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Ralph Bakshi on Kanye West, NYC, and his new short, Last Days Of Coney Island

After a two-decade long absence, legendary animator Ralph Bakshi recently returned to cinema with Last Days Of Coney Island, a 22-minute short chronicling a most bizarre love triangle deep in the heart of the historic Brooklyn beach town in the 1960s. With the help of his son Edward Bakshi, the 77-year-old director behind such video store favorites as Fritz The Cat, Coonskin, American Pop, Cool World, and his groundbreaking 1978 adaptation of The Lord Of The Rings, Bakshi funded the production through Kickstarter and premiered the film on Vimeo. Freed from demands of financial backers and studio suits, Last Days Of Coney Island is vintage Bakshi—a psychedelic swirl of blood, guts, body parts, stock footage of Steeplechase-era Coney Island, and a raw and uncompromising Fleischer Bros.-on-acid cartoon style in the vein of his personal masterpiece, Heavy Traffic.

Last Days Of Coney Island encapsulates everything that makes Bakshi a bonafide icon in both film and animation, from his salad days on the line at the old New York cartoon studio Terrytoons (Heckle And Jeckle, Mighty Mouse) to pioneering animation into the adult entertainment realm to his downright revolutionary mastery of celluloid as a malleable substance. For many of Bakshi’s longtime fans, Last Days Of Coney Island is like coming home. And with loose talk about the possibility of a sequel to his celebrated 1977 family fantasy film Wizards on the horizon, it looks like Bakshi is back for good in an effort to bring the soulful art of traditional animation back to the national conversation.


The A.V. Club: So when you got your start at Terrytoons back in the late ’50s, you used to polish the film cels?

Ralph Bakshi: [Laughs.] In my day, there was a gigantic animation camera, and everything was put on cels. Each story had a cel, which was transparent around where the characters were painted on. So when they put it onto a background and shot it with the camera, that’s how you were able to get the background to come through. With paper, you wouldn’t be able to do that. So everything was put on cels, which would gather dust, because they’re plastic. So my job before the films went to camera was to wipe off the dust and fingerprints of the guys who did it. And we had a black card that we put the cel on and we’d polish it. And you could never get the hair off the cel because of static electricity. It was a horrible fucking job. [Laughs.]

But next to me was a kid, and he’s singing, “Tonight, tonight, while I’m holding you so near.” He’s singing this song, and I’m like, “Gee, that’s nice.” He tells me, “We’re in a rock ’n’ roll group and we just recorded that song.” It was one of the biggest hits of the ’50s—“Tonite Tonite” by The Mello-Kings. And one of the goddamn singers was sitting right there next to me polishing cels with me. [Laughs.] You can’t make that shit up. I can’t remember his name, but he worked there for two weeks and then he split. It was a great song.


AVC: Do you feel like the art of animating itself loses some of its soul when it’s produced on a computer instead of an inkwell and easel?

RB: I don’t want to seem like I’m yelling at them for no reason, but I do think it loses a lot of soul in translation. The other thing all these new cartoons seem to do—maybe not the Mickey Mouse and Curious George stuff—but everyone is screaming at everyone. Its so shrill, and that’s not pleasant. Does it lose its soul? Yeah, I think so. It also loses its humanity, and that’s basically why I purposely did it in my style, which is old fashioned. But it has this hand-drawn quality you could never get with a machine. There’s wonderful things done on computers for film. Magnificent, wild things. But I love [Max] Fleischer, and I love Disney and I love Popeye, the old stuff. And, to me, that’s animation. That’s cartooning. Everything else is illustration. I separate cartooning, which is fun and wacky and soulful, from illustration, which is very well-drawn and extremely uptight to look at. There’s a difference. I’m a cartoonist.


AVC: How did you wind up using Kickstarter to fund Last Days Of Coney Island?

RB: I didn’t know Kickstarter at first. My son came to me with it. He’s an animator as well and told me a bunch of young guys are into my stuff, and we should get going again. So I thought a five-minute short to put up on Kickstarter would be great. But as soon as it started making money, my son felt we needed to make it longer. So I went to my wife and said, “Well, the Kickstarter money is here, but we need more.” [Laughs.] She wanted to throw me out the window! But it was great, the Kickstarter people were wonderful to work with, and it’s amazing to be able to raise money for a project like that.


