It has been almost 15 years since Ghost World became every social outcast’s comfort movie, and it still has the power to resonate with awkward Millennials everywhere. Adapted from Daniel Clowes’ graphic novel of the same name, Ghost World follows best friends Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) in the summer following their high school graduation. The friendship becomes strained when Enid develops an unexpected relationship with a lonely, middle-aged man named Seymour (Steve Buscemi) after the two teens jokingly answer his personal ad. Directed by Terry Zwigoff, the film was adored by critics, audiences, and even the Academy, which nominated it for a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar in 2002. Rediscover the peculiar wonders of Ghost World with these surprising facts.
1. TERRY ZWIGOFF CREATED THE CHARACTER OF SEYMOUR PARTLY TO GET THE MUSIC HE WANTED INTO THE FILM.
In an interview with Filmmaker magazine, co-writer/director Terry Zwigoff explained how he made the comic his own. “We were going down to pitch this film in Hollywood, and the first sign of trouble started when the studios would say, ‘Oh, so what’s this film about, teenage girls? Oh that’s good, we can do a great pop soundtrack.’ And I just saw that looming and I didn’t want that type of music for this film,” Zwigoff explained. “I wanted to head it off as soon as possible ... So I put in [Seymour], who collects old music, and that was a way to ... have an excuse to use that music. And then I got stuck with this character who was sort of loosely based on me, and I started writing his stuff 'cause that was easier for me.”
2. ONE STUDIO SUGGESTED THAT ZWIGOFF DOUBLE-MARRY ENID AND REBECCA TO SEYMOUR AND JOSH, RESPECTIVELY.
Ghost World was not an easy sell to mainstream audiences, which got studios thinking of the strangest ways to make it more accessible. “It doesn’t help that all the studios will try and get you to tack on a happy ending, even if it’s totally inappropriate,” Zwigoff told Filmmaker. “One executive suggested we have a bus at the end with the destination ‘Art School’ spelled out on it. Another suggested a double wedding where Enid marries Seymour and Rebecca marries Josh (Brad Renfro)! It’s a miracle any good films get through these days considering all the commercial concessions they try and foist on you.”
3. ZWIGOFF INSISTED ON DRESSING THE SET WITH HIS OWN MEMORABILIA, WHICH CAUSED FRICTION WITH THE CLEARANCE TEAM.
Zwigoff even resorted to using personal family photos in order to give the film some authenticity. “Almost all of Seymour’s stuff comes from my own collection,” Zwigoff admitted. “I fought and fought to get anything real instead of some generic item you’d rent at a prop house. These clearance people ... are interested in protecting their own asses and as a result are so overly cautious it’s ridiculous. If I wanted to use a photograph of a jazz band from the 1920s, they’d insist on not only every musician pictured in it all signing releases, but also the photographer who took the picture, the studio that hired him, etc. And I’m not talking about a famous portrait photograph of Louis Armstrong and the Hot Five here, I’m talking about just some amateur group that probably never made a record! I actually had to use a few photos of my stepfather’s brother’s band to fill out Seymour’s room.”
4. CREW MEMBERS BROUGHT IN THEIR OWN PAINTINGS FROM HOME TO DRESS THE FILM, WHILE DANIEL CLOWES PAINTED SOME.
Again, when the clearance team couldn’t get the job done, Zwigoff asked his crew to help. “There was some snafu or something where there were paintings but nobody had ever signed off on them so we weren’t allowed to use them,” Zwigoff explained at the 2002 Comics and Graphic Novels Conference. “So we sent the first AD, he went running home. He said, ‘Well, I was a painter in college,’ [and] he got a bunch of paintings out of his closet. [Clowes] started making paintings, and people went around like that. We had to really create, like, the whole set within an hour.”
5. COON CHICKEN INN WAS A REAL RESTAURANT.
One of the film’s most memorable settings is Seymour’s place of work, Cook’s Chicken, which was once very controversially known as Coon Chicken Inn. (A fact that plays into the film’s narrative.) “That was a real restaurant,” shared Zwigoff. It operated in Utah, Oregon, and Washington in the 1920s and '30s.
6. ONE STUDIO WANTED JENNIFER LOVE HEWITT FOR ENID.
Some of the biggest creative differences Clowes and Zwigoff had with producers happened during casting. “We were with almost every studio at some point and they all had their casting ideas—it was just whoever was the actress of the moment for the lead,” Clowes told Salon. “‘We see Jennifer Love Hewitt as Enid.’ And I’m thinking, ‘Well, that’s sort of the opposite of Enid. That’s who Enid should not be, basically. And it went from there to Alicia Silverstone to Claire Danes. There are very few actresses who have any sort of oddness to them or texture that was appropriate for this film. They also had these crazy ideas like Nathan Lane as Seymour. And I’m thinking, ‘Well, how about Dom DeLuise while you’re at it?’”
Zwigoff recalled to Salon how he came across actor Dave Sheridan in one of their early pre-production meetings. “[Clowes and I] were at Mike Judge’s office in Austin when he was interested in producing our film. He got interrupted by an important phone call and suggested we order some food or watch some videos he had lying around,” Zwigoff explained. “So he was gone for about an hour, and I pulled out this unsolicited audition tape this guy had sent in of all these different characters he did. One of the characters was the guy with the nunchucks, and it literally had me on the floor crying because it was so funny. So Mike put us in touch with the guy and it turned out great.”
8. GHOST WORLD WASN’T ZWIGOFF’S FIRST ATTEMPT AT FICTION.
Though at the time of Ghost World’s release, Zwigoff was best known as a documentarian because of his first two films, Louie Bluie and Crumb, he had delved into fiction once before—with a porn film. “The Mitchell brothers commissioned [me and R. Crumb] to write a script, [and] make a good porno film,” Zwigoff explained. “We got into it for six months and then we decided we didn’t want to make it into a porno movie, we needed good actors. Crumb really got into it— he wrote pages and pages about some woman’s leg. We never got it made, thank God.”
9. THE HIGH SCHOOL PRINCIPAL IS SEEN AGAIN IN THE FILM, IN A FAR LESS ACADEMIC PLACE.
One of the film’s greatest Easter eggs happened completely by accident, according to Zwigoff: “Three weeks after we filmed the high school graduation scene, I picked out some really repressed, Republican-looking guys to use as customers in the porn shop sequence,” he explained. “If you study the film closely, you’ll notice that the white-haired, respectable guy we have playing the high school principal during the graduation scene is the same guy I cast as one of the porn shop customers. Without knowing it, I cast the same guy for both scenes! It’s a paranoid, cynical moment I could have never dreamed up.”
10. ZWIGOFF AND CLOWES MADE SURE THE FILM’S ANTI-CORPORATE, ANTI-COMMERCIALISM MESSAGE REMAINED INTACT.
Through clearance battles and studio frustrations, you’ve got to commend Zwigoff and Clowes for sticking to their original vision for Ghost World. “That sense of omnipresent corporate commercialism was something Terry and I both wanted in the film,” Clowes told Salon. “We wanted that stuff to be viewed as oppressive. That’s the kind of world we live in, where we’re defined by the objects we choose to surround ourselves with, and I think that’s what the movie is about and what the character Enid’s about. She’s trapped in this world of very limited consumer choice. She doesn’t want to pick Pepsi or Coke; she wants some weird soda that she’s never heard of. She has a bigger imagination than what she’s offered.”