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Arts & Culture

'Wilson' Sketches Portrait Of Prickly Character

Drawn and Quarterly
The graphic novel "Wilson," written by Daniel Clowes.

Director Craig Johnson talks about adapting Daniel Clowes' graphic novel to the screen

'Wilson' Sketches Portrait Of Prickly Character
“Wilson” (opening March 24 in select San Diego theaters) is not the Oscar-winning film about our 28th president. But it is a portrait of a prickly character named Wilson played by Woody Harrelson.

Companion viewing

"Wilson" (1944)

"Ghost World" (2001)

"The Skeleton Twins" (2014)

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Wilson” (opening March 24 in select San Diego theaters) is not the Oscar-winning film about our 28th president, but it is a portrait of a prickly character named Wilson played by Woody Harrelson.

Graphic novelist Daniel Clowes (who also provided the source material for “Ghost World”) likes to focus on misfits and outsiders, people who do not often get to be the stars of a movie. With “Wilson,” he gives us a man who desperately wants to connect with others, but he just lacks the social skills to successfully do that.

Wilson's marriage has failed, his father is dying, and he is prone to accosting strangers as a means of trying to spread his ideas about what is wrong with the world. A typical Wilson encounter involves him interrupting someone who is busily working on a computer at a café or listening to music on a bus and taking a seat next to the person despite the fact that there are plenty of open seats available elsewhere. Then he chews that person’s ear off with theories he has about what is plaguing mankind.

When his father dies and he discovers that his ex-wife (Laura Dern) had not aborted their baby when they got divorced but rather put her up for adoption. Now, he is on a mission to find her.

As played by Woody Harrelson, Wilson is aggressively in your face, and kind of a jerk, but also big-hearted.

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Director Craig Johnson described him as “difficult, he’s really hard to embrace even though, that’s sort of, all he wants in the world is to be hugged. I think he is mischaracterized as a misanthrope, which is somebody who doesn’t like people. He actually loves people, he wants nothing more than to talk to anybody, but he just doesn’t have the people skills to pull it off, and he winds up alienating everyone he runs into. And in order to make a character like that sort of bearable for 90 minutes you need to like him on some level, and Woody Harrelson is just inherently likable.”

Clowes graphic novel was made up of a series of one-page comic strips depicting Wilson at different points in his life. For the film, Clowes crafted a more linear narrative that focuses on Wilson’s journey to find his daughter and along the way to discover some things about himself.

Johnson said he has long been a fan of Clowes’ work and his characters.

“[His characters] are just wonderfully, on the one hand, off beat, and on the other hand, completely recognizable,” Johnson said. “Daniel builds graphic novels and films around characters that never have movies made about them, like disaffected high school girls (in “Ghost World”), or in this case the kind of lonely, curmudgeonly bachelor with conspiracy theories and a large, vast world view. These are people that you see every day on the street but you don’t see onscreen. Yet they are wonderful. They are wonderfully flawed, they are wonderfully difficult, but they are also wonderfully human.”

Precisely the kind of characters Johnson has created in his previous films “True Adolescents” and “The Skeleton Twins.”

“I am interested in the intersection between the salty and the sweet, between the funny and the emotional, between the happy and the sad,” Johnson explained. “And that usually involves flawed characters. I am interested in people with chinks in their armor, living in a world that’s a thriller and a comedy and a horror movie and a drama — sometimes within the same ten-minute period. That’s just life, life is genre agnostic.“

Key to bringing "Wilson" successfully to life on film was finding the right tone because the film has to move from absurd comedy to serious emotional drama.

Fox Searchlight
Craig Johnson directs Woody Harrelson on the set of "Wilson."

“Creating the right tone was difficult and also critical,” Johnson said. “It was our number one mission to find the tone, and that starts on set when you are calibrating the performance, and you do a take, and then you go, ‘OK guys, let’s go a little bit more bonkers this take;' or ‘No, let’s bring it a little more down, back to planet earth on this take.’ Then you get into the edit room, and you are constantly what I call 'adjusting the volume knob' and just trying to find a good balance. And it really doesn’t come together until the final score is done. It wasn’t until that final score came in that I truly felt the film had found its tone. But it’s a balance beam. There were many early versions of the movie that hadn’t found that tone balance yet, and it wasn’t until the final, last pieces of sound design that we felt we were there.”

But a film that does not fit neatly into a mainstream definition of a comedy or a romance or a drama is difficult to promote. It cannot be easily packaged into a 30-second TV spot, and that can make it difficult to find the right audience for the film.

“I don’t believe in tricking an audience to come see something,” Johnson stated. “I believe in your promotional material reflecting what the movie is, and hopefully you’ve done your work so that what you’ve spent on the movie is proportional to the size of the audience you might get. I do believe in being a responsible filmmaker and not just blowing a budget away if your audience is going to be limited.”

But when most studios are interested in graphic novels and comics of a superhero nature that can be turned into big-budget popcorn movies, it can be difficult to get films like “Wilson” made.

Like the main character, the film is something that takes time to warm up to and it occasionally asks us to take a leap in the narrative as we follow Wilson on his journey. But in the end, both the film and Wilson himself manage to win us over with their offbeat humor and undeniable humanity.

“Wilson” is rated R for language throughout and some sexuality.