Actor Shia LaBeouf posted the short film he directed and screened at Cannes, “HowardCantour.com,” online Monday. The short stars Jim Gaffigan as a unhappy film critic who opts for a harsh critique of one of his heroes for reasons that are more personal than artistic.
Hours after the posting, comic book fans began noticing that the work bore a significant resemblance to Daniel Clowes’ 2007 piece “Justin M. Damiano.” Not only was it the same idea — unhappy film critic — LaBeouf’s film opened with a voice-over that is a word-for-word match with Clowes’ text:
“A critic is a warrior, and each of us on the battlefield have the means to glorify or demolish (whether a film, a career, or an entire philosophy) by influencing perception in ways that if heartfelt and truthful, can have far-reaching repercussions.”
Buzzfeed posted the similarities and hours later, “HowardCantour.com” became password-protected. And LaBeouf — without fully grasping the scope of what he’d done — acknowledged he’d made a mistake in a rapid-fire series of tweets from his verified Twitter account:
10:42 p.m.: “Copying isn’t particularly creative work. Being inspired by someone else’s idea to produce something new and different IS creative work.”
10:42 p.m.: “In my excitement and naiveté as an amateur filmmaker, I got lost in the creative process and neglected to follow proper accreditation”
10:42 p.m.: “I was truly moved by his piece of work & I knew that it would make a poignant & relevant short. I apologize to all who assumed I wrote it.”
At 11:49 p.m. he tweeted that he had messed up, using stronger language.
Clowes told Buzzfeed, “The first I ever heard of the film was this morning when someone sent me a link. I’ve never spoken to or met Mr. LaBeouf.” He continued, “I’ve never even seen one of his films that I can recall — and I was shocked, to say the least, when I saw that he took the script and even many of the visuals from a very personal story I did six or seven years ago and passed it off as his own work. I actually can’t imagine what was going through his mind.”
While LaBeouf acknowledges Clowes as an “inspiration,” that doesn’t seem to be an accurate description of his use of Clowes’ work. Having watched the film last night, I can say that it hews very closely to the version of Clowes’ graphic novella.
The characters are basically the same. The settings — movie theater, diner, hotel press junket, dinner with the director, flashback, diner again — are the same, and in the same sequence. The characters are the same: A blond freelance critic, a dark-haired rival, a coiffed press aide, an attractive waitress. The film’s dialogue and voice-over is often very close to Clowes’ work.
The few minor differences — LaBeouf changes bagels to cookies, switches a film reference and makes the freelance critic more attractive, to explain the main character spending time with her — are what might be done in an adaptation. But they don’t come anywhere close to making LaBeouf’s work distinct from Clowes’.
Clowes’ longtime editor, Eric Reynolds, an associate publisher at Fantagraphics, which publishes Clowes’ graphic novels, told Buzzfeed the film was “shameless theft!”
Is it possible that LaBeouf, a 27-year-old movie star of everything from massive box-office hits such as the “Transformers” franchise to the edgy, Lars von Trier-directed “Nymphomaniac,” has no understanding of copyright?
If what LaBeouf did was an adaptation — something that perhaps may be decided in court — it requires two things: permission and payment. Permission might not be granted. A price would have to be agreed upon. And that is all supposed to happen before filming begins.