"Writing Community: A Conversation with Producer Emily Cutler" By Alyssa Merwin & Jason Anders

Playwright. Producer. Television & Film Writer. Actress. Stand-Up. Sketch. When it comes to comedy, Emily Cutler has done it all. She hasn't gone unrecognized for it, either - winning the L.A. Times Gold Derby Television Award in 2010 for "Comedy Episode of the Year" for writing the acclaimed Community episode "Modern Warfare." It was her writing on Dan Harmon's underrated NBC series that made us want to reach out for the following interview, which she was more than gracious with her time for, meeting us at a coffee shop next to CBS Radford before starting her day at The Odd Couple and allowing us to ask her all about her life and career. Oh, and about being Patrick Duffy's daughter-in-law...

Jason Anders: So if I can ask a personal question to start off with, what's it like having Patrick Duffy as a father-in-law?

Emily Cutler: Oh, you did your research! He's an absolute delight, the dad you always wish you had.

JA: I felt like he was my dad having grown up with Step by Step (1991)...

EC: See, I was of the Dallas (1978) time. I've only seen Step by Step recently, which was surreal because now I know him. He's a delightful, lovely, down-to-earth human being. I got lucky in the father-in-law department.

JA: Did you grow up a TV junkie?

EC: I watched everything. I was of the generation when MTV was starting, so we were glued to it. I watched Barney Miller (1974), Gilligan's Island (1964) and The Brady Bunch (1969) reruns. I wouldn't say I was a junkie, but I loved TV.

When I was a kid I liked The Love Boat (1977) because I was young and thought it was a naughty show. Fantasy Island (1977) was a good show, which apparently they are trying to remake right now.
(Thomas Lennon & Matthew Perry on the CBS Radford lot for The Odd Couple)
JA: Everything is being remade...

EC: Yes. Working on The Odd Couple (2015) I can certainly attest to that.

JA: How are you enjoying working on The Odd Couple?

EC: The cast and crew I am working with have been a delight and that is not always the case. In fact, most often it is not the case. You're dealing with a lot of creative types and, often, "crazy" comes along with that. On this particular show everyone is down-to-earth, rational, very respectful and wants to get their work done. It's refreshing.

Alyssa Merwin: How does working on a television series differ now from when you first started?

EC: The staffs are smaller, for sure. There's not as much money being thrown around. As comedy changes, the tone of the room changes. It's not as "set-up, set-up, joke" all the time, sometimes it's a different style of writing, but it hasn't changed that much. I don't even think it's changed that much since the time of Garry Marshall, who actually comes into our room a lot because he's a producer on the show. Essentially, at its core, writing comedy is the same.

I loved the original Odd Couple (1970), I loved Jack Klugman and Tony Randall. If you go back and watch those episodes, the scripts are really just two guys sitting in their apartment talking. There really wasn't a guest cast, it was more like a play. We've rounded out this version and made it more of an ensemble, but at the heart of the show it is these two guys trying to get along. We found actors who are very similar to the roles they're playing, which I think they did with the original Odd Couple.
(Matthew Perry & Yvette Nicole Brown in The Odd Couple)
JA: ... Matthew Perry and Yvette Nicole Brown can do no wrong. 

EC: Matthew Perry is delightful and brings to it his own cadence and rhythm. Yvette Nicole Brown's name got bandied about and I said she was really terrific to work with, she's just at the beginning of her comedy career. She could have her own show. She can do it all and is one of the nicest people in the world. She's the whole package.

AM: Community was such a unique, consistently funny show - what was it like working on those first few seasons?

EC: I think what makes a show special is the voice of the creator; if they fight for it and it's clear then the show is going to be interesting, whether or not it's a success or a failure. Dan Harmon is a mad genius - I really mean genius and I really mean mad. He had a vision and a very specific voice and our job was to help him realize it. Most of the people on the staff got it and had a somewhat similar voice as well. He was the guiding force behind that, it was Dan laid out on a page across your television set.
(Community - "Modern Warfare")
TV is all about collaboration, if you can't collaborate you don't want to be in television. Dan Harmon had to learn how to collaborate. He was used to working on his own. He pushed back against the powers-that-be and just fought for his vision. When they were saying "no" he was saying "well that's what I'm going to do." It's not always the best way to be in television, it can earn you a bad reputation, but he saw what he wanted to do and said, "if we're not going to do it this way then this is not something I want to do." They pretty much caved and let him. The show was crazy, every episode was different - there was even claymation and animation - and after a while they just started to trust him. We got to do amazing things and creatively it was a fantastic place to be.

Time-wise and personal life-wise it was not the best place to be because we spent the night there a couple times a week. We worked very, very late. It was not the most organized way to work but it produced some amazing creative results, so that's the trade-off.

AM: You were responsible for the very first paintball episode, writing "Modern Warfare", which became a tradition...

EC: I did. I can't remember where the idea came from - I know Dan wanted to do something that had to do with paintball and we started talking about different tropes and ways that we could tell the story. I put in the element of the two main characters, Britta and Jeff, having a physical relationship and working through it because we wanted to ground the episode in something so that it wasn't all just craziness. Justin Lin directed it. You don't get a better creative experience than that.
(Community - "Contemporary American Poultry")
AM: You also co-wrote the episode "Contemporary American Poultry" with Karey Dornetto - is it difficult to incorporate homages? 

EC: If you're a movie and TV person like I am, that's the most fun to do. What Dan really wanted to do is make sure that it wasn't just purely a spoof, he wanted it to have reality for our characters and actually tell an emotional story as well as a big, fun romp. A lot of the episodes I really liked were very simple, more about the characters and not big and splashy. We kind of sprinkled those in. If you're not invested in the characters the homages are going to get tiring after a while.

AM: Did you like the paintball episodes that they made after "Modern Warfare"?

EC: I liked them, but I personally would not have done another paintball episode. I liked it just being its own thing. I know what they were thinking and the subsequent paintball episodes were really cool, but I liked having it at just the one. You want to make it fresh and different and I definitely think they did. If you're telling a different emotional story each time, that will differentiate them. It really starts at what story you want to tell about the characters - all the other stuff is just icing on the cake.

AM: How challenging is it to have characters evolve while trying to keep them recognizable without being repetitive?    

EC: That's just life - the essence of who we are is the same even though our situations might change and it's fun to see how the characters might react and evolve. I didn't see the sixth season, but I'm looking forward to it so don't tell me anything. Also, you're working with a cast that's amazing who are bringing a lot to it and are always surprising. When your actors can surprise you, it's great. Community was a playground of pure creativity, it's a great place to be in when you can do whatever you want and let your imagination run wild. A lot of time in television you can't do that, especially in a multi-cam.  
(Community - "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas")
JA: What has been your best education as a writer?

EC: Community. Dan Harmon had a very specific way of doing things, I don't know if you're familiar with the wheel (story circle), which was a real education. I came onto that show as a co-producer and I'd never been on a set alone, Dan just said,"okay, go produce your episode." You were really thrown into essentially making a short film every week. Other than that, every show is an education - not only in writing but in dealing with people.

JA: Do you prefer a studio audience or no?

EC: I was an actor for a while and I loved the feeling of getting something back. You're writing in a vacuum in a lot of these single-camera shows, which I also enjoy, but I love getting the immediate feedback of knowing if something works or not. An audience doesn't lie, if they don't laugh then your joke isn't working. It's fun having a tape night each week, I haven't done multi-cam in a long time and I'm really having a good time.

JA: How difficult is it to rewrite jokes on the spot when a punchline fails with the studio audience?

EC: That's a muscle you have to constantly flex and keep well-oiled. If you take a lot of time away and come back then you're a little rusty and you've got to build that up again. It's exciting, very electric, to all be on a set with everyone pitching jokes - again, it's super collaborative.
(One of Emily Cutler's first spec scripts was for NBC's Frasier)
JA: Do you remember the initial spark for you in being an entertainer?

EC: I just came out that way - I was always a performer and always writing. I was an actor for a long time and it was frustrating to be auditioning for your five-line part on Babylon 5 or whatever, and I just started writing in my downtime. I wrote plays and multi-cams. I think my first spec scripts were Mad About You and Fraiser and it just seemed like I found my place and tribe of people. I just sat down and wrote them to see if I could.

I met director Steven Shainberg, who was living in the building with a friend of mine, and he said, "I know a comedy writer, would you like me to pass your work on?" He gave it to writer Jon Feldman who said, "this is incredible. You do this, you have a shot." I think he may have passed my script on to his agent who said he would "hip-pocket" me, which means sort of represent me. My career just took off from there.

