Audio Commentary Commentation: Who Framed Roger Rabbit
I think for many people, there are some films they saw in theaters, that just make them unable to forget ‘their first time.’
I was not of age to see Star Wars when it was released in 1977, but a decade later, there was one film I saw on the big-screen, that just blew my 8-year-old mind.
At the time, Who Framed Roger Rabbit’s creation was a risky venture between Walt Disney Pictures and Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment company, that combined animated characters within a live-action film-noir story.
The production was a neverending headache for director Robert Zemeckis. Having just come off of the whirlwind production of Back to the Future, Roger would be a production that would take several years, and be made in a number of different locales around the world.
When it was all over, many breathed a sigh of relief when the film came out in 1988, and became one of that year’s biggest hits.
Growing up, I was often on the lookout for anything associated with the film’s production. While a making-of book was never released, there were some other items that filled me in. From a making-of article in the special effects magazine Cinefex, to the DVD release in 2003. This release not only gave images and a making-of special, but something I am always game for: an audio commentary!
The commentary featured Robert Zemeckis (director), Frank Marshall (producer), Steve Starkey (associate producer), Jeff Price (screenwriter), Peter Seaman (screenwriter), and Ken Ralston (the film’s visual effects supervisor). Each of the men in the special audio track, talks about their experience on the film, and given the film is over 30 years old this year, I thought I’d highlight a few of the things they talked about.
Though it isn’t a facet of all of his films, director Robert Zemeckis seems to enjoy playing around in the past, and sometimes having his film’s characters influence what was happening, or encounter past historical events.
His debut film I Wanna Hold Your Hand had a number of fictional teen characters trying to see the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. For the film 1941 (which he and his friend Bob Gale wrote for Steven Spielberg), their fictional characters encountered real-life figures in a panic on the streets of Los Angeles.
Some may assume the encounter with animated characters in 1947 Hollywood was the big connection to the past, but buried within the film, was a connection to a real-life event that affected the city of Los Angeles’ transportation system:
Peter Seaman: Actually, the Red Car (Trolley) part of the movie came from-I don’t know if you remember Bob (Zemeckis), but a meeting with you and (Steven) Spielberg. Jeff (Price) and I were in there, and Spielberg said there was no reason to make this movie just to match animation/live-action. There had to be a real story so, we came up with the Red Car plot, which is a real one, where the tire companies and auto companies conspired to get rid of the trolley cars in Los Angeles, because the car was the future.
Robert Zemeckis: That’s right, and all the freeways in Los Angeles run right along the same routes as the Red Car tracks.
When it comes to the film’s plot, most people remember Judge Doom’s plan to destroy Toontown so he could open up new land for a freeway and commercial growth, but the Red Car plot almost gets buried within the film.
It’s briefly mentioned in regards to the Cloverleaf Industries billboard (the company Doom owns) being hoisted above the Red Car depot across from Eddie’s office, to the judge admitting to Valiant that he purchased the trolley system, to ‘dismantle it.’
To some that saw the film, there probably was some confusion over it’s title. It seemed to be asking a question, and yet the title did not have a proper punctuation mark at the end.
Naturally, one of the filmmakers brought this up in conversation.
Steve Starkey: Why was there no question mark after the title of this movie, Bob (Zemeckis)?
Robert Zemeckis: Because everyone said that you don’t put question marks at-I mean, we looked at it. Yeah, it didn’t look right.
Peter Seaman: That was the most-asked question in our press interview.
Robert Zemeckis: Yeah, interesting.
Peter Seaman: Made ‘us’ look bad…”the writers.”
Seaman is only joking of course. Throughout the commentary, the writers and the production crew have plenty of laughs together, and this bit gave them a chuckle.
Like some comedians doing stand-up, the film had a number of jokes and gags that just flew over the heads of the viewers.
In one scene, Eddie tells his girlfriend Dolores to go downtown, and check on the probate regarding Marvin Acme’s will. Co-writers Price and Seaman actually found a crazy way to give the explanation, a little life:
Peter Seaman: Here was the ‘semi-splainer’ scene where we had to describe the probate of the will and all that stuff. It was really dry and everything, so, we were just joking around in the office, and Steven Spielberg was in the office with us.
And he said, “Yeah, you got to explain that probate so people understand it.”
So, that’s when we said, “well, how about we say, ‘yeah, probate, my Uncle Thumper used to take big pills for his probate.’ ‘No, prostate, you idiot!'”
We were just joking around, but he said, “No, you gotta put that in the movie!”
