Universal Studios Hollywood

Interview with John Murdy
Creative Director at Universal Studios Hollywood
by Jon Primrose & Christian Beana
15th April 2006

JP:       Hi John. Many thanks for agreeing to be interviewed. Let's start at the beginning. What was your first association with Universal? Presumably as a small child?

John Murdy and the Wolfman in 1972JM:      A very small child, yes. I grew up in Southern California and my parents started coming to Universal right after it opened. They still have Super 8 film footage of the early days - Edith Head's office, the glam trams, etc. The first time I came to Universal was 1972, so I would have been 5 or 6 years old. I still have a picture of myself with the Wolfman from that trip. This little kid looking at the Wolfman with love in his eyes. It’s funny…looking at that picture now, the Wolfman looks more like Michael Landon in I Was a Teenage Werewolf (than the Lon Chaney Jr. version) but I was still impressed. There was a major monster revival in the 1970’s so I grew up watching all of the Universal Classic Monster films on TV.  I was totally obsessed with the Monsters so meeting Wolfie was sort of a life changing event for me. From that point on, Universal Studios was my favourite place to go. Every year on my birthday my parents would ask, "Where do you wanna go?" And the answer was always, “Universal Studios!” I don’t mean this as a slam at Disney. I loved Disneyland as a kid too. In fact, I built the entire Pirates of the Caribbean ride in miniature when I was 8 or 9 - I don't know if you remember this - they actually had models of Pirates of the Caribbean in the 1970’s.

CB:       Yeah - I remember those.

JM:      I think Aurora or Monogram made them. They had little rubber bands that would animate the figures. It was all the skeleton scenes from the ride. My friend and I built all the models then connected them together with a crude water trough system that you could send a miniature boat down. We exhibited the final product in the local library but it leaked all over the place, and I don't know what happened to it after that. I think they destroyed it. I also built the Haunted Mansion to scale as a kid, and my own version of a haunted house. It was about 6 feet tall, you could look inside the windows and see all these miniature scenes using parts from the old Aurora monster models. The whole thing was wired with tiny lights you could turn on or off. Obviously I grew up in a time before video games and cable TV! We spent months building these things…most of the time my older brothers blew them up with firecrackers but that haunted hose survived all the way up until my parents sold their house…about five years ago. At that time I was in Florida working for Universal Creative. They called me up and said "We're selling the house and the kids of the family that are buying it really want your Haunted House" so I reluctantly agreed. Those models were my early foray into theme park design.

John Murdy and JawsSo before I went off on that model tangent, I mentioned that I started coming to Universal Studios Hollywood in '72. I have vague memories of the Man of 1,000 Faces show, the Universal Museum, Ma and Pa Kettle’s Petting Zoo, The Stunt Man school…all the early attractions. My most memorable visit was in the summer of 1977. I have another picture of me posed next to Jaws [shown on the right], where I'm wearing a powder blue Chewbacca T-Shirt – so it had to have been '77. I don't know the exact dates when "Man of a Thousand Faces" ended, but I do recall getting made up, not as Frankenstein in that show, but they also had make-up artists that worked in the park in a store where they sold the old Don Post monster masks (Shop of 1,000 Faces?). In retrospect, I think it was the Westmore family of make up artists because I’ve heard stories that when they weren’t busy on a production, Lew Wasserman (then head of Universal Pictures) would ask them to come up to the park and demonstrate movie make up on the guests. In any case, they gave me this huge bloody scar and let me walk around the park with it. Of course, I just loved that as a kid because I was really into monster make-up. People like Lon Chaney, Jack Pierce, Bud Westmore, Dick Smith, Rick Baker…they were my idols growing up. So I remember walking around USH with this horrible bloody gash on my face. This woman started yelling at my mother, "How can you just let this child walk around like this? Take him to first aid!" It was great! That visit to USH made a huge impression on me and I came to the park with my family many more times after that.

So flash forward to 1989, I had just graduated from college with a degree in Theatre and was looking for a job with flexible hours (because I was working as an actor at that time). A friend of mine had just started working at USH as a tour guide and convinced me to come to an audition. I got hired shortly after that so that was my first professional foray into Universal.

JP:       1989 was when Earthquake opened wasn't it?

JM:      (Laughs) Yes, it was the summer right after Earthquake opened - which was sort of like Vietnam for Tour Guides. Earthquake was such a big hit – everyone wanted to experience it. The problem was, at that time we had just started working on the E.T. Adventure - that whole area [the future site of E.T.] used to be a big staging area for trams - we could park something like 10 - 15 trams there, off-load the visitors and take them to the Special Effects Stages, which at that time was, I think The World of Cinemagic. They were mirrored stages [before Backdraft] - you could go to one or the other. But they closed that whole area to construct E.T., the Studio Center [Lower Lot] and the Starway. I ended up working on that project later as a PA, but at the time I was a Soundstage Foreman – dispatching groups into the special effects stages. We went from being able to off-load ten trams at a time to two. That didn't work very well! I remember one period where there were just thousands of people waiting for trams. It was a nightmare summer day - about 120 degrees on the blacktop down there. I remember calling up to one of the managers at that time and saying "You've gotta do something - you can't drop any more people off" and he said "Well, we're going to have a meeting". He called me back and said "We're sending the Wolfman in to entertain the crowd."

CB:       You know what's funny? I have a picture of me, on a tram in '89, and the Wolfman came up to the tram.

