Animator and Director Ralph Bakshi at BAM in 2014. (Getty)

He was once called “the Disney of debauchery.” One of animation’s true bad boys, Ralph Bakshi has experienced his share of glory and ruin. An immigrant from Haifa, Bakshi was a child of Brooklyn and got his start at Terrytoons in New Rochelle. Upon embarking on his own productions, Bakshi’s 1972 debut feature—the X-rated Fritz the Cat—was met with monumental success, and almost as much controversy. That trade-off would continue to haunt Bakshi, who is perhaps more well-known for his fantasy films (The Lord of the Rings; Wizards) than his button-pushing urban dramas (Heavy Traffic; Coonskin, which was routinely met with smoke bombs upon release). Eventually, his 1992 mega-budget bomb Cool World, which was rewritten without his permission, soured Bakshi from ever wanting to make another film. That is, until he discovered Kickstarter.

Though he now calls the West home, Bakshi is still a Brooklyn kid at heart. He received a BAMCinematek retrospective last year, and his latest film, the crowd-funded Last Days of Coney Island, finds Bakshi waxing nostalgic. Free from the trenches of studio filmmaking, Bakshi is able to flex and share his purest artistic visions. Last Days will be available on Vimeo on October 29th, when Bakshi will celebrate his 77th birthday.

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Ralph working on backgrounds for "Last Days" (via Facebook)
Your films have always skewed toward autobiography. You’ve even called them “personal paintings.” Does that hold true for Last Days of Coney Island?

My films are closer to paintings of life than films that are released to an audience. All I want to do, always, is use my own experiences, to try to get to the truth of what happened or what is going on or what am I thinking about. That takes a lot of digging. When I start a film that’s really mine, I start by telling the film what to do. I say this character does this, this character does that. At a certain point, the film screams at me that I’m lying. It starts telling me what to do, and to start listening. The film starts getting more and more autobiographical without it being obvious. It’s a sort of autobiographical that’s very deep and in the consciousness. The painters I like—Bacon and [Jackson] Pollock—have painted that way. I’ve learned more and more from the painters that paint that way.

I’m very happy with this movie. Last Days is autobiographical of what I was thinking through all that time in the '60s. The film started out one way and went another. It’s all about people and various pieces of a Brooklyn and New York life, and the characters...I love these characters! They try so hard to be successful; everything’s against them including their own brain power. But they try! The hidden message of the film just comes from something I had to get out of my system, going way back to the 1960s and all the assassinations that took place. Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jack Kennedy. It’s not about that, but in a sense it is. I pick and express exactly how I feel, and that was the whole purpose of the film, but I didn’t know that. The film is very political, not in the sense that I’m trying to preach or anything, it just came out. I’m trying to hide it, but what the hell, why lie to you? You kids cleaned up New York, what am I supposed to do? What did you do to my New York? (laughter)

I can’t say, man. Actually that’s something I wanted to ask you about—you lived out West for the most recent years of your life, right? I spent about forty-five to fifty years of my life in New York. I was here for thirty, then I moved out West and then back here in the 80s for a little bit, and I’m about 77 now. The '80s was when I was walking around the East Village and I’m seeing my favorite neighborhood, and they’re tearing all the old tenements down! Entire kids’ rooms were being thrown out. I would see all these sewing machines, radios, bottles from the turn of the century, and I would pile all this stuff into my car to take back to our apartment. My wife would give me a hard time, but we still have all this stuff in the house. Everything I had loved about old New York was lying in the street, I knew the end was coming. I knew it!

Is that what leads you into calling the film Last Days of Coney Island? Coney is still around, but it’s different from how you portray it, which is almost harrowing and grotesque. Grotesque isn’t the right word for it. I grew up as a city kid who went to Coney Island in the '40s and '50s, and it was so beautiful and glittery, and all these immigrants and sons and daughters who were coming from World War II would be lying on the beach. We could afford what it cost to live there, what it cost to eat there, to go there.

It was a great place for poor people, working class people. Coney island was the only place where I and anyone on my block in Brownsville wanted to be. It was integrated, blacks and whites, there was no problem. There was this glory, and then comes this decline. It’s a metaphor for what happened to this country. We lost our way as Coney Island did, we changed our tune, we started to kill people at Kent State, we were shooting our Presidents. Suddenly, our Presidents were starting to lie, like with Watergate.

And what are we doing today? The Middle East is boiling over, we put places like Israel in the back, make deals and become allies with Iran—what are we showing our kids? Where is the democracy in the Middle East that we went to war over?

