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Thursday, June 15, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Director Of Acclaimed Documentary `Crumb' Talks About Family, Critics

Even before it was shown at the Seattle International Film Festival last week, Terry Zwigoff's "Crumb" was racking up impressive box-office numbers.

Playing in just 25 theaters, the acclaimed low-budget documentary was averaging $9,000 a week on each screen, making it the top-grossing film in the country on a per-screen basis. It won the festival's Golden Space Needle award for best non-fiction film and opens here tomorrow at the Varsity.

The movie is a portrait of all three Crumb brothers - Robert, Max and the suicidal Charles - although Robert is the famous one. The once-underground artist created Zap Comix, "Fritz the Cat," "Mr. Natural," the classic cover art for Big Brother and the Holding Company's "Cheap Thrills" album, and the 1960s emblem "Keep on Truckin.' "

Zwigoff's documentary has been especially successful in the Bay Area, where the filmmaker lives, and his subjects are getting recognized on the street. Robert Crumb, who has lived in France for the past few years, was particularly unnerved during a visit with Zwigoff last week.

"I told him this couldn't be a worse time to visit this country - you won't be able to go anywhere," said Zwigoff from his San Francisco home. "He was at some newsstand last week, and there were 16 or 17 magazines with articles about (what Robert calls) `this stupid movie of yours.' "

Crumb was particularly miffed at the coverage in the teen magazine Sassy. Why Sassy? Zwigoff sheepishly explained that he was just trying to help their little $200,000 film get off the ground.

"He was rather irked by all that publicity," said Zwigoff. "He doesn't want to be more famous. He has a long gray beard and looks quite different now. He's actually very hard to recognize, but Max gets recognized about 20 times a day."

Zwigoff said Crumb is "sort of horrified to visit this country now. He sees criminals and barbarians everywhere. The French can be difficult, but they don't make you feel your life is in danger."

Nine-year project

The director met Crumb in 1970, when he approached him about illustrating an animal-rights book. At first Crumb ridiculed the idea, but he came around. They've been friends since. About 10 years ago, Zwigoff talked him into being the subject of a documentary.

"It's taken nine years from start to finish," said Zwigoff. "We filmed from 1985 to 1991, and edited from 1991 to 1994. I actually thought it was pretty commercial when I started. It's such an amazing story, the characters are so compelling, and when I'd take 10 minutes of footage to L.A., looking for co-financing, I thought it was incredibly strong.

"I thought they'd know this was a great film and give me the money. But everyone scratched their heads. They saw these unattractive men in these disheveled rooms and say, `Let's get Mr. Natural in there and have him trucking down the road to some upbeat music. It'll be great!' "

He finally admitted that his co-producer, Lynn O'Donnell, was savvier about raising money. She wound up getting most of the cash from close friends involved in real estate.

"She told them she thought they'd get their money back," he said. "She warned me it would take a long time, and she was right."

$7 critiques

Crumb isn't the only one who's unnerved by the response to the film. Zwigoff is angry about several critics' interpretations, particularly their descriptions of the Crumbs as a dysfunctional family.

"I don't think that's true," he said. "My family's just as weird, and most people's families are pretty twisted, especially when you get to know them. This whole issue is very distressing to me. I always thought I was entrusted with this profound intimacy with this family. But now anyone with $7 can analyze them."

Zwigoff didn't get the cooperation of everyone in the family. The Crumb sisters refused to be involved, and he edited the others' comments so that they wouldn't reflect on them.

"It's hard to control what anyone says," he said. "I cut what Robert said about his younger sister Sandra because she doesn't have a chance to respond to it. I tried to respect their privacy."

Zwigoff said the movie really got under way because of his friendship with Charles Crumb: "I felt so close to Charles. I liked him right away, and he was fond of me. But he was so reclusive that the others didn't think he'd allow himself to be filmed. We said we'd forget the whole thing if Charles didn't want to do it, but then Charles said he would."

Documentary start

The director got his start as a filmmaker in the early 1980s, as the creator of a documentary about bluesman Howard Armstrong, "Louie Bluie." He also directed a history of Hawaiian music, "A Family Named Moe," which he's never finished.

"It's not a very commercial film, but it's something the NEH would be happy with. It's historically interesting."

Although the Sony Pictures Classic press kit claims that Zwigoff and Robert Crumb have finished a screenplay ("The New Girl Friend") which "they hope to realize later this year," Zwigoff says he has no interest in directing it: "It has big problems. I'd rather start with something fresh."

Lately he's been getting offers to direct feature films as well as documentaries, although he's not tempted to return to nonfiction.

"With documentaries you find yourself manipulating people, trying to get them to say things in a certain way - and documentaries sure don't pay anything," he said. "People send me screenplays all the time, but everything I get is terrible. There's a lot of pressure to grab the next few things while my film is still being talked about.

"I've had some interesting offers. A couple of people were very emotionally won over by the film. If they're movie stars, they'll call up and say I'd do a film with you for no pay. Some are producers who just want to produce my next film. It's a strange situation. My 10 seconds could be up."

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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