Jason Surrell: The Adventure Continues
Star Wars and Surrell
His Twitter handle is “Red Eleven”. The avatar includes one of his many Disney books. Meanwhile, the header features the well-weathered eye of Harrison Ford’s Han Solo, guarding the feed.
Watching all from a galaxy far, far away…
Most would bristle at the over-analyzation of their social media. However, Jason Surrell’s nickname and page headers are apt representations. They represent a person for whom Star Wars means so much; for someone who still looks fondly to Lucasfilm and Disney, but now presides over the Universal realm.
Surrell is virtually light years away from the construction zone of Star Wars Land, but, in reality, just a short, 12-minute drive down Florida’s I-4.
Now a creative director at Universal Creative, Surrell, a former Disney cast member, Imagineer and show writer, explained to MakingStarWars.net that he feels lucky to have worked nearly his entire adult life for two amazing companies.
He also confided that he owes much more than just his career to his current and former employers.
“Universal Parks and Resorts is home to some of the greatest characters and stories of all time,” said Surrell. “And I think if you see where the industry has gone in the past few years, specifically with what our company has done with Harry Potter, both with Hogsmeade and with Diagon Alley; you’re not going to get a more immersive interactive experience in terms of entering these worlds, which have previously been confined to the movie screen.
Recently featured in news feeds touting Universal’s “virtual lines” on March 21 Surrell told the Los Angeles Times, “I think it represents the future of what we’re going to be doing in themed entertainment… the first step on a journey that will eventually lead us to a generation that doesn’t even know about theme park lines.
“It will be ‘What do you mean, wait in a queue? What’s that, Grandpa?'”
Sure, fans of all franchises would love to see theme park lines eliminated. And hopefully, Jason’s current project cuts the Hogwarts queue down to house-elf size (and, force Disney – pun intended – to push the efficiency of its own wait-reduction systems in the lead up to the addition of Star Wars-themed spaces).
However, someday Grandpa Jason will tell tales that rival even the wildest adolescent career goals and will certainly overshadow any other nostalgia.
King at the World
“She was playing Queen Amidala, so technically that makes me the king of Naboo,” said Surrell with a laugh as he described his myriad personal connections to Star Wars – including his wife, Meghan, then a Walt Disney World (WDW) cast member – established during his time with Disney.
“It is an honorary title,” he added, “but I’ll take it.”
Honorary? Maybe. Deserved? Definitely.
Surrell began his journey as a Jungle Cruise skipper on the WDW College program; made his way up the vocational ladder until he could literally touch the stars. Through Walt Disney Imagineering, Jason worked directly with Lucasfilm – and George Lucas himself – on the reboot of Disney’s original Star Wars property.
During his incredible climb, Jason encountered many faces familiar to Star Wars fans, including Return of the Jedi’s Wicket the Ewok, The Clone Wars’ Jedi Master Obi-wan Kenobi, and Star Wars Rebels’ Ahsoka Tano.
Star Wars Stars and Friends
“I was one of the directors on Star Wars Weekends for many years,” said Surrell via phone, as he drove himself to the theater to see Beauty and the Beast and Kong: Skull Island (of course). “I’ve really been very fortunate and that was how I was able to cultivate some of the relationships that you mention.
“It was through Star Wars Weekends that I really got to know Warwick Davis, James Arnold Taylor and Ashley [Eckstein] in particular. And the interesting thing is when you find yourself in a position where you are fortunate enough to go beyond what you know from the screen and get to know them as people, you immediately begin to realize what’s genuine friendship and affection.
“In [the Eckstein’s] case, they’re the Godparents of our son and Ashley and I have taken trips to Skywalker ranch together and when I was living out in California and she was out in California and both of our spouses were here [in Florida]. So, we really consider them family at this point.
“And then every time Warwick and his family are in town we always make time for dinners and we travel to theme parks together for no other reason than we just genuinely love each other’s company.
“But it is unbelievable because every once in awhile you’ll have those moments,” continued Jason, who also worked with Davis, Eckstein and Taylor (and others) on the fondly-remembered Raiders of the Lost Jedi Temple of Doom: A Fan Film of Epic Proportions. “I remember when our son was born and they got us a gift… which now sits on our mantle.
“Sometimes I glance up at that and I’ll flash back to 13-year-old Jason; I’m like, ‘Oh my God, Wicket got me that.’
“So, it’s definitely eyes surreal in some ways they’ve really gone from being actors and performers to friends… and that’s just one of the many ways that Star Wars and my association with it has really blessed us.”
Touring the Stars
During a relatively uncertain time in Star Wars off-screen history, Surrell helped bridge the real-world time gap between Revenge of the Sith and The Force Awakens.
