Bill Plympton’s tired of all this Disney crap.
“We don’t need any more children’s stories,” the twice Oscar-nominated filmmaker declared as we spoke about the state of his industry, the sector of non-kiddie animation that’s still struggling to exist even as studios keep churning out billion-dollar franchises for tots. “I think adults need some. Animation is such a magnificent art form. Why is it that only kids get to watch it?”
In the world of adult animation, Plympton’s cemented his elder statesman status over a three-decade career. His distinct hand-drawn style and often dialogue-free (and NSFW) surrealist satires of love, sex, and life have made films like Your Face, Guard Dog, Hair High, Mutant Aliens, Idiots & Angels, and last year’s lyrical Cheatin’, about a relationship destroyed by infidelity, instant Plympton classics.
But while the glorious ‘90s brought Plympton’s work to the Gen X masses in the form of MTV’s Liquid Television and the Spike & Mike circuit, edgier animation today is relegated to short form, on cable and the Internet. Rare is the ballsy distributor willing to gamble on a theatrical run, he laments.
“It really pisses me off that animation is only served to half of the population,” said Plympton, one of few animators still trying to get feature-length projects off the ground. “The other half can’t get animation they want to see. But I want to do films that are not for the whole family, that are for people like me, like my friends.”
Plympton grew up in 1960s Oregon on Mouse House classics like Pinocchio and Dumbo, but left the kid stuff behind when America went to war. “When I started doing illustration I was of draft age and I was afraid to go to Vietnam, but I didn’t believe in Vietnam. So I became more aware of politics, and that’s when I decided to do a political cartoon strip.”
Although he says he’s much less politicized these days, January’s deadly attack on Charlie Hebdo cartoonists over satirical depictions of the Prophet Muhammad struck a nerve. In his day, he says, the most vicious reactions he earned were mounds of hate mail, mostly for sketching controversial political cartoons about the Israel-Palestine conflict.
“I did a lot of cartoons against Israel, and the Jewish people were really upset about that,” he said. “They were very vocal. I wouldn’t say threatening, but they were definitely angry with me. I got a lot of hate mail, but that’s a lot different from what happened in Paris so I count myself lucky. But that’s part of being a political cartoonist.”
Animation brought Plympton the chance to tell two-dimensional stories, and as his films started earning cult status, they also caught the attention of mainstream stars like Madonna and Weird Al. Both commissioned Plympton’s pencils for their music videos. So, too, did one fan from Chi-Town who remembered loving Plympton’s cartoons as a kid, when his mother would take him to the Spike & Mike animation shows at Chicago’s Music Box Theater.
Years later, that kid rang Plympton in the middle of the night. “He said, ‘Is this Bill Plympton? This is Kanye West. Are you the animator guy? I want to hire you to do my next music video.’”
West had tapped Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind director Michel Gondry to helm the music video for “Heard ‘Em Say,” the mournfully soulful 2005 single with a hook sung by Maroon 5’s Adam Levine off the rapper’s second studio album, Late Registration.
“Gondry spent half a million dollars and closed down Macy’s for the night, but Kanye didn’t like the video,” Plympton recalled. “But he had to premiere the film in a week on MTV. He flew over to my studio for a couple of days to look over my shoulder as I was drawing and criticized them. He said, ‘I look more handsome than that—make me more handsome!’ I said, ‘Sure, Kanye.’”
Plympton finished just two hours before they had to deliver the video to MTV. “He paid me out of his pocket,” Plympton said. “But you know, he really is a smart guy, and very visual; he could be a theater director. I trusted his opinion.”
These days Plympton is trying something new, yet again. Teaming with writer-artist Jim Lujan—his first collaborator, ever—Plympton has started work on his eighth feature-length film, an L.A.-set story about corrupt politicians, religious nuts, crooked cops, ruthless bikers, and the low-rent bounty hunter navigating them all: Rod Rosse, The One Man Posse.
Actors Dave Foley and Matthew Modine are attached to contribute their voices to Revengeance, which Plympton proudly calls his “sleaziest” film yet. There’s even a veiled hint at Scientology in the film, “But these people wear hoods and are almost like the Ku Klux Klan, so it’s farther into the bizarre than Scientologists.”
Since there aren’t exactly a ton of financiers beating down doors to fund R-rated animated features about lowlifes, Plympton and Lujan took Revengeance to Kickstarter, where just five years ago Plympton struck crowdfunding gold for Cheatin’, raising over $100,000.
But what a difference a few years has made. “Now everybody’s doing it,” Plympton sighed. “A friend of mine ran a campaign to get money to fly into Long Island to see her favorite rock star. I thought that was a little frivolous, but that’s what people are doing now. It’s a whole different ball game.”
Plympton will soon be courting controversy once again. He’s just a few days away from locking another animated feature he plans on taking to the festival circuit in search of a distributor: An animated film about Adolf Hitler.
“It’s about Adolf Hitler and his love of cartoons, and it’s a comedy,” he laughed. “I’m going to get a lot of static on that. In fact, three of my employees quit because they didn’t want to work on it. I hope the JDL doesn’t come after me with a bomb.”
And if that’s not enough cause for outrage, the film, titled Hitler’s Folly, draws parallels between the Nazi figure and another midcentury cultural leader: Walt Disney.
“I was reading a magazine and read that Adolf Hitler was a big fan of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” Plympton explained. “He watched it constantly in his screening room. I thought, ‘This is so surreal, that the most evil man in history is a cartoon fanatic.’ I thought that was a funny idea for a mockumentary. So I drew all these parallels between Disney and Hitler.”
“The joy of being independent is I can do whatever the hell I want and no one can tell me I have to do the same thing over and over again. I don’t have to do, you know, How To Train Your Dragon 6. That’s why we need Kickstarter to help me finance these films.”
“The budgets are very miniscule, maybe $200,000,” he continued. “Compare that to a Pixar film which is $200 million. It’s unbelievably cheap, but you have to have freedom to do whatever you want and you can be offensive and say things most people don’t want you to say.”
“So that’s the flip side of independence.”
Donate to Plympton’s Kickstarter project Revengeance here.