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Jason Surrell

WDI Imagineer / Author

A DoomBuggies.com interview with the author of The Haunted Mansion: From the Magic Kingdom to the Movies

DoomBuggies.com spoke with WDI's Jason Surrell regarding his book about the Haunted Mansion. Now, at last, many rumors can be "officially" put to rest and the facts of the attraction's mysterious past will be revealed! ( Note: If you haven't already ordered your copy of the book, you can get one at a discount while purchasing it from Amazon by clicking here.)

DoomBuggies.com: How did the project of a "Haunted Mansion" book originate? Did you propose the project? If not, how did it come to be?

Jason Surrell: This book is one of those classic "I really want to read this book so I guess I'll have to write it" situations. That was last summer, and I knew we had the movie coming up in a year-and-a-half, so I figured the timing was as good as it was going to get. I ran the idea by Don Winton, our VP of Creative down here in Florida, and he suggested taking it to Marty Sklar himself. Marty thought it was a great idea and told me to write up a proposal.

So, I wrote a five-page outline that broke the whole story down into three sections: the history of the attraction in all four parks, a scene-by-scene "tour" of the show, and the making of the movie.

The "spine" of the story was the evolution of this idea, from the very first sketch of a "Haunted House" that Harper Goff did back in 1951 to the attraction's transformation into a feature film. I thought it was a fascinating idea, because Imagineering was born of the movie industry. The first Imagineers were all filmmakers from Walt's studio and the attractions gave audiences the opportunity to experience Walt's stories in three dimensions instead of two; so the movie really represents that process in reverse. In a sense, I thought the book would give me the chance to show people how The Haunted Mansion came full circle.

At any rate, Marty helped me tweak the outline a bit and the next thing I knew he told me that Wendy Lefkon, the Editorial Director of Disney Editions, was waiting for my proposal. So I sent the thing off and about two weeks later Wendy called me and told me that everyone at Disney Editions loved the idea and they were going to do it. I think the whole thing was a result of very good timing and having the ability to get the idea directly in front of the decision-makers.

Why were you selected to write the book? What is your history with The Walt Disney Company and the Haunted Mansion? What other accomplishments have you had with WDI?

Well, since the book was an idea I brought to them it was clear that I wanted to be the one to write it. Since I'm a Show Writer for Imagineering AND they thought the proposal itself was well written, there was never any thought of giving it to someone else. They knew it was going to be my first book, but they also knew I had over a dozen years of professional writing experience behind me, most of it with Disney, so I don't think they were too concerned - which was a lucky break for me! I've wanted to be an Imagineer for most of my life and The Haunted Mansion has always been my favorite attraction, so I knew the book was going to be a labor of love. I even got to work on a Haunted Mansion project - the "interactive" tombstone in the family plot down here at the Walt Disney World mansion. To this day I can't believe I got to write an epitaph for a tombstone that sits alongside the ones X Atencio did for the original! That was as big a thrill for me as getting to rename the Endor Vendors shop "Tatooine Traders" at Star Tours at the Disney-MGM Studios, because I'm a HUGE Star Wars fan! My other major projects at WDI include a new show concept and script for The Great Movie Ride, a rewrite of the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular, and the original concepts for Who Wants to Be a Millionaire - Play It! And a Pearl Harbor-themed special effects show. I was part of the creative team for Disney Vacation Club's new Saratoga Springs Resort & Spa, and helped develop the creative content for Walt Disney World's new Pal Mickey interactive talking toy. I'm also a Show Director for Walt Disney Entertainment and the Special Events division of Walt Disney Company Latin America.

Were there any difficulties in finding an angle or verifying information? Did you find most of your information through the Disney archives, or through independent research? Was the Disney Co. information easy to access, or did you have to dig a lot to unearth what you were looking for?

The Haunted Mansion story wasn't all that easy to pin down, because its development was broken up over almost twenty years. Most of the original creative team is gone and they all seem to have differing memories of how the whole thing came together. It almost seemed like investigative journalism at times - I would gather all the information I could and listen to all the stories and then try to piece together what I thought happened. Dave Smith has a lot of the original memos, meeting notes, treatments, and scripts in the Disney Archives, so some of the history was laid out for me in black and white, so to speak. Imagineering had almost all the artwork and photography I could ask for, so the pieces started to fall into place on a visual level at the same time. Plus a lot of what has been written on Disneyland in general and The Haunted Mansion in particular was helpful. Some of it was wrong, actually, but it helped me figure out what was right! It was a bit daunting at times, because I knew that once the book was published this history would be accepted as fact. Needless to say, I felt it was my responsibility to get it right.

