Thursday, January 26, 2012

Plympton Parades "Idiots and Angels"

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Plympton Parades "Idiots and Angels"

(from 10/5/10)

By Danny Peary and Elina Mishuris
One of our true originals in filmmaking, animator Bill Plympton has been making a array of dazzling shorts and features for twenty-five years with a style that is instantly recognizable. His mind-blowing new feature, Idiots and Angels, opens Wednesday at the IFC Center and it's safe to say that there's nothing else like it in town, and according to Plympton, it's not like anything else he's done either. I've been a fan for years and even met him once or twice, but I finally got to interview Plympton, about his new film and career, in late September at his New York studio. I was accompanied by Elina Mishuris, who covers the arts for The Washington Square News, the NYU student newspaper.
Danny Peary: I read that you conceived of Idiots and Angels back to 2005, when, as you said, "I was walking with a student at the Short Film Festival in Lille, France. He asked me what my next feature would be about and I declared offhandedly..."
Bill Plympton: It's true. I just came up with this off-the-wall whole comment about how this asshole wakes up one morning with wings on his back, and he doesn't know what to do with them. And the kid said, "I like that idea!" And I thought, "Hey, maybe that's not a bad idea and I'll use it." So that night in my hotel room, I actually started drawing the character and coming up with plot ideas, and it kept developing. I don't know how that idea was implanted in the back of my brain but I realized it could be a lot of fun.
Elina Mishuris: What were you drawing on for the film's ideas, particularly the morality theme?
BP: It's interesting because originally I did a storyboard for this film and I kept to the old Plympton style, where there was a lot of action and sexy humor, and then I realized that was not what this film is about. This film is deeper. So I threw that whole storyboard away and I rewrote it as kind of a solitary, inward-looking film, rather than a car-chase-and-gun-fight Hollywood film.
DP: Where does Idiots and Angels fit into all your work? Could you have done it fifteen years ago?
BP: No, absolutely not for two reasons. One is a technological reason and one is an artistic reason. Back then the expense of doing the transfer from digital to film was really too high, hundreds of thousands of dollars, which I could not afford. But in recent years the price has dropped, and the transfer cost from digital to film for Idiots and Angels was only $25,000, which I could deal with. In the past, I always shot my films with a 35mm camera, and we had to paint the cels and Xerox the drawings and everything. The problem with the copier was that it could not deal with the delicacy of the drawings and it ruined all the detail, so that really frustrated me. The great news is that now I can take all my drawings and scan them on a computer scanner, and all the detail is there and it looks gorgeous. So that's one way this film is different--the detail of my drawings was not lost in a copier machine, but was regained on the computer scanner. Visually, it's a real breakthrough. I like cel animation, which a lot of people still do, but this a big step up for me.
Artistically, its also a big change, because this film is more soulful and character-driven than my past films. Usually my films have the Plympton trademark of lots of sex and violence and crazy anarchic humor. This one has a more sensitive story: it's about one person and the battle for his soul. I know that sounds kind of deep and moralistic and everything, but I just thought it was a wonderful idea to show what this guy goes through to change his life. He's a real asshole but wakes up one morning with wings on his back, and doesn't like the way the wings make him do good things. A lot of students, older people, and women--who usually don't like my films--really dig it. This is one of my few films that my mom likes! That's because theres some spiritual stuff and morality stuff in there. So it does have much broader appeal.
DP: Is the humor different in Idiots and Angels than in your other films?
BP: It's a little more subtle. And it's not so anarchic. Humor is essential in my films. I want to hear people laugh and if they laugh it's a successful film.
DP: Is goodness triumphant in your films?
BP: All my films have happy endings.
DP: In Idiots and Angels and all your films, are you going along with the idea of survival of the fittest, how it's the strongest who survive?
BP: No. I don't agree with that. I'm an optimist and also a total pacifist. I don't like to get angry or mean. I'll tell you a story. I had to go into the National Guard so I wouldn't go to Vietnam. They took me out to the firing range and I told them, "I'm not going to shoot my gun." The sergeant got really angry and said, "You're a soldier, you've got to fire your gun." They said they were going to court-martial me if I didn't fire my gun, and I said, "I'm sorry, court-martial me." They might have, but someone told them that I was an artist, and since they didn't want to do all the paperwork required to court-martial me, they put me in charge of the postal department.
