BILL PLYMPTON, “IDIOTS AND ANGELS”
If two-time Oscar-nominated animator Bill Plympton had been alive in early 20th century Berlin, he’d surely have aligned himself with Dadaists like George Grosz and Otto Dix, satiric artists whose mastery of the comic grotesque are echoed in the Oregon native’s deranged, darkly comic visions of everyday life. Like his illustrious predecessors, Plympton was a widely published illustrator and political cartoonist; his eponymous comic strip debuted 35 years ago in the Soho Weekly, years before he ever inked a cel. A decade later, after tinkering with short animation, he made his first feature, The Tune, a landmark in single-artist independent animation. (Plympton drew every frame himself.) In subsequent years, he produced a series of animated shorts for MTV (including a memorable station ID dubbed “Noodle Ear”) and two more features, the acclaimed I Married a Strange Person! (a 1998 Sundance competitor) and Hair High, voiced by Sarah Silverman, David and Keith Carradine, and family relative Martha Plimpton. He also ventured into live-action film and commercials and continued illustrating, all while pursuing the same louche mix of human oddity (mutant freaks, psychotic teens, corporeal disfigurement) and surreal storylines in his films. Last year, Plympton collaborated with Kanye West on an illustrated book of the singer’s lyrics entitled Through the Wire, a melding of idiosyncratic artistic minds that works a lot better than you’d imagine.
Plympton’s latest effort, Idiots and Angels, is a wordless black comedy about a boorish, chain-smoking gun runner’s war with his better nature. The nameless fellow is the kind of misanthrope who hurls alarm clocks at songbirds peeping in his window every morning and unleashes near-homicidal rage on his fellow morning commuters. His interactions with the sleazy denizens of a local pub—a grimy bartender, his comely wife, and an obese prostitute—are equally fraught and tinged with violent fantasy. After establishing the character’s habits and basic maleficence, Plympton introduces a gruesome transformation that harkens back to Grant Boyer’s magical neck lump in I Married a Strange Person!: wings begin to sprout from the hero’s back after a caterpillar alights on his head and morphs into a butterfly, forcing him to do good deeds. Frustrated, he consults a surgeon who hatches plans to exploit the man’s appendages for his own gain. As ever, Plympton’s canted angles and carnivalesque depiction of bodies are fun to behold; paired with the lounge-lizard warbling of Tom Waits and Pink Martini’s sultry instrumentals, it all becomes a stylized expression of his character’s wretchedness and inner turmoil. Fusing nightmarish Hubert Selby Jr.–esque barroom tableaux with an element of the fantastic, Idiots and Angels is a parable of redemption that subverts good taste as well as expectation.
Filmmaker spoke with Plympton about perverse humor, the appeal of the Everyman, and why family-friendly films aren’t his thing. Idiots and Angels opens Friday at Laemmle Sunset 5 in West Hollywood. IFC Center in New York has screenings through November 2.
Filmmaker: I think Idiots and Angels is the best long-form film I’ve seen you do. How has the process of creating an animated feature changed since you first began making them?
Plympton: I started making animated feature films around 1992 and it’s interesting that now there seems to be a plethora of animated indie feature films, which I find very exciting. But it seems like they all look to me as the guy who started it all. And I think that’s a wonderful compliment, that what I did back in 1992 reverberates 20 years later. My process has changed over the years. Back in the nineties, everything was shot on film on a Rostrum camera. Now a lot of filmmakers are making their films in CG and Flash and other programs, which I think is good, it’s healthy. Idiots and Angels reflects that transition. This is the first feature I’ve done where the drawings were not photographed on film—they were scanned, then treated and colored on a computer, which streamlined the process a lot and really brought the cost down. It also gives you more freedom in terms of adding shots, changing colors. When you shoot on film, if there’s one little mistake, you’ve got to reshoot the entire sequence. Now it’s much more manageable.
Filmmaker: Studio-animated features are produced by teams of people, working with a screenplay and voice actors, co-writers and producers. A lot of independent animators, I’d imagine, not unlike fiction writers, may not know exactly where they’re headed when they start a project. Where do you fit in between those two ways of doing things?
Plympton: I certainly know where the script is going from the very beginning. I have to because a lot of organization goes into making the film, so I need to have a good idea of what the film is about. It’s usually just a simple sentence. For this one, the simple explanation was “An asshole guy wakes up one morning with wings and doesn’t like it because the wings make him do good things.” That was the conflict, the tension that was built into the structure and plot of the film. The next step is to make a storyboard and I find that storyboards are incredibly important, especially for animated films. I know a lot of live-action films use them, but for me the storyboard is really important because so many basic decisions are resolved in that process, such as the character design, costuming, makeup, backgrounds, the action, story, pacing, editing, lighting, camera angles, lens type. If I have a good storyboard, then I know it’s going to be a strong film.