JM:      That must have been the default solution to any problem - send in the Wolfman! The poor Wolfman ran for his life - people weren't exactly welcoming him with open arms. That was a rough summer because Earthquake was brand new and it broke down constantly. The tour was stretching into three hours, and it wasn't uncommon for tour guides to be stalled at Earthquake for 40-45 minutes. We were still on the Junior trams at that time - no CD players, no camera, no video systems, nothing but your voice. You had to invent things to entertain the guests for that long a period so I came up with an alter ego called “Trambo.” I would tie that red knit tour guide tie they made us wear around my head a la Stallone in Rambo, get off the tram and demonstrate movie effects while we were waiting to get into Earthquake. I’d toss foam rubber boulders around, smash into facades to demonstrate that they weren’t made of real brick, anything I could think of. When you’re stalling for 45 minutes, that's where all that tour guide training pays off.

CB:       Is it a lot easier to be a tour guide now, do you think?

JM:       No, actually I think it's a lot harder. I can't imagine trying to give the tour now. Today’s tour guides are on camera, they're talking, and they're working the DVD controller at the same time. They have 198 clips at their disposal. They have to memorise all of those numbers and since the tour is never really the same twice because of production - you never really know where you're going to go. The route can change several times throughout the course of a day. You have to be able to transition into another topic at a moments notice, and be able to find a video clip to support it instantly. I honestly don't think I could do it today.

CB:     Do you just type in the numbers?

JM:   There are two titles on the DVD - Title 1 and Title 2. Title 1 is predominantly what we call the base tour material - the material you use all of the time. There are so many options - not only because of all the variations out there, but also because we want to let the tour guides, after they've got to a certain point in their training, create their own tour, and use the material that best suits their tour. We recently set up an online forum for our Tour Guides so they can send us requests, let us know what they’d like to have to support their tour. Having been a tour guide, I know the guides are the real experts of what works and what doesn’t work on the tour so we wanted to create a way for them to have more creative input into the process. And then of course we have all the foreign language tours - we have an entire video program of just Spanish language content. So as a tour guide today, you have to memorize 198 clip numbers. Then you have to type in the title and chapter number to access the clip you want to play.

CB:       Is it sequential according to a standard tour?

JM:      Yes, it started out that way when I originally put the clips together in 1999, but as we add more content (it's updated throughout the year) it's gotten pretty convoluted. We’re adding a ton of new material to the tour for this summer so we’re re-ordering the entire DVD. It will now be organized by location, the clips for the load station, the front lot - all the way through the tour. That'll be the first title, then the second title on the DVD will be the stall material, foreign language tours and other material we create to spice up the tour, music stings, famous movie lines, little jokes, …we have a whole program called “Tram Cam” where the guide can pretend that there’s a camera on the guests. We filmed this typical family goofing off for the camera..then things get progressively worse for them as the tour progresses…in the spirit of the disaster-related attractions on the backlot. They get soaked with water, scorched by fire, Dad gets eaten by scarabs…some of the tour guides have cameos in those clips. They play the guests on the tram.

JP:       Would you ever consider trying to take a tour out, just to experience it as the guides do?

JM:      I'd love to do a tour again - I really do miss it. It was a great time in my life - I met a great group of people that I’m still friends with to this day. I think tour guides are kind of the modern day equivalent of what working in the mail room was back in the old studio system days – a stepping stone to a career in Hollywood. After all, Ron Meyer, the head of Universal, started in the Universal mail room. Originally that was where they got the first tour guides from. Director John Badham (Saturday Night Fever, WarGames) was a mail room guy. He was one of the first tour guides back in 1964, alongside director John Ford's son and, I think, Raymond Burr's son. There’s been thousands of Tour Guides since then, many of which went on to a career in the Entertainment industry. These days, from my circle of tour guide friends back in the late 80’s, one is a publicity person for Disney, one is director of a major post-production facility here in Hollywood, one is a film director, one is an artist who has worked for Nickelodeon and Disney, several of them are working actors, another designs attractions for the Paramount parks…there’s casting agents, producers, writers, one did the special effects for Serenity, one is sound editor on the Simpsons, another is a cameraman on the Tonight Show. They really are all over the industry. It's amazing. I think that’s because we do a lot of things for the tour guides to aid their career development. A lot of them are actors obviously, so we do an acting showcase every year, bring in professional directors and invite industry casting agents to see it. We do seminars with various people in the movie industry, screenwriters like Bob Gale (Back to the Future), directors like Sydney Pollack.  One year we had Ron Meyer, the president of the studio, do a Tour Guide seminar. It's amazing - this is a group of people that don't hold back, and they ask some very blunt questions and to his credit, Ron answered incredibly honestly about the business and making movies. Name me another entry level job where you have that kind of access to the head of a movie studio? It's a great place to start if you're trying to get into the industry. And, of course, you have access to one of the biggest movie studios in the world... that's what I did when I was a tour guide. I learned a lot about what I do today by visiting sets on my days off - hanging out watching them film movies like Back to the Future 2 - all sorts of different films – I just hung out and observed - learned how filmmaking works.

CB:       When you say "access" - do they just allow people back there?

JM:       We have to get permission from the production, but we have pretty good relations with a lot of different productions on the lot. For example…if a tour guide is interested in sound effects, we’ll try to get them into a Foley Stage or The Hitchcock Theatre (where they mix a lot of films) so they can shadow the technicians. When I was a guide…we hung around the set of Quantum Leap a lot. The cast and crew of that show were great with the guides…very willing to let us come down and watch. Dean Stockwell and Scott Bakula even sang “Happy Birthday” to one of my tour guide friends who was a huge fan of that show. So we do lots of different things to help the guides in their career development. We even have our own Employee Film Festival every year…so employees have the rare opportunity to be around the studio and see things normally no-one would see.