So I did charts of how to fire and clean your weapon. Then I did caricatures of the top brass whenever there were birthday or going-away parties. That's kind of where I learned how to caricature, in the army. I never did fire my gun, thank god, I'm not into that. You may question why someone who abhors violence has so much violence in his films, and that's valid. I don't know other than I find it humorous. I Married a Strange Person [1997]is one of the most violent animated films every made, with the most blood, yet I find it humorous. Violence that is exaggerated too much becomes a joke and is neutered. If we had more humor in the world people would get along better.
DP: You mentioned "the battle for his soul," but your protagonist in Idiots and Angels doesn't seem to be fighting to save his soul. And he does such monstrous things that I don't know if he even has one.
Bill: He doesnt realize he has a soul and doesn't care. He just wants to look out for number one. But as the wings become more important in his life, he realizes that his life does have purpose and meaning. But is it too late and will he be dead before he can change his life?
DP: Can anybody be redeemed?
BP: Of course. That's the whole point of the film. I wanted to have him be a murderer and a rapist, but people said no, it wouldnt be so funny if he was that. So I just had him sell guns and steal people's parking spots. But he's the lowest of the low and proves that anyone can be redeemed and have a second chance at life.
DP: The worst thing for a good person is to have to do a bad thing. So conversely is the worst thing for a bad person to have to do a good thing?
BP: Yes. That's what happens when he starts to fly. He steals a woman's purse but the wings take it away and he wonders what the heck is going on. The wings take all the fun out of being bad. That's when he realizes that the wings are his good side trying to come out and dominate his bad side. That's the main theme of the movie. I wanted it to be subtle, not overt.
DP: You have a lot of rebirth in this film
BP: Yeah, a lot of born-again kind of stuff, and redemption, and moralistic stuff. I'm not a religious guy, I don't go to church, I don't read the Bible or anything like that, but I just saw it as a human story with religious overtones. People want to change their lives and be better people.
DP: But again, he doesn't really want to change for the better, does he?
BP: No, the wings force him to. The wings are his soul.
EM: I love when the bird grows human arms. Where did that come from?
BP: Nobody else has picked that up! That was a moment in the film when I just wanted to see how surreal I could make it and keep it as part of the story.
DP: Here's a quote from your fan Terry Gilliam about the film: How can [Bill] be so poetic, funny and cruel at the same moment?" Is that what you strive for?
BP: Yeah. I want to connect to people's emotions, that's very important. I'll be honest with you, I didn't know Terry very well. We met eight or nine years ago at some opening he had. We started talking and he knew my work. Then two years ago I ran into him at the Dubai Film Festival and we spent the night together drinking and looking at my drawings for Idiots and Angels. He was floored by them and since then we've been best friends. He did a wonderful introduction for my art book and he's presenting my film.
EM: Talk about the making of Idiots and Angels from the beginning until it made it into theaters and on DVDs.
BP: The film was started when I had that meeting in Lille. The story and storyboards took about a year. I did character design and sketching. The animation itself took about a year, and that's doing a few hundred drawings a day for 365 days. That was a lot of drawing but it was really pleasurable for me. Then the post-production, which is sound, editing, music, lab work, and color work took nine months to a year. The film came out at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2008. And then it did the festival circuit for about a year and a half, during which time we were searching for distribution. Variety gave us a great review and all reviews were very good and we had excellent audience reception. So we felt we had a good chance to get a good distributor, but nobody picked it up. We showed it to everybody really, including my friends with big distributers.
DP: Was there a consistent reason it was turned down?
BP: They never said anything, but I have a couple of guesses. One is that it's not for kids; two is that they assume there is no market for animation that's not family fare. Maybe they thought it was unorthodox not to have dialogue in the film. Also, there are no big names doing voiceovers, although Tom Waits is on the soundtrack and is a presenter. It befuddles me that it's so difficult to get adult animation distributed in this country. It is strange, because it has sold so well overseas that we made our money back. We're hoping that the U.S. release will put us over the top. Meanwhile I'm pretty much doing it myself, which is frustrating, because I'm not built to be a distributor or enjoy doing it. I have to do the poster, I have to design the postcards, I have to do the trailers, I have to find a PR person, and I have to call theaters up to get bookings, when I'd rather be drawing my next movie. We do have a nontheatrical distributor who is going to take over after the first few months. Thank god I won't have to do schools, universities, and art museums. But in order to get released here in New York and L.A. in time for Academy consideration, I had to go ahead and do it myself.
