The following interview was conducted by Fantagraphics Bookstore curator Larry Reid in 1995 prior to the release of Terry Zwigoff's phenomenal documentary Crumb. Small fragments of this discussion were included in a review of the film published in The Rocket magazine. At the time of the interview Zwigoff was still six years from directing his breakthrough feature Ghost World, but his passion for independent film, alternative comix, and anachronistic pop culture is fully evident.
LARRY REID: What were the circumstances surrounding your association with Crumb? How did you meet?
TERRY ZWIGOFF: The short answer is I met him through our mutual interest in music, much like the stuff you see in the film — late ’20s jazz, blues, ragtime music. We both collect old 78s of that type of music and we both play in this band he founded in 1972 called the Cheap Suit Serenaders.
LR: Were you familiar with his work prior to meeting him?
TZ: Yes. I actually approached him because I wanted him to draw something for this project I had in mind.
LR: Was that the animal rights comic?
TZ: Yes. I didn’t want to get into this long story, but that’s basically it. His reaction to it was [imitating Crumb’s distinctive whine] “Oh, you want to do a be kind to animals comic, huh?” But he was somewhat sympathetic to it and he actually did this thing.
LR: How did you get involved in the Cheap Suit Serenaders?
TZ: I was friends with Crumb and also Bob Armstrong and Al Dodge. We used to hang out together a lot back in those days and they had started this band a year before. This was in 1973 and they kept after me to learn an instrument and join. Bob and Al lived together back then in this farm house in Dixon, California and somebody had come through town and left a cello there. In these old time string bands they used to play the bass parts on a cello with a bow. I was interested in this music and it wasn’t hard to do, so I quickly learned how to play it and joined up.
LR: I noticed you didn’t use any of this Cheap Suit Serenaders in the film.
TZ: We filmed the Cheap Suit Serenaders just before Crumb moved to France, one last concert that was sort of a spur of the moment thing. I didn’t think it was too exciting, but I figured I wasn’t being too objective about it so I let my producer and the editor and a lot of other people decide. A lot of people looked at it in the rough cut version and they all thought it was pretty dull. It was basically the four of us looking down at our instruments playing. It wasn’t real exciting. Maybe it’ll make it in the laser disc version.
LR: Is the band still active at all?
TZ: Yes. In fact Crumb is coming next month to play a couple of shows with us. We’re playing on the Garrison Keillor show June 3, and we’re playing some jazz festival up near Yosemite on May 26, which is the day my film opens in San Francisco. I’ll be glad to be out of town that day, otherwise I’d be driving my car up and down in front of the theater hoping to see a line forming outside.
LR: I heard a good story from Robert one time about releasing a Cheap Suit Serenaders record on 78 and apparently it didn’t go too well because he suggested that about the only people who owned 78 players at the time were he and his friends.
TZ: The thing is they did it on 78 but it was on acetate so you needed a 33 needle with a 78 changer that almost nobody had. Planned obsolescence. Brilliant marketing. Crumb likes stuff that isn’t very commercial. He’s very upset with me that this movie has been picked up by a big distributor and has been very successful up to this point, in his mind anyway.
LR: Is any of the Cheap Suit Serenaders music going to be reissued on compact disc?
TZ: They’re two CDs available out now on Shawnakee out of New York.
LR: Crumb is notoriously bashful. He doesn’t like to be in the limelight. I wonder how you convinced him to cooperate with the movie.
TZ: I’m sure he thinks it was a mistake now. I don’t know. I just kept after him to do it. I was mainly interested in doing a film that involved his brothers and him. I told him repeatedly that this wasn’t just a career biography of R. Crumb, which I think had some appeal to him, but I think he also thought that even if the film got done it wouldn’t be seen by very many people, that it would be shown at a few film festivals and be put to bed. I think he’s rather dismayed that this thing has been successful.
LR: Did he actively encourage his family to cooperate in the making of the film?
