Badass Interview: WIZARDS’ Ralph Bakshi

Robert Saucedo interviewed the famously candid Bakshi in advance of the 35th anniversary of WIZARDS.

It's my pleasure to introduce you to Robert Saucedo, who works for the Houston Alamo Drafthouse. Welcome to the team, Robert! -Meredith

Ralph Bakshi has been in retirement for all intents and purposes since 1997’s Spicy City, an animated series for HBO that beat South Park by several weeks to become the first weekly cartoon aimed entirely at adult audiences. Since 2002, Bakshi has settled into a peaceful routine painting in the mountains of New Mexico.

35 years ago, though, Bakshi was considered a dangerous animator. Fresh from the success of his X-rated animated film Fritz the Cat and still smarting from the public backlash that followed the release of Coonskin, a raw and angry animated film exploring race through the Song of the South-esque adventures of a boozing, murderous gang of anthropomorphic animals.

Bakshi’s follow-up film Hey Good Lookin’ was stuck in limbo due to creative disputes with Warner Brothers (the film would sit on a shelf for seven years and undergo a complete metamorphosis from a live-action/animated hybrid into an almost completely animated film that remains unavailable on DVD to this day). He needed to stretch his creative legs and he needed to tackle something that would show audiences he wasn’t just capable of street films and “pornography,” a word his harshest critics loved to oh-so-inaccurately throw around.

Deciding to tackle a genre that had long fascinated him, Ralph Bakshi made Wizards, a sprawling fantasy epic that was set on a future Earth ravished by nuclear war and overrun by magic. A pair of wizard brothers are set against one another in war (the original title for the film was War Wizards before George Lucas asked him to change the name due to the fact Star Wars was scheduled for release a couple of months later).

Wizards is high-fantasy — with legions of goblins, dragons and fairies — but is also firmly rooted in the politics of its day. The film’s bad guy — a skeletal sorcerer named Blackwolf -- digs up ancient Nazi propaganda to help whip his army of mutants into frenzy and attack the peace-loving followers of Avatar, a curmudgeonly wizard voiced by Bob Holt. The movie was light and fluffy, sexy and startlingly bleak — exactly the type of family friendly film you’d expect from Ralph Bakshi.

In March, Fox will release a 35th anniversary Blu-ray set for the film — marking the first time one of Bakshi’s films has been released in high-definition.

On February 11, the Alamo Drafthouse — West Oaks in Houston, Texas will screen Wizards from a 35mm print. In preparation of the screening, I chatted with Ralph Bakshi over the phone to discuss the film, its legacy and why he turned to rotoscoping. 

Can you talk a little bit about your current relationship with Wizards 35 years after its release? Do you still feel the same way about the movie today as you did immediately following its theatrical run?

Wizards was done for so little money back in the day — $1,100,000. Even 35 years ago, Disney was making movies for $17 million to $24 million a picture – so you can imagine how cheap Wizards was by those standards. Today, there are films budgeted for $80, $90, $120 million dollars. It was a very cheap movie. The amount of things I foresaw for Wizards in my head, I wasn’t able to do. That’s always bothered me – even back in the day.

As a director, I’m satisfied on a film-level 35 years after the fact. I’m not satisfied with the way I had to make the movie. That was the case with all my films, though. All my films were very low budget. If I told an animation director today that Wizards was done on a pencil test – meaning you shot the animation and then were able to take a look to fix it if necessary, they wouldn’t believe me. It really shows you how great my animators were. They had nothing to lean on except their experience.

I knew my limitations with the film’s animation due to the budget but I wanted to make a movie that said something. So many animated films look wonderful but they don’t say a thing. Disney was making some terrible movies — Robin Hood, The Black Cauldron — they looked great but they didn’t have anything real to say. Do I wish I had the money to make my films look as good as Disney’s? Yes, but I’m happy with the film I made.

What's the difference in animating fantasy as an adaptation such as with Lord of the Rings, versus collaboration such as with Fire and Ice or from your own imagination as with Wizards?

