Q&A: Bill Plympton Talks “CHEATIN’ ” and “ABCs OF DEATH 2”
For over 30 years, there’s been no voice in independent animation as transgressive or prolific as Bill Plympton. From the early days of MTV to the Academy Awards and beyond, Plympton has delivered a great diversity of subversive work, using elements of surrealism and dark comedy to create cartoons unlike any other. Fango spoke to him about his colorful and freaky new feature CHEATIN’, and got a few words on his segment of the upcoming ABCs OF DEATH 2.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Plympton has never confined himself to a single medium, alternating short and full-length hand-drawn animation as well as live-action features. Plympton turned to crowdfunding to help realize CHEATIN’, a surreal and dark look at lust, sex and the lengths one will go for their lover. It’s unlike anything Plympton has tackled before: a romantic and fantastic genre odyssey.
FANGORIA: What inspired you to take on CHEATIN’ as your 10th independently animated feature film?
BILL PLYMPTON: I don’t know. I’m a big fan of James M. Cain, and CHEATIN’ has a Hollywood noir quality to it that I thought was really cool. Also, it’s the first time I have a female as the hero in one of my films. I got excited about that, and wanted to see what would happen when I used a woman as my central character.
Another interesting aspect was that my technique on CHEATIN’ was different than my usual style. It’s very much like the approach I used when I was doing art for magazines like The New Yorker and National Lampoon, and that really excited me. I thought, “Wow, this is going to be cool. For the first time, I’m making an animated film with an illustration style I love.”
FANG: In the Kickstarter video for the project, you stated that you were going to be doing the coloring and shading digitally for the first time in your career. Was there ever any hesitation in this decision, in maybe a territorial sense as an creator?
PLYMPTON: No, because all of my films have been colored by other people. I show them samples of the technique I want to use, and they can follow that really well. They’re all professional artists and very good. I select people who really know my work and have a variety of techniques. I’ve never had a problem with that decision. In fact, Lindsay Woods, who did most of the coloring, is a wonderful artist in her own right and added a lot of ideas that I didn’t come up with. So it’s like working hand-in-hand with other artists and developing visuals I never even imagined. That worked out very well.
FANG: What inspired you to turn to crowdfunding for CHEATIN’?
PLYMPTON: The technique we used to make CHEATIN’ is very beautiful, but unfortunately it’s also very labor-intensive. We had to bring on four other artists, or “colorists” as I like to call them, and that got very expensive. The original budget was about $200,000. We quickly went through that money and realized we were going to go into debt if we wanted to continue that beautiful look. So we decided to do a Kickstarter campaign, and we asked for $75,000. We received over $100,000, so we were delighted. I’ll be honest with you: the Kickstarter money lasted two months, and then it was gone. For the studio staff and everything, I was paying out about $30,000 a month trying to keep it going, so we had to bring in some more investors to pay for the film. Fortunately, I got a commercial job on THE SIMPSONS that helped pay off a lot of the debt that had accrued making CHEATIN’. I’m not completely out of debt now, but I’m a lot better financially than I was earlier.
I must tell you that, for me, it’s very important to me that I finance my own films, and that I own the copyrights and the rights to the movies. So even though I’ll go in debt and have financial difficulties, I believe it’ll pay off in the long run, because these works are very valuable, and in 20 to 30 years, they’ll be bringing in a lot of money. That’s why I don’t go to Hollywood or big producers to finance my projects. I like to keep them in-house.
FANG: Did you find it difficult to write for a female protagonist, as you had largely written from a male perspective in previous projects?
PLYMPTON: [Laughs] No—it felt natural, actually, as the story lent itself [to that perspective]. The gist of the story is that there’s this couple where the woman loves her husband so much that she’s willing to enter the minds of his mistresses. She’s happy to do that, because she still gets to make love to her husband, even though she’s in a different body. I know that’s bizarre, but it’s a Bill Plympton animation, so it has to be bizarre, you know? That’s what I wanted: to get into the head of this woman who loves her husband to the point where she’s willing to let him have other lovers as long as she gets to be part of the sex acts. I thought that was pretty cool, and I had never seen that done in a film. I think the audience will appreciate that.
FANG: Was it hard to maintain that narrative perspective when you started going down the rabbit hole of bizarre storytelling and surrealistic animation?
PLYMPTON: Well, if you look at the trailer [below], you can see a lot of the surrealism we used in it. That really lends itself to the story. There’s a lot of crazy nudity and crazy characters; bodies flying all over. It only was natural, since the film is animated. Also, there’s no dialogue, similar to IDIOTS AND ANGELS. It’s not a silent film, and it has wonderful music by Nicole Renaud and sound effects, but there are no spoken lines, so the storytelling is very poetic in terms of using visuals to tell it rather than voices. That’s another thing I really love about this film. It’s a dark, raw film noir about sex, but it’s very poetic, and I think that’s what people will be attracted to.
