From filmmaker Joel Allen Schroeder, the documentary Dear Mr. Watterson is an exploration of why Bill Watterson and his Calvin & Hobbes comic strip has made such an impact on so many readers and fellow cartoonists, and why it still means so much to people today. Having first appeared in newspaper comics across the country in 1985, millions of readers fell in love with the young Calvin and his beloved tiger Hobbes, and all of the adventures they took together.
At the film’s press day, Joel Allen Schroeder spoke to Collider for this exclusive interview about the process of making his first documentary about a subject that he personally loves, why he chose to focus on the impact the strip has had on other people instead of trying to seek out the elusive Watterson, how he lined up the interviews that are featured, just how much footage he had to edit down to the final film, running two Kickstarter campaigns to finance the film, whether Bill Watterson has actually seen the film, and what he’d like to do next. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
JOEL ALLEN SCHROEDER: I feel like documentaries are great conversation starters. There are great stories that can be told in documentaries, but I feel like, after a documentary, it should prompt some conversation. That’s one of the great things. I’ll ask fans to describe their favorite Calvin & Hobbes script, and it’s great because they get this glow in their eyes as they’re reminiscing back. Even if their description of the strip is not completely accurate, but their memory of it is there, there’s something great about that.
Did you know, from the beginning, that you were going to focus this on interviews with different people and what Calvin & Hobbes meant to them, but never actually pursue Bill Watterson?
SCHROEDER: It first started as an idea that I was going to make a film about Calvin & Hobbes. Then, it was about, “What can this film be? What are the obstacles? What are the most interesting things about the strip and about Bill Watterson?” I knew that Bill Watterson was very private. I knew that we hadn’t really heard from him. This was in 2007, that we started it. The complete collection had come out in 2005 and he had done a very small interview, at that time. He pops out and will do a very slight interview, every few years. So, I knew that that was an obstacle and that he just might not be available or be a willing participant. There was that challenge of, “Can a movie still be made that is compelling and that is worth making?” And I felt that there was.
The thing that really ultimately interested me is just the fact that it’s a comic strip that was in newspapers for a decade, as paper and ink, and yet it has had this impact. As a human being, I have this thing about people’s impact on each other. I had wanted to be an architect for years, and then it was in late high school that I thought about becoming a filmmaker. In junior high school, I started making films with buddies, but they were the type of thing you would expect from 14-year-old boys. They were not worth anybody else watching. It was in late high school that I made a film about our cross country team. When I showed it to the team, there was this reaction from people and I was blown away. I realized that I could make films that have an impact on people, and that blew me away.
That’s why I ended up wanting to be a filmmaker. And I was interested in how this comic strip had such an impact. I loved it when I was 8, 10 and 12, and I’m re-reading it now, at 34, and just cracking up because it’s so well done. It holds up. There are not a lot of things like that. And it was done at a point in time where it had a huge reach. I don’t think you can promise that there will be more things like that, that reach such a wide audience for a sustained amount of time, in the way that Calvin & Hobbes did.
Is it surreal that you found a way to turn your love of Calvin & Hobbes and a desire to make films with actually making your first film about that subject, or does it feel like it was a natural progression?
SCHROEDER: It feels natural. I finished up film school in 2002 and started the project in 2005. For five or six years, I was working on other people’s projects and not having the creative input that I wanted. I would have ideas for films that I would want to make, but there was always some reason why it wasn’t going to work. It was either going to be too expensive, or in the case of documentary ideas, there always seems to be someone who’s more qualified or more knowledge. But for this idea, it just felt like, as much as I was probably not qualified, I felt like I was because I had the passion to do it.
How did you line up interviews for the film?
SCHROEDER: We knew, early on, that we wanted to talk to fans. We knew that would be a part of it. If you’re talking about the impact on fans, you need to talk to fans. In the case of cartoonists, the first cartoonist we talked to was Keith Knight, who does The K Chronicles and The Knight Life. And then, we’d be like, “Do you have any cartoonist friends who are fans of Calvin & Hobbes or who were inspired by Calvin & Hobbes, who would want to talk to us?” That was how we branched out. We definitely also had a list of people we wanted to talk to. Jef Mallett, who does Frazz, was on our list because when Frazz first appeared in papers, the character of Frazz kind of looked like Calvin as an adult, and there was a lot of speculation that it was Bill Watterson. That was something we specifically wanted to talk to him about. I remember going to The Festival of Cartoon Art, which is a festival that’s held every three years at Ohio State University. When I was there, there were several people who gave talks and, in some cases, referenced Calvin & Hobbes or Bill Watterson. Whenever there was some sort of hint that there was a cartoonist who had a connection, that was not necessarily a personal connection, but who was inspired by the strip, it was someone we wanted to talk to. So, it was very organic.
SCHROEDER: It was a gradual process, really, because it took six years. From the time we started shooting to the time we finished editing was six years. Over time, you slowly pick out the bits that really jump at you. We probably ended up with somewhere between 75 hours to 100 hours. There was plenty of footage. We had hard drives piled all over the place.
And you raised funds on Kickstarter, to finance this film?
SCHROEDER: We did two separate Kickstarter campaigns. The first campaign, we started way back at the end of 2009, so we had Kickstarter backers waiting because they didn’t know it would take three years. That was something we tried to keep in mind. And we did our second campaign because we realized that, in order to get the film done in a timely manner, it was going to take a little bit more. The first Kickstarter had raised the expectations, as well.
Do you know if Bill Watterson has actually seen this film?
SCHROEDER: Yes, he has seen it. It’s funny, but people don’t always ask and I don’t just come out and say that. We know he’s seen it. There’s no endorsement or anything, but the thing that I can share that he said is that he appreciated the choices we made to make it less intrusive. To me, I feel that validates the way we went about making it. Knowing he prefers his privacy, I wanted to make it in the most respectful way possible. I knew that just simply making the film, if it ever saw the light of day, would possibly put that spotlight on him a little bit, that he prefers to stay away from. At the same time, I just felt so compelled to make it. So, I was glad to hear that. I don’t think he needs the validation, or maybe he’s already aware that he has such a huge number of fans that really love his work, but it’s got to feel good to know. The other thing I do know is that he felt it was surreal to watch it. But I hope, overall, that it was a positive experience to see it.
What do you want to do next? Do you want to keep making documentaries, or do you have any desire to do narrative features?
SCHROEDER: I think documentaries are my pace and style. The people that I went to school with or that I know are having success in Hollywood making narratives are very different people. They’re way more outgoing and way more confident.
Dear Mr. Watterson opens in theaters on November 15th.