TZ: No. He was pretty neutral about it. Before we even got started I told him, “Look, I really don’t even want to go out and buy any film stock until you call your mother and your brother and see if they’ll be in the film.” I’d met them. I spent a night at their house in the early ’70s. I really liked his brother Charles. I found him an endlessly fascinating guy. I liked his mother, too. I thought they were both very eccentric but very brilliant in their own way. I really enjoyed being around them and I had a memorable night at their house and I thought I hit it off with them really well. I asked him to call them and maybe this would put an end to this project right now. They’ll probably say no. They’re pretty reclusive. He called his mother from my house and he was on the phone for like 10 minutes and nobody’s answering. I said, “Hang up already. Nobody’s home.” And he said, “No. My mother usually takes about 40 or 50 rings to pick up the phone.” Sure enough, she finally picks up the phone. He says, “Remember my friend Terry? He spent the night at your house 14 or 15 years ago.” She says, “Oh yeah, yeah.” “Well, he wants to do this documentary on me and he wants you and Charles to be in the film.” She says, “Oh sure.” Just like that. Of course it wasn’t quite so easy when we went to film. But at that point he sort of had to go along with it because she’d already agreed to do it. Like I said, at that time I don’t think he thought the film would get done or that I’d get the money raised to do it. I was having a hard time. It took me 9 years to do the damn thing. Nobody was too interested in it as a commercial project, but I always had this strange idea that it was going to be a commercial film.
LR: What about Crumb’s sisters? They don’t appear in the film. I understand one of his sisters lives in Seattle.
TZ: I hear she’s a radical lesbian separatist. I don’t know. I only met her once and I didn’t get a chance to talk to her much. She and Robert were in a big fight. I called her to try to let her tell her side of things in this film, but as soon as I told her what I was up to she just said, “Forget it. I’m not going to be in any film, and if you so much as mention my name I’ll sue you,” and hung up on me. I had my producer Lynn O’Donnell call her to see if she could get any further with her but she wouldn’t really give us a reason. She just seemed immediately angry that there was a film happening about Robert.
LR: Do you suppose that’s a reaction to the misogynist content of some of Robert’s work?
TZ: According to him she had asked him years back for $400 a month reparations for the damage his comics had done to women. That’s one of the things I wanted to ask her on camera. You never know. Robert makes a big show of being very frank and honest and open in his work, but it’s not always quite so straightforward. He has his own motives like anybody else, and he’s comfortable with presenting his own story in a certain way that isn’t necessarily 100%, shall we say, accurate. And that’s not to say my film is either. It’s my interpretation of many facts as well. He finally saw this film and didn’t seem very happy with it. I sent him a video tape of it. I was trying to get him to hold out to see it on film in the theaters, but he kept bugging me to see it. My distributor, Sony, wanted him to see it because he was absolutely refusing to do any press on the film, saying “If he really loves the film maybe he’ll do some press.” And I said, “I wouldn’t hold your breath.” Anyway he seemed very disgruntled about the whole film. He didn’t seem to like it.
LR: Was there anything specific that …?
TZ: What he told me was that after watching the film he had to go for a walk in the woods to clear his head. And he took his hat off that he’d owned for like 20 years, his favorite hat and threw it off a cliff, and said, “I don’t want to be R. Crumb anymore.” And I said, “Well what does that mean? Did I misrepresent who R. Crumb is, or did I represent him so accurately that you don’t want to be him?” He said, “I don’t know. Here, Aline wants to talk to you.” And Aline got on the phone and she was pissed off about the way I presented her. So, you know, you can’t win. I did a film on this old blues musician, Louie Bluie, and he never spoke to me again once I made this film, and I thought it was a very flattering portrait of him. I knew enough about making this film that people would know I was Crumb’s friend, that I didn’t want to just churn out some celebratory puff piece on the guy. I wanted to be a little bit critical of him, and show some of his pros and cons, warts and all. Apparently he’s not too comfortable with anybody else doing that but himself, I guess.
LR: Crumb has another sister back East. She doesn’t appear in the film. Is there a story behind that?
TZ: I called her as well. He gave me her phone number. I’d never met her. I asked him what she was like and his take on her was that she wouldn’t be that interesting on camera, that she was rather shy and wouldn’t have much to say. But I wanted to film her anyway. Give her a chance to speak for herself instead of taking his word for it, because he misled me in a number of areas in this film actually.
LR: In reference to his family?
TZ: No, maybe misled is the wrong term but there was definitely a number of instances where, to put it simply, he could have been much more helpful than he was. He sort of dragged his feet. He was very strange about many things. Very uncooperative at times and very cooperative at other times.
LR: You mentioned that it took you 9 years to finish the film. How did you put together the financing?
TZ: We formed a corporation and a limited partnership. We raised the money from private investors. We couldn’t get a single grant. I think we got a total of about $1,500 in grant money eventually, which was nothing. It was mainly private individuals that we approached. We started out with people who were the most obvious, like Matt Groening, who probably liked Crumb but also had a lot of money, which was a very short list. There was Charles Schulz, who declined. There was Matt Groening, who invested, but a very small amount. Nobody invested more than $1,400 in the film. We got a number of people to invest.
