An Animated Conversation with Bill Plympton

Bill Plympton
Bill Plympton

In 1960, when Bill Plympton was 14, he mailed some cartoons he’d drawn to Disney in the hope of being hired. Not surprisingly, Disney declined. The good news: he had talent. The bad news: he was just too young. Fast-forward to 1987 and, in the wake of an Oscar nomination for Plympton’s animated short, Your Face, the tables had turned: Disney contacted Plympton, offering him a million dollars to work on an unspecified project. This time it was Plympton who declined.

He had his reasons. After years of contributing illustrations and cartoons to publications ranging from The New York Times, Vanity Fair and Vogue to Rolling Stone, Playboy and Screw, Plympton had pursued his true love and established himself as an offbeat animator with an unmistakable style and a singular sense of humor that was equal parts weird and whimsical. Prize-winning shorts for MTV and animation festivals with titles like 25 Ways to Quit Smoking, How to Kiss and One of Those Days inspired a cult following while granting him commercial success. Inspired by that rare and hard-won achievement, Plympton decided to turn his talents to his own full-length animated feature film, personally financing and hand-drawing all 30,000 frames of 1992′s The Tune.

Six animated films, three live-action films, a second Oscar nomination, a multitude of awards and music videos for Kanye West and Weird Al Yankovic later, Plympton retains his iconic outsider status, even while adding advertising to the mix to help pay for his personal passions. His latest ad is a digital short, The Benefits of Converting from Oil to Gas, produced by The Napoleon Group for New York utility Con Edison. His latest animated feature is Cheatin’, which he describes as “an animated adult tale of love, jealousy, revenge and murder — full of nudity and violence. … A typical comedy from Bill Plympton.” Following the U.S. premiere at the 2014 Slamdance Film Festival in January, Variety called Cheatin’ “one of his best longform toons, an energetic romp.”

The ever-prolific Plympton is already halfway finished his next feature, turning his childhood inspiration on its head with a bound-to-be controversial combination of live-action and animation in which history’s most malignant despot gets a Disney makeover. More on that later.

You’re just back from the U.S. premiere of Cheatin’ at the 2014 Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. How was it?

Slamdance is very different from Sundance, which happens at the same time. Unfortunately, Cheatin’ didn’t get into Sundance but I’ve had many films in both. In fact, I think I may have had more than any other filmmaker — 15 or 20 — if you count both features and shorts. Slamdance is held at the Treasure Mountain Inn, which is not as spacious or as elegant as the Sundance venues — there are a couple of screening rooms that hold about 150 people. So, I don’t get the huge audience or the press that a Sundance film gets but Slamdance is very protective of their artists, very helpful in getting anything you want. At Sundance, I’m fighting against all the agents, the distributors, the lawyers, the handlers — all those kinds of people — and it’s a losing battle. Sundance is just so big you can’t get any attention, whereas at Slamdance, Cheatin’ was the opening-night film, which was very cool. We had two screenings, with great audiences. Everybody loved the film.

Were you sitting in the audience during the premiere?

No, I was not. It was standing-room-only. I’ve seen the film so many times and I wanted to give my seat to someone who hadn’t seen the film, so I was outside. In fact, I went to get a bite to eat.

So, it’s not that you’re uncomfortable watching your film with an audience?

I am. Because you see all the mistakes you wish you could fix. It’s painful. I have seen my films with an audience, however. And, yes, it’s good to see if people laugh at the parts I think are funny. But, if the choice is between hearing people laugh and seeing all the mistakes, I choose to exit the theater. I like to come in at the end. That’s the best part, when everybody applauds. I love that love from the audience, that feedback. It’s so gratifying after working so hard.

What did you think of the Variety review?

It was very nice. There are a lot of quotes we could pull from there. He did have an issue with the storytelling, though, and that bugs the hell out of me because there are so many great films that have no story at all. This wasn’t a Pixar story, or a Dreamworks story — it’s not that kind of film. It’s a comedy. It’s wacky, it’s crazy. Look at all the Marx Brothers films, or W.C. Fields films. There’s no story. Yellow Submarine? There’s no story. You don’t watch for the story. You watch for the humor and the gags and the craziness. That’s my expertise. That’s what I want to do.

What’s next for Cheatin’?

We have a bunch of offers for distribution, but none that we’re really excited about. We’re waiting for the big guns to see the film: Sony Pictures Classics, IFC, Magnolia, Weinstein. They weren’t able to see the film at Slamdance simply because they were so busy at Sundance. So, we’re going to set up a screening here in New York to show the big distributors and hopefully they will get excited and offer large amounts of money.

Let’s go back to the beginning. What were your favorite cartoons as a kid?

