Talking to Bill Plympton About Indie Animation, ‘Adventures in Plymptoons!’, and Saying No to Disney
Bill Plympton feels insulted. This despite the fact that the reigning guru of indie animation is celebrating the release of the feature-length documentary based on his life and artwork. Produced and directed by filmmaker/artist/actress Alexia Anastasio, Adventures in Plymptoons! will be available through Cinema Libre on September 18th.
There Plympton – with wide, tired eyes; sparsely tousled light-brown hair; and characteristically laid-back t-shirt and shorts – sprawls out on his couch in the corner of his modest one-room animation studio, politely arguing over the phone with a representative of whatever art show or film festival will be graced this week with the work of “one of the only people who makes a living doing indie animation.”
Above him hangs “Weird Al” Yankovic’s platinum album for Straight Outta Lynwood… next to Plympton’s two Academy Award nomination certificates and a brazenly loud air conditioning unit. Invoking the third person with a surprising degree of insouciance, the artist soon completes his call in order to speak with me, reminding the person on the other end of the phone that “Bill Plympton is being mistreated.”
And with a film about his life coming out with such a claque of eclectic luminaries as: Moby, Terry Gilliam, Martha Plimpton (no relation), Ron Jeremy, Lloyd Kaufman, Matthew Modine, Ed Begley Jr., Ralph Bakshi, “Weird Al” himself (for whom Plympton has animated a few music videos), and numerous Plympton-ites involved in everything today from Pixar to The Simpsons to SpongeBob SquarePants all touting the man’s ineffable genius, perhaps indeed Plympton has every right to feel slighted if not properly accommodated…
In the film, director Alexia Anastasio purports to have first met you as a production assistant to whom you revealed your rather salacious tie. Was this indeed the inception of the film?
I don’t really know. That was her memory. But I do remember meeting her a couple of times at Sundance and during the making of a film in which I had a small role.
When did Alexia actually broach the subject of the documentary?
It was about three years ago as I can recall. It was probably in this office. She came here and sat down and asked if I’d ever done a documentary about me, but they were all quite a while ago. And she said, “Well, I’d like to do one for you.” And I said, “Great, I think it’s a good idea.”
One of the problems I have is since my stuff doesn’t really appear on TV regularly like Family Guy or The Simpsons, people don’t really know my work. It’s more available on DVD and occasionally on some cable channels and the Internet occasionally so I’m not really a big name. So I was hoping the documentary would help spread my work and make people more cognizant of my career and animation.
This is the ultimate look at my career, my life, and my art. And that’s why I’m so happy that she did such a good job on it.
The regular guy on the street may not necessarily be familiar with your work – until he sees a frame or two of your signature style that has become ubiquitous in presence and influence over the years – but it’s clear from the film that you have your fans in the world of animatophiles and animators.
At the premiere of [1992 Plympton film] The Tune in LA, Matt Groening was there and Matt got really drunk, and this was around the time when The Simpsons was really taking off, and that’s where he said that famous quote, “Bill Plympton is God.” I think he had a few beers, but he still stands by it and has never retracted that statement, so I’m going to accept it.
Yeah, I get a lot of fans. I think they really like my work. It’s dark, it’s sort of antiestablishment. It’s rebellious. It’s sort of offensive. It’s sex and violence.
It’s something that everybody wants to do, but because of certain television standards and theatrical standards, it’s hard to get distribution. But my films are able to sell… especially overseas where they’re a lot more liberal about what they can show on television. There’s a lot of nudity in my films.
I offend a bunch of people. My parents are offended by my work. And I think that’s why I’m still sort of cloistered in this subculture, kind of like John Waters or Jim Jarmusch.
There’s an interesting dichotomy there, because in the film you talk about how after your first Academy Award nomination, the big studios like Disney came to you and offered to bring you aboard. But then you turned them down. It sounds like you would want to be part of something bigger and yet you don’t want to sell out –
It wasn’t that I would be selling out. I have no problem selling out. I mean, I would love to make a lot more money. It’s just that I would have had to close my studio down, I would have had to let go of my people, I would’ve had to move to the West Coast. I would have had to change my style for them. The money was good, the money was tempting. It was the contract that really turned me off. I would have had to stop doing anything else. I still would like to make my films. I still think it’s possible.
It’s my belief that America is starting to change. It’s starting to accept more adult animation, more offensive animation, more sophisticated stories for adults. Just like the graphic novels have sort of evolved here in America to become a very powerful art form, I think adult animation will also soon become more popular. And hopefully there’ll be more of an audience for the type of films I make.
It’s funny how back in the sixties, you could do these films. I don’t know what happened, but I think because of Pixar and Disney, the whole mindset of distribution is that animation is only for kids. And I believe that that’s not true.
The distributors are too afraid to spend a lot of money to find out if there is an audience out there for my kind of film. So consequently, I have to do it on my own: self-distribution, self-financing, self-merchandising. It’s not a pleasant thing to do, but if I want to get my work out there, it’s what I have to do.
This goes back to your earlier question about why young kids really respect what I do and are excited about what I do: because I’m doing this on my own, making this career, making this studio, making this genre – adult animation – single-handedly.
Laika is getting close to doing adult animation. They did ParaNorman and Coraline. They want to do something that’s a little more adult. But there’s still no one in America that’s doing that kind of thing: serious adult animated feature films. And I hope I can be the one to change the mindset of distributors.
Overall, what are your thoughts on how Adventures in Plymptoons! turned out?
The one complaint I do have – and I told Alexia this, and obviously it’s her film, she spent the money, she busted her butt for three years putting it together – but I think there are too many talking heads just talking about me. I mentioned to her originally I didn’t want a puff piece. I didn’t want a glamorizing of my career. And a lot of these people are talking about Bill and how great he is.
Ultimately, though, it was wonderful. And that screening at the MOMA with the standing ovation, you can’t get much better than that. I’m starting to seep into American culture, which is sort of weird and I think it’s a result of the documentary and my two books [Independently Animated: Bill Plympton: The Life and Art of the King of Indie Animation and Make Toons That Sell Without Selling Out]. I’m not gonna go away. I’m here, I’m making these films, and they’re very different from what you can see at the usual movie theater and on television.
If you’re afraid of nudity, the documentary does have me naked in it, so you may want to close your eyes during that part of the documentary.
Mathew Klickstein is currently completing SLIMED!: The Oral History of Nickelodeon’s Golden Age for Penguin Book Group USA. Yes, a BOOK about TV.