Interview | Ralph Bakshi on ‘Last Days of Coney Island’ and ‘Wizards 2’
In the world of American animation, there is Disney, and then there’s Ralph Bakshi. The filmmaker behind the first X-rated animated feature film, Fritz the Cat, spent the majority of his career producing films that couldn’t be exploited for merchandise. Hard-hitting films about social unrest and cultural strife, and yes, the occasional exploitation fantasy like Fire and Ice.
Ralph Bakshi hasn’t directed a feature film since 1994’s live-action TV movie Cool and the Crazy, but he hasn’t gone anywhere. He remains a powerful voice in the independent film culture, and he recently took his first step into Kickstarter productions, financing and directing the new short film Last Days of Coney Island, another socially conscious film that – in our exclusive interview with the animator – he considers his best work. This from the man who directed Wizards. That means something.
The following interview was conducted back in October, but publication was delayed due to unforeseen circumstances. But now the time has come to finally reveal our epic conversation with Ralph Bakshi about Last Days of Coney Island, the sequel to Wizards, the start of the world today and why he actually hates one of his more popular films, Fire and Ice.
Last Days of Coney Island is now available for viewing on Vimeo.
Crave: I know this is a project you were trying to get off the ground as a feature for a while. Can you tell me a little bit about that early version and what’s happening right now, what your audience is getting to see?
Ralph Bakshi: Wow, that’s good. I like that. That’s good. Well, I wrote it as a feature many years ago when I was in the feature business. It has various characters doing various things, and it was a murder mystery and it took place in the Sixties on Coney Island, but I was very dissatisfied with it at a certain point when I kept rereading it. It wasn’t very honest. There’s a thing that I do with myself, it’s hard to explain except at a certain point… Everyone tells a picture what to do.
There are screenplays that are written, and directed, and everyone’s got a point of view and they keep pushing the picture in some sort of intellectual, or not so much intellectual as factual direction, where everything seems to work out according to some sort of script they have in their head. And the film becomes a film, but it doesn’t become very honest as far as I’m concerned. It doesn’t have any mysteries or things that you weren’t thinking about that creep in. So I was dissatisfied with it because it was just a film. I’m a great believer [that] you [can] start telling your film what to do, or a painting what to do, but if you’re really tuned in after a while the painting or the film starts telling you what it wants you to do.
It’s a very fine line there and if you listen to it… my best films, the films I love the most turned out the best because of this. At a certain point the film says, “This isn’t your film anymore. I am your film. This is what I need come hell or high water.” Usually you end up in territories you never would go because Hollywood wouldn’t let you go there or you wouldn’t let you go there, because you thought Hollywood wouldn’t let you go there, et cetera, et cetera.
“There’s always the chance I’d never release the film. That was some sort of idiotic fantasy of mine, that I couldn’t control.”
So this film that I just finished I love very much, it’s really remarkable. It’s something that’s bothered me since the ’60s, which is really part of the end of the film, which I can’t talk about because the entire film is based on what this thing says at the end, which I think is something that the whole country… That came out and other things came out and I’m very, very satisfied with the film also.
To tell the film I had to find a new structure, this may get a little directorial for you, I had to find the structure. How to move along, how to get from Point A to B without boring development scenes. The thing I hate the most is development scenes, scenes that tell you who the character is, how old he is, whether he’s a good guy or a bad guy, and some of his background so you feel sorry for him, and I hate that in films and all films have it. You waste so much screen time. It’s boring. This film flies along. I have a lot of characters that are brought in and out of the film and it plays very differently.
So in the 22 or 25 minutes it packs at least as much information as any one of my smaller features, like Heavy Traffic or Coonskin or Fritz the Cat. It’s much different because it has a life of its own now. Then in my interior life, like everyone hides their interior life… that’s the way painters, the painters that I love paint that way. Jackson Pollock painted that way and Francis Bacon painted that way […] I learned a lot from those guys.
I have to ask though, because even when you’re working in a smaller, independent film where you’re not necessarily listening to a whole lot of masters and you’re letting the film tell you what it is, on some level it’s a complicated and painstaking process. At what point does the film tell you “Oh, I wanted to do this” and now you have to redraw 2,000 cels of animation?
[Laughs.] Well, that’s what you do! It’s a very painful process. It’s a very rewarding process at the end. In other words, “painful” is not necessarily the right word, but still… if you have to paint out a picture, and paint another picture to get to a picture underneath – which so many painters do, the ones I mentioned especially – there’s a certain process in that. It’s wonderful. I can’t explain [it]. You get high on what you’re doing if you know somehow it’s right, or if you know somehow you’re reaching certain parts of you that wouldn’t have reached, that’s a very exciting process. Last Days at Coney Island is a film that I think everybody will pretty much enjoy. I’ll say that, but I enjoy it the most.
So that’s a process. It took me two-and-a-half years to make this film because of what you’re talking about. I can’t tell you how many times… I started this film in the middle, thinking it was the beginning. I worked out the beginning and then somehow worked back to the middle and then to the end. But that’s the process. I wait for that. I revel in that.
