Writer, director, and producer Ralph Bakshi got his start in animation at 21 in 1959, working for Terrytoons Animation Studio on low-end titles such as Heckle & Jeckle and Deputy Dawg. Over the next decade, he produced cartoons for a number of companies, including Steve Krantz Productions, where he directed the first Spider-Man TV series in 1967. But he didn't come into his own as an animator until, with Krantz's financial backing, he wrote and directed America's first X-rated animated feature, 1971's Fritz The Cat. A series of highly textured, idiosyncratic urban pieces followed: Heavy Traffic, Coonskin (a controversial parody of Disney's Song Of The South that's ironically available to the public while Song is kept under wraps), American Pop, and Hey Good Lookin'. Bakshi also directed three high fantasy films—the Frank Frazetta-designed Fire And Ice, the tanks vs. elves cult favorite Wizards, and the animated screen adaptation of Lord Of The Rings. In the late '80s and early '90s, he worked on a variety of projects, including The Rolling Stones' "Harlem Shuffle" video and the New Adventures Of Mighty Mouse series for CBS. But after his last feature film, 1992's Cool World, flopped and the 1997 HBO series Spicy City was summarily canceled, Bakshi left animation to become a full-time painter. His work is currently on display in Soho's Animazing Gallery, as part of the Gibson-sponsored Art Of The Guitar exhibit. Bakshi recently spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about the history of Lord Of The Rings, why some of his own work horrifies him, and why Hollywood is hell.
The Onion: Have you been paying attention to the hype over Peter Jackson's new version of Lord Of The Rings?
Ralph Bakshi: No, not really.
O: Are you interested in seeing what he does with it?
RB: Why would I be?
O: Because your version has been the definitive one for 20 years, and this is the first new adaptation since your version.
RB: It's hard for me to talk about, for reasons I'm not going to get involved in.
O: Do you plan to see it?
O: Do you think it'll work as a live-action movie?
RB: I have no idea. I've always seen it as animation. I really don't know what's happening with the live-action version. I don't understand it at all. Do I wish it to be a good movie? Absolutely.
O: What do you mean, you can't understand it? Just the decision to make it live-action?
RB: I'm not going to go into this. You've got to read between the lines. I'm sorry. I mean, I don't know the director. I have no idea what they're doing. I wasn't consulted. Certainly I love The Rings very much, and hope that my version stands up.
O: Well, let's talk about your version.
RB: [Laughs.] Thanks.
O: Your films are sharply divided between site-specific, street-smart urban dramas and high fantasy. Why those two genres? Where's the connection?
RB: First of all, animation is a medium I grew up in. It was always fantasy-oriented, or child-fantasy-oriented to be more exact. I'm 62, and I grew up in the '40s and '50s, so we're talking about Disney, right? And Fleischer. So all the animation I ever saw was of a fantasy or fairy-tale orientation… I wanted to make films that were closer to my heart. I started with Fritz, went on to Heavy Traffic and Coonskin and Hey Good Lookin'. Those films were personal paintings, and I never thought I'd do more than one. The fact that some of them became hits startled me. I thought I had one shot at these earlier films and then I'd be gone, but I wanted to take the shot, because animation was my medium and I didn't want to ape Disney. So those films were very natural for me to do. But then, as I was a young cartoonist studying my craft, cartooning and fantasy always worked together. I'm a great reader of science fiction, and certainly I read Lord Of The Rings. So I had this other love that wasn't personal—though Wizards was very personal, and I could tell you why. So it was natural for me to sometimes take a break from this heavy philosophical soul-searching I was doing and just make a film that maybe the guys in the studio would enjoy.
O: And what about Wizards?
RB: Wizards was a split difference. Wizards was about the creation of the state of Israel and the Holocaust, about the Jews looking for a homeland, and about the fact that fascism was on the rise again, I thought. That was way before the Right Wing made their appearance again, and I felt that things were shifting back. So on that level, Wizards was a very personal film.