AM: What has been your most surreal career moment?

EC: I sold a movie with a partner at the time and we were walking on the Sony lot complaining about some note we'd been given, and I went "wait a minute, stop. Look where we are. Look what we're arguing about. We're being given notes at Sony, and they bought our movie. Holy shit."

The same thing happened on the Warner Bros. lot because you have that iconic tower. Also, the first time anyone pays you to do anything in this industry it's crazy. Even to this day when my agents negotiate money I'm still so shocked that anyone is paying me to do anything - I'd practically do it for free. Actually, now that I've said this, I will also do it for an incredibly large amount of money.
JA: What do you love most about what you do?

EC: I get to be around funny people all day. I have thought about writing a drama because that seems exciting, too - but I get to sit in a room with the funniest people ever and all we do all day is laugh. It's like a dream. I have to remind myself every day, when I'm tired and cranky waking up super early, that I'm really lucky.

I think that the hardest thing is to be a mother with this demanding job, and even though I'm having a lot of fun I have two kids at home who I want to see. When I was on Community for two seasons I think they were maybe two and four and I rarely saw them. Was it worth it? I don't know. I wouldn't take a job like that now. If I were to meet a Dan Harmon, even if I thought the show was the best thing in the world, and they said I'd be there until 2 a.m. I would have to say no. If you're twenty it's great, but your priorities change.

JA: How did you become involved with The Michael J. Fox Show?

EC: I was brought on only in the initial stages when there was a writers' room here. The whole production was moving to New York and I didn't want to move because my kids were in school here, so I didn't go with them.

That show was a gamble. My dad has Parkinson's so I'm very familiar with what that means. Michael is super talented and it was just a matter of if audiences would accept it and allow comedy to come out of this very difficult situation. I thought the show got better and better but I think people just had a tough time seeing him with Parkinson's. I think they couldn't get past it, which is a shame - I think that he was so beloved as an actor that it made people feel sad and maybe guilty for laughing, but I thought it was really well done. The show runner, Sam Laybourne, is really talented and the staff of writers was amazing. I just think that was the bump in the road.
(Christopher Lloyd guest stars on The Michael J. Fox Show - 2013)
AM: How do you feel television has changed since Netflix and Hulu?

EC: I watched all of Mad Men streaming and it was just amazing. When I caught up to the last season and had to watch it with commercials it really changed the experience. It changes the structure a little bit because what we do in a multi-cam on a network show is featuring act breaks with a tease to get you to come back, not having commercials on Netflix changes the flow of the script. I think watching shows streaming is great, you just have to restructure your script. Shows now are cut way down... I think they're nineteen minutes? You have to tell your story in a very limited amount of time. A lot of things get truncated, some stories cannot be told as fully as you want them to be told. It's a big adjustment.

You asked earlier how things are different in comedy, that is one way; shows are getting shorter and shorter and I wish they weren't. I wish there was more time to tell your story. You have to get to your key points faster and it's not as satisfying. I do think that at places like Netflix and Hulu there's a lot more creative freedom because there's not as many cooks in the kitchen, so it's a wonderful creative place to be. I have yet to write for one of those places, but I would really like to.

JA: What are you watching now?

EC: A lot of cable. I recently started watching The Affair on Showtime. I watch a lot of dramas. When I watch comedy on television it feels like work, I'm not necessarily just letting it flow over me. I sample everything because I like to see what's out there and what people are doing but I haven't found a comedy recently that makes me want to tune in every week.
(ABC's Suburgatory - 2011 - Produced by Emily Cutler)
AM: How do you feel working on a drama would differ from working on a comedy?

EC: I think it's more attention to story. You're freed from having a couple of jokes per page. It would be a challenge for me to do that because I think I'd try and make the drama as funny as possible, which might not be helpful. It's a different muscle and not something I've done before. Sometimes you're in the writers' room for up to twelve hours per day with people who are very serious all the time and I'm not a very serious person. It would be interesting to see if I could fit in to that. I would miss laughing all day.

Telling a story is telling a story, and defining a character is defining a character. Every character wants something and most people have conflict, so it's not that different, you're just thinking of it in a more dramatic and serious way. At the heart of it you're telling a story.

JA: What are your favorite movies?

EC: Midnight Run (1988), Waiting for Guffman (1996), Goodfellas (1990), and Casino (1995). Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) is a perfect romantic comedy.
(NBC's Growing Up Fisher - Co-Executive Produced by Emily Cutler)
AM: What makes a great script?

EC: I can probably tell in the first page or two if someone can write. All of your characters shouldn't sound alike. Specificity is what I look for in a writer. It's the difference between saying "they were staying at a hotel" as opposed to "they were staying at the Holiday Inn." Specificity gives me a picture in my mind.

We just had the argument in the writers' room about whether it's better to write a spec script or a pilot of your own - both serve a purpose; the spec script is going to show that you can write for other characters in another voice, the pilot is your own voice with characters you've created. I like reading a pilot because I'm going to see specifically what your voice is, and if no real voice is coming through then the script just doesn't interest me.

I feel that way with people, too. If I meet someone who has nothing to say and no voice they wouldn't be as interesting to me as someone who has a strong voice and a strong opinion about things.

JA: What is your advice for aspiring writers in the industry?

EC: Write something you're passionate about, no matter what people tell you. Write what you think you can write the best and find what your voice is (you may have to write a lot of crappy drafts before you get to something good.) Each thing helps you find your voice. Don't try to be something you're not - go to your personal experience, it's far more interesting than you think.

Also, meet as many people as you can. It really does help. Sit down with people and get your work out there. The more people that read you, the better. You don't always have to take everybody's notes, but definitely ask for notes and take them. When you first start writing you put all of yourself into it and crank out this draft, making it as perfect as you can, and then somebody gives you notes and you feel like your baby is being ripped apart. It's important to hear all of those notes, even if you don't take them, and take them graciously... don't fight back. A lot of times your instinct is to say, "but I put that in there for a reason!" Just hear everything, take it in, and use what you think will make your script better.
(ABC's How to Live with Your Parents for the Rest of Your Life - 2013 - Supervising Producer)
AM: What advice would you give about being collaborative?

EC: When I asked Garry Marshall what he would tell the writers he said, "be nice." You're in a room with these people spending more time with them than you do your own family, so you have to be a team player. That doesn't mean swallowing your voice, it means hearing everybody, knowing when to fight for something, knowing which hills to die on, and which times to stay quiet. It's kind of like a family, you have to put out fires sometimes. If you're delightful and a pleasant person to be around you'll get a job over someone who isn't pleasant to be around. Know when to talk and know when to listen. I'm still learning that.

Be prepared to rewrite. A lot of TV and film is rewriting and it's a painful process and a painful thing to learn because you worked so hard on your first draft. You have to be willing to change it.

AM: How do you deal with negative criticism and low ratings when they come around?

EC: A lot of people didn't tune in to Community, but we felt like we were doing good work. It depends on what your goal is. It didn't reach the wide audience that I'm sure people hoped it would, but the audience it did reach were impacted in a strong way. Our goal as creative people is to just do the best work we can. It stinks if people don't watch it, but you're hopefully doing it for the journey and not just the destination.
(Watch The Odd Couple on CBS - Thursdays at 8:30/7:30c)
JA: If you had to sum up your life with three words, what would they be?

EC: Hectic. Challenging. Delightful.

Follow Emily Cutler on Twitter at @CutlerEmily

"The Quintessential Scream Queen Mom: A Conversation with Dee Wallace" By Jason Anders

Having appeared in over ninety television shows and a hundred films, Dee Wallace is probably best known for her role as Elliot's mom in Steven Spielberg's 1982 film, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. The high school drama teacher found her way from Kansas City to the studio backlots of Hollywood delivering baked goods to casting directors which would lead to her first acting job... just one of the many stories she was kind enough to take time out her busy schedule to share with me.

Jason Anders: My first question is how do you have time for an interview with eighteen films currently on your roster?

Dee Wallace: Well, you just make time for the things you want to do and here I am with you!

JA: Do you remember your first job?

DW: I baked cookies to get on all of the lots. I was at Universal and taking my chocolate-chip cookies to Reuben Cannon, one of the few casting directors who came out and met me. He said, "come on in and let's talk!" As I was sitting there he was called to the set because one of the girls didn't show up - he turned around and looked at me and said, "what size do you wear" and I responded, "what size do you need?" So that was my first gig, playing the waitress on Lucas Tanner (1974).
JA: Which is your favorite of all your television guest spots? 

