The legendary director releases his first new animated film in years, a compelling 22-minute short filled with offbeat, colorful characters drawn from his years in Brooklyn.
25 minutes on the phone with Ralph Bakshi makes you realize that anyone who ever said to you, “Well, let me be frank” was lying. You set the phone down feeling energized, almost rejuvenated – in conversation, his blunt directness amplifies, never diminishes, an obvious passion about his new film, the inherent difficulties of the animation business and how, at age 77, he is reaching audiences young and old in a way he never dreamed possible 40 plus years ago when he was slugging it out making and distributing classic animated films like Fritz the Cat, Heavy Traffic and Coonskin.
Urged on by his son Eddie, Ralph launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund a 5-minute short. Two and a half years later, the now 22-minute short, Last Days of Coney Island, has arrived. On his birthday in fact.
In our wonderful conversation, much of which could not be printed, Ralph spoke proudly about the film, the exciting possibilities of online film distribution and the idea that people, no matter how flawed, deserve a chance to succeed.
Dan Sarto: So your short is finally complete. You’ve come full circle, back to telling stories with colorful New York characters and storylines like you did early in your career.
Ralph Bakshi: That’s kind of true. It's kind of like that but it isn't. Certainly the characters are very rich and they're from my experiences in Brooklyn many years ago. Number one, when you take feature film-length material and condense it into 22 minutes, you have to find a new way to tell the story. I've always hated the introductory scenes in films, the scenes where you tell this guy is good, this guy is bad, this guy's got a life, this guy doesn’t - all those scenes that prove this guy's good and this guy's bad always take time and have always been very boring to me. The exposition. In this new film, I try to find a new way to tell a story, introducing lots of characters without the usual trappings around them that slow a film down. That's done very well. In that sense it's not like anything I've ever done.
Number two, the picture itself, the structure has to do with something that bothered me greatly in the 60s, something that the whole country was involved with. The picture parallels that in a way that allows me to say some things, get them off my chest.
And of course, I can't tell you what that is because then the whole film is out the window.
It’s got political overtones. It’s got these people whose lives I very much enjoy. I enjoy people who try to do their best even though they're not bright, or haven't had the best education to try to get somewhere in this world. Their desperation, their attempt is...I'm behind them…it’s hard for them to succeed because they are so lacking in understanding about what's really going on, and usually destroy everything around them. That's what the story is about.
It's traditional to me in the sense that nobody tells me what to do and I've rewritten the picture many times. I'm a great believer in you start a picture and you tell it what to do, which is traditional. But at a certain point, the picture starts telling you what to do. And you'd better listen.
The painters I love worked that way. Painters who I love personally, and there are a lot of them, are very much about the painting, trying to find what the painting's about. It's very tricky, very tricky.
That's what got me in trouble all the time in Hollywood with my features, because halfway through I’d figure out, “Oh, that's what I'm trying to say," and then I'm trying to rewrite the film. Now, I feel that always makes a better movie. And I'm very, very happy with this movie. I'm very proud of it really.
DS: This project was funded in part by a successful Kickstarter campaign. What made you look to crowd sourcing for funds? Tell me how this all came about. Why make a film now after all these years?
RB: Well first of all, I've got kids. They grew up. One of my kids [Eddie Bakshi], who's actually producing this film, started an animation course at New Mexico State University. Very successful. It’s doing quite well. He knows me, he's my kid, he told me about Kickstarter. He wanted to get me going again because even though I was painting, he wanted me to animate again.
I got intrigued and figured a five minute short would be a great idea. So we raised the money for a five minute short. It was his idea. Then, when the film got to five minutes, I realized [laughs] that I wanted it to be much longer. I started to get excited about what was happening. And I hadn’t even rewritten it yet.
We put our own money into it at that point. I am thrilled to death about putting it on the Internet, of the possibilities of going direct to the audience with films you’ve made, whether you financed them yourself or had help starting with Kickstarter, where you could do what you want and have the freedom you want and maybe make some money.
I'm not talking about the kind of money you make in Hollywood. If we break even...If we make a profit on this film I'll really start back on a feature immediately. I think I've written a few. What I'm saying is, to me, it solved all the problems I've ever had. I was always independent, but I fought to distribute my films through the major distribution channels.
I always ran into major trouble with distributors because I didn't want to change something, or my film wasn't the film they bought, or whatever the problems were. I'm always pushy and they couldn't stand me for that.
DS: This allows you to do what you want, how you want, and bring it directly to your audience.
RB: And it allows other filmmakers without really high profiles in feature films…there are a lot of people I guess, financial people, watching this.
I could have sold Last Days a number of times in the last five or ten years, to various people depending on what kind of deal…two guys come in, half the money from them, half the money from the majors, blah, blah, blah, and you're off and running. All you have to do is show them the script.
