By Nick Haramis
Ralph Bakshi, the legendary filmmaker behind Fritz the Cat, Coonskin, and The Lord of the Rings (no, not that one, although Peter Jackson did look to him for inspiration), hasn’t really spoken to the press since leaving Hollywood for his isolated hilltop house in New Mexico more than ten years ago—plenty of time to stew over his falling out with Fritz creator and comic book icon Robert Crumb, his longstanding grudge against Al Sharpton, and his discovery of someone named Brad Pitt. At the age of 70, Bakshi bites back.
BLACKBOOK: In the introduction to Unfiltered: The Complete Ralph Bakshi, Jon M. Gibson writes, “Ralph wasn’t without vices, but at least he was fair.” What does he mean by that?
RALPH BAKSHI: No one’s without vices. Did I take girls out while I was married? Did I hang out at bars? Did I take drugs once in a while? Sure. I’ve had a fun life, a full life… so I’m not sure what vice he’s talking about. I have as many vices as any asshole has, and I’m not going to fucking tell you what they are. [Laughs.] I have grandchildren now.
BB: You grew up very poor. Given the chance, would you have taken a ticket out? RB: That’s a good question. I think being poor now is much more difficult than being poor then. Back then, no one was telling us that we were poor, that we needed more stuff. The kind of commercialism kids face today wasn’t apparent back then. We made our own toys—everyone did. We played with wooden guns, built our own skates. We sure didn’t need $260 fucking dollar sneakers to play basketball. If you wanted to play basketball, you went and robbed a ball and went to the park. We played in the streets from morning until night, and the city became a tremendous, beautiful playground of alleyways and fire escapes. The whole thing was so rich; I wouldn’t give it up for a second. BB: Things have changed since you were last in New York. Are you prepared for the return? RB: I’m anxious to come back. I’m in New Mexico now and it’s beautiful. I live in an old ranch on top of a mountain. There aren’t any billboards. There’s a reality here that I love. I used to prowl the Lower East Side of Manhattan, taking photographs on 2nd avenue. It’s all changed. I get the impression that it’s all gotten very upscale. Where do you go anymore for a cup of coffee and a cigarette if you only have $5?
BB: You once said that your family never judged people “because of the color of their skin or the slant of their eyes.” Was it a shock then, when after the release of Coonskin, you were labeled a racist? RB: Was it a shock? No. Was I angry? Absolutely. I have to be careful with this, but… to my knowledge, people who are afraid of other races, who don’t understand other races, are very careful to be on their good side. They’re reluctant to deal with important issues. But every black kid who saw Coonskin thought it was great, and every rapper in the world thinks I’m the greatest. BB: The KKK tried to recruit you after its release. Reverend Al Sharpton protested a screening. This must have been a difficult time. RB: I called Sharpton a black middle-class fucking sell-out, and I’ll say it to his face. Al Sharpton is one of those guys who abused the revolution to support whatever it was he wanted. I haven’t spoken to him since his protest, but check with Spike Lee, check with black kids in general—I get emails that say, “You don’t know how great this is! How did you know what was going on?” In the museum [after a screening at the Museum of Modern Art], people didn’t want to follow Sharpton up the aisle. His own men! He was screaming to me on the podium and turning around to them, saying, “Are you guys coming up?” But they didn’t want to, because they loved the movie. But I’m not trying to defend Coonskin. Coonskin can defend itself at this point. Just talking about it brings back old memories, and I’m still mad. BB: The principal of your high school once called you worthless. RB: I was! BB: This sentiment, being undervalued, must have followed you into the medium of illustration. When compared with traditional high art, I assume illustration might seem kind of frivolous to some. Has this made you even more determined to succeed? RB: This is such an important question. The truth is, I walked away from Hollywood—no one threw me out. I never wanted to succeed in the sense that people wanted to succeed. It never even occurred to me that success was an issue. I wanted to find something that I loved, that I could be proud of, that could take up my time. I didn’t like the vacuum of not doing anything, so I turned to cartooning, then drawing, and then I got my first job at Terrytoons. I never for a minute thought, Ralph, you’re broke, and you can’t compete with Disney. Go out and do a commercial film. Go out and do Mary Poppins 2, Bugs Bunny 3—you could make fortunes. But, not caring about money or merchandising allowed me to extend the medium. I mean, I did Heavy Traffic, and that’s not at all a commercial picture: a Jewish mother trying to chop the Italian father’s balls off and a kid who never got laid. So, what I’m saying is, success isn’t why I work. Money isn’t why I work. People throw away their lives today on that shit. I know guys in L.A. who have hundreds of millions of fucking dollars, and I think, when are you going to stop this shit? I mean, what are you doing here? Jeffrey Katzenberg still gets up at five in the morning to run this shit at DreamWorks, and gets 300 fucking million dollars for Shrek 5. What is that? He’s a billionaire, and he directs Shrek 5 and 6 and 7, like he’s trying to prove something. The