“I was part of the creative team behind Star Tours: The Adventures Continue, the reimagining of a Disney theme park classic, and it remains one of the highlights of my career,” wrote Surrell on StarWars.com in 2014. “The day we traveled to Skywalker Ranch to pitch our concept to ‘The Maker’ himself was one of the best days of my life.”
Three years later, Surrell characterized the experience of working with Lucas in near-exact terms. He described the process of creating Star Tours in ways usually reserved for those who work on the films. According to Surrell (who also worked on Hollywood Studios Symphony in the Stars, the predecessor to the current Star Wars-themed fireworks show at the parks), that’s no accident. he admits he was almost
However, he admits an accident almost occurred, when Disney higher-ups called about the project.
“It goes back to 2005 when Tom Fitzgerald [now Imagineering Vice President, Senior Creative Executive] called me up and said, ‘Hey I was wondering if you’d be interested in working on the new Star Tours,’” recalled Surrell. “I literally almost drove off the road into a lamp post.
“He made that call because he knew how much I loved, that world and the material, so I was one of the writers on the project; I did a lot of the original story development work.”
“That was the year Revenge of the Sith was coming out, but we didn’t necessarily know if there’d be any Star Wars beyond that,” he said.
Bridging the Gap
Tasked with continuing the legend in a way that would satisfy hard-core fans, as well as general theme park visitors, Surrell and the creative team, had a tough job ahead of them.
The original version of Star Tours takes place after Return of the Jedi. Noting a measure of creative leeway (as it was assumed the films would not continue), the team “looked at everything” including adding new locations and characters extraneous to the film universe.
However, the writers decided they needed to place the new simulation into a time period that would satisfy the many fans that would want to see locations from either (or both) the prequel or original trilogies.
“We landed on what we came to call Star Wars Episode 3.5,” said Surrell who explained the final decision centered on being able to draw on characters and visual inspiration from all six films. “The average fan just isn’t going to get all of the backstory, but we envisioned Star Tours as kind of ‘front’ operation that the Rebels put together by as a way to ferry information and spies and everything else across the galaxy, sort of under the Empire’s nose as a legitimate space line.
“We also, in our own minds, went to great lengths to figure out why C3PO and R2D2 were there. And, at one point – we didn’t do this – but we were going to have portraits under the spaceport that basically said that ‘Our Founders’ [with] Bail Organa, Princess Leia, and Mon Mothma,” added Surrell. “So there is definitely a logical explanation as to why the droids were there.”
Meeting the Maker
Although it defied his own credulity, there was a logical explanation for his 2007 trip to Skywalker Ranch.
“One of the highlights of my career,” remembered Surrell. “I got to accompany Fitzgerald and Steve Spiegel [now Executive Story Development at Walt Disney Imagineering] and the rest of our team up to Skywalker Ranch to pitch it to George Lucas.”
Given the mythos surrounding “The Maker” of the Star Wars universe, Surrell understood questions around this particular event.
“It’s interesting,” he mused. “We were talking about working with the actors, earlier, and I think the same is true when you get to work with people who have taken on mythical proportions, like George Lucas, like Steven Spielberg – I’ve done a lot of work with his properties at Universal, as well – and what you come to discover, and this was certainly the case with George is that as incredibly talented and influential as they may be in life, and in my life and career in particular, that they are just people; they are just storytellers trying to tell a story.
“George has always struck me as this very down-to-earth, kind of introverted, shy guy. But up at Skywalker Ranch, when you get past that initial ‘Oh my gosh, that’s George Lucas’ [moment], it’s interesting how quickly your brain switches over to the task at hand. In that moment you’re like ‘I’m a storyteller [too], and I have to pitch my story to this person and this person just happens to be George Lucas.’
“J.J. Abrams and Gareth Edwards I think have talked about that as well,” continued Surrell. “Not that I am comparing myself to them by any stretch of the imagination. However, that’s the moment where you have to take off that fan hat. Put on your professional storyteller hat and just sort of get at it.”
Talking With George
For 45-minutes, Surrell and his fellow team members took Lucas through the entire experience of the Star Tours reboot.
“He was very interested, into it and engaged,” said Surrell. “It was very important to him…to bring his stories and characters to life for people in the real world. He had some comments, and some suggestions. That continued long after that meeting and well into the development and production process.
“[Lucas] was very interested in this particular aspect of Star Wars’ legacy – the fact that it would live on in the Disney theme parks. And that was well before the acquisition. Now, of course, we know that Star Wars and Indiana Jones definitely aren’t going anywhere.”
As Star Wars began its expansion into the parks, Surrell was the one on the move.
“I had been living in Glendale for all of 2013 working on that iteration of Star Wars Land,” said Surrell. “And then, the project was put on hold by [Disney CEO] Bob Iger. He wanted us to hold off until J.J. Abrams could brief the team on what he was going to be doing with The Force Awakens.
“It was very important to Bob that this major commitment in the parks to represent the present and future of Star Wars. So, my temporary relocation was put on hold…and I ultimately returned to Florida.”
