Train of thought

Craig Johnson and Daniel Clowes on tattoos, Wilson, and being the voice of a dog.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Daniel Clowes had Patricia Highsmith and Alfred Hitchcock on his mind for Wilson:
Daniel Clowes had Patricia Highsmith and Alfred Hitchcock on his mind for Wilson: "He's like a different version of the Robert Walker character in Strangers on a Train …" Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

A comment to director Craig Johnson and screenwriter/graphic novelist Daniel Clowes on Laura Dern's tattoos for her character Pippi in Wilson, led us to Robert Crumb, Tony Danza, Van Halen, and Pippi Longstocking. Woody Harrelson is Wilson, Pippi's ex-husband, and they have a daughter, Claire (Isabella Amara). Judy Greer plays Shelly, Wilson's dog sitter for Pepper and Cheryl Hines was once his sister-in-law.

Craig Johnson:
Craig Johnson: "I like that in the Laura Dern version, Pippi is just this freckly faced, smiling can-do girl." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Not a shy man, Wilson likes to talk to all kinds of strangers. On an empty train, on the swing at the playground, in the men's room at an amusement park. A very truthful, lovely, sincere moment of remembrance for Pepper, his fox terrier, whom he salutes as the "pride of the neighborhood," shows how much Harrelson can do as an actor - switching in a split second from the ridiculous to the sublime.

Daniel Clowes told me that the way "Wilson interacts with this dog is just 100% autobiographical."

Anne-Katrin Titze: Wilson likes to talk to strangers on a train. And I was thinking that maybe today it would be easier to find someone to swap murders with than someone to have a conversation with. There's the line "Nobody has real conversations anymore." Can you talk a little bit about that subject?

Daniel Clowes: I actually thought about that book and movie a lot when I was writing those scenes. He's like a different version of the Robert Walker character in Strangers On A Train, where he is sort of a pest who is sort of invading the lives of people, to kind of inflict his weird vision onto them. But it doesn't actually end in murder. It sort of stops at just creeping them out.

Wilson (Woody Harrelson) and Pippi (Laura Dern)
Wilson (Woody Harrelson) and Pippi (Laura Dern)

Craig Johnson: Yeah, for me there's a couple of things going on. Which is the subject matter that he's talking about and then the way he goes about it. The subject matter is always big picture. It's always world view and it's philosophical and his feelings about the world at large. These really huge truths that are uncomfortable to hear under any circumstances.

Then when you couple that with the method that he uses, which is inflicting it upon people, strangers - it makes people [he growls] uncomfortable. His whole journey is, you know, gosh, your conversation would be so much more fruitful and rewarding for you, Wilson, if you just changed your methodology a bit.

AKT: You have some classy tattoos in this film. From the swastika on the cheek to some snakes coming out of underwear. Did you work on that together?

Johnson: There's a number of them written into the story.

Woody Harrelson is Wilson:
Woody Harrelson is Wilson: "It's always world view and it's philosophical and his feelings about the world at large."

Clowes: They're in the story.

Johnson: Yes. Certainly Laura's [Dern as Pippi] what do you call it? Tramp stamp? On her lower back - "Property of Sir Daddy Big Dick" - that's in the graphic novel as well. And then the swastika one is a topic of conversation. Laura's other tattoos, the snake and stuff, that was really a fun conversation I had with her when we were talking about her character and her backstory.

She was probably kind of a rocker girl in the Eighties. Maybe like an ex-Van Halen groupie type that would have gotten the snake and the dolphin. You know, the kind of standard fare.

Clowes: When we were making this we had no idea that swastikas would be like part of the ruling party's…

Johnson: We didn't realise we were ahead of our times.

Clowes: Giving them a Pepe the Frog tattoo instead or something. No, it felt like, oh, this is just like a crazy fringe thing that only a lunatic in prison would have. And now it feels like, you know, the Vice President probably has one on his thigh ... You know, Tony Danza has a Keep On Truckin' tattoo, like a Robert Crumb tattoo. I love knowing that.

Johnson: Tony Danza?

Clowes: Yeah.

AKT: The name Pippi, although she [the character] hates it, you were thinking of Pippi Longstocking? Or not?

