Not enough money, not enough time, carpal tunnel syndrome, bad knees ‘ every would-be animator has an excuse for not having made their own film. If you fall into that category, you need only look to Bill Plympton for inspiration. In fact, you can watch him draw for hours on end each day via his Ani-Cam at www.plymptoons.com as he works on his latest independently produced animated feature, Idiots and Angels. The film will join an impressive body of work that includes the award-winning shorts The Fan and the Flower, Guard Dog and Guide Dog, and the equally accomplished features I Married a Strange Person, The Tune and Mutant Aliens.
When he’s not hunched over his light box, Plympton is engaged in the self distribution of his last feature, Hair High, which debuted on the festival circuit in 2004 and is finally enjoying a series of limited theatrical engagements in select U.S. cities. We’re grateful that he took some time out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions regarding what he’s up to.
Animation Magazine Online: Tells us about the making of Hair High. You have an approach that isn’t really done anymore.
Bill Plympton: Actually, it won’t be done again by me. This is the last film I did with traditional film and a 35mm Rostrum camera. Quite frankly, it was a big-budget project for me, not only because of the film format, but also because of the big-name voices and the music. We had a couple of big-name musicians’Handle Atkins, a great underground singer/songwriter, did the music for it. I felt that the film was good enough, the idea was good enough and people would want to see the film and I’d make that money back. But it hasn’t worked out that way. We just didn’t get the offers we were hoping for. All my feature films basically take a while to make their money back. That’s been the way with The Tune ’I’ve finally broke even with that and with I Married a Strange Person .
AMO: That’s because they’re considered to be cult films?
BP: Exactly. They’re underground kind of films that don’t have the big distribution that other films do. Basically it’s just me selling them around.
AMO: Has that made you consider doing something more commercial?
BP: No. In fact, my next film, Idiots and Angels, is probably the least commercial film I’ve ever done. It’s kind of a David Lynchian film about this guy who wakes up one morning and has wings on his back, and it’s how he deals with the wings. He doesn’t like them because they make him do good things and he doesn’t want to do good things because he’s a real selfish guy. So he fights them. He keeps cutting them and tries to get rid of them but they keep coming back. The basic idea is it’s a man struggling with his soul, his good side. It has a very interesting look. If you get a chance, check it out on the website [www.plymptooons.com]. It’s much different from my other stuff. It’s done with just pencil on paper and then scanned in to be colored on the computer, so it’s going to go a lot faster than the other films.
AMO: When will we see a Hair High DVD release?
BP: Probably in the springtime. I think most of the theatrical showings will be finished by then.
AMO: And you’ll distribute it through your company, Plymptoons?
BP: No. We’ll probably go through New Video, which handles most of my other films.
AMO: How did you get the voice cast (Dermot Mulroney, Sarah Silverman, David Carradine, Keith Carradine, Justin Long, Beverly D’Angelo, Ed Begley Jr., Michael Showalter, Craig Bierko, Zak Orth, Matt Groening, Don Hertzfeldt, etc.) on board? I assume a lot of them are fans of yours?
BP: Most of them are. I was having drinks one night with Martha Plympton, who’s a distant relative of mine, and I was telling her about how hard it was for me to get distribution because these films are very underground films and she said, ‘Well let me make a few phone calls.’ And she called a bunch of her friends and they said, ‘Oh yeah, Bill Plympton. I would love to be in a Bill Plympton film.’ So most of them were really delighted and did a great job. I wasn’t used to working with people who are so professional, so easy to work with and so creative. I’d like to do it again but I just can’t afford it.
AMO: Do find you have more fans overseas?
BP: Yeah, I do, and I don’t understand that. I don’t know why. Especially a film like Hair High, which is very typically American high school. It’s sort of uniquely American’football games and proms’but still people relate to it, I guess. In fact, a lot of the ideas came from my experiences in high school. I had a biology teacher, Mr. Sawyer, who smoked a lot and there’s a scene of this teacher, voiced by David Carridine, where he coughs up all his innards on the lab table. So, a lot of these ideas and concepts are inspired by urban myths, high school fables and real-life characters.
AMO: How do you view the state of the animated feature in the U.S., where things seems a bit homogenized?
BP: That’s true, but I’m very optimistic. It seems like there’s a lot more people willing to spend money on independent animated feature films. I heard Paul Fierlinger [Still Life with Animated Dogs, A Room Nearby] was working on an independent film [My Dog Tulip]. Of course Barnyard was independent, Hoodwinked was independent and Valiant was independent. So I think it’s very healthy. At no other time that I can recall have there been so many independent animated features coming out. I don’t know if I was responsible for this or helped inspire it, but it seems like a lot of animators are just going out on their own and making their own feature films.
AMO: You have an impeccable work ethic. Do you have a set amount of time that you work every day?
BP: Right now I’m really busy because I have this new feature I’m working on and also I’ve got some other projects. When I am in animation mode, I work about 12 to 14 hours a day drawing. For me, it’s a pleasure. It’s something I love to do. I wake up at six in the morning and start drawing and it just feels so good. It just feels like it’s playtime. I get to create these characters and make these drawings and it’s invigorating.
AMO: It doesn’t get overwhelmingly tedious for you at times?
BP: No, because, first of all, I have no deadlines. I have no pressure, no producers bearing down on me saying, ‘You can’t do that,’ or ‘You have to finish that now,’ or ‘You have to change that character.’ If I want to change a character, I just change it. More people should do that, make films that they love to do. In fact, one of my mottos is if you’re not enjoying it, you’re probably doing it wrong and you should change it or do something else.
AMO: You mentioned that you ran out of time and money and couldn’t animate all the scenes you wanted to do for Hair High, and that you hope to put them for the DVD release. What else can we expect to see on the DVD?
BP: We have all the actors doing their voices and there’s one scene where David Carradine does this coughing fit and he is so brilliant. We definitely want to put that in there. There are a couple of scenes that we did cut out’actually one big scene called ‘Tijuana Tonic’ and it’s sort of the history of this Spanish Fly kind of liquid that turns everybody on. It traces the history of where it came from, through Matazuma and the Incas’the legend of this super magic sexually potent potion. That’ll be cool if people get to see that, but it just felt like it didn’t really add to the story so much and it took away from the drama so I kicked it out.
AMO: Are you committed to doing features?
BP: I’d like to do a feature every two years and make one or two shorts a year, but if I can do a feature every two or three years, I’m very happy.
We’ll be more than happy to get a feature film from Plympton every couple years. Until then, fans can catch a number of screenings coming up at the Two Boots Pioneer Theatre in New York City (Oct. 18-25). The film is also screening at other venues in select cities. Go to www.hairhigh.com for updates.