Saturday, March 2, 2013

My Meeting with Bakshi, or, Goodbye Cool World

Ralph Bakshi on the set of Cool World.
In the fall of 1989,  I got a call from Ralph Bakshi.  He was just starting pre-production on a new feature called Cool World and asked if I'd like to meet to discuss working on it.  Why not?  Ralph Bakshi is an animation legend.  Right?......Right?......Right?.....Anyway, I was intrigued and took the meeting at his office on the Paramount lot.

The meeting was after dark, when studio lots lose their harsh and sunbaked look in favor of something more cool and glamorous.  I found Ralph's second floor office - a large, well lit studio space.  Near the far windows overlooking the Paramount lot was a desk  behind which a disheveled man with dark, greying hair, stained pocket tee,  and propped up Doc Martens was kicking back - the legend himself.

After introductions, I handed him my resume, which, in 1989, was a quick read with only five years' worth of professional experience.  He read aloud to himself, slowly pronouncing each production on the list  in a way as to let me know he had never heard of them.  "Back to Neverland." He said. "What's that?"

I told him it was a pre-show film for the animation studio Disney was putting in their new theme park in Florida.  He pulled the resume onto his lap, and looked at me with disbelief.  "An animation studio at DisneyWorld?"

"Yes."  I said.  "People walk through it behind a glass wall and look down and see the artists working."

"Not real animators?" He said incredulously.

"Real animators." I nodded.

He threw his feet off the desk, sat up, and pointed his finger in the air.  "Real animators animate in their underwear with a bottle of scotch!  Are they going to let them do that!?"

"They probably won't let them -"

"Damn right they won't!"  He cut me off.  "So they're not using real animators." Ralph seemed amused by his outburst.  I felt like the straight man in his own private comedy sketch. He moved on to my latest job, on Rover Dangerfield.

"Rover Dangerfield.  What is that, a dog picture?"  he asked.  He was reloading.

"It's Rodney Dangerfield as a dog."  I said.

"A dog picture."  he said, spitting the words sourly.  "Who needs another dog picture?  All anyone does is dog pictures.  Disney, Don Bluth.....fucking dog pictures!"  Good point.  Then I got his patented Bakshi rant about the industry and fuck Disney and how it's all the same mindless shit and how he's the only one pushing the boundaries, etc, etc, segueing into his pitch for his newest groundbreaking masterpiece, Cool World.

He led me to a wall where development artwork was pinned, then he pitched the story of Cool World.  His style was slow and simple, like a good storyteller.  Only the story he told was not good, but absolutely bizarre - like listening to Garrison Keillor read a soft porn script.  I could see how a studio executive could be swayed into thinking this man is a rebel genius.  Maybe he is.  Or maybe his genius is how well he can lay it on.

"This guy here,"  Ralph begins, pointing to an illustration of a sullen man slouching in a chair , "He's live action.  He's a cartoonist.  He goes to jail.  We got William Dafoe to play him."  No typo, he called him "William".
Pushing the envelope!
Ralph continues, pointing to some color artwork "While in jail, he draws a place he calls Cool World. It's his fantasy.  He goes there in his mind.  He's live action,  Cool World is all animation."

The plot thickens as he presents an illustration of a cartoon woman who is every teenage boy's wet dream.  "In Cool World, he meets her." he says,  "She wants to be a real person." Ralph then holds his finger up, indicating here comes the twist, then points back to Dafoe's character.  "Now he.....wants to fuck her."  he says, with a nuanced emphasis on the word 'fuck'.   "And in the end....he does fuck her."

He turned to me.  "So what do you think?  Sound like something you'd like to work on?"

I was caught off-guard by the sudden end of the story.  "'s pretty far out."  I said.

"Well it's not a fucking dog picture!"

"No, it's sure not."  I laughed. I told him I would have to think about it, since it would mean leaving a dog picture in middle of production.

""So what?  Fuck 'em."  he said.  "You wanna work on something new or another dog picture?"

I went for the dog picture, a dog indeed.  Ralph seemed too much of a loose wire for me.  I have a lot of industry friends who went on to work on Cool World, and their horror stories confirmed my instincts to be correct.  People were fired and rehired on a daily basis.  Ralph seemed to relish working in chaos.

Having failed his way out of Hollywood for a second time, Ralph now passes himself off as an artist.  He's been raising Kickstarter money to fund a new film, Last Days of Coney Island, and in his pitch video he plays the same old song about how his film will transcend the usually brainless pablum we  are fed by mainstream animation productions.  Then he proceeds to show a scene of a man breaking down into a pile of shit, literally, with accompanying sound effects, in case you don't get it.  Is it transcendent?  Is it entertainment?

What do I know?  I'm working on another dog picture!