You didn’t have a lot of luck working within the system, and you’ve spent the last decade or so in New Mexico painting. I read interviews where you said you’d burned out. What did it?
The studios tore a lot of my films apart. It was a very difficult time for me. I was so burned out and sick of the fights, and I have a family. I left disastrously close to a nervous breakdown. I was shaking. I’m laughing with you know, but it was so hard.
You know, I couldn’t help but notice in your Kickstarter video that there’s a clip from Cool World just as your narration says, “Help me do something for animation that isn’t driven by making you happy and stupid.” That was your last feature, a live-action/cartoon hybrid with Brad Pitt and Kim Basinger that didn’t work out the way you planned. Does that project still stick in your craw?
Oh, boy, you’re right on it, aren’t you? I had to work with producer Frank Mancuso Jr. because his father ran the company. I sold Paramount on this R-rated animated feature — the first [animated] horror story. Oh God, they loved it. We get greenlighted, and I bring in a young Brad Pitt. Then I’m on location in Palm Springs and I’m handed a script and I say, “What is this?” The script was rewritten on the day we started shooting, into this PG piece of sh-t. In my original script, the cartoonist goes to bed with this hot [cartoon] girl and she gets pregnant and gives birth to this half-live, half-cartoon monster who chases the cartoonist back to the real world for creating him, to kill him. They threw all that out. But I had nowhere to go. See, this is Paramount Pictures. I had left my sanctuary of Bakshi Productions because I wanted to get some money, I wanted to get a decent budget, and stop all this hand to mouth stuff. Try a picture like Scorsese. Have the studio protect me, like the other guys. But I couldn’t go to Frank Mancuso Sr. and say, “Fire your son.” So I punched him. They blackballed me after that — that’s why I left the business.
You punched Frank Mancuso Jr.?
Oh, yeah. I took him out. During the mix. Paul Hagger separated us, the guy who recently died — he was in charge of Paramount’s mix department. How smart was that? His father runs the f–kin’ place. But he had it coming. If they had given me the script earlier, I would’ve quit. I would’ve been honorable: “Look, I can’t do this.” But to hand me the script while I’m on location on the first day. I never forgot that. I’m not violent. I just had had it at that point.
[Note: When contacted about the incident, Mancuso, who had produced several Friday the 13th movies and went on to make the Species franchise and numerous other films, denied that there was ever a physical altercation:
"It never happened. Totally. Did. Not. Happen. Never once. I've heard this story a couple of times and I don't get it really other than the fact that he was unhappy with the outcome, which I think we all were. It's absolutely true that we originally talked about a more horror-oriented R-rated movie. But through the development process, the studio wanted to be certain that, while the movie had some edge to it, they could market it [like Roger Rabbit] to a younger audience. Do you know what it takes to get a movie greenlit at a studio? Anybody who’s ever worked on a film for a studio knows the amount of prep and the amount of time that goes in to all this stuff. You don’t get them to give 20-something million dollars and then on the day of photography, deliver to the director something else other than what was greenlit. It can’t happen. You can’t go ahead and have a movie rewritten without a director knowing about it. To suggest that this rewrite was happening without Ralph Bakshi’s knowledge is just ridiculous. Say you’re frustrated, fine. Say you’re mad, fine. Say you didn’t feel like I had your back and I took the studio side… okay. Those things you could argue, but to say that he punched me — this never happened. I am sure that this movie did not turn out the way Ralph wanted it to. But I’m also pretty sure that at the end of the day, Ralph probably shouldn’t have been on that movie. That was probably our mistake.”]
So you’re in New Mexico, out of the game, so to speak. For at least a decade. When did you get that spark back to make another movie?
I always loved animation. I loved film directing. And I’m watching guys like Bill Plympton go to Kickstarter and get money for their shorts. Plus, my entire studio Bakshi Production is now sitting in a little box in my library called a computer — the inking, the painting, the maps — everything that cost me a fortune to do, is now right there. I can do Heavy Traffic for $200,000 today with my computer. All these costs that I used to worry about as a producer/director are gone. It’s amazing, so that got me extraordinary interested. I wouldn’t have to go back and punch anybody!