Back in Florida, Surrell had some major decisions to make.
“At that point, I started talking to Universal…” he said.
Stepping Into a Larger World
Surrell, much like the characters in the beloved franchise, looked to the horizon.
“There was just a great deal of uncertainty as to what was going to happen,” confided Surrell. “And I wanted to take my career to the next level.
As A Fan…
“I can’t really talk about what I worked on,” said Surrell. “And I don’t really have exposure to what they are working on now.
“The best way that I can answer [those questions], as somebody who does this for a living – and as a fan – is that it’s abundantly clear that the company and Bob, in particular, want to do right by the Star Wars galaxy and truly bring something to people that they’ve never seen before.
“I am excited just to experience that as a fan. I want to walk into whatever it is they’re going to build and take my son by the hand. Walk him up to the Millennium Falcon; allow him to experience some of these things that he’s just starting to be a part of as a three-year-old.
“But it will be very different than what we were working on,” continued Surrell. “What I’m most interested in is seeing how people – fans in particular – react to what is slated to be an original environment; a planet they’ve created just for this experience. It’s interesting, as someone who works with a lot of intellectual properties that are ever-changing…I am really starting to gain more of an appreciation for why they made that decision.
“They’re trying to allow themselves as much latitude and flexibility as possible to do different things and create different experiences. [They’re trying] to capture as much of what the world loves about Star Wars as they can.
“And as a fan…” is an important note in the Surrell story. Jason needed to leave Disney to allow himself
Jason needed to leave Disney to allow himself the latitude and flexibility to create different experiences, professionally.
“At that point [in 2014], I made the very difficult personal decision to leave Disney and go to Universal Creative because they were also offering me an opportunity to ‘graduate’ from show writer to creative director.”
“Literally the toughest decision I ever made,” said Surrell. “It’s turned out to be one of the best decisions I could’ve made because I’ve been able to do some really wonderful things [at Universal] and kind of spread my wings.
“But leaving Disney was incredibly emotional. Not because of my affection for the core Disney Company but it’s where Star Wars lives, it’s where Marvel lives. I kept joking with people, all they have to do is buy Seinfeld and Batman. I would never have to work anywhere else,” he said with a laugh.
The opportunity at Universal was no joke. Surrell continues to work with some of the world’s most well-known intellectual properties.
“There’s a certain point when you have to put aside your personal love. Your fandom, if you will. And do what’s best for you as a professional and for your career. And Universal was offering me the opportunity to become a creative director. That was an opportunity that I had to take.
“Had I stayed at Disney and had ultimately returned to Star Wars, it would have been in a show-writing capacity. So I had to weigh it very carefully. What was going to be more valuable to my professional life; to my personal life and my ability to provide for my family? The answer, when you look at it through that lens, is very clear.
“It’s not as odd as someone might think,” added Surrell from his catbird seat. “My [professional] career began there back in the 90s, so in many ways it was a homecoming for me to return to the studio of Jaws and Jurassic Park and the ‘House that Steven Spielberg Built’, the Universal Classic Monsters – I have a great affection for a lot of the properties we work with at Universal, as well.”
The Adventure Continues…
Meanwhile, Surrell’s former vocation remains his avocation. Frankly, it has to. Star Wars has – from a certain point of view – given Jason everything and he remains a big fan.
“I have been able to revert back to a time and condition…where I am able to just love and appreciate these as a fan,” he said. “That has actually been wonderful and. In many ways, it makes up for not being able to touch it professionally on a daily basis.
“When you think about it, I was a Star Wars fan first. And this year marks 40-years of that fandom. So it really has been wonderful to just love and appreciate it from that perspective again.”
His daily sightlines make it especially so. “King” Surrell met “Queen Amidala” because Jason’s future wife was reading a book by Carrie Fisher.
“Star Wars has given me so much more than just influencing my career,” reiterated Surrell. “And in the last couple of months, it’s become even more poignant [to my family].”
Jason was directing Star Wars Weekends at Disney’s Hollywood Studios when he spied a woman reading Wishful Drinking.
“I was just like, ‘Oh my gosh – this beautiful woman reading Carrie Fisher’s memoir!’ Immediately transfixed, that got us to talking, and our relationship took off from there.
“But we’ve always referred to Carrie Fisher as the person who brought us together. We were talking to her once at one of the celebrations and I had her sign my copy of Wishful Drinking. She wrote, ‘For Jason and Megan, long may you wave. Love, Your Matchmaker, Carrie Fisher.’
“That’s obviously become a prized possession. But again, it was the world of Star Wars. In particular, it was Princess Leia herself who gave me my wife, a few years later, my son and my family, We take that very seriously – it’s very, very true. I’m not making it up.
“I wouldn’t have that if it weren’t for Star Wars…”