While the joke gave Spielberg a good laugh, it got just a few chuckles at the film’s premiere. However, co-writer Jeff Price laughs on the commentary, claiming that now that everyone who saw the film has gotten older, they’d probably understand it better.
When the film wasn’t being about Eddie Valiant trying to clear Roger’s name, it would often get very rowdy and very noisy, given the toons and what they were doing.
Much of the film showed Valiant being very annoyed with Roger’s antics, with only a scant few moments where the rabbit seemed willing to slow down, and be a little more serious.
One such moment came right after the madcap chase in Benny the Cab, where Roger and Eddie hide out in a movie theater:
Robert Zemeckis: Now this is-I think this is just really great lighting, on the toon here. This is great, and great animation and-Simon Wells animated this and I think, if I’m not mistaken, it’s the longest continuous animation scene in the movie. This shot here with Roger, and what’s nice about the animation in this is it’s just so subtle, and restrained-
Frank Marshall: And always ‘alive.’
Robert Zemeckis: And alive, yeah.
Ken Ralston: Remember this-Steven Spielberg came in and said, “I don’t care what you have to do, stop the movie if you have to, but put the rabbit and the detective in the same scene, and let them talk to each other.”
It’s notable that Zemeckis shoots this scene all in one long take, pushing in on Eddie as he tells Roger what happened to his brother, Teddy Valiant.
This is often a signature of Zemeckis’ directing, where he will often do a long camera-take, without cutting away. One can see this in the opening scene of Back to the Future, when the camera shows us all of Doc Brown’s garage-laboratory, without cutting away.
Looking back at Zemeckis’ filmography, one can see that in several of his works, he likes to mash together a number of genres. This was notably with Back to the Future, given it wasn’t just a science fiction film, but a comedy, a drama, and much more.
Near the end of the film as the commentators watch a complex scene, Zemeckis sums up just what he and the film crew were up against in putting the film together:
Robert Zemeckis: It’s three gigantic movies in one. You had a 48-minute animation movie which is, just a little under what an animated feature runs. You had a live-action period movie, with giant stunts and giant sets and vehicles and guns and all that stuff, and you had this huge special effects movie where there were, 1500 composite shots.
This same sentiment of combining things is mentioned throughout the commentary. Another notable moment is in regards to Alan Silvestri’s score, which managed to be a mixture of period-piece film noir musical cues, and the kind of crazy music as seen in animated cartoons of the time. Oftentimes, the tempo changes of the music would be too much for the film’s orchestra.
The commentary at times does have a lot of people talking over each other, but the information gleaned from it is still something I enjoy coming back to.
Notable are some areas where the commentators discuss a number of ideas that came up during production, that were ultimately dropped.
At one point, Baby Herman was considered to be the bad guy, and another time, Judge Doom was to have an animated pet vulture (named Voltaire), that was dropped when the filmmakers had to make cuts due to time and money.
The fact that Voltaire was part of the early drafts, could explain why when a line of Roger Rabbit “bendy” figures were released in 1988, Doom came with a vulture in his packaging.
There is even talk about the first, early test-screening of the film. Because much of the film was unfinished at the time, and since the audience had no clue just how the film was supposed to ‘work,’ the test-screening ended horribly.
Of course, looking back on the film all these years later, Roger Rabbit is still surprisingly well-done, given the time-crunch and mad dash to finish it. It ended up being director Robert Zemeckis’ third hit in a row (following Romancing the Stone and Back to the Future), and paved the way for a few Roger Rabbit cartoon shorts. However, licensing snafus between Disney and Amblin Entertainment (Spielberg’s production company) soon sidelined Roger’s career. Talk of a sequel or prequel has come up over the years (and test-footage of a CG-animation test was leaked some time ago), but it seems that it will forever be a remnant from our past.
However, bits of the film are still alive in the Disney theme parks. Several of the film’s props are still sitting around Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Walt Disney World, and on special occasions, Roger (and sometimes Jessica) can be seen in the various theme parks as meet-and-greet characters. Plus, the film’s characters live on in Roger Rabbit’s Car-toon Spin, a “dark ride” attraction located in Mickey’s Toontown at Disneyland.
In the thirty years since the film was released, we’ve seen a number of live-action/animation films like Cool World and Looney Tunes: Back in Action, attempt to do what Robert Zemeckis’ film did. However, none of the attempts I’ve seen, even comes close to topping Roger. Today, it would be ‘easy’ to make a film like this, but the blood, sweat and tears that went into making that 1988 film, helps make it a true work of art in my opinion.