In Support of Cheatin’: Veteran animator Bill Plympton turns to Kickstarter for racy feature

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Every release of a new Bill Plympton movie is a reason to rejoice—literally, perhaps, if you heed the words of "The Simpsons" creator Matt Groening, who once declared, "Bill Plympton is God!" Yet being America's leading independent animator is a job that, like being God, is more about being loved and admired than about being paid, and no matter how honored you are, you've still got to put the loaves and fishes on the table: For Cheatin', his seventh animated feature (six original, plus the 1997 short compilation Mondo Plympton), the two-time Oscar nominee found himself going to the crowdfunding site Kickstarter in order to get fan-financing to complete the film.

He not only did so, but he surpassed his $75,000 goal to hit $100,916. That's about a quarter of what he says is the roughly $400,000 budget for Cheatin'—which, due to the cost of computer coloring for the 76-minute movie's 40,000 hand-drawn images, is considerably more than the $150,000 spent on his previous film, 2008's Idiots and Angels.

And the added production value shows: Cheatin' is a dreamily propulsive phantasmagoria about a passionate, star-crossed love affair between a beautiful good girl, Ella, and the Stanley Kowalski she falls for, a gas-jockey named Jake. But unlike Tennessee Williams' violent factory worker, Jake is a lover, not a fighter, and when he wrongly suspects Ella has cheated on him, he drowns his sorrow at losing the love of his life by, first, a failed suicide run in his car—offering one of Plympton's most brilliantly kinetic set-pieces and introducing a throwaway character that preview audiences are making a breakout star—and then by a series of tawdry afternoon affairs. The devastated Ella, no shrinking violet, seeks film noir vengeance—ultimately finding it in a stage magician's soul-exchanging machine.

Cheatin’ is extremely funny, magnificently animated and Plymptonianly original and creative. But, as befits a tale of amour fou, there's some nudity and more than a few sexual situations—though nothing you wouldn't see in an R-rated film or even much M-rated TV. Even so, a prejudice against animated movies for grownups appears widespread enough among some distributors that Plympton, like many indie filmmakers before him, is self-distributing.

That's both good and bad, as Plympton, a youthful 68, discusses in this interview conducted at his studio in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood, a small loft that looks like it took a detour to 1940, with steel-frame shelves packed with crates of art-crammed manila folders, side-by-side with computer terminals where three or four assistants lay color onto scans of Plympton's determinedly personal drawings. His next two films already are in some state of underway: Hitler's Folly and Revengeance. And in the meantime, anyone who doesn't see Cheatin' is only cheatin' themselves.

Film Journal International: How long did you work on Cheatin' before deciding to go to Kickstarter?

Bill Plympton: I started around 2009, and what happened is that around 2010, 2011, I met with some French producers who said, "Oh, we'll get you millions of dollars to do it. Would you like one million dollars?" I said, "Yeah!"

FJI: They do like your work in France

BP:Yeah, in France I'm like the Jerry Lewis of animation. Anyway, they said, "Stop working on it, because when we get you the money it will increase the artistic level of the film." So I waited for two years and while I was waiting I did some other projects—some TV shows and things like that. And then I just got tired of waiting for these guys. They kept promising and I said, "Forget it—I'm just going to finish the film."

That was about 2012 and I finished it in 2013, I think. And it's been doing the festival circuit—we won about 17 awards. It's been a long road—probably the longest production job I've ever done. It took about three years.

After that delay, my studio staff came to me and said, "We've figured out a way to get your original look, but digitally"—a watercolor technique I had, with cross-hatching. And I said, "That would be great." So they showed to me and I fell in love with it. The problem is that it's very slow and labor-intensive. So I had to hire four more artists to finish it—at one point I think we had eight artists. So we were doing this watercolor technique and I ran out of money really quickly. And that's when I decided to try Kickstarter. It was very successful, and we were able to pay off all the debts I had incurred while making the film. I love Kickstarter.

FJI: After everything—two Oscar nominations, awards from all over the world, various lifetime achievement awards—does it piss you off that you had to go to Kickstarter?