Disney really got me interested in animation — Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck. Actually, I liked Goofy a lot. And Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. Those were my favorites. A lot of my artist friends were into Mad magazine and Superman and superhero comics. I never got into that stuff. I don’t know why. I mean, I had Mad. I had comic books. But I wasn’t as excited about them as I was about animation. I always liked cartoons that moved.

You started out as an illustrator and cartoonist. What was your first paying gig?

I did those stupid little illustrations in the Yellow Pages for the phone book. You know: an exterminator company wanted me to draw a cockroach or a bug, a drapery store wanted me to draw drapes. Really simple stuff, but I got 10 bucks each, and, for me, that was a lot of money. That was really good. I was in high school, 16 or 17. And I could consider myself a professional artist. So it was very exciting. I would get the Yellow Pages and say, “See, that’s me! I did that!”

What was your first paying gig as an animator?

I did a commercial for Trivial Pursuit for Grey advertising after I got nominated for an Oscar. All of a sudden I was hot. Grey called me up to do three Trivial Pursuit TV ads. And I made so much money.

How did your two Academy Award nominations for Best Short Animated Film — Your Face in 1987 and Guard Dog in 2005 — change your life?

Immensely! I didn’t realize how big a deal an Oscar nomination was. All of a sudden, everybody thought I was a genius. Like, one day I wasn’t, and the next day I was. Everyone in Hollywood wanted to work with me. Everyone wanted to meet with me. Nothing really ever happened with those meetings, but, still, today, when people introduce me, I’m “the Oscar-nominated animator Bill Plympton.” So it’s still very important and it still impresses people.

Any memorable moments from the Oscar ceremonies?

I went twice: in 1987 and 2005. I think the funniest thing happened the first time I went. I was so naïve. I didn’t have any money so I rented an old banged-up Toyota and that’s what I drove to the Oscars with my musician friend Maureen McElheron. When we arrived, we got in line and it was all black limousines. I mean, huge limousines. And the ushers kept saying, “Get outta here! You’re in the wrong line!” And I said, “No, no! Here’s my pass. I’m actually nominated for an Oscar!” It was such a jam-up of people that I had to park the car on the street and I couldn’t get onto the red carpet from the car. I timed it all wrong.

There are several versions of the story about Disney asking you to work on Aladdin. What actually happened?

This was in the late ’80s when animation was really coming back big time. You had The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, so Disney was paying top dollar for animators. When I got nominated for an Oscar, they said, “Well, Plympton must be really good.” I mean, they liked my work, they knew my work. And they sent a lawyer to my studio here in New York and he offered me a million dollars to come out and work for Disney. That’s all he said — that Disney, the corporation, wanted me to work there. Unfortunately, I was right in the middle of doing my own feature film. I had a studio set up; I would have had to let people go. The lawyer didn’t tell me what Disney wanted me for and I felt like I could have been stuck on some stupid TV show. I didn’t want that, so I turned him down. I often wonder if that was a mistake but I really think that, for me, for my kind of artwork, for my kind of mentality, it’s better to do my own films, so I think it was wise for me not to go. I only found out later from someone at Disney that they wanted me for Aladdin — to animate the genie’s crazy transformations.

Wasn’t there also the matter of Disney’s intellectual property contract?

Yes. I asked the lawyer, “Can I make my own personal films on the weekend?” He said, “Yeah, you can do that, but they’re the property of Disney.” I said, “Well, that doesn’t seem fair. I mean, you’re only paying me for five days a week. I don’t get the weekend for myself?” He said, “Well, Disney’s paying you. We own everything you produce.” I guess they figured that Disney was training me to draw really well so they should get some of that money back. I don’t know.

You’ve created three couch gags for the opening credits of The Simpsons. How did they come about?

Matt Groening and I are both from Portland. Weirdly enough, I met Matt’s father before I met Matt. His father was a wonderful filmmaker. He did what are called industrials and they were hilarious — for Johnson Motors, White Stag, Pendleton Shirts, I think. I saw his films at a film festival and I called him up and said I’d love to meet you because I want to be a filmmaker. This was when I was in college. So he invited me up to his place and showed me some of his films — all of them were so funny — and that’s when I met Matt. He’s in L.A. now, but we get together occasionally when I go out there or we meet at film festivals. We were at the Annecy festival in France a while back and we were just talking and he said, “Why don’t you do something for The Simpsons?” And I said, “I would love to.” And so he commissioned three couch gags. The strange thing is that more people have seen my work on The Simpsons than have seen all my films throughout my whole career. The Simpsons is seen by millions, probably billions of people. It’s crazy.

Elusive U.K. street artist Banksy also created a couch gag for The Simpsons, Do you know him?