DP: Do you think you'd have had better luck ten years ago?
BP: I don't think so. I've made eight feature films, three of which are live-action, and only had outside distributors three times. The Tune [1992] had October Films. I Married a Strange Person had Lion's Gate, and they did such a good job that I got a royalty check, if you can imagine that--I should have framed it. And Mutant Aliens had a very limited release from Apollo Cinema. All the others ones I've done myself. It's a thankless job and a lot of work, but I do retain ownership of the film and all the DVD, television, nontheatrical, and Internet rights, so there's good with the bad.
DP: Do you think you've had luck distributing Idiots and Angels in Europe because it looks European?
Bill: Yeah, that's probably it. Also, because there's no dialogue it can play all over. In Europe, especially France, I'm much better known than I am here. There's a love of the auteur in France and they appreciate that I write my own stories, draw my own stories, which is extremely rare, and finance my own films.
DP: There's also a lot of surrealism in your films, which the French love.
BP: There's a lot of surrealism and they're for adults, which they appreciate in France, Germany, Russia, Switzerland, Spain, Portugal, and Holland. England is a tough sell.
EM: What prompted you to not use dialogue?
BP: I've done films without dialogue before. All the Guard Dog films [beginning in 2004], 25 Ways to Quit Smoking [1989], and One of Those Days [1988] have no dialogue. I found it easier to make films without dialogue because I don't like putting dialogue to the moving mouth. I feel that I focus so much on the lip-syncing that I lose all emotion in the characters. Also I don't like writing dialogue and don't think I'm particularly good at it. Also it's just cheaper to sell a film overseas without someone having to add subtitles or dub the voices. It feels more universal without dialogue and is more emotional and visceral. I'd never done a feature film without dialogue and wanted to give it a shot.
Let me tell you why I decided not to use dialogue. The animated feature I did before this was Hair High [2004]. I was out drinking with my cousin Martha Plimpton and told her I was frustrated because distributors are only interested if you have big stars doing the voiceovers. So she called all of her friends. So we got Dermot Mulroney, Keith Carradine, David Carradine, Sarah Silverman, and Beverly D'Angelo. I spent $400,000 on the film! I really just thought it was going to be my breakout film. And it just died and wasn't picked up at all. I was really angry, actually, and I said, "I'm going to make my next film just for myself. I'm not going to worry about distributors, or Hollywood, or the audience. So I did Idiots and Angels for my own pleasure. It is really a low-budget, experimental film because there were so many things I'd never done before.
EM: What else besides not having dialogue?
BP: As I said before, the story-telling is something new. So is the cartoon noir look.
DP: It doesn't look like any of your other films.
BP: No, it doesn't, but it has the kind of style I was doing when I was a kid. I was drawing pencil on paper, then erasing it, and then redrawing it, so it's very personal to me. It's a style I've always wanted to do in films so I'm very happy. It was a refreshing change. And for some reason my most selfish film is my most popular.
EM: What about your use of music?
Bill: I knew that the music would have to take the place of dialogue so as I was doing the drawings, I listened to music that I thought would be appropriate. For instance, since a lot of the film takes place in a bar I thought I should listen to Tom Waits. I'd never met him, but I did know Jim Jarmusch and sent him a rough cut of the film and said that if he liked it, he should pass it along to Tom Waits. After three weeks I got an email from Tom's wife, who said that Tom loved the film and that I could pick any song I wanted for the movie. It blew me away. I had to pay a small publisher's fee but he demanded that the publisher not charge too much, so it was a generous gift. We also have music by Pink Martini, whom I love. My brother's in the band so that helped me get music from then inexpensively.
DP: At the beginning, I couldn't tell if we were hearing remarkable whistling or a recorder.