O: What drew you to Lord Of The Rings specifically?
RB: Brilliance. Absolute brilliance. It's probably one of the greatest fantasies ever written. The language is perfect, the characterizations are perfect, the mood is perfect. There isn't a page of The Rings that you wouldn't want to re-read a hundred times. Then I heard United Artists was making this film, and John Boorman was writing the screenplay in live-action. I heard that Boorman was taking the three books and collapsing them into one screenplay, and I thought that was madness, certainly a lack of character on Boorman's part. Why would you want to tamper with anything Tolkien did? So I approached United Artists and told them the film should be made in animation, and it should be made in three parts, because there's no way you can take the three books and condense them into one film. It's a physical impossibility. And here comes the horror story, right? They said fine, because Boorman handed in this 700-page script, and do I want to read it? I said, "Well, is it all three books in one?" They said, "Yes, but he's changed a lot of the characters, and he's added characters. He's got some sneakers he's merchandising in the middle." I said, "No, I'd rather not read it. I'd rather do the books as close as we can, using Tolkien's exact dialogue and scenes." They said, "Fine," which knocked me down, "because we don't understand a word Boorman wrote. We never read the books." They owned the rights, but they never read the original books. "We ain't got time to read it. You understand it, Ralph, so go do it." So help me God. Now this is funny. UA and MGM were in the same building in those days; they occupied the same studio. And right across the hall from Mike Medavoy at United Artists was MGM, who owned the rights. So I said, "Okay, wait here." I walked across the hall—you could do these things in those days, or at least I could; I was young and had good-looking hair, you know—and went to see MGM. Dan Melnick was running MGM, he was the president, and he had done some films, All That Jazz and everything, that were very good. So he came off as an intellect, and I thought he would understand what The Rings meant, because UA did not. Me and Melnick walk across the hall to Mike Medavoy's office and make a deal right there. Melnick gives Medavoy his money back—the Boorman script cost $3 million, so Boorman was happy by the pool, screaming and laughing and drinking, 'cause he got $3 million for his script to be thrown out—MGM now owned the rights, and I walked back with Mike Medavoy from UA, and he kissed me, because I had gotten him his money back and the books were clear.
O: Why was the second half of the trilogy never filmed?
RB: Wait, I've got more to tell you about this. I'll tell you
about the second half. To make a long story short, I'm making the film for Melnick at MGM, Melnick gets fired, the whole deal falls through, and this new guy takes over, I forget his name. I go to the new guy and tell him, "Danny and I were making Lord Of The Rings," and he says, "Lord of the what? We're not going to make this fucking picture, Ralph. We don't understand it. Danny's an idiot and we don't want to make it." So I remembered that Saul Zaentz made a fortune on Fritz The Cat. He was one of the quiet investors in Fritz when I was a young man. And Fritz was a $700,000 picture that made $90 million worldwide, and is still playing. So I knew he had made a fortune, and he took it and made One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. So I gave him a call and asked him whether he wanted to make The Rings with me. And he said absolutely. So now we were back at UA, and Saul and I made the picture. It was supposed to be called Lord Of The Rings: Part One on the marquee. When I finished the film, under tremendous deadline pressure, they said, "We're dropping the Part One. People won't come in to see half a movie." I told them they can't drop the Part One, because people are going to come in thinking they'll see the whole film, and it's not there. We had a huge fight, and they released it as Lord Of The Rings. So when it came to the end, people were stunned in the theater, even worse than I ever realized they would be, because they were expecting to see the whole film. People keep telling me I never finished the film. And I keep saying, "That's right!" That's what they cost me, United Artists and probably the producer; I'm not sure who made the final decision. I was screaming, and it was like screaming into the wind. It's only because nobody ever understood the material. It was a very sad thing for me. I was very proud to have done Part One. I certainly would have done parts two and three and four in animation, but that was out of my hands, maybe. And this is where the whole thing stands. And suddenly I hear they're making a live-action version. I'm sure the guys doing the live-action version looked at my version awfully hard. I'm sure they're picking everything out that worked. I can't see them not. Why don't you ask the director whether he did, whether he ever looked at my version. If he says no, laugh in his face. Seriously, ask him. Because I heard reports that they were screening it every single day at Fine Line.
