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Wisconsin Film Festival 2013: Madison native Joel Schroeder delves into Calvin and Hobbes in Dear Mr. Watterson

Schroeder: "What interested me the most was this idea that 'Calvin and Hobbes' had been something I loved so much as a kid."
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Dear Mr. Watterson, one of this year's Wisconsin Film Festival selections (which screens twice, on Sunday, April 14, 4 p.m. at UW Union South and Monday, April 15, 9 p.m. at Sundance), is a finely crafted love letter to the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes and its creator, Bill Watterson. By interviewing fans, historians and fellow cartoonists, director Joel Schroeder highlights the strip's cultural significance and how the little boy and his toy tiger resonate with fans today, nearly 20 years after the last strip was published. This documentary is also an ode to imagination.

I asked Schroeder, a Madison native, how his own imagination and childhood figured into the film.

The Daily Page: At what point did you realize that Calvin and Hobbes and Bill Watterson were good subjects for a documentary?
Schroeder: The real genesis of the film was that years ago, I was trying to write a script for a narrative feature. As a part of this script, I was trying to use -- and doing a horrible job of it -- a reference to Calvin and Hobbes. I'm not a screenwriter, so I was having a really hard time of it. But as cliché as it sounds, there was this shower moment where it dawned on me, of making this documentary about Calvin and Hobbes.

Documentaries are more my thing stylistically than narrative films anyways, but what interested me the most was this idea that Calvin and Hobbes had been something I loved so much as a kid. I'd been reading some of the books at the time, and it made me wonder how on Earth something I read as a kid could still put a smile on my face and hold so much value for me all these years later. That's how it is when I talk to other people about it. One question I'd often ask people is to tell me about their favorite strip. The look that came over their face and in their eyes is what this film is all about for me.

How does a comic strip, which to most people is a throwaway newspaper medium that doesn't have much value, continue to have such a wonderful impact on people? There's a great fascination and mythology behind Watterson being so private, but I was more interested in how Calvin and Hobbes came to be so important to people.

Your interview subjects are pretty amazing. People including actor Seth Green, FoxTrot creator Bill Amend and Bloom County creator Berkeley "Berke" Breathed all had interesting things to say about Watterson and the strip. How did you go about getting in touch with these people?
Honestly, it was sort of a long process. It did take a little bit of time to convince some cartoonists that talking to me was worth their time. I wanted to make sure that people we were talking to understood I wasn't just trying to track down Bill Watterson; I was trying to make a film with a little more substance. I'd explain to people that the film was about comics as art, and that we were exploring things not strictly about Calvin and Hobbes.

So Berke Breathed was one of the first interviews we did with a cartoonist. We had sort of a loose connection that we were able to talk with him. I met Bill Amend at Comic-Con, and he was someone who took a little convincing. I look a lot younger than I am, so I'm sure that didn't help the situation. [Laughs] It was a slow process of talking to people about the idea and trying to convince them to come on board. ... There are some cartoonists who currently have relationships or friendships with Watterson, so I think that…

They were hesitant to speak to you and potentially break his trust?
Yeah, the closer you get to [Watterson], the more hesitant people are to talk about him. They want to respect his privacy.

Did the idea of trying to get in touch with Watterson himself ever cross your mind, or was that too far-fetched an idea to even consider?
Very, very early on. It was clearly something we discussed and thought about, but I knew right away that the chances of involving him at all were very slim. When the book Looking for Calvin and Hobbes by Nevin Martell came out, I knew that Nevin hadn't been able to get an interview with Bill for the book. I was convinced that if Watterson wasn't going to do an interview for a book, he wasn't going to participate in a film. So we decided very early on that the rule was we weren't going to go after Bill Watterson, we were going to leave his family alone, we didn't care what his address is, and we never even looked for it. It all came back to the impact of his work, and the best way to measure or gather that evidence was to talk with fans and colleagues.

What were some of the cartoonists' reactions off camera regarding Watterson and the legacy of his art? Is he an enigma even to them, or do most understand and respect his decisions regarding personal privacy, ending the strip when he did, and his infamous anti-merchandising stance?
It depends on the person. First of all, everyone who I spoke to who's ever interacted with Watterson spoke very highly of him. I've heard only good things about him as a person from people who've met him. So there's a huge amount of respect for him. Then there are people who don't understand why he stays out of the spotlight. ...

I've seen discussions on message boards of various websites where cartoonists talk about Watterson. A long time ago, when this project was just getting going, I read this long discussion where someone posted about us working on the film, and what followed were a lot of harsh opinions shared about some of the stances that Watterson had taken, like why he was opposed to merchandising and why he wouldn't share himself. I think some of that comes from jealousy.

Of course, I come from a very biased perspective. After making the film and reading everything Watterson had written and said, I feel like I really understand where he was coming from. In the film, I think it's clear that I feel he made some really wonderful choices, and the choices he made have helped to cement his legacy and the strip as something that still holds a lot of meaning.

Did knowing there were such diverse opinions about the subject affect the planning and execution of the film? Or did you set out simply to make a picture about a comic strip that you cared about, and people could take it or leave it as they saw fit?
Early on, there were some comments we saw online of people who expressed doubt that we could make a film of substance on the subject. They didn't want to watch a movie about "fanboys" talking about Calvin and Hobbes. And I would agree. But I really would like to think that we went far beyond that. Other people also would say things like, "Leave Watterson alone!" not understanding that that was our intent: to leave Watterson alone.

Making a film about it does bring a spotlight of sorts on Watterson and Calvin and Hobbes for a period of time, but from my perspective, fundamentally, [the film] is not too far from people writing articles about Calvin and Hobbes. It's not as if we're redefining Calvin and Hobbes for anyone. I don't think anyone watching the film is going to feel as if we've cheapened or redefined who the characters and the creator are.

For me, it's a conversation about Calvin and Hobbes, and I don't think we're doing any damage to the legacy. I feel very comfortable with what we've done, and I think it's a very positive conversation.

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