LIANE HANSEN, host:

The promises of fortune and fame draw many students to art schools around the country every year. In the new movie Art School Confidential, the character Jerome Platts has one burning ambition, to be the greatest artist of the 21st century. Platts is a freshman at the fictitious Strathmore Art Academy. Early on, a teacher played by John Malkovich offers a blunt perspective on their career prospect.

(Soundbite of film "Art School Confidential")

Mr. JOHN MALKOVICH: (As Teacher) Now, I don't have any particular wisdom to impart to you people except to say this, these four words: don't have unrealistic expectations. If you want to make money, you better drop out right now. Go to banking school or website school. Anywhere but art school. And remember, only one out of 100 of you will ever make a living as an artist.

HANSEN: Art School Confidential opened in theaters nationwide this weekend. It's the second collaboration between comic artist Daniel Clowes and director Terry Zwigoff. Their first was the critically acclaimed Ghost World. Clowes wrote the screenplay for Art School Confidential as well as the comic on which it's loosely based. When he spoke to us from the studios of KQED in San Francisco this past week, Clowes said he had attended the Pratt Institute of Art in the late 1970s and described some of his classmates.

Mr. DANIEL CLOWES (Comic Artist, Writer): We had these characters in art school who would never bring in any work but they would talk about what they were doing and sort of set it up, you know for the time they would bring it in. And they were so articulate and had such a well thought out raison d'etre for what they were doing. And then when they would bring it in, it was always so baffling, you know. It was not at all what you were expecting. It was sort of set up for it to be the greatest work of art of the 20th century. And I remember one guy was really talking about this thing like it was going to be the most amazing piece of art, and then he brought it in, and it was actually a portrait of James Garner from The Rockford Files.

And it, but not, not ironic at all, like it was, like he just really loved The Rockford Files. Now in retrospect I think that's actually kind of a great thing, but at the time it was somewhat shocking.

HANSEN: So how much is this film based on your experiences?

Mr. CLOWES: It's very loosely based. Certainly the characters are conglomerates of people I knew, if not actual lawsuit-worthy depictions of people I knew. But really the film is about the emotional landscape of being an artist, at least in terms of how I deal with being an artist. It's about the various pitfalls that you have to face as an artist.

HANSEN: Elaborate on that a little bit, because you have said in one interview that the film is emotionally autobiographical.

Mr. CLOWES: As a cartoonist, your life is sitting in a room looking at a blank piece of paper obsessing over various things. And one of the many things that I obsess over is sort of the purity of what I'm doing. Am I guided by principles that lead me to do only my most personal distinctive work, or am I doing, am I making changes that perhaps I'm not even aware of that are designed to appeal to a marketplace or to an audience. The film is largely about that for me.

HANSEN: Why did you go to art school in the first place?

Mr. CLOWES: It seem like the, you know, like it was the closest to what I wanted to do. I wanted to learn to draw and to tell stories, and use images in a narrative form. And I couldn't quite think of where else to go. You know, I guess I could've studied English or writing, but really I was much more interested in the visual side of it. In a certain way, it was like going to school to learn astronomy when you really wanted to be a botanist or something. It's similar and yet not at all the same.

HANSEN: You know there's a question in the movie, what do artists think about?

(Soundbite of film Art School Confidential)

Unidentified Man #2: (As Character) I thought you were an artist.

Unidentified Man #3: (As Character) I am. I am.

Unidentified Man #2: You want to be an artist or an aficionado?

Unidentified Man #3: An artist.

Unidentified Man #2: What do you think an artist cares about? Does he think all day about fine wines and black tie affairs? What he's going to say at the next after dinner speech? No. He lives only for that narcotic moment of creative bliss.

HANSEN: Can I ask you what you think about?

Mr. CLOWES: I probably think about the same things everybody else thinks about. Is what I'm doing valid? Is it a good use of my time? Should I be doing it differently? Should I be doing something else? I mean the difference between being an artist and being a lawyer or a bookkeeper or something is that you really can do anything. And that's often debilitating, to think that every choice you make, literally all the options are absolutely endless. You can go in any direction at any time. The end is whatever it is when you're done. There's not some conscious goal that you're working towards. And that's, you shouldn't think about that too much or it will just crush you.

HANSEN: There's a character called Jonah in the film. He's in Jerome's classes and we learn at the end of the film that he's not what he appears to be. But during the course of the film, Jonah creates these paintings that get everybody's attention. And they look like pencil tracings of a car, and a tank, and they're on canvases of yellow and blue. And Jerome can't understand why everyone loves Jonah's art, and why his somewhat realistic portraits aren't getting any attention. When the credits rolled, it informs us that you painted Jonah's work and not Jerome's. First of all, why?

Mr. CLOWES: Well, I mean, I never intended to do Jerome's work 'cause I certainly didn't want the thesis of the film to be I am the only great artist, and that's certainly not what it's about. Jonah's work to me, it was the most difficult to explain to anybody because it had to work for the character and what you find out about the character, but also has to -- you have to buy that it's something that's sort of compelling and interesting. And I had this vision of what that would be as I was writing it, and I tried to explain it to, you know, the various technicians on the film who do the background paintings and things like that, and I just couldn't quite get it across. So I said, well, I'll do one, and I'll show it to you and maybe you can get the idea from that. And then after I did one, I realized that I had to do them all.

HANSEN: What are we suppose to think about them? I mean as we watch the film, that they're good or that they're bad?

Mr. CLOWES: I would hope that they're, you know, I don't want to tell anybody what to think about it. But I would hope that, you know, as Jerome says at the end of the film. He admits that they have something. You know, they're not, they may be not fully realized, but there's something there. They're not just terrible paintings.

HANSEN: When you're drawing your comics, I mean this is the classic music and lyrics question. But does the illustration come before the narrative?

Mr. CLOWES: Well, that's kind of the beauty to me of comics, is that they come together and they influence each other as they're happening. It's very, it's as though you can make a movie where you're writing the script and shooting the film at the same time. It's, you know, you do the drawing and all of a sudden it suggests the dialogue and then the dialogue suggests a slightly different drawing. And they're working together. That's really to me why I'm only interested in the comics that are done by one person. It's a very different thing when you're illustrating somebody else's text.

HANSEN: You and Terry Zwigoff really had some great success with the movie Ghost World. Given that you had that success, were there times in this project when you had to decide whether to follow your own inspiration or to do something that you thought people would like?

Mr. CLOWES: You know, it's interesting. That's largely what the film is about. And that's, it's very much come into play during the making of the film. I had the idea for the screenplay and then after working with Terry he and I had a very kind of clear idea of the kind of film that we wanted to make. And we knew that it was going to be divisive at best for the audience. And we knew we could have made Ghost World 2, and it would've, you know, it would have made everybody happy, but it wouldn't have made us happy. And so we went in this direction that we wanted to go, and we're happy with it.

HANSEN: Art School Confidential opened nationwide this past Friday. Daniel Clowes wrote the screenplay and he joined us from member station KQED in San Francisco. Daniel, thanks a lot.

Mr. CLOWES: Thank you, Liane.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: To see some of Daniel Clowes's artwork on which Art School Confidential is based, go to our website, NPR.org.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

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