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'Dear Mr. Watterson': An Interview With the Director Behind the Upcoming 'Calvin and Hobbes' Documentary

Millions of people grew up reading Calvin and Hobbes in the newspaper each day. With its bright, colorful artwork, highly detailed ink drawings and storylines that truly captured the imagination of a child, Calvin and Hobbes set a new standard that few strips have been able to match. The now legendary strip was featured in well over 2,400 newspapers around the world. To date, well over 45 million copies of the 18 different Calvin and Hobbes treasuries have been sold

When creator Bill Watterson ended the strip after only 10 years, millions around the world were sad to see it go. As most millennials know, the majority of comic strips in the newspaper have been there for five decades or more. Most have been taken over by another writer and illustrator, or even worse, farmed out to a team. 

I was fortunate enough to be able to interview Joel Schroeder, director of the upcoming documentary Dear Mr. Watterson, about his film and this iconic comic strip via email. As someone who used to dream about becoming a professional cartoonist, this was a dream come true for me. 

Jesse Merkel: I assume that you've been a fan of Calvin and Hobbes for a long time? Did you read the strip in the newspapers or in book form?

Joel Schroeder: I don't recall if I was first introduced to Calvin and Hobbes in the newspaper or the books, but I can clearly recall reading the strip in papers during at least the '90s, if not earlier. I was a paperboy for many years, and I can remember getting up around 5 a.m. on Sunday mornings and getting to read Calvin and Hobbes while everybody else was still asleep.

JM: What gave you the idea to do a documentary?

JS: The backstory to where the idea for the film comes from is a bit of a long story, but essentially, I decided that I wanted to try to document the impact of Calvin and Hobbes. I had realized that out of all the things I've experienced in my lifetime, Calvin and Hobbes had withstood the test of time as something that I still cherished and still held as something very important to me. And I knew I wasn't alone. For years, ideas for films had come and gone, but this is an idea that stuck. It was something that I felt passionate about doing, and that passion didn't fade.

JM: How did you go about assembling your team to help make this documentary?

JS: At some point in spring or summer of 2007, I was having dinner with a couple of friends, and I told them about my idea for the film. Both of them reacted positively to it and offered to help make it happen. The three of us had made films together while at school at the University of Southern California, but had not collaborated for a long time. 

So, it started very small, with no budget, but with me directing and producing, Chris Browne producing, and Andrew Waruszewski as cinematographer. Matt McUsic learned about the project and came on board to help produce. Then in December of 2007, we had our first day of interviews. As we needed to bring in people for specific needs down the road, we reached out to our contacts to find the rest of the crew that we needed.

JM: How has the fan reaction been so far?

JS: Early on, we knew we wanted to reach out to fans for their participation, so we created a Facebook group and website as points of contact. That means that fans have known about the film before we even really started shooting.

99% of the feedback I've gotten has been positive. I regularly get e-mails thanking me for making the film, and we've got a sizable group of fans eagerly waiting to see it.

Occasionally we see a negative comment about it, expressing the opinion that the film is pointless or that the film will be hated by Bill Watterson, and while I disagree with those feelings, I can understand where those people are coming from.

JM: Your Facebook page says that Dear Mr. Watterson will be screened at a few upcoming film festivals. Are you at liberty to say which film festivals it will be shown at? When will an official announcement be made?

JS: I can't say yet which festivals we'll be screening at, but we should be able to announce that information publicly by the end of February.

JM: I remember when the comic strips run in the newspapers ended, and how sad everyone was to see it go. Why do you suppose Bill Watterson's creation reached so many people? 

JS: For the full answer to this question, I think you'll have to watch the movie, because that was the guiding question in the making of the film. Essentially, I think it comes down to what Watterson put into the comic strip, and how he viewed the medium. I think that Calvin and Hobbes is a perfect example of a work of art that was done with integrity and respect for the artform, and it showed what a comic strip could really be.

(Above: Joel looking at archives in Chagrin Falls.)

JM: The Calvin and Hobbes creator has a reputation for being private, to put it mildly.
Have you tried to reach out to Mr. Watterson at all? 

JS: This is a question we often get, and I'm afraid there may be people who are very disappointed to find that we have not tried to contact Bill Watterson. On the other hand, I know there are people who really appreciate this choice. There was a brief time when we thought maybe, just maybe, we could get his participation in the film, but that was very brief. I decided that we would not pursue Watterson or his family for the film, as he's made it very clear that he prefers his privacy.

Bill Watterson is aware of the project, however, and I know that if he wanted to, he knows how to reach me. The film is about the impact of his strip, not his life as a cartoonist.

JM: What is the main goal you want to accomplish with this movie? Are you just trying to say thank you for his amazing contribution, or are you also hoping to open a new generation's eyes to this strip?

JS: I'd like to accomplish several things with the film. Like all the homages and tributes you see online, this is my tribute to Calvin and Hobbes. It's my thank you to Bill Watterson, but I'd like to think it is also much more than that.

I definitely want fans of the strip to be prompted to dig out their books or finally take the plunge and get the complete collection of Calvin and Hobbes. It's wonderful to hear from fans who are introducing the strip to their children or nieces and nephews, and I hope that the film might enlighten some people who have never really given the strip a chance.

If I had to really tell you what the film is about, though, I'd say the film is about the power and possibilities of art. When a simple comic strip about a boy and his tiger can have such a wide and lasting impact on so many people from around the world, that's a beautiful thing.

JM: Calvin and Hobbes, despite only having a decade-long run, was incredibly influential. Comic strips like Pearls Before Swine and Get Fuzzy clearly came out of the school that Bill Watterson developed. Have you seen anything that compares to Calvin and Hobbes?

(Above: Stephan Pastis inking in his strip Pearls Before Swine.)

JS: If I'm ever going to talk about a comic strip other than Calvin and Hobbes, it's going to be Cul de Sac, by Richard Thompson. Several years ago, after learning that Bill Watterson had written the foreword to the first Cul de Sac collection, I bought it and gave it a read. And it was fantastic. The strip is so well done, and even though it is not widely known, I think you'd have a hard time finding a professional cartoonist who doesn't love it.

Sadly, Richard Thompson has had to retire Cul de Sac for health reasons, but in my humble opinion, if any Calvin and Hobbes fan is mourning the loss of Calvin and Hobbes, you must pick up the Cul de Sac book collections!

JM: What were some of the best parts about making this documentary? Was it seeing the true love people had for the comic, or was it getting to interview so many awesome people?

JS: I've been able to interview some really great people while making this film, including fans and cartoonists. I won't go into picking favorite interviews, but there have definitely been some fascinating ones.

One thing I really enjoy, however, is talking to fans and seeing the look that comes over them as they talk about their love of Calvin and Hobbes. And one of the main reasons I got into filmmaking was because I saw the impact that a film can have on an audience. If this film connects with viewers and takes them on a brief nostalgic detour and gets them thinking about Calvin and Hobbes for 90 minutes, that'll be the most satisfying part.

(Above: A young Calvin and Hobbes fan.)

JM: Finally, I've got a feeling that a documentary about one of the worlds most beloved comic strips would be quite well received. Will people be able to buy this documentary eventually? Also, tell us where we can go for regular updates!

JS: After we make our festival rounds this spring, we'll work to get the film out on DVD/BluRay/iTunes/etc as soon as we can. To keep updated, people can follow us on Twitter, on our Facebook page or group, or join our mailing list at our website!

Author's note: I am eternerally grateful to Joel for taking time out of his busy schedule to get back to me, and I personally cannot wait to see this documentary! Be sure to check out all of his pages, and watch the trailer, all you Homicidal Psycho Jungle Cats!

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