AVC: It really cuts away the middlemen you surely had to deal with working for the studios.

RB: I used to have to re-write scripts. The problems you’d have with different studios—it was hard to tell them exactly what you wanted to do, because they would never let me do it. You had to aim it at somewhere in the middle. But this was total freedom, man. It’s so great for independent animators beyond myself.


AVC: You bookend this film around the JFK and Lee Harvey Oswald assassinations. What inspired that?

RB: Let me tell you. No one has gotten this yet, and this is my fault. When you grew up in the ’60s like I did, and you watched the assassination and all the stories about it, I don’t know if there was a bigger pile of bullshit that was sold to the American public in history. Like Oswald did it and stuff. I don’t want to get into all the bullshit, but a guy who’s working in a building, goes to the top floor where he’s working, takes a gun out and shoots the president of the United States by himself and then leaves the gun and goes to a movie theater? This is really fucking believable, right? Then they find him in the theater, they drag him out, and the next day he’s shot to death by this fucking mafia punk, and everyone bought it. If I had written that for a movie, no one would believe it. Oswald never shot Kennedy.


AVC: The animation in Last Days reminded me a lot of your style for Heavy Traffic.

RB: I did the animation, because when the picture got longer, I had to animate. Someone else asked me that question, an old animator friend of mine. I stopped animating at the end of the ’60s and went on to direct, but before that I always did these little films on the side, and that was my style. That’s the style I loved, and that’s the style I went back to, which is the same style that worked its way into Fritz and Traffic and Coonskin.


But the point is, what’s not the same is the stories. What I love about this movie is you got these crazy cartoon characters in the Fleischer-Terrytoons style doing incredibly adult things. The closest to it might be Fritz or Traffic because it’s based in New York, but its not like any of those can compare to this. It’s also the funniest picture I ever did. It’s the craziest. It’s a very strange combination. It was great going home again, but it wasn’t any problem. I just picked up where I left off. When you ride a bike, you get off and you get back on. I felt like a kid; I was just so happy to be able to do it again.

AVC: Your best films—Fritz, Traffic, Coonskin, American Pop—they’re all based out of New York City, which makes it cool to see you return to the area for Last Days.


RB: I’m from the East Coast. I love the city. I love the characters. I love the kind of people we are, the kind other people look at in amazement. I’ve been to those bars in Brooklyn during a very difficult time in my life. But the characters I met were amazing, and they’re part of my life in one way or the other. That’s what I animate. Why would I do something like Bugs Bunny? I don’t know any fucking bunnies. [Laughs.]

AVC: Your films capture the essence of street culture, even if they are animated in different characters like the assorted animals in Fritz and Rabbit from Coonskin. Especially in the dialogue—


RB: Listen, I grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn, with no problem. I wasn’t perfecting anything, I was just mirroring what I saw outside my house. [Laughs.] It was just a different time as well, back in my day. We lived in integrated neighborhoods. Nobody was rich. Nobody really hated or was jealous of anybody else. We never felt poor. We never felt like we were missing anything. Political correctness—I don’t know what’s going on with that shit today. But I recorded real voices for my films, because I loved how they sounded so much. So in Fritz, half the hippie girls were really hippie girls I picked up on Washington Square. I paid them 5 bucks a piece, had them up to my office for some drinks and they did the voices. Same thing with the construction workers. I loved those guys. We had so many laughs. Actually, Black Panthers once came up to my office screaming at me and I began screaming at them, only with the tape recorder running. Some of that stuff ended up in Fritz.

AVC: When was the last time you were at Coney Island?

RB: I was there a couple of years ago. When I was making the film, I went and took a bunch of photos. I used to go there all the time as a kid, so its very nostalgic for me to go there. It’s not so great anymore. It’s no big deal.


AVC: What do you think about how much not only Coney Island but New York City in general has changed in recent years?

RB: They don’t care about poor people anymore in New York. Its all big money, high rent, high prices in New York City now. The poor people completely got rolled over. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life. It’s disgusting.


AVC: Meanwhile, watching the old live action footage in Heavy Traffic today is such a snapshot in time that you were able to capture.