DW: Lou Grant in 1978 - I played on the "Hooker" episode - I had done some pretty good guest star appearances before, but this was really a tour de force role. The casting director from Blake Edwards' 10 (1979) happened to see it, and that's how I ended up in that film. It was just an amazing part with an amazing cast and director, and it led me into a really big feature film.

JA: Do you have a least favorite guest role experience?

DW: I do remember being frustrated on Ally McBeal (Buried Pleasures - 1999) because I was playing a lawyer and every time I would try and do something relatively dramatic the director would come up and say, "don't do anything, Dee. The cast are the stars of this show. The guests are not supposed to do anything." I had worked with the director several times in my career, and this time was a little frustrating.
(Dee Wallace and Danny Pintauro in Cujo - 1983)
JA: Yeah, because why bring in established actors if you aren't going to allow them to act?

DW: That's absolutely what I said to him! Why would they bring in one of the queens of the emotional world to come in and do nothing? But I guess, in a good way, I was a name enough to support the show... any work when you are an actor is a blessing, my darling.

JA: Who was the director on that episode, and what had you worked with him before on?

DW: Mel Damski - you're asking me to go back forty years! Mel and I have worked together three or four times on guest star roles. He was just doing his job, doing what he's told to do, and I thank him for remembering me and thinking enough of me to bring me in.

JA: Do you have a favorite character you've played?

DW: Oh yes, Donna Trenton in Cujo (1983). Stephen King loved the film and our interpretation of it. He was happy that we didn't kill the kid at the end.
(Lobby card for The Howling - 1981)
JA: One of my favorites is your performance in The Howling (1981)...

DW: Joe Dante is just fun! That's the first word that comes to mind when I think of Joe. He's an incredibly inventive director. All of the cartoons and film clips on the television he purchased himself because the studio wouldn't cough up the money to do it. It was his idea to use all of the character's names and references from all the old werewolf movies. He was always creative and could just tap dance on the spot. He's still a good friend and I would love to work with him again.

JA: What to you is the most important aspect of the actor/ director relationship?

DW: Well I think the most important thing between an actor and director is respect for each other. Actors are children... and probably most directors are children, too - but there's a psychological way of working together that's a very important part of the creative process, and it begins with respect. Everybody works differently and needs different things to create the best performance that they can. I, again, have worked with the very best; Blake Edwards, Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante and Peter Jackson. Lewis Teague literally walked on two days into the shoot of Cujo and took over the direction and did an amazing job. I've often thought that Lewis should have been given a lot more breaks in the business. I've really worked with the best of the best.
(Steven Spielberg and Dee Wallace on the set of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial - 1982)
They all allow me to do my work in the way that I need to do it. I think that's really important for so many of the young directors who are learning, who may be afraid that they are not going to be able to maintain control on the set. They don't realize that you have to give an actor their creative freedom so that they can bring their own creative ideas, improvisation and emotional take while following the careful direction and vision of the director.

If you put a box around an actor you won't get as good of a performance. That's where television falls down. In my perspective, we have so many writers and producers in television that it's really become almost too sacrilege. An actor can't paraphrase or bring in any kind of creativity, and I think it suffers. I think the whole project suffers.

JA: By the way, I loved your performance in The Frighteners (1996)...

DW: Oh yeah, I had a great time killing everybody! (laughs) It was such a beautiful, phenominal arc for an actress - going from who you think was the victim to a maniacal killer. You know, before E.T. I played a lot of psychos, hookers, alcoholics and crazy drug addicts. Once E.T. hit, for the next fifteen years I became the quintessential mom. It gets old!
JA: That being said, how did you feel about playing Laurie Strode's mom in Halloween (2007)?

DW: That was a no brainer. And I knew that Rob Zombie was bringing all of us in to pay homage to our careers. Dude, who doesn't love Rob Zombie? You're not going to talk to anyone you ever interview in this world who doesn't love Rob Zombie. He's just the best. He's a great person, beautifully down-to-earth, very available to everybody and a really great director. I love the way he directs, he lets you start with the script and then improvise, encouraging you to bring in whatever your creativity sees in the part. Everybody just has a lot of fun, and that's how he gets that real in-the-moment feel... that, and three hand-held cameras. It's a great way of directing and I loved it.

JA: What did you think of the film?

DW: I loved all of it! It got a little graphic, but that's just me. Everyone kept saying "the remake" but I lovingly refer to it as a "Rob-make." He went back and explored how it all took place and how it happened. After everything we've seen, you couldn't take the original and redo it. You just couldn't. We've come too far and have seen too much, we've explored too many avenues with violence. I think everybody is just looking for a way to ditch any remake, and justifiably so in most cases, but not this one.
(Scout Taylor-Compton, Rob Zombie and Dee Wallace on the set of Halloween - 2007)
I also love the girls. Scout Taylor-Compton and I have become very good friends - we do a lot of conventions together and we're going to be at Fangoria over the Halloween weekend in Vegas. We spent many nights on that set singing to the top of our lungs at 3 a.m. sitting on the doorstep. She's a great girl and extremely talented, as is Danielle Harris. I didn't get to really work with Danielle that much, but I know her from doing a lot of the conventions together - she's a very smart, very "with it" lady who knows who she is and what she wants. I'm blessed and always have been to work with young people who are extremely talented.

JA: What are your favorite performances you've seen on film?

DW: Sally Field in Norma Rae (1979)and in just about every role she's done. Also, Meryl Streep in The Bridges of Madison County (1995).

JA: What originally inspired you to go into acting?

DW: My mother was a wonderful actress in Kansas City, and I watched her one Easter give a thirty-minute reading called "The Crucifixion." I looked around and the place was packed, everyone was crying. I just thought, "wow, my mom moved all of these people." I'm sure I was an actor in one of my past lives because I came in dancing and acting, as did my daughter. She's just a chip off the old block. Maybe we were in vaudeville together.
JA: So it looks like your daughter is pursuing the same dream?

DW: Oh yeah, she's just finished a part in her fourth film. She's played a part in Sebastian (2011) and also stars in Henry John and the Little Bug (2009). She's on her way!

JA: What was your reaction to her interest in the same career?

DW: You know, Jason, I just want her to be happy. I want her to be fulfilled and give back to the world. You can give a lot back as an actor. I've given her advice before that her dad gave me - I remember when I got the reviews for The Howling and was so excited just saying,"oh my God, they love me!" He just looked at me and said, "honey, if you believe the good ones then you've got to believe the bad ones." I said to her, "you're the only one who will ever really know, so you have to judge yourself. You have to be true to the integrity of who you are." I really think that's the most important thing in life, in any profession that you go into - to meet your own integrity.

JA: If you had to sum up your life with just one word, what would it be?

DW: Blessed.

Follow Dee Wallace on Twitter at @Dee_Wallace
Visit Dee Wallace's official website HERE

"Tales from Transylvania: A Conversation with DRACULA UNTOLD Director Gary Shore" By Jason Anders

Gary Shore, an Irish filmmaker from Artane, Dublin, spent seven years of his life trying to break into the business as a director. Completely broke, on social welfare, and six months into having given up on his dream of making movies, Shore received a phone call that changed his life. Today, he has a feature film behind him with Universal Pictures and multiple movies in the making. He responded to an interview request by taking the time to meet up with me at a coffee shop in Hollywood. He bought me an iced cappuccino and spent the next ninety minutes telling his story, which will inspire anyone with big dreams to endure the hard times...  

Jason Anders: It's pretty cool that your origin point of directing feature films is in telling an origin story of an icon. How did Dracula Untold (2014) come to be your fist project? 

Gary Shore: It was a combination of hard work and luck, initially. I had a general meeting with Jeff Kirschenbaum, the executive on the project at Universal Pictures, around 2010. I was showing him my previous work, some short form commercials, and he really dug it. When we ended the meeting he said, "let's try and find something to work on together." Two weeks later there was a shakeup at Universal and Jeff ended up becoming Co-President of Production. One of the particular companies who had a project with Jeff was Michael De Luca Productions and they had the Dracula Untold project for several years - it came close to being made a couple of times, but they never could quite make it happen.
They said they were interested in the version I pitched. I was really surprised because I had this skepticism about Dracula, feeling that we'd seen enough films about him at this point. However, having said that, I was very interested in the backstory of Vlad the Impaler. A few years before that I had seen a documentary about him on the History Channel and I put it in the back of my mind as being a wonderful story to bring to the screen. The hook that got me interested and touched me about the script was the opportunity to tell a dark hero story. I'm really interested in the tragic hero. I love tracking the rise of characters like Darth Vader, Michael Corleone and Caesar in Planet of the Apes (1968). For any filmmaker who likes dark material it's great to try and tell that arc, but that on its own wasn't enough.

