“The football game where the chicken mascot runs around crazy with an erection was inspired by a story that someone told me…”
One of animation’s most consistently compelling and jarring artists, Bill Plympton is most comfortable when he’s destabilizing everything from the human body to the corporate machines that make the world turn. Whether it’s his hilarious short films, inspired Geico commercials or feature-length films — such as his latest fever dream, Hair High, or his highly acclaimed first film, The Tune, recently released on DVD from New Video Group — Plympton is a resolute iconoclast making his way through a mainstream more interested in CGI-dependent snoozers like Van Helsing and Troy.
That independence has brought its fair share of rewards, including Cannes nods, Sundance nominations (including one for The Tune) and enough cachet to make the films he wants to make without having to compromise himself. But it isn’t easy: Plympton hand-draws all of his films, which is something almost unheard of in the industry today. Yet no one ever told him it was going to be easy, and Plympton has done everything he could, from owning his own masters to shilling for companies to get the money he needs to get his films, to make sure that he controls his own destiny.
“I don’t need to deal with lawyers,” Plympton explains. “I don’t need to deal with corporations, I don’t need to deal with executives or agents or any of that. I can just sit at home and make a feature film and that’s a wonderful experience.”
It’s also a lesson that young filmmakers, especially those working in animation, should take to heart.
Scott Thill: So tell me about Hair High, which looks hilarious.
Bill Plympton: The original concept came from a dream. Usually, I don’t use dreams for films but this one was very compelling. There was a car on the bottom of a large body of water and fish were swimming around it. Inside the car were these two decomposing bodies, hair flowing in the current, crabs and worms crawling in and out of their orifices. Then, all of a sudden, the car starts, the lights turn on, the fish scatter and it eases slowly ahead in the mud and muck, driving along the bottom until it comes up on the shore. Then it drives past all these small-town shops — the soda shop, the bowling alley, the drive-in theater — and then it goes to the prom. And that’s when I woke up and thought, “Gee, that’s a pretty compelling image, what can I do with it?” So I started writing, going back to my high school days, the urban myths and the Spanish fly stories, all the crazy yarns that high school kids make up and the real stories of students, teachers and such.
How did it feel reconnecting with your past and re-presenting it?
That was where the fun was. We actually had a screening out in Portland, Oregon, which is where I’m from, and in lieu of a class reunion, we invited some of the people who went to school with me to the premiere. It was great seeing all of them. It was like, “I remember that teacher! I remember that guy! I remember that incident!” It was fun reconnecting with all of them.
What did you learn about yourself going through this process?
Well, I didn’t learn anything, but I portray myself in the film as fairly naïve, which I was. I was a real country boy and a lot of my fellow students were more sophisticated. Everybody had a car but I went to school in a scooter, so I felt a little inadequate. I was the artist of the class. I wasn’t really a jock, athlete or anything. And I tell you: I enjoyed high school. I had no bad experiences.
Many of the Hair High clips I’ve seen deal with one of your usual themes: the body, and how it’s taken over, invaded, exploited, explored. Was your approach to working with that theme different with Hair High than, say, I Married a Strange Person or others?
No, the body and the face are my milieu, I guess. This is the terrain I talk about. Other directors deal with war, romance, foreign countries, sports or something like that, but I like the body. It is my metaphor for human interaction, for storytelling and I just love doing weird things to it. It’s amusing for me and it’s amusing for the audience.
I think it also lends a refreshing honesty to your work with sex. Did you find your approach to the sexual material of Hair High more naïve and strange, as it sometimes can be in high school?
No, it’s very fantasy-oriented. The football game where the chicken mascot runs around crazy with an erection was inspired by a story that someone told me. He was working at a stud farm and accidentally gave one horse too much aphrodisiac — or whatever they give them, I don’t know. And the last they saw the horse, it was humping a Volkswagen! It escaped the barn and was humping a Volkswagen. I just liked that image.
How did you land actors like Keith Carradine and Martha Plimpton for Hair High?
Well, Martha is an old friend of mine. We were drinking one night and I was telling her about my troubles getting distribution, and she suggested that I make a few phone calls and get some people. Then she started calling people and we got some really super voices. At one point, we had Matthew Perry; he was excited about it he wanted to have some meetings. But the day before he was supposed to do a session, his agent called and said that he was out. It was too small a budget, and Perry wanted to stay out of independent film.
How has it shown so far at the festivals and the Comic-Cons?
Extremely well. I’ve been very happy with how it’s being received by audiences; it’s been getting a lot of prizes too, so I’m very happy with that.
On to the The Tune, which was recently released on DVD. Some may not know how groundbreaking a film it was when it initially came out.
It really was. It didn’t do very well at first, but it’s generated a cult following ever since. I can’t tell you how many people still come up to me and say, “Oh, my God, we played the music from The Tune at our wedding” or “I still remember all the lyrics to the songs.” It connects with people, so I’m glad that I was finally able to get the rights back, because I never owned them.
Yeah, we sold the rights to October Films and they released it — and, quite frankly, they didn’t do a very good job. So just last year, I got the rights back to it and was able to do add new video, a documentary, a making-of piece, commentary tracks and other great things to it. It’s very satisfying for me to finally see it presented the way it should have been.
How has your work process changed since that first film? I’m guessing retaining the rights to your ensuing work is one change you made.
Well, the thing is I didn’t sell it. I gave it away to October Films, because they were hot then and I thought they could make a lot of money on it. There was no other option at the time, because I didn’t know how to release it myself. I didn’t want it sitting on a shelf; I wanted it to be shown. So it was, but it never made any money and that was a bitter pill for me. Now I can finally make money on it. Like you say, it was a breakthrough film, the first animated feature-length drawn by one person.
What have you learned overall about yourself and your industry throughout this process?
Basically, the amazing fact that one person can make his own film. I think animation is somewhat unique in that respect. I don’t need to deal with lawyers. I don’t need to deal with corporations. I don’t need to deal with executives or agents or any of that. I can just sit at home and make a feature film. That’s a wonderful experience. Each film I make gets more popular, more press and makes more money. So it’s amazing that I’ve survived and actually prospered doing that sort of homegrown, cottage-industry filmmaking.
Do you think the explosion of the DVD market has changed the way independent artists expose their work?
Well, it’s helped me a lot. I think the DVD is an entirely different market and in many ways a larger market than theatrical release. There are other venues too, whether it’s video-on-demand, pay-per-view, video games or whatever, which is great for animators. There are just so many more ways to get product out to the people.