JP:       Could you describe what your role within Universal is?

JM:      My official title is Creative Director of Entertainment Production for Universal Studios Hollywood but every time I tell some one that…they stare at me with a weird look on their face. I remember I was in Jury Duty once and a Judge asked me my job title. When I told him, he replied, “That’s not a job!” It was hard to argue with him…I mean you can’t really go to school for “Theme Park Design.” So…I’ve had to come up with different ways of describing what it is I do.

I like to say I'm a professional ten year old, because when I was ten, I built my first haunted house in my parent’s garage. Charged the neighbourhood kids a quarter to go through it. That’s pretty much what I still do today only on a much larger scale.

The other answer I sometimes give to that question is, “I’m a High Tech Carny!” I’m not really kidding about that…anyone who works in this business comes from a long tradition of show people…stretching all the way back to PT Barnum, Coney Island, William Castle (the 50’s B-Movie filmmaker who invented in-theatre effects, seat buzzers, “Smell-O-Rama,” etc.)…heck, Carl Laemmle who founded Universal was a classic showman. He would stage publicity stunts like parking ambulances in front of movie theatres where they premiered Frankenstein and Dracula, putting nurses in the lobby, making Boris Karloff wear a burlap bag over his head whenever he went from Jack Pierce’s make up studio to Stage 12 (where the lab set was built) so as not to, “frighten the pregnant secretaries on the lot.” There’s publicity pictures from the 30’s of this. He did all these PT Barnum-esque publicity stunts.

There’s a great quote of Laemmle’s from 1915 that I think says it all. It laid the ground work for what I do today and anyone else who’s ever worked in this park. It comes from a press release when they first opened Universal Studios and invited the public to visit,

"...just think what this would see the inner workings of the biggest moving picture plant in the wide, wide world. A whole city where everyone is engaged in the making of motion pictures, a fairyland where the craziest things in the world happen. A place to think about and talk about for the rest of your days! See how we blow up bridges, burn down houses, wreck automobiles...see how buildings have to be erected just for a few scenes of one picture and then have to be torn down to make room for something else. See how we have to use the brains God gave us in every conceivable way in order to make the people laugh, cry or sit on the edge of their chairs the world over!"

I love that quote because I think of it as our mission statement. It’s amazingly prophetic, especially considering that Mr. Laemmle said these words in 1915! In an unconscious way…the Universal Studio Tour became exactly what Mr. Laemmle predicted. “Blow up bridges,” that’s the Collapsing Bridge. “Burn down houses,” that’s the Burning House. “Wreck Automobiles,” we’re about to open a new attraction called “Fast and the Furious: Extreme Close Up” where we do just that. My job is to continue to evolve Mr. Laemmle’s original vision for Universal Studios.

Sorry Jon…went off on another tangent but I have to give Uncle Carl his props because he’s the reason I have my job today. Everyone knows the legacy of Walt Disney but very few people know the Carl Laemmle story. That’s why when we put the video system on the trams, the first thing I did was tell a little of that history for our guests. Laemmle is the classic example of the American Dream. He was an immigrant who came to this country with very little money and built a movie empire that still thrives today. He challenged and defeated Edison’s monopoly on movie making that allowed independent filmmakers to flourish, he created the concept of the movie star, invented the American Horror film and opened the very first Studio Tour …not a bad legacy. He set the standard that we all have to live up to.

So getting back to your question…the way Universal develops rides/shows/attractions is not dissimilar from Disney. Disney has its own group called Imagineering as you probably know. Universal has a very talented group of creative and technical people called Universal Creative, and that's where I spent the majority of my career - as a Show Writer and later a Creative Director with Universal Creative. That department is responsible for the creative development of rides, shows and attractions for Universal Studios theme parks worldwide. These are the people who built Universal Studios Florida, Islands of Adventure, Universal Studios Japan, etc. They conceived and produced some of the greatest rides in the world like Spiderman at USF (which I think set a new standard for theme park attractions).

Photo - John Murdy and Casey Dodd
John Murdy with former tour guide Casey Dodd during construction and testing

My responsibility would be to come up with the initial idea for a ride, show or attraction and then see that idea through to completion, overseeing all the creative aspects. In the case of a ride like Revenge of the Mummy, I was on that for two and a half years - from developing the initial concept (with my fellow colleagues in Creative) to design development, fabrication, installation, programming and finally opening the ride to the public. You oversee every aspect of the creative development of a ride and you wear a lot of hats along the way. You work with the Art Director (on Mummy, I had the honour of working with a very talented Art Director named Mark Shumate) - supervising the initial concept art through the set design, fabrication and installation. Writing – from the original concept treatments to writing the shooting scripts for the pre-show and main show. Audio Design (Mummy’s audio designer was Pete Lehman who was part of the Academy Award winning team who did Braveheart and other films). Visual Effects – supervising the computer animation (working with Art David who worked on the effects for films like The Matrix and Signs), Film Directing– directing the live action segments of the ride, Special Effects Supervision - working with the physical effects and the animatronic character’s design, fabrication and programming. You’re a Salesmen - pitching the ride concepts to Senior Management. Even the acting degree comes in handy because I tend to perform a lot of the parts in my attractions (I’m the voice of the groaning mummies in the burial chamber scene). Once the attraction opens, you become a Spokesperson – doing all the press interviews for print and television media. So that’s an example of what a Creative Director would do on a ride like Revenge of The Mummy.