Meanwhile, the Republicans are fighting over issues like they’re in high school, that’s what’s causing the major issues. Fighting same sex marriage—I mean, who cares? All these issues that are important individually, but not important to the overall health of the nation. Blah, blah, blah. These are things that bother Ralph Bakshi. I don’t know why—my wife says calm down, try to enjoy yourself. I try to cool out, live life, I know I’m only gonna be around a couple more years. But I can’t help it! I don’t know why we take our allies and chop them down to little pieces. Those are things I make animated movies about, because they disarm people. People go in to see one thing, and I’m saying another thing.

Your anger and passion drive your work. If they didn’t, we wouldn’t have Bakshi movies as we know them. But leading from that discussion of Coney Island, I mean, I know you haven’t lived here in a long time, but last year you came back for BAM’s retrospective of your films. How else has Brooklyn as a whole changed? In the earlier days, it was always Brooklyn and the Lower East Side, Coney Island, all these places where poor people can live and not feel beneath their needs. My mother worked in the Garment Center, my father in the sheet metal shop.

We loved Brownsville because it was ours and we never felt poor. It was a place where we go to the delis and markets and watch chickens getting slaughtered and plucked, and there was a feeling of community, which was very important to me and my family. Today, everywhere I walk, I seem out of place. I’m still a Brooklyn kid, and I’m wondering who could afford to live there?

The cushy part of the Lower East Side, all these high-rise condos in a place where immigrants used to transfer to a better America. We all used to go there for the twelve bucks a week, and the artists and the painters could afford it, then do something with their lives and get a job and move uptown. We went from a forty-five buck a month rent, when I first got married, to a sixty-five dollar a month apartment in East Flatbush, with three bedrooms instead of two, and I’d feel good about myself.

Today it seems everything’s a fortune. The poor people don’t have a sense of place. The artists are being kicked out of Brooklyn, from what I gather. I don’t know where they’re going. A country like America loses its character if it becomes just a place where the wealthy can play. That’s not who we were, or what I think we used to be. I can’t afford to leave New Mexico, where I’m living comfortably on top of a mountain. Where does a guy go hide to write the next Great American Novel? Maybe it’s corny, I think it’s just a nostalgic thing.

But did you feel a sense of pride when BAM honored your work, had you there and brought your work back home? Of course! When I got home, I mean, it was a bit of a shock to see what I was looking at, but I was delighted to have these people looking at my movies. I did it all for the kids who showed up and they were very nice to me. When I was there, I broke up laughing because the New York Times told me I needed somebody older, somebody my age, to cover my life’s story. These guys don’t understand that I’ve still been alive for forty years. I would want a kid to cover it!

The entire audience push is these kids, eighteen or nineteen into their twenties, college-educated and going to school. The whole Brooklyn thing is for young people—these are the people keeping my movies alive, who stumble onto the DVDs. I get millions of emails from people saying, “Wow! I just found this! Who are you?” They say [the films] are still relevant—Coonskin, Heavy Traffic, American Pop. Of course I’m happy to come back.

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You said in an interview from over a decade ago that it was difficult to look at your older films. Is this still true? Yeah, for lots of reasons. I guess as I get older, I start to get embarrassed and say, “Oh, I don’t believe I said that. I don’t believe I did that.” I change. The old films reveal something about me at the time. I’ve spent a large part of my life hiding from me, but I’ll yell at you. [laughter] I’m tricky in that way. I use the movies to try to figure out what I’m thinking about, and that’s why I get embarrassed. Also, the budgets… I mean, sometimes I wince at the animation, though I don’t think that’s a judgment to be made. I haven’t seen Traffic or Coonskin for the last twenty-five or thirty years. I’ll go the screening but I sit outside. I come in during the credits. I’ll listen to the reactions, but I can’t look at it. I always think it’s gonna fall apart or run out of luck! Those are things I feel. To you, I’ll tell the truth. I don’t know why I’m being honest with you. [laughter]

So what inspired you to return to animation after painting for so many years? My son, Eddie, who’s a producer on Last Days, wanted me to do it. He says, “Dad, you don’t understand—all the young kids love you! You gotta get back and do another film!” I thought I was done, that I had sailed. We had no money, and I couldn’t go back to Hollywood and deal with them again. But he told me about all Kickstarter, and we raised $175,000 in five minutes, which is amazing to me. I can’t believe it! Plus, I’ve been giving my art away, so that the people giving me money can get a piece of art in return. When I started the film, which starts to be around five minutes, I say, “Ralph, who are you kidding?” I start to dig in and it turns into a twenty-five minute film. I go to my wife, and I tell her, “I need money!” And she looks at me like she’s gonna throw me out the window! [laughter] But she gave it to me. So we do a twenty-five minute film, and I got very excited, because I no longer have to look over my shoulder. I don’t have to fight, I don’t have to scream. I don’t have to get notes or do rewrites in the middle of the picture.