There was an idea of family in there that I felt was interesting - how do you rationalize this mass murder at home? To dig into those details is what interested me. I told them I'd love to take a stab at this, but in the story Vlad's son was only a baby and I wanted to make him eight years old so that he could have a relationship with his father that actually resonated. For me, that became the center of the story. It's a father and son story, even though they had always imagined it as Braveheart (1995). It was the darkest ending I had read since I arrived over here - all of Vlad's people die, the people of the town kill their own children and drink their blood, and Vlad's son is the only survivor who says at the end, "I love my father but I pray I never see him again." There's no fucking way that is ending up in a studio film, but that's the ending that I would love to have.

JA: Were there specific movies that inspired you to become a filmmaker?

GS: I loved going to the cinema, I went every Sunday as a kid, but I never thought of it as a profession. I wish I had that romantic story where I started making films as a kid on Super 8, but unfortunately that's not the case. I was always into painting, illustration and drawing and I wanted to be a comic book artist.
JA: Which comics were you into?

GS: I was into Jim Lee and the Adam and Andy Kubert illustrations. It wasn't the stories that interested me, it was what was being drawn.

JA: What made you decide to go to film school?

GS: I ended up in film school by accident. I went to art college to become a painter. The way the system works in Ireland is that all higher education is free, so it's equal opportunity. I studied pretty hard and ended up doing better than average and had the option of going to this film school that wasn't portfolio-based, it was points-based. With my love of both film and art I thought that maybe I could go into advertising. I was a total failure the first year. I eventually got my first short made, and looking back at it years later I really thought, "wow, that's pretentious."

I always imagine it like you get into a little dinghy and you're out at sea - you can see the shoreline as you row away and want to see what's farther out. It's the same when you make shorts or music videos, you find yourself accelerating to a point where you say, "it's too far to go back now."

Eventually, I woke up to a phone call from Warner Bros. saying "we've seen your work, how would you like to come work for us?"
JA: What was it that they saw to make them call you?

GS: A trailer that I made for a film called The Cup of Tears, adapting Japanese animation into live action. I was really inspired by the techniques they were using back then in anime. It ended up being something that was quite bonkers as a script, which I loved, and the teaser evolved out of it.

JA: Which filmmakers do you really respond to?

GS: David Fincher, Terrence Mallick, Akira Kurosawa, Christopher Nolan, Quentin Tarantino, Ridley Scott, James Cameron, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese - they're great entertainers who delve into great drama and have all made masterpieces.

JA: Since the first director you listed was David Fincher, I'm curious as to if you've watched the Alien 3 (1992) documentary.

GS: Yes, it's fascinating.
JA: Have you had similar experiences to his?

GS: Absolutely. There's a reason you get hired as a first-timer on a studio film and it's a huge gamble that they put on the director. It's a lot more nuance than the bottom line equaling a job well done. Everybody goes in trying to make the best film that they can and at the end of the day it's the director who has to take responsibility. The editing room is a pretty lonely place because all of the people who were telling you what to do on set are now gone. Alien 3 I've always put up there in the crosshairs - it baffled me that someone of Fincher's quality could be so disrespected, they just didn't know who they had on their hands. There's a missed masterpiece in that film if they'd just go back to all those reels sitting in storage and put together a feature film the way he designed it. You can see Fincher in the griminess and desolation of that movie.

It's the same with Paul Thomas Anderson - when you look at Cigarettes & Coffee (1993) you can see that same DNA which translated into Boogie Nights (1997) and Magnolia (1999). Fincher's DNA goes all the way back to his music videos.

JA: You and David Fincher have similar origin stories.

GS: I sent him a message a while ago about having a rough experience with the studio thing and we ended up getting coffee together to share horror stories, he guaranteed his stories were darker than mine. He's one of those guys who looks at other filmmakers and wants them to do the best they can and be given the opportunity to see how a lot of the nuance and the politics work in the system over here to help us avoid certain mistakes. He's championing the filmmaker and is incredibly generous with his time. It's rare, a lot of people are very protective out here, but he's all about passing it on.
(Dracula Untold merchandise)
I always had the Alien 3 thing in the back of my mind and I ended up getting into those realms during post-production, there was a lot of heavy involvement from the studio and it was incredibly frustrating. Our release date got moved forward, we were going to be opening up against Gone Girl (2014)... fucking irony. It's like you start out boxing and the first fight you get is against Muhammad Ali. This is the guy I've put up on a pedestal and looked up to on every aspect of what I do. I sent him that message before Gone Girl opened saying that I hope it does incredibly well because we need films like that to be made by auteurs like himself. He makes these very interesting and commercially difficult films - there are only so many guys on the front line who can yield that kind of power to make those films without compromise. For every one of those films that hits and is successful, it gives the studio and marketing an opportunity to see that an adult thriller can do incredibly well without having to dumb everything down to this PG world. 

JA: Do you have a commercial you're most proud of?

GS: I'm not necessarily proud of commercials for the very fact that they are a cynical ploy to help people buy shit. It's also hard to tell a story in thirty seconds. It started off as a way of just trying to get work and make a living. Had I been doing this fifteen years ago things may have been a bit different, it was all a little bit more in the filmmakers' hands. It was they heyday of music videos, commercials and auteur short films.
(Gary Shore's concept art for Dracula Untold)
JA: It seems like the way in is always changing...

GS: Everybody's journey is so different. If I could package that into a course I could make a living out of it. You can do something that you think will get a great response and nobody looks at it - when you just do it for yourself and it happens to get through it can be satisfying, but then you realize the easy part was getting in. Now you have to actually deliver something that has worth, meaning and longevity.

JA: Did Universal Pictures tell you what they saw in your work that made you stand out?

GS: My commercials were quite visual. My comic book and anime days came back to influence my style. Also, my use of green screen.

When I was making music videos I started doing a lot of green screen, only because I had a really bad experience shooting at nighttime where I didn't have lights and someone put grease in our actress' hair instead of conditioner... she looked awful... we were out in the middle of nowhere on some mountain in Slovenia near Lake Bled and it was freezing. It was a fucking disaster. I said I would never shoot somewhere where we were that limited again. I wanted to have green screens and do all my own backgrounds and all my own matte paintings.

Study to be a writer and study After Effects, that way you're not limited by everyone's problems. You're a master of your own destiny. If you can write well, and you can articulate it visually with modern animation software, you're gold. People will want to see it. Storytelling is the most important part. You're only limited by your imagination.
JA: What was your initial reaction to the first screening of Dracula Untold?

GS: It came in ebbs and flows. The studio was very keen to get it down to 90 minutes. There's a lot of wonderful elements that the writers envisioned and put into the story, this collage of great ideas that had taken them years to write. On their own those elements were wonderful, but as a story I was trying to figure out what it was. If I had more experience making films with a studio I could have spotted those mistakes early on. We did not have enough sub-plots to sustain a two-hour film, it wasn't The Lord of the Rings (2001) or The Hobbit (2012) where you have multiple strands of story all moving and meeting at one point, it was the story of one man. There's barely a scene in the film without Dracula.

JA: I don't think there could have been a better vampire for this film than Charles Dance.

GS: We were actually trying to get Gary Oldman for that role since he was Dracula in Coppola's film, he would have nailed it. We also talked about getting Christopher Lee while he was around, God rest his soul.

JA: I don't know if it was intentional, but when Dance licks the blood off of Vlad's neck it reminded me of that scene in Alien 3 where Ripley is cornered by the Xenomorph...

GS: That wasn't a mistake. I was doing that because of the Charles Dance connection and I wondered if I'd actually get away with it. You're actually the first person to pick up on that. That's funny. I was always asking Charles between takes about his experience on Alien 3 and he actually had to tell me to shut the fuck up at one point because I was asking too many questions. He didn't say that exactly, it was in a much politer way.
JA: It's interesting that you wanted Gary Oldman for the Dracula (1992) reference, but then accidentally ended up with Mauro Borrelli who worked on that same film as your illustrator for the "book of the dead."

GS: The funny thing about Los Angeles is that you have this concentration of great artists, filmmakers, writers, illustrators, seamstresses, directors of photography - Fincher's take on it is that you have twenty-five miles of this talent and you can fill your time with bullshit meetings but, ultimately, you don't have control of your creative future. The important thing about living here is putting in your time every week to meet these people, if you do that then it's the greatest town in the world... if you don't, it's just a waste. That's the only way I was able to get an illustrator with that connection, Borrelli just happened to be in town by a wonderful coincidence.

