Bill Plympton's major historical claim to fame is that he was the first person to single-handedly illustrate and color an entire animated feature film—all 30,000 frames of it. But that film, 1992's The Tune, was ultimately overshadowed by his wildly popular pencil-sketch shorts, such as 25 Ways To Quit Smoking, the Oscar-nominated Your Face, MTV's Plymptoons, and, more recently, Sex And Violence and More Sex And Violence. Plympton manages, directs, and produces all his own work, which gives him freedom to experiment with genres and media. In addition to his two animated musicals, The Tune and I Married A Strange Person! (due shortly on video), he's directed live-action films, including J. Lyle and Guns On The Clackamas, and he's drawn "sleazy cartoons" for a wide variety of adult magazines while working as an illustrator and caricaturist for publications from House Beautiful to Rolling Stone. Far more often than not, his work is surreal, outrageous, graphic, bizarre, and not as profitable as he'd like. Plympton recently spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about censorship, the struggle to become a cartoon tycoon, and his forthcoming animated feature, Mutant Aliens.
The Onion: The Mutant Aliens storyboard was just published as a graphic novel. How is the film itself coming along?
Bill Plympton: It should be done by the end of this summer. I'm hoping to enter it into Sundance and Cannes and the whole festival circuit. Again, it's financed by myself and created by myself, but I have a staff of people painting cels and that sort of stuff.
O: How many people are working on it?
BP: It's all traditional animation, so it's all done by hand. We have about 10 painters, a cameraman, editor, sound, music… about 20 or 25 people all together.
O: How are you financing this one? Are you pre-releasing parts of it?
BP: Well, it's actually better now. The shorts make a lot of money. They do well in Europe, and I sell 'em to TV. I did a Geico spot, but that didn't pay for the whole thing; it only pays for part of it. I've been selling my stuff to atomfilms.com, and that helps defray expenses. And I sell merchandise: books, videotapes, posters, T-shirts, that sort of stuff. There are many sources of revenue, and I need them all to finance these feature films.
O: Does doing your own production, planning, and financing interfere with your art?
BP: Yeah, it does. I just love drawing and creating these characters, but you gotta pay the bills and do all this bureaucratic stuff. It really wears me down and sort of dissipates my energy. If I'm really feeling good and not having a lot of interruptions, I can do a minute of animation a day, so theoretically, I could do a film in three months without any interruptions. But obviously there are always details to attend to, and labs and personalities and phone calls and stuff. So it's impossible for you to do that sort of output.
O: How long has Mutant Aliens been in production?
BP: I wrote the story a year and a half ago, in August of '98, and I started drawing it around the fall of '99. I'll pretty much finish the drawing next month.
O: You're still hand-drawing each cel?
BP: Yeah, all the in-betweens and everything.
O: For The Tune, you also did all your own coloring, but for I Married A Strange Person!, you passed that stage along to your assistants.
BP: Yeah, that's much better. I like the look better. It's quicker, it feels better, and it's an easier workload for me. I'm very happy with it.
O: From the book, it looks like the dialogue in Mutant Aliens is pretty minimal.
BP: Yes. In fact, I'm cutting some of that dialogue out. For me, the perfect film has no dialogue at all. It's purely a visual, emotional, visceral kind of experience. And I think one can create wonderful depth and meaning and communication without using words. I started out as an illustrator and a cartoonist and caricature artist, so for me the visual is primary.
O: That's still a stretch for you from previous films.
BP: Yes. I think each film I do has less and less dialogue. It really helps a lot for foreign sales, because when I go to Europe there's very little problem with communication. All the gags are visual. The music they can understand, and it helps communicate a lot better. That's one of the problems I have with a lot of today's animation: I'm happy that King Of The Hill and The Simpsons and all those other films are successful, but for me, animation is a visual medium, and they're really not taking advantage of the surrealism and bizarre imagery that's available in animation. That's why I think my stuff is sort of a unique art form compared with most of the animation you see today.
O: Do you think any animators fully live up to the medium?