short answer to your question is I don’t give a fuck. BB: When you were younger, you befriended Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, and Steven Spielberg. It seems like they’re the kind of ambitious, commercial filmmakers you were just talking about. RB: I don’t want to get too hard on them, because Coppola had some trouble with his kids, but yeah, you’re right. A lot of guys start making films because the salaries are so big that it’s hard to turn down, I guess. A lot of them start playing the game, or get scared to lose their clout. They’ll do anything to stay in their position. In L.A., unless you get the best table at the best restaurant, you feel like shit. That’s why I moved away. I couldn’t stand the agents and the lawyers and these people and their attitudes and their values and who they thought I was. They said, “Give up drawing, give up writing, hire guys, go commercial, do this, do that.” They said, “You could make a fortune, we could get rich.” I said, You want me to go in every morning and not draw, like Disney? You want me to go in every morning and not go in the back and fuck the girls anymore? So that’s why I finally walked. They didn’t want to do business with me and I didn’t want to do business with them. BB: How do you think Fritz the Cat would have turned out if the studio heads at Warner Bros. had gotten their way? RB: There’s a picture called The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat, the sequel to my movie. If you want to see how Fritz would have turned out, look at that. It would have been this cat that, once in a while, said something hip, and then falls in love with some girl and chases her all over town. [Laughs.] You should have seen their faces in the screening room when I first screened a bit of Fritz. I’ll remember their faces until I die. One of them left the room. Holy hell, you should have seen his face. “Shut up, Frank! This is not the movie you’re allowed to make!” And I said, Bullshit, I just made it.
BB: Have you since spoken to Robert Crumb? There was a time when you were friendly, no? RB: I’ve spoken to him a couple of times. He goes in so many directions that he’s hard to pin down. I spoke to him on the phone. We both had the same deal, five percent. They finally sent Crumb the money and not me. Crumb always gets what he wants, including that château of his in France. BB: You once referred to him as being “slick,” but, to the general public, he seems anything but. RB: That’s his thing! Crumb did a movie on himself called The Confessions of Robert Crumb, in which he yelled at me for doing Fritz the Cat. When he needed to become famous, he let someone take a camera into his house, while his mother was out of her mind, and he put all of that on film. His brother [Charles] killed himself shortly after that movie. What kind of guy is that? He has a château in France where he drinks wine every day, and is supposed to be in the underground. No one succeeds to the extent that Robert Crumb has without being slick. But to him, I’m just the guy that ruined Fritz the Cat. So, do I like Robert Crumb? No. I think he’s a hustler. I know he’s a hustler. I have no respect for Crumb. Is he a good artist? Yes, if you want to do the same thing over and over. He should have been my best friend for what I did with Fritz the Cat. I drew a good picture, and we both made out fine, and I’ll shut up because I was hoping you’d ask me about him. Why do I get this angry? I was thumbing through a book he put out just a few months ago, and of course, he’s yelling at me again, saying he feels sorry for me, saying that I’m the worst artist he’s ever met, saying that I ruined his cat. BB: You said that Fritz could have been a better film with a $300 million budget. But it strikes me that these movies with extravagant budgets—Alvin and the Chipmunks and Garfield—are so terrible because of their bloated budgets. RB: When you have a high budget, people are looking at you. Low budgets can be godsends for directors. Plus, with the number of people starving on this planet, it’s just wrong to spend that kind of money on films. When you have no money, no one’s looking at you, no one cares. No one cared when I was doing Fritz the Cat. Big budget films are filled with terror, filled with community consultations on all levels. But it’s too much money for one man to handle and I’m not a great believer in collaboration. I believe in a directed film, and the vision of a director. BB: That’s a real shocker. Ralph Bakshi, not interested in test audiences and demographics? RB: [Laughs.] Target audiences are fine and good if that’s the kind of guy you are, but that’s not how I grew up. I grew up not telling my mother where I was going. I didn’t want anyone to know what I was doing, and I didn’t want to know what others were doing. Look, you’re very young, so let me tell you about America. I grew up with Kerouac, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and the real Greenwich Village where people really went to starve and loved it. That was part of the American dream that I loved. A lot of the comic book greats who drew at that time came out of that generation of immigrants. And, of course, drugs hadn’t corrupted our society at that point. You wouldn’t believe it, but in my day, only idiots smoked pot. If you smoked pot you were stupid, you were a moron, which isn’t to say that we didn’t take some hits on a Saturday night, but it wasn’t an issue that was prevalent in our lives. A good cigarette was all you needed. Now, you could argue that kids who don’t smoke pot are stupid.