What I’m saying is it’s time for me to make another movie. I’d love to do another Traffic. I’d love to do Wizards 2 and Wizards 3. I think Peter Jackson, if he was a nice guy, would send me the check and end my Kickstarter problem. Peter Jackson saw [my animated] Lord of the Rings Part I in the theater, saw that that was a good idea, and he went out and made several billion dollars. He didn’t even send me a bottle of wine.
You know, I always wondered about your Lord of the Rings movie. Why wasn’t there Part II. My understanding of the math is that it made someone a lot of money.
It made a fortune.
I had a contract that read I was going to do the trilogy, because no one could do that as one film. And now the film’s being released for Christmas and they pull “Part I” off the marquee. And I’m fighting like crazy, “What are you guys doing? People are going to think they’re coming in to see a completed film.” They said, “No one’s going to buy a ticket if it’s just Part I.” So when the picture didn’t [complete the saga], there were boos in the theater. People came expecting to see the [entire] Lord of the Rings. Well, it didn’t go down well after that. People want you to act a certain way, or play the game with them or something. And I will, but not when they’re hurting the film.
Your biggest hit by far was your first feature, the X-rated Fritz the Cat, which kind of defined your style and the promise of adult animation when it was released in 1972. But R. Crumb, the cartoonist who created the character, was famously not a fan.
He hated it.
After the movie was released, he killed off his own character. Was there an epilogue to your relationship with him, or was that it?
No, that was it. I think the thing between me and Robert was that basically — and I can understand this — he felt that it was his character. He didn’t understand the film business. He didn’t understand that film directors get credit for their movies. So I think that was a blow to him. We talked a couple of times on the phone. He continued to bad-mouth me. He had great talent, but he didn’t like the movie. But it wasn’t his movie. It was my movie. I was really working for the history of animation more than I was working for Robert Crumb.
Fritz the Cat was criticized by some at the time for its contemptuous attitude towards the 1960s, which also is the backdrop for The Last Days of Coney Island? Has your attitude towards that era changed since then.
I’m sure my attitudes have changed tremendously, but I’ll find out when I do this cartoon. The way I work is, the first thing you write is a lie. Then you rewrite and you get a little closer. And when you ponder and worry about it, finally the truth comes out. That’s how I work. That’s the Bakshi method. That’s why I can’t stand story meetings, because you go to the studio and everyone’s pitching their ideas, but they’re invalid. They’ll all lies. They’re all off the top of your head.
What am I really thinking about with the 60s, which is what your question was? What really came down? Well, a lot came down, and my Coney Island characters mention offhandedly what’s happening in America, like Kennedy’s assassination, and their attitudes about what they see on television I think is quite horrific — although they’re things I remember that people actually said at various points. I remember sitting in a bar and some lady looked up as Kennedy’s kid saluted his father as the casket came by, and she said, “Isn’t he cute?” Someone else said, “His father ain’t.” Those kind of things stuck in my brain, and will be part of what the cartoon is. I’m going to have it wafting through the television, like subliminally.
Your Kickstarter campaign recently got a boost when Matthew Modine came aboard to voice your main character, the dwarf mafia collector. Did you already know each other?
No. He’s obviously a cartoon fan. He tells this story where his father managed a drive-in theater, and basically they played Fritz the Cat in a Mormon town. And he said the sh-t hit the fan. But he loved the film, he loved my films, and when he saw it on Kickstarter, he wanted to help me raise the money. It was my first time in the business where someone came in and just really helped me because they like what they do.
The Kickstarter agreement is that you have until Sunday around noon to reach your financial goal, and you’re close – about $7,000 short.
It’s very difficult to watch. We’re going to be very close on this. To me, it’s very important, at my age. I’m very satisfied with the amount of money that we have raised, make it or not. I’m very proud of the people who got behind me. I’m happy.