I spent seven years working for Universal Creative, co-developing concepts for rides like Men in Black (a former Tour Guide named David Cobb who now works for the Paramount parks, saw that ride through to completion) and many, many other projects. You develop a lot of projects that never see the light of day for one reason or another. When I started out, my ratio of projects developed to projects produced was something like 40 to 1 but it’s gotten a lot better over the years. During my time with Universal Creative…I worked on projects for all of our parks…MIB at USF, Sesame Street 3D in Japan…but I mainly wanted to work on projects for the original Hollywood park because that’s where I grew up…that’s where my passion was. My first produced project at USH (besides working as a PA on ET and The World of Cinemagic) was creating the movie poster timeline for the Studio Tour. I wanted to show the public all of the great movies that Universal has produced down through the years. One of the nicest compliments I’ve ever received on a project was from Ron Howard who told me that whenever he works on the lot…he makes a special trip down the timeline because he likes to see his films represented alongside all the great Universal films. Later, I served as Creative Director on the 1999 Studio Tour project that put the video system on the tram, created the graphic display panels in the queue line about the history of Universal (and we researched over 500 films to find all those images and film clips), created the new visual look of the tram, enhanced Jaws, the miniature snow scene on Greens Rd, the Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb, etc. After that, I conceived and produced Special Effects Stages (and still oversee the on-going video and script updates to that show).

Photo - John Murdy outside the restored Bates Motel
John Murdy outside the restored Bates Motel

After Special Effects Stages, the Creative group got moved from Hollywood to Orlando, Florida. I was there for two and a half years. But I didn't like being 3000 miles away from my first love - this park, and I was on a plane constantly back and forth during "Mummy." So I had the opportunity to come back to Universal Studios Hollywood and be the Creative Director of this park…working in the Entertainment Department which is what I do now. I still work on all of the big projects with my colleagues in Universal Creative but now I also oversee the creative entertainment in the park and focus more on the Studio Tour.  Last year, my department (Entertainment Production) worked on 70 projects big and small. That’s something like a project-and-a-half a week. We did War of the Worlds on the tram, restored the Bates Motel, put new characters in the park like Zorro and the Madagascar characters, Universalized our Christmas tree (including clapboards from hundreds of Universal films), put that giant King Kong in the park…and much, much more. It’s non-stop work but it never gets old.

JP:       Even in the few years since I've started coming there's an awful lot more going on in the park - a lot more characters around. Has it increased a lot because of Spring Break?

JM:       It's increased a little bit because of Spring Break - we always ramp up things during peak season but in general I think it’s a new focus on creating more and more entertainment for our guests. There’s always going to be new rides, shows and attractions…the anchors of the park but it’s the spaces in between that are equally important. Those little unexpected things the guests experience as they move from point A to B. I get as much out of working on small projects, like the Cartooniversal Gates (an unthemed area of the park that we’re turning into a Sound Stage and movie studio gate) or restoring and dressing the Bates Motel as I do creating Revenge of the Mummy.

My main goal for this park, having seen it in it's old days and having been around the studio for so long, is to always emphasize, always reinforce what makes Universal Studios unique from Disney and other theme parks. To find the answer to that question, all you have to do is go back to Carl Laemmle’s quote from 1915. It’s all there. It’s all about the movies! That’s what has always been and always will be unique about this place. It’s the excitement, thrills and glamour of Hollywood. No-one does that better than us. When you talk about the real Hollywood, the real…authentic Hollywood, there is no place anywhere in the world like this park. That’s why the Studio Tour is so important and that’s why I’m so glad we’re putting so much energy into the Tour again…that’s why our guests still love it 40 plus years later. It’s become an icon of pop culture. Heck…our Jaws attraction on the tour was recently parodied on Family Guy! We took that as a huge compliment! There’s been a lot of imitators over the years..but there’s only one Universal Studios Hollywood. Everything we do needs to reinforce the Universal brand. The “laugh, cry, edge of your seats” that Laemmle speaks of.  One minute you can be laughing with your family in Shrek 4D, the next minute you can scream your head off on Jurassic Park or Revenge of the Mummy. Knowing and living up to the Universal brand is not just about the latest film properties - it's trying to reinforce the entire brand. It’s always important to be current and relevant. One of my major missions when I started working on USH was to really partner with the movie studio…working with them as films are developed. When I was a Tour Guide in 1989…we had this area called “The Preview Center” where guests were supposed to get a behind-the-scenes sneak peak at upcoming films before going through the special effects demonstration (The World of Cinemagic). 1989…those “sneak peaks” included The Sting (1973)…I think Back to the Future was the most current film and that was 4 years old in 1989! I never want to see that happen again. That’s why we update the video on the tram so frequently…why we update Special Effects Stages all the time. Thankfully, the motion picture group has been a great ally on that front. We worked with them all during the development and production of King Kong so we could feature it on the Studio Tour and Special Effects Stages, bring that life size King Kong from Time Square to USH…day and date with the release of the film! That relationship is extremely important to us. It’s essential to be current and relevant but you can’t forget the past…you can’t forget where you came from. That’s why restoring the Bates Motel and the Psycho House back to their original look was so important to me. Current is great but classic is timeless. We have a great legacy. In 2015 this movie studio will be 100 years old. It's in the same place - it's never moved. There's so much to mine from that.