LR: Do you mind me asking what the production budget for the film was?
TZ: It’s hard to put a price on because a lot of stuff was done for a piece of the film. I worked for free for 9 years, my producer worked for free for 9 years, my cinematographer worked for a very low budget. In exchange everybody was rewarded with a certain percentage of the profit, if there will be any to come. In hard cash it was about $200,000. But if we were paying everybody I’m sure it would have been closer to twice that.
LR: That’s still an extremely modest budget by any standard.
TZ: It would have been a much better film if we had more money. That’s for sure. We just couldn’t shoot much film. We had to be very, very careful about what was filmed. It’s a documentary film. To really get some of your best stuff — you just don’t know when — you just have to just keep shooting film. In this case it was very tight.
LR: You mentioned your earlier project Louie Bluie. Could you talk a little about that?
TZ: He was a blues musician. He made 2 records in his whole life. Two 78s, one tune on each side back in those days. This was 1934. He recorded for Blue Bird, which was a subsidiary of RCA Victor. He made this record called “State Street Rag” which I found a copy of. It was a virtuoso mandolin performance with a guitar backing this guy up, and the only name on the record was Louie Bluie, which was obviously a pseudonym. I found a copy of this record, and I knew a lot of other serious record collectors around the world, and I was very impressed with this record. So I asked them about this and the word was out that there was only one other copy known of the record, which was unusual because even like Robert Johnson records there’s usually 30 or 40 copies of each one. They’re not that rare. But this was extremely rare and in fact his other record that he made at the same time has never been found to this date, which is very unusual. So this record had a mystique to me and I was very intrigued by the guy’s mandolin playing. At the time I was writing articles and liner notes about music, old time music in particular and always in the back of my mind I wanted to find out what happened to this guy. Who was this guy who had made this record years ago? He was obviously dead now, but I wanted to piece together the story of his life. I spent a couple of years doing some detective work and wound up finding this guy still alive. He was living in Detroit, and the guy who played guitar on the record was living in Chicago, and they were still friends, were still playing music together. I flew out to meet the guy and he was such an incredible character, not only a musician, but he also kept these secret, hidden pornographic diaries, that were very similar to Crumb’s artwork. Very cartoony and very old fashioned in style. I was determined to have somebody make a film on this guy. I didn’t really consider myself a filmmaker at the time. I tried to convince a few other filmmakers I knew to make a film on him, but nobody seemed too interested and eventually I got started on it and I got in too deep and had to finish it. It led to this.
LR: That’s what got you into documentary filmmaking?
TZ: Yeah. I sort of stumbled into it backwards.
LR: What was Robert’s response to the film? I saw the poster he did for it.
TZ: He liked it a lot. It’s probably one of the reasons he agreed to do this film.
LR: I understand that there was an aborted effort to do a similar documentary on a Hawaiian musician.
TZ: I filmed the entire documentary. It’s sitting on my back porch. I haven’t had the money yet to edit it. It’s a 90-minute film on this Hawaiian musician whose real name is Tau Moe. It’s a very similar story to Louie Bluie. In this case a friend of mine found a couple of records this guy made from the 20s. He said, “This guy’s still alive, he lives in Hawaii, he still plays music great and he’s had this incredible life. You’ve got to do a film on him.” I wasn’t really interested but this guy talked me into it. He gave me a free trip to Hawaii to meet the guy and I got slowly sucked into doing that. I just haven’t found the time to finish that now that I have this film going, and I’m trying to get out of documentaries and do a feature film next.
LR: I was going to ask you about that. What are your future plans?
TZ: I want to remake this film noir which I don’t really want to name right now because I’m told it’s a bad thing to do until I own the rights to the book it’s based on. But there’s this film noir thing from the mid-’40s that was a really great film that I like a lot. It’s similar in tone to Crumb in that it’s sort of tragic but funny and dark and moody. It’s sick in a way. A sick sort of black humor that attracts me to it more than anything else.
LR: Hadn’t you worked on a screenplay or two with Crumb?
TZ: Yeah, I wrote a couple of screenplays with Crumb in the late ’80s.
LR: Did anything ever come of those?
TZ: Not really, no. One of them was based on a comic that he did called “White Man Meets Big Foot” which I always thought was a really stupid idea for a movie, but we were getting paid to do it so I went along with it. We wound up owning the script eventually when these guys backed out of producing it. We made a few feeble attempts at getting it made. We took it down to L.A. and got an agent in the late ’80s and he shopped it around a little bit. Nobody was at all interested. It was a good script in many ways. Crumb’s a good writer. I thought it was a very successful, easy collaboration and so did he. He was good at some elements of screenwriting, and I was good at others and luckily they weren’t the same things and they complemented each other.
