In the world of animation, Bill Plympton is a legend. The man behind “The Tune” in the early ’90s (and a number of short animated interstitials on MTV), Plympton has made his mark on the film festival circuit and in the independent film world with both his shorts, most notably the “Dog” series of films (“Guide Dog,” “Guard Dog,” “Hot Dog” and “Horn Dog”), and his feature films, such as “I Married a Strange Person,” “Mutant Aliens” and “Hair High.” Currently the subject of a documentary by Alexia Anastasio, the Academy Award-nominated filmmaker has never dropped off his creative pace.
Plympton’s latest animated feature film, “Idiots and Angels,” is a subtle affair. Focusing on what happens to a not-so-good person when he wakes up with a pair of wings that force him to do good deeds, “Idiots and Angels” could become preachy or overbearing, but instead is delivered with a somber tone. Visually dark, and at moments emotionally as sparse, the film conveys all its intentions via visuals and music, playing out entirely without dialogue. It’s a welcome addition to Bill Plympton’s animated world, and with the theatrical premiere of “Idiots and Angels” at the IFC Center in New York City fast approaching, Plympton took some time to answer my questions about the film, his role as a distributor and the current state of adult-oriented animation…
First off, how does it feel to have a documentary being made about you? Is it weird?
“I’ve done a lot of different kinds of interviews and people follow me around with cameras, so that’s not so unique. However, to have a complete film made about me is unique. The pieces that I’ve seen, the little short sequences, are really amazing. She’s doing a really terrific job, so I’m very excited about that. That to me is really thrilling.”
Does it at all feel like a premature “Career Achievement” award, as if your work is something to look back on as opposed to something that is still in progress?
“No. Actually, a couple other people have made documentaries about me. One was a long time ago, about ten years ago, so it’s not a brand new experience, but it is a wonderful compliment, and this is the first time someone who is doing it is really a professional, who’s doing a very, how should I say, important, ambitious kind of project. This is a lot more ambitious than all the other projects that have been made about me.”
Switching gears to talk about “Idiots and Angels,” where did the idea come from?
“I don’t really know exactly where the idea came from. I do remember the first time I came up with the idea was talking to a young gentleman in France. He asked me about my next film and I said, ‘well, I don’t really have an idea’ and then in the back of head, somewhere in my brain, I don’t know where, I came up this thing that said ‘an asshole guy wakes up one morning with wings on his back.’ And he said, ‘oh that’s a great idea,’ and I said, ‘yeah, you know, that is a pretty interesting idea.’ That night in my hotel room, I started drawing, started sketching, started putting together ideas. That’s the only time I can remember thinking about the film, so it’s a mystery to me.”
How much is put into the writing of the story? Is it something that happens first, and then the drawings come, or is it something that comes along as the sketches are done? Does the story happen organically during the drawing process?
“No, the whole story/storyboard process took about a year. A lot of it is just drawing sketches of the characters, drawing little thumbnails of scenes that would be interesting and then, after a month or two, I put all of the ideas together into a story that seems to hold together and make sense. I spend a lot of time on the story. The storyboard and the character design is a very important part of the process and so I try to make it as powerful as I can.”
How much does the story change during production? It seems like it would be a hassle to have to tweak this too much, since everything is hand-drawn.
“This one changed a lot. I liked the original concept and then I started drawing it. At some point it started to be too much of a rollercoaster, action-packed Hollywood film and I realized that that’s not what this film is about. This film is more of an internal, psychological character-driven film. Even though there is a chase sequence in the film and some nudity, it really is more a internal, psychological, spiritual… it’s a very spiritual film, and it’s about three people and how they deal with this guy growing his wings.”
Are you worried at all that people may see the title “Idiots and Angels” and then look at the iconography of angel wings and assume that the film is overly religious or perhaps Christian-themed?“No one’s ever really said it’s a religious film, at least not yet. My mother may think it’s a religious film just because she wants to feel like I’ve gone religious but, no, no one’s really said it’s overtly proselytizing Jesus or anything like that. I think the iconography and some of the sequences hearken to being reborn and ascending to Heaven, that sort of thing, but that’s iconography and imagery that is universal. It has nothing to do with any particular religion.”
The poster for “Idiots and Angels” states that the film is “Presented by Terry Gilliam.” How did that come about?
“Terry and I have been friends for a long time. We’re not like the closest buddies; he lives in London and I live here in New York, of course, but that came up when I was in Dubai about two years ago. I ran into him by accident, purely by accident, at the Dubai Film Festival and I happened to have my drawings for the film with me. He asked to look at them, so I showed them to him and he was really awestruck by the artwork. You know, he loves to draw and he loves drawing, so he’s a big fan of my drawings. It was funny because his press agent was there and she was begging him to leave so he could do these interviews and he said, ‘no, I want to look at these drawings’ and he was just really enraptured with this artwork. And so he said, ‘anything you want from me, go ahead’ and I said, ‘well, how would you like to present the film?’ and he said, ‘yeah, go ahead, use my name.’ He did some wonderful interviews for me and he was very, very supportive.”
