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Animator Bill Plympton: “To make a film, you must have the naiveté and curiosity of a child.”

Animator Bill Plympton: "To make a film, you must have the naiveté and curiosity of a child."

Animator Bill Plymton’s latest animated feature, “Idiots and Angels,” is being released Wednesday, October 6 at the IFC Center in New York. In anticipation of the film’s release, Plympton spoke with indieWIRE about how he got into animation, and what inspired him to direct his latest, “Idiots and Angels,” which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival back in 2008.

Over the years, animator Bill Plympton has cultivated a rabid following with his inimitable cartoons and illustrations. Two of his animated short films have been Academy Awards® nominees, he has collaborated with the likes of Kanye West and Weird Al Yankovic on music videos, and his drawings have popped up in publications ranging from The New York Times and The Village Voice to National Lampoon and Vogue. With “Idiots and Angels,” his most provocative work to date, he takes a darkly comic, slightly surreal look at a man torn between good and evil. The story revolves around a boorish businessman who wakes up one day to find angel’s wings growing out of his back. To his dismay, the wings compel him to act against his nature, forcing him to perform good deeds and refrain from the angry, selfish impulses that otherwise rule his life. Needless to say, his first instinct is to remove the wings, but each time he attempts to do so, they seem to grow back. Along the way, he encounters a cast of characters that includes a scheming, opportunistic doctor; a pretty blonde with a penchant for salsa music; and a gruff, ill-humored bartender. The story unfolds without any dialogue, allowing Plympton’s distinct visual style (in this case, hand-drawn with pencil and paper and scanned for color on a computer) and sardonic wit to take center stage. With an eclectic soundtrack featuring the likes of Tom Waits, Pink Martini, and Hank Bones, Idiots and Angels will undoubtedly ensure additions to the ranks of Plympton’s evergrowing fan base. [Synopsis courtesy of the Tribeca Film Festival]

Director Bill Plympton on what lead him to become an animator…

I remember at a very early age being hugely attracted to the animated antics of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, and even then I knew that’s what I wanted to do when I grew up. So I was always drawing, especially funny drawings — Sketches that made people laugh. My dad was always the life of the party and I marveled at how he could make everyone feel good whenever he entered the room. He had the power of humor.

Now, I wasn’t particularly funny with my conversation, but I knew I could make people laugh with my funny drawings and that was good enough for me. But unfortunately for me, when I got out of college, the animation business was dead! What was I to do? There was no studio hiring animators – studios were shutting down, in fact. So I took my cartoon skills and became an illustrator, caricature artist, gag artist.

The benefits of working as a print artist for 15 years were two-fold – One, I developed a style that was fast and unique and two, I learned how to write gag ideas fairly quickly. So in 1985, animation was coming back, MTV started to show animation, “Roger Rabbit” was a big hit and Japanese anime was everywhere. Also, at this time, people like Jim Jarmusch and Spike Lee were making their own films outside of the Hollywood scene. I decided that if they could do it, then so could I, so I created a short little film called “Your Face.” And much to my surprise, the film was a big hit. It won many prizes, got nominated for an Oscar, and best of all, sold all over the world.

I called all my publications and told them I was leaving print and moving into animation. They all laughed at me and said, “Don’t you know animation is dead? No one makes money on short films.” But surprising me again, each film I did after “Your Face” was a big success and made good money. “25 Ways to Quit Smoking”, “How to Kiss”, “One of Those Days” and “Plymptoons” – I was on my way.

In 1990, I put together all my shorts on a video tape and was shocked to discover it was about an hour long. In four years, I’d almost made a feature film! Wow! I’d always wanted to make a feature film, even since I was a kid and saw “Dumbo,” I thought it was a magical art form. I’d love to work on an animated feature.

Mostly out of naiveté, I decided to make an animated feature film by myself. With Maureen McElheron helping with story and the music, I started drawing the film that would eventually become, “The Tune”. It was a hit at Sundance, and got distribution from October Films. While it didn’t make a lot of money, the reviews and audience response inspired me to make many more animated features.

“Idiots and Angels” is my sixth animated feature and to my mind, the best. It’s a very different film from my others for a number of reasons. One, now that the cost of digital-to-film conversion has come way down, I don’t have to use the cumbersome and expensive 35mm rostrum camera to shoot my films, I can just scan the drawings into the computer and color then digitally. Two, the resolution of the pencil drawings I create is so much better on the computer then the copier reproduced acetate cells. So the finished film is a much closer representation of imagery I see in my head. Three, this film is a much more mature and character driven story. In the past, I relied on sex, violence, and gags to make and entertaining film. “Idiots and Angels” has all those qualities, but also a much deeper story. Many people think it’s very spiritual – They believe I’ve turned religious. Not to worry, I’ve not become a religious fanatic. I wanted to use legendary storytelling devices to relate the story of this asshole man who must battle for his soul.

People who’ve seen this film say that Plympton is growing up. God! I hope not! I believe that to make a film, you must have the naiveté and curiosity of a child. One day I’ll return to the sex, violence, and gag-filled films of my past.

Plympton on what inspired the idea for “Idiots and Angles”…

The core idea of “Idiots and Angels” came to me while I was in France and someone asked me, after seeing “Hair High,” what my next project would be. Off the top of my head, I don’t know where it came from – I blurted out “An asshole guy wakes up one morning with wings on his back, and he doesn’t like it because the wings make him do good things.”

The kid who asked the question thought that was an excellent idea for a film, and after I thought about it, so did I. In fact, that night in my hotel room, I began to make sketches and plot ideas for what eventually became “Idiots and Angels.”

Plympton on how he managed to get Tom Waits and Terry Gilliam involved…

I knew I didn’t want any dialogue in the film, because I wanted to tell a deeper and more soulful story, so I felt that the music should help carry the narrative. While I was drawing a lot of the bar scenes (most of the film takes place in “Bart’s Bar”) I listened to a lot of Tom Waits. I didn’t know Tom Waits, never met him, but I do know Jim Jarmusch and I sent him a rough cut of the film, asking him if he liked it, could he pass it along to Mr. Waits. After three weeks of no response I was sure Tom hated the film… then, I got an e-mail from Tom’s wife, saying that he loved it, and I could have any song I wanted for the film. Wow, what a cool guy! I think that says a lot about Tom Waits and his support for other artists.

As for the Terry Gilliam connection, I’ve known him for fifteen years, but I ran into him again last year at the Dubai Film Festival, and he started looking at my drawings from “Idiots and Angels”, which I conveniently had with me in my portfolio – and he was blown away by the art. He asked how he could help with the film release, and I asked him if he’d like to “Present” the film. Thus, the poster states, “Terry Gilliam Presents,” which I thank him for his generous support.

In fact, I’m doing two more projects with Terry Gilliam’s involvement. Alexia Anastasio is making a wonderful documentary about me and my career, called “Adventures in Plymptoons.” That has interviews with, among others, Terry Gilliam, Tom Kenny (Sponge Bob), Ed Begley Jr. I’ve only seen a few clips and it’s very funny, so watch for it sometime in the next year. I believe she wants to do the festival circuit in spring.

The other project is a big coffee table book by Rizzoli Books that should be coming out in April of 2011. I’ve seen the sample pages, and it’s wonderful. It covers the full spectrum of my artistic career, from my high school art to my latest animated feature film.

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