BP: That's Whistling Gert, who is the world's whistling champion. He did that whistling on a track by a Dutch band. It felt so good to have that song at the beginning but they wanted to charge me $5,000 and my entire music budget was $10.000. So we bargained and they asked if I'd design their new CD cover and animation for their music video. I said, "Yeah, I'll do anything." I think I eventually paid $400 or $500.
EM: Speaking of music videos, how did you do a video with Kanye West?
BP: That's an interesting story. About four or five years ago I got a call in the middle of the night from Kanye and asked if I was Bill Plympton the animator. He said he had a music video he wanted me to do. I'm not a big fan of rap music but I knew who he was so I said yes although he told me the money, $500,000, was all spent on an earlier version he didn't like. The video had to premiere in one week on television. There was not enough time to do three minutes of animation in a week, so they filmed some live-action. Eventually he paid me some money out of his pocket, which I thought was very generous.
EM: You've done live-action yourself, so how do like working in that medium?
BP: I hate it. That's because there's no control, there are so many variables, and so many things can wrong. It could start raining, the clouds can cover the sun, sirens could go off, actors might not show up, and actors can be temperamental. I can cut the heads off my characters in animation and they don't complain. Animation is really an art form for megalomaniacs, people who want to control the world. I want to get my imagination and fantasies on the screen and the best way to do that is to recreate it through drawings.
EM: Was that always your career goal?
BP: Yeah. Even as a kid, I would see the Disney films, like Sleeping Beauty and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs on the movie screen, and I would think, "Boy, wouldn't it be something if I could make films like that some day?" Initially I did animation as sort of a hobby. I was an illustrator, caricature artist, and gag cartoonist for about fifteen years. This was in the seventies and eighties when animation was dead. Then in 1985 I did a short called My Face, which was kind of a quirky gag idea about a guy who sings a stupid song about his lover's face and his own face starts to distort. I sent it out and people responded to it, I was shocked. It got nominated for an Oscar and won a lot of prizes. I went to the Annecy Film Festival in the French Alps and people came up to me and said they loved the film and gave me money to show it in their countries. And I realized I could make a living this way, and quit print publications to do animation. They laughed at me because animation was dead. But I disagreed and for a time all my shorts made money. The secret was that they cost only about $5,000 each to make.
It's really shocking to me when I did The Tune, no one had single-handedly done an animated feature before. Unlike Disney, of course, I certainly couldn't hire in-betweeners and layout artists, but I could do all the drawings. I was shocked that it was abnormal. Now, of course, it's normal. It's such an interesting art form that now everybody wants to make animated feature films. I'm happy that animation is so powerful now.
DP: Where did the Geico commercials fit in?
BP: In the '90s I was sort of the hot item for commercials. I did many of them and made money and had to decide whether to buy a house in the country or do some live-action films. I chose to make the live-action films and they were pretty good, but I lost a whole lot of money.
DP: How many drawings did you do for Idiots and Angels?
BP: About thirty thousand. It averaged out to about 300 a day. Some days you're faster, some days youre slower. I love the beauty of Disney, I love the smoothness and gorgeousness of the artwork, but I dont have the time or the energy to do that. So I have a little shortcut, where every three frames of film I'll do a different drawing. Disney changes the drawings every frame. My films have a little jerkiness, which I kind of like. People recognize that technique and say, "That's a Plympton film." I don't think it detracts that much from the film and it's my brand.
EM: How do you feel about the 3-D animation of Pixar?
BP: I love Pixar. Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon are brilliant. I think theyre geniuses and great storytellers and I'm very jealous of their success. But I still prefer hand-drawn. Those films have no mistakes and it feels like they were drawn by machine. I love imperfections because they give animation a warmth and human feel. When you look at Idiots and Angels, you see that there is a hand that did the drawings. I will say that I wouldnt mind doing a flash film, which uses computer technology that mimics the hand drawings. In fact I'm doing a storyboard for, perhaps, an Internet serial, that could be strung together into a feature at some point.
DP: I might describe your films as 2 1/2-D because there seems to be almost a pull on the sides of the frame that pushes the images outward.
Bill (laughing): I distort the perspective a lot. I love to play with the visuals and make each shot compelling. So sometimes I'll put the camera in odd places, like inside a person's mouth, to give odd perspectives. And I'll play with the lens of the camera. Using a fisheye lens really distorts the perspective. The audience loves to see things theyve never seen before and one of the purposes of my films is to show them new things. I try to keep it fresh.