Woody Harrelson as Wilson:
Woody Harrelson as Wilson: "Then when you couple that with the method that he uses, which is inflicting it upon people, strangers ..."

Clowes: You know, when I was writing the comic, that name literally just popped into my head as a ridiculous name for a character and just that they would hate, to always hear "Oh, Pippi Longstocking," you know? When somebody has a name like that they grow up just hating their own name.

I thought it added to this certain self-hatred. In the comic she's kind of this big, overweight woman so it would be she would feel like "I don't live up to that name," you know? I just felt like it had a certain something to it that was the opposite of who she was.

Johnson: I like that in the Laura Dern version, Pippi is just this freckly faced, smiling can-do girl. And then our Pippi is just so the opposite of that.

Clowes: She almost seems like she could have been like Pippi Longstocking as a little girl.

Johnson: Started out.

AKT: Yes, that's what I thought.

Clowes: Life took her on a bad trajectory. And you imagine it's a nickname that she's stuck with her whole life.

Craig Johnson on Laura Dern as Pippi:
Craig Johnson on Laura Dern as Pippi: "She was probably kind of a rocker girl in the Eighties. Maybe like an ex-Van Halen groupie type…" Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: Can you talk about the location of Fairyland?

Clowes: There's a real place in Oakland where I live and where the movie was originally set - in Oakland, California. And it was too expensive to film, so we found Saint Paul. I wanted there to be an end credit: Saint Paul as Oakland. But Fairyland is an actual place in Oakland. It's a an amusement park for very young kids. Like my son's way too old. We haven't been since he was like six. And it's really charming and really run down.

It was built in the Fifties and it just has that feeling of, you know, there's something poignant about the idea of Wilson taking this grown-up kid, that he never got to take as a little girl, to this place that's just not meant for anybody over five. And they replicated it very well, I thought.

Johnson: You know, we were slightly heart-broken when we couldn't shoot in Oakland because the book is actually really pretty regionally specific. So we said sort of where would Wilson exist? He would exist in a mid-size, progressive, gentrifying American city. So we did a search and ended up with Minneapolis/Saint Paul which just totally fit the bill.

Pippi with Wilson holding photo of their daughter Claire (Isabella Amara)
Pippi with Wilson holding photo of their daughter Claire (Isabella Amara)

We found a little amusement park but then art designed it - shout out to Ethan Tobman, our production designer, who took his inspiration from the actual Fairyland. And we tried to recreate that with the sort of more vintage, run-down 1950s touches. Because the amusement park was actually pretty contemporary so we tried to make it feel a little more old school and run down like the original.

AKT: Does the mens room have deer? Or was that your invention?

Johnson: No, we built that mens room on a separate stage. That was our own construction and we added that mural which was a wonderful touch also by our production designer.

Clowes: We got to go to the set, my wife and I, just for a couple of days, and we were so sad we missed Pepper. Because that's totally based on my dog, who is now 15. Everything Wilson interacts with this dog is just 100% autobiographical.

AKT: So you do the dog voice [as Woody Harrelson does as Wilson, when strangers on the street talk to his dog, ignoring him]?

Daniel Clowes' graphic novel Wilson
Daniel Clowes' graphic novel Wilson

Clowes: Yeah.

Johnson: So when people would come up, would you actually answer?

Clowes: Yeah, I learned that if you do the dog voice, people go like "Oh?" You don't talk to other humans like that.

Johnson: Because he is not talking to his dog in that voice. He is being the dog's voice talking to the person.

Clowes: Our dog is very, like, pretty beagle. It was a show dog who had all those health problems and wasn't supposed to live and we used this kind of bratty California voice. It's a little different than Pepper's voice.

Read what Woody Harrelson had to say on Wilson, the presidential election of 2000, and Sam Shepard's The Late Henry Moss.

Read what Judy Greer had to say on the dogs in Wilson, her work with dog rescue outfit Wags and Walks, and auditioning children for her directorial debut A Happening Of Monumental Proportions.

Coming up - Wilson director Craig Johnson on David Lynch's longtime cinematographer Frederick Elmes, taking over from Alexander Payne, premiering Wilson at a brand new screening room, and Laura Dern recalls a scene from Citizen Ruth.

Wilson comes out in the US on March 24.

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