CB:       A quick question - I remember in '89 when Back to the Future 2 was filming, they said in 2015 they were going to re-dress the sets [in Courthouse Square] - do you think that's a possibility?

JM:      I’m not sure if there are definitive plans for that but it would be fun. Of course, Robert Zemeckis also said at the time that hoverboards were real! I remember when that happened - it was hysterically funny. Guest Relations were absolutely bombarded with phone calls from parents wanting to buy their kids a hoverboard for Christmas. He obviously wasn't serious - he said it as a joke. Even so, we had thousands of people calling us asking "Where can you buy a hoverboard?" - jamming all the phone lines. The funny thing about Back to the Future 2 - I still have the original script for that film, the working title was Paradox (or Pair of Docs…get it?). Parts 2 and 3 were originally conceived to be one film. I have a long history with that film series. I grew up in the town where they shot the first film. I watched them shoot the scene where the Deloreon first travels back in time when I was in high school (the scene was filmed at the Puente Hills Mall which was The Twin Pines Mall in the film) and I hung around the set of BTTF 2 when I was a Tour Guide. I watched them transform Courthouse Square from 1955 to 1985 to 2015. My mother (who is a Catholic theologian author) recently had Thomas Wilson (Biff Tannen) show up to one of her talks. I used to shoot baskets with Michael J. Fox in between filming. It was a great experience being around those films…watching Rick Carter’s team transform the sets from time period to time period (and in a strange twist of fate, I just transformed his plane crash set from War of the Worlds into a tram tour experience). There’s a huge fanbase for the BTTF films ( and so on) so I’m sure a lot of people would like to see some kind of reunion. That was a great cast and crew…very nice people.

CB:       It would be cool to do it for the hundredth anniversary.

JM:       I'm sure they'll do something for the loyal fanbase.

CB:       I know Ghost Whisperer is using it now..

JM:       Yeah - Ghost Whisperer is camped out there - they've been there a while.

CB:       They're doing pretty well, aren't they?

JM:       Yes – they just got renewed for another season. They changed the look of Courthouse Square a bit for the series but all the pieces from BTTF have been saved. The clock tower piece has been removed and is stored elsewhere on the backlot. The Lyon Estate signs are still on the lot and we recently put one of the Deloreons on display with a lot of other picture cars as part of the new enhancements to the tour…so there’s quite a bit of BTTF that’s survived.

JP:       Is there pressure from the studio to remove certain aspects which are familiar to the tour but may be problematic for production?

JM:      It's a really bizarre combination that's existed for a very long time. When you think about it, the nature of filming requires quiet - you don't want trams driving by. I remember I was talking to William H. Macy once when he was filming Mystery Men on the lot - I said "what is this like for you guys as actors on the lot". He said, "imagine working in your office and every two minutes 175 people pop by to see what you're doing". He said it jokingly, but he's right - it is a huge intrusion into film-making. It's always a juggling act of how close can we get you to real physical production and at what point do we cross the line and become a detriment to filming. Sometimes you'll go through Jaws and the audio will be quiet - it's not because we forgot to turn it on it's because they're filming Desperate Housewives round the corner and they can hear "Get those people out of the water!!" every two minutes. I think we have a pretty good relationship with the studio on that front. We've been doing it for so long we've got it down to such a science that they understand. And frankly the backlot would never have survived without the Studio Tour - there's no way. Look at what happened at MGM and some of the other studios. At the moment production on the backlot is booming, they're filming all over the place, but I remember during the lean years for the studio, when production had gone out of state there was very little happening on the lot. There's no way the backlot would have survived those years without the tour - they both kind of serve each other, but it is a very difficult balancing act on a daily/hourly basis. Whacky things happen out there - star encounters you don't expect, which most of the time are great for the tour.

JP:       I heard about Jim Carrey up by the Psycho house...

Photo - John Murdy
John Murdy in the shadow of the Psycho House

JM:      Yes, that's absolutely true – I believe it was during the making of Man on the Moon. From what I understand, Jim really wanted to channel the spirit of Andy Kaufman and the crazy improvisational antics that Andy would do. One day, the tram was going by the Psycho house, and suddenly Mother was there having tea, then he/she pulled a prop knife and jumped on the tram. The guests thought it was all part of the show, but the guide and driver got pretty freaked out! The operating department were asking "What is this person doing at the Psycho house?" then we got a call from the production saying "No - it's Jim - he just wants to mess with the tram." That’s what we love about Jim Carrey when he’s working on the lot. I mean, he's driven an ice-cream truck on the lot and tried to sell ice-creams to the tram. I remember Ron Howard telling me while they were making Grinch that when Jim first got into costume and make up he kept asking if he could go scare the tram. They wouldn't let him because they hadn't released publicity stills of what the Grinch looked like yet and those campaigns are planned long in advance. I’m sure they were worried about it getting out because these days when someone takes a photo on the back lot, it'll be on the internet, instantly!