DP: You talk about trying to make things simpler but you seem to include so much going on within your frame that you are making it hard on yourself instead. There's a lot of activity within the frame, a lot of swirling movements. In Idiots and Angels there's the shaking of cigarettes, an alarm clock shakes, the wings flap, the woman with the mop spins around, smoke shoots out, water drips, flames rise, blood rains down. You're obviously conscious of all this. Isn't this making things difficult for you?
BP: Certainly I don't want to do a slide show or a Hanna-Barbera kind of film where you just see a lot of mouths opening and closing. It's got to be a visual feast, which is why I like dynamic action and movement and visual excitement. It's fun for me to draw that.
EM: What inspires your drawings?
BP: New York City is a big inspiration. Just walking down the street, I love looking at the characters and costumes. Also there are a lot of artists who are influences. Certainly Disney is number one. There there's Tex Avery, Bob Clampett, R. Crumb, Goya, Winsor McKay, E.B. Frost, Peter Decennes, Joanna Quinn. I loved Charles Addams because he was one of the first illustrators who became popular making fun of pain, death and misery. Now black comedy is common but he changed the direction of humor.
DP: Charlie Chaplin and Ralph Bakshi?
BP: I love them both. I should have put them on my list of influences. Ralph is a good buddy of mine. I wish I could have worked on his films when I just moved to New York but I didn't know him then or how to reach him. That would have been a wonderful start for me because I didn't know how to break into animation or what to do with an animated film if I made one. I think if I had studied under Bakshi my career would have taken off a lot earlier.
EM: What's your next project?
Bill: I'm working on three projects. One is a feature called Cheatin' and it's the sort of sequel to Idiots and Angels. It's more stylized and with different characters, but it has the same kind of look, attitude, and subject matter. With no dialogue. It's about two lovers who suspect each other of cheatin' and it goes from bad to worse and they try to kill each other. It's kind of like The Postman Always Rings Twice. Then I'm planning the flash feature that I'm not ready to talk about yet. And I'm planning my fifth dog short.
It's called Top Dog and this time he works as an airport security dog and everything goes wrong. The storyboard is ready to go, I just have to get some time to draw.
DP: Is that dog based on a real dog?
BP: Originally, I ran into the dog in Madison Square Park where I run. I saw this dog barking at a little bird, and that was the inspiration for Guard Dog [2005], which was Oscar nominated.
DP: You have a new short.
BP: Yes, The Cow Who Wanted to Be a Hamburger. It's very different, almost like a children's book. It was inspired by a trip I took back to Oregon, which is where I'm from. I saw cows grazing and they were so intent to eat as much grass as possible that I realized they were trying to fatten themselves up to be the perfect steak. That was their mission. I thought the title was funny and it has been a big success and we've won about ten awards. We thought it would be nice to start out the evening by showing it before Idiots and Angels.
EM: How long does a short take to make?
BP: About three or four months. I'll usually do a feature every two or three years and while I'm doing post-production, I'll work on a short. Then I'll do the storyboarding for the next feature. So there's a rhythm to what I do. What's interesting is that I've made about fifty shorts and the eight features and the money is starting to come in for my library of films and that revenue keeps the studio going. I don't have to do a lot of commercials anymore to make money.
DP: What do you want the reaction to Idiots and Angels to be?
BP: What I really want is mobs of people outside the IFC theater trying to get in. If they get in they'll see a unique film and have a different kind of experience There's nothing like this. I'll be at the night screenings and will be happy to talk to anybody about the film afterward at a bar around the corner. And maybe they can get a Bill Plympton drawing if they're nice. In any case you can find out more about the film on and if you want to find out more about me, go to
EM: If you were starting out in animation now, how would you go about it?
BP: I talk to a lot of animation students about this. If I were to do it today, I'd get a job after school at a studio, big or small, and learn the new technology, learn the reality of the business, make a lot of connections, put some money in the bank, and build a backlog of story, gag, and short-film ideas. Then after six or seven years, if you feel confident, make a film and send it out to the festivals. It's in about four or five festivals that you can get discovered. If your film gets a good response, then you're on your way.

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