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An Extra Special Halloween Treat: The other "Haunted Mansion" movie

Jim Hill

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An Extra Special Halloween Treat: The other "Haunted Mansion" movie

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If you're a Disneyana fan, I'm sure that you'll recognize the following couplets:

Serpents, spiders, tale of a rat,
Call in the spirits, wherever they're at,

Rap on a table, it's time to respond,
Send us a message from somewhere beyond

But this next line may not be as familiar to you:

I beseech you to hear this spell that I cast
Let us now see dark deeds from the past

"Now what is that, Jim?" I hear you asking. "A line that Madam Leota says in Disney's new 'Haunted Mansion' movie?"

Well ... It is a line that Madam Leota says. And it is from a "Haunted Mansion" screenplay. Just not the one that Walt Disney Pictures opted to produce earlier this year. The one that Robert Minkoff directed and Eddie Murphy stars in.

But -- that said -- this is still a line from a "Haunted Mansion" screenplay. One that the Walt Disney Company toyed with producing twice in the 1990s. Only to have the studio eventually take a pass on the project.

So how did I manage to get my hands on this screenplay? Well, you see ... Sigh ... I co-wrote it.

You see: Way back in the 1990s, long before I became the fat-but-happy webmaster that you see before you today, I was a struggling screenwriter. And I -- and my then-writing partner, Sheila Greenberg -- were doing everything we could to get noticed. By that I mean: we pitched ideas to anyone who would listen. Pestered producers. Annoyed agents. Cranking out spec scripts for "Star Trek: The Next Generation" as well as "Murphy Brown. Only to be told -- time and again -- "Thanks but no thanks."

Even so, we never got discouraged. We always kept hustling. Forever on the lookout for that big break. And then one day -- in the late Spring of 1993 -- it actually happened. This amazing opportunity dropped straight into our laps.

Sheila and I learned (in a way that's far too convoluted to recount here) that then-Disney Studio head Jeffery Katzenberg was actually toying with the idea of making a series of movies which would be based on the Mouse's most popular theme park attractions. And among the films that Jeffery most wanted to make was a movie about Disney's "Haunted Mansion."

Now -- totally co-incidentally -- six months earlier, I had spent several delightful days at the home of Marc Davis. Where this veteran Imagineer had walked me through the entire developmental history of Disneyland's "Haunted Mansion" attraction. Which left me with pages of great notes about the real back story of this ride, who all these characters were that you encountered in your journey through the house, etc.

My original intention was to use all this info that Marc had given me as deep background for an article that I hoped to sell to "Disney News." But then -- when this other opportunity suddenly came along -- Sheila and I (along with the help of my then-wife, Michelle Smith) jumped at it.

So we took all the mythos and characters that Marc had told me about, and then attempted to cobble together a coherent narrative. Something that would try and explain the real origin of Disney's "Haunted Mansion" attraction. Why all these creepy but colorful characters ended up haunting this particular house.

And -- given that we'd never have been able to written this screenplay without Mr. Davis' input -- Sheila and I decided to pay tribute to Marc ... as well as many of the other Imagineers who worked on this attraction and/or inspired us along the way. Which is why -- in our "Haunted Mansion" script -- virtually every character is named (in some way) after someone who worked at WED at one time or another.

Anyway ... We work frantically for a few weeks until our "Haunted Mansion" script is done. A nice, tight PG-rated supernatural comic-adventure. In short, exactly what Jeffrey Katzenberg was supposedly looking for.

At least, that's what we were told by our agents at UTA when Disney finally got ahold of our screenplay. The reaction of the studio was immediate. They supposedly loved our script. Particularly the merchandising possibilities of the project. So much so that -- in early November of 1993 -- Sheila and I actually met with the senior staff of Disney's gaming division. Why for? Because these guys wanted to talk with the two of us about taking the characters and concepts that we'd created for our "Haunted Mansion" screenplay and using those as the basis for the Walt Disney Company's first-ever role playing game.

It was a pretty exciting time. Which -- sadly -- abruptly came to an end when -- later that year -- Disney's accountants finally got the box office totals for "Hocus Pocus" in hand. Given how miserably this PG-rated supernatural comic-adventure had done at theaters worldwide, Katzenberg abruptly announced that there was absolutely no audience out there for this sort of motion picture.

And -- once Jeffrey's pronouncement came down from on high the doors started slamming shut at the Mouse House. From that day forward, no one at Disney would return any of our phone calls about the "Haunted Mansion" project. And Sheila and I went from being hot-hot-hot to cold-cold-cold in a matter of seconds.

Which was -- admittedly -- a kind of a disappointment. But as our new agent at Coast-to-Coast Talent explained: "That's Hollywood for you, guys. Things happen real fast out here. Scripts can go from being the absolutely hottest thing in the development pipeline ever to dead-as-a-doornail in a day's time. That's just the nature of the beast out here on the coast."

But then -- almost as an after-thought, sensing that her two new clients needed a bit of bucking up in order to get over this crushing disappointment -- our agent then said: "But -- on the upside -- sometimes things that are dead in the water can come roaring back to life. So who knows? Maybe your 'Mansion' script will catch a break. It's unlikely. But it's happened before."

