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?
You didn’t have a lot of luck working within the system, and you’ve spent the last decade or so in New Mexico painting. I read interviews where you said you’d burned out. What did it?
The studios tore a lot of my films apart. It was a very difficult time for me. I was so burned out and sick of the fights, and I have a family. I left disastrously close to a nervous breakdown. I was shaking. I’m laughing with you know, but it was so hard.
You know, I couldn’t help but notice in your Kickstarter video that there’s a clip from Cool World just as your narration says, “Help me do something for animation that isn’t driven by making you happy and stupid.” That was your last feature, a live-action/cartoon hybrid with Brad Pitt and Kim Basinger that didn’t work out the way you planned. Does that project still stick in your craw?
Oh, boy, you’re right on it, aren’t you? I had to work with producer Frank Mancuso Jr. because his father ran the company. I sold Paramount on this R-rated animated feature — the first [animated] horror story. Oh God, they loved it. We get greenlighted, and I bring in a young Brad Pitt. Then I’m on location in Palm Springs and I’m handed a script and I say, “What is this?” The script was rewritten on the day we started shooting, into this PG piece of sh-t. In my original script, the cartoonist goes to bed with this hot [cartoon] girl and she gets pregnant and gives birth to this half-live, half-cartoon monster who chases the cartoonist back to the real world for creating him, to kill him. They threw all that out. But I had nowhere to go. See, this is Paramount Pictures. I had left my sanctuary of Bakshi Productions because I wanted to get some money, I wanted to get a decent budget, and stop all this hand to mouth stuff. Try a picture like Scorsese. Have the studio protect me, like the other guys. But I couldn’t go to Frank Mancuso Sr. and say, “Fire your son.” So I punched him. They blackballed me after that — that’s why I left the business.
You punched Frank Mancuso Jr.?
Oh, yeah. I took him out. During the mix. Paul Hagger separated us, the guy who recently died — he was in charge of Paramount’s mix department. How smart was that? His father runs the f–kin’ place. But he had it coming. If they had given me the script earlier, I would’ve quit. I would’ve been honorable: “Look, I can’t do this.” But to hand me the script while I’m on location on the first day. I never forgot that. I’m not violent. I just had had it at that point.
[Note: When contacted about the incident, Mancuso, who had produced several Friday the 13th movies and went on to make the Species franchise and numerous other films, denied that there was ever a physical altercation:
So you’re in New Mexico, out of the game, so to speak. For at least a decade. When did you get that spark back to make another movie?
I always loved animation. I loved film directing. And I’m watching guys like Bill Plympton go to Kickstarter and get money for their shorts. Plus, my entire studio Bakshi Production is now sitting in a little box in my library called a computer — the inking, the painting, the maps — everything that cost me a fortune to do, is now right there. I can do Heavy Traffic for $200,000 today with my computer. All these costs that I used to worry about as a producer/director are gone. It’s amazing, so that got me extraordinary interested. I wouldn’t have to go back and punch anybody!
What I’m saying is it’s time for me to make another movie. I’d love to do another Traffic. I’d love to do Wizards 2 and Wizards 3. I think Peter Jackson, if he was a nice guy, would send me the check and end my Kickstarter problem. Peter Jackson saw [my animated] Lord of the Rings Part I in the theater, saw that that was a good idea, and he went out and made several billion dollars. He didn’t even send me a bottle of wine.
You know, I always wondered about your Lord of the Rings movie. Why wasn’t there Part II. My understanding of the math is that it made someone a lot of money.
It made a fortune.
I had a contract that read I was going to do the trilogy, because no one could do that as one film. And now the film’s being released for Christmas and they pull “Part I” off the marquee. And I’m fighting like crazy, “What are you guys doing? People are going to think they’re coming in to see a completed film.” They said, “No one’s going to buy a ticket if it’s just Part I.” So when the picture didn’t [complete the saga], there were boos in the theater. People came expecting to see the [entire] Lord of the Rings. Well, it didn’t go down well after that. People want you to act a certain way, or play the game with them or something. And I will, but not when they’re hurting the film.
Your biggest hit by far was your first feature, the X-rated Fritz the Cat, which kind of defined your style and the promise of adult animation when it was released in 1972. But R. Crumb, the cartoonist who created the character, was famously not a fan.
He hated it.
After the movie was released, he killed off his own character. Was there an epilogue to your relationship with him, or was that it?
No, that was it. I think the thing between me and Robert was that basically — and I can understand this — he felt that it was his character. He didn’t understand the film business. He didn’t understand that film directors get credit for their movies. So I think that was a blow to him. We talked a couple of times on the phone. He continued to bad-mouth me. He had great talent, but he didn’t like the movie. But it wasn’t his movie. It was my movie. I was really working for the history of animation more than I was working for Robert Crumb.
Fritz the Cat was criticized by some at the time for its contemptuous attitude towards the 1960s, which also is the backdrop for The Last Days of Coney Island? Has your attitude towards that era changed since then.
I’m sure my attitudes have changed tremendously, but I’ll find out when I do this cartoon. The way I work is, the first thing you write is a lie. Then you rewrite and you get a little closer. And when you ponder and worry about it, finally the truth comes out. That’s how I work. That’s the Bakshi method. That’s why I can’t stand story meetings, because you go to the studio and everyone’s pitching their ideas, but they’re invalid. They’ll all lies. They’re all off the top of your head.
What am I really thinking about with the 60s, which is what your question was? What really came down? Well, a lot came down, and my Coney Island characters mention offhandedly what’s happening in America, like Kennedy’s assassination, and their attitudes about what they see on television I think is quite horrific — although they’re things I remember that people actually said at various points. I remember sitting in a bar and some lady looked up as Kennedy’s kid saluted his father as the casket came by, and she said, “Isn’t he cute?” Someone else said, “His father ain’t.” Those kind of things stuck in my brain, and will be part of what the cartoon is. I’m going to have it wafting through the television, like subliminally.
Your Kickstarter campaign recently got a boost when Matthew Modine came aboard to voice your main character, the dwarf mafia collector. Did you already know each other?
No. He’s obviously a cartoon fan. He tells this story where his father managed a drive-in theater, and basically they played Fritz the Cat in a Mormon town. And he said the sh-t hit the fan. But he loved the film, he loved my films, and when he saw it on Kickstarter, he wanted to help me raise the money. It was my first time in the business where someone came in and just really helped me because they like what they do.
The Kickstarter agreement is that you have until Sunday around noon to reach your financial goal, and you’re close – about $7,000 short.
It’s very difficult to watch. We’re going to be very close on this. To me, it’s very important, at my age. I’m very satisfied with the amount of money that we have raised, make it or not. I’m very proud of the people who got behind me. I’m happy.