why were you convinced that this was your destiny?

He’s just a genus of people that I’ve been connected to my whole life. I grew up in Chicago, around the University of Chicago, and a lot of my parents’ friends were sort of Wilson-ish, old professors who never married and got more and more eccentric. And then being an artist, as I got older, I know a lot of strange loners. It’s a type that I’m attracted to, so I have a lot of friends who are in that realm. I can understand them very clearly and feel connected to that.

And even though I have a family, I spend a lot of time all by myself just working on comics and things in my studio. It’s not a normal life where you go out to a job and interact with people all day. 

Your writing oftentimes has a snarky Gen X energy, and Wilson is no different. Will Millennials identify with this story?

I don’t know if they’ll identify with it. As much as I find Wilson astonishing, he feels like the kind of person that couldn’t exist nowadays. He is very much of that world. People are very careful now of what they say, and that seems to be a quality of living life in this world, where we all have to be super mindful of how we come across in all the different formats that we exist in. He’s someone who only exists in one format and isn’t at all mindful of how he comes across. It doesn’t seem to bother him at all that people are put off by him, and I think there’s something liberating about that.

Wilson is so unaware that he keeps violating a certain etiquette by buttonholing strangers when they’re in the middle of working or playing on their mobile devices.

Wilson never adapted to that, and people today find it impossible that the character in the comic and the movie would be like that. But there are. I have many friends who never got a cell phone or ever bought a computer, and they’re completely isolated and lost, like they may as well live on a desert island.

But people who are always on their devices feel isolated and alone, too, right?

I know. I often fantasize about moving out to the woods and living in a Unabomber shack and not dealing with it. It’s so liberating. You’d have so much time on your hands if you did that.

But you live in Oakland instead. How do you like it?

I’ve lived in the East Bay for 25 years now, which makes me an official Californian. I really love it there, but it’s in danger of being something else, and I would hate to see that happen. I feel like right now it’s still a wonderful livable place, but it’s so different than it was when I first moved there.

When I first wrote the screenplay to Wilson, I wanted it set in Oakland, where the graphic novel is set. The producers tried to make the film there, but it was so expensive to shoot in Oakland that they went to Minneapolis-Saint Paul, which is very much the same dynamic as San Francisco-Oakland. And it’s maybe behind the curve of gentrification, which works for the film a little better.

What brought you to the Bay Area?

I was living in Chicago and wanted to get out of there, so I came out here and ended up meeting the woman who became my wife, who was going to Cal. It was a perfect reason and the best thing I ever did.   

Tags: , ,

Related Stories