Making films has never been easy for Ralph Bakshi. The maverick cartoonist and filmmaker, who became famous — and infamous — after 1972’s smash X-rated ‘toon, Fritz the Cat, never liked to color within the lines, so to speak. He was the anti-Disney back then, filling his stories with provocative themes, raunchy humor, and curvacious broads that would make Russ Meyer blush. His bold 1975 blaxploitation satire Coonskin was driven from some theaters by critics who deemed its racial elements offensive, but filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino adored the film, and Bakshi’s artistic style and spirit lived on in the work of admirers who went on to make cartoons like The Simpsons, Ren & Stimpy, and Rango.
Now 74 years old, Bakshi has been in exile for more than a decade, focusing on his painting at his New Mexico home after one-too-many frustrating and disappointing Hollywood experiences. He hasn’t made a feature film since 1992’s Cool World, and he seemed to call it quits for good after his short-lived HBO series Spicy City went belly-up in 1997. But he still has a story to tell — a great one, he says, that will “push the boundaries of 2-D animation.”
Last month, Bakshi set up a Kickstarter campaign to raise $165,000 for an animated short called, The Last Days of Coney Island, the first of a series he says he’s always wanted to make. Set in Brooklyn’s iconic boardwalk town in the 1960s, Coney Island has all the markings of a classic Bakshi joint: simmering, subliminal politics, fever-dream animation, and outrageous characters. His collage of a Brooklyn street (above, and here in supersize) captures his new style of combining cut-up photographs and paintings. “It’s the best thing I’ve ever done,” Bakshi says, who aspires to hold a fun-house mirror up to America to show, as he says in the semi-NSFW Kickstarter video “who we are, what we are, even if it hurts.”
With only three days to go, Bakshi’s team, which now includes Matthew Modine as the voice of Coney Island‘s lead character, is close to reaching that financial goal — but time is running out. [UPDATE: The Last Days of Coney Island is a go picture! It surpassed its Kickstarter goal on Friday afternoon.] Bakshi is a man of many contradictions, and his wounds from his legendary Hollywood battles — Fritz, Lord of the Rings, Cool World — are still raw. He spoke to Entertainment Weekly about his career, why he thinks Peter Jackson owes him at least a drink, and how Kickstarter opened the door to his potential comeback.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You haven’t directed a film in 20 years, but I know this is a story that’s close to your heart. How long have these characters been bouncing around your head?
RALPH BAKSHI: Studs Terkel did a wonderful series of books that I used to read back in the ’60s. He interviewed various people: hookers and gangsters. It was a wonderful book that was so honest; the way people spoke about their jobs and their lives was fascinating to me. There was an authenticity that I thought animation could use. All these various people who come and go in my films — I love to discuss their lives, or fantasize about their lives. I’m a cartoonist, so a lot of the things that I talk about with these people have a lot to do with my own fears and hangups.
Fans of your previous work will certainly feel pangs of nostalgia when they see the character drawings on your Kickstarter page. How will these characters compare to the ones they already know and love?
I’d like to discuss now what has happened to America and all of us through these characters. This little short guy in Coney Island who thinks he’s James Dean and Marlon Brando and sings like Chet Baker, a total narcissistic a–hole; he represents the worst of us. He works for the mafia, which makes him a very special dwarf at Coney Island. Even the mafia doesn’t want to get the kickbacks from all the freaks and sideshow workers, so they’re his size and he pushes them around. But then he wants more and more, and finally he starts pushing around the mafia. And then he’s after the mafia guy’s wife. It shows what’s happened to this country; what starts out fun-like and we’re doing well, but then greed gets out of hand. I don’t have to tell you about the banking situation and the mortgage situation, and the great disparity between the rich and the poor. So this character will represent that; It’s never enough, I think I deserve everything, I think I’m better than you. And the cops and all the other people who work with him or don’t work with him or get hurt by him show the other type of people who cave in when they shouldn’t cave in. I think people will recognize the various types that I’m portraying in the new America.
Coney Island is practically your childhood backyard. You grew up in Brooklyn, yes?
Coney Island was a wonderful place, full of excitement. Everything was a nickel: hot dogs were a nickel, rides were a nickel. It was a great place — but it was awful at night. Almost illusionary, the gaudy backgrounds and the crowds. You had the dancers and strippers and snake charmers out on platforms, with the barker pulling people in to see the shows. It was quite strange, especially when I was 8, 9, 10. It’s a freaky fun house — a great landscape for me to work against. How you going to animate Coney Island wrong? It allows you a great palette to explore and certainly in animation, you take it to the extent you want to as an artist.
What’s your hope for the finished product? On your site, you say you’re aiming to raise enough money for a seven-minute short?
I would go to 12 minutes if the money comes in. The extent of the short is based on how much money I can raise. Then I can show that to studios or producers and say, “Look, you’re enjoying this. Let’s finish it.” I did Fritz the Cat and Heavy Traffic, and my pictures still play. So if it’s a good movie from a guy who hasn’t done a movie in 20 years, it can’t miss turning a dollar with a worldwide market.
I’m guessing you tried to go the studio route first before you turned to Kickstarter.
Yes. I showed them scripts and drawings. I was very much prepared for their game. But basically, [my movie is] non-merchandizable and they’re in the family-film business. And they want the computer-rendered characters. They pretty much said, “Take your script and get the f–k out of here. Hit the road, Jack.” Same sh-t I started with [years ago]. Listen, I’m 74 years old. The things I said to these guys I’ve waited my whole life to tell them, that they don’t know what they’re talking about. They don’t have the slightest idea. I’m sorry, I can’t help it. Sh-t. That’s why I never sold anything.
NEXT: What really happened during the making of Cool World?