Earlier this week I had the pleasure of sitting down with the very awesome Bill Plympton who needs little introduction. His 5th feature film to date, Idiots and Angels , is getting its theatrical release this October 6th here in New York at the IFC Center. Plympton’s catalog of shorts and features are often comedic and gag oriented romps while this film is a big change of pace. Idiots and Angels is a handsomely dark tale about a man of loose morals that wakes up sprouting wings on his back, the wings lead him to good deeds which he constantly fights with. For the sake of disclosure, when I graduated college my first real job in animation was coloring on this film for Bill so I’m a little sentimental about it. When I got to sit down with Bill he let me in on the journey from the finished product and festival premiere in 2008 to laborious effort of self releasing Idiots and Angels ;
Bill Plympton: Idiots and Angels had its premiere at the TriBeCa film festival in 2008. It was exciting because the reviews were good, people were buzzing about it and the audience loved the film, but no distributors came forward to pick it up and we were very disappointed. We had a lot of distributor’s screenings and I knew a lot of them, they’re friends of mine. So the reason why it’s taken so long for the film to hit the theaters is that we’ve been pursuing these distributors they say they’re interested in the film, and then eventually say no. Now, I don’t now why that happens.
I don’t know whether it’s because the film doesn’t fit the formula of computer animation for families, and distributors feel there is no audience for this. Maybe my film is too crazy, or my past record I haven’t had a big blockbuster, or maybe the times are bad for independent distribution? So it was really very frustrating two years because I knew it was a good film. People loved the film it was a big success in Europe. It had a big French and German release and is coming out in Russia. We sold it to ten territories. I know it is a good film but I never understood why in the U.S., the home of animation, I couldn’t get a release on it. I then decided six months ago that I had to release it myself. I called up the theaters I knew in the area some got to talk to the IFC. IFC center was my initial choice because they released Sita Sings the Blues and the Oscar nominated films there to great success. I didn’t hear back from them for a good two or three months so I was getting very concerned. Idiots and Angels had to come out this year to qualify for the Oscars and if I didn’t bring it out this year, it would be too late. So back in July I was a really nervous guy and I called up my buddy Ed Arentz at cinema village. I asked him if he wanted to release it and he said ‘yeah, let me look at it’ so I sent it to him and never heard back from him either. I felt awful I though ‘oh man am I gonna have to show this film at a bar and just sell tickets at the door?’ Finally IFC called me back and said they wanted to show the film in October which I was very delighted with and then I get an angry phone call from IFC saying ‘your film is playing at the cinema village how dare you, we had a deal! You’re supposed to show with us! We have the rights.’ So all of sudden people wanted the film so I had to call up cinema village and say ‘you never called me back, how can you show my film without my permission? We never made a deal’ and so that was very embarrassing. It was a pretty tough phone call to make because Arentz wanted and liked the film.
The whole procedure I’m doing is very, homemade. Just like the film was homemade and self-financed, the distribution will be the same thing. I’m paying for the posters, t-shirts, postcards, trailers, film prints, press, and press agent. It is kind of an education in how to self distribute which I believe is becoming increasingly important. I think a lot of distributors are dying out or becoming very conservative in what they release. So if you have a film you really believe in, and I believe in my films, sometimes its better to self release it and to put it out there yourself. That way you retain all the rights, television, DVD, internet, non theatrical, all the rights are retained by you and hopefully you make a profit in the end.
Katie Cropper: What inspired this change in story direction for you, and why this film so much darker than your really popular comedic shorts?
BP: I think I just wanted to try a different direction, I wanted to make a film that was much more intimate and personal, something that would delve a little deeper into personality. A lot of critics were saying my films were superficial and just joke oriented and I wanted to try a different direction. So that -not only is the technique different but the story telling is different. I actually did an earlier storyboard on this film -the whole thing was story boarded and it went into a bunch of adventure and chases and crashes and wild sex jokes and everything and I realized that isn’t what this story is about. Its about this guy and his soul, his wings are his soul. So I threw it all away and I rewrote the storyboards to be more intimate, more personal. A little more soulful religious kind of experience, and people are shocked that this film is so spiritual -the whole thing about Jesus and main character going up into the sky when he dies and coming back reborn a whole rebirth. So there is a lot of that religious iconography in the film -and I’m not a religious person I don’t want to prosthelytize religion but there is something about it that makes it really kind of spiritual. Some people can take it as a religious spirituality or just a sort of personal kind of spirituality.
KC: Do you think you’re going to stay with that kind of theme with your next feature?
BP: Well I’m working on two features right now actually. I’m work on this film titled Cheatin’ -which we may change the title. That film is very similar to idiots and angels in that its about two people and their love together. There is some humor and some sex but its again, more about relationships. Then with the another feature which is totally wacky its called Tiffany the Whale, and I’m doing these at the same time simply because the first film, Cheatin’ we want to raise money for. That takes a year or two to raise money so I’m sitting back doing nothing, and I had this idea for Tiffany so I wanted to get that going. Hopefully that [Tiffany] will be in motion while the other film [Cheatin’] gets money.
KC: Idiots and angels is all pantomime with a lot of really great music do you think the lack of dialogue creates challenges for you to tell the story or is it easier for you to storyboard and kind of the narrative more clearly that way?