Well -- as it happens -- our "Haunted Mansion" script actually DID catch a break. 3½ years later, our agent at Coast-to-Coast gets a call from someone on Disney's TV side of the house. And -- as it turns out -- the Mouse is now interested in producing our "Haunted Mansion" screenplay. Only as a special TV movie which was scheduled to air on or about Halloween 1998 on ABC's "The Wonderful World of Disney."

So our rep at Coast-to-Coast haggles back and forth with Keystone Productions (The production house that Disney wanted to have produce the TV movie version of "The Haunted Mansion." Keystone and the Mouse -- as it turns out -- did a lot of stuff together. You know all those "Air Bud" sequels that Buena Vista Home Entertainment keeps releasing? Keystone Productions produces those. Anyway ...). The end result is -- in March of 1997 -- Sheila and I end up signing a contract that gives Keystone Productions a six month option on our screenplay. We're each receive a nice little check for our efforts, along with the promise of lots more dough to come -- should the TV movie that's based on our "Haunted Mansion" screenplay ever actually go into production.

But that -- sadly -- never happend. What went wrong? To be honest, Sheila and I have never gotten a satisfactory answer to this particular question. Near as we can figure, given the disappointing ratings that the "Tower of Terror" TV movie (which aired on ABC's "The Wonderful World of Disney" in October 1997) racked up, Disney television executives quickly lost most of their enthusiasm for making a TV movie that was based on "The Haunted Mansion."

So -- after six months -- the rights to our "Haunted Mansion" screenplay quietly reverted back to Sheila and myself. And that script went back into a drawer. Where it probably would have stayed ... Except that -- late last year -- Walt Disney Pictures announced that they were making a live action feature film that was based on the "Haunted Mansion" theme park attraction.

Now I'd LIKE to be able to tell you that the movie that the Mouse is releasing next month is based on Sheila and my screenplay. But -- based on what I've been able to uncover so far about Disney's soon-to-be-released "Haunted Mansion" movie -- Mickey's in-house writer, David Berenbaum (Best known for his work on the "Country Bears" screenplay) seems to have crafted a scary tale of his very own. Which makes use of some of the same characters and situations that Sheila and I used, but -- in the end -- is a very different take on the same material.

Which should have been the end of this story. Except ... Well ... I didn't like the idea of Sheila and I's version of the "Haunted Mansion" screenplay ljust anguishing in a drawer somewhere. Never to be seen or read again.

So I thought -- BEFORE the new Eddie Murphy "Haunted Mansion" movie comes out -- that I'd give you folks the chance to take a look at the version of the film that Disney almost produced. Twice.

So -- after getting Sheila's permission (Thanks, Sheila. I owe you big-time for this) -- I got in touch with the nice folks over at DoomBuggies.com. And we worked out a deal.

The actual story of how Sheila and I's version of the "Haunted Mansion" movie almost got produced will be housed at JimHillMedia.com. But the screenplay itself ... That would become part of the great collection of "Mansion"-related material that www.doombuggies.com already has on display over at their website. You'll find a link to the script at the tail end of this article.

A word of warning, though. Before you throw yourself headfirst into this 108 page long opus, please keep in mind that Sheila and my "The Haunted Mansion" screenplay is NOT some great unproduced masterpiece of American cinema. This film was meant to be a supernatural comic-adventure aimed at a family audience. So don't expect Stephen King-type scares and/or Oscar Wilde-type wit.

"So just what exactly were you trying to do here, Jim?," you ask. Well, Sheila and I both grew up on the Disney films of the late 1960s / early 1970s. You know, your "Blackbeard's Ghosts," your "Bedknobs and Broomsticks." Those motion pictures that strictly adhered to the Mouse House style of movie-making. Where the audience was guaranteed a big special-effects-filled slapstick-laden final sequence (where the villains always got their comeuppance) before the film finally segued into a happy ending.

That's the sort of "Haunted Mansion" movie that Sheila and I were trying to put together. Something that attempted to catch the flavor and the feel of those old Robert Stevenson / Bill Walsh / Don DaGradi Walt Disney Productions productions.

That ... And we had one hard-and-fast rule as we wrote this script. That -- on the very last page of our "Haunted Mansion" screenplay -- that the haunted house that served as the central setting for our movie had to become the place that we all know and love from our numerous visits to the Disney theme parks. A place where ...

Happy haunts materialize,
And begin to vocalize,
Grim grinning ghosts come out to socialize!

And -- for the most part -- I think that Sheila and I succeeded. Oh sure, there are part of this "Haunted Mansion" screenplay that still make me cringe. That make me wish that we'd had the chance to do one more polish, one more rewrite.

But it's a little too late for that now. But not too late for you to take a peek at the "Haunted Mansion" movie that Disney almost made back in the 1990s. I offer this script up as a special Halloween surprise to all our loyal JHM readers. (Though it's ultimately up to you to decide if this screenplay's actually a trick or a treat.)

So what are you waiting for? Just click on the link below, which will take you over to the page where www.doombuggies.com has Sheila and I's screenplay stored.

There's no turning back now!

Happy Halloween, everyone!

jrh

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