But I'd rather go this way because it gives me freedom, of course, and it gives freedom to a lot of other animators. This is a very important film. Other guys have done this. I'm not the first. But with my profile I could potentially make a profit. I'm going to be doing this again and again.
I'll build a studio back up again. For me it means starting a studio where I'm the distributor. Wow, I mean, "Come on!" That could be not just with my films. If there's somebody's film I want to distribute or I like ...That’s kind of where we’re headed. It depends what happens. I'm very, very satisfied with the film, and I'm very satisfied with the response I've gotten.
I keep thinking no one's going to fucking remember my name and I’m always a little shocked when they do. It's hard to keep going. There are very few people in Hollywood who understand this, how many years my films have been playing. Everyone thinks they've got ... the New York Times wanted to do a story but they have to find an older writer, they said.
RB: They don’t understand how many young kids are behind this movie now. They don't get it, they still don't get it. Of course, they’re online but they’re not really online [laughs]. Basically my films have been playing for 40 years and I've been building an audience and, "Here we are today, here we are."
DS: All told now, how long did it take from the time you started serious production until you completed the film?
RB: Two and a half years. I did all the animation and all the background.
DS: That was my next question. How much help did you have?
RB: Well, a lot of help, in the editing area and with the computers. I like mixing – oh the music is amazing. I got a jazz musician, Mark Taylor, who’s in Harlem, who gave me a brilliant score. I really can't tell you how much I lucked out with that guy.
DS: But you did all the animation and backgrounds?
RB: And inbetweens. I had a lot of help in sound effects and editing and music and, most importantly, coordination.
You know the people who would work on this stuff, special effects and various odds and ends…it was all done by various people sitting in their own rooms. Everything was e-mailed back and forth. It's a real amazing situation. The film coordinator made everything work.
I had some animation done. I call it additional animation. Those people are in the credits. The reason I went that way was I was going to have it animated by other people but when it grew I had to put my own money in.
My wife says, "Well, no one's paying you Ralph, so come on." So even though it cost me a lot - I had to pay myself to do that - it was really fun doing that again. That’s what I did it as a young man at Terrytoons. I won't do that again. It was too hard for an old man.
It was very interesting for me. I don’t know if people know who I am in the business today, as well as what I've done. They don’t understand that I was an animator and my first love was moving the characters. Maybe they'll understand that now when they see now that I've animated this film.
DS: Your work has always been so character-driven, these rich characters in your stories who struggled with difficult issues and realities. What messages or ideas are you trying to impart on audiences today? What do you want them to come away with when they see Last Days of Coney Island?
RB: That everyone has the right to make it, not just a few people. Everyone has the right to make it, everyone has the right to try to make it. Whether they lack a college education, or any kind of education, people have the right to try to make it, and deserve to make it.
The fact that they go about it foolishly or stupidly, isn't necessarily their fault. A lot of that is driven by what's happening in the country. The country itself, I think we're all learning, is kind of...the truth is very hard to come by. Everything is manipulated and everything is done only for the buck, without any sort of morality involved.
That's what happened in the 60s with the shooting of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Kennedy [RFK]. And the Vietnam War. I figure at that time our country started to change drastically into the mess we are today. That's not what the picture is about. What the picture is about is people trying to be successful when everything is stacked against them. But it's not stacked against them by their next door neighbors. It's stacked against them by people way above, making decisions like prime-rate mortgages and stuff.
DS: Do you see a lot of parallels in your sensibilities about what’s going on in our country today and what was going on in the 60s? Do you see lessons that we didn't learn back then that we're sort of learning now?
RB: That's it. That's exactly what the picture's about. That's exactly what the film's about.
The problem is, in 22 minutes, if I give away one thing, I give away the whole film. I can give more information about an hour and a half film. With a short film, every scene is key. Anything I tell you is probably a major portion of the film, you see. I'm a little nervous about that.
It's couched in the 60s, but what we lost in the 60s, that's what's happening to us today as far as I'm concerned. Now, it's still caricature played by the same crazy characters that I love. Hopefully that metaphor is felt underneath as it is in most of my films. We'll see.
At the moment, no one's seen the film, so I'm very anxious to see what the reaction will be.
I am particularly happy with it. I wouldn’t have released it if I wasn’t happy.
DS: Right, right.
RB: Another reason is I’m an old, stupid man. I'm one of these guys that wants to get back into the ring until he gets his ass knocked out. I'm from Brooklyn. But that’s the kind of filmmaker I am.
DS: So when someone finishes watching your film, what’s the one thing you want them to take away that maybe impacts them in a positive way?
RB: I want them to love this film, to really enjoy the characters and not believe that this story was able to be told in animation.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.