Oculus Interview: Joel Schroeder, Documentarian

Joel Schroeder is the writer and director of Dear Mr. Watterson, a new documentary that examines the history and influence of one of the most celebrated comic strips of the modern era, Calvin & Hobbes. Created by cartoonist Bill Watterson, this seminal work ran from 1985 to 1995, peaking at a circulation of 2,400 newspapers worldwide and selling over 45 million collected editions. It’s premise is a deceptively simple one, chronicling the friendship of a precocious, hyperactive boy 6-year-old named Calvin and his imaginary friend/stuffed tiger, Hobbes. The characters were named for the philosophers john Calvin and Thomas Hobbes, a hint of the series’ underlying complexity. Vastly imaginative, emotionally resonant, and highly intelligent, Calvin and Hobbes raised the standards of its medium and inspired a generation of artists and writers who are only now starting exert their own influence on popular culture.

Dear Mr. Watterson examines the series, as well as the early works and known influences of Watterson; a notoriously private man who ended the strip at the height of its fame. He has since shunned nearly all public appearances and interviews (including Dear Mr. Watterson), and has declined the sort of highly lucrative licensing agreements that earned Peanuts creator Charles M. Schultz over a billion dollars in his lifetime. It remains his firm belief that the work should stand on its own artistic merits.

For Mr. Schroeder and his production partners, the documentary has been a labor of love that has taken over 6 years to complete. Its budget of roughly $120,000 was financed entirely through Kickstarter. Now on the festival circuit, Dear Mr. Watterson has begun to attract attention and win awards. The project features an impressive array of interviews with Watterson’s peers and more notable fans, including Bloom County creator Berkeley Breathed and actor/writer Seth Green.

Mr. Schroeder spoke with me back in March of 2013.


Tell me a little bit about the origins of the project. It’s clear that Mr. Watterson’s work had a strong impact on you and your production partners, but what led you to explore the topic in a film?

I’ve loved Calvin & Hobbes since I was a kid, and at one point several years ago, it just dawned on me how much the strip still meant to me.  And I’ve never met anybody who didn’t like Calvin & Hobbes.  You either weren’t very familiar with it, or you were a fan.  And as a filmmaker, project ideas had come and gone for a while, as I’d lose passion about them over time.  But with Dear Mr. Watterson, the idea stuck, and nearly 6 years later, we’ve got a movie.

How difficult was the process of raising funds through Kickstarter, and how did you build awareness of it? Did the excess amount raised expand the scope of the production?

We’ve actually done 2 separate Kickstarter campaigns, raising a total of about $121,000.  By late 2009, less than 9 months after Kickstarter had launched, we had been working on the film for two years already, moving at a very slow pace, and limited by major budget constraints.  We could basically spend what I could afford to put towards the movie myself.  Kickstarter provided what seemed to be the perfect solution to fund the film: a platform that would enable us to turn to fans of the strip to make it possible.  We had already been trying to create a little bit of awareness about the project though Facebook, because we wanted to involve and include fans in the movie itself.  So, in December 2010, we started our first campaign, with our to raise $12,000, which seemed quite daunting. By the end of our 90 day campaign, we had doubled our goal and the stakes had been raised. We suddenly had 359 Backers who were very invested in seeing us succeed.

Even with the money from our initial Kickstarter campaign, however, we were still a very low budget film, and we had to be careful in our spending.  By the spring of 2012, two full years later, we were deep into post production, and it was becoming clear that in order to finish the film in a timely manner and not make our first Backers wait endlessly for the film, we needed to raise additional funds to finish up. Our new goal was $50,000, and after at first wondering if we could pull it off, we ended up nearly doubling our goal yet again, bringing in another 1,724 new Backers.

People have asked me for advice about Kickstarter, and I always have to point out that we were successful in large part to the topic of our documentary.  Fans of Calvin & Hobbes are everywhere, and they came out to support us in a big way.  But I would surely not say that it was easy.  Running a Kickstarter campaign takes a lot of planning and time and effort.  You need to think hard about your rewards and the costs involved in fulfilling those rewards.  We will spend over $4500 just on postage to send out rewards.  While Kickstarter was a perfect way for us to fund Dear Mr. Watterson, and I’m happy to have the additional duties of administering to all of our Backers and fulfilling their rewards, Kickstarter is definitely not a solution to all funding quandaries.

The 2012 Best Documentary winner, Searching For Sugarman, also deals with a reclusive artist whose peak years seemed disproportionately small compared to his talents. Are there any investigative elements to your film regarding Mr. Watterson and his life? Were any attempts made to contact him?

The film is really about the personal impact that Bill Watterson has had through his art, and not about his life.  And because of his wish for privacy, I felt that one boundary we would set was that we would not pursue Watterson or his family for interviews. It was just simply too clear to me that he had no wish to participate in a film about him and his work.  We do explore his career, especially some choices he made, but we leave his personal life to him.  I have not tried to contact him directly, but we do know that he is aware of the project.

Although it was one of the most popular and best-selling 4-panel comic strips of its day, Calvin and Hobbes remains an exemplar of a declining format in a fading industry. Amidst such realities, can its lasting influence really be measured? Or, did you find that its footprint stretched beyond its medium?

That’s a big question. I can say for sure that its footprint has stretched beyond its medium. Although this isn’t referenced in our film, we learned that animators are often big fans of  Watterson’s work. We’re aware of a number of Pixar directors who are fans.  And I think anybody who works in a creative field can look to Watterson and Calvin & Hobbes for inspiration. That’s actually fundamentally what I think Dear Mr. Watterson is about: how did Watterson have such a big footprint?  He understood the potential of the medium he worked in, he had respect for the artists who had come before him, and he dedicated himself to make his strip the best it could be. I think those are pretty good guidelines for standing out in whatever you do.

How has feedback on the film been so far? Are there any concrete plans for distribution?

At this point, we’ve got 2,083 Backers and other fans waiting patiently to see it, but only a small number of people have seen it.  And most of those people have either been working on the film or are friends or family who would probably not tell me they dislike it to my face, so the feedback has been good. Within a matter of a few weeks, we will have screened the film for several audiences, and I hope the reaction continues to be positive. I would say our distribution plans at this point are anything but “concrete.”

Do you have any forthcoming projects that you’d care to discuss?

No room in my brain right now for anything but Dear Mr. Watterson….
The website for Dear Mr. Watterson can be found here.