Interviews: Ralph Bakshi Talks The Last Days of Coney Island

Our latest interview is with artistic mastermind and creative genius, Ralph Bakshi. 

World renowned animator and director, Ralph Bakshi talked to The Movie Sleuth's very own Dana Culling about his history, his amazement with Kickstarter, and his new movie The Last Days of Coney Island

DC: One thing that really stood out to me about Last Days of Coney Island is how seamless the animation was and how you went from this grainy pencil stuff to digital. It was amazing to me. It brought it into modern times. I wonder if you were to take any of your older films and re-imagined it for a modern audience, which one would you pick?

RB: Probably Coonskin. I loved the film. I loved what it had to say. I mean, technique is one thing. Technique allows you to arrive at what you're thinking about. Technique for the sake of technique doesn't really work for me. So, those two films, Coonskin and [Heavy] Traffic had something to say. I felt very much the anger of what's happening today and the madness in Last Days. But yes, those two films. 

DC: I would love to see a re-imagining of Traffic. 

RB: Traffic was the only film that I've done with the same sense of freedom that I did Last Days with. Traffic was a miracle for me at the time. Fritz wasn't even close to Traffic. And Fritz was a million miles away from what animation was doing anyhow. To move from Fritz to Traffic, I don't know how that happened. I'm not quite clear how I hit that note. I went all the way there and I had never been there before. So, I was shocked. When I first saw the movie put together without the music, it was the most devastating thing I ever saw. The music lifted it up a little. When I saw the first cut without the music, I thought I had committed suicide. It was so unusual. I was such a young man. I didn't show it to my mother for years. 

DC: Going back to Traffic, is it true that Michael was based around you? Do you identify with Max in the same way? 

RB: Let me tell you how I work, or how I try to work. When you're being honest with yourself, when you start a film, you're a big shot at the beginning. You're a writer. You're a director. You're all those great things. You start the film. I want this to happen. I want that to happen. You go along acting like some sort of conqueror. If you're listening, at some point the film says you're lying. You're not telling the truth. You're just pandering to audiences. The film starts telling you what to do. Honestly, you have two choices at that point. You can forget you heard it and can keep going the way you're going, or you can start listening. What comes out of that when you start listening is the deepest part of you that you're not quite clear about. You somehow rise to the surface. So, Michael would be me in different parts. I had the same problems he had with women.  But I could also be like Angie, like Michael’s father, I could be very ugly. I could be very boisterous when I was young. I could be very uncaring. Every little bit came out eventually from what my fears were.  Every piece of the character was different pieces of me as a writer/director. The same is true of Last Days of Coney Island. You can't do an honest movie without getting yourself on the screen. 

DC:  You've certainly served as an inspiration to a lot of younger animators. I notice it in a lot of television animation, from Ren and Stimpy onward. There was so much that wasn't being done on television, then you came along. Your influence struck a chord with John K. and people like him who wanted to think outside the box a little bit more. 

RB: I made John K. a director. John K.'s first directing job was on the New Adventures of Mighty Mouse. I met John K. as a young boy and I thought he was great. I made him a director on Mighty Mouse. He went on to Ren and Stimpy after that. 

DC:  Do you see any other modern TV animation that strikes you as interesting? What are your thoughts on modern animation and other stuff that's being put out now? 

RB: I don't watch that much anymore. I'll say a few things about animation. I've seen different computer animation sequences and scenes done by Pixar and all those guys. They're overwhelming in their workmanship. I've seen the most crazy exciting stuff on the screen. But, I'm coming from someplace else with animation. So, I tend not to look at it because most of it bores me. Not all of it bores me. I'm not sure what that is. I love painters. I love art. I love writers. I love books. I've learned more about animation from painters like  [Francis] Bacon. That's where my love is. Drawing and painting.

DC: What about computer animation?

RB: As far as computer animation goes, I think it’s absolutely amazing what can be done with it. I think it's amazing what they don't do with it. So, I have mixed feelings about it. 

DC: What can you tell us about the early days?

RB: I loved being on the street. I loved Jackson Pollack, Miles Davis, and Bobby Dylan. That's how I was growing up. I loved animation but not how they were doing it. I was a lot of trouble in those days. I had it very difficult with all animation critics. You can read stuff where they thought I was (of course) a pornographer, and then a racist, and then just a slob, and then just an animal…

DC: So what's next for you? What are your plans for a next project?

RB: What's next? That's next!!  I don't know what's next? What do you think is next? What would you like me to do next? I don't know. I got very tired. I was very happy to do this film. I had to animate and do all the backgrounds myself due to budget constraints.  It went from five minutes to a Kickstarter film at 22 minutes but I had to pay all the other people to do the computer work. I did all the backgrounds and animation myself so…well, I didn't have to pay myself. That was the best thing that happened to me in a long time. It took me back to when I was kid. And I loved it. I have no one to blame for this film but me. It was a great experience, finally, to do a complete film myself as my art form. So, right now I don't know what's bothering me enough to get me going, but I'm sure I'll look around and find something. 

DC: You mentioned, you ended up doing a Kickstarter for this project. That must have been different for you. 

RB: I left L.A., I was pretty beat up. They beat the hell out of me. I had lawsuits. I was pretty tired and screwed up when I left L.A.. I didn't want any part of it. I didn't want to do it anymore. The guys never backed me in those days. I wanted to be left alone to draw and paint because that's all I am. I'm an artist. My son eventually came to me and said, young kids are watching my films. He's a young kid. He's very much involved with computers and Facebook. He started an animation course at New Mexico University, they didn't have one. Now he's a professor. He told me about Kickstarter. I thought it would be great to do a five minute film. I didn't have the money to pay for it. I didn't believe it, but I thought it was amazing. Why would people do that? So we went up there and we got the money. We raised $170,000 for a five minute film, which I cannot believe to this day. Some guys gave me ten grand apiece. Suddenly, my five minute film went to twenty two minutes. 

DC: I read somewhere you tried shopping this picture to Dreamworks and Pixar. Is there any truth to that? I can't even imagine that. 

RB: I had the script. [Laughter] I had the script. The only way I know how to work is, I'm independent by the product I do, but I'm not independent. I need money, so I shopped this film to various studios that I thought were very rich. I had another script… I was going to rewrite it anyhow. But they didn't know that. Once I got their money, right? 

That's how I used to do it. When I sold Heavy Traffic to AIP, what I wrote was the funniest thing in the world. Of course it didn't turn out that way. 

They should have given me 5-10 million dollars to make a movie, but they didn't want to do that. They thought I was out of my mind. So yes, I tried two places. They turned me down. So yes, that's the truth. 

-Dana Culling

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