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The God’s Truth: An Interview Ralph Bakshi (Part 1)

The animation legend reveals his uncensored version of the infamous Coonskin controversy, and the sad story behind the live-action/animation hybrid Hey Good Lookin'.

 

In celebration of the 35th Anniversary Blu-ray of his trailblazing fantasy epic Wizards, legendary filmmaker Ralph Bakshi agreed to speak with CraveOnline earlier this week regarding his foibles, successes, and singularly unbridled creative contributions to 20th century American animation. First rising to fame with his controversial (but critically acclaimed) X-rated adaptation of R. Crumb’s Fritz the Cat in 1972, Bakshi would go on to direct a total of nine groundbreaking animated features, including the brashly confrontational Coonskin – which caused a scandal upon its initial release, but has since been hailed as a cinematic classic by such culturally Godlike personages as Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino – as well as the original film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings in 1978.

Wizards was Bakshi’s first feature aimed at a family audience, and those familiar with his larger ouvre may not be surprised to discover that, in addition to a gripping adventure story about the undying struggle between good and evil, the film is also a cautionary tale about industrial recklessness, and a provocative and moving parable about the Holocaust.

Bakshi spoke with CraveOnline correspondent Devon Ashby from his studio in Silver City, New Mexico.

 



CraveOnline: Hi! Wow, is this Ralph?

Ralph Bakshi: You’re a girl!

 

[Laughs] Yeah, yeah, I’m a girl!

Aw, of course you’re a girl. How do you say that name? “Devon?”

 

Yeah, Devon… Oh, wow, I thought your publicist was going to call me and just transfer me to you. I’m so unprepared to just talk to you! Are you at home, or are you at the office?

I’m at my studio, yeah. I’m at the studio right now.

 

Okay, cool. Are you doing a lot of interviews today, or is this your only interview?

No, it’s the only one I’m doing today. I did a bunch yesterday, and I’m doing one today – you.

 

Cool! So how’s your morning been? What have you been up to?

How’s my morning? I get up very early. The first thing I do when I get up is I start painting, you know. So I’m always painting very early. As I get older, as the day wanders on, I get stupider. I’m clearest when I get up after a night’s sleep. I’m very, very clear early in the morning, then as the day progresses, I start wanting to vote for Romney! [Laughs] Then I go to sleep again, you know?

Nah, I’m not that dumb. But can you believe what’s going on with that?

 

I saw you were doing a series of paintings on your blog about the 2012 Presedential Debates, is that right?

Yeah! I’m continuing to do it, because I do other things – I do this thing called “The Streets,” where I remember what it used to be like in Brooklyn with all those walls and everything that I love. But whenever I watch those guys on TV, I get so crazy. I mean, can you imagine? That sad political party. It’s startling what’s happened to America. How old are you?

 

I’m twenty-six. Just turned twenty-six.

You have no idea what it was like when I was twenty-five in the ‘60s. There was more accountability than there is today.

So the first question I have is kind of random, it’s not really about Wizards…

Good! Random, I like it. Where are you living?

 

I live in Los Angeles.

Okay, I’m sorry, go ahead. [Laughs]

 

No, no, that’s okay! You’re in New York, right? Are you still in New York?

I’m in New Mexico!

 

Oh, you’re in New Mexico! Are you living there now?

I’m on a mountain. I’m on top of a mountain. On top of a mountain, there’s nobody around, I can see Mexico in the distance. It’s all very rugged, and I’m sitting here watching wild animals run by my studio while I paint. And I watch Netflix. God bless Netflix, you know?

 

Yeah, yeah, it’s great. I’m actually from Montana, so it’s the same. There’s deer and everything everywhere you go.

Oh yeah? Then I can talk to you, then. You know, the air, the brush, the lack of billboards – you can drive anywhere you want. This is really great. It’s a place called Silver City. Used to be a very big mining town. Way off the beaten track, and it’s just great. And reasonable – you can live here very reasonably.

 

So actually I wanted to ask you, really quickly…

Oh, the questions! [Laughs]

 

No, no! It’s actually about the interview – is there a time limit? Like, do you have to go at a specific time?

No, no, Devon. I can go for f*ckin’ ever.

 

Okay, great! Because this is actually – full disclosure – this is actually my first interview for Crave. I’ve been doing mostly film content for them, but my editor told me there’s normally a cut-off at like fifteen minutes.

