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Might Come Back From Dead Man's Curve: Bill Plympton's 'Hair High'

Taylor Jessen chats with Bill Plympton about the making of and theatrical release of his genre-busting 1950s throwback feature, Hair High.

Bill Plympton brings his signature style to a film that harkens back to 1950s horror films. All images © Plymptoons.

Bill Plympton brings his signature style to a film that harkens back to 1950s horror films. All images © Plymptoons.

Bill Plympton's new feature, Hair High, is a genre-busting 1950s throwback about love, murder, zombies and pompadours. Little Mister and Miss Popularity Rod and Cherri are the hottest couple at Echo Lake High, and they both have loads of fun taunting new guy Spud -- until Spud and Cherri fall in love, leading Rod to seek revenge on the happy couple by forcing their car into the lake on Prom night. It's all over for the doomed young lovers -- until 12 months later, when their car unexpectedly drives across the lake bottom, up the shore and down the road to the high school in time for next year's prom.

This goofball gothic high-school epic of big hair, locker politics and strange sports events has been in the can since 2004. The 78-minute film, Bill's sixth feature, was in theaters in France as much as two years ago, but is only now taking its turn in front of paying audiences in America.

It's finally getting a chance at some indie box office returns thanks not to sympathetic intervention by the Hollywood powers-that-be, but to Bill himself. After being turned down by every distributor on the map, Bill took the reins and decided to distribute Hair High on his own. The film will be hitting both coasts in the month of April, playing midnight screenings at the IFC Theatre in New York City on April 6 and 7, 2007, and Laemmle's Sunset 5 in Hollywood for a full week starting, natch, Friday the 13th (with the director in attendance on opening night, as well as clips at an ASIFA-Hollywood screening at DreamWorks Animation on April 11). AWN caught up with Plympton at the end of March right before he hopped a plane for a quick trans-Atlantic trip to Spain.

Taylor Jessen: Hair High is just hitting the theatrical circuit, but it's been finished for a while, hasn't it?

Bill Plympton: Yeah -- it came out in the festival circuit in 2005, and it just finished the festival circuit. Now it's doing the theaters.

TJ: I want to hear about how you got into theaters, but first tell me how you hit on the story in the first place. Where did the story kernel come from?

Hair High's original cool couple, Rod and Cherri.

Hair High's original cool couple, Rod and Cherri.

BP: The story is basically a dream that I had. And I usually don't use my dreams for story ideas, but this one was particularly intriguing. It was a car on the bottom of a lake, or a big body of water, and inside were two skeletons sitting in the seats. And the bugs and crawly-things were swimming in and out of their orifices, their eye sockets. Very gothic and grotesque. The current was blowing their hair. And the car turns on, and the lights turn on, and the car starts to move forward, and the car drives on the bottom of this lake, and then drives up on shore and goes to the high school prom. And that's where I woke up. And I thought, "Gee, that's kind of an intriguing image. That's a nice visual."

So I expanded it, using some of my stories from high school, and urban legends, and weird sports, high school football and stuff like that, and it came out to be a nice little story. In fact I think it's probably one of the best stories I've ever written for a feature film.

TJ: Did it jump out at you right away as a 1950s genre explosion kind of thing?

BP: Yeah. It was really a romantic-type story, similar to some of those songs like "Teen Angel" that were really big back in the late fifties, early sixties. And that was in the era when romance was the highest you could attain. The song "Teen Angel" was about a girl who runs back into a car that's stuck on a railroad track to get a ring, and obviously she's run over by a train. But that's okay, because she still loves the guy, and she died for love. And that's the same concept behind Hair High -- this couple, even though they're dead, their love survives. The legend of Cherri and Spud was their love will last forever.

TJ: How long did you spend boarding the film, and how long did the whole production take?

BP: The boarding was part of scriptwriting. That took about a year, because I tried ideas out, I tested ideas, I showed the storyboards around, I got feedback from people. And so it's part of a whole long process. I think it's a very important process. Once I locked the story, then I started doing the animation, and that took about a year, also. And then once I finished the animation, then it's about a year, six months to a year for post-production. And that was extended. Usually it doesn't take that long, but I ran out of money. So I had to wait until I got some jobs to put some money back in the bank, and then I was able to finish post-production.

TJ: Was this a much more ambitious project than your other features?

