If you're one of the tens of thousands of people who've already screamed your way through the "From Dusk Till Dawn" maze at this year's Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood and the Universal Orlando Resort... Well, you have Wilmer Valderrama to thank for those scares.
And, no, that's not because Wilmer plays a key role in this hit TV series on the El Rey Network. But rather because Valderrama has been a longtime Halloween Horror Nights fan.
"Seriously. Wilmer's been coming to this event every year for years now. I'd see him in the Park and go 'You're here again?,' " recalled John Murdy, the executive producer of the West Coast version of Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights. "That's how Wilmer and I actually became friends. And he's been actively looking for ways to get involved with this event for a number of years now."
"That's true," Valderrama admitted during a recent interview.
I've been a huge fan of Halloween Horror Nights for a very long time. I've also been John's groupie for a very long time. I just love how he and his team mastermind these mazes. Give fans the opportunity to have the physical experience of walking through their favorite horror movie or TV show. Which is why I kept calling John, saying 'I want to do something with you guys. I'm a producer and developer now. Let's figure this out.'
Unfortunately, given that Wilmer's post That '70s Show career has mostly been built around family-friendly fare like Handy Manny... Well, it was kind of hard to imagine how that preschool program could be used as fodder for a haunted house. But then Wilmer found himself cast as Carlos Madrigal, the 500 year-old master villain & crime lord in From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series.
So I'm down in Austin on set. And I'm looking around the bar that my character runs on the show, and I suddenly realize that this place would be a great setting for a Halloween Horror Nights maze. I mean, wouldn't it be cool if people could walk into the Twister and then -- just like we do on the series -- go explore the depths of that Mesoamerican temple below the club. Which is why I picked up my phone and gave John a call.
Now it just so happened that Mr. Murdy had been trying for more than a decade to get a "From Dusk Till Dawn" haunted house built at Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights. From the moment that this cult classic first arrived in theaters back in January 1996, John knew that this Quentin Tarantino / Robert Rodriguez film could be the jumping-off point for a really amazing maze.
"The only problem was that Robert Rodriguez is this very busy guy. So whenever we'd reach out to him to try and get a dialogue going about Universal possibly doing a 'From Dusk Till Dawn' maze as part of one of our Halloween Horror Nights, Robert was off directing some movie. And now he's running his own television network. So I began to think that this was never going to happen," Murdy recalled. "But then I get this call from Wilmer. Who -- as luck would have it -- has been cast as one of the leads in From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series. So he then became our ace in the hole when it came to finally getting Robert onboard with the idea of us doing a 'From Dusk Till Dawn' maze."
Of course, what's kind of ironic about this whole situation is that -- while John had been struggling for years to even get negotiations started with Robert -- Wilmer closed the deal for a "From Dusk Till Dawn" maze in about a minute and a half.
So I went up to Robert and I said 'Hey, I don't know if you've heard of this.' Robert lives in Austin. So I don't know if he's familiar with what goes on at the Universal Studios Hollywood park. 'But have you ever heard of Halloween Horror Nights?' And Robert goes 'What is that?' And I explain about the mazes and he goes 'Oh, yeah. I've heard of that. I was invited a couple of times to do that.' And I was like 'Cool. If we had the opportunity to work with Universal Studios to build this maze that not only celebrated our show but also helped to promote it, would you do that?' And Robert was like 'I don't know. Do you think we should?' And I was like 'Hell yes.' And that's when he said 'Okay. Maybe we should give it a shot.
"So Robert and John finally connected. Mind you, I still had to convince the powers-that-be at From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series that this would be an easy & effortless collaboration. Which it did actually turn out to be, thanks to people like Greg Nicotero," Wilmer continued.
Greg (for those of you who don't know) is one of Hollywood's modern make-up masters. And one of the films that originally helped to put him on the map was 1996's From Dusk Till Dawn. Which is why -- when Rodriguez & Tarantino decided to reimagine that cult classic as an epic supernatural crime novel for television -- Nicotero immediately signed up to be part of that project. Just so he could then revisit those characters.
"And given that Greg is the special make-up effects supervisor and co-executive producer on AMC's The Walking Dead, he's worked with us on all of the 'Walking Dead' mazes that we've done to date at Halloween Horror Nights -- including this year's 'Walking Dead: End of the Line' maze and our Terror Tram experience. So Greg was able to reassure Robert that we'd do a really great job with our 'From Dusk Till Dawn' maze," Murdy enthused.
And John (along with Mike Aiello, the Director of Entertainment - Creative Development at the Universal Orlando Resort. Who rode herd on the East Coast version of the "From Dusk Till Dawn" haunted house at Universal Studios Florida's Halloween Horror Nights event) delivered. He and his team created a maze that not only paid tribute to the El Rey Network's first scripted show but also rewarded the super fans of this new hit series.
"Take -- for example -- how we've propped the storeroom section of this maze. This is the part of the Twister that's actually below the club, down in the bowels of that ancient Mesoamerican temple which the Twister is built on top of. The storeroom is where the vampires keep all of the weapons that they've taken off of the people that they've then eaten," Murdy explained.
So when we're propping a maze that's based on a well-known horror movie or TV show, we always look for those items that will then please the uber-fans when they see them. Like this 'Choose Your Fate' wheel. This piece of plywood -- which has a fork for its spinner -- was on the TV show really, really briefly. I think maybe only in a single shot. But even so, to prove to From Dusk Till Dawn fans that we have really been paying attention, we had to replicate the 'Choose Your Fate' wheel and then place it in our storeroom scene. That's an example of the crazy lengths we're willing to go in order to get all of the details right in our Halloween Horror Nights mazes.
John also made sure to use social media to engage From Dusk Till Dawn fans. Give them a way to have a truly unique experience whenever they visited this particular Halloween Horror Nights maze.
"I personally run the Halloween Horror Nights Twitter feed for Universal Studios Hollywood. And each night, I Tweet out a different password. And if you say this password to the doorman outside of the Twister just before you officially enter the 'From Dusk Till Dawn' maze, he'll then hand you a card like those cards that they hand out along the Las Vegas Strip. And the great thing about this card is that if you call the number that's on it, you'll then get to hear this message that Wilmer recorded," Murdy enthused. "It's just like an Easter Egg in a video game. This little, little detail that we're doing for the very hardcore fans of the series."
"I had so much fun working on this project. And I just love the fact that hundreds of thousands of people are now getting the chance to walk through this thing that I helped to make happen," Valderrama concluded.
After all those years of trying to come up with an excuse to collaborate with John on something for Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights, I'm just glad that Robert invited me to be a part from 'From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series.' Which then finally gave me a way to play a creative role in this incredibly cool experience.