RB: What do you mean capture, it was right there! [Laughs.] It’s amazing, it’s like going into a time machine. Even when I see it now, I can’t believe it either.


AVC: Where was that arcade you shot in?

RB: That was on 42nd Street in Times Square. It was a sleazy little place—it was in a basement. It was unbelievable, but it was real. That was a very famous place to a lot of people. So if you go to those sites about historical New York City, that was a very famous place for them. It was a sleaze joint, and it was perfect for Michael.


AVC: In regards to the character Michael in Heavy Traffic, was that supposed to be you?

RB: Let me tell you how it works when you’re creating this kind of stuff. Every character you do is a piece of you. So there are parts of Michael that are me, and there are parts that ain’t. There are parts of Angie that is me, Michael’s father. There’s parts of Michael’s mother that is me. There isn’t a character that doesn’t have a part of you in these films. And you hide it, but then you get surprised when you see it after. Every character in each of my movies is a different side of myself. If you’re afraid to have sex, that’s Michael. If you get drunk and dumb like I used to get in bars, then that’s Angie. You know what I’m saying?


AVC: Your rotoscoping technique has been both respectfully emulated and poorly ripped off through the years. But nobody has yet to capture what you were able to do.

RB: I did all kinds of tricks. I shot all the live-action and I would trace the photograph and put them on cel. Sometimes I would trace the image directly onto cel using a special technique and then paint it. The Orks were done that way for Lord Of The Rings. The Black Riders had a strange, almost real quality to it. I was just trying to push the boundaries.


AVC: In regards to American Pop, what did you think of Kanye West’s homage to the film in the video for his song “Heartless”?

RB: You caught that one, did you? I couldn’t believe it, that blew me away. That’s nice. I love that guy.

AVC: Did you ever hear back from any of the artists whose music you used in American Pop?


RB: A couple of them. One story goes is that I wanted Heart to sing the Gracie Slick stuff instead of the girl I hired. They turned me down and then called me back saying it was the biggest mistake of their lives. I also heard from Bob Dylan, who loved how we used “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” in the movie. He loved the movie very much. He actually gave me permission to use two of his songs in the movie along with “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” and that was pretty unusual for him to have done that.

AVC: How come you never did more live action films like Cool And The Crazy?

RB: I’m a cartoonist. Live action is fun to do and fun because you can do them quick. But the thing about live action—I finished Cool And The Crazy in a couple of weeks. It would have taken me years to make that in animation. I was able to pick up the paycheck a lot faster as well as opposed to animation. [Laughs.] Live action—you got to deal with actors and actresses, who are pains in the asses. You don’t know until you’re on the fucking set with them.


AVC: But who knew in 1994 you’d be working with a future Oscar winner in Jared Leto?

RB: That was Jared’s first picture. He called to thank me a lot. I also gave Alicia Silverstone her first picture as well. Jared’s a very nice guy, very appreciative. And we talk at times. He’s a very good guy. I like him a lot. And he was very into his shoot, too.


AVC: What do you think of him taking on the role of The Joker?

RB: I didn’t know anything about it, I think that’s great! He did such a very good job on my film. He’s a hard worker, and that’s why he probably got hired to play The Joker.


AVC: You also had Brad Pitt in one of his first movie roles.

RB: His father and mother came down to the set when I hired him to shake my hand and thank me. His father was a truck driver. They were very happy. It was his breakout. It was great. They came down to thank me personally.


AVC: Do you think you’ll ever find peace with Robert Crumb?

RB: No, he’s a fucking asshole. Listen, the last time I heard from Robert Crumb, he did a drawing of Ayatollah’s ass, and called it “Bakshi’s Ass.” Now how could I have peace with a guy like that? And through all these years, I made him millions of dollars, right? Forget about it. He’s not much of a man. I don’t want peace with Robert Crumb. I don’t want anything to do with him. I made my movie Fritz The Cat. Leave me alone, Crumb. Go away. You know what he doesn’t talk about? The Nine Lives Of Fritz The Cat. It was so bad, and he never points to that one. But mine was like heresy to him. But he never says a thing about that other one, which was insulting to me as well! Think about that. He’s all hype. He’s full of shit.


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