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Q&A Exclusive: Twice Oscar-Nominated Animator Bill Plympton Releases His Surreal Idiots and Angels

10/08/2010 06:19 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

If anyone should be considered the American dean of indie animators, it would the New York-based master artist Bill Plympton. When we first met years ago, he was the political cartoonist of the Soho Weekly News -- their alternative to the Village Voice's Jules Feiffer. Once the News disappeared into the trash bin of history, Plympton applied his remarkable penciling skills to making wacky short films that, over the years, have accrued him various critical accolades, awards, nominations and the headache of being a defiantly indie spirit.

Born in Portland, Oregon, he attended the State University from '64 to '68, was a member of the film society and worked on the yearbook. He then transferred to the School of Visual Arts in New York City.

Plympton's illustrations and cartoons have been in the New York Times and the weekly the Village Voice, as well as in Vogue, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, Penthouse, and National Lampoon. His cartoon strip Plympton, which began in '75 in the Soho Weekly News, eventually was syndicated and appeared in over 20 newspapers. His distinctive style is thoroughly recognized.

Not liking his time spent as a wage slave, Plympton has chosen to go strictly on his own, only working with others on his own terms. And with that in mind, he has been incredibly successful, garnering two short animation Oscar noms (for his 1987 animated short Your Face and a second Academy Award nom for 2005's Guard Dog) numerous other awards, a successful self distribution business and great Chelsea-based office.When Disney came to him with an offer to work on some of their productions, he realized they would keep the rights to his ideas and turned them down.

Now Plympton is releasing his latest feature film, the wordless Idiots and Angels, nationally with a run in the IFC Theater here in NYC, then Los Angeles, in order to stimulate Oscar consideration after a year's long passage through the festival circuit. It will then have national distribution and be viewable in tandem with a coffee table book of his work to come out later this year.

Q: With Idiots and Angels you've chosen not to apply computer animation or to slicken it up. Do you think it's retro? Why do you continue to work with this pencil style, with this rawness? Your artwork consistently harkens back to a certain era; there's a certain elegance to it.

BP: This is a style that I've been doing all my life, quite frankly. Ever since I was five years old I was always doing pencil-on-paper, and I like the cross-hatching, I like the smudging, I like the building up of the dark surfaces. So it's really nothing revolutionary or even retro; it's just a style that's sort of been synonymous with Billy Plympton for a long time.

If you look at my illustrations, in that book that we're doing you can see my illustrations in college and high school and you'll see a lot of the similarities. It's just a continuum of my drawing style. The pencil-on-paper I feel very comfortable with. If I was to do computer animation I would not feel comfortable. It just feels right for me, it just feels natural, and I like the way it looks. It's different, it's fresh, it's evocative -- I can really draw the characters out like that, and it just seems like if I tried to do another style it wouldn't be very good.

Q: It's almost absurd to ask what you're trying to get across in Idiots... because it's open-ended. Things upend each other and then there are violent reactions to that. How do you see your work evolving in both storytelling and message. What's the continuity, and where have you gone in different directions?

BP: I think that this film in particular, Idiots and Angels, is a real departure. Most of my films are sex and violence and gags, and this film has a lot more sensitivity. It's more psychological, it's a lot more character driven, it's a lot more plot driven, and there are some serious moments in there.

There are some very magical, spiritual moments, and my mother, who saw the film, who doesn't generally like my films, was moved by it. She thought it was very religious. I'm not a religious guy but this film has some moments that are quite religious in terms of being born again and rising up to heaven and everything. Very Joseph Campbell kind of stuff.

Q: I would say you're standing religion and philosophy on their head.

BP: I do, yeah. I try to put some humor in there. But I think that's what's going on. You asked about my progression - that's what's going on, is that I started out doing wacky gag stuff and feature films I feel are a lot more emotional and lot more personal, a lot more soulful. I think there's a lot more depth to my films now, and that's where I'm going. I'm starting another film right now that's even more personality-driven and is deeper storytelling.

Q: Does it work against you to not have any dialog?

BP: No, I think it helps. For sales overseas I don't have to do dubbing and subtitling. It's quicker, I don't have to do the lip sync, which is really time consuming. And also I just don't think I'm a very good writer of dialog. I prefer to tell a story with visuals, with gestures and actions and responses and close-ups of the face. You can get a lot of information that way.

Q: You're the dean of American independent animation.

BP: What's interesting is that now you're seeing a lot of people in the States looking at my films and saying, "I can do that too." They're inspired by my record. And so a lot of it, like Sita Sings the Blues, My Dog Tulip, Queer Duck, now these are people who are making their films on their own.

Q: Or even on a European level, like The Triplets of Belleville (from 2003, directed by Sylvain Chomet -- which was nominated for an Oscar). And Persepolis (directed by Marjane Satrapi, released in 2007, and was nominated for an Academy Award). I mean there are a lot of films now. So it's not such a weird thought to be qualifying for an Oscar.

BP: No. Well last year The Secret of the Kells got nominated. So I figure if The Secret of the Kells can get in, maybe I have a shot.

