It would be physically impossible to find a cooler film subject than the late Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, the hugely influential and wildly creative artist beloved for his customized cars and monster cartoons (including Rat Fink, born of the SoCal resident’s rejection of Mickey Mouse and all the cookie-cutter mainstreamness represented by the then-brand-new Disneyland).
Ed Roth and car (and model car).
© Sphinx Productions 2005/ Rat Fink name and device are trademarks of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, Inc.
Canadian director Ron Mann (Grass, Comic Book Confidential) puts a suitably offbeat spin on his doc, Tales of the Rat Fink, integrating Rat Fink vignettes, quirkily animated still photos, a jaunty surf rock soundtrack, and vintage footage into his exploration of Roth’s life, which dovetails with an enjoyable lesson on American hot rod history.
I recently phoned Mann at his Toronto office for a roundabout chat about hot-rodders, rodents, and Roth’s still-potent legacy. And what about those talking cars, anyway?
San Francisco Bay Guardian: So, 2006 has really been the year of the car movie -- Cars, Who Killed the Electric Car?, Fast and the Furious 3, Talladega Nights, and now Tales of the Rat Fink. What’s up with that?
Ron Mann: (Laughs) I never really thought about it. I know that we’re living in a kind of denial, about making cars bigger and faster when we should really be thinking about making cars more efficient. The one thing about Ed Roth was he was always looking forward. He was never looking backwards. One of his last cars was solar-powered.
SFBG: What drew you to Roth as a film subject?
RM: When I was a kid growing up, I thought that we would all drive cars with bubbles on them. He was a visionary. He was someone that was a hero for me -- I was a card-carrying member of the Rat Fink International Party. We built models, we read cartoons, and wore shirts that said “Mother’s Worry.” I had that shirt, and my mother hated it, so I never wanted to take it off.
A typically debonair image of Rat Fink.
© Sphinx Productions 2005/ Rat Fink name and device are trademarks of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, Inc.
SFBG: So that Leave It To Beaver clip in Tales of the Rat Fink was, like, a scene straight outta your childhood?
RM: That’s for real. That’s my life. I was the kid who wrote that letter to Roth that said, “You made weird being cool.” Roth sent a message out into the culture that weird was cool. And, like, Mad magazine, which I read, or Little Richard, which I listened to, or maybe Wolfman Jack I guess -- Roth was kind of the leader of weirdo nation. I took Roth seriously really after reading The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby by Tom Wolfe, which positions Roth as an important cultural figure. After digging a little deeper, I came to respect Roth as one of the great designers of the late 20th century. I would put my Roth-vision glasses on and I would see Roth everywhere.
SFBG: You’ve mixed a lot of different elements into the doc, which is far from a typical, talking-head-filled biography. Was that your plan from the beginning?
RM: No, not at all. I met Roth in 2000 at a car show in Reno, Nevada called Hot August Nights. We discussed making a film similar to a film I made called Twist, about rock and roll dance, which was a collage film using historical footage and interviews. I began a movie -- actually, the footage you see at the beginning and end of the film was the only footage I shot of Roth -- I had filmed hot-rodders, and it was going to be a completely different movie. A few months after I filmed Roth, he passed away. I was devastated, so I put the film away.
It wasn’t until years later that I met a brilliant young animator named Michael Roberts, who was fresh out of animation school, and who was a car guy. I talked to him about Roth. See, what I was left with was this footage that I had shot of Roth, and hundreds of photographs, which we helped organize for Roth. So I looked at not what I didn’t have, but what I did have. I thought of telling Roth’s story using those photographs, but frankly, I couldn’t afford to -- I mean, I imagined an animated film. I had made a movie called Comic Book Confidential, years ago, and not to get too technical, but I was using flat artwork on an Oxbury stand, and it was painstaking. The technology today is such that one animator can use programs like After Effects to manipulate photographs.
SFBG: That’s how you made the still photos come to life?
RM: Right. I couldn’t have done that ten years ago. And so, I collaborated with Mike Roberts to tell Ed’s story using a kind of Sergeant Pepper collage effect. The style of the film was inspired by Roth’s work, which was very much like a novelty song from the early 1960s. The talking cars really came from a TV show in the early 60s, which I remembered, called My Mother the Car -- probably not the best model because it was the most unsuccessful TV show ever. But Roth thought of his cars as having personalities, so I thought that would be the way to go. Roth was unconventional, so I knew the movie had to be unconventional.