Again, I love painting very much. I love painting as much as I love film. Like the painters that I love, [I] do that. Francis Bacon, that’s what they do. A lot of times a painting doesn’t work and you throw it out. There’s always the chance I’d never release the film. That was some sort of idiotic fantasy of mine, that I couldn’t control. I felt that too.
That raises an interesting question too, though. You can throw something out if it’s not working…
…but this is Kickstarted. Once it’s Kickstarted, don’t you have an obligation? Would that have made it more challenging if the project wasn’t working, in your head?
In reference to Kickstarter?
Are you beholden to the people who helped pay for this film to see the light of day?
Of course I’m beholden to them, but all I’ve ever told them… Of course I’m beholden to them. I’m very… what’s the word… I’m very thankful. This project would not be here because of them. And delivering this film, there’s guys – I’m not going to mention their names – who got Kickstarter money for animated films and never delivered, nor will they deliver.
“I’m very much a believer in a painter that does his own painting, and not a painter that farms out his work and takes the credit for what other people do.”
And also I asked my buddies for a five-minute short. My Kickstarter money was [for] a five-minute short. So this one’s up to 25 minutes. I put a lot of my own money into it. So that’s how much I backed up the Kickstarter people. I’m more than thankful because I never would have done it if it wasn’t for their money. I never would have had the courage.
But they backed me, whatever I wanted to make. That’s what Kickstarter’s about. They never read a script, never had an outline, so they backed my Last Days at Coney Island and if you look at the Kickstarter trailer that’s exactly what I’m delivering. [It’s] about people lost in the world, that they have no control over. So that was always the same thing. And I’m delivering a film to them, delayed, but here it is.
At the start of our conversation you said “back when you were doing features.” Do you feel like you’re done with features, or is there still a chance there could be another one?
Well, first of all, I’ve had so many problems with features because of this. When you sell a picture called Heavy Traffic to Sam Arkoff and AIP [and] halfway through the picture you throw out the script because of what I just said, and you start rewriting the picture… which in Hollywood you don’t do that, because I didn’t tell anybody! Why bother people with my problems, right? So when they see the film they usually go nuts. Coonskin was that way, [Heavy] Traffic was that way.
I’ve taken my hits to do what I think is right as a director. I’m very much a believer in the director’s business, because he is the maker of the film. That’s why I write and direct most of my movies. I’m very much a believer in a painter that does his own painting, and not a painter that farms out his work and takes the credit for what other people do. I’m a craftsman. I’m an old-fashioned, hands on craftsman.
Okay, back to how much trouble I had dodging the studios and outsmarting them. […] I’d get away with it because they don’t care about animation. They wouldn’t check on what I was doing. I knew they hated animation anyhow, so it didn’t matter to them what I did. Some got mad at me. Some laughed. Some thought the picture was better. You know? […]
Feature films… I’m not interested in getting back in the ball game I just mentioned. That’s ridiculous. I’ve always been independent to the best of my ability. Even when I had to go to Hollywood, because I raised independent money to make those movies. Even when I needed a distributor, [I’d] take a beating if I changed a page of the script, or had a new idea. “Oh, this is what the movie is about.” With the advent of Vimeo, cable, online, right? I think this is heaven! This is what I waited my whole life [for], to be able to distribute and release and write and direct my own movie. This is the first movie I didn’t have a fight with making it. I didn’t have to get any calls or notes. I’ll screen the film, I won’t get any notes from the studio saying “Change this, do that, change this, change that.”
“I didn’t like to merchandise when I was in Hollywood. How are you going to merchandise Heavy Traffic?”
It’s the greatest freedom in the world, the internet, and there’s no reason in the world to go back to Hollywood and those kind of films. I’m not born for that kind of action. I don’t appreciate that. I don’t eat sushi. Hollywood hates guys that don’t eat sushi, and I don’t eat sushi, so I’ve got nothing to do there. This is the greatest advent for independent filmmaking, especially animation that ever happened, and I’m staying right here.
I’m going to make feature length films. If I make any money I’m going to longer films. I’m going to do Wizards 2, which I’m going to do for the internet. I want to do a lot of other things. […] I’m personally happy now the money’s different. You know, you go to Hollywood if you want to make $20 billion, make a lot of money, but I’m satisfied with earning a living and being able to produce these movies. That’s what’s important to me. I didn’t like to merchandise when I was in Hollywood. How are you going to merchandise Heavy Traffic?
You know, so what I’m saying is I’m not putting on any airs of grace. So those people who like the other things, they make wonderful films in Hollywood. They do great films. What I’m saying is, as far as I’m concerned, in my life, how I grew up, and what I preferred as a kid coming out of the 50s when ideas were more important than money and the great abstract painters were starting out, and the revolution to allow people to vote and stop segregation, and Bobby Dylan […] And I said, “Look what they did to my New York!” I mean you can’t believe how clean it is. Would McLean enjoy walking around Manhattan? No! How about Edward Hopper? He’d have a heart attack. I’m a different guy. […]
So this picture is as exciting as anything I’ve ever done. Off the record or on the record, I think it’s my best film. It’s the most honest because I had less fears at the end of the screenplay, and I changed anything I wanted to, not because anyone told me to. I was the idiot that did it! So I’m not going back to Hollywood.