Q: How many feature-length films have you made?

BP: I've made nine. Six animated and three live-action.

Q: What did you do that was live-action?

BP: I did J. Lyle, back in 1993, I believe. I did Guns on the Clackamas, which just came out on DVD, and that's a really good film. That's getting really good reviews. And then I did a documentary on Walt Curtis. So three live-action films. None of them did very well. I think the Walt Curtis film may break even. That's about it.

Q: I guess it was the logical decision to go from paper to computer.

BP: Well no, it's still on paper.

Q: But it's all digitally projected...

BP: The big switch over was from Hair High, for which I did the drawings on paper. We Xeroxed the drawings onto cells, and then painted the cells. Now I do the drawings on paper, same old way I did it before; then we scan them and then we color them on computer rather than cells.

Q: Is it that much faster?

BP: It's faster, more versatile, and cheaper. And it looks better too, it looks better than shooting it on Xeroxed copies. So I'm very happy with it. The cost of Hair High was about $400,000; the cost of this film was about $130,000.

Q: How many drawings do you actually make?

BP: Well around 30,000 for Idiots and Angels. It's about a hundred drawings a day, which is not so bad.

Q: You don't get carpel tunnel?

BP: Oh no it's very relaxing. It's therapeutic.

Q: Do you think you're a little crazy?

BP: No I'm very normal actually. Boringly normal.

Q: And you're not a bit of a risqué -- at least with your work?

BP: No. Nope.

Q: You've almost become insufferably normal?

BP: The films manifest my weirdness. In my real life I'm pretty normal.

Q: Have you ever thought to collaborate with anyone?

BP: No. I've always had trouble with that because people don't generally understand my kind of humor and my kind of storytelling. I think what I'm doing is kind of unique, and if I could find somebody who would do it, they would probably charge a lot of money for it, and I just don't have money to pay people.

Q: I would love to see you with Jonathan Lethem or David Sedaris.

BP: Well they have agents, and their agents would want a big chunk of the finished film. Actually quite frankly, I'm very happy working the way I am. I like making the films on my own progress without a lot of pressure or a lot of people changing my ideas. Certainly they're not big blockbusters -- they're not Pixar films -- but for me it's a wonderful exercise.

Q: Whom do you think of as your influences?

BP: First of all, let's talk about Walt Disney. Windsor McCay, Tex Avery, Bob Clampett, Charles Adams, R. Crumb, Milton Glazer, Roland Topor, A.B. Frost, Peter de Seve, Tomi Ungerer -- I could go on and on.

Q: What about writers?

BP: Hunter Thompson, I guess. That's about it. A lot of filmmakers; Frank Capra of course, Elia Kazan. It's always befuddled me how a lot of people really hate Elia Kazan because of his political stance, but what he did was really courageous. I think that Communism is a bad thing, and I think if someone was a Communist it's to their benefit to get out of being Communist. And for Elia Kazan to get all this heap of hatred because he exposed Communism; what's so bad about that?

Q: That wasn't exactly it.

BP: Communism in the '30s and '40s, they knew what was going on; they knew that Stalin was killing masses of people and it was not a fair system. All this bullshit about equality and everything like that; it was bullshit and these people still were Communists. And I think Elia Kazan was very noble to stand up to these people.

Q: I wouldn't think of you as right wing.

BP: Oh no, I'm not. I just have more important issues to deal with than reading up on politics all the time. In fact, all my friends who were in political cartoons or in illustration are dying. There's no magazine work.

Q: Which filmmakers do you like?

BP: Well I like Terry Gilliam, I think Terry Gilliam's great. Quentin Tarantino is wonderful.

Q: And you've met Terry Gilliam -- he is listed as presenting this film.

BP: Terry and I are old friends. I met him back in the mid-'90s, and we sort of connected. He lives in England, so I don't really run into him that much, but I recently ran into him at the Dubai Film Festival.

I happened to have my portfolio of drawings because I was showing them around, and he said, "Let me look at them." So he started looking at them, and he flipped out. He freaked; he thought they were so great. And his agent was saying, "Terry, we have an interview with BBC. Come on, you've got go." "Ah, fuck you! I want to look at Bill's drawings." And he stayed there for half an hour looking at every drawing, asking me about how I did this and everything. So I said, "Terry, you know you're a really great guy, can you help me with my film?" He said, "Yeah. Anything you want." So I said, "Well, would you like to present the film?" He said, "Yeah, I'll put my name on it." And he did a wonderful introduction for a documentary that Alexia's making about me, called Adventures in Plymptoons, and Terry did a wonderful introduction for the film.

Q: Does it feel weird to have a doc made about you? You're not dead. Did he know you?

BP: Yeah, it's a woman who goes to a lot of the Comic-Cons, Alexia Anastasio. She's been an acquaintance of mine for a long time. So two years ago she said, "I'd love to make a documentary about you." She worked hard. Boy, she interviewed it must be a hundred people. She went to Oregon and interviewed my family and my college and my high school friends...(and to) Los Angeles to interview Matt Groening and people like that.