JA: Were there other intentional homages in Dracula Untold?

GS: I think the biggest reference in that film was probably to Predator (1987). There's particular moments such as the Turkish soldier shaving with the knife before the bats fly into the camp (referencing Mac), the heat signals (or bat vision, as we called it), and then Vlad just getting out of the water after he wakes up in the river with the big wide shots... you can almost hear Alan Silvestri's score coming in, very man versus nature. I think I remember counting 10 Predator references total. The biggest overt Predator reference wasn't in the film, we were shooting the battlefield sequence where Vlad and his men run out to fight the Turks - it was 4 a.m. and I blasted the end credit music from Predator on the loudspeakers. I told Luke before shooting one of his scenes to take his cue from the end of Predator when the device goes off and the ash is just raining down... walking back to the choppers, Dutch is beaten but not broken. He was just like, "Gary, what the fuck are you talking about?"
There's a couple of Spielberg references, actually - when the bats are circling the tower with Ingeras and Mirena at the window it's a clear rip of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), I was even playing John Williams' score on the set that day. There's a Goodfellas (1990) reference, the bit where DeNiro is smoking and the camera pushes right into his face and he takes the cigarette and stabs it out - I wanted to use that moment when the Turks first walk in during the Easter gathering in the Great Hall, I just push into Vlad's face the exact same way. If there were a cigarette in his hand he would have stabbed it out on the pig in front of him that he's having for dinner.

I made the film school mistake of wanting to get a long tracking shot like the one from Boogie Nights or Goodfellas to introduce the Great Hall. I had this idea of making a political drama with a Boardwalk Empire (2010) type story with everybody vying for a piece, which is what Transylvania history books were saying at the time. It was a political turf war. Vlad and his brother were put in there as puppet leaders and I wanted to get a sense of that with a long tracking shot. After about fifteen takes and half a day we finally got the shot, and then the studio heard about it and flew in the accountants and executives who all said, "fuck you, you're not going to waste our time and money on shots like that again." It was a good shot, but you've got to know what film you're making. It's just not going to happen on a big tent-pole movie. I wanted it there to give an impression of the environment, but there's just this appetite of the studio to move things along and get rid of all that stuff. You end up with this compromised vision.
JA: Were you a fan of the original Dracula (1931)?

GS: I think that's the world of Guillermo Del Torro, the fascination with old Gothic literature and classic storytelling, which wasn't my education or what captured my imagination. The films that captured my imagination were movies like Empire of the Sun (1987) or The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) - these little movies about characters under pressure were my first impression of films with an engaging power over an audience that aren't just warm, fuzzy feelings. I absolutely adored E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), it gave me a gut-wrenching feeling at the end.

JA: You mentioned you saw The Treasure of the Sierra Madre at seven years old, how did you arrive at it?

GS: My dad. It was on during a Saturday morning close to Christmas and my dad just said we were sitting down to watch it. Every Christmas I watched it again and it became my holiday movie. It's those formative years. Unless you get exposed to the classics then, you can appreciate them in a different sense but it's not as engrained in your DNA. 
(Dracula Untold concept art)
JA: What else drew you to Dracula Untold?

GS: The original ending of the script - it was a total downer, but completely true to the tone of what it should be. Dracula should have ended up on his own. Alone. There's a love story there that a huge part of the audience responded well to, but for me that wasn't the ending. We shot a scene of all the kids being killed by their parents who drank their blood and at the eleventh hour the studio asked for that scene to be removed. I asked at what point were we going to make a Dracula film. My sad ending never ended up in the film, but the movie was a mild success for the studio and I don't think it would have been anywhere near that had all of those elements stayed because people would have reacted badly to such a depressing ending.

It's like I told you earlier, with the stories of Darth Vader or Michael Corleone - how is it ever going to be a happy ending? This guy has just sold his soul and is going to Hell. Purgatory. These tragic characters end up destroying themselves. It was dark, but we could've gone darker. Dracula isn't just shades of gray, and I wanted to go all the way into the darkness but I couldn't get away with it.
JA: Any chance that you'll be involved in the sequel?

GS: I think it would had to have done better financially to warrant a sequel. But who knows, there's certainly a core group of fans out there who would like to see it happen. I hope for their sake it does.

JA: What are you working on now?

GS: I wanted to focus mostly this year on a short film - my wife is having a baby in about four weeks time and I wanted to make sure I didn't have a film on the other side of that. I'm finishing it today, which will be a segment in the film Holidays (2015). I want to go back to the stuff that really captured my imagination. I've had a lot of mythological stuff sent to me and I don't want to work in a Medieval setting again.

I'm one of those people who can only do one thing well at a time. I like to pick one thing and then really go for it.
(Universal Orlando's 2014 Halloween Horror Nights featured a Dracula Untold maze)
JA: What advice would you give to someone who wants to be creative for a living?

GS: It's not absolutely necessary, but it really helps if you have someone at home who doesn't judge you for what you want to do. I was extremely lucky that my parents were supportive... and not in the financial sense, they just told me to do my best. A lot of people get stuck in a situation where their parents want them to be a doctor, lawyer or engineer - if it's a job that you don't want to do then don't do it.

There is no easy way to break through and make a living creatively, and in most cases it takes about ten years to even get in the front door. If you have parents who are supportive and allow you to stay home until you're 28, working in your room, that's what you need. I've worked in bars all night and creatively all hours of the day at home and had to just keep on reading, drawing, writing and watching stuff. You've got to put in your hours. A great chef is going to know the taste of good food because they've developed a palette, they know what is great from testing. You have to watch as much as you can and study as much as you can in order to be able to have taste. This isn't to say that I have great taste, but I know what I respond to and what I like.

You need to be prepared to put in a lot of time. I got to a point at twenty-seven when I was living in the suburbs of Dublin at my parents' house and all of my friends had started work two years earlier - they'd all bought houses at that point and were professionals and I was completely broke. I remember one night deciding between buying two beers and walking home or one beer and taking a bus - I remember walking home thinking, "I never want to be in this situation again." I was on social welfare and living at home with fuck-all options left. Literally on the breadline. I'd given up film at that point - about six months prior I said "I can't break into this" after spending the best part of seven years in Dublin working on it. Having someone else who really believes in you is what you need.
(Gary Shore's concept art for Dracula Untold.)
JA: That's an inspiring thing to hear from someone who just directed a big-budget Universal horror movie - there are a lot of people on the edge of giving up.

GS: In your country you're maybe going up against a thousand other people who decide to go into this business. People get distracted and that thousand people dwindles down to two hundred... maybe one hundred. Once you get to your late twenties there may only be five of you left. It's the very last people standing who make it through because eventually you're going to become competent and there will be so few people left to race against you that you'll start breaking away from the rest of the crowd and come into your own. You just need endurance and the support of other people.

JA: Since it's Halloween, let's close on your essential scary movies.

GS: The only film that ever scared me in a really psychological way was The Exorcist (1973). It still would. It goes to a whole other dark place that you just don't see in modern movies, with imagery that just disturbs. It's also beautifully structured with a very clever sound design. It gradually stretches between horror and normality, which makes the disturbing stuff work. Also Salem's Lot (1979) and It (1990). I enjoy John Carpenter's Halloween (1978) but it's not going to scare me, it's just really good storytelling.

JA: How would you sum up your life with just three words?

GS: Make your luck. I don't think anyone is lucky, I think you have to earn it.

Follow Gary Shore on Twitter at @GaryShore81

"Unmasking Halloween Horror Nights: A Conversation with Universal Orlando Director of Entertainment - Creative Development, Michael Aiello" By Jason Anders

It's been 25 years since Julie Zimmerman and John Paul Geurts launched Fright Nights (1991) at Universal Studios Florida, coining the term "scareactor"and orchestrating a "Ghoul School" for performers to learn the scaring techniques that are still making us jump out of our skin at what is known today as the premiere haunted event, Halloween Horror Nights. One of HHN's biggest fans (Jaws skipper turned Director of Entertainment - Creative Development), Michael Aiello, is also one of the key players responsible for the bloody good time which is officially celebrating its silver anniversary. Today he joins me to take us behind-the-screams of the Halloween party we're all dying to attend... about which you just might discover, you don't know Jack.

Jason Anders: First off, congratulations on a successful 25th Halloween Horror Nights!