You want an interview, first interview, with me?

 

Yeah!

Aw, come on! I’m more than honored.

 

Yeah, well, I’m a big fan. My editor knows that I’m a big fan, and so he was like, “Hey! We got an offer to interview Ralph Bakshi!”

You got a tape recorder there?

 

Yeah!

Turn it on, because I’ll bullsh*t my head off forever. You never know what I’m gonna say! [Laughs]

So the first question I have is not about Wizards. I had a friend a couple years ago who told me – and I want to know if he’s just completely bullsh*tting me or not – he told me that there was some inside source or something, that told him they were planning to issue Spicy City on DVD. And I never heard anything about it agan. Was that a real thing?

No, no one every told me about that. I don’t think that’s the case. There’s nothing I’ve ever heard about it. So right now, it’s no.

 

That’s a drag, because Spicy City is pretty great, actually.

Well, Coonskin is even more important to me, but go ahead.

 


 

Yeah, that’s actually what I was going to say next – I feel like that’s the obligatory question, though, that people must ask you constantly, is whether Coonskin is coming out on DVD or not. Do you know if it will be coming out on DVD?

Well, a couple of things, yeah. Yes and no. Let me tell you what’s going on with Coonskin. It’s a very funny story. Every once in awhile, Al Ruddy, the producer – you know, very middle class and probably ashamed of Coonskin, has never had dinner with a Black man in his life, has no idea what the picture’s about – so I think he’s ashamed of it, he hasn’t worked too hard to get it released. Al also produced The Godfather, so he’s hard to fight. The first one anyway, before they fired him.

He, every once in awhile, hires a company that says they’re going to do it. So the last company that was going to do it seemed like the right company. They basically had done a lot of releases for young Black audiences. By the way, Coonskin is tremendously loved by every rapper in the country. I get thousands of e-mails that say – from influential Black people, and white people who understand films – saying it’s a great, great, pro-Black film. So that’s out of the way. And we’ve had major screenings of Coonskin in theaters to standing ovations.

I wouldn’t say this normally, but I have to get this out of the way, because white people – or the ones who don’t understand Black people, because they’ve never tried to have contact with them – are the ones who have all this… that’s the people who caused me the trouble on Coonskin. Not the Black guys. Black guys love it.

So they say they’re gonna release the film, release the film, release the film. They sent me $3,000, I was happy, you know – always can use the supply money.

And then I give them the name of a Black writer who did a big interview for me in a magazine called Wax Poetics. Wax Poetics is a Hip-Hop, Black-owned, very big indie magazine that did ten pages on Coonskin and how great it is. And they hired this writer – you can find the issue, it’s called Wax Poetics. So I gave them this writer, and they don’t know what they’re doing, these white guys. And they send me back a letter – they want to sell Coonskin as the most controversial film in the history of the movies. “There never was any more controversial film!” You know.

So I call the bastards up, I says, “You can do what you want, but if you do this, count me out. And I’m gonna be out there fighting you tooth and nail. I don’t need your money.” I haven’t heard a word from them since.

These white guys, they don’t understand. Let Black people see it! And then make their own decisions, being human beings.

So, will it be out? Maybe. They keep telling me it will. But then there’s these guys you run into who don’t understand what the film’s about. [Laughs] Being blind to f*cking controversy, you know?

 

I think the NAACP was actually really behind it when it came out, right? They really supported it.

Yes, it was! Do you want to know the truth about Coonskin? You wanna know the God’s truth about Coonskin?

 


 

Yes! Please tell me the truth about Coonskin!

This is your first interview – you can break this story, and that’s the truth. I will sign any paper to verify this. I did a picture called Harlem Nights for Al Ruddy. He’s the producer of The Godfather. But he’s leaving me alone, and then he calls me into his office and he says, “Ralph, I want a controversial title. Very controversial title. We really want to make people look at the picture.”

So there’s a song in the movie that I wrote called “Coonskin No More.” You know – “I’m the devil man, I’m the mercy man…” So I said, “Why don’t we call the picture Coonskin No More?”

So Al says, “Great! But why don’t we just call it Coonskin?”

I say, “Uh…. All right. Okay.” I don’t really care. I said “okay.” All right? I just wanted to get out of his office, ‘cause he’s sitting there at his desk with gold chains around his neck, ‘cause it’s the ‘60s, yeah? So I go back to my studio.