Filmmaker: What I notice is that while your process may have changed, you’re fairly consistent with the themes that you’re working with. There’s often an emphasis on a character who’s consumed with darker impulses, a misanthropic type. And there’s a perversity as well…
Plympton: I hope so!
Filmmaker: … which is where the humor comes from.
Filmmaker: It’s a vision of the world that’s particular to you.
Plympton: Well, my first job was doing political cartoons. I was a caricaturist and political cartoonist, so I really loved social satire. I loved making fun of the pompous, the rich, the comfortable people, and I find a lot of humor in that. Also military people, politicians, people in authority. That gives me a lot of opportunity to make crazy jokes. [Laughs] In Idiots and Angels, the two characters of authority are the bartender and a doctor, who’s this big power-hungry guy. Those are the people who become the brunt of all my sick, twisted humor. Angel is a guy who starts out as an asshole, but through the application of the wings, he realizes the error of his ways and is literally reborn as a changed person. It’s not a religious metaphor, it’s just a tale about human frailty and resilience.
Filmmaker: In spite of your interest in lampooning figures of authority who are a recognizable type in any society, you also have a knack for the Everyman.
Plympton: Yeah, I identify with them. I love the Frank Capra type movies. Certainly, I have done a lot of stupid things in my life. I’ve been an asshole, but I try to do better, to be a little more pleasant, more generous, and that’s what the film is about.
Filmmaker: Let me ask you about bodies, about physiognomy, about the way people look in your work. I think of George Grosz’s art, some of these grotesques from an earlier period in Germany.
Plympton: My first successful film was called Your Face, which [depicted] a guy singing a song. And as he’s singing, his face transforms into bizarre shapes. I’ve been using that kind of surrealism for a long time. Even in school, I found [drawing this way] brought a lot of laughter and made me feel good, too. Surrealism is a very rich source of humor, and I think the ultimate surrealism is taking the human body and doing something strange with it.
Filmmaker: Did you gravitate toward a particular style of comic-book art or cartoons?
Plympton: Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck are very anarchic, and I like that a lot. In terms of comic books, I suppose [Mad Magazine alum] Don Martin’s stuff [was an influence]. And Charles Addams [creator of The Addams Family], because he was making humor out of people’s tragedies. He made light of death and pain and I thought that was hilarious. [Laughs] People thought I was kind of sick.
Filmmaker: I love all the similar inversions in your work. There are really recognizable symbols of goodness and simplicity, a little songbird or a beautiful butterfly, that get crushed or smashed. Or, in the case of Guard Dog, where all these adorable little woodland animals turn into Satanic creatures.
Plympton: Well, this is my reaction against a lot of family films, Disney and Pixar and DreamWorks. I get a lot of heat from that, frankly. Distributors, especially, refuse to handle my films because they say “this isn’t family friendly.” And I say, “Well, I want to make films for adults.” I mean, if Quentin Tarantino can do all these outrageous things in his films, why can’t I? Just because it’s an animated film? The Europeans are doing a lot of independent animated films, and they’re adult films, too. Persepolis is a good example.
Filmmaker: Do you think the success of these features theatrically has anything to do with box-office juggernauts like Toy Story 3?
Plympton: I don’t think so. I think it’s a different kind of audience and mentality. I think the big influence is the graphic novel. Because for so long in America, it was all Superman comics and Batman. But in Europe, they were looking at more graphic novels, and that’s why the audience is prepared for stories that deal with adult themes with comic characters. In America, we haven’t had that exposure. We’re lagging behind. So my belief is that soon the films you see in Europe, like [Sylvain Chomet’s] The Illusionist, will open a lot bigger in the States and will have a more receptive audience.
Filmmaker: What do you think of the Internet as a new mode of distribution for indie filmmakers like yourself?
Plympton: It’s going to be very difficult for cinemas and cable TV to compete against the Web. I think the Internet is much more democratic—I don’t have to deal with all these gatekeepers who say, “Oh, this is adult animation, nobody wants to watch that.” Thankfully I’ve retained copyright to my films, so I’m hoping that in the future I’ll have my own library or channel where I can keep selling them. I’m very optimistic about the Internet.
Filmmaker: Idiots and Angels has no dialogue, which places an extra emphasis on sound design and music. That’s a very conscious decision. Was the impulse artistic or practical?
Plympton: I’ve done shorts before without dialogue, like the Guard Dog series and 25 Ways to Quit Smoking, and I always found it very easy to make films that way. I’m not a particularly great dialogue writer anyway. So I wanted to see if it would be possible to make a feature film without a word of dialogue. It’s been done before, most recently in the Chomet films, but I’ve never done it and I wanted to give it a shot. So the music becomes the dialogue. We hired a lot of really good musicians—Tom Waits did a couple of songs, and Pink Martini, Nicole Renaud, so we’re really proud of the soundtrack and we think most people don’t even notice there’s no dialogue, they don’t care. It also makes it easier to sell overseas. This film has been my most successful so far, because we’ve sold to over 10 territories overseas, which was enough to cover the initial investment.