Bookpleasures.com is pleased to have as our guest screenwriter and author Jeffrey Price. Jeffrey is best known for co-writing Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Grinch, and Shrek III. He has recently authored his debut book, Improbable Fortunes.
Norm: Good day, Jeffrey, and thanks for participating in our interview.
Jeffrey: Thanks for the invitation.
Norm: Do you recall how your interest in screenwriting originated?
Jeffrey:When you think about it, movies in the sixties and seventies were the lingua franca of the time–much more important in shaping our culture than they are today. But for someone from a family like mine, to say you had aspirations of being a screenwriter was seen as an unrealistic pursuit.
So when I got out of college, I got a job as a copywriter at an advertising agency. Seven years later, comfortable in the position of being a creative director, I worried that I’d never be a part of the movie business–if I didn’t do something drastic, so I quit.
Norm: As a follow up, how did Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Grinch, and Shrek III come about?
Jeffrey: A buddy of mine at the agency, Peter S. Seaman, became my writing partner. He quit his job too and we moved to Los Angeles. One thing led to another and we found ourselves at the Disney Studios with a development deal.
One day they brought us a book about comic book characters called “Who Censored Roger Rabbit?” At the ad agency, we’d both worked on the Nestle and Kellogg’s accounts and made animated commercials with some of the old guys who did animation in the heyday for Warner’s, MGM and Disney. So we said we’d be interested if we could change it to animated characters instead of comic strips and they said go ahead. We had a hit and the other movies followed. It wasn’t as simple as that, but I should probably be talking about my book, Improbable Fortunes anyway.
Norm: What do you think most characterizes your writing?
Jeffrey: A sense of the absurd–which was cultivated by British Ealing Studios Comedies, Ernie Kovaks, Sid Caesar, and Harold Pinter.
Norm: What did you find most useful in learning to write?
Jeffrey: I come from a family of pretty good storytellers and, in my experience, that’s something you either have or you don’t. I started writing little stories as a kid, but I suppose the main thing that influenced my style of writing–and I’m not saying I’m proud of this–was the thrill of telling adults a whopper with a straight face and getting away with it. From that I learned that you had to make sure you balanced outrageousness with the correct amount of believability if you wanted to get your story over.
Norm: Could you tell our readers a little about Improbable Fortunes?
Jeffrey: We’ve lived in Telluride, Colorado for the last twenty-four years. During that time I became friends with the Sheriff of the San Miguel County. I’ve always been an avid outdoorsman–fishing, hiking, hunting–and had experience with firearms.
One day the Sheriff asked me if I might be interested in serving as a Deputy Sheriff Reserve. He was looking to augment the police force with unpaid men who had a better knowledge of the people in town than the Deputies who couldn’t afford to actually live there. I considered it my civic duty and attended an abridged version of police school after we finished The Grinch.
I was a Deputy for three years serving San Miguel County once a month on the weekends. Was also the armed presence in the courthouse on Tuesdays. I had never really known very much about the outer regions of the county–all of it poorer than Telluride–and the incidents I experienced while on duty highlighted the gulf between the communities–the poorer ones being infringed upon by real estate speculation. That’s how I got the notion that Improbable Fortunes should speak to that kulturkampf.
Norwood, Redvale, Naturita, and Nucla are mining and ranching towns that have seen their ups and downs, but mostly downs. In the wee hours of a weekend night, there’s a lot of drunk driving, domestic abuse and violence spurred on by alcohol and methamphetamine use.
That said, there are also long-standing prominent ranching families, many churches, the rodeo, the 4-H and what is called The Cowboy Way–which, will remain long after the affluent people leave to find some new place after Telluride. It was the eccentricities of the towns and their inhabitants that formed the backdrop for Improbable Fortunes. I made an amalgam of it all and called my town, Vanadium, after the element that was once mined in this area to harden steel.
The story revolves around a cowboy of dubious provenance, Buster McCaffrey. He’s an orphan that was found on New Year’s Day by a tough, old cowboy, Jimmy Bayles Morgan and then was thrown into the Sheriff’s lap, Sheriff Shepard Dudival, to find a home. Buster is passed to four different Foster families–mainly because something always seems to happen to his Foster fathers (in a bad way).
Finally, when he turns eighteen and is no longer a ward of the court, Buster gets a job at the Stumplehorst ranch and falls in love with the girl of his dreams, Destiny Stumplehorst.
I tell the story of the Vanadium’s history through these families and Buster’s bildungsroman.
I can’t really reveal much more because there’s a lot of twists and turns that I don’t want to spoil for the readers, but Improbable Fortunes is my Funny Valentine to the land I love and the craziness that is not so different from America at large. I should also say that women readers have told me that they found the book romantic.
Norm: How have your experiences as a screenwriter influenced the writing of the novel?
Jeffrey: One thing that always frustrated me about screenwriting was that you could never express what a character was thinking. In the movies, action is character–character is action. What I always loved about Anthony Trollope’s writing was that he could stop the story to analyze a character like a psychiatrist. Novel writing affords you that. Screenwriting, on the other hand, trains you to be compact in your storytelling. Screenwriting is the antithesis of self-indulgence. So I think I benefited from having my hand on that plow.
Norm: What were your goals and intentions in this book, and how well do you feel you achieved them? As a follow up, what did you enjoy most about writing this book?
Jeffrey: I suppose my intention was to create a vivid world that people would find entertaining whether they had ever experienced those towns or not. Vanadium is the kind of place one keeps driving through in the hopes of finding a clean bathroom in the next town. So I wanted to bring people into that and make them stop. Some readers might find the characters too rococo to be believed, but when you come from our neck of the woods, you’ve seen these people. You’ve known them.
I may be kidding myself, but I really don’t want this area of the West to change. I hope my book puts a stitch in that old bridle.
Norm: What would you like to say to writers who are reading this interview and wondering if they can keep creating, if they are good enough, if their voices and visions matter enough to share?
Jeffrey: Be original. Stick your neck out.
Norm: Where can our readers find out more about you and Improbable Fortunes?
Norm: What do your plans for future projects include?
Jeffrey: I’m currently writing a prequel to Improbable Fortunes.
Norm: As this interview comes to an end, what question do you wish that someone would ask about your book, but nobody has?
What is it about comedy writers that all they really wish for is to be taken seriously?
Jeffrey: I really don’t know. Just that they do.
Norm: Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors.
Jeffrey: Thank you, Norm.