The picture was for Paramount, and in those days – and I’m sorry to say this, but the movie industry fought – which is a good thing – they fought to hire Black guys, because there weren’t any Black guys in the movie industry, and they were making so many Black exploitation films that they thought they’d want to hire Black executives, to say what’s good or what’s wrong in these Black films. By all means, we don’t want to offend anybody, because uh… you’re only allowed to offend whites and Jews. You can’t offend anyone else, ‘cause they’re not normal! [Laughs]

All right, so we just finished the picture. The day I finish the picture, Al calls me into his office, and he says, “Well, we have a meeting with this guy. He’s coming in, and he’s really objecting to the title, Coonskin.”

So I say, “Okay, fine, I don’t care.”

Guy comes in, very nice guy, and says, “Al…” And he’s nice, very nice. He says, “Al, the picture’s great, the picture’s brilliant. But the title’s gotta go.” Right? And he’s right! I’m behind this guy! He’s right, you know? This is a true story, so help me God.

Al stands up, screams at the guy, and says, “I don’t need some quota Black guy to tell me how to make films!” And he went on and on! The guy got up, looked at him – and I knew the guy was gonna do something, because he gave Al a look that you recognize if you’re from Brooklyn. “You’re dead, Al.” He didn’t say the words, but you’ve seen that look before, and it’s not good.

Al was out of his mind. He produced The Godfather, he produced The Longest Yard, so it’s hard to yell at him.

Next week, I’m going to the Museum of Modern Art, and as I arrive at the Museum of Modern Art, Al Sharpton is there with CORE [Congress of Racial Equality], protesting the film they’ve never seen. Saying it’s the worst film that’s ever, you know – this is also Al Sharpton’s first gig. This is your first gig, you tell me – and I’m telling you, this was Al Sharpton’s first gig. He’s protesting a film he’s never seen, and obviously the guy – as far as I’m concerned – the guy called him from Paramount and said, “Hey, kill these guys.” And they did. That’s a true story.

Now, the Museum has a tape – they taped it. I was going up after the film. They showed the film, and the guys are in the back, CORE, and they had clubs. So they’re serious! And this was the ‘70s, when that was going on. Black Panthers were running around. And the white audience there, and the Black audience, is sitting there, petrified. But the guys are lined up in the back, right? The Black guys from CORE.

So Sharpton – the lights go up, they invite me up to answer questions about the film, right? And I go to the podium, and Al Sharpton’s walking down the aisle! But the guys against the wall, his followers, aren’t following him. They liked the movie! They did!

So Al turns around, you know, and he says “What are you guys doing?! We said we’d come up the walk…”

And I scream at Sharpton – and this is on tape – “You G*ddamn middle class sellout Black pig.” I said, “The guys loved the film!” So Sharpton turns around, and – ‘cause I’m from Brownsville, Brooklyn. I don’t really care. I know Sharpton – one look at Sharpton in those days, and I know he’s a hustler, he’s not gonna hurt me. If they were gonna hurt me, they wouldn’t have let the film screen. I know it’s all fake and phony.

So I scream at Sharpton, and meanwhile my mother is in the audience nearly fainting, and she is just about ready to be carried out of there, because I screamed at him, you know? Al turns around to the guys, and says, “We’re either gonna kick his ass or we’re leaving!”

They left! They left, I left, that was it. It was all over.

The next day, they surround Paramount Pictures’ elevators in New York, so none of the executives could get out, right? And that’s where the controversy was. They also threw some stink bombs in theaters that were filled with Black guys on Broadway, loving it.

But the rabbit was out of the hat. All white middle class, and all white people who never hung around with a Black guy, were sure that there was something wrong with the film. And all over the title Coonskin, which is un-defensible. Un-defensible, without “Coonskin No More.” The entire country thought I was going to get killed by Black guys. End of story! End of story. [Laughs]

You know, Ruddy, to this day, is ashamed of the film. He doesn’t know what the film’s about, he never had a Black guy for dinner. I’m serious!

So that’s my first story that I’m giving you – my version of what the truth is. There is no controversy, other than what’s in people’s mind. Every time you screen Coonskin for a Black audience, it’s a standing ovation. Every rapper in the country loves the film. Spike Lee loves the film. Quentin Tarantino loves the film. The New York Times gave it a rave review, Chaplin gave it a rave review. Everybody loves the film except for the white guy in the street, but that’s always been the case.