BP: It's twice as expensive as my other films, simply because we had a lot of voice-over stars in it. We had Sarah Silverman, Keith Carradine, David Carradine, Beverly D'Angelo, Dermot Mulroney. I thought it would be a major, major hit. And for some reason, the distributors were afraid to touch it. I don't know why, because it's not particularly gory, or really sexy. I don't know, they just don't want to touch independent films for adults. It's very weird. But I think it's the best film I've done, and the reviews have been phenomenal. The New York Times just gushed over it. Most of the reviews I've gotten are really raves. So I know it's my best film.

TJ: Tell me how you got that amazing voice cast. Did you have to make a lot of trips to L.A.?

BP: I just did one trip to L.A. for that, and then I did a recording session in New York. That was attained by Martha Plympton, who's a distant relative of mine. We were drinking one night in a bar, and she knew that I was having trouble getting distribution for my films and said, "Let me make some phone calls to some friends of mine." And they were all very excited, and they all knew who I was, and they were all really great voices. I've never worked with such high-caliber professionals before. So it was wonderful for me.

Plympton lines up a cast full of Hollywood names, including Sarah Silverman and writer/producer Eric Gilliland as the leads Cherri and Spud, respectively.

Plympton lines up a cast full of Hollywood names, including Sarah Silverman and writer/producer Eric Gilliland as the leads Cherri and Spud, respectively.

TJ: And there were some animators you knew too.

BP: Right, Don Hertzfeldt did a voice, and also Matt Groening did a voice. Those people, I got. (laughs)

TJ: What part of the production was digital and what was analog?

BP: It was all regular 35mm camera film. Rostrum camera. I mean, the editing was on Final Cut Pro, of course, and I think some of the soundtrack was done digitally, but basically it's all real instruments, real people singing real instruments.

TJ: Between finishing it and getting your film in front of a paying audience, what was the kicker that led you to getting distribution?

BP: That's a long story. The details are this -- we were trying to get into Sundance, as almost all my films have tried to get into Sundance. We sent off a rough cut, and it's about this time that I ran out of money. So it was really hard paying off the bills. We had a tough time finishing off the film. What I sent off to Sundance was an incomplete film. So we did not get into Sundance. We got into Slamdance -- which was okay. It's a good festival. But I still wasn't able to finish it by the time we screened it at Slamdance, so what people were watching was incomplete sound, and the music just did not come across as really authentic music.

So my debt finally ended about a year later, and then I was able to finish the film. There was a big gap in there between the finishing of the film and the film's theatrical release. By the time I was ready to finish the film, all the distributors had turned it down. Not all of them, but some just didn't offer that much money. So we decided to release it ourselves. The film print that we have now is very cool. It's got great sound, great music, great picture, and it's definitely the film that I envisioned when I started the film.

TJ: Is there just the one print?

BP: No, we have more than that -- 20 prints. Something like that.

TJ: Have you been on the road with it? How do audiences respond?

BP: The audiences love it. In fact we showed it in this one place in Switzerland, and I got a standing ovation. Even the projectionist came out of the booth and was applauding. I've never seen that before. Those projectionists, they see a million films. There were three of them, and they all started applauding. So it was really cool.

At first Spud is the kind of guy who'd run from his own shadow.

At first Spud is the kind of guy who'd run from his own shadow.

TJ: Have there ever been overtures from outside production companies to take you on as a director-for-hire?

BP: No, and I've always wondered about that. I heard that you really have to pitch these guys to get considered. But I'm surprised that I don't get offered film scripts from the majors, because they know I can do humor. They know I can do a feature film. I've done six of them. Maybe they're afraid -- they think I'm too much of a maverick, or some wild-eyed radical guy, which I'm really not. But yeah, I would definitely love to consider doing a feature film.

It's interesting because I've seen a bunch of the feature films that come out now, and something like Open Season is a beautiful film to look at, but the audience I sat through it with did not laugh once. You'd think that they would hire somebody who's good with humor. That's what it's supposed to be -- it's supposed to be a comedy. So I don't know why they don't call me to do humor. It seems like a natural thing. All my short films are extremely funny, and very popular because they're funny, but it's a mystery to me.

TJ: I'm still trying to figure out whether out it's easier or harder now to distribute animated features. I think there are a great deal of people watching today who've figured out that animation can be anything. But so many people's perspectives on animation remain the idea that it has to be kiddie fare. And while you have made a lot of things that are very entertaining for children, you're in a genre that doesn't want to be bound by kiddie conventions. You don't want anyone telling you that you have to cut the sex and violence.