Never met him. I’m not a big fan of graffiti kind of stuff, and I know he does more than graffiti, but I really like animation. People who can tell stories through drawings that move are really special to me. Those are the people I really admire.

Your work shares a sensibility with Gary Larson, Bill Waterson or Berke Breathed, and you, like them, have something of a cult following. Do you know any of them?

Bill Waterson and Berke Breathed are wonderful cartoonists and I admire their work a lot. I played basketball with Gary Larson once. He’s from Seattle and he’s a hell of a basketball player. But this was, gosh, 20, maybe 25 years ago. It was a pretty violent basketball game. He’s hardcore. I remember I was going up for a rebound and I think I hit his jaw and he started bleeding. And I was really embarrassed because this is Gary Larson. But that’s the last I ever saw him.

Do you get compared to Monty Python’s Terry Gilliam, who created that show’s animations?

A lot. And what’s weird is that people meet me and they’re amazed to find that I’m American. They think I’m British. I don’t know if it’s my name, or my humor — which is a very deadpan kind of Monty Python humor, very dry and surreal — but, whatever it is, I’m happily compared to Terry. He’s one of my heroes. And he isn’t a Brit either. He’s actually from Minneapolis.

You’ve made music videos for Kanye West (“Heard ‘Em Say”) and Weird Al Yankovic (“Don’t Download this Song,” “TMZ”). What was it like working with each of them?

First of all, I have to be honest with you: Weird Al doesn’t have a big budget for his music videos. He kind of just said, “Here’s a song. Send me the film when you’re done.” Whereas Kanye was very hands-on. Kanye actually saw my films as a kid in Chicago, at the Spike & Mike show and the Tournée of Animation. He really liked my work and he picked my name out of the films. Three or four years ago, he called me out of the blue and said, “I need a music video. Will you do one for me?” I said, “Yeah, sure.” He came to my studio — not this one here, when my studio was at home — and he actually looked over my shoulder while I drew his caricature, his character, and he was very critical about it, which is his right. I’m drawing him, he’s paying me money and he paid me a lot more than Weird Al, so I was happy to change it. I have a lot of respect for the guy. I’ve seen his show. He’s tremendously visual. He has really a lot of talent in terms of design and visual flourishes and I respect him so I did what he asked me to do.

Is there any artist you’d like to do a music video for?

I’d love to do a music video for Emmy Lou Harris.

You wrote a book called Make Toons that Sell without Selling Out in which you outline three rules for making films and making money: Short, cheap and funny. Can you elaborate?

I talk at a lot of schools and I don’t know what it is about young film students but they want to make epics. They want to make a 15- or 20-minute short film and I think that’s the worst idea in the world. First of all, it’s going to take them years to do it. Second, it’s going to cost a lot of money. Third, nobody wants to see that kind of film. There’s an animator named Pes who does these wonderful shorts — 30 seconds, a minute — and they’re fantastic. You can tell a wonderful story in 30 seconds. You can really get a lot of drama, a lot of character. There’s no need to make a 10-, 15-, 20-minute film. It’s just a waste of time and money.

How do you define selling out?

Well, that’s a good question because I sell out all the time. I’m happy to sell out. I need the money to keep my studio going and pay my employees. I’ve done a lot of advertising and the cool thing is that I love it. When my folks saw my Geico spots on television by surprise, that’s the most proud they’ve ever been.

Do your rules about “short, cheap and funny” apply to TV commercials?

Well, I don’t know about cheap!

Speaking of your Geico spots, have you ever wished you had created an animated spokesperson like the Geico gecko?

Oh, God, that would be great. I would love to do something like that. I don’t get many calls for character design and I’ve always wondered why, because I think I’m a pretty good character designer. I’ve done seven animated feature films and they’re all original, unique designs. But I think most people think of me as a kind of dark, sort of offensive animator who does a lot of sex and violence and that’s why they’re afraid to deal with me. That’s absurd because I’ve done children’s specials, I’ve done a Christmas special. For some reason, though, I have this reputation as being this enfant terrible. I’m really just a normal guy, a regular guy, trying to make a living.

Are there any commercials that had a big impact on you?

I just finished the Steve Jobs bio and there was a section about the famous 1984 commercial. That spot blew my mind — I remember the day I saw it — it really showed me what commercials could do. As for current ads, I love the Geico spots. I think they’re pretty witty.

You’ve said that movie distributors are afraid of animation for adults. Why do you think that is?