Mike Aiello: Thank you! I've been a part of Horror Nights creatively since 2002 and have been through every single major tectonic shift that it's taken, and this year we have good bones to make up the skeleton of the event. Not only have we upped the number of scareactors and scare zones, we also did a conscious shift in our overall soundtrack. Where we typically do spookier, atmospheric texture-based music, this year we infused Jack's edgier, carnival rock star look into the overall soundtrack. I think it's subliminally changing people's mental game as they go through the park, even beyond the scare zones, creating an energy level which I don't think we've had in the last couple of years.
Another really great year for our scare zones was 2013 with The Walking Dead as the overall template because it all tied together and everyone felt immersed in a thematic the entire time. I think this year has that sensibility.

We try and put the same creative effort (and then some) into every event, learning from what we did the year before. We really examine the pieces and parts as it's happening and are already going into a creative concept phase for the next year. The theme park haunt event is a tough game because you want it to be successful while at the same time you're faced with the amount of people that come. A constant focus is on how to make sure all of our guests who show up are able to get what they want out of Horror Nights, it's 40% of our process.
JA: What were the conversations happening during HHN 24 about the challenges of living up to the expectations of a silver anniversary?

MA: We in Art & Design felt that it would be appropriate for HHN 25 to bring back Jack the Clown, who had not led charge of the event since 2007 with Carnival of Carnage. He was part of our 20th anniversary but wasn't key art or in the commercials, he was just one of the many icons representing our past.

Carnival of Carnage (2007) and Reflections of Fear (2008) represent two great modes the event can live in; 2007 was the first year we were able to have an original icon and market brands at the same time, 2008 with Bloody Mary had a complete storyline and everything tied together, and in 2009 it shifted again. Ripped from the Silver Screen (2009) had the Usher as an icon but he wasn't really represented in the commercial, it was the theater and brands like The Wolf Man, Saw and Chucky. The brands, because the business dictated it, began to really drive the marketing of the event... and successfully, too. Attendance would rise every year because of brands like The Walking Dead, which is a beast of a show. From that point on, all for great business reasons, the visual face of the event kind of went by the wayside.

For HHN 25 we wanted to bring an icon back, and if there was one that we had to bring back it'd be Jack. It was our want, but the need was to figure out a way to bring him back and still keep what we know is driving the average person who isn't a hardcore fan of Horror Nights back to the event, those who want to see The Walking Dead, Halloween and An American Werewolf in London...
(An American Werewolf in London at HHN)
JA: Did the success of An American Werewolf in London surprise you?

MA: We tried to do that maze for years, I have treatments from 2007 for it. I'll never show it to John Landis, but we wrote a sequel with a completely different storyline that we ultimately decided wasn't right because, as fans, we'd rather see the film played out before our eyes rather than this new story. Brass tacks, I think the success of that maze was the puppets. Those things have to work a hundred times an hour and that repetition has to be set and maintained or else it doesn't work. An American Werewolf in London also wasn't a lead marketing house but one that became a great maze because people just loved it. It was the difference in the scare application we hadn't really done before.

Your original question was about planning for HHN 25 during 24 - The biggest thing was figuring out the best way to bring Jack back, shifting him in a way that won't be too far from how the fans know him while also making him engaging to people who have no idea who he is or what relevance he has to Horror Nights. There's a majority of fans coming this year to whom he's just a scary clown; he doesn't have the reverence or the pedestal that he has for a lot of the hardcore fans.

We knew we wanted to do some kind of show bringing Carnival of Carnage back; the template of that show and its theme really began to inform the identity of the event. The first few words I wrote down were "rock show" and "festival feel" - edgier than Oddfellow's Carnival of Thrills that we did in 2007, with a lot of metallic-infused sensibilities. Leading up to the marketing, I didn't want him to talk as much. I wanted him to be a mystery for the fans who don't know him. We've been very limited with the interactivity Jack has, which is all calculated. We really wanted his presence to be bigger than him. We also didn't want him to overshadow the fact that it's our 25th.
JA: I love the animated logo of Jack with the saws on the sides.

MA: Brian Beauregard created all the merchandise designs and drew that logo based on a meeting where I told him I wanted a hand-drawn concert poster. Brian went to town doodling and nailed a really cool color, too. HHN has lived in this saturated tone for the past few years with browns and tans and dark greens being the color palette for The Walking Dead, therefore the commercials lived in that tone. We wanted to make sure that the key art, and the palette of the commercial itself, had brighter colors.

Getting Marketing comfortable with a non-IP figure representing the event was important, to really level the playing field so that this could be just as important as the brands. It hasn't been that way for a number of years, but for 25 it felt we just had to go down that route because we wanted to celebrate the fact that Horror Nights has been around this long and the fact that it's been a different event every single year. It's something we really take pride in. A lot of haunted theme park events don't do that.

JA: For my money, nothing even comes close to Universal in this category.

MA: I've been to Knott's Scary Farm and Howl-O-Scream... in fact, I have good friends who work at Howl-O-Scream including Scott Swenson who was there before moving on to The Vault of Souls in Tampa, which I hear is amazing. I think that every theme park event offers something uniquely different. Personally, as a haunt fan, I really love Howl-O-Scream. They do a great job and it's a really different feel.
(Michael Aiello)
What I think Universal has settled themselves into is an event that is literally split in half; we're bringing HHN to life with brands fans already know (which is key right now for the sensibility of the audience member that's coming) and the other half of that equation is the original content. We can play both sides of that coin. Honestly, I think the fact that we have sound stages to build mazes in is huge. For years there was a huge line that separated our tents from our sound stages, which we've been able to blur lately...

JA: You have no concept of Halloween: Michael Myers Comes Home being a tent maze when you're inside, it's an incredible design.

MA: Halloween was great, and I think it really began with the year we did Nevermore: The Madness of Poe (2011) in Tent 2 - the scenery in there was beyond anything we'd ever attempted before and it really paid off. It allowed us to be able to improve ourselves in a tent scenario so that there isn't as much of a divide. Obviously, sound stages have a scale to them... the facade for Body Collectors: Recollections (2015) is enormous and gothically beautiful, and being able to build 1428 Elm Street to scale inside the sound stage for Freddy vs. Jason (2015) is a great thing.
It's an aspect that sets us apart from anyone creating a haunted attraction in this industry (I'll separate theme parks from local haunts, like The Shallow Grave in Winter Haven which I'm hearing wonderful things about.) It's because of our history and the branded characters we have access to, as well as being able to fill the event's creative gaps with original content that the IPs aren't bringing to the table, that we achieve a nice, well-rounded thematically-driven event. The creators of these events all have the same passion and drive... maybe not all the resources, but I've seen some local haunts do some really creative things I'm blown away by that we'd never be able to do, even just letting in three or four people at a time... a scenario that just doesn't work in a theme park. Sometimes, though, there's these happy scenarios that occur where you find yourself alone in one of the rooms. There's a great haunt here called Delusion, produced by Neil Patrick Harris and Jon Braver, where they were doing amazing stunts like high-falls which would be amazing to have here.
(Michael Aiello & legendary filmmaker John Landis)
JA: Having grown up a fan of his work, how does it make you feel to hear John Landis speak so highly of the event?

MA: It's huge. It's gratifying and, taking my professional hat off and putting my total geek hat on, it's completely ludicrous to me.

JA: What steps did you take for Landis' suggestion to improve the puppets for this year's An American Werewolf in London?

MA: When we did An American Werewolf in London two years ago, we created those molds off of really great photography, sculpted off of reference John had given us, but we didn't have the original molds. Universal Studios Hollywood actually got with a guy named Pat Magee from the company Magee FX who had already obtained original molds and did recreations of the wolf. So when John told us to contact him, sure enough it was the next phone call I made.

Michael Barnett, who designs all of our make-up, called Pat and told him that we loved what he did for Horror Nights in Hollywood and that we'd love for him to collaborate with us. It was as simple as that. Once we got Pat involved it really changed everything. Those puppets just barely made it through the last night two years ago, so this year there's a whole different understructure - it was mainly bungee-driven before, now it's all steel cable with a metal understructure and also easier for the performers to move and manipulate. Being able to do it again and improve it was invaluable.
(Greg Nicotero, John Landis and Michael Aiello)
JA: What has been your most surreal career moment so far?

MA: Honestly, it's really every day that I'm engaged with the team. Having these amazing, well-known creators collaborate with us is great, but I also get to be with a team of brilliant artists and technicians every single day who are just as passionate, if not more passionate, as I am about Halloween... and that's saying a lot.