BP: Yeah. That's a big mystery to me, too, because you see a lot of live-action films that make tons of money that do that genre. All the Ben Stiller films, the Vince Vaughn films and all those films are raking the money in. There's a huge market for those films out there, just for flat-out comedies. You know, 40-Year-Old Virgin. They're huge moneymakers. So why that can't translate into animation, I do not know. I think there's a huge market for adult comedy animation. And no one's exploiting it. No one's going for that audience.

Fans have something to cheer about as Plympton's films fill the growing desire for adult animation.

Fans have something to cheer about as Plympton's films fill the growing desire for adult animation.

TJ: It's hard to think of a period in American film history where adult animated comedy has really taken off. I mean many, many American animated films have been made for adults, but so often those films are very serious.

BP: You're right, it's serious. That's surprising. Even the Japanese animation, which is for adults, doesn't really have a sense of humor. And I think there's definitely a huge market out there for funny adult animation.

TJ: How's your Webshop doing?

BP: Very good. All week long, we've been getting a lot of interest on it. It's something that I like a lot. It's a great promotional tool for my films.

TJ: Do you do most of your DVD sales through there?

BP: No, we split them up with AWN, of course, and our website, and Microcinema sells a lot. So it's different venues... Tell people when they come to the show, the premiere, in L.A, of Hair High, I will be there Friday and Saturday night -- that's the 13 and 14 of April -- and everybody gets a free Bill Plympton drawing.

TJ: Wow. BYO-paper, or...?

BP: No, no -- I'll have paper there. And there will be some celebs there, too. Some of the actors are going to show up. We have surprise guests.

TJ: Your music videos, especially "Don't Download This Song" for "Weird Al" Yankovic, have been just killing everybody everywhere they go. Is that mainly how you're making payroll these days, through commercial commissions?

After initial distribution, Plympton sees a profit on his short films via various distribution methods like DVD and the Internet.

After initial distribution, Plympton sees a profit on his short films via various distribution methods like DVD and the Internet.

BP: No -- that's a very important question. I do like doing commercial work, especially music videos, and occasionally a commercial -- although I haven't done a commercial in ages -- but most of the money comes from the short films. The short films are very successful. They're sold all over Europe. They do well on DVDs. They do well on Internet and iPods. And they do well theatrically. The Animation Show helps pay for it.

You have to understand that my short films are very inexpensive to make. They only take two months, maybe three months to make the short films. And again, the staff is very small. So the key to success is that they're not expensive. They cost about a $1,000 per minute. Something like Guard Dog costs $5,000 dollars. So I can make that money back just with the theatrical release. And then all the other sales, foreign sales, TV sales, DVD sales, Internet sales -- those all make a profit.

And then you have to realize that these films are timeless. Some of the films that I made 20 years ago, 25 Ways to Quit Smoking, or Your Face, are still making money. So I have a library of films, the features and the shorts that are still bringing in money. For example we just made a deal with Spanish television to sell my whole library for a substantial figure. This is the shorts and the features. And every country has television channels that are looking for animation. So I sell it to every channel. And that's my income.

TJ: It does help, too, that you're adhering to the unwritten rule of success in international animation, which is working mostly in mime.

BP: Yeah, that's true. Although Fan and the Flower does have dialogue, and it's a very successful film. Most of my films are without dialogue, and they're just sound effects and music, which I think is best for me, anyway. In fact, this new feature I'm working on, Idiots and Angels, an 80-minute feature, will have no dialogue at all.

TJ: Wow, you're going into real Triplets of Belleville territory there.

BP: Yeah. They were very successful with it, and I think I can duplicate it.

TJ: That would be extraordinary. Can you give a quick précis of the feature?

BP: Yeah, it's a very David Lynch kind of film. It's dark, it's Eastern European, it's mysterious, it's enigmatic. There is a little bit of humor, a little bit of sex, nudity, but not as much as in the past. It's about a guy who's a ne'er-do-well, he's a selfish, oafish guy, and one day he wakes up and he's starting to grow wings on his back. And it's how he deals with that phenomenon.

TJ: That's very Kafkaesque.

BP: Yeah, it is. Thank you. I should use that in my quotes.

Taylor Jessen is a writer living in Burbank.