BP: There are some. There's Peter Chung, who did Aeon Flux. I'm a big fan of his stuff. [Hayao] Miyazaki, the Japanese animator who did Princess Mononoke and Porco Rosso, I think he's totally brilliant. And his stuff is very visual, too; that's one reason I like it. There'd probably be others if I thought a while.
O: You haven't mentioned any American production companies, or Disney.
BP: I like Disney, I've got to tell you. I mean, I go out and see all the Disney films. I did like Toy Story, Toy Story 2. I think those are wonderful films. I don't work in computer, but I thought it was a wonderful use of computer animation.
O: Now, you actually tried to get hired at Disney as a kid. In some versions of the story you were 12, and in others you were 14.
BP: It's hard for me to remember when I sent that packet of drawings off, so that's why it changes. I would guess I was 14 or 15.
O: And they told you at the time that you were too young, but once you got an Oscar nomination for Your Face, they offered you a million dollars to animate the genie in Aladdin. right?
BP: They didn't tell me that that's what they wanted me for. I only found that out later when I talked to some people in Disney animation. They never told me what they wanted me for, and that was one of the drawbacks. I was afraid they'd stick me on Duck Tales or some TV show.
O: Is that why you turned down the contract?
BP: There were a number of things. Their contract was quite all-inclusive. I asked them, "Can I work on my own little films on weekends?" And they said, "Well, yeah, sure, you're free to do whatever you want on the weekends, but we own it." And I said, "Well, what about if I just do some sketches?" "Well, we own that." "What if I just told someone a funny gag idea?" "Oh, we own that, too." And that's how Disney works. I just felt it was a little too domineering.
O: When you saw Aladdin, did you think about how it would have been different if you'd been in charge?
BP: Well, they did a wonderful job. I don't think I could have done it any better. I mean, add a little more sex in there, a little more violence… They did a very good job.
O: Getting back to Mutant Aliens, will there be songs in this one?
BP: One song. And that I've already finished. Basically, a lot of the reaction I had to I Married A Strange Person!—which I think is a great film, by the way; I think it's really different—was that it was too much action and not enough plot and character development. With Mutant Aliens I want to get a little more into the personalities and subtleties. But for Strange Person, the two big influences were Japanese animation, obviously, with all the sex and violence, and Peter Jackson's film Dead Alive. It really takes the gore and violence of your typical horror films and gives it such an extreme that it becomes humorous, it becomes surreal, it becomes a fantasy. And that's where the humor comes in.
O: Speaking of Strange Person, I understand Universal is editing the video release, although the DVD will be unrated and uncut.
O: What are they taking out?
BP: Well, they cut one scene where the star was screwing his newlywed, and there was a rear-end shot, and you see his balls swinging back and forth, which I thought was a pretty funny sequence. But they thought it was in bad taste for Blockbuster, I guess.
O: So just one shot was removed?
BP: No, it was four or five shots. There are two others from the sex scene, which are just traditional sex, in-and-out kind of sex stuff, like a porno movie. And then there was a scene where a secondary character crawls into the vagina of a woman, and they cut that out, too.
O: How do you think the film flows with the edits?
BP: It's good. I suggested the cuts with those ideas in mind, so it doesn't really affect it that much. A lot of these are just jokes. They're not really part of the plot flow or the character development. They're just gags.
O: Mutant Aliens features some extreme material even for you. The bestiality, for instance.
BP: Well, that's good old-fashioned barnyard stuff. When you're a kid, you see animals screwing and stuff like that, so I don't know if it's that outrageous. I think it's funny more than anything else.
O: Would you rather shock people or make them laugh? Or is one just a means to the other?
BP: One thing leads to another. There's a quote at the front of I Married A Strange Person! that's loosely based on a Picasso quote in French, so the translation isn't perfect. In essence, it says, "I hate good taste: Good taste is death to creativity." And I think that applies to this film, in that if it were a tasteful film, it would be very bland and boring. I think it's part of the responsibility of an artist to shock, to upset, to make people think differently, and to surprise people. And that's where the good humor is, if there's a surprise and there's something unexpected. Something that's not normal, not in the realm of general living expectations. So I try to really push the edges of good taste with this film. I try to show images that people haven't seen before. And that's, I think, my duty as an artist.