Plus, I’m the distributor! We’re distributing worldwide on Vimeo, and if it sees any kind of success, it’s an answer for animators, and especially for me. I’ll make another one. I’ll even hire animators this time! To keep the costs down, I basically animated the whole thing, except for some scenes and some of the backgrounds. The jazz musician I hired, Mark Taylor… wait ‘til you hear the score. He’s a guy living in Harlem, right? I hear one record from him, and I was done. He blew me away. He composed a brand new score, one of the best I’ve heard. He’s the kind of jazz musician I would go the Village to hear, the kind that would turn me on in the 60s. That’s the kind of break I got on this film. I couldn’t get the jazz score I wanted when I was in Hollywood! Because of the Internet, there are plenty of people who want to do it for me, and at a very modest cost. It’s absolutely great for independent animation. I would never go back to Hollywood to do a feature film. I’ll make it on the Internet or I’ll go back to sleep. The Internet is for me.

Did you find the length to be constricting? No. In fact, I’ll give a real “director’s answer” to that: doing the five minute short, you don’t get to say anything. In the twenty-five minute version, I had to find a way in the structure to tell the story that was different from how I had previously told a story. I hate exposition scenes—“this is the good guy, here’s the bad guy.” Those take too much time on the screen. It was like putting the entire length of Heavy Traffic into twenty-five minutes of film without hurting it a bit. So I took from my painting and my constructions and collaging, and I found a way to tell the story that does a way with all the exposition. And it’s clear as a bell! That entire structure is what I’m most proud of in Last Days. That came from Bacon, the idea of listening to yourself and giving in to what’s important. It should all just happen naturally. Every artist in the world should read the interviews David Sylvester did with Francis Bacon. It’s the most brilliant piece on how to approach art that I’ve ever heard in my life. Whether it’s good or bad information, I’ll leave that up to the audience.

But I’ve learned something again. I’m a great believer in turning away from animation, to painting or photography, so that I can learn something about animation. The newer generation really should look at other art—painting, writing, photography—to learn about the craft of animation. Just looking at Warner Bros. from the last thirty years isn’t going to do any good.

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Bakshi back in the day (via Facebook)

The style is certainly different from something like American Pop or any of the films post-Wizards, where the animation was rotoscoped. Do you prefer the rougher style of your much older films, which you’ve brought back for Last Days? The rotoscoping was used to make realistic films rather than illustrated films. That’s called motion control today, that’s what Dreamworks and Pixar does. I’m always looking for a different way to tell the story. What I prefer is what I did now. What’s most important in this film is that the lines are very rough, the colors change from scene to scene.

The computer is an asset to hand-drawn animation, and there have been some wonderful things done with computer animation, but if you want to be cartoonist, you gotta stop worrying about clean lines or whether all the colors are gonna be exactly the same. I threw all the “rules” out the window. I wanted raw energy. I wanted to show animated characters that were human. I use the computer for the inking and the painting and the backgrounds, and it’s great. But I worked very hard to make it human. I don’t want to scare people away from my movie, but you wanted to know—all that went into the film had nothing to do with whether everyone would like it, but it was about me working at my true art form. It’s that simple.

Now that Last Days is wrapped, do you have any ideas for the next film? Oh, yeah. I’m thinking of Wizards II, because the Middle East today is going exactly in the direction I saw in Wizards. The ecology, and the warming of the planet...the destruction of Israel, which everyone’s getting ready to do again. That’s something I’d like to talk about. This keeps happening; the cures for cancer and other diseases died during World War II. It gets me very upset. Wizards II would have a great resonance. But I’m 77 now, I did Wizards when I was very young and just coming out of my fog. That would be great, something I could do without selling out. Let’s just say Wizards II is next, and it’ll be longer than twenty-five minutes. [laughter]

That’ll be welcome news to a lot of people, especially since you’re warming up to the idea of filmmaking as a whole again. I was burnt out! Beaten up! Warner Bros. made me fix the movies with my own money. I figured I gave it all I could. For years, I was sued and I was fought with. I went to Hollywood, and all these Disney animators didn’t want my crap around, all these guys I looked up to. They told me to go fuck myself! The guys who saved my ass, though, the guys who worked at MGM and Warner Bros. who quit so they could work for me, they’re all credited at the end of Last Days.

I wanted to see those names again. They supported me like crazy. They’re all gone, and I’ll be gone next. [laughter] But they’re great guys. I got my second wind because of my son, because of the response I got from the Internet, the fact that I could make a film and everyone is excited. That’s good for me. I’d love to go forward because I love animation. I love how you can talk through it. It’s an amazing medium.

You can follow Ralph Bakshi on Twitter here, and Max Kyburz here.