San Francisco filmmaker Terry Zwigoff isn’t the first to jump from documentaries to feature films, but he’s one of the few who managed to bring his own personality to both formats.
His first two films, “Louie Bluie” (1985) and “Crumb” (1995), are now available in deluxe DVD editions from the Criterion Collection.
Zwigoff’s career began when he decided to write an article about one of his favorite records, “State Street Rag,” by an artist called “Louie Bluie,” who turned out to be Howard Armstrong, a mandolin and fiddle virtuoso. The story turned into the movie “Louie Bluie,” which initially was funded with Zwigoff’s life savings of $20,000.
The 61-year-old regrets not being able to capture just what made Armstrong so great on the old record. “People respond to it on some level — ‘He’s fast. Look at him go. He’s old,’” Zwigoff says. “But, that’s about 10 percent of what he can do.”
Likewise, Zwigoff’s second film, “Crumb,” came about because of his admiration for, and friendship with, underground comic book artist R. Crumb.
“I guess I made those two films because I thought they were two of the greatest artists of the 20th century,” he says.
Oddly, Zwigoff managed to get intimate, organic portraits not only through patience and friendship, but with crafty filmmaking.
“I hesitate to say how I staged certain things,” Zwigoff says.
On “Louie Bluie,” he was unable to get a permit to shoot in Armstrong’s apartment, so he arranged to have it re-created in a warehouse.
On “Crumb,” he did two weeks of location scouting for one scene. “I was so familiar with his sketchbooks that, rather than have him draw something, we took one of his old ones and whited it out and had him finish it,” Zwigoff says. “It was artificial in many ways, but it was richer.”
The 10 years separating the two films, he says, were about hustling for money. “I could have made ‘Crumb’ in six months if somebody had written me a check,” Zwigoff says, laughing.
More recently, he’s written a comedy with his wife and is writing a potential TV pilot.
At the same time, there’s still the lure of the documentary.
“The thing that’s got me more interested than anything is this whole BP mess,” Zwigoff says. “But, I can’t get down to the Gulf right now, where it’s 115 degrees and you get covered with oil. It’s a young man’s game.”