BP:[sighs] I'll be honest with you: It does. I mean, I like being independent, I like financing my own films and owning the copyright, but it just seems strange to me that in America there aren't more distributors who would handle animated films that are made for older people. There are tons of distributors who handle live-action films for older moviegoers, but not animated ones. For some reason there's this mindset in America—not so much Europe and Japan—that animation is a kiddie medium. And that really insults me—after all these years of making my films and not getting really good distribution I'm sort of sad that adults can't watch animation with ideas.

I know a lot of the Pixar people and they have divorces and affairs and passions and adult personalities, and yet they can't make films about those things. And that just pisses me off, that you can't deal with adult topics in animation when animation is such a brilliant art form. You can say so much more in animation than you can in live action, and yet we're prohibited from doing that.

FJI: “The Simpsons” obviously addresses things like divorce and death, but in a comedic way. Cheatin' is comedic, but basically it's like a film noir comedy.

BP: Yeah, there's attempted murders, sexual affairs—it really goes way out. There's another distributor, a friend of mine, and I really wanted him to handle the film, but then he pulls me aside and says, "Your film has nudity in it." It was like, "Oh my God, oh my God, that's the worst thing I could have done is put nudity in an animated film!" I don't know why there's that stereotype that animation is just for kids, and also that it has to be computer-animated for it to be sellable.

I'm sure you've seen Kirikou by Michel Ocelot. [The 1998 French-Belgian animated feature Kirikou and the Sorceress was followed by two more Kirikou films in 2005 and 2012.]  It's about a little African boy, growing up in Africa, who has super powers. And his mother [like other native villagers] doesn't wear a top. It's very tasteful and it was a huge box-office success in France. But America wouldn't show it [outside of film festivals and a limited release in 2002] even though everybody loves breasts. Women love ’em, men love ’em—they're great. But for some reason there's this fear that they'll distort your mind or something. So that's what I'm fighting with this film and I hope it will break that stereotype, or will help break down that stereotype…

FJI: How did you find distribution for Cheatin'?

BP:It's self-distributed. And you know, there's good and bad to that. It's a lot of work, but I keep all the rights, the copyright—I don't have to wait 10 years to get the film back—and all the money goes straight to me. It doesn't go through lawyers and agents and production companies and distribution companies who usually take their cut and I end up getting nothing. I just have to put in more work, and hopefully I'll end up getting more money back and continue making films. To me, that's the bottom line—to try and keep my studio going and keep making films. And it's starting to pay off.

FJI: This movie takes place in what seems like the '50s, but not quite.

BP:It does—it takes place in a sort of a nebulous era and a nebulous location. It's a border town, I thought, a kind of marginal town where you have a lot of shade, a lot of sun—really intense sun, even though there is a scene where there's rain. But I really wanted to get those shadows as part of the sensibility…

FJI: It gives off a real Touch of Evil vibe.

BP:You're right—it's very influenced by Touch of Evil. That was [set in] a border town, too.

FJI: The look of the film is also vaguely 1930s, 1940s.

BP:Well, I love noir films. I think I mentioned in the press kit that James M. Cain was a big influence—I like a lot of [the] films [adapted from his novels], like The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, Mildred Pierce. I like that sort of sleazy environment where everybody's evil. Everybody is selfish and out to get something. I love films where you go to a place you've never been before and you feel really curious about what this place is and you really feel alive there, like you're part of it.

All the great films are like that. Take something like Star Wars. There's no real place like [the world of] Star Wars and [filmmaker George Lucas] takes you there and you're fascinated. I just want to create my own world that's unique, a special place that's really fascinating and that you feel you want to come back to.

FJI: Jake's car ride…

BP:The suicide run?

FJI: Amazing. The impression I get was of you saying, "OK, this is going to be the big set-piece in the middle of the film."

BP:I didn't plan it to be that long. There were just so many ideas I had about him wanting to try to kill himself. I thought, "This could be a fun piece." What's interesting is the fish, which is only in the film for, like, two shots, maybe four shots. Everybody loves that fish. After I do a screening I'll say, "I'll do a caricature for you," and everybody will say, "We want the fish! We want the fish!"

