042408plympton.JPGIndie animator Bill Plympton has just finished his sixth animated feature, for which he hand drew every cell. Called Idiots and Angels, it tells the haunting and humorous story of a dyspeptic working stiff who wakes up one morning and finds, to his horror, angel's wings sprouting out of his back. Try as he may to rid himself of the grotesque mutation, they inevitably take over his life and soon become the wings of desire for a quack doctor and a covetous bartender at the local dive; a riot of scheming and slapstick violence ensues. Like the best of Plympton's distinctive oeuvre, Idiots and Angels bounces merrily along from the profane to the sublime, with a parade of arresting images that have a way of sticking with you for days. It premieres at the Tribeca Film Festival Saturday night; details on screenings here.

The main character in Idiots & Angels is a bullying ingrate. At any point did you consider making him more likable? No, I really wanted him to be extreme. It’s not a subtle film; it’s weird people doing weird things and to be funny it has to be extreme.

Where did this idea come from, to have this obnoxious jerk sprout angel’s wings? That’s a great question because I can’t figure out where the inspiration came from. I was at a festival in France about three years ago and some guy asked me what my next project would be and off of the top of my head I said, “Oh, it’s about this asshole who wakes up one morning with wings on his back and how he deals with these wings that make him do good things.” And he said, “I like that, that’s a good idea.” So when I got back to my hotel that night I was burning with enthusiasm and I started writing out situations and characters and the whole template sort of came to me on that weekend.

The soundtrack is a great mix of classical with tunes by Tom Waits, Pink Martini, and others. But why did you choose to abstain from any dialogue? A number of reasons. One, I think it’s more visceral if you keep it with pure, raw action. Number two, it’s surely a lot easier to sell overseas when you don’t have to do a lot of subtitling and dubbing. And third, quite frankly, I’m not good with doing dialogue and lip-synch. It goes much faster when it’s just purely pictures telling the story.

How long did it take to make it? About three years. It took about a year to write it and storyboard it, then a year to draw it. And then about a year or three-fourths of a year for post-production. We’re just finishing it up right now actually; in fact we just delivered it this morning. But we’re still fine tuning it.

042408idiotsangels.jpgDo you hand-draw the entire thing yourself? I do. In fact I had a little internet camera over my drawing board so people all over the world could actually watch, in real time, the film being drawn and put together. People were amazed, first of all, that there weren’t computers involved and, second, that one person actually did all the drawings. I think that’s one of the rarities of my films; there are no in-betweeners and no big staff off 100 animators doing the film. It’s just me and my pencil. And I think that’s why they call me the king of indie animation because I’ve been able to make six animated feature films and thirty or forty shorts, two of which have won Oscars, and make a living doing my own films.

And it gives them this really distinctive personality. But would you do it this way no matter what or do you sometimes wish you had a big staff?
I think about it all the time. There are pluses and minuses for each side. If John Lasseter offered me 10 million dollars to direct a computer animated film I would in all likelihood take him up on the offer. Yet on the other hand there is something very cool about doing my own ideas, making my own mistakes, making the film myself without someone telling me, ‘Oh, you can’t do that. That might offend somebody. Or that just won’t play.’ I can pretty much draw whatever’s worming around in my brain and no one’s going to say no to me. On the other hand I don’t get massive distribution in thousands of theaters like a Pixar film.

How do you feel about mainstream computer animation hits like Ratatouille? I liked Ratatouille a lot and I think most of what Pixar does is brilliant. I’m not so crazy about some of the other digital computer films, such as the Dreamworks films. I just don’t think they have the style or the writing ability of a Pixar film. In my heart of hearts I love hand drawn animation. It feels human, there are mistakes in it that are wonderful to look at. In fact Idiots and Angels is a very imperfect film and I find a lot of joy in these imperfections, it makes it feel like it was made by a human and not a machine. There’s a certain warmth in the hand drawn cartoons.

I agree. Thank you. I must tell you we’ve had an amazing response. I showed a 15 minute clip at Comic Con this weekend and they were laughing from the very first minute all the way through. This was the first time I had ever shown the film to a real audience and I almost fell off my chair I was so embarrassed by the applause and the laughter. So I’m feeling good about it.

The movie really has a way of sticking with you. Days later I’m flashing back on images like the guy crashing into the TV set in the corner. I’m glad you said that because that’s a visual we worked really hard on and it was a tight fit.

