Still from 'Dear Mr. Watterson'
In the age of Twitter and online streaming content, the endurance of a treasured comic strip (from something as archaic as a newspaper) especially among the Facebook generation, might be a bit puzzling and unexpected. It’s also the subject of the new documentary “Dear Mr. Watterson,” which premieres this week at the Cleveland International Festival.
Ask anyone under the age of forty to name their favorite comic strip and they’ll probably reply “Calvin and Hobbes.” The daily cartoon adventures of a precocious six-year-old and his imaginary best friend/stuffed tiger are beloved and cherished to this day. A total of eighteen books, which collected the strips in order, were published and all together still sell about half a million copies every year. The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, a hefty three-volume hardcover set, was released in 2005 and soon became a New York Times bestseller. And the best part? Calvin and Hobbes is nearly thirty years and its creator, Bill Watterson, ceased producing new strips eighteen years ago.
According to Joel Schroeder, the director of “Dear Mr. Watterson,” it all started with the realization that even after twenty-plus years, Calvin and Hobbes still meant something to him – and that he wasn’t alone in this sentiment. “It stuck out from anything else from my childhood,” Schroeder said in a recent interview with Signature. “I started to ask myself, ‘What is it about the strip that made it so special to people?’ And that was the question that drove the film.”
That was six years ago. At the time, Schroeder was just a few years out of U.S.C. film school and just beginning his day job working as an editor on documentary shorts with some camerawork on the side, but once the idea took hold it wouldn’t let go (much like an anthropomorphic tiger greeting his best friend coming home from school). “Various ideas for film projects have come and gone since I finished up film school and when I wasn’t losing interest in this idea I knew it was something to pursue,” said Schroeder. He brought the potential project to two of his former U.S.C. classmates, Christopher Browne and Matt McUsic, both of whom signed on as producers.
According to McUsic, he’d first noticed Schroeder’s skills behind the camera back in film school and thought he had real talent. “I told him that if he ever wanted to make a feature-length film I wanted to be a part of it,” McUsic explained. “Years later when Joel came to me and Chris with his idea for a film about the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, I got very excited to help him get the ball rolling.”
The ball rolled, but slowly. “It started very small, something to do in my downtime between other gigs,” Schroeder said. “When we could, we would move forward on it. Literarily – whatever money I could afford to spend is what the budget was in those days.”
“Those days” lasted until late 2009, when the guys discovered Kickstarter. The crowd-funding website known for connecting creative projects in need of capital with online backers was less than eight months old when “Dear Mr. Watterson” first launched a funding proposal (the site recently gained some serious media coverage and film-funding cred with the successful “Veronica Mars” movie campaign).
The guys initially only asked the Kickstarter community to help them reach a goal of $12,000. More than 350 backers chipped in and gave nearly $25,000 to the project. Two years later, Schroeder and crew appealed again to Kickstarter – showing the community what’d they’d done with the money from their first campaign (mainly listing who they’d traveled to interview on camera) and explaining how they were looking for $50,000 to help them finish the film with the costly final touches of animation, musical scoring and sound mixing, insurance, legal fees, and licensing. “It's like we've run the first 25.2 miles of a marathon,” read the second funding campaign appeal, “and we just need to finish up that last mile.” By then, Kickstarter was more popular, having proven that its model of crowd-funded projects could work and had gained more of foothold in web culture. Over 1,500 backers contributed nearly $100,000.
“I had always felt that a great way to make this movie would be involving people who had been inspired by Calvin and Hobbes in one way or another – and that also applied to the funding,” said Schroeder, who estimated that around eighty percent of the film’s final budget came from Kickstarter backers. “If this movie is about the impact of Calvin and Hobbes,” he added, “what a great way to demonstrate that impact by funding the movie through fans of the strip.”
For Rich Rubin, a Kickstarter backer who contributed enough to earn a producer credit, signed movie poster, and an invite to the film’s first screening (it’s common practice for Kickstarter projects to use incentivized rewards per donated amount), giving to the project was without question. “When I saw what Joel was doing, I didn't hesitate – I HAD to be involved somehow,” Rubin explained.
Another backer, Steve Sullivan equated his motivation to be a part of the project to when George Harrison funded the Monty Python movie "Life of Brian." “In interviews, he said, essentially, ‘This sounds like a movie I want to see,’ and if it meant forking over some cash, so be it,” said Sullivan. “Seemed like a good idea. I never really though of it more than that.”
The resulting film itself mixes a studied examination of Watterson and his creation with an exploration of its cultural impact, featuring interviews with industry insiders, cartoonists, and a variety of fans of the strip; all filtered through Schroeder’s personal quest to find out just what is that endeared Calvin and Hobbes to readers, including himself.
“As the project evolved, Chris and I encouraged Joel to actually be a part of the movie to give it a through-line and a personal touch,” explained McUsic. “Joel was very reticent to be in front of the camera, but we knew he was too important to the story to not be on screen.”
The film works to answer the aforementioned question and finds its answer in a perfect storm of factors, including Watterson’s personal views and choices (particularly his famous aversion to merchandising), but ends up exploring bigger territory than one would expect for a cartoon boy and tiger. (Though if you ever read the strip, you’d know that was par for the course.)
“Let’s be frank, we’re talking about a comic strip, right?” Schroeder told me. “This is ink, brushes, and paper. It’s the simplest from of art you can conjure up. If this one guy, who is a pretty normal guy, can have all this impact with a comic strip – to me, bottom line, the film has to ultimately become about the power of art.”
Noticeably the film makes no effort to contact Watterson, whose infamous preference for privacy reaches near-J. D. Salinger levels, which from the start was something Schroeder had no interest in trying, despite the pressure to do so from his partners. “It took some members of the team a while to understand the angle I was coming from,” said Schroeder. Though he freely admitted that it was obviously a tough decision to understand. “It seems a little weird, right?” Schroeder said with a laugh. “You’re making a film about Calvin and Hobbes and you never even pursue the man who created it.
In the end, the movie is more or less a cinematic thank you card to a creator for his creation – produced, paid for, and starring his fans – that’s just waiting to be delivered.
It’s not really a coincidence that “Dear Mr. Watterson” is making its debut at a film festival in Cleveland. Watterson grew up in Chargin Falls, one of the city’s suburbs, and reportedly still lives in the Cleveland area. But despite screening on his home turf, Schroeder doesn’t plan on hearing from the retired cartoonist.
“I think if I were setting up my expectations to hear back something from him, I’d just be setting up for disappointment,” Schroeder said. “The big thing is that I don’t know if he really knows the true extent of how his work had such an inspiring and positive effect on people. If he were to watch the film and understand it a little more, that would make me really satisfied.”