BP: I’ve done a number of shorts in pantomime – the dog films, Shuteye Hotel, 25 ways to quit smoking so I wanted to try and do a feature using that. I felt very comfortable with it and it felt like it was really easy way to tell a story. So I thought this would be a good film to go without dialog and just use the music as the story telling device. And it worked; there are three reasons why I enjoy doing it. One was, its so much easier to animate -you don’t do lip-sync which takes a lot of time and it really sort of drags me down. Two, I’m not really good with writing dialog, I like telling stories visually and three, it is a lot cheaper to distribute the film because you don’t have to do dubbing and subtitles which is very expensive. So for those three reasons I like the process, I like the way the film is made, and I want to do it again for the Cheatin’ film. No dialogue just seeing people’s faces and having them act rather than talk.
KC: So because the music is really important to the film did you have the music going into it or did you just have an idea of what you really wanted use or was that all after the film was animated?
BP: The music was after, or actually during. While I was drawing the film I would listen to a lot of music. People would send me CDs and I would listen to them while I drew, and if it was something that connected or clicked with what I was drawing I would make a note of that and try and get that song. I tried to steer away from big names because I know that’s expensive. The only one big name I listened to was Tom Waits. I don’t know Tom Waits I’ve never met him but I know Jim Jarmush and through Jim I was able to contact Tom Waits and he [Waits] loved the film. We showed him a rough cut and he said we could use any song that we wanted from his library, which was very cool.
KC: Do you think that the payoff of self-distribution makes the hard work worth it because you get to retain all your rights?
BP: I do, it’s a hell of a lot of work. The responsibility for getting the prints there in the right format, getting the posters made and distributed, trailers made, flyers made, doing interviews, finding interviews, finding people to do question and answer -It’s a lot of work. You’ve got to coordinate a lot of people and this is what distributors do and they’re good at it and they’ve done it before they have a system they’ve set up for it and I’m not. Like most artists I’d prefer to just sit at home and draw and make my films that to me is the pleasurable part. If I want the film to get a good distribution, and if I want to make money back on the film, I have to do it. I’ve invested a lot of money into it, and sometimes its better to self distribute. That way you own the copyright and it doesn’t go on a shelf and never gets released -who would want that?
KC: You’ve always been going out going to film festivals and doing self promotion work
BP: I do enjoy it yeah, I enjoy meeting with people and meeting with fans, going to festivals. It’s a lot of fun and its also part of the business. Meeting with distributors, buyers, clients, and fans – I think that may be one reason why I’m somewhat successful is that I like traveling and promoting. Some people call me the Johnny Appleseed of animation because I’m always out there pushing animation, and independent animation not just Pixar and Dreamworks. It is part of the job that I do like and enjoy – the business part is the real nightmare for me and is something I wish I could avoid, but if I want to make money then I have to do it.
KC: You prefer creating features though to the shorts right?
BP: No, actually the features are fun and I really enjoy that but the shorts are fun also. What I like to do is, do a feature then maybe do two shorts while I’m working on the scripts for the next feature and then work on that new feature. I like to intersperse them it keeps me excited about what I’m making.
KC: Every time you make a new feature does it get easier?
BP: It is easier, big reason is that I don’t have to do painted cels anymore. Hair High was a real nightmare with that, it was so expensive and such a laborious project. The shift from Hair High to Idiots and Angels, which was pencil drawings scanned in, was just a dream it was so fast and easy so much fun. So it does get easier and the process seems to be getting easier with the shorts too. It just seems like I have too many ideas and they’re just fun to make, that’s the secret.
KC: It’s good that technology is catching up with you and the rate in which you work/create. -So at these festivals what is the reaction you’ve been getting from audiences that are so used to your previous comedic stuff?
BP: Oh, they love it. The interesting thing is I’m getting a lot of older fans, older men and women. Usually its the college kids that love my stuff because its so wacky and crazy and bizarre. Now its older people that really like Idiots and Angels I think it appeals to a much broader spectrum of the audience because of the spirituality and morality that is involved – Its a lot deeper.
KC: Do you think that the recent indie animation features have changed the direction of mainstream features?
BP: I think that it is a really healthy movement that is going on. In all modesty I think that I had little bit to do with that with the release of The Tune back in 1992. I think once the first self animated, self produced feature to actually get a theatrical release. I think people were inspired by that especially with the change in technology there are films like Queer Duck, Sita Sings the Blues, Waltz With Bashir, and My Dog Tulip. These are films using the same kind of formula that I did and I think that’s really helping and I hope that it continues to grow and build its audience. One of the problems in the states is that many people feel that animated feature films are for children or family fare, and I disagree. There are a lot of great films with adult ideas that can be shown in animation. Ralph Bakshi did it back in the 70’s and somehow he’s been sort o forgotten its almost old history now. So, I hope that like in Europe the US will start to build an audience for adult ideas in animated feature films.
I want to thank Bill for letting me come by his studio to talk a bit about Idiots and Angels it was really fun. It really is a unique and beautifully dark film that is really worth checking out if you haven’t seen it on the festival circuit. –and if you have, See it again! and support independent home grown New York animation!
The Screening dates so far are:
SVA Theater – October 5th 2010
IFC Center New York, NY – Opening October 6th, 2010
Laemmle Sunset 5 Los Angeles, CA – Opening October 29th, 2010
The Music Box Chicago, IL – Opening December 1st, 2010
Bill will be on hand handing out postcards and signature doodles after the openings so come out and have a beer with Mr. Plympton after the screening–he is always a good time. Bill will also be making an appearance at the New York Comic Con/Anime Festival selling DVDs, graphic novels, and other Merch