The color scheme hews toward the dark end of the spectrum. What was the motivation for that? I originally did a movie before this called Hair High, and it had big name voices in it like Sarah Silverman and Dermot Mulroney. I spent a lot of money on it and the film just did not go anywhere. I was very disappointed. So I felt like, screw that. I’m going to do just a little homemade film, just me and my pencil, kind of cartoon noir, without a lot of color or flashy graphics, just a simple story. There are only really four main characters in the film. And somehow the audience reacts to it and the personalities of the characters really come through because it’s such a simple story, though a powerful one.

I felt like it should take place in a dark dingy bar, it’s sort of a David Lynchian story with a little Jim Jarmusch in there. It’s not black and white but it sort of has the feeling of a very Hollywood noir. It’s funny because as I was doing the drawings and they were coming out really dark and oppressive I was thinking, “This has got to be a Tom Waits movie.” I don’t know Tom Waits but I know Jim Jarmusch and asked him to take a look. He liked it and he knows Tom Waits and passed it along to him, and he liked it too. So he turned out to be very supportive in terms of the music of the film.

The suited men have become sort of an archetype in your films. Have you ever had to wear a suit to work?
No. I did wear a suit for the Oscars. I generally do not like ties. Oh, do you know what it is? When I was a kid I always had to wear a suit and tie to Sunday school. And it would just make me gag; I couldn’t breathe. And I think that really affected me and now I don’t like shoes or pants; I always wear shorts. I think the suits are this universal uniform of mankind and I use it in that regard.

What’s the toughest part about making a feature film for you these days?
The distribution. Everything else is a pleasure: coming up with the story, designing the characters, drawing the backgrounds, doing the storyboards and the layouts, drawing the animation, editing it together, working with musicians. But then I’ve got to sell the damn thing. In the U.S. it’s really tough to sell an animated film for adults. I don’t know why that is because I know people want to see it but the distributors are really difficult to convince that it will make a lot of money. I’ve done a couple big deals with distributors and then even if they put it in cinemas it’s hard to get the money from them. I’m not a good money person even though my dad was a banker. I’m not good with negotiations and deals and contracts. That’s the part I don’t like.

The films do better in Europe don’t they? I’m very popular in France, Israel, Spain, Germany, Korea and Australia. In the U.S. it’s very difficult for me to get major distribution. I’m hoping Idiots and Angels will change that; that’s my prayer.

Why is this? Do you think they’re just simply more cultured in Europe? No, I think there are a couple reasons. This is just a guess on my part but graphic novels are much more prevalent there and adults are used to seeing graphic images to tell stories. I think Japanese animation is starting to appeal to adult audiences, whereas most American animation pretty much sticks to the kid/family audience. And I do think European audiences may be a little more sophisticated in art and culture. I don’t mean that as a put-down; I think Americans make the best films in the world. I’m a big fan of Hollywood films. I go out and see every Disney and Pixar film there is. But I just think it’s such a big behemoth that it’s hard to turn the sucker around and change people’s minds. So I kind of feel that this film is the vanguard of turning that corner into appealing to adult ideas.

It’s interesting because when I was a kid I loved cartoons. Walt Disney, Daffy Duck, stuff like that. Now I’m an adult; I don’t think a lot about playtime and school and issues of childhood. I feel intensely about love and jealousy and rejection and adult feelings. So why would I want to do a kids film when I don’t really relate to kids; I’m an adult. And I just don’t know why other people can’t understand that.

You did a political comic strip for a while. Given the dramatic political events in recent years, have you felt any desire to revisit that genre? Zero. That was okay for the newspapers but for animation it’s so timely that after about six months or even six weeks it’s really dead in the water. These issues are forgotten. And I really don’t want to make something that’s going to have a shelf life of two or three months. I want my animation to be shown thirty years from now, just like Alice in Wonderland or Sleeping Beauty. Animation is so dense and time consuming that if I put a lot of effort into a project I really want it to be universal; I want it to be timeless. So I really try to stay away from politics. Now, that doesn’t mean I don’t have some social satire in there occasionally. I make sort of veiled references to certain empires that star a mouse but that’s just sort of my own private little joke. That’s not really a political comment.

Now that this is done, what’s up next? I’m doing a book with Kanye West called Through the Wire. I did a music video with Kanye about a year ago and it was a pretty good success. So we decided to do a book together; we’re taking 12 of his songs and I’m doing illustrations for them. And he’ll be commenting on the deeper meanings of some of the lyrics and the references he uses.