In a career spanning several decades now, animator Bill Plympton has always done things his own way. The New York-based independent artist, noted for animating every frame of his films himself, has worked across movies, graphic novels, and music video, receiving two Oscar nominations for his short films. He’s also famed for his long running cartoon strip, Plympton, and has contributed to The New York Times, Rolling Stone and National Lampoon, to name just a few. His sixth animated feature Idiots and Angels, which opens in New York and Los Angeles this month, is the story of an irascible drunk who wakes up with angels wings — and features music by the one and only Tom Waits. We spoke to Plympton recently and asked him to share his all-time favorite films.
I want to start off with a film you’ve probably seen called Mind Game, by Masaaki Yuasa. It’s a very interesting story. It’s a Japanese film; it’s not anime. It’s very western, actually. It came out in 2005, and critics panned it in Japan, and therefore the producers lost their nerve and shelved the film, which is very sad. I saw it at the Asian Film Festival, and I think you can see it online, but to me, it’s the Citizen Kane of animation. It is such an ambitious and visually unique film. It’s just full of action and full of crazy ideas and surrealism and humor and just beautiful, beautiful craftsmanship.
Number two is The Producers by Mel Brooks, of course. The reason I like this one is that it’s essentially a cartoon with live actors. They’re so over the top and so exaggerated, and of course the Germans, and Hitler and everything. It’s just like a wacky, wacky Warner Bros. cartoon with live actors. And also, the idea is so unique and so fresh and so dark. It’s a very bleak, dark idea, and I love that.
The next one would be Dead Alive by Peter Jackson. Again, another animated cartoon with live actors, and this is a film that really showed me how you can take a violent, dark situation and make it comic. Lots of blood, lots of decapitation, lots of violence, and yet it’s a comedy. That was a big influence on me when I started doing I Married a Strange Person!. I really referred a lot to Dead Alive.
And then another one called Pillow Talk. That’s a little change of pace here, but it is a film that I always love to watch. I must have seen it 10 times. I don’t remember the director’s name, but I know the writer, Stanley Shapiro, is really great with social satire and the battle of the sexes. For me, it’s a film I continue to laugh at each time I see it. The jokes never get stale.
I guess lastly is Baby Doll by Elia Kazan, where Karl Malden plays a sexually inexperienced husband, and his wife plays him for a fool, pretending to be a 12-year-old nymphette. Again it’s a very Southern Gothic, surreal, sexual perversion escapade. It’s another film I’ve watched many times and find it very hilarious.
Next, we talk to Bill about his latest project, Idiots and Angels.
RT: So let’s talk about your latest project.
BP: Yeah, Idiots and Angels is a very different direction for me. Certainly there’s humor in it, and there’s crazy action in it, but there’s also a deeper story. It is about a man who’s lost his soul, and these wings start growing out of his back, and he must make a decision about whether to be an a**hole or change his life and be a good guy. Now, I’m not big on morality tales and teaching moral lessons, but I just thought it was a wonderful concept to create this guy who’s a real moral quandary and has to fight off people who are trying to steal his wings. I thought it’d be a really good opportunity to have a lot of wacky flying around, and a lot of sort of semi-religious imagery and things like that. Near the end it gets very bizarre, very strange.
As someone who’s seen a lot of your stuff, it’s funny to hear you, of all people, call something strange, given your history. That’s a bold statement.
Well, it’s very different for a number of reasons, also. One is that there’s no dialogue in the film. It’s the first time I’ve done a feature with no dialogue. I’ve done a number of shorts with no dialogue, but I wanted to see if I could do a feature film with no dialogue. So the music takes the place of the dialogue, and I was able to enlist Tom Waits, who I’ve been a fan of for a long time. His music works very well simply because it takes place in a bar, and there’s a lot of people drinking. Now, I never met Tom Waits, but I’m friends with Jim Jarmusch, so I asked him to show Mr. Waits the rough cut of the film. I didn’t hear anything for about three weeks, so I was freaking out, and then I got an email from his wife saying, “Tom loves the film. You can have any song you want from his library.” And I had to pay just a nominal fee for the music rights, which says a lot about Tom Waits, how he likes to support projects that interest him, and he’s not out to become a billionaire.
That had to be a real treat for someone who’s been a fan for a long time.
Yeah, it was really nice, really nice. Still haven’t met him, never even talked to him. It was all done via email with his wife. We sent him a copy of the film, so I hope he likes it.
Another interesting aspect of the film is it was done entirely pencil-on-paper. I usually draw every frame of my films, and I did it again here, but I usually have someone else do the shading or the coloring, that kind of thing. But here I did all the shading and all the texture, pencil on paper, and we scanned it onto computer and manipulated the artwork on computer, and I really like the way it looked. It’s just a much darker, cartoon noir feel. It was something that I’ve been trying to do ever since I started out doing animation with Your Face. It’s so easy to make a film this way. It was really a delightful process.
You have a really painstaking method, because you’re drawing everything yourself.
You know, people say I’m a masochist by doing every drawing by myself, but I actually feel that I’m a hedonist. It just feels so comfortable, it’s so much fun. I can spend twelve, fourteen hours a day drawing a film, and at the end of the day, I feel refreshed and relaxed and joyful. So it’s an exercise that I love to do, I love to draw, and if I could just spend the rest of my life drawing every day, I would be the happiest guy in the world.
So how long does it take you to make a feature-length film, then?
Well, the storyboard and character design took about a year, the actual animation took about a year, and then the post-production and music and editing and everything took about half a year, so it’s about two and a half, almost three years to make the film, which is actually pretty quick, compared to a Disney or Pixar film. You know, sometimes it takes six or seven years for them to make a feature film.
Have you ever considered getting into the CGI world at all?
I would if someone funded me. As you know, it’s very expensive. A DreamWorks film costs $150 million, $200 million sometimes, so I just don’t have that kind of pocket change. However, if Pixar came to me and said, “Would you like to direct our new feature?” I would be very excited. As you know, Brad Bird started out in 2D, and he made a wonderful transition to 3D, so I wouldn’t mind doing the same thing.
Idiots and Angels opens at the IFC Center in New York on Wednesday, October 6 and runs through October 12, with screenings in Los Angeles later this month.