To do a full-out animated feature like Ralph Bakshi did 30 or 40 years ago — actually 50 years ago, almost, wow — is box-office poison. Or so distributors say. I disagree. I think that people love to see adult films but, for some reason, distributors feel that if they’re animated, they’re going to destroy the youth of America, they’re going to poison the minds of little children, which is ridiculous. People will go see a Quentin Tarantino or Guillermo del Toro film. Why can’t they go see an animated Bill Plympton film? That’s my complaint. I think America’s changing. I think my new film, Cheatin’, will change people’s minds. It will show people that there is a market for adult animation, for animation that deals with topics that are a little more mature: jealously, lust, hatred. Things that you really don’t see in a children’s film.

Do you have a favorite animated TV show?
My favorite is SpongeBob SquarePants. Even though it’s more of a children’s show, the humor is the kind of humor I like to do. Most cartoons are verbally humorous but SpongeBob is visually humorous. It’s great looking. And I love the Hawaiian steel guitar music.

You’re currently working on an animated TV series pilot?

Yes. Tiffany the Whale. It was a comic strip that I tried to sell back in the seventies when I was doing print. It’s about a whale, a real blue whale, and she falls in love with this very handsome model she runs into on a photo shoot in the Caribbean. She follows him to New York but it turns out he only dates supermodels so she decides to become a high-fashion model and model dresses.

As a whale?

As a whale. As a 30-ton, 120-foot-long whale.

So she’s able to live on solid ground?
Yeah, she has an apartment in the Village but it’s expensive, so she has to share. She gets sex tips from her girlfriends on how to land this guy. She gets into a lot of predicaments. It’s actually all storyboarded. I have 300 pages of storyboards. She loses her job, she needs money, so she becomes a prostitute for a pimp and she’s out turning tricks on the street and then she goes into the porno industry and all sorts of weird adventures.

And you’re trying to pitch this to TV?

Yes, cable, obviously. Or the Internet.

Who wouldn’t want to see it?

Yeah! Ha ha!

How do you feel about live-action films?

I’ve done two live-actions and a documentary about Walt Curtis. They were complete failures. They were not popular. And very expensive to make. I didn’t like working on a set. It’s very high pressure. Every minute is like a thousand dollars down the drain. And if a cloud comes in or a siren goes off then your day is screwed. So I don’t like that. I prefer making drawings at home. I think animation is my forté and I should probably stay away from live action, but, having said that, I’m working on a new feature now. It’s a mockumentary. It doesn’t have a lot of live action — it’s mostly stills and artwork — but there’s going to be five or 10 minutes of live action in there.

What’s the subject matter?

Hitler. I was reading a book and I came across this quote that Hitler was a big fan of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. And I thought: how ironic that the biggest killer of mankind loved to see little princesses and birdies and chipmunks singing songs. It twisted my brain around. But Hitler did love to draw. He was an artist, he wanted to be a painter, so, when I thought about it, it kind of made sense. I took the next step and I imagined what if Hitler, after seeing Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, decided to become an animator? And then I saw the parallels between Hollywood, between the big studio system, and war. I took that concept and made up this totally wacky idea that Hitler wasn’t really a bad guy — he loved to tell jokes, he just wanted to be a cartoonist — and in fact it was Eva Braun who was behind the war and all the killings and violence. Hitler, like Disney, just wanted to make cartoons. He wanted to do Wagner’s Ring Cycle with one of his patented characters, Downy Duck, and make him a big star. It’s pretty wacky!

Do you have a title?

Hitler’s Follies. It’s about halfway done. We just have to shoot the live action and then some of the animation. I’m hoping we’ll be done by summer. It’s a feature — it’s going to be 75 minutes. I’m not sure who’s going to distribute the film. It’s so offensive that three people from my studio quit because they refused to work on it. But I’m sure we can get a good audience on the Internet and that’s probably what we’ll do unless we get a great distribution deal. We’ll show it around, do a couple of festivals and see what happens. I don’t know, maybe there’s a courageous distributor out there who likes to get a lot of press. It’s very provocative.

And funny?

And funny, yeah. It’s really out there. In fact, I’m just really curious to see how people react to it. Maybe they’ll just sit there like in The Producers with their mouths agape and their eyes stunned by how bad it is, or maybe they’ll laugh. I don’t know. We’ll see. The Producers was a big influence on this film. Mel Brooks really opened up Nazis as funny types for humor. Thanks to him I’m able to do this.

Do you have any other projects in the works?

Yes, another new feature film with animator Jim Lujan. He’s from L.A. and does a sort of animated barrio Internet series. I love his writing. I love his characters. He’s going to write, design and provide many of the character voices and I will do the animation and put the film together. The title is Revengeance. It’s very adult. It’s about bikers and strippers and senators, so it’s pretty wacky stuff. Right up my alley.

Larry Closs is the Marketing Manager of The Napoleon Group and author of the novel Beatitude.

Cheatin'

Cheatin’