"Who Created Roger Rabbit: A Conversation with Gary K. Wolf" by Jason Anders

"I thought it was a really interesting idea for a movie - a detective story with an irascible rabbit named Roger. I said this is a movie that I would like to go out and see. If done right, it could be something that no one's ever seen before." 
- Steven Spielberg, Executive Producer 

The legacy of Disney's 1988 feature film noir, WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT, cannot be overstated. Boasting the highest budget of any film to date at the time of its production, it rekindled an interest in the Golden Age of American animation, sparked the modern animation scene, and spun off three theatrical animated shorts. It inspired everything from a Nintendo game to a Disneyland ride, and in 2016 was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." 

But who created Roger Rabbit? Spielberg? Director Robert Zemeckis? Animator Richard Williams? The origin of this toon star and his hard-boiled beginnings actually comes from Illinois author Gary K. Wolf in his 1981 comedic mystery novel, WHO CENSORED ROGER RABBIT? Gary was kind enough to visit F├╝lle Circle for an intimate investigation into the creation of a toon celebrity who hopped his way to stardom... 
First hardcover edition of Wolf's novel.
Jason Anders: What is it like for you to look back at these characters now and consider the revolution it inspired in the industry?

Gary K. Wolf: I'm amazed that by default I get credit for inspiring the second Golden Age of American animation - that was the furthest thing from my mind when I was writing the book. I just wanted to write a good story and have a lot of fun. I was lucky to get involved with so many creative people who were able to visualize what I saw in my head. When I walk through Toontown at the Disneyland® Resort, it is like walking through my own imagination. It is flooring to me. 

I bought a Blu-ray collection of 1940s Popeye theatrical shorts the other day thinking, "I wonder if this product would exist without WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT..."

It's interesting you say that because so many classic characters got a resurgence out of the movie, Droopy certainly received a whole new life out of it, but one of the only characters we were unable to obtain the rights for was Popeye. I could have made him a real star! Steven Spielberg was really the guy who went after all those characters. Roy Disney originally went to Warner Bros. saying, "We'd like to have Bugs Bunny come onscreen for fifteen seconds and say, 'What's up, Doc?' and walk off," and they told him to get lost. Five years later Spielberg goes to Warner Bros. asking for the same thing and they not only agreed to it, they offered him all of the other Looney Tunes characters as well. 

It was a perfect storm of creativity and Hollywood influence. I have to give a lot of credit to the unsung hero, Jeffrey Katzenberg. He was in charge of Walt Disney Pictures and was the real champion of Roger Rabbit. He was brought to Disney with the task of turning around a failing company that was making horrible movies. He said at the time that he was going to bring the studio back to prominence by going for "singles and doubles, not triples or home runs. I'm never going to make a movie that costs more than $14 million." The first production meeting that I sat in on, producer Robert Watts said the original production estimates showed it was going to cost at least $35 million, probably a lot more. Jeffrey just said, "Okay, fine. Do it. Just do it right." The budget just kept going up, capping out officially at $75 million. We never lost Jeffrey's support, even though a failure probably would have meant his job and career in Hollywood.  
Roger Rabbit concept art.
It's great that they involved you in those kinds of meetings...

They allowed me to be as involved as I wanted to be. However, I'm a novelist and business meetings bore me, and I quickly found out that shooting a movie bores me. I cannot stand there and watch take after take. I sat in on some of the early strategy meetings though and would be amazed at being in one room with thirty-five of the most creative people I'd ever met in my life, who are all tossing out ideas on how to make my novel funnier. I kept thinking, "Where were these thirty-five people when I was in my kitchen writing the novel from 4-7 a.m. every morning before work?" If they would have been there I could have been a Pulitzer Prize winner! 

It became obvious after a while that they had bought into my vision. They wanted to do on film what I had done in the book, and I didn't want to be there because I didn't want to screw it up! I hear a lot about the novel's story being different from the movie, and it is. I wrote it to be the best possible book I knew how to write, wanting it to appeal to people's imaginations - I think I did that pretty well, using conventions like having the toons talk in word balloons. If a toon shoots a gun it produces a BANG balloon. Police will collect the BANG balloons, being careful not to break them, and compare them with BANG balloons shot from the weapon to determine whether or not they have the right gun. The whole book is full of stuff like that. Early on they wanted to incorporate the word balloons in the film, but when they tried it the result was a silent movie. It was unworkable.

They had to change some of the conventions and story to make it more filmic, but what they didn't change was the important stuff - the concept of cartoons co-existing with real people in a human world, and they didn't change the characters. They gave me Roger Rabbit, Jessica Rabbit, Eddie Valiant, Baby Herman - these are iconic characters now, and I created them. They could have easily said, "How about Rocko Raccoon instead of Roger Rabbit? Just so we don't have to mess around with Wolf." I'm over the moon for what they did with my book.  
Test footage for Jessica Rabbit and Eddie Valiant. 
I've read that you came up with the idea for the book while watching Saturday morning cartoon cereal commercials?

