Ralph Bakshi, director of the animated version of The Lord of the Rings, recently spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about the films’ history, why some of his own work horrifies him, and why Hollywood is hell.
Here is an excerpt:
O: What drew you to Lord Of The Rings specifically?
RB: Brilliance. Absolute brilliance. It’s probably one of the greatest fantasies ever written. The language is perfect, the characterizations are perfect, the mood is perfect. There isn’t a page of The Rings that you wouldn’t want to re-read a hundred times. Then I heard United Artists was making this film, and John Boorman was writing the screenplay in live-action. I heard that Boorman was taking the three books and collapsing them into one screenplay, and I thought that was madness, certainly a lack of character on Boorman’s part. Why would you want to tamper with anything Tolkien did? So I approached United Artists and told them the film should be made in animation, and it should be made in three parts, because there’s no way you can take the three books and condense them into one film. It’s a physical impossibility. And here comes the horror story, right? They said fine, because Boorman handed in this 700-page script, and do I want to read it? I said, “Well, is it all three books in one?” They said, “Yes, but he’s changed a lot of the characters, and he’s added characters. He’s got some sneakers he’s merchandising in the middle.” I said, “No, I’d rather not read it. I’d rather do the books as close as we can, using Tolkien’s exact dialogue and scenes.” They said, “Fine,” which knocked me down, “because we don’t understand a word Boorman wrote. We never read the books.” They owned the rights, but they never read the original books. “We ain’t got time to read it. You understand it, Ralph, so go do it.” So help me God. Now this is funny. UA and MGM were in the same building in those days; they occupied the same studio. And right across the hall from Mike Medavoy at United Artists was MGM, who owned the rights. So I said, “Okay, wait here.” I walked across the hall–you could do these things in those days, or at least I could; I was young and had good-looking hair, you know–and went to see MGM. Dan Melnick was running MGM, he was the president, and he had done some films, All That Jazz and everything, that were very good. So he came off as an intellect, and I thought he would understand what The Rings meant, because UA did not. Me and Melnick walk across the hall to Mike Medavoy’s office and make a deal right there. Melnick gives Medavoy his money back–the Boorman script cost $3 million, so Boorman was happy by the pool, screaming and laughing and drinking, ’cause he got $3 million for his script to be thrown out–MGM now owned the rights, and I walked back with Mike Medavoy from UA, and he kissed me, because I had gotten him his money back and the books were clear.
O: Why was the second half of the trilogy never filmed?
RB: Wait, I’ve got more to tell you about this. I’ll tell you about the second half. To make a long story short, I’m making the film for Melnick at MGM, Melnick gets fired, the whole deal falls through, and this new guy takes over, I forget his name. I go to the new guy and tell him, “Danny and I were making Lord Of The Rings,” and he says, “Lord of the what? We’re not going to make this f***ing picture, Ralph. We don’t understand it. Danny’s an idiot and we don’t want to make it.” So I remembered that Saul Zaentz made a fortune on Fritz The Cat. He was one of the quiet investors in Fritz when I was a young man. And Fritz was a $700,000 picture that made $90 million worldwide, and is still playing. So I knew he had made a fortune, and he took it and made One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. So I gave him a call and asked him whether he wanted to make The Rings with me. And he said absolutely. So now we were back at UA, and Saul and I made the picture. It was supposed to be called Lord Of The Rings: Part One on the marquee. When I finished the film, under tremendous deadline pressure, they said, “We’re dropping the Part One. People won’t come in to see half a movie.” I told them they can’t drop the Part One, because people are going to come in thinking they’ll see the whole film, and it’s not there. We had a huge fight, and they released it as Lord Of The Rings. So when it came to the end, people were stunned in the theater, even worse than I ever realized they would be, because they were expecting to see the whole film. People keep telling me I never finished the film. And I keep saying, “That’s right!” That’s what they cost me, United Artists and probably the producer; I’m not sure who made the final decision. I was screaming, and it was like screaming into the wind. It’s only because nobody ever understood the material. It was a very sad thing for me. I was very proud to have done Part One. I certainly would have done parts two and three and four in animation, but that was out of my hands, maybe. And this is where the whole thing stands. And suddenly I hear they’re making a live-action version. I’m sure the guys doing the live-action version looked at my version awfully hard. I’m sure they’re picking everything out that worked. I can’t see them not. Why don’t you ask the director whether he did, whether he ever looked at my version. If he says no, laugh in his face. Seriously, ask him. Because I heard reports that they were screening it every single day at Fine Line.
O: Do you do that yourself? Go back and screen your own films?
RB: No. I can’t stand to look at them.
O: Why not?
RB: Lots of reasons. First of all, the animation isn’t that good. I always think I could do it better if I’d had enough time. It frightens me, what I could have done, what I should have done. I remember the hard times I had dealing with certain things–can I say this, should I say this, do I have a right to say this? It wasn’t easy. When you’re breaking through, you say, “Do you show the penis? How far do you show the sexual activity? What will work in animation and what won’t?” It was all brand-new, and I had nothing to look at. It brings back those very difficult decisions I had to make with no one to turn to. I couldn’t screen a Disney film to be shown how to do it right. Plus, some of it’s so frank and so crazy that it embarrasses me. “I don’t believe I said that. I hope people don’t understand what that really means.” It embarrasses the hell out of me. I mean, they’re up there killing God in Heavy Traffic, blowing God’s head off. Without blinking an eyelash, I went out and did it. Those things scare me, frighten me. For all kinds of reasons, I just don’t look at them.
O: You’ve actually come around so far in a circle that your own work offends you?
RB: I don’t know. I’d like to make another film just to find out. I don’t know if it offends me as much as that I could have done everything more artistically. I’ve learned a lot about art since then, painting. I’ve always liked to tell the truth as I see it, but I probably would say the same things with more grace now. [Laughs.] That’s old age talking. I’m mellowing, don’t you get it?
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