As long as we’re name-dropping, the film includes quite an effective use of the music of Tom Waits. Do you know Waits too, or was that a more straightforward case of just licensing his songs for the movie?
“That was actually circuitous too. As I was doing the drawings, I would listen to a lot of Tom Waits, simply because his music was very appropriate for the bar sequences, the bar scenes. I just thought, ‘wow, it’d sure be nice to have him doing some music for the film.’ So I called my buddy Jim Jarmusch and I said, ‘can I send you a rough cut of the film, and if you like it, pass it on to Tom and see if he’s interested in getting some music in the film?’ I never heard from either of them for about three weeks, and I was freaking out, but then I got an email from Tom saying he loved the film, and I could use any song I wanted from his library, which was very, very cool; very nice. I did have to pay a producer’s fee, I forget how much it was, but it was fairly cheap; a good price, a very good price.”
Music is so very important to any film, but particularly this one, because it is dialogue-less. Why did you decide to go without dialogue with this film?
“This film, I thought, was a lot more psychological and emotional then my other films so I didn’t really need dialogue. I thought that a lot of the personality of the characters would be very poetic if we just showed their faces and communicated that way. I guess I wanted to make it a much more poetic film and a much more subtle film and that’s why I tried to do it without dialogue. It’s interesting because a lot of people don’t realize there’s no dialogue until the end of the film, and they say, ‘oh my god, there wasn’t a word of dialogue in the whole film.’ It also makes it easier to sell overseas because there’s no dialogue to be dubbed in or subtitled or any of that stuff so it’s really a much easier process.”
I know that it’s going to be playing the IFC Center this week, but how is distribution going? Are you self-distributing the film?
“I’m distributing it to the big cinemas, and then Passion River, who is a smaller distribution company, is taking over for the smaller art house and the smaller outlets. It’s sort of a co-distribution deal.”
What about DVD or VOD?
“That’s something that Passion River will take care of. They’re dealing with DVD and all the other distribution outlets after theatrical. Non-theatrical and internet, all that stuff; they’re taking care of all that stuff.”
“I really can’t explain it. This is a really important question, and I’m really baffled by the reaction of distributors to my films. The first film was “The Tune,” and we picked up distribution from October Films at Sundance. The next big one was “I Married a Strange Person” and we picked up Lions Gate at Sundance and they did a pretty good job; I have no complaints about Lions Gate. After that was “Mutant Aliens” and “Hair High,” and those got very limited distribution and I’m really shocked because I know I have a certain name, people know who I am; it’s sort of a brand and I know there’s an audience for my stuff, but I don’t know whether it’s the economy or the fact that it’s animation that’s not for families. I don’t know why the films are getting more difficult to find distribution for. You would probably have a better idea than I would, because no one has given me a definitive answer as to why I couldn’t get distribution for ‘Idiots and Angels.'”“It’s very confusing for me because the reviews have been fantastic, we’ve sold very well overseas, we’ve sold over ten territories and the film has proven itself to be an audience pleaser yet, still, we can’t get a distribution company excited about the film. Honestly, it’s not the end of the world because often times these distribution companies will take the rights to the film and tend to let it go out there and never really care about making income, or getting statements. Often times you lose the film for ten years, and you make no money on it. That’s frustrating also. In this case at least I have control of the film, I will make money on DVD, I will make money on the VOD, I will make money on television sales, I will make money on internet sales… at least I’ll make money, it’s just a helluva lot more work because I have to make the posters, I have to make the trailers, I have to do the postcards, I have to do the publicity. I’d rather just make my drawings and make my films but now I put on my distributor hat and I’ve got to make a million phone calls everyday to make sure that people go see the film.”
Do you think distributors get spooked because they either under-value or don’t know the audience your films are aimed at?
“I’m guessing that a lot of distributors don’t know how animation works, they don’t know who the market is for animation, they’ve never handled animation before and it’s like handling a surfing film. ‘Oh, jeez, I don’t know, I’ve never done surfing films,’ and it’s a specialized market. That may be their fear, is they just don’t understand who the market is for animation, whereas I do. I know all the publications, I know all the schools, I know where my audience comes from, so that may make it easier for me.”
What is the current landscape for adult-oriented, independent animation?
