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.
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.
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)|
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.
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.
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.
|(Michael Aiello & legendary filmmaker John Landis)|
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)|
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)|
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)|
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)|
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)|
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.
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)|
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)|
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.
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)|
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.
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...
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)|
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.
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)|
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)|
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