Let me give you a little bit of Wolf history, dating back to when I was in the second grade. I went to a very small school in the very small town of Earlville, Illinois, where there were twenty-five kids in my class. Our teacher gave us a picture to color (a barn and a field with one cow) and the object was to stay inside the lines. My mom always told me that when people were alone they would get sad, lonely, and blue... so I colored the cow blue. The teacher passes them all back except for mine, calling me up to the front of the class (I thought it was because I stayed inside of the lines better than anybody) and holding the picture up above my head she says, "Now class, look at this stupid picture. Everybody knows that cows are black, brown, or white... but never are they blue." She called my parents and told them she thought something was wrong with me, but my parents encouraged me that if I wanted to color a cow blue, then I should color a cow blue. A couple of months later our teacher gave us an assignment to write about what we had done during our summer vacation, so I wrote about how I built a rocket ship out of tin cans in my backyard and I flew to the moon. My teacher handed it back to me with no comment. 

I tell you this story to help you understand my upbringing. My mother once told me, "Gary, if you want to get somewhere in life, the one thing you can do to make that happen is to read." She never put any restrictions on what I should or could read, so I grew up reading comic books. They were a big part of my life. When I became a writer I wrote three science fiction novels, I wanted my fourth novel to incorporate things that I most enjoyed when I was growing up, and one of those things was comics. 
My father read True Crime magazines in which they would dispatch photographers to capture crime scenes, and they would include with the descriptions real photos of dead bodies. I read those as well, but fortunately graduated to better stuff like Dashiell Hammett and Mickey Spillane. I was always fascinated with noir mysteries and I knew I wanted to combine them with comic books in some way, but I didn't know how. One morning I was watching cartoon cereal commercials and it just clicked. Here's Tony the Tiger just talking to real kids and nobody seemed to think it was odd. I said, "What if you had a world where cartoon characters were real? What kind of a world would that be?"

That Saturday morning changed my life. 

I immediately started outlining the novel, doing more research on comic books and comic strips to see what they did that human beings couldn't (or wouldn't) do, and then putting it all together as a mystery that could only exist in a cartoon universe.  
What I find most inspiring about your story is the success found in spite of overwhelming rejection. 

110 rejections from publishers. I got a lot of encouragement from my agent, who believed in the book as much as I did, and I would even call the rejections "good rejects." I always got them for the same reason, the editors would say that the book was fantastic or "one of the best novels I've ever read", but it was so unusual for the marketing department who would always say they couldn't sell it because it didn't fit into any category in a book store. On the 111th try, my book landed on the desk of an editor named Rebecca Martin at St. Martin's Press, where she had just published a major bestseller for them. The President of the publishing house gave her a vanity project saying that the next book she edits can be whatever she wants. That very day my book came across her desk and she said, "This is the book." The President said, "You can't publish this, I can't sell it. There's no place for it on the book store shelves." Rebecca stepped up to the plate and said, "You either publish it or I quit." He published it, but in very small quantities. 

If I had my life to live over I would buy up all of those $2 hardcovers because now they go for over $300 on eBay. 

When did you first realize that Disney was interested in your book?

The book was bought for publication in 1980 and was scheduled to be released in 1981. In mid-1980 I receive a call from Roy Disney who said, "I just read your novel and I was wondering if you'd be interested in having Disney make a movie of it." The book hadn't even been published so I just said, "Yeah, right. Roy Disney. Give me a break," thinking it was one of my friends putting me on. It turned out that someone at St. Martin's Press, I never found out who (and I really tried), sent a copy of the manuscript to Disney. It made its way up the chain to Roy who said, "This is the movie we have to make." 
Roy saw it as the idea that would catapult them back into the first ranks of moviemaking. They also acknowledged that their stable of characters was getting a bit old. Mickey was a corporate "spokesmouse" and you really couldn't have fun with him anymore. You could still have fun with Donald, but nobody could understand what he was saying. They saw this as a new line of characters that they could merchandise, from which they make a tremendous amount of money, it was a potential new revenue stream. All the elements were in play for them to want to make the movie.

As time went on, nobody really thought that Disney had the clout to make this movie in 1980, and initially they proved me right. They had trouble integrating the live action and animation and they came to me saying, "How about instead of animation we have the characters wear costumes like they do at Disneyland®?" I pictured Fred MacMurray as Eddie, Dean Jones as Roger, Hayley Mills as Jessica, and Kurt Russell as Baby Herman and immediately said "No." It really compromised the premise. Cooler heads prevailed in 1985 when Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg arrived at Disney. They brought in Steven Spielberg and he brought in Robert Zemeckis. From that point on, they never looked back. Again, it was a perfect storm - if any of those things had not happened I'd instead be writing those TV commercials. 
I really love how willing they were to tell such a dark story and place their classic characters in a film noir with some truly horrific moments...

I'm accused of being the guy that gave kids Judge Doom nightmares, but there's a long history of darkness that goes through Disney movies. There's the hunter in Bambi, the whale in Pinocchio, and the Witch in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (who I'd put against Frankenstein) - those are pretty scary characters. I think Who Framed Roger Rabbit was more about getting back to their roots. 