One of the things that’s very important to me about CHEATIN’ is that I believe it will be a breakthrough. For too long, America has been afraid of animated films that are not computerized and that deal with adult ideas, like revenge, lust, flirtations and stuff that people think about, but don’t really put into cartoons. I think this film will break that stereotype, and the blinders of American audiences and distributors. It’ll show that there is an audience for this kind of movie, and demonstrate a wonderful new way to see movies.
Another great thing about CHEATIN’ is that all the great films show a world and a civilization that is unique unto itself, so it’s very special and inviting. In CHEATIN’, you want to spend time within these characters’ lives, because it’s something different, new and exciting. I’ve created a world with CHEATIN’, which is a special one with cars and houses that aren’t everyday things; they’re kind of unique. The characters are very attractive and compelling. What I wanted to do with CHEATIN’ was create a world that’s not real, that is fantasy, but it’s so interesting and fascinating that you want to be a part of it.
FANG: Since you want the film to be a breakthrough of sorts, do you hope to use it as an example for other young animators to move toward more adult-oriented material?
PLYMPTON: No, because I don’t care so much about the other animators. They’re doing great stuff, and I have no concept of showing them anything. I just want to show the American public something they haven’t seen before. That’s my goal: to get the regular movie audience to watch something different and unique. That excites me, and that’s a challenge with CHEATIN’. I’m not sure if it’s going to succeed or not; that depends on whether we find a distributor that’s brave and wants to experiment and try something new.
I also believe its potential is great because of all of the new distribution venues, such as the Internet, cable and video-on-demand, and CHEATIN’ is a perfect film to take advantage of those outlets. Even though it won’t get a huge release in 1,000 cinemas, CHEATIN’ is the kind of film that would play really well on HBO, Hulu and Netflix. That’s what I’m excited about, and hopefully the way we’ll make our money back.
FANG: Would you prefer a VOD-type release over a limited theatrical engagement for CHEATIN’? Do you have any festival appearances lined up for the film?
PLYMPTON: Well, the master plan is to get into enough theaters to be qualified for the Oscar [for Best Animated Feature]. I think we’d have a good shot at being nominated, simply because all the Hollywood films look exactly the same. I’m a member of the Academy [of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences]; I know what they’re thinking, and they want something different. A couple of years ago, that French film THE ARTIST was nominated and won Oscars because the Academy wanted something new. Hopefully, CHEATIN’ will get an Oscar nomination, and hopefully even win. That’s my goal. Once I do that, everything else is easy. It’ll distribute itself at that point, and then I can do all the digital releases. So the challenge is to find a distributor who believes in the film and wants to take a chance on it. We’re trying for the Berlin International Film Festival, and hopefully we’ll get our distribution there.
FANG: You’re one of the few independent animators out there who has also dabbled in live-action filmmaking. How were those experiences for you?
PLYMPTON: Well, I’ve made a couple of live-action features, J. LYLE and GUNS ON THE CLACKAMAS, and they were nightmares because I had no control. I couldn’t control the actors, I couldn’t control the weather and every little thing that went wrong with the sound, we had to reshoot. It was just so demanding that I wasn’t able to get creative. I had to worry about technical stuff instead of creative stuff. So I believe that with animation, I can control 90 percent of the filmmaking, simply because I’m drawing it. If an actor flubs his line, I can redraw it, and there are no problems with the weather because I just draw the weather. It’s like playing God; I can control everything. It’s also a lot cheaper than live-action and I find it to have a more pleasant atmosphere where it’s more fun to just draw everything.
FANG: Can you tell us anything about your segment of ABCs OF DEATH 2? Everyone we’ve spoken to so far has been incredibly secretive about their contributions.
PLYMPTON: Well, I never got a gag order, so I can talk about it. It’s animated, and if you’ve ever seen my film HOW TO KISS, it’s like a darker, more violent version of that short.
FANG: Do you have anything else currently in the pipeline?
PLYMPTON: Yeah, I’m working on a project with Salma Hayek right now, which is part of another compilation feature; it’s an adaptation of Kahlil Gibran’s THE PROPHET. They chose the greatest animators from around the world to do sections of the book. My segment was just completed, and the plan is to premiere it at the Cannes Film Festival. It’s quite an exciting project, so who knows? I may end up going to Cannes to present the film. I’ve seen parts of it, and it’s very exciting and cool. Some of the things they’ve made is just mind-blowing.
For more on Bill Plympton and CHEATIN’, visit www.plymptoons.com or follow Plympton on Twitter: @plymptoons.