FJI: That's a talent—to be able to create a character with such personality in such a short amount of time. When you're talking to people, socializing with them, are you consciously absorbing their personalities, who they are? Some writers are always "on" that way.

BP:Well, yeah, if I see someone who's unique or just really interesting in some way, I do kind of save it in my memory bank so maybe I can use them in a film later. But mostly I'm looking for humorous ideas, visual ideas. And I do have a notebook where I write down gag ideas or little things I notice that are unique and special.

FJI: So, uh…did you mean to make Jake's nose look like a penis?

BP:You know, that's come up a couple of times…

FJI: You only notice it toward the end of the film.

BP:If you saw my original drawings for Jake, his nose did not look like a penis. But the more I drew him, the more penis-shaped it became and by the end of the film I was thinking, "How'd that happen?"

FJI: I thought that was intentional—thematic. And it is thematic I guess, but more like your subconscious at work. Now, your design for Ella: There's been a lot of discussion recently how in so many Disney films, the leading women all have essentially the same face, the same nose….

BP:Yeah, I've noticed that…

FJI: …and looking at Ella here with her pronounced jawline, I thought, "Reese Witherspoon." Was that something conscious?

BP:I love [drawing] women with strong jaws and very small foreheads, and I'll tell you why: because as you say, in all the Pixar films and the Disney films the model is big forehead and big mouth and then the small chin. It's very cute and I don't want to do cute. I'm not doing cute films, okay? So I do the exact opposite. It still works—she still looks beautiful and she has cute lips…but they're fat lips and I find that very attractive. And she doesn't have big eyes, like the Japanese [anime] look—her eyes are very small and thin, yet she has a very feminine look and appeal, even though I go against all the formulas.

FJI: Can you talk about upcoming projects?

BP:Yeah, there are a couple of things coming up. I'm doing a mockumentary, so it's not all animation—in fact, there's only about ten minutes of animation—and it's about Adolf Hitler being a cartoonist. Did you know that he was a big fan of [Disney’s] Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs? He had a print in his film theatre and he would show it—a lot. He even did drawings of the dwarves. And when I read that—the most evil man in the world loved cartoons—it was just too surreal, you know? So I thought it would be interesting if the real truth of the matter was that Hitler wasn't an evil man—he just wanted to be a cartoonist. And it was Eva Braun who was this S&M dyke and was the real master of everything. It's almost done.

FJI: Do you have a title?

BP:Yeah, Hitler's Folly. We haven't started promoting yet because it isn't finished; it should be done by May, so we're going to be trying to hit the fall festivals. It's all shot and we're doing the final edit.

And then we're on to another film called Revengence. This is the first time I've worked with another writer, a guy from L.A. named Jim Lujan. In fact, he wrote the whole thing and actually designed all the characters as well, so basically I'm animating his world. But his world is my world: the underbelly of LA, corrupt politicians, bikers, wrestlers, pimps, bail bondsmen…you know, just the sleazy side of life, and I love that kind of thing.

About Bill Plympton

Born on April 30, 1946, in a Portland, Oregon hospital, Bill Plympton grew up in a family of six kids on what he calls his banker father's "gentleman's farm" in nearby Oregon City. A cartoonist from childhood, he attending Portland State University, where he first attempted animation, and in 1968 moved to New York City, where he studied for a year at the School of Visual Arts. He drew covers and illustrations for periodicals as wide-ranging as The New York Times, Newsday, Vanity Fair, National Lampoon and the delightfully pornographic Screw before producing his first animated short, 1977's darkly humorous life-lesson "Lucas the Ear of Corn."

"Your Face" (1987), his third short, was nominated for the Best Animated Short Film Academy Award, and Plympton went on to make nearly 30 more—all drawn by hand, and essentially solely by himself. His shorts—and a highly ambitious handful of features, starting with the self-financed The Tune (1992)—have played everywhere from film festivals to cable TV to short theatrical runs. And in an indication of his vitality and longevity, he earned a second Oscar nomination two decades later for "Guard Dog" (2004)—the title character of which has gone on to three sequels through 2009.

Plympton married artist Sandrine Flament in December 2011, and the two had a baby boy, Lucas, the following summer.