You wrote two sequels, WHO P-P-P-PLUGGED ROGER RABBIT? (1991) and WHO WACKED ROGER RABBIT (2013)... 

I had a creative challenge, especially with the first sequel, when considering that the film grossed $1 billion and that the people who saw it knew it as Roger Rabbit in Toontown. I think maybe thirty-five people had read my book, that includes my mother and my aunts. To most people, Roger Rabbit was the movie and not the book. I had twelve publishers bidding for the rights to the second novel, and I had to ask myself to which vision I'd hold true, the book or the film.

The movie was dark, but my novel was way darker. And in the original book, Roger Rabbit dies. 

I was able to solve this problem successfully and brought the rabbit back in the second book. I can't remember the page specifically, but I do have an explanation for why he's back. The first book didn't get many reviews at all, but the second book was well reviewed, People Magazine even printed the entire first page. The third novel broke all of those records. The creative challenge was fun. I don't know if Roger Rabbit is a work of towering genius, but it's pretty clever. 

I love the way that you treated comic book characters, such as Dick Tracy, in your novels.

I treated them like real people. 
The WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT video game (1989) by LJN for the Nintendo Entertainment System, which I played obsessively as a kid, was very much like playing the novel, being that it's filled with a lot of questioning by Eddie Valiant and the characters speaking in word balloons. 

Yes! When the movie came out on June 22, 1988 they premiered it at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. My wife and I went with her mother and sat in the V.I.P. section of the balcony - I had Kathleen Turner on one side of me and Amy Irving (uncredited singing voice of Jessica Rabbit) on the other, these two fantasy girls, and we are about to watch my movie on the big screen and I remember thinking, "Life doesn't get any better than this." Then, life got better... Kathleen leaned over and put her hand on my leg and said, "Gary, are you excited?" I said, "Kathleen, you have no idea!"

We went to the after-party that night and stayed in a hotel across the street from the theater. I woke up the next morning and looked out my window to see a line waiting to get into the movie. You didn't see lines anymore, I couldn't believe it! I had heard that they were selling Roger Rabbit merchandise at Macy's and so I told my wife, "Let's go over there and see what they've got." I said that I was going to buy the first piece of merchandise that I saw and that I was going to keep it forever. We walked in and I asked the young woman at the information desk where the Roger Rabbit merchandise was and she said, "Third floor." I asked, "Where on the third floor," and she said, "No, third floor." The whole third floor was full of Roger Rabbit merchandise, as far as the eye could see! I sometimes wish that my eye had landed on something else, but the first thing that I saw was a red plastic lunch box with a Thermos in it, so that is what I bought and kept. 

I have not made my home or office an homage to Roger Rabbit merchandise, but I do have those items.  
One of three Roger Rabbit theatrical shorts. 
Did you have any involvement in the three theatrical Roger Rabbit shorts?

They told me that they were going to do them and the premises, which were mostly sight gags that were done on-the-fly by the animators. I met many times with Rob Minkoff, the director of Tummy Trouble (1989), as well as the other directors and animators. There's just not a whole lot that I can contribute to that. I would rather sit at home alone in my office writing my books. 

I thought that Roller Coaster Rabbit (1990) was the funniest short I'd seen in my life. I think that short holds its own against anything that Warner Bros. did in the '40s or '50s. It's Tex Avery-level, just brilliant. 

Tell me about the rumored production of THE STOOGE...

You know, I honestly don't know the status. The Stooge is a great project using Mickey Mouse and Roger Rabbit in a buddy movie based on a Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis film. It works perfectly, but I don't know what to tell you. Disney seems more interested in using their own characters and focusing on their Marvel and Star Wars properties. They don't seem to be real interested in the classic characters anymore. Who Framed Roger Rabbit grossed $1 billion, that's not small change, especially for 1988. The rule of thumb is that a sequel will do three-quarters of what the original did. The thing is that the champions of Roger are Jeffrey Katzenberg and Michael Eisner, who are no longer there. In order for a movie like this to get produced and succeed, it has to have a champion, and there are no champions for this. 

Never say never. You never know what tomorrow is going to bring. I keep hoping.
You seem to have found success with your most recent novel, KILLERBOWL. 

Yes, it is going to be a comic book as well as a table game in London, and there's movie interest in it. I've also got other live action/animated projects going that I can't talk about for contractual reasons, but some of them are going to be mind-blowing. Roger Rabbit stuff included. 

One of the sheer pleasures of my life is that in order to write Roger Rabbit novels in a convincing way, I actually have to go live in Toontown. In my office I'll sit down, shut my eyes, and visit Toontown to talk to the characters and see what they're doing. At first it was weird, like an alien place, but after a while I began to enjoy it. The sequences that I'm writing now are so easy for me that I'm beginning to question my own sanity. I'm beginning to wonder if maybe I have flipped that switch and have actually become a toon myself.  

Someone suggested that the other day, "I've heard that Gary Wolf is actually a toon." That would explain a lot. 

Visit Gary K. Wolf's website HERE to learn more & purchase books, including autographed copies and mint hardcover 1st editions of WHO CENSORED ROGER RABBIT? www.garywolf.com