Q: Did she get a lot of the Soho Weekly News people?

BP: Ooh, I don't think so.

Q: That is one of your defining periods.

BP: Well I don't think so. I thought that was a path that went nowhere.

Q: Wasn't that period the first time that you were really exposed as a personality?

BP: Yeah, but I should have been doing animation at that point. First of all, I wasn't crazy about politics. It was hard work; I had to read up on all the magazines and newspapers.

Q: Really? I thought that was when you jumped out in the world. That was where your first flag was planted.

BP: Yeah but you know I regret that because if I had a chance to do it again I would start doing animation right out of college.

Q: I also think that's where you came into your own.

BP: Well I did develop a style.

Q: But we were also running around in the scene, part of an historical moment.

BP: Yeah, you're right, you're right.

Q: You're part of a generation, and you reflect this generation. We were this transitional generation between the bohemian culture, the previous being the printed word, sort of the pre-digital age into the digital age.

BP: I suppose. I never thought of it, but you're right.

Q: What do you think about running a business?

BP: I have to do it. I don't like doing it; I don't like doing the contracts, I don't like doing the phone calls and the business meetings. I just want to draw, like most artists. But if I want to retain ownership of the film and I want to retain copyright I have to do that; that's part of the deal.

Q: You're sort of an accidental entrepreneur. I do think you should exploit it further.

BP: I could. People say I should do dolls, I should do calendars and all this bullshit. I just don't have time to do it. Maybe at some point when I get enough money. I'm running a pretty tight ship here, the recession was not so easy, so sometimes I've had trouble making payroll. If I ever did get a big fat contract then I would bring in more marketing people, maybe David Sedaris, people like that. But I have no money now. But I like my own stories, that's the thing. I really like my own stories, they're fun to write.

Q: You look like some of your drawings...

BP: People say that.

Q: Have you done self-portraits?

BP: I do it constantly; I'm always doing drawings of myself.

Q: Do you feel you're able to convey some of what you are?

BP: Well that's what Idiots and Angels is all about. It's me sort of talking about my feelings about being an asshole or being an angel. That's what I think the film covers; control of your soul. I don't mean to get heavy and I don't want to be moralistic. Also I want to make people laugh and I feel that laughter is the essence of life.

In fact, as Charlie Chaplin once said, "A day without laughter is a wasted day," and I agree with that. There should be a Nobel Humor Prize. I think that humor, especially in a world like today with so much fucked up stuff going on, people have got to laugh, people have got to enjoy life, people have to laugh at life.

Q: Conveying humor through a drawing is one of the toughest things in the world, much tougher than doing stand-up.

BP: I don't think it's particularly though but I think it's important. I think it's very valuable; it's very beneficial to society.

Q: Who are your favorites in single panel cartoons?

BP: Charles Schultz I suppose and Calvin and Hobbes. Gary Larson was a big influence, of course. I don't look at political cartoonists anymore.

Q: Why didn't you ever do comic books -- you did a graphic novel?

BP: Comic books are not as satisfying as film. You never get to hear people laugh when they see the comic book. It doesn't movie, it doesn't have sound.

Q: You don't think it might have a different kind of reach?

BP: Well comic books are really kind of a dead end anyway. They don't sell that well unless you're doing Batman or Robin or something like that.

Q: Do you think of your work as laugh-out-loud, or snicker?

BP: Well I hope it's laugh-out-loud. I appreciate laugh-out-loud, but the cow film doesn't get a lot of big laughs, yet still people love it a lot. So I think there's a little more substance in there, a little more heart than my usual stuff. But I think eventually I'll go back and still do those crazy sex and violence kind of films. I always love that stuff.

Q: How do people respond to your work, say, at a forum like Comic-Con?

BP: The thing is they saw it when they were kids on MTV or the Tournee of Animation, or Spike & Mike, and that's where most people have seen it. They have fond memories of it. Some of them it twisted their minds a little bit, but they have positive attitudes.

Q: The number of awards you received is amazing. How did it happen that you got these Oscar nominations?

BP: The first film I think was sent in by the distributor. So they knew if they got an Oscar nomination it would help their chances. This was Your Face, which was 1987. And then the second one was Guard Dog, which we sent it to the Academy.

You have to answer certain qualifications, such as you have to play in LA for a week or you have to win a certain award. We sent it in to (a cinema) and it played for a week there and that qualified it. So also we're doing Idiots and Angels and The Cow Who Wanted to be a Hamburger.

We do have a distributor for Idiots and Angels. Passion River, they're out of New Jersey and they're lining up all these art houses and college universities. We'll get good distribution; we'll get like a hundred cinemas, maybe more. Especially if New York and LA do well we'll get a lot of distribution.

Q: From your early Portland days to now, do you step back and say, "Jesus, how did I get here? I guess I'm doing pretty good for myself."?

BP: No I do. I look back and say, "Yeah; I turned out okay." Things are going well, I get invited everywhere around the world and I have to turn them all down because I'm just so busy. I feel like I'm in a nice position.

For more stories by Brad Balfour go to: filmfestivaltraveler.com