LR: I was curious to get your reaction to some of Crumb’s more politically incorrect comics. I know as a youth I was somewhat disturbed by his portrayal of women and ethnic minorities. Do you think his work is meant to be satirical?
TZ: I don’t know. You’d have to ask him. I could tell you my reaction when I first saw his work when I was a kid in college. I remember seeing that comic that was in the film, “Angelfood McSpade,” where they take her out of Africa and wind up stuffing her head in a toilet. My reaction was not only was it funny, but it was very politically correct in a broad sense, not in a knee jerk liberal sort of way, but I thought it was very much an indictment of America — an indictment of racism more than anything else. That seemed to be what it was about to me and I tried very hard in the film to present it in such a way that you could read the entire comic and have appropriate music. I was still shocked to find people who see the film find that strip racist.
LR: You mentioned that you’ve had problems getting Robert to cooperate in the promotion of the film. I’ve heard stories that he’s turned down the cover of Rolling Stone and a number of other promotional opportunities. Do you expect him to come around at all?
TZ: No. In fact I just sent him a fax telling him, “Please don’t. I was wrong and you were right.” Now that I’ve been doing it myself I know what he was talking about. Your words get twisted, journalists need an angle, and everything gets banalized. Every once in a while you get lucky and you get some really good writer that does an interesting article. I mean, I have to do it because I want to make another movie.
LR: You must be pleased with the critical response to the movie so far.
TZ: Yes, I’m very surprised. Although — I don’t want to seem immodest — but I always thought it was a great film. I’m not saying that because I’m the sole person that made it. There’s a lot of people involved in the film that never get any credit, like my producer Lynn O’Donnell, the cinematographer, the editor, the guy that recorded the sound.
LR: Did you manage to keep that crew together over the span of nearly a decade?
TZ: Yeah, pretty much. They were all really into the film. They really came through.
LR: What’s been the reaction from your peers in the film community apart from the critics?
TZ: I’m really pleased that David Lynch liked it so much, because I’m a really huge fan of his stuff.
LR: David Lynch is actually credited with presenting the film on the promotional material.
TZ: Well, I originally approached him for money presuming he was a big fan of Crumb’s, which somebody had told me. Somebody told me that he had a poster in his office of Louie Bluie, and the only thing on the wall of his office was supposedly this poster. But the guy who told me was sort of a drunk in a bar I had met. He said, “Yeah, I work for him and we’re good friends.” And I thought, “Yeah, right, buddy.” But I always remembered that and years later, when we were desperate for people to hit up for money I said, “I’m gonna be in L.A., maybe I can meet with David Lynch. Maybe this story was right and if he had this poster on his wall he’s either a fan of the film, which I made, or he’s a fan of Crumb’s, who did the poster art.” So I met with David and I asked him, “So, you’re a big fan of Crumb’s?” And he said, “No. I know who he is but I’m not a big fan. I like his stuff all right.” I said, “So you like this film Louie Bluie then?” He said, “No, I can’t say I’ve heard of that.” Very strange guy. Anyway, I showed him this film, and he really liked it. That eventually led to him putting his name on the film as sort of an endorsement, which was a thrill to me.
LR: Was that the extent of his involvement?
TZ: Originally I had hoped he would give me money. He didn’t seem too enthused when I left him with the tape. He said, “I’m not going to give you any money. I don’t know who Crumb is. I can’t even get money for my own films these days.” He wasn’t too enthusiastic. The day before Lynch called very excited about the film, this other guy came up with the money, so it was a very awkward situation. I could no longer accept money from him, and I still wanted to use his name on the film. So I said, “Would you consider putting David Lynch Presents on it?” And he said, “Oh that’d be great.” So, I was happy.
LR: Did that help you land a distribution deal?
TZ: No. Not at all. It was strange. None of the distributors were impressed with that one iota. They said, “Ahh, David Lynch. His time has passed.” But I don’t agree. I think they’re wrong. I think it will help a lot.
LR: Do you expect the film will be a commercial success at this point?
TZ: Well, it doesn’t have to make much money to be a commercial success since it cost so little to make. But, yeah, I think it’s going to do really well.
[Thanks to The Comics Journal editorial intern Janice Lee for scanning and proofreading the original typewritten manuscript. – Ed.]