Back in the early '90s there was a great encounter with John Travolta, when he was filming a movie called Shout (before his comeback with Pulp Fiction) over at the Chicken Ranch set from Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. The guide, whose name is Chris, said "Keep your eyes open folks, we might just run into John Travolta" - he literally said those words. They turned the corner and this gold Rolls Royce turned the corner going the opposite direction and smashed into the tram! John Travolta popped out of the Rolls (his driver was behind the wheel) and talked to the guests, posed for pictures, signed autographs…he was very cool about the whole thing. That whole incident ended up in the National Enquirer (because one of the guests took pictures of it and sold it to the Enquirer), "Travolta smashes into tram!" That Tour Guide Chris is now very high up in Kelsey Grammar’s company. The president of Kelsey’s company took his tour and was so impressed with Chris…he offered him a job. Those are stories that could only happen on the Tour. When I was filming Whoopi Goldberg, who is the new celebrity host of the Studio Tour, we had a few moments between set ups, so I asked her, "would you mind if I just stopped a tram and have you say Hi to the folks?" She was game, so we stopped a random tram, and I said "Hey, somebody wants to say hi to you" and Whoopi came out and the people just went nuts! I did a similar thing with Jason Alexander around the time of Seinfeld. Jason later told me that when he was working on the lot on his first TV show (A show called ER, years before the current NBC series), Jason and George Clooney (who was also on the series) used to eat lunch up by the Psycho house because they were hoping someone would recognize them. Steven Spileberg used to eat lunch in the Orca (when it was still in Jaws lagoon) and listen to the trams go by. That's the ideal of the tour - hoping you might see a movie star.

JP: The Travolta Rolls incident is like the celebrity sequel to the old Runaway Train attraction!

JM: Yeah - the Runaway Train never quite hit the tram though. I was telling you yesterday that I remember a brief period when the conductor in the Runaway Train was changed into Mr T, must have been some A Team promotion they were doing at the time. I also remember when they added “The Hulk” to Castle Dracula! That was strange. Suddenly the Hulk comes smashing through a wall and Dracula says, “Blah! The Hulk! What are you doing in my castle?” That was a stretch! I love all those old Universal attractions. That’s what I love about your site Jon…someone had to pay tribute to them and I’m very glad you took the time to do it.  People still ask us about the Avalanche, The Burning House, Battlestar Galactica. There are pieces of those old attractions that still survive.  The Runaway Train is sitting on Denver Street. You can still see some of the mechanisms for the old Avalanche attraction underneath Back to the Future. I'm also told we still have a Cylon from Battle of Galactica down there. I'll have to go see if that's true because he should be in the archive. That's a piece of pop culture.

JP: Absolutely. Going back to what you were saying about 2015, is there a plan to have a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the studio?

JM: I'm actually trying to work on that, or get ahead of that, right now. 2014 will be the 50th anniversary of the studio tour and the theme park, then 2015 will be the 100th anniversary of the opening of Universal Studios Hollywood the movie studio, so there's a great opportunity there where we have two major anniversaries back to back. Everybody saw last year what a big deal Disney was able to make out of the 50th, and I believe they broke a lot of attendance records - it was very successful for them. Everything we're creating now we're trying to think about the bigger picture down the line. It's eight years away, but we've gotta start thinking about it. It's coming up fast!

JP: Definitely. Changing the subject to Revenge of the Mummy - you saw that through from concept to completion...

Photo - John Murdy
John Murdy (right) at the ROTM premiere

JM: Yes…we had already started working on the ride for USF (which was helmed by a very talented designer named Jennifer Sauer) when the USH project got the green light. At the point when I got involved, we knew that it was going in the E.T. building at USH (and in the Kong building in Florida). I was just coming off the Special Effects Stages project so I got a little bit of a late start. They had originally looked at using a different intellectual property for USH but that ended up not happening so it was back to the drawing boards. When I came onto the project, it was a little bit late in the concept of the ride to the point where the track, the physical ride experience, was locked down. It was designed and engineered, so I couldn’t change it. There’s so much lead time required to engineer a ride like that, so much technological research and R&D work was involved since it was the first time anyone had combined a dark ride with a rollercoaster. So I started with the track layout and worked backwards, designed the ride around the track, which is really unusual. You normally want the ride track to serve the story, but in this case there wasn't time for that. We landed on The Mummy as the intellectual property for obvious reasons - the two Stephen Sommers films were huge hits both domestically and internationally, probably the biggest blockbusters (combined) that Universal had since Jurassic Park, so it made sense if we were going to do a big ride, we should theme it on those films. I just started with the property…watched the movies over and over (including the original Mummy films from the 30’s and 40’s) and went from there. We were lucky in that we were able to work with a lot of the original production team and cast, Stephen Sommers (the writer/director), Bob Ducsay (Editor and Co-Producer), Alan Silvestri (composer of The Mummy Returns), Allan Cameron (Production Designer), Arnold Vosloo (Imhotep) and Brendan Fraser (for the USF ride). It was great to collaborate with all those talented people and they were all very enthusiastic about the ride. In fact, I first met Steve Sommers shortly after he filmed The Mummy. We were at a VIP party for Halloween Horror Nights. Someone introduced us and the first thing he said was "When are we gonna make a ride based on The Mummy!" He was totally into it. That's something I've noticed over the years. A lot of Directors, people who get to make these huge films, are surprisingly into the theme park world. I don't know if it's because it's something different from their normal day-to-day gig, but in a strange way they equate having a ride based on their movie as the ultimate success in Hollywood. It sounds funny, but another example is Jonathan Mostow, the director of U-571. One day my phone rang and it was Jonathan. He told me that he had this miniature of the U-571 sub from the production and was wondering if we could use it on the tour. I said, "Of course, I'd be happy to but I'm just curious…why do you want it on the tour?." He said "then I can tell my Mom that I made it in Hollywood".