O: You've said in interviews that you used to censor yourself a lot more than you do these days. It's hard to see that, considering how extreme and surreal your older work is.
BP: Well, when I was doing illustrations and cartoons in the '70s, I did some stuff for Penthouse and Playboy that was pretty sexy. And once I started doing films, I felt a certain sense of responsibility: "Oh, I gotta cut back on that. It's a bigger audience, and it's got to sell to television." And then I found out that there actually is a market for adult, over-the-top humor. In Europe, they're a lot more open to that. In video, you can get away with a lot more craziness, pushing the extremes of good taste. So once I started trying to slip in a few of these really outrageous gags, people went nuts. They loved it. So I pretty much gave up on trying to censor myself. But if the audience is totally disgusted by it, I probably will not put it in.
O: Back in your illustration days, you also did a political comic strip, Plympton. Whatever happened to that?
BP: It wasn't that successful and, quite frankly, that was a sidetrack in my career. I mean, it was good, it got printed in about 20 papers around the country… I think the problem was that it had words in it. It wasn't really visual. And it just did not take off. Maybe it was too liberal, too, I don't know. And I wasted, I think, eight years on that thing. I think if I had been animating during that time, I'd probably be like Tim Burton by now. I'd be big-time.
O: Did it really take up that much of your time?
BP: It was a lot of work. I was still doing illustrations and caricatures at the same time, but you always had to think of the ideas, watch a lot of TV, do a lot of clipping of newspaper articles and pictures. You know, there was a good side to it, too, because you had to think real fast, and I learned to write jokes real quick and come up with gag ideas real quick. And also, I sort of developed a drawing style that I use now in my animation. In that sense, it was a real good thing that I did those cartoons.
O: With the new boom in animation, have any of the other big animation houses tried to hire you?
BP: No, and I'm surprised. You know, it's something I really don't understand. I see these young kids out of art school getting opportunities for TV shows like God, The Devil And Bob and The Family Guy. I mean, they're not bad shows, but these are kids who don't have much experience. And I'm really surprised that Fox hasn't called me up and said, "We want you to do a TV series," because my stuff is known all over the world. I've got a name. I can write gags very quickly, and I can draw very quickly. I'm surprised I haven't had more queries from these studios. But maybe they think I'm like a raving independent, that I'm just hard to work with or something. But I'm not; I'm really a normal, average, all-American guy.
O: Working for a network would rob you of most of your independence, though. Could you work that way?
BP: You look at something like South Park, though, and those guys have a lot of freedom. They get to do pretty outrageous stuff. I think there's an opportunity to do something like that.
O: They're really the exception to the rule, though.
BP: They are. That's true. But, you know, I'm jealous! These guys grew up on my cartoons. Same thing with Matt Groening and Mike Judge; they saw my stuff at [the] Spike And Mike [animation festivals], and I was sort of a big influence. These guys are multimillionaires! Here I am trying to pay my bills, and these guys are tycoons, cartoon tycoons. And I wonder, "Why not me? Why am I not up there?"
O: Your plate is pretty full as it is, though. You do comic strips, ads, short pieces, live films, animated films. How do you schedule it all?
BP: The scheduling isn't a problem. It's paying the expenses. I'm still just getting by. If I had an offer from a network, I would definitely jump at that chance. All the stuff I do is pretty much at my own leisure, so I always have time to do commercials or any other kind of project.
O: Your commercials actually look a lot like your independent work. Do you get creative control with commercials?
BP: If you're talking about the Geico spot, no. That was written by the agency with me in mind, so they knew the kind of humor I was good at, and they did that spot for me. Generally speaking, I don't get to write any commercials. However, I did do two commercials back in the mid-'80s—one was for Soloflex and one was for the Oregon Lottery—and they were both censored because the audience response was such that people were offended by the commercials. So I've got to say, there are a lot of agencies out there that do try and do things differently, and try to shock people, for lack of a better word.
O: You've also done international ads: British snack foods, the Finland lottery, what looked like a Korean movie-theater PSA. How did that happen?
