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VALLEY BUSINESS | HORROR INCORPORATED

Creative Director Dreams Up Movie-Quality Fright Effects

October 24, 2000|JENNIFER PENDLETON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Cory Asrilant, 30, has the dream position for a longtime Halloween freak: creative director for Halloween at Universal Studios Hollywood.

Asrilant, who started at Universal in high school as a part-time stage manager, now earns his living year-round dreaming up and executing elaborate attractions for "Halloween Horror Nights."

Asrilant has been logging 100-hour workweeks lately--on two recent nights bunking on his Universal City office floor.

"It's one month out of a year when I get no sleep and I have no personal life," Asrilant said, "but it pays off when I stand outside the attraction and hear the screams and laughs."

Question: Are there any ideas you have rejected because they're too scary?

Answer: Never. There's never been something that's too scary for us. We take pride that this attraction is very much in-your-face.

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Q: You don't feel any restraints to keep this family-friendly?

A: We don't recommend the event for children under 13. This is definitely not a family attraction. People have to be prepared to be scared and have a good time. This is for people who are thrill enthusiasts, roller coaster fans, theme park fans.

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Q: How long have you been in this role?

A: Since Halloween Horror Nights began in 1997. I was on the six-person team that spearheaded the project, our first go at making a big Halloween party. The entertainment department thought it was a good idea. They needed someone to lead and develop it.

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Q: What made you right for this job?

A: They knew of my fascination with horror, my love of horror films and the whole genre. Ever since I was a child, I've loved it. "Aliens" was one of the first horror movies I ever saw--also "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," and some of the old 1970s flicks. My parents used to take me to them. I loved them.

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Q: How did you put the first Halloween Horror Nights together?

A: They brought me in in December. For the first three months we built a creative team of designers, effects people, lighting guys, makeup artists, other kinds of specialists, to come up with the scariest, most-intense experience available. We sat down and drew pictures, drafted ideas and concepts, wrote some creative treatments, then proposed it to the company. Basically, we had lots of meetings and received evaluations from different company executives and we convinced them to do this.

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Q: Walk us through the creative process. In January each year, what happens?

A: We sit in a room with a big board in front of us and we literally list every different way we can scare people. We look at all the different properties we'd like to work with, such as Rob Zombie, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," and the World Wrestling Federation. Then we try to figure out ways we can incorporate those into haunted attractions. We develop them room-by-room, idea-by-idea. Then we go to character development and specific scares, the animated elements.

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Q: You have professional talent involved, such as rock musician Rob Zombie and author-filmmaker Clive Barker. When do they join in this process?

A: We brought in Rob Zombie and Clive Barker early. We've worked with Clive Barker for the past few years. He came up with his Halloween idea last year [in 1999]. He told us about a nightmare he'd had and how he wanted to turn it into a haunted house for next year. He drew up the idea, wrote a one-page treatment and brought it to the team in January. We developed it with him. We sat in a room with him for hours and came up with lots of cool ideas based on his dream.

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Q: Where do you go for inspiration?

A: Besides going to every horror film we can get our hands on, there's a lot on television. That's where we got "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Angel." They're obviously extremely popular. Those shows have fans who know the characters and settings very well. We want to make sure we can create something to satisfy them.

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Q: Are there any professional venues that offer inspiration?

A: Every year, there's a big Halloween convention in Chicago. Thousands of haunt companies--everyone from magic shops and haunted houses to amusement parks--show up at this convention. It's in March, for three days, but by then, we're already deep into it. By the time we went there, we already had two mazes almost nailed down and that was Clive Barker and Rob Zombie.

At the convention we get the opportunity to see what's new out there. But what we see in Chicago, we usually take a step further. Being a movie studio, we're expected to give movie-quality effects. We can't just take what we see off the shelf. We have to make it ours. Our Halloween Horror Nights fans have come to expect film-quality and television-quality [effects]. We have the talent and resources. So why not use them?

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Q: Do you take in any of the local haunted houses?

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