O: Do you do that yourself? Go back and screen your own films?
RB: No. I can't stand to look at them.
O: Why not?
RB: Lots of reasons. First of all, the animation isn't that good. I always think I could do it better if I'd had enough time. It frightens me, what I could have done, what I should have done. I remember the hard times I had dealing with certain things—can I say this, should I say this, do I have a right to say this? It wasn't easy. When you're breaking through, you say, "Do you show the penis? How far do you show the sexual activity? What will work in animation and what won't?" It was all brand-new, and I had nothing to look at. It brings back those very difficult decisions I had to make with no one to turn to. I couldn't screen a Disney film to be shown how to do it right. Plus, some of it's so frank and so crazy that it embarrasses me. "I don't believe I said that. I hope people don't understand what that really means." It embarrasses the hell out of me. I mean, they're up there killing God in Heavy Traffic, blowing God's head off. Without blinking an eyelash, I went out and did it. Those things scare me, frighten me. For all kinds of reasons, I just don't look at them.
O: You've actually come around so far in a circle that your own work offends you?
RB: I don't know. I'd like to make another film just to find out. I don't know if it offends me as much as that I could have done everything more artistically. I've learned a lot about art since then, painting. I've always liked to tell the truth as I see it, but I probably would say the same things with more grace now. [Laughs.] That's old age talking. I'm mellowing, don't you get it?
O: But you've considered going back to directing?
RB: Yeah, I made a couple of moves in that direction, got some flashes of inspiration. But I'm very serious about my painting. I don't want to sound pretentious or anything, but I'm very involved in painting pictures, which don't need committees, and don't need screenplays, and don't need titles thrown out in your face. It gets a little quiet, but I do sell my paintings. I'm very much in love with art on all levels—the art of animation, the art of pictures—so I'm pretty happy. And the decision to leave painting to do a movie at my age is very major, because if I go back to animation, I'll be lost again. I know what will happen.
O: According to your autobiography, you started painting seriously as far back as 1978.
RB: I didn't take painting as a lifestyle until much later. But I've always tried to paint the picture. I love painters. Painters are amazingly free people. If you had to pin down what drives me, it's freedom. The right to make choices, the fact that no one tells you what to do. I hate committees. Going to MGM or UA to get money to raise a film is every director's nightmare. Having to talk someone else into making a movie without their stupid fucking suggestions on how they think it should… You bring a movie in to these people, you get your heart into it, and they start telling you, "Yeah, we'll do it, but this is how we see it." It's the most disgusting thing in the world.
O: Your paintings are very crowded and expressionistic in a way that reminds me of your films. Are you looking for a way to recreate animation's sense of motion in your art?
RB: I am what I eat. I had the same realization a while back, that my films are crowded and collaged, and so are my paintings. That's the personality of the artist at work. I can't escape myself. It proves how close I was to my animation. Here's the same guy working. And that's why I can paint without missing animation. The same feelings I used to get in my collage scenes of Michael in Heavy Traffic and the multiple images, I'm getting those same feelings when I do my paintings. I'm not trying to animate my paintings, but this is how my mind works, I guess.
O: Do you paint for the same people you used to animate for, or do you consider an audience when you create art?
RB: I'm very selfish, or very lucky. I just make films I want to make. I didn't think anybody would go see it. You can't make a Coonskin or a Heavy Traffic and think that anyone's going to have any interest in looking at it. I just did it because I had to do it, and I had the power to do it. Let me be very clear: Fritz made a fortune. I was a hero, and no one said no to me, so I took the opportunity to do it. I could have gone on and done much more commercial things, and obviously been much wealthier, but I'm wealthy enough. I had the power to do it. They were saying, "This kid"—and I was a kid, I was 24 or 25—"did a $750,000-budgeted movie and made $90 million. Not only that, the critics mostly liked it!" So no one said no to me. They said no to me later, once they saw the films. [Laughs.] Once I had to show them the films, they got pissed off at me, but in the beginning they all liked me.