JP: I guess it's more personal - it's a more direct link with a visitor

JM: I think it is - it's the same for actors in movies versus theatre. You spend so much time in isolation; you don't get that instant feedback of applause. When you open a ride you get to instantly judge your success or failure by the guests reactions. Although we do surveys upon surveys, watching a show or taking a ride with our guests is the only way to figure it out - if they're having a good time, then you did a good job and if they're not then you did something wrong. That may be why these directors really get into the prospect of having a ride based on their movie. Steven Spielberg has always been the same way. We’ve collaborated with Steven on several projects and his enthusiasm is truly inspiring. He was very involved in the Jurassic Park ride and a lot of other projects. Watching a movie is a passive experience but plunging down that 80 foot drop in Jurassic Park…there’s nothing passive about it! For many directors, creating a theme park ride gives them a whole new set of tools to experiment with. It's an entirely different way of telling a story - a very different process from film-making.

CB: It's sort of like "riding the movie"

JM:It is riding the movie - I always liked that tag line. It made a lot of sense.

CB: Yes - with Jurassic Park, they cut the River Adventure out of the movie, but it's a theme park ride, so you can experience it.

JM: That's right. I served briefly as a creative consultant on the theme park aspects of the movie Jurassic Park and I remember reading that scene in the book. There was supposed to be a whole scene with the Pteranadon in the movie, that finally ended up in Part III. If I'm not mistaken, when they were developing that ride early on, they were counting on that scene being in the movie, but it didn't end up happening. When you're developing a ride at the same time that they're making a movie, that happens a lot. You'll develop a cool element from the script into a ride, then find out they cut the scene! Jurassic is the classic example of this - I've seen it happen a few times. They didn't even shoot the scene. We had to wait until Jurassic Park III to finally get it.

JP: It's totally in the spirit of the movie though

JM: Yes. As long as you stay true to the spirit of the movie, you’re on safe ground. You don’t want to just recreate the movie, there’s no point to that…the audience knows what’s coming. That’s one of the things I love about Shrek 4D, it’s the bridge between the first and second movie. The T-1,000,000 isn’t in Terminator 2…but it’s a great element in that attraction. Sometimes you need to deviate from the film a bit and take it to a different place. As long as you stay true to the director’s original vision…it works.  There's no rollercoaster in The Mummy movies but it’s a great delivery system to put you into a Mummy experience. Of course sometimes you can overlabour things to try and justify why they are present in the ride. I remember a huge debate about the conceit for the ride vehicle in Revenge of the Mummy. You can waste a lot of energy if you’re not careful…if you don’t pick and choose what’s important. It was far more important to me to have mummies coming out of the woodwork in that ride…literally coming out of the ceiling at you. Those are the types of scenes from Stephen’s movie that resonated with me. That took precedent over trying to hide the fact that we had a rollercoaster track running through an Egyptian tomb! The audience will forgive a lot if you engage them in a compelling ride experience. It's awfully hard to tell a complex story on a rollercoaster - you have to understand where your audience’s head is at (which in the case of Revenge of The Mummy…hopefully, it’s screaming their head off). That’s something you have to understand when you’re writing a pre-show or developing the back story for an attraction. You have the impulse to want to say a lot like any storyteller…but you have to also know the realities of a theme park and the environment that the guests are in. You have to keep the story as simple as you can. The tomb is cursed…entering the tomb triggers the curse…game on! But on another level…you try to add the type of details that you loved to discover in rides when you were a kid. As long as the story isn’t dependent on them…and its not distracting to the other guests…you try to slip things in for the hardcore fans. On something like Mummy, there is a lot of detail in that ride that most guests would never get in a million years…but some might…sometimes its little inside jokes. My nickname is “Monkey” so I tend to put hidden monkeys in everything I create. If you look hard enough, you’ll find one or two in Revenge of the Mummy. Then there’s the inside theme park jokes. There’s a statue of King Kong inside the treasure room of the Revenge of The Mummy ride in Florida. There was a gold ET in the Hollywood version (ride operator playing a little joke). There are fans out there who appreciate finding those things so you do it for them. If you have to use hieroglyphs in a ride as part of the design…why not use the real thing? Why not know what they mean? Every hieroglyph in both Revenge of the Mummy rides is accurate. We did that because we could. Not that there's an Egyptologist in every queue line going "oh wow, that says 'you're all going to die a horrible death in the fires of Hades'", which some of it does. Most of it says horrible things, and they're taken directly from the Book of the Dead, that’s an element of Mr. Sommer’s movie but it’s also a real book. It was a little bit freaky pulling dialogue and hieroglyphs from that book. We consulted some of the world’s foremost Egyptologists on that project, had them translate parts of the Book of the Dead into English…that’s what the characters in the pre-show presentation are quoting from. When we were filming those scenes…some pretty weird stuff happened. Every time the actress who plays the Seer character said the word "Imhotep" there was a clap of thunder, and it was a cloudless day! We were in a sound stage and we could hear it through the walls. At one point a big 10k light just exploded out of nowhere. It was always when we said the word, “Imhotep” (and Imhotep was a real person in ancient Egypt…he was the pharaoh’s architect). I looked up at one point and there was a single light fixture swaying back and forth, right over my head…all of the other lights in the grid were perfectly still. I suppose there are dangers with trying to be too accurate. I started thinking…hmm, maybe I messed with something I should never have messed with!

JP: You don't get that with E.T.

Photo - Shooting for The Shark Is Still Working
John being interviewed for forthcoming movie "The Shark Is Still Working" about Jaws.