BB: What is it about illustration as a medium that lends itself to candid explorations of race relations and sexuality? RB: People don’t expect it. They’re getting used to it now, but when I first started doing it, people were totally disarmed. In other words, like shooting ducks in a barrel, they come to see a cartoon and instead of Bugs Bunny, it was like fuck you. I was able to discuss things in a way they had never seen before. I was able to lecture when I felt like lecturing because it was all coming out of my character’s mouth. It’s not like coming home late at night and your wife yelling at you for being drunk—there was nothing directly linking me to my audience. Illustration can do that. BB: Were you disappointed by Cool World’s tepid reception? RB: I’ll tell you the true story. BB: I’d hope so. RB: I wanted to make an R-rated horror film with Paramount. I had the idea that an underground cartoonist would have sex with a cartoon character and have the baby immediately. The baby would be half-alive and half-cartoon, and it would kill him because the father created the monster that he was. It has a lot to say about fathers and sons and different psychological things. Anyway, they bought that, but the script that I had written—that I still love very much—was thrown out and a PG script was written without my say. BB: And didn’t you originally cast Drew Barrymore, before the studio eventually hired Kim Basinger for the role of Holli Would? RB: I had wanted Drew Barrymore and Brad Pitt. Kim Basinger was too old for Brad—she wasn’t right. I said to one of the cartoonists, When Kim’s cartoon character comes to life, she’s going to be 10 years older! The wide and quick of it was that I stayed on because I needed the money and I had already hired all of my guys as animators, and I had a lot of fun on that side—which is lucky, because otherwise, it was a total fucking disaster. The whole thing was a debacle, and I haven’t made a film since. BB: This was one of Brad Pitt’s first roles. Do you credit yourself with discovering him? RB: Oh absolutely. You can check with Brad about this. He reminded me of James Dean, to tell you the truth. When he walked into the room, I was like, Holy shit. Robert Redford called me and said he was doing this western picture, and he’d heard about this guy Pitt that I used in a film, and could I show him footage? It’s very unusual to show another director uncut footage, but I thought it would be good for Pitt, so I said, Come on over, Redford. Come and take a look. Right after, Redford gave him A River Runs Through It. So, while I think he would have made it anyhow, I think I helped. Brad was a wonderful guy and gave me everything he had. BB: Everyone from Quentin Tarantino and Spike Lee to Peter Jackson and Matt Groening claim to have been heavily influenced by your work. How would you like to be remembered as an artist? RB: You do something because you love it, and you do it with everything you’ve got. And then you die. What you leave behind doesn’t matter. How much money you make doesn’t matter. What people think of you doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is how you spend every fucking day of your life, how you feel about yourself—and not in the narcissistic, egotistical way. It doesn’t matter how I’m remembered, because I’ll remember everything myself. I’ve drawn every day of my life since high school and that’s a pure victory. I’m able to eat. I have hot dogs and I’m not starving. I live in a decent home on top of a mountain. I give my thanks, and I’m not angry anymore. The only person I’m angry with is Robert Crumb. He’s been on my back for too long. Tell him to get off it.
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