O: Coonskin was actually advertised as "the movie guaranteed to offend everyone." Did you ever actually set out to offend people?
RB: No, that's how the studio… I didn't control the advertising. When they saw these films, they'd get up ashen and turn to me in the screening room, these executives from Middle America in their suits, and they'd say, "Well, Ralph, you offended everyone. Congratulations." I mean, they were horrified.
O: What do you say to the people who are offended by your work?
RB: That's cool. Like I said, I can't be friends with everyone. I want people to react. I respond negatively to what different people say and do. That's okay. They have their rights. Just don't tell me what to make.
O: How much of your work is autobiographical?
RB: In Heavy Traffic and Coonskin, a lot. Some sequences in Fritz. I mean, psychologically. That's why I hate to look at them again.
O: Because you preserved the emotions of the time, and you don't like feeling those emotions again?
RB: How I was feeling sexually, about my hang-ups sexually. There were things being said in there that I didn't think about until I saw them years later and said, "Oh, Jesus." I mean, in Heavy Traffic, Carol says to Michael—pardon me if I insult you here—she says, "Why don't you take your cartoons around to the syndicate? Why won't they buy them?" And Michael says, "Because I still jerk off." Well, that was a problem I was having at that age; I was still jerking off. It's things like that that blow me out of my seat. The films are filled with stuff like that, where they become not the character on the screen but the character that drew them. That's hard to look at. I'm 62 now, and I was twentysomething when I drew that.
O: MGM has just reissued Heavy Traffic, so it's out there for a whole new generation.
RB: Have they?
O: The DVD came out at the beginning of September.
RB: No one tells me anything. Well, they're all making fortunes on it, so I wish them all the luck in the world. [Laughs.]
O: You weren't aware it was coming out again?
RB: Sweetheart, I'm the biggest ripped-off cartoonist in the history of the world, and that's all I'm going to say.
O: Your films tend to use naturalistic, overlapping dialogue. Was that generally scripted, or did you encourage your actors to ad-lib?
RB: I used every trick in the book, everything I felt was right. I scripted a lot of it, and with a lot of sequences I'd give them the script and say, "Start ad-libbing on this premise, on this dialogue. We'll stick to the dialogue exactly, here, 'cause I'm sure of it." Because ad-lib scenes tend to run long. And then sometimes I'd turn a tape on and say, "Look, man, just tell me what you feel about being black," and just let the guy talk. And I'd get his information and script it back into my character, and then rewrite it and get it out there. I used various ways of working tracks that I don't think enough movies do. Sound is a very important element in all films. So it's various approaches to dialogue and sounds that are scripted, that are ad-libbed, that are real, and you put all of that together and collage it. The whole trick is not to pick a line that doesn't fit what you really feel about it, no matter how good the line is. The trick is to not shift out of your interpretation of the scene as a director because someone says something brilliant that doesn't fit the particular scene. That happens a lot when you ad-lib, and that's why a lot of ad-lib films go astray.
O: Which of your movies are you happiest with? Which do you look back on with the most pride?
RB: Coonskin. Wizards. Heavy Traffic.
O: Why those three? What did you accomplish with them?
RB: I broke the back of fantasy in animation, I got very personal, I spoke about political issues that were happening at the time. And I look at them today and they're still not lying. Even Fritz. You look at these films, and you can't point to any one and say, "That was all bullshit." They hold up as accurate timepieces, so I'm very proud of that. They're pieces of America at a certain time, which animation never did. I'll take that. Rings is great, but it falls into the fantasy/adventure genre.
O: Is anyone out there producing animation today that you think is living up to the medium?
RB: John Kricfalusi.