My question wasn’t about going back to Hollywood, specifically, it was just about going to feature length. It does sound like that’s something you want to do. How is Wizards coming along? Are you actively working on it right now?
Absolutely I want to do features! I love these films that I make, when they’re honest. I hate them when they’re dishonest. I hate them when they’re just commercial crap. I’ve done a couple of those.
Which ones do you hate, if you don’t mind my asking?
Nah, nah, nah, some people like them. I don’t want to embarrass them. I’m shocked that people like them. Some people like them. They’re the worst films I’ve ever made. I can’t get over that. Yeah, Wizards 2, I’ve written the script. I’ll probably rewrite some of it, but it has to do very much…
Wizards 1 was about the state of Israel getting formed, and what might happen with the revolution and pollution and destruction. Here we are, Wizards 2 is about the madness, absolute madness. I mean, Wizards 2 continues where [Blackwolf] gets beaten, or does he? Suddenly every other tribe in the world is coming after you.
That’s what’s going on today. And the planet, the environment, there’s a lot of material. Those ideas that bother me, [those] are the things that drive my wanting to make films. I’m trying to say something or I’m trying to get something out of me that I’m not facing. I’m not facing the truth. I don’t love the country, facing the truth, today. I’m not for anything. You have a world in flames. You have Russia running amok, and you have stabbing our allies in the back, like Israel, and you have Republicans fighting over personal issues, and no one’s addressing the bigger picture. No one’s addressing the fact that we are heading for a disaster on a huge front.
So I’m not sure why we are fighting over stuff that could wait. Same sex marriage, my god, what are we fighting over this stuff for when the whole world is burning? So I’m very concerned that we’re not facing, or making the hard choices that presidents have to always make. We’re lost in this hysterical in-fighting over nothing and look what’s going on!
“Wizards 1 was about the state of Israel getting formed, and what might happen with the revolution and pollution and destruction. Here we are, Wizards 2 is about the madness, absolute madness.”
So that’s what Wizards 2 is about, basically, in a nutshell.
Oh absolutely. Absolutely, and Last Days at Coney Island addresses a major problem we had in the ‘60s that takes you by surprise at the end. It gives you a major answer as to what happened. I mean, the ‘60s were about… I can’t tell you. It’s a surprise in the film. That’s why I’m not trying to screen it. I would screen this for anyone.
I haven’t had the luxury of seeing it yet, unfortunately. Your films tend to be very, if not necessarily political then at least concerned with social issues. And then you’ll make something like Fire and Ice, which seems a little less so.
I hate that film! Oh, there I go. You figured it out. [Laughs.] You’re a son of a bitch. That’s one I don’t like.
Is that the reason?
It’s a comic book! Who cares? It’s a bunch of guys running around. I don’t want to… There’s a guy who wants to make a live-action picture of it. I could lose a lot of money if he doesn’t. If he wants to make a live-action picture starring [a] chick with no clothes on, go ahead. If he does I could make a few dollars.
It’s not that I don’t like the film. I love Frank Frazetta, I wanted to work with him. He’s a very great friend of mine, and a great painter, great illustrator, okay? But again, it doesn’t reach any part of my body that I can stand behind. I don’t really care if the ice takes over the world. It’s not about anything I believe in on a level that’s personal to the reason I’m alive, in other words.
We live in this world, we come through, we should try to do stuff that – not to preach, I’m not about preaching – but do something we believe in. Do something that’s not just for commercial gain, which is all we are today. We’re all about commercial gain at any cost. We lost our values.
“I’m going to die very soon, and [so] I’ll do things that I want to do. I’ll be the winner. You can’t take the money with you.”
And I guess every old man feels that way. It’s just getting old. They’ve cleaned up New York! How terrible is that? What a thing. Where are the poor people going? The Lower East Side, the immigration, for hundreds of years all the immigrants were able to come into our country and afford rent and move out into society. I’m part of that movement, so’s a lot of other people. They have sushi parlors and high rises down there. You can’t afford to live in Brooklyn.
We should find a way to make that the theme of Fire and Ice 2. We could take it back!
Well, I can’t! Here’s the problem: you go pitch that to a studio. [Do] you see what I’m saying? That’s the problem. That’s why I’m staying where I’m staying. You go pitch that, they’ll look at you like you’re out of your fucking mind. In other words, they’ll say, “What, are you kidding?” You know the greatest line that every one of them got me, “[If] you want to send a message, send a telegram.” Now it’s, “If you want to send a message, send an email.” That’s the line to them. “We’re not in the business of sending messages.”
That’s why the country’s falling apart. No one’s thinking anymore. Look who’s running for president! Look what’s going on! And if you think Hilary [Clinton] is a bargain, you’re out of your mind. Anyhow, you’re right. It’s nothing to do with Fire and Ice. Those highly commercial films that people love are fine for other people, but not for me. I’m trapped in this body of mine. You’re right because I’m going to die very soon, and [so] I’ll do things that I want to do. I’ll be the winner. You can’t take the money with you.
Top Photo: Theo Wargo / Getty Images Entertainment
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.