INTERVIEW – Joel Allen Schroeder explores the impact of ‘Calvin and Hobbes’ with documentary ‘Dear Mr. Watterson.’

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On December 31, 1995, the final installment of Bill Watterson’s comic strip Calvin and Hobbes was published. The strip had run for just over a decade, and has been hailed as one of the most influential comic strips in the history of the medium. Nearly 20 years have passed since Calvin and Hobbes came to an end, yet it remains as popular as ever.

But why? What is it about Watterson’s work that has allowed Calvin and Hobbes to endure for so long? Why has it been so impactful for so many people? Filmmaker Joel Allen Schroeder seeks to answer these questions with his documentary, Dear Mr. Watterson. The film has been positively received at festival screenings all over the world, and we spoke to Joel just prior to the film’s theatrical release.

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dear mr watterson interview 02What inspired you to make this film?

I was a big fan of Calvin and Hobbes when I was a kid, and I think my appreciation for it has grown over the years. I’m fascinated by the way people have an impact on other people. How does one man with a paper and a pencil and some ink make something that has such a lasting significance for people?

We knew early on that including Bill Watterson was an obstacle. We knew he was very private, we knew that we likely wouldn’t have him as a part of it. But we still felt like there was something work exploring.

Did you ever attempt to reach out to him while you were putting the film together?

I would’ve loved to have him as part of the movie, but I knew he preferred his privacy. He declined to be interviewed for Nevin Martell’s book a few years back, and I felt like if he wasn’t going to do an interview for a book, it was unlikely he would be involved or participate in a film.

The nature of film is more invasive, and I didn’t want the perception about the film to be a movie trying to track down Bill Watterson. I didn’t want it to feel like the goal of making the movie was to score the interview people would love to have.

dear mr watterson interview 03Do you have any plans to invite him to a screening of the film?

We premiered the film at the Cleveland International Film Festival in April, and we had just finished about a month before. Bill Watterson lives in the Cleveland area, and we felt like it would be appropriate to at least let him know the film was premiering there and extend an invitation.

We knew that it was an unlikely thing, that he would come see a film about his comic strip in a public venue, but at the time we did send a copy to him. He has seen it, and what I can say is that he appreciated the choices we made to make it less intrusive, and that as very validating for me, to feel that it was appreciates and that the choices we made were the right choices.

The film features interviews with a wide array of cartoonists influenced by Watterson’s work. Did you know which artists you wanted to speak with right from the start?

dear mr watterson interview 05There were some people who were on our list from the very beginning, for various reasons. There were other people that we learned of their appreciation for Calvin and Hobbes along the way, and it was a very organic process. You talk to one cartoonist, and then they mention “oh, by the way, so and so really loves Calvin and Hobbes.” It was a multi-year process of making connections.

Your film was funded through Kickstarter. How do you feel about celebrities and well-known talent using the Kickstarter platform to fund their projects, such as the Veronica Mars film or Zach Braff’s new project?

I think our film is sort of the perfect Kickstarter project. The fact that fans of Calvin and Hobbes around the world helped fund the project is great evidence of the impact of the strip, which is ultimately what the film is about.

In terms of other projects that have had some criticism in the press… I can remember when the Veronica Mars project launched, and I remember thinking that it seemed like a publicity stunt. What’s the angle here? Why are they turning to Kickstarter? And ultimately, I became a follower because I was curious to see how they handled the complexities of having 90,000 backers.

dear mr watterson interview 04Just a few weeks later, Zach Braff launched his film, and I instantly supported it because I was a big fan of Garden State and Scrubs, and I sort of thought, “Who am I to judge creators who are launching projects on Kickstarter?” Kickstarter is a culture of “yes,” it’s not a culture of “no.” You shouldn’t be on Kickstarter looking for projects to say “no” to.

In some cases there may be projects that have a celebrity behind them, or some sort of situation where you might question why they need to turn to Kickstarter. And I think Kickstarter has done a good job of putting out information that shows projects like those actually bring more backers into the fold. I think there’s room for all these sorts of projects right now, and I don’t think it muddies the water. I think the more people looking to say “yes” to, the better.

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Dear Mr. Watterson is currently playing in limited theatrical release. For more information on screening dates, or to purchase a copy of the film, please visit the official website at DearMrWatterson.com

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