After writing the book, has your impression/appreciation for the Haunted Mansion changed in any way? Do you appreciate certain details or sections more now that you've researched them?

Well, being an Imagineer, I know that our creative process is all about collaboration, but writing this book really showed me what Ken Anderson, Marc Davis, Claude Coats, X Atencio, Yale Gracey, and Rolly Crump (well, and quite a few others!) brought to the Haunted Mansion both as individuals AND as a team. There were quite a few creative differences between them, and unlike on Pirates and every other attraction up to that point, Walt wasn't there to settle those differences for them. So I'm appreciative of and grateful for the fact that their visions were able to gel in spite of Walt's death and create one of Walt Disney Imagineering's crown jewels. It's a thrill to be able to look at The Haunted Mansion as a whole and recognize some of the parts that came from this very gifted group of people.

Can you share something that you really hoped would make it into the book, but had to leave behind? Are there any secrets that you can share that would otherwise be left on the cutting room floor?

I think I wound up writing about three times more material than we could use, so quite a bit wound up on the proverbial cutting room floor. Some of it was not about the mansion specifically, but helped put the history of the attractions in context: the early days of Disneyland, concepts that never got built or took on different forms years later, the concurrent development of New Orleans Square and Pirates of the Caribbean, and the role that the 1964 New York World's Fair played in the evolution of the Mansion.

Plus, as a fan, I wanted to include every piece of artwork and every photo I saw, but that was obviously not possible or practical. In terms of secrets, earlier drafts gave away a lot more secrets of The Haunted Mansion, but I was wisely steered away from that. This is a history, a story, not a textbook, and losing a lot of those technical details allowed the attraction to maintain its magic and mystique.

After researching and writing a section of the book on the upcoming film, is there anything you can share regarding your expectations for the movie? Did you get to meet and talk with any key principals behind the film?

Writing about the making of the movie was a highlight of the whole experience, because I got to visit the set and really spend time with all the talented people who are bringing this pop cultural icon to the big screen. I can't tell you what a thrill it was to walk onto the Entrance Hall and Ballroom sets for the first time. I felt like it was the Haunted Mansion I knew and loved but something new and exciting all at the same time. Plus, every single person associated with this film comes from Hollywood's A-list. They are not screwing around with this thing. Eddie Murphy with a strong script behind him. The Lion King's Don Hahn and Rob Minkoff. Costume Designer Mona May (Clueless). A legend among legends, Rick Baker, is the one bringing all our favorite characters to the movies, and HE loves the attraction as much as anyone! Man, going to his studio was like going to Disneyland, and from an Imagineer that's probably the highest compliment! And let's not forget the real star of the film - the mansion itself! I would remind any skeptical fans that John Myhre, the man responsible for transforming everyone's favorite attraction into a series of movie sets, just won an Academy Award for Chicago! I've read the script. I've seen the sets. I've spent a lot of time with the cast and crew. Believe me, I will be right there on opening day and probably quite a few times after that!

Do you have a favorite story you might be able to share from anywhere within the entire process of writing the book?

I'm not sure where to begin in terms of a favorite part of this whole process. Even though I work for the company and have been through the mansion on foot a number of times, that is an experience that never gets old and is every fan's dream. I'll always remember climbing around in the mansion's cupola at Disneyland, digging around in the Archives, reading memos to Walt, and setting foot on those incredible movie sets for the first time. But I think the most memorable and surreal moment was when my cell phone rang late one night while I was at home watching television. "Hi, this is Jason," I answered, not recognizing the number on the screen. "Hi, this is Jennifer Tilly," an instantly recognizable voice responded. Yes, she had called me at home for her interview! We spent about a half hour discussing the movie (she's another huge fan and couldn't pass up the chance to play a pop cultural icon, Madame Leota), and another half hour or so talking about what it was like for her to work with another hero of mine, Woody Allen, on Bullets Over Broadway. By the end of that conversation I was her number one fan, and I don't mean that in a Kathy Bates kind of way.

I'm a writer and I'm an Imagineer, but I've been a movie fan and a Disney fan for my whole life, so the process of sharing The Haunted Mansion story with the world has truly been the highlight of my career.

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