“I think it’s changing. I’m optimistic about it. There seems to be a lot more animated feature films for adults coming out now, mostly independent films like ‘My Dog Tulip’ and ‘Sita Sings the Blues’ and ‘The Triplets of Belleville’ and the one from Iran, ‘Persepolis.’ Films like that that have more adult subject matter are starting to find good audiences and opening up the markets for it. In all modesty, I think I have that small part in starting this revolution because, when I did my first animated feature film in 1992, there was no independent feature animated films coming out at all. And now it just seems like everybody is doing it. I think in a small sense I blazed a trail for people today to say ‘hey, you know, if Plympton can do it, so can I.’ And now they even have Flash and all these computer programs and so it’s a lot easier for anybody, really, to make an animated feature film. The hard part is to make it good, and entertaining and then to sell it for distribution. That’s the hard part.”
In regards to films made with computer animation or Flash, it seems like there is a lack of hand-drawn artistry. Not that those films don’t exist, but it seems like computer animation has taken things in a less hands-on direction.
“That’s a good point. I myself love to hand draw the artwork. That to me is really the thrill of making a film is doing it by hand. There was another Flash film that came out a little while ago called ‘Queer Duck,’ did you ever see that? That was actually pretty successful, that came out, did a lot of the gay festivals and I think they made some money on the film. There’s been Flash feature films coming out for a while, and that had a nice look to it too. A friend of mine, Xeth Feinberg, and Mike Reiss, of ‘Simpsons,’ they made that film together. There’s a lot… not a lot, but a number of Flash films coming out now that are pretty interesting films.”
I have a very privileged job, because I get to travel to festivals and see all your new work, or the latest from Don Hertzfeldt, but what about those who aren’t as fortunate as to see your films on the festival circuit?
“It’s tough because often times, especially with the shorts, it’s hard to get them seen outside of the internet. I wish there was more channels on television for animated short films because there is some brilliant stuff out there.”
What do you have coming up next?
“The documentary, I’m very excited about the documentary and then there’s a big art book coming out, I think in April, and it’s a 300 page art book out of Rizzoli, and it’s called ‘Independently Animated, Bill Plympton,” so we’re very excited about that. And then I’m going to do another ‘dog’ film, the fifth in the series, called ‘Cop Dog,’ where he is a drug inspector at an airport, and you know that’s going to be bad news. That’s not going to work out well at all. Another disaster for the dog. I guess that’s a good title for the next one, ‘Disaster Dog.'”
I thought I saw that the dog films were collected on DVD somewhere?“There’s one out now called ‘Dog Days,’ but that came out a year ago and since then I’ve done a dog film called ‘Horn Dog.’ When I finish this ‘Cop Dog,’ that’ll be five dog films so I’ll probably do a few more and then we’ll do purely a dog DVD, dedicated to the dog.”
Why do you keep revisiting that character? Why the dog films?
“People love the dog. Everybody loves the dog. I sort of have to… I don’t have to, but I want to keep them happy, I want to make sales and the dog sells immediately, he’s very popular on the festival circuit. He sells very well overseas, and it’s fun to do the dog.”
In that sense, are they the cash cow? Do the dog films fund your other ideas?
“No, but they certainly help the other films. The cow film [‘The Cow Who Wanted to Be a Hamburger‘] is doing very well, we’re making money on the cow film. The fact that the other feature films are starting to make money now; ‘Hair High’ is starting to make some money, which is good.”
Would you consider doing what Alexia is doing with the documentary about you and try crowdfunding?
“I probably should, but I’m not that organized. It’s a lot of work and I just prefer doing it myself.”
Final question: is animation the ultimate form of independent filmmaking?
“Absolutely, yeah. Everything is under my control and, of course, producing and the money, number one but, the story, the characters, the dialogue, the costumes, the sets, the camera… it’s all under my control… the lighting… So I don’t have to hire any of those people to take up jobs and it’s very expensive and it’s very time-consuming. I guess I’m lazy and I just like to draw all that stuff myself and not have to worry about hiring 10, 20, 30 people.”
I don’t know if “lazy” would be the word to use for someone who hand draws an entire film…
“You’re right. Maybe I chose the wrong word.”
“Idiots and Angels” begins its run at the IFC Center on Wednesday, October 6, 2010, and will later expand to the Sunset 5 in Los Angeles on October 29, 2010 before it expands to other cities across the United States.
Posted on October 6, 2010 in Interviews by Mark Bell
If you liked this article then you may also like the following Film Threat articles:
- SPEND WEDNESDAY WITH BILL PLYMPTON’S “IDIOTS AND ANGELS” AT IFC CENTER
- BILL PLYMPTON ON THE SHOW THAT IS ANIMATION
- TOY STORY 2
- “GHOST WORLD” APPEARS: A DAN CLOWES INTERVIEW (part 4)
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