Everybody who works on this event, and this is fact, is completely invested in what Horror Nights needs to bring every year... on top of all the other projects they're working on. Our team is not only responsible for Horror Nights, but for every live component in the resort. To have a team able to manage all of those things while still putting forth the energy and commitment to this event, keeping it as authentic and engaging as possible, and giving these die-hard fans everything they want out of it is truly a testament to them and how committed they are to Halloween Horror Nights. Having people just like me who went to the event every single year as a guest, or worked the event as a scareactor, who appreciate all sides and facets of what it does and needs to do and never settling is important. This year is going to be tough to top.
(Original Fright Nights (1991) and Halloween Horror Nights (1992) banners)
JA: How much different is your job now from when you started?

MA: We've grown a lot, just from a workspace standpoint alone. It's dramatically shifted. The first year that I worked Horror Nights I was just hired on as a writer for Bill & Ted's Excellent Halloween Adventure - I was in this tiny office in a trailer where the parking lot is now. It was this rickety trailer that leaked when it rained, but it was fun. The tools have changed, our designers work off of Cintiq tablets now... although we all still love paper. Every room is still designed on graph paper first. We conceive of a room layout like we're playing Dungeons & Dragons mapping out a dungeon. The personnel have grown - when I first stared working on Horror Nights there was only a show director and performance captain. Now I've got multiple show directors working on mazes alone with performance captains who are able to work with all the scareactors. I'm sure all the other disciplines are able to say the same thing about how much their personnel has grown.
(Greg Nicotero, Michael Aiello and The Walking Dead at HHN)
Being involved with brands has also shifted the creative palette, especially because of the approval processes. Every brand has a different approval process and differs in how involved they want to be. When we did Alien vs. Predator Fox was great, but they also wanted to be involved every step of the way - every drawing, treatment and sketch had to go to them prior to us doing anything. That's one end of the spectrum, then you've got Halloween where we became good friends with Malek Akkad, Moustapha's son, who is now the caretaker of the brand and said, "just get the mask right." That was pretty much the end of the process. He came a week before we opened to see the maze and offered some critiques. There's two ends of the spectrum - one that's heavily engaged and one that allows you to just go based on confidence.

JA: Are there any properties you've always wanted but haven't been able to get?

MA: There's a couple right now that we're working with who have been elusive up to this point, but there might be a light at the end of the tunnel. We'll see if it happens.

JA: Do you ever have moments where you have to say, or people say to you, you've gone too far in the realm of being too gory, gruesome or explicit?

MA: I think we've gotten really good at being our own gage of what we feel is appropriate, or what we feel a guest is either going to want to see or be comfortable with. Our mazes, although intense, never include nudity or excessive language. We don't go there. It's all about the visual intensity. It was a pretty extensive process just to get our guests to be able to crawl through the tunnel at the end of Alien vs. Predator (2014) - it was great, but it was a pretty arduous process operationally and safety-wise to figure out how to do. Every maze like that has an alternate pathway.
(Jaws Ride - Amity Boat Tours - Aiello's first Universal job)
JA: When you started with Universal Studios Florida as a Jaws skipper, did you have any idea this was the career you wanted?

MA: No way. Jaws was a summer job. I knew that I wanted to perform and earlier in high school I did some short films with Florida State University. I also did a lot of commercials as a teenager. Even while at Universal I did a few local commercials, so performing was the passion I had. Writing was something I kind of fell into; I loved writing stories as a kid, but it was just a way to get my brain to do something different. It was never anything I felt anybody would ever want to read.

Because I loved the show, I wrote my very own Bill & Ted's Excellent Halloween Adventure while I was working at Universal. I had been cast in the show as Elwood Blues the year Blues Brothers 2000 came out, but was cut a week before the show opened because of time. That was my first really cool engagement with Michael Roddy and a guy named Jason Surrell - they were co-writers and co-directors on the show. Actually, Roddy hired me as a Blues Brother. I had the really cheesy script that I had written and I gave it to Roddy during rehearsal one night and said, "if you like this, feel free to take whatever you want. If you hate it, throw it away." This was back when we could accept scripts from people, which we can't now. He called me three weeks later and asked if I wanted to come in for four hours and punch out the end of the 2002 show, which was the first year at Islands of Adventure. He brought me in for four hours and we spitballed some ideas on how to end the show.

By luck of the draw, the next year he went on to do other things and TJ Mannarino (now Senior Director of Art & Desing) and Rick Spencer (Creative Manager) saw that I had written that script and they brought me on to co-write that next year's show. That was it, that was the door. From that point, it was getting to know everybody and putting myself out there to assist in maze creation and then just building from there. There's no real one path, just a lot of little things that kind of occurred.

The short answer being "hell no, I had no idea I'd be in the position I am now" - not only creating Horror Nights, but creating content for the The Wizarding World of Harry Potter and the lagoon show.
(Universal Cinematic Spectacular)
JA: The lagoon show, Universal's Cinematic Spectacular, is incredible. It makes me cry every time.

MA: Thank you. Thanks a lot. That is probably one of my favorite things I've ever been able to work on. That show is the kiss goodnight. That show is simply a love letter. I'd grown up there and loved all those movies. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) was one of the first films I remember seeing in the theater.

JA: I love that you save it for the end, that the show builds up to E.T. being the finale.

MA: That was just selfish on my part because it was my first huge movie experience. You can't beat that score, it's an amazing finale. When you hear that score you think about the film, and if you don't get a little lump there's something wrong with you.

JA: Do you still have any involvement in writing Bill & Ted's Excellent Halloween Adventure?

MA: I oversee it, but Jason Horne is the writer. We actually brought in a female writer this year, Sharon Yost.
JA: The response that she and Erin Cline received at 2014's Bill & Ted for the Frozen parody was easily the biggest audience reaction I've ever seen at any theme park show.

MA: Let me tell you, that was all her. That was a bit she wrote for her audition and Jason not only cast her but asked her permission to wrap it into the show because it was really funny. Because of that, Jason and I both really saw something in her, and once we had the nuts and bolts of what the show might be we brought her in to help brainstorm some other ideas and keep a show flow going. If you've seen the show this year, she wrote all of the Jurassic Park, Game of Thrones and Pitch Perfect a cappella moments. She's been great. And, again, it's a similar scenario - she came to the audition saying "hey, I wrote this" and everyone loved it and wanted to get her involved. That's how a lot of this works.

It's cool to start seeing similar career scenarios start to evolve, even at the capacity I am now. Half of being a creative leader is also understanding and knowing when you want your creative people to take it and run. I'm blessed in the fact that I've got an amazingly talented team that I can just oversee everything and say "that works" or "what if we did it this way or punched this up a little bit," especially from a Bill & Ted standpoint... I've done eleven of those shows now.
(Props used in Bill & Ted's Excellent Halloween Adventure)
JA: Do you have a favorite Bill & Ted moment?

MA: Last year's Frozen moment was absolutely amazing. My favorite would have to be the 2009 show with the Land of the Lost set featuring Phil the Fanboy as the main character - it was the one year out of all of them that I wrote that had a main villain character with a complete arc. That show is rapid-fire sketch comedy, and in '09 we still did that, but I really wanted this fanboy character to be the villain at the beginning and then kind of be redeemed at the end where he discovers the fangirl who also loves everything that he loves. I really dug that one. That was my second-to-last Bill & Ted to write and direct and it has a special place in my heart.

JA: Those shows always have such great quotable moments. I just tweeted this morning, "They have sex with their taaaaiiiiiils!"

MA: We're in a constant battle with that character, but he worked again this year. Do we just keep doing it every year until that place opens? And then when it opens, what do we do with that guy? It's hit every year. I love that a gag like that can have sustainability for multiple years. That's just due in part to the fans who attend. Jack is Jack because the fans made him that way, we had nothing to do with that. He was built to be a representative of Halloween Horror Nights the one year that he did it, but it really was the fans who made him more than we ever imagined. I didn't create Jack, I was still an actor at that point. Michael Roddy and Kim Gromoll and the design team at that time created him never knowing that he was basically going to be the icon of Halloween Horror Nights.
(Jack the Clown riding one of the infamous Lake Eola swans)
There's a great picture, I'll send it to you if I can find it, of Jack in one of the floating swans on Lake Eola. There's another great one of him on a park bench downtown feeding pigeons bread. Very Krusty the Clown-esque. I played Jack in the park that year with Kenny and James (who truly is Jack, he was the one on the billboards.) Kenny and I were there because there weren't two more of James Keaton to play the role. There were stories of Jack delivering these jack-in-the-boxes to news stations and they'd call the cops because they didn't know what it was. No one had really done that kind of PR campaign before. Our media gifts that we send out every year are almost expected at this point, but that year no one knew what to make of this insane clown going to the courthouse and dropping a package off.

