Kars: The Movie
Ron Mann on 'Tales of the Rat Fink'
When we first spoke to Ron Mann (Grass, Comic Book Confidential), it was mere hours before his latest documentary, Tales of the Rat Fink, was due to unspool at SXSW 06, and, by the director's own giddy admission, the print "wasn't even dry yet." And, of course, no one not even Mann himself had seen what would ultimately become the finished film set to open in Austin this weekend.
Like all of Mann's wonderfully engaging, intellectual, and unique filmmaking, Rat Fink is part pop-culture history lesson, part mindscape of the modern Mann, and almost ridiculously entertaining. It's the story of legendary automotive artist and SoCal mainstay Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, who, in the wake of World War II, turned a predisposition toward fast cars and outlandish artwork into an all-encompassing lifestyle. Like the magazines Mad and Famous Monsters of Filmland, this genial, goateed gearhead was responsible for creatively warping delightfully so an entire generation of young minds. His Revell plastic model kits, with their Basil Wolverton-esque melding of motorcars and monsters, were an integral part of my youth and many others'.
And as for the Rat Fink himself, the bulbous, green, flyblown, anti-Mickey Mouse character Roth first sketched onto a napkin at his favorite greasy spoon? We dare you to walk into any gathering of motorheads or just plain old kids and not spot at least one T-shirt or jacket or key chain or gewgaw sporting its weirdsville image to this very day. Cultural icons of this magnitude and longetivity are few and far between.
The Chronicle spoke to Mann about all things Fink on the eve of his film's theatrical debut.
Austin Chronicle: Why Rat Fink and Roth?
Ron Mann: After Grass screened at South by Southwest, I went up to Dallas, and while I was there, I saw a show that included the work of Ed Roth, which really interested me. I read his biography, Confessions of a Rat Fink, as well as Tom Wolfe's Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby and then approached him about doing a documentary. I thought Roth was an important artist. And, so, I went to the Hot August Nights car show in Reno, Nevada, met Roth, and then later visited him at his home in Utah, where in the intervening years he had become a Mormon, believe it or not.
AC: What were your first impressions of Roth?
RM: He looked and talked like Wolfman Jack, you know? And, in a funny way, I saw him as a kind of pied-piper of teenagers, à la Wolfman. So, we began to collaborate on a movie about his life and times.
AC: And then he died.
RM: Six months later, right. He died of heart failure. He was larger-than-life, literally. His onscreen persona and the real thing were one and the same. But, because he passed away, the project was shelved, more or less, while I went on to do my film Go Further. But I recall this one time when I was speaking to him, and Ed said, "I am the Rat Fink," and it was just so true. He was excited about getting his story told. He was very into it, and ultimately he was a real American hot-rodder, a guy who just plain loved cars and wanted to make them as cool in reality as he saw them in his mind's eye. There was a lot of irony in his art, but no irony to what he was doing. He was at the center of that whole postwar car culture.
AC: Is there a figure working today that compares to what Ed Roth was doing?
RM: At least as an innovator, I see Steve Jobs, maybe. But no one can match the exuberance of Roth. When I met Roth, he complained that many of the car-show enthusiasts were nostalgic of those old hot rods of the Fifties, and so what he did was to encourage modern fans to work on their Hondas or Hyundais or whatever, just to customize their wheels. To his dying day, Roth was a forward-looking guy. He was a visionary. When I saw his cars as a kid, I'm telling you, there was nothing like it. Anywhere! You mentioned Mad Magazine, and like Mad, Roth poked fun at the powers that be, the squares and so forth. He was very anti-establishment but in a fun, very cool, and original way.
AC: And remarkably, Roth is just as influential today as he was in the Fifties and Sixties.
RM: Oh, yeah. He totally influenced the underground artists like Robert Williams and those cats. In his later years, he wanted to distance himself from the more graphically vulgar aspects of the underground cartoonists, but I think he came around in the late Nineties when the custom-car-culture movement really started to pick up steam again. He was adopted by the punk rockers, too. He did a cover for a Nick Cave album.
AC: The Birthday Party's Junkyard.
RM: Right. And Roth was the original punk rocker in a way, and that's why I adore him. As an independent filmmaker, I see him as someone who just went out there and did it all himself. He wasn't waiting for Detroit to call him up. He had his own ideas about what a car should be. To me, Roth was like Richard Linklater or Jim Jarmusch in the way he approached his art. Maybe Cassavettes, too.
AC: And then Detroit tried to mimic his flash by unveiling, God help us, the Edsel, which was like, to use a rock & roll metaphor, Blue Hawaii to Jailhouse Rock.
RM: One of the most unique things about Tales of the Rat Fink is that it's almost one-half animation, with John Goodman narrating as the voice of Roth from beyond the grave. It's not your traditional documentary portrait. We wanted to keep the film in the style of Roth's graphics, but I think it owes more to the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's because there's so much collage work in the film. The reason for going this way is that Roth passed away, and I put the film aside for a number of years. The original film I had planned on making would have been a completely different thing. But I'd met a young animator by the name of Mike Roberts, who just so happened to also be a car nut, and I thought, wow, this guy'd be perfect to animate the Rat Fink film. I had done animation in my films before, particularly in Comic Book Confidential, and at that point it was a very painstaking process to animate. Now, with Mike, he was able to do all of the animation in this film on his own computer with Adobe After Effects, which is just amazing.
AC: Tales of the Rat Fink also uses talking cars instead of the usual talking heads as a way to introduce and explicate the car culture of that era, which is a nifty stylistic trick.
RM: Well, that was based on an old TV show, My Mother the Car, one of the most unsuccessful TV series ever made. I still think that was the most inspired decision I made regarding this film. I don't know of any other film that can compare to this one. It's just so weird. It's so trippy. But what I was trying to get away from was the traditional way documentaries have been made in the past. So much of what Roth created was new and vibrant and eye-popping, and so I wanted the film to reflect that as much as possible. And I think it worked.
AC: Did you always have John Goodman in mind for voicing the late Big Daddy?
RM: That's funny. No, we didn't, but we contacted him, and his agent phoned us back in 10 minutes, literally. Which, you know, never happens. And, so, when I met with John, I asked him why he said yes so fast, and he told me that he had actually met Ed at a car convention in New Orleans years before he was a Roth fan! and while he was getting some memorabilia autographed by Roth, Ed told him, "One day you're going to play me in a movie." I mean, wow, right? It was just destiny. And people who've seen the film and who knew Ed say they can't imagine anyone else as Big Daddy. They even look alike, in a certain way. It was meant to be, and now it is.
Tales of the Rat Fink opens exclusively at the Alamo Drafthouse Downtown on Saturday, Sept. 16. For a review and showtimes, see Film Listings.