I first met Bill Plympton at the Oregon Book Awards. He arrived at the Scottish Rites Temple with Walt Curtis, who was wearing a tie and jacket several sizes too large, his hair in its signature white aureole around his poet’s brow. Walt was with Marjorie, his long time friend and familiar. They entered single file, circling around the back of the room.
I was at the refreshments table, eating miniature cream puffs. Bill joined me, and we began discussing the evening’s awards, our shared New York City citizenship, and fact that I had been to a party he gave in New York some years before, although neither he nor I remembered anything about it. We stood there talking these things over, and I remember realizing that I was thinking of things to say so that I could continue eating cream puffs, and furthermore, that he was doing the same thing. That was my bonding experience with Bill Plympton. Eating cream puffs, waiting for Ken Kesey to receive a lifetime achievement award, and silently plotting how to meet Walt Curtis.
The next time I met Bill Plympton, I was with Walt Curtis, taking him around New York. Walt had come to give a live introduction to Peckerneck Poet, the feature length documentary Bill had made about him. Bill didn’t come to the screening, so Walt and I visited him the following day, on the roof of the building which held his studio in Chelsea. We sat around in the dusk of the city, and talked. I had picked Walt up at Bill’s apartment. It was spare and featureless, the home of a man who was never home.
The third time I met Bill Plympton was at his annual summer gathering on the banks of the Clackamas River, on his parents’ property. He was demonstrating to a young child how to use a water cannon which shot great burst of water. His mother had waved us down to the path to the river, telling us to look out for the llama. Bill was everywhere, a solicitous host. There was no hostess, although there were several women in bathing suits who were jostling for position next to Bill.
The fourth time I met Bill Plympton was at a party in SE Portland. I had come specifically to invite him to speak at a film festival the following spring. It sounds as if I only go to parties to proposition people, and that’s pretty much true. So be forewarned, when you see me at a party. Bill listened, and said yes. From that moment on, I no longer met Bill as a distant friend of a friend. By asking Bill to speak at the festival, I had invited him to join me in some serious work. This is the way to Bill’s heart, to be hard at work on something. Bill understands work. He works all the time. How else can he draw all the tens of thousands of frames he needs to complete a feature length film? Bill lives in his work. It vivifies him. Once he and I were working together on something, all the other pretexts, the cream puffs, the water cannons, the Manhattan rooftops, fell away. We achieved perfect communion in the shared vision of work. So I have been privileged to collaborate with Bill. This is what it feels like to work with an Academy Award nominated director.
It feels like this:
Bill is practical.
Bill is concise.
Bill is effective.
Here’s the things he is not: he is not neurotic, not self aggrandizing, not long suffering, not wasteful, and not filled with false modesty.
He is extremely focused.
Bill showed me something I hadn’t known before. It is possible to carry on an extended, productive conversation with an extremely busy person IF you are willing to grab it during interstitial moments. In the months Dennis and I planned the festival Bill was coming to, he gave us more input than I dreamed he would have time to give. Some of it came over the phone from New York. Some of it came during brief moments we could grab while he was in transit from one place to another. We talked during a ride he needed to the airport, or between courses during a dinner he was having with friends at Jake’s, or between speaking gigs at the Ashland Independent Film Festival. He wasn’t multitasking, he was eliminating empty spots in his day. Why do nothing, when he could consult with us and improve our film festival? So that’s what he did.
At the festival, Gus Van Sant tapped Bill to present James Ivory with the Oregon Sesquicentennial Lifetime Achievement Award. I knew Bill was jet lagged, so tired he could barely stay awake, so I was surprised at the end when he asked James Ivory the final question of the evening: what is your dream project? what film would you most like to make?
I never knew that film directors wondered these things about each other.
James Ivory said the film he next wanted to make was a love story set in Peru. He told us “I want people to clutch at their hearts at the beauty I’ve made.” After the festival, perhaps not coincidentally, Gus’ next film was a love story. Bill’s next film, which he is still drawing, is a love story
All of Bill’s films may well be love stories. The stories are getting deeper, the love more mysterious and spiritual. It is as if Bill, having grown accustomed to sharing his innermost sexual fantasies in vivid, comic detail, has become so divested of inhibition that there is nothing to stop him from sharing his deepest worries, his sorrows, his pain and his soul. In Idiots and Angels, the story is so large, so expansive and so filled with grief, that it requires three endings.
Since the festival, Bill has written two books, toured the world with an award winning short, adopted an entirely new identity as a film preservationist, started an animation school, and transformed himself into a married man. And all the while, he continues to draw his next feature. I won’t say “I don’t see how he does this!” I do see how he does this. He takes everything he does very seriously. He likes to work. He likes the people he works with, he is a clear communicator, and he doesn’t waste time. Bill’s formula for filmmaking success, repeated to audiences around the world, is “short, fast and cheap.”
Excuse me, Bill, but what an act of artistic camouflage! Some of your films may meet these three criteria, but your entire career defies that description. I write this appreciation as a salute to that fact.
Photo credit: Shawn Levy took the photo of James Ivory, Gus Van Sant, Bill Plympton and Mike Rich on May 1, 2009 at Marylhurst University’s Oregon Sesquicentennial Film Festival.