SFBG: How’d you get the celebrities to do the film’s voice-overs?
RM: The first person I called was John Goodman. Got a callback in ten minutes from his agent, which is unheard of in Hollywood. When I asked John why he agreed, on the set, he told me that Ed was a hero of his. Strangely, he had met Ed at a car show in New Orleans, and Ed told him that if ever there was a movie to be made, he wanted John to play him. I was totally -- I had no idea. It was an organic choice of celebrity actors, in the sense that I asked people who were car people. Jay Leno is a huge car enthusiast. Ann-Margret still rides a Harley. Billy F. Gibbons is a car person -- “cars and guitars” is his thing. It wasn’t arbitrary. I know it seems like a strange group of people.
SFBG: Are you a car person?
RM: (Laughs). No. Not at all, actually. My thing is to acknowledge visionary artists in all of my films. With the histories that I’ve done -- like Grass, which is a legislative history of marijuana prohibition in the US -- they’re alternative histories. Secret histories. And I see Roth as an important figure who paved the way for the counterculture. A lot of what I do is about acknowledging Sixties people.
SFBG: From the film, I got the sense that there isn’t a lot of footage of Roth.
RM: No. It was heartbreaking. I really tried to find more.
SFBG: That’s surprising, considering he was such an oversized character. If he was living today, he’d totally have his own Pimp My Ride-style TV show, wouldn’t he?
RM: Absolutely. I couldn’t find -- and I'm really good at it. I'm kind of a closet archivist-detective. In San Francisco, I have a good friend, Rick Prelinger, who’s an archivist, and we couldn’t find much on Roth. It was heartbreaking. So I relied on the photographs. I mean, there were lots of hot rod movies at the time, but I kind of leave the hot rod story to tell the “Kustom Kulture” story. Even though Roth was on every Ravell [model kit] box, and was a hero to kids, it wasn’t in the media. It wasn’t in mainstream media.
SFBG: Do you think it’s because the media assumed Roth appealed only to children?
RM: Well, when Ravell first put out Roth’s cars, it was a big step because it was the first time a hot rod was being put out by a family-oriented model company. I guess, Roth shirts, even though they were popular in the hot-rodding community -- even in that Leave It To Beaver episode, it was all about how Beaver couldn’t wear those shirts to school because they were inappropriate. This is alternative culture, and it’s not documented. The thing is, the history of the 20th century is an audio-visual history. And if it isn’t on film, it’s like it didn’t happen. But it did! The idea is to rescue it, or reclaim it, and position it so that it’s not ignored.
SFBG: Can you talk about the film’s soundtrack a little bit? It complements the subject matter really well ...
RM: I worked with this band called the Sadies, who I think are one of Canada’s great unknown bands. They evoke that period from Louis Jordan to Dick Dale -- really versatile. The film just zooms along because of it.
SFBG: What’s your favorite Ed Roth car?
RM: Oh, the Beatnik Bandit! It was so much like the Jetsons. Roth had a column in a car magazine called Drive, and the title of the column was “Back from the Future.” I mean, Ed Roth was like Sun Ra in a way.
SFBG: From outer space.
RM: Yeah! Came down, and designed from the ground up. I remember interviewing a hot-rodder who said, “Ed Roth was the first punk rocker.” For me, Ed was the first DIY-er -- in a garage, using fiberglass and sculpting these rolling sculptures that worked, mechanically. He didn’t go to Detroit to do it. As an independent filmmaker, I completely identify with that. It’s a choice. Roth’s most famous, iconic figure was Rat Fink -- which was, you know, not Mickey Mouse, but an alternative to the squeaky-clean 1950s vision of Walt Disney.
SFBG: Which is, unfortunately, still a vision permeating our culture today, in many ways.
SFBG: Do you think that’s why Roth’s legacy is still so strong?
RM: Absolutely. I see Roth in lots of things, from Bart Simpson to those candy-colored iMacs. From tattoos to skateboards. What’s amazing to me is that you have kids who wear Von Dutch t-shirts who have no clue that this was the beginning of Kustom Kulture. It came from somewhere. Juxtapoz magazine put Roth on the cover a year or so ago and said he was the greatest artist of the 20th century. I may not go that far, but I do really want to acknowledge that Roth was really important. For people my age growing up, he was our leader. We identified with Rat Fink and the cars. I'm from Toronto, and I wanted to take the bus to California as soon as I could, listening to the Beach Boys sing about hot rods. Like a declaration of teenage independence, or something.