BP: I don't know. I think my films do well overseas, so they know who I am and they just call me up. I think it's mostly from MTV that these people know me. That's my guess, anyway. And they find out where I live and call me, and I'm happy for that.
O: When you're doing ads, do you ever worry that you're selling out?
BP: Very, very quickly. And then I look at the amount of the check and realize I've got to pay my bills, pay my artists, and pay my labs. So that idea is gone very quickly.
O: What prompted you to experiment with live action?
BP: Boredom, I think. I really wanted to try something different, I wanted to meet people, and I just wanted to see if I could do it. I saw Terry Gilliam as very successful doing it, and Tim Burton. These guys moved from animation to live action. And I had some ideas that I thought would be good, but the films were very unsuccessful. I think they're good films, but for one reason or another they did not get distribution, and I lost a lot of money. In the future, I might do more live action but, generally speaking, I love animation. It's what I do best, and it's really the best way for me to communicate my twisted brain.
O: Were you really attacked by a half-naked transvestite on the first day of shooting J. Lyle?
BP: Yes, yes. She had a little nightie on that went down to her waist, and that was all. Oh, and she had heels on, spiked heels. She grabbed a long pair of scissors that we were using on the set and stabbed me in my elbow. When the ambulance arrived, they wanted to take me to the hospital, but I said, "I'm trying to make a film here, and I can't leave." So they patched me back up, and I went back to directing.
O: Was she arrested?
BP: Yeah, they arrested her. In fact, as the cops tried to get her into the car, she stabbed one of the cops in the leg. She was really feisty. I think she was on crack at the time, and she was really psychotic. It was really a crazy day.
O: What's a normal day like for you? How do you decide which project to work on?
BP: They're not all the same. But right now I'm doing the feature film, so I get up at around 6:30, 7 in the morning and draw for four or five hours. Then my employees come in and I attend to them, and then in the afternoon I draw some more. They leave around five and I draw some more. Around seven, I may go out and see a movie or meet some friends for dinner, but that's about it. It's pretty much at the drawing board.
O: You spend most of your time alone in the studio?
BP: Yeah, for about 12 hours drawing, then I go see a movie or watch a movie on TV.
O: Do you listen to music while you work?
BP: Yeah, I do. I listen to Emmylou Harris. She's my favorite. I don't know why, but I just feel more creative with her playing. I ran into her at Sundance, actually. I've listened to her music for 20 years, so I felt like I was friends with her. So she walks by, and I say, "Emmylou! Hey, how you doin'?" You know, you see an actor in a movie and you sort of feel connected with them. [Laughs.] So I felt she was, like, my buddy. I said, "Oh, you've got to see my movie; it's playing tomorrow night at this theater!" She thought I was a stalker. So she backed away and sort of ran for her life.
O: You seem to like older music, judging from the soundtracks of your films.
BP: Yeah, I like roots music, surf music, rockabilly, country-western, that kind of stuff. It's really fun.
O: What's next, once Mutant Aliens is done?
BP: I'm thinking about doing a short about a restaurant, just like a 10-minute short. I'm actually talking to a couple of networks about doing a show, but nothing has been finalized, so who knows whether it's going to happen or not? Then I want to start another feature. I have another feature about dating in the '50s that I want to get going on. If I can do a feature every two years, and do a few shorts and maybe a TV show, that's all I really need.
O: It sounds like you're spending your life exactly the way you always wanted to.
BP: It's wonderful. Who knew when I was four years old and first saw Daffy Duck on TV and said, "This is what I want to do!" that I'd be here doing it? And you know what? It's very surprising to me that more people can't do it, because it's not that difficult. I don't think I'm really that talented or anything. It's just a couple of rules. If you check my web site [www.awn.com/plympton/], I talk about it, and it's just a matter of making your films funny and making them inexpensively. If you can keep them under a certain budget, there's a market for that stuff, and it's a big market. It's not that difficult to do. You don't have to be a great artist, you don't have to be a great businessman, and you don't have to be terrifically funny. Well, you do have to be funny, I guess. That is pretty important.