JA: Do you remember the first horror movie you fell in love with?

MA: It was Frankenstein (1931) and then Halloween (1978). Frankenstein was the first one that I saw at a really young age - I had an old black and white television that my mom had bought at a garage sale and they were playing it on one of the late night programs and I'd never seen it before. I was absolutely horrified. I think I was 6 or 7 and wasn't supposed to be awake. I have a very distinct visual of the glow from the television, and when Frankenstein was getting raised into the air I saw the flash of lightning hit the Star Wars ships on the ceiling of my room. From there I wanted to know more. I had no idea there were more Frankenstein movies. I went to the local video store to find them and they didn't carry those kinds of things. I developed an obsession for seeking out the classic monsters.
Classic monsters really were the building blocks for me, and then having grown up in the mid-to-late eighties it was all slasher movies. I remember being at my friend Wade Vose's 11th birthday party and we rented A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987). I was terrified when the lights went out that night. I was completely horrified that I was going to fall asleep and Freddy was going to come slash my wrists and puppeteer me.

I was asked a lot about what I thought the most terrifying scene in Halloween was when we were doing the maze, and for me it's when Loomis shoots Michael, he falls, Loomis looks over the edge and he's gone. Jamie Lee Curtis asked "was that the boogie man?" and as a matter of fact, it was. What terrified me the most were the establishing shots in the streets of the neighborhood afterwards that were empty. It was the camera just giving you a viewpoint of where he could be. I remember distinctly looking out the window in my neighborhood thinking, "he could be there." And then you have all the chaos of Halloween II (1981)...

JA: ... and the poor kid who gets hit by the cop car.

MA: Yes! And it just explodes because it's full of gasoline and he burns.

What I love about the character of Frankenstein, though, is that he isn't evil... he's abandoned. He starts having ill-will towards man because of how he's been treated. I've always loved that character path.
(Universal Studios Florida archway)
JA: When I was a kid, Universal Studios Florida was my film school. I still feel like I learned more from the Alfred Hitchcock attraction, Art of Making Movies, than I ever learned in film school. That's what is so cool about the reverence you give Halloween Horror Nights; there are future filmmakers leaving the event every year inspired to learn more about the content represented.

MA: I love that you brought that up because that's a really cool aspect of the last few years as we've been doing these passion project mazes like An American Werewolf in London, Halloween and Cabin in the Woods.

Cabin in the Woods wasn't one that Marketing knew anything about, they didn't know why we wanted to do it, and it ended up being the number one maze that year. We become that really cool gateway for people who didn't see these movies and when they leave, to your point, they are seeking the information out. It's kind of this reverse-engineering where we're doing it because we love it and know a lot of people will love it, but the fact that there are people engaged in these films as a result of coming to Halloween Horror Nights is just too cool.
JA: Have you seen any great horror films recently?

MA: Right before we opened the event I watched a movie called The Sacrament (2013) directed by Ti West. It's a very real, documentary-style film inspired by the true story of the 1978 Jonestown Massacre. It was pretty terrifying. I don't know if you've seen It Follows (2014) but I'm in the camp that really loved it - it's all about a sexually transmitted curse. The soundtrack is very eighties and it feels like a 1985 horror film. It's very cool and worth checking out. I watched a slow-burn thriller the other night that I really loved called A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014), all shot beautifully in black and white about a female vampire who stalks a town.

I've also got my staples - I love to watch The Monster Squad (1987), Trick or Treat (1986) and Re-Animator (1985) around this time of year. I basically bring out my entire Scream Factory Blu-ray collection...
JA: I never thought I'd see bonus features for Psycho III (1986) and Scream Factory provided them.

MA: I just ordered Shocker (1989) and From Beyond (1986) from them. I love that they provide the slip cover with the modern art and then with the case you can flip it so that it's the original cover art on the inside. Also, if you pre-order you get a poster!

JA: What is your advice for anyone who wants to be creative for a living?

MA: This is a learned thing - a person is naturally creative but they may or may not know it, or they may not know how to unlock it, but once you do it's a muscle you must constantly flex. It's an actively ongoing mental state that takes work to keep doing. I've seen a lot of creative people fall because they fell into the trap of thinking that no one is allowing them to be creative, which is the complete opposite way to think about it. You have to be creative in order for people to want you to be creative, you have to actively do something. There are a lot of fans who come up to me and say "I want to do what you do. How do I get your job?" I tell them all the time that I have no idea how you get my job because I have no idea how I got it. I know my path, but there was nothing written down... no family tree showing me a line of events to get me here. The one thing I always say to someone who is passionate about something is that it's all about putting yourself out there and actively engaging the process.
(James Keaton as Jack the Clown & Erin Nicole Cline as Chance)
JA: Because no one asked you to write that Bill & Ted script, but doing so changed your life.

MA: Absolutely. That could have gone either way; Michael Roddy could have been insecure and not let me on. In hiring people, and this is something I follow intently, I'm hiring people that are better than I am. That's what you want on your team. They can fill in the gaps for things I don't have - for example, I can't draw and I want someone on our creative team who can draw beautifully.

Half the game is just trying to build a team that works collectively who have the personality traits that work well together. It's happened on teams I've been a part of where there's someone who is the most creative person in the room but they're unable to engage the other creative entities effectively, and that can derail a process. It's placing them somewhere they can thrive and be successful while not prohibiting the creativity of others who are collectively trying to work towards a goal. That's huge and so important in the process we work in. In any creative application, you want to have people who not only share the passion and know the goal but also aren't insecure or afraid of the people around them. In every brainstorm we do, there are no bad ideas. There's a Back to the Future paradox thing going on with getting from A to Z in the creative process. It's a constant effort to maintain that and to improve on it as well.
JA: I love seeing all the classic monsters out on the streets for 25.

MA: That was must. That's our homage to the first few years of the event because the classic monsters were the icon for the original Fright Nights (1991).

JA: Do you have an all-time favorite Universal attraction?

MA: Jaws is special, but that's a cop out because I worked there. Before I started working at the park, my favorite attraction was Back to the Future: The Ride. Jaws was fun but you always knew it wasn't the movie because it's this other story from the outside looking in, Back to the Future: The Ride was literally the closest to a sequel of Back to the Future: Part III (1990) as you could ever come. The facility was built (Institute of Future Technology), Doc Brown led the scientific department, and the narrative they were able to tell via the queue videos with Biff was absolutely brilliant. Honestly, it hasn't been done that way as effectively since. People's attention span has changed as far as the information we take in while standing in a queue, I honestly don't think we could do a storyline like that today and have it be received nearly as well. It's no reflection on the content at all, it's simply the way people are taking it in. They're not looking at that screen anymore, they're looking at their phones.
(Back to the Future: The Ride)
Seeing the entire narrative, the three acts that develop from the time you walk into the queue, with the outdoor queue being about the facility and what it represents and why it's there, and then going inside with that knowledge and seeing Biff having traveled from the past and into the future and affecting the integrity of that place, which carried into the pre-show room and onto the ride... and the fact that you're getting into the DeLorean and Doc Brown is talking to you... it was the first time you saw something on that scale enveloping you. Before a lot of other immersive motion-based rides, man, that thing took you to another place. It is canon for Back to the Future fans. Completely canon. It's a story that was told so well and based on such strong source material. It's my favorite from the past.

JA: If you were taking friends or family into Halloween Horror Nights tonight, what are you most excited for them to see?

MA: For this year it would have to be Jack Presents: 25 Years of Monsters and Mayhem. That's where I would go if I only had one thing I could attend. From my standpoint, it's a really great photo album to show what the team has created over the past twenty-five years. The environments are all very vivid with a lot of different scenarios happening at once, morsels of content, one after the other throughout. It's a really strong maze with a lot of great bells and whistles - like the gothic hallway with the mirrors making you feel like you're three stories above where you were. The classic monsters are also in there.

A close second would be The Carnage Returns which is an experience you're not going to get anywhere else with the level of content that show has. As a very different theme park show, it hits the mark.
(The Carnage Returns at HHN 25)
JA: Finally, how would you sum up your life and career with just three words?

MA: Childlike. Passionate. Humbled.

Follow Halloween Horror Nights on Twitter at @HorrorNightsORL
Follow Michael Aiello on Twitter at @Michael_Aiello
Buy tickets to Halloween Horror Nights at HalloweenHorrorNights.com/Orlando