The new movie “Wilson” feels effortless, but it could have been an extremely knotty prospect.
It’s based on the 2010 graphic novel by Oakland-based artist and writer Daniel Clowes, who created it while sitting by his father’s deathbed as a way to deal with his emotions.
It’s a collection of four-paneled strips, drawn in different styles, featuring a character that’s difficult to describe and sometimes difficult to like.
“When I was creating the character, I tried not to analyze him, because he was such an id creature,” says Clowes. “But then I went back and tried to find what made him tick, and he’s like one of those pads you have when you’re a kid, where you write on it and then you peel it away.”
Now the character is more like an angry optimist: “He doesn’t have any grudges, but he never learns from his mistakes,” says Clowes.
“Wilson” is very much in Clowes’ style, harkening back to classic comics like “Eightball” and “David Boring” as well as screenplays for “Ghost World” and “Art School Confidential.”
With help from director Craig Johnson (“The Skeleton Twins”) and actors Woody Harrelson and Laura Dern, the movie comes to life in a humorous and beautiful way.
Though Harrelson did not initially seem quite right for Wilson, Clowes realized that the actor looks quite a bit like the drawing, and that he and Harrelson were born the same year — something Clowes felt was important for a full understanding of the character.
But the clincher was that Harrelson had to be able to read a specific speech, a eulogy for a dog, and make it both funny and real.
“He’s the guy that could do it,” Clowes says. “Woody is just really funny. I saw the movie for a third time, and there were subtle things that I hadn’t even noticed that I was just cracking up at.”
A minor concession was made when it turned out to be too expensive to shoot in Oakland. But St. Paul, Minn. proved a fine stand-in. “It has a very Oakland-y feel, like a lesser-used downtown,” he says. “It feels more like the Oakland I wrote about in the book.”
Clowes is able to enjoy “Wilson” today because he says he wrote it like a play with mostly dialogue, with the hope of handing it off, and not being involved until it’s finished.
“A movie is the opposite of comics,” he says. “With comics, I’m in charge. I don’t even show it to anyone until it’s printed. In the movies I’m handing it over and dealing with that openness. That’s helpful for me, psychically.”
IF YOU GO
Starring Woody Harrelson, Laura Dern, Cheryl Hines, Judy Greer
Written by Daniel Clowes
Directed by Craig Johnson
Running time 1 hour, 34 minutes