JM: No you don't! You don’t get cursed by Tickly Moot Moots! It’s funny, one of the projects I was working on before Mummy was Sesame Street 3D! Talk about shifting gears! There were no curses involved in that project…though I did get to turn Cookie Monster into a Godzilla movie…battling flying saucers that looked suspiciously like giant chocolate chip cookies! That’s what I love about this business. It’s never boring!

JP: Do you regularly ride on The Revenge of the Mummy to check it?

JM: Yes, I do check up on it. But I rode that ride hundreds of times during programming. You have to kind of let go of it at some point. Let the people who have to operate it take care of it. Mike, the operational manger of the Mummy is a great guy...he’s totally dedicated to that ride and I trust him to keep it looking its best. The ride operators are great…they do a fantastic job. Plus there is a great bunch of men and women in our technical department who are working on in 24/7. It’s the highest rated ride in the park and a lot of that success is due to them. No matter how good an attraction is when it opens, it's gotta be maintained, or it's no longer what you intended. It's a huge job to maintain a ride like that. The ride never shuts down. Every single vehicle has to be inspected every single night. The procedures have to be followed and documented every night. There's never an hour when there isn't someone in that building doing something.

CB: Does state law differ according to the intensity of the ride? Is it the same for Mummy than it was for E.T.?

JM: That's one area I'm not an expert in so I wouldn’t want to answer that question. There's a separate group of safety gurus who deal with the intense amount of scrutiny you put into a ride like that. Our number one goal, above anything else, is the safety of our guests. We take that extremely seriously, and we have a really good track record on that front.

JP: Is there a notion that a ride has to exist in the park for a certain length of time to cover it's costs?

JM:(laughs) Again, that’s something I’m not an expert in either! But I would think it would be really hard to quantify that kind of thing. But I would say that the goal with any major ride, is to get at least 10 years out of it. E.T. opened in 1991 and we took it out in 2003 - 12 years is a pretty good run (and we still have the ride at USF). But technology changes, times change.

JP: Back to the Future is coming close to not being in the future any more. As 2015 approaches, there must be a plan, I guess....?

JM: Yeah, that's another one of those areas I can't really talk about but you point out an obvious fact.

CB: I have a quick question - I heard a rumour - there are a lot of rumours around!

JM: Oh there are - I go on places like Screamscape and Mouseplanet - I go there cos I'm curious to see what they're saying. I think it's healthy that people speculate - people are interested, and that's cool. Some of them I'll read and they have it totally wrong - there was never a plan to do that. Sometimes, they are dead on. It's amazing. They're all over Disney too. I can't really comment on anything unless it's patently false. Was there a specific rumour?

CB: Well, I heard a rumour they're doing a Knight Rider movie.

JM: I've heard that a lot.

CB: Would you guys consider putting the car back into the park to link in with the movie?

JM: K.I.T.T.? (laughs). You never know. The Knight Rider movie has been talked about a lot but a number of movies go through this. Spiderman was in development for something like 15 years. The Hulk was in development for years. Peter Jackson first pitched King Kong to Universal right after he did the movie The Frighteners, way before Lord of the Rings. A lot of movies go through long development cycles. Another one that just officially got announced is Creature from the Black Lagoon. That’s been in development a long time.  It's now attached to Breck Eisner (Sahara). Gary Ross, who wrote Seabiscuit and Pleasantville, is writing it. His dad wrote the original movie in 1954.

JP: What would you really like to see in the park that you know, deep inside, is never going to be possible?

Photo - John's Monster Attic
John's Monster Attic

JM: I'd answer that differently. I know there are several things I’d like to see in the park and I’m hoping I can do something with them before I retire. I am a huge Universal Classic Monster fan. I’m a bigger freak about the Monsters than Steve Carrel in the 40 Year Old Virgin! I remember watching that movie with my wife, the scene where he had to part with his monster toy collection and asking, “Why is everybody laughing?” I have a Monster Attic in my house with over 1,000 pieces of Universal Classic Monster memorabilia. There’s a Wolf Man swizzle stick, a Japanese Mummy ear cleaner! I know I’m a huge geek, but that’s been a life long obsession for me and I won’t go to my grave till I’ve given the Monsters a proper home at USH. This year is the 75th anniversary of two of those films…Frankenstein and Dracula. They are #1 and #2 in the Guinness Book of World Records for the characters most often portrayed on film! It’s crazy - there's a little punk rock clothing store just down the street from where I live and it's chock-full of monster stuff! There so much Classic Monster merchandise still being made, someone other than me must be buying it! These characters are still Pop Culture Icons after 75 years. They even put them on stamps! It was fun doing Mummy - I love all our horror properties. But my ultimate goal would be to something with the Classic Monsters. We made all of those movies. You could legitimately say this studio invented the horror movie. The German expressionist directors made movies like the Cabinet of Dr Caligari, Nosferatu and so on, but the real monster movies started at Universal with The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Phantom of the Opera, Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Wolf Man, The Creature From the Black Lagoon! Who knows? The studio is remaking Creature and The Wolf Man.  I’d also like to see us do something with all the costumes, props, miniatures and other assets from the 91 years of movies that have been shot on this lot. I think that's what people come here for. They come here to experience Hollywood! That's why they’ve been coming here for the last 42 years…that’s what makes us Universal Studios Hollywood.

JP: John, thank you so much for your time - that's covered everything I wanted!

Interview ©, 2006 

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