I hate collaboration. I don’t care what anybody says. I’m a very particular kind of director and I enjoy making my movies the way I do. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy working with Frank Frazetta. I made Fire and Ice only so I could spend time with Frank. I could have spent the whole year just talking with Frank as I was a huge admirer of his work. That said, I hated collaborating. There are lots that say they enjoy the process but that just isn’t me. It’s the same with adaption. When I was adapting Lord of the Rings, I was so concerned with doing right by Tolkien that I spent more time asking myself “What would Tolkien do?” instead of asking “What would Ralph do?”

I almost hate to ask but are you collaborating with Robert Rodriguez any on his planned remake of Fire and Ice?

No. He contacted me about wanting to buy the rights to the film and I figured that if somebody was stupid enough to want to remake the movie, they should have the rights so I sold them to him. I hope the movie gets made because if it goes into production I’ll stand to make some money and I haven’t made a lot of money in a while.

I’ve been living in New Mexico painting. But it’s been about a year — maybe more — since I last talked to Robert about the film and I haven’t heard anything. I guess after Avatar the big thing was naked people running around and jumping through a jungle. I’m sure it will be a lot of fun to make and I wish him the best. I do hope it gets made so I can get paid but I don’t want to be involved in any way.

Wizards was meant to be your way of proving that you could do PG-rated fantasy. A lot of the film is dark by most of today’s family film standards, though. Did you run into any problems bringing such gritty themes to a PG film setting?

I didn’t run into any controversy because nobody really noticed what I was doing. I guess everybody was just glad I wasn’t doing stuff as adult and out there as with my earlier films that they just let me do my own thing. In contrast to a lot of what of today’s animators working for studios do, I was very much an independent animator. I was given money and then left on my own to do my own thing. Not being supervised by a studio let me get away with a lot more than others might be able to do today.

In the book Unfiltered by Jon Gibson and Chris McDonnell, you talk about how rotoscoping was used in the film’s climatic war scene purely as a cost-saving technique. Did you expect that this style would become so linked to your career as you went forward?

When it came time to animate the final sequence, we just ran out of money. I had heard about rotoscoping from when I talked to guys at Disney who had used the stuff in some of their early films – even bringing in Lon Chaney to do some acting. I was familiar with the process and I thought I could use it to finish Wizards so I broke into some of the film archives and used a lot of classic stock footage – stuff from Einstein’s Alexander Nevsky and the like.

When it came time for later movies, I was just tired. Rotoscoping was a cheap and easy way to get a film of any real scope made. Plus, with films like American Pop, it was just too serious of a drama to do with a cartoon style. It needed the realism that rotoscoping brought. And with Lord of the Rings – you can’t animate Lord of the Rings! Rotoscoping was the only way I could do it.

A few years back there was talk about comic book sequels to Wizards and at Comic-Con in 2008 it was announced that you would be working with Main Street to produce a sequel. Can you speak a little bit about plans to finish your Wizards trilogy?

I keep waiting for Fox to do a sequel to Wizards. They have their own animation studio now and I’d love to see them continue the story. I wouldn’t want to direct it but I’d like to be a consultant on the story. Just today, actually, I sent Dark Horse Comics the stories for Wizards 2 and The Last Days of Coney Island. Someone over there wanted to see if I had anything that we could do as a comic book. Maybe by doing Wizards as a graphic novel, I can get the ball rolling on a film.

How involved were you in the new Blu-ray for Wizards?

Fox has been very good to me. They did a wonderful job with the Blu-ray and the book that comes with it. They showed me a lot of stuff – promotional posters that had been unfinished — for my approval. But it looked great. I was very involved with the Blu-ray.

While Wizards is set to be released on Blu-ray this March, there are still several of Bakshi’s films that are unavailable to own on DVD. Fritz the Cat recently went out of print from MGM and Hey Good Lookin’ and Coonskin are only available on VHS. I keep waiting for Warner Brothers to release Hey Good Lookin’ as part of their MOD archive series — because I guess it’s too much to ask for a special edition that would include the original cut of the film. Coonskin, though, does have a release date listed on Amazon for March 13. Bakshi said that he hadn’t been in communication with the distributors of the DVD for a while but he did see a correspondence from them advertising the movie as the most controversial animated film ever made — exactly the type of image he’s been trying to get away from.

Obama’s in the White House. All the black rappers love the film. Coonskin has played for large crowds of black audiences who have given it standing ovations. The movie’s accepted now. But I guess controversy will sell a few DVDs.