Woody Harrelson, Laura Dern, Daniel Clowes & Craig Johnson on ‘Wilson’

Bad Manners, Good Heart

Mar 26, 2017 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


In Wilson, the third illustrated story of artist and writer Daniel Clowes to be adapted for the screen, we are again nudged to pay attention to the overlooked and misunderstood. The difficulty in relating for societal outliers previously touched on in Ghost World and Art School Confidential are maxed out in the character of Wilson, the latest of Clowes’ offbeat protagonists to find cinematic vitality.

That protagonist is actually an antagonist in this case, an outspoken misanthrope, the kind of guy without boundaries, whose lack of filter in unsolicited encounters with people cuts through the bull of our conventionality with some riotous consequences. Clowes created him as a sort of cathartic outlet, the Id side of his personality, as he puts it:

“He’s sort of a version of myself that is buried somewhere inside. I’m much more socialised – reserved, midwestern polite ... but I wish I was more like him. He’s sort of an admirable guy, for all of his difficult qualities.”

The quirks, idiosyncrasies and outright harrassments are all brought to life in both studied and instinctive caricature by Woody Harrelson. The role of Wilson offered Harrelson a return to his comic roots. (People forget his start on one of the most popular tv sitcoms of all time, Cheers). With Wilson’s outrageous character, Harrelson also saw opportunity to have fun with acting in a manner his more regular dramatic portrayals haven’t exactly allowed.

“I always believe in some sort of improv,” says Harrelson of playing someone as outrageous as Wilson. “It depends on the director, some of ‘em are not really into it but even then in a subtle way you kind of insist on it, because I do feel there are sometimes that you catch something with improv. It’s not always great, but It’s more real, more honest and the moment can be improved from it.”

After quipping that he got a little distracted there with all the drama, Harrelson beams at the change of pace. “I’m definitely embracing getting back to my roots in comedy ... It’s so satisfying, too. We saw it at Sundance and when you hear a whole audience laughing, it’s such a great feeling.”

Clowes got his screenplay for Wilson into the hands of director Craig Johnson, whose character treatment he admired in the dark comedy The Skeleton Twins. Johnson was determined to do right by the amusingly abrasive nature of Wilson depicted in the book.

“When I received the script, I was already a huge fan of his,” says Johnson of Clowes, “I had the graphic novel on my shelf, so I was familiar with it. When I read the script, I was thrilled that not only did it maintain the book’s acerbic sense of humor but it was infused with a sense of humanity to where I could see the movie version of it.”

Johnson’s appreciation shows up in the world he creates for its characters from the eighty individual “Sunday Funnies” that constitute the book. The young director draws Wilson’s world with the camera, framing his existence as vignettes of interactions in the style of a comic strip.

After some humorously inappropriate exchanges that introduce you to his nature, many with total strangers, the heart of the story is shaped around Wilson’s somewhat happenstantial discovery that he is the father of a teenage girl. The death of his father leads a lonely Wilson in search of meaning to seek out his estranged wife Pippi. Played with an on-the-edge energy by Laura Dern, Pippi is a woman trying to get her life back together from years of addiction. She tells Wilson of the existence of their daughter and they stumble along together towards an unlikely family reunion. Dern saw something not only funny, but heartwarming in the connection. 

“The thing that I love about Wilson and Pippi is that Daniel Clowes has created a world that isn’t drugged," she says. "We say ‘these people are impossible’ because they’re not medicated to be apathetic or socially appropriate. The world tells us if you’ve gone through grief, loss, divorce, you need an antidepressant..so I think the more we can allow ourselves to be filterless, (the better off we may be)”

Ultimately Wilson’s pursuits of folly and awkward attempts at connection needed only Harrelson’s zealous approach to the sardonicism living right inside the borders of the strips he inhabits.  

“With Ghost World, I had to come to the revelation that I needed to depart from the book, that I was getting stuck in the world of the book and it was feeling stale” recalls Clowes, “Obviously with Art School Confidential it was a whole new story based on a four page comic. With this one, I intended to start with the bones of the structure and character and do something as far away as Ghost World, but I kept going back to the book ... It had an indelible quality that just felt like this is the story of Wilson.”

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Wilson is now playing in select theaters. For more information on the film, check out its website



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