Bakshi credits this experience, in part, with his first departure from animation. "I left crawling, I left beat up," he says. "I have mixed feelings about the whole thing mentally and physically, it was quite difficult."
I asked him how he could keep coming back to an industry that he felt would keep beating him up. Well, first and foremost, he credits the creative freedom that he's had during his career, which has allowed him to put things on the screen that more mainstream productions might not otherwise touch. Bakshi wasn't afraid to go into the inner city with his stories, or have his characters curse or have sex, or get bloody. "I'm not ashamed of the word 'artist.' I started the business wanting to be an artist." Why was all of the heartache worth it? Because as an artist, he was still able to get his vision on screen and in front of viewers.
He actually says that the sort of salutary neglect by the studios ("They didn't give a g**damn what I was trying to do") was sort of liberating at the time and part of what kept him from bailing. "I kept going because I had [the studios] over a f****** barrel. They had no idea what I was doing, they thought what I was doing was [just] funny animation." Bakshi didn't have to answer to anyone for rewrites of test screen his projects for prospective audiences. Since no one especially cared about the animation industry, Bakshi says that he was free to just do what he wanted.
When things were at their darkest, though, when something like Wizards might not have gotten finished, Bakshi says that animation vets like Burt Spence, Manny Perez, older animators from the Warner Brothers and Disney shorts days came to his rescue and provided further impetus to keep going. Bakshi told me about how Spence, who did his time at Disney before finding himself without steady work in the 70's, came on board one of his projects: he says Spence came into his office and asked if Bakshi really wanted him on the project and Bakshi said "yes." Spence asked if Bakshi would let him do some of the more outrageous elements from the movie, and Bakshi said yes again, and from then on the senior animator was on board. Bakshi says that these animators—who were all in their 60's and 70's at the time—were excited to be working on adult-oriented projects and getting paid for it.
Another part of what kept him around was providing sometime different to viewers raised on nothing but a steady diet of Disney product. The heavy doses of sex and politics in Coonskin and Heavy Traffic were antidotes to what Bakshi saw as safe, antiseptic product. "That was a tremendous aphrodisiac to get me going." Bakshi would seem to have nothing but disdain for most Disney product, particularly the studio's unwillingness to touch on real-world issues.
He calls Disney's refusal during WWII to directly address the horrors of the war and the holocaust "madness." I ask him if maybe Disney's strategy at the time was a conscious one to provide a counterpoint, a relief in the face of the war but Bakshi says that this defense is simply a cop out. "You don't need relief, you need to tell the truth... every once in a while, you've got to take a stand as a producer and director." Bakshi conceded that this doesn't put him in the absolute right, but he says that the way he was raised, he was taught the value of personal accountability and didn't see that back then with the major animation studios in the face of tremendous social upheaval (although he does understand that Disney was attempting to run a profitable business and certainly had had to think about keeping the lights on). Today, he says, the whole country is falling apart "because we don't care about one another."
While he says the fights at the time to get the movies made or their initial critical responses were bruising, it's worth it now thanks to college-age fans who are just not discovering and embracing his work. Bakshi says that with the Blu-ray release, it's the first time that he feels the studio is actually behind the movie in its 35 year history. "They've got me , LACMA, we're doing WonderCon," he says. "The new kids know how much Wizards is loved on the Internet." Nonetheless, he's taken aback by the support the movie is getting from Fox after all these years, "There seems to be a whole different feeling about Wizards [at Fox] than I've ever felt before... They're spending bread—they never spend bread on Wizards!"
He hopes to capitalize on that interest by potentially getting a sequel for the movie off the ground, ending his retirement from the industry.
Given his passion for injecting a healthy dose of the political into his work, I asked him how he imagined getting a Wizards 2 off the ground at Fox. He says it's the politics of the studio itself that are the greatest obstacle to getting a sequel made, describing himself as "an old face," that maybe some of the younger animators or producers might not have any interesting in working with.
He says at this point, he'd like to just walk up to current Fox head and pitching Wizards as a potential Lord of the Rings-level franchise for the studio. Bakshi believes that at this point, the technology has caught up with his vision for the Wizards universe. He joked, "and if [Fox would] just give me the 50,000 you owe me, then I'll just make it." He kids, saying that in spite of everything, he'd love to work on the proposed sequel at Fox, but he owns the characters from the film and would just as happily work with any studio interested in producing the film.
I ask him why not just find a way to create something like digital shorts or some other low-cost solution to getting them made and he brightens up. "I think that's a great idea," he muses. Again pointing the constant positive web response that his work has received, he says that he'd love to work with the young animators who write to him encouraging Bakshi to create a sequel.
If you'd like to check out Wizards, it's on Blu-ray now and getting some special screenings across the country now.
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