It cost me my studio, though. I’m laughing about it because this was in ’73, but it cost me my studio, because it was a very small studio, and I needed the money to continue. I had my own company, like Disney, right? And I was doing a picture for Warner Brothers when Coonskin was being released about a Black gang that was fighting a white gang. And I get a call from Warner’s – “We gotta discuss your film.” And I said, “Oh… sh*t.”

And from there it was all downhill. They didn’t release that film for ten years.

 


 

And that was why you ended up making Wizards, right? Because you were having so many problems with Hey Good Lookin’, and they wanted you to cut out a lot of the live action and stuff?

They did. All of it! I had to cut it all out, every bit of it, and I had to re-animate it with my own money. And I’ll have you know, there was this breakdancer, this woman who I hired, I forget her name, I’m sorry. She was a brilliant choreographer – she had worked with the New York Dolls – the New York Dolls were in the picture, the original group in the live action. And I also hired, for the live action, all these B-movie guys, like Mazursky and the guys from the Dead End Kids. You know, the guys who were alive.

 

Wow, I didn’t know that.

No one knows that! I was doing my nostalgia thing for my movie, and I was doing all this stuff with all these great old actors that nobody was hiring anymore, and these guys were having a ball. And I hired the guy from Mean Streets to do the voice of Vinnie – Romanus – and all the guys from Mean Streets to do the animated voices. Romanus, and David Proval. And De Niro wanted to do it, but he was working on a film called Taxi Driver at the time. [Laughs]

But that’s the kind of live action they threw out, and that song and dance stuff in the streets – I forget the girl’s name. They were breakdancing in the middle of the street, on the Warner Brothers lot. I used the old tenement street from Angels with Dirty Faces, which I grew up with, that’s another favorite film of mine. A great film, Angels with Dirty Faces, which is a classic black-and-white movie shot on the Warner Brothers lot. I used that street! This was nostalgia heaven for me.

What was the actual issue they had with wanting to cut out all the live action? I’ve never understood why they wanted to cut it out. Were they just worried that it wouldn’t play, or…?

The issue was stopping me. The issue was stopping me, the issue was not releasing the film. They had a contract where they had to release it, the issue was how do they stop this film.

 

So the studio was pretty much just creating problems for the sake of creating problems.

Well, by the time I finished re-animating it, it was ten years later, and they did not release the film. They got what they wanted, and that was just the root. The root was – okay, I’ll give you another story. I just gave you one, I’ll give you another one. I got a million stories. That are true. They got what they wanted, they stopped the film from being released. They said live action and animation did not work together. It was unbelievable. They just didn’t want me to put Black guys on the screen and have them fighting white guys. And they were calling them “n*ggers,” and stuff, which is exactly what they’d do in the ‘50s. Vinnie was an Italian, he was in love with a Jewish girl, you know, and her father was screaming, “You can’t hang around with Italian guys!” [Laughs] “Who wear black jackets!” You know, her father was a Rabbi. That was all in the picture. “Typical Bakshi.” Typical truth. So they stopped it cold.

Years later – this is a funny end to that story – about fifteen years later, I get a call from Warner Brothers. These are all new people, right? They had done Roger Rabbit years later, which was the exact same technique I was using at Warner Brothers, which was live action with a few animated characters. Same thing. That’s what I had done in Lookin’ – an all-live-action picture with four animated characters. They told me that, because of Roger Rabbit, the technique works, and do I have a copy of the original print, because they’re really thinking about re-releasing it.

Well I went to that guy’s office, and I won’t tell you what happened after that, but after that, they didn’t call me again. [Laughs] I nearly went crazy! I nearly went crazy.

I wish I could find the film. Last week I called Warner Brothers to find the film, because I haven’t seen it since I made it, and I wanted to release it as a two-picture package, you know, with DVD. And they said they’re looking for it. So I’m trying to find it.

But yeah, the New York Dolls were in it, and at that time they were big, and all these old fashioned actors were in it, and all these old Warner Brothers sets were in it, and all these old cars were in it, and Black guys running around trying to kill white guys in it. It was great!


 

Come back tomorrow for Ralph Bakshi's thoughts on Wizards and Robert Rodriguez's upcoming remake of Fire & Ice!