O: He worked with you on The New Adventures Of Mighty Mouse, didn't he?
RB: Well, he worked for me a long time. I made him a director on Mighty Mouse. I've always thought he was sensational. I made him a director because no one else would, and he was ready to direct.
O: His influence may help explain why Mighty Mouse was the way it was. How did you sell a network on such an unconventional Saturday-morning cartoon?
RB: You wanna hear more stories? [Laughs.] I left animation and came back. I had a car accident, I forget what happened, it's a long story and you don't want to hear it anyhow. I needed a show to sell to get going again. So I pulled a small crew together, with John and a few different guys who worked for me before and who I really loved. We developed many shows, and Mighty Mouse was not one of them. I brought the shows up to Judy Price at CBS. She turned down all the ideas John and I had developed, including Ren And Stimpy. Then at the end I said, "I have another idea. I own the rights to Mighty Mouse." I did not own the rights to Mighty Mouse, but I had worked with Terrytoons as a young man on Mighty Mouse, and I knew Mighty Mouse wasn't around anywhere. She said, "I'd buy that show tomorrow. That's a perfect hit show." So I said, "Okay, call my agent, make a deal." And as she was calling, I was trying to find out who owned the rights to Mighty Mouse. I found out Viacom had bought all of Terrytoons' work, so I ran over to them, and they said, "Please, do something with this crap. We don't know what to do with it." So we made a deal just in the nick of time, as Judy was finishing with my lawyer. I told Judy the story and she said, "I knew you didn't have the rights, Ralph, but I knew you'd get them." And we did what we felt was right for Saturday morning. We didn't do anything wrong. We had a hit show.
O: It's been more than a decade, and people are still debating whether Mighty Mouse snorted coke on that cartoon.
RB: He never sniffed cocaine. I wouldn't have done that. John wouldn't have done that. I'm not going to alibi too much, but he sniffed a flower just like Popeye sniffed his spinach. There are scenes in all the Fleischer films of Popeye doing exactly the same thing, sniffing spinach up his nose because his hands were tied and he's trying to get to it, so it was an action we saw a million times before in animation. But he never sniffed cocaine. I mean, what for? Was there a cocaine inference? I don't know what John had in his mind, but it was not cocaine.
O: Speaking of Popeye, E.C. Segar's art seems to have a lot of influence on your recent work. You draw a lot of characters that look like the old comic strips.
RB: [Laughs.] I love anything old for some reason. I'm doing these constructions now, picking up stuff in the street. I'm doing this history-of-music thing for Gibson, the guitar company, reconstructing the history of guitars through old wood and pieces of cans I find on the street. I'm very attached to things that have a history and a past to them. They seem to have lived a life and now need another life.
O: What finally prompted you to give up on moviemaking?
RB: Lots of reasons. Sick of Hollywood, tired of fighting and selling out as an artist. I don't believe anyone should do the same thing for the rest of his life. We get a very short time on this planet. Challenging oneself is very important. It's not that I couldn't make other great animated films, but I'd done what I wanted to do, which was make animation an adult medium, if one wanted it to be. And I'd proven to myself that it could work, and it was time to move on to something else. When I sell a painting, I get very excited. I need one person to like what I do, not a million. It's a different structure here. Plus the Hollywood thing. I mean, Hollywood is no place to grow up, no place to live. It's no place to have any friends, no place to enjoy life. It's a disgusting, horrible, craze-driven town. It's only how much do you make, or how fancy a car you have, that determines your status there. And everyone's lying so much that they don't even know they're lying anymore. There's no reality to Hollywood. The fees they pay directors are obnoxious, the money they spend on movies could feed entire starving African… I mean, fuck 'em. I made a few bucks and got out. I don't want to spend the rest of my life with those people. They're disgusting people, and you can quote me on that. There's a lot of great talent there, but it's no place I wanted to spend much time. I'd rather spend time with Rembrandt and Goya at home. They're better company than those schmucks who never read Lord Of The Rings.