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A HAUNTER’S TALE with J. Michael Roddy

How does a young boy go from watching “Jaws” to being the creative genius behind projects with Lucas Film, Marvel Studios, Disney, and many others?

J. Michael Roddy is a Highly-skilled Creative Director/Director/Writer and Producer with over twenty-five years of expertise in collaborating closely with partners including Lucas Film, Marvel Studios, Disney’s Animation Studios, Disney Channel, Lionsgate, Warner Brothers, and Pixar to create original entertainment experiences for millions of Guests. He was also instrumental in the development and execution of marketing-based marquee events including Halloween Horror Nights, Mardi Gras, Grinchmas, and Star Wars Galactic Nights.

J. Michael Roddy’s collaborative leadership style enables internal and external teams to reach their full potential and achieve outstanding results. He’s an expert at taking an idea from the blank page to a finished project.

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A HAUNTER’S TALE with J. Michael Roddy

Karla Nelson:  And welcome to The People Catalyst, J. Michael Roddy.

J. Michael Roddy: Hey. Thank you for having me.

Karla Nelson:  Hey. We’re excited to have you on today. Man, you’ve got a wonderful, incredible background in the fact that you obviously work for Disney and Universal, and you’ve collaborated with all these people in the entertainment industry. However, you’re so incredibly entrepreneurial and have worked in so many different capacities. So tell us your story. How’d you get there?

J. Michael Roddy: Oh, it would be my pleasure. It’s really interesting. I do have a really unique path to my success and my career. I started out many, many years ago as a performer first. But I’d even like to take you back further than that. When I was a kid, I saw a movie called Jaws, and it was obviously one of the biggest blockbusters of the time. When I was a kid, I saw that film and it was so much fun and so thrilling, and so just captured my imagination and I was so into it. And I love movies to begin with, and any form of storytelling, whether it was comic books or what have you. But at that early age, I saw that film and loved it. And then shortly thereafter, anything I saw in a magazine or in a newspaper about Jaws, I wanted to look and understand.

Well, there was a book that came out by author Carl Gottlieb, who actually was in Jaws and wrote the script for Jaws, and he documented the making of the film in a book called The Jaws Log, which I highly recommend for anybody who that has an interest in how films were made. But at the time, there really wasn’t a lot of making of documentaries. Actually, there weren’t hardly any. Or books about making a film. So, I picked up this book and I looked at it, and again remember I was six, maybe six and a half. And I took it to my mom, and I was like, “Oh, I want this book,” and she was like, “Oh, that’s a grown-up book. I don’t know if you’re going to want to enjoy that.” And I’m like, “I got to have this book.” And God bless her, she bought it for me. I sat and I thumbed through the book, and I can still remember it vividly, there was this picture of the shark and the cage, the scene where the shark was attacking.

Karla Nelson:  Oh, I remember that very vividly.

J. Michael Roddy: Yeah. It was a view that I had never seen before, and there was somebody outside of the cage with what looked like a big camera, and then shark was on an arm. And then it all really clicked for me. I mean, I knew that people made movies, but again, this all clicked for me. Oh my gosh, somebody made this. That is exactly what I want to do. I want to tell stories. And that set me on a course of just always being fascinated with the art of story, the different ways that you can tell story and deliver it, whether it’s a … I took photography classes because it’s me capturing an entire story in one frame. It’s such a mastery of storytelling. Drawing. Ultimately, I became an actor because that was a way I could use my vessel and tell stories. And was doing pretty well as an actor, but always was interested in just being a little bit more manipulative with the story and a little bit more able to control the emotion of the story.

And I wrote and I directed and I studied, and then I was hired to be an actor at Universal Studios Florida when it opened back in the early 90s. And there were events and things like that, and I knew a lot about films. I was kind of a walking encyclopedia, behind the scenes, and how things were made, and quotes from movies and things like that. And actors and actresses and directors and writers. So I became kind of their go-to go, or one of their go-to guys. When they were creating events, they were like, “oh, we’d like you to come in and just brainstorm with us”, or “what could this event be?” And I slowly but surely, I started doing voice overs for them, I started performing for them. Then it turned into “hey, why don’t you write this for us” or “why don’t you direct this for us?” And then I never looked back.

I was able to work on tons of entertainment experiences for Universal, all branded as great Universal films. And then I just kind of made my own niche and kept going, and then I decided to break out on my own. One of the first things I did as a freelancer is I ended up talking about kind of coming back full circle. I was hired by the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce to help create a celebration on Martha’s Vineyard where Jaws was filmed, for the 30th anniversary of the film.

Karla Nelson:  Wow. That’s coming full circle there, huh?

J. Michael Roddy: Oh, it was amazing. And basically, because everybody in the industry that I met knew that I loved Jaws, they had gotten my name and they were like, here’s the guy you want to do this. And because of that, I had a friend, a high school friend who was also … we had a love of Jaws. So, we had done little films when we were in our teen years and became known in our local community as kind of the film guys. We would always be out there filming stories or doing things like that. So, I called him and I said, “Look, I got this opportunity to really put together this great event. But more than that, I’m going to be given access to a lot of the people that were in the original film that live on Martha’s Vineyard, and maybe this is a great way to tell their story.”

And with that, he jumped on board, and between us and two other friends, we pulled our money and our resources, and we started doing interviews with all these folks about how Jaws impacted the community, how Jaws impacted the film world, and then ultimately, the legacy of Jaws. And that led us up to actually being able to interview everybody that was living and involved with the film Jaws, including Steven Spielberg, John Williams, Roy Schneider came on and narrated it for us, Richard Dreyfuss. So now so many years later from that little boy who loved Jaws and just was so passionate about it, I now am part of a documentary called The Shark is Still Working. I was the producer. And it is on the Jaws blue ray. Universal licensed it from us, and so now I had the pleasure of this thing that really affected me, this property that really affected me when I was a child, now I’ve kind of given back to it. It’s not lost on me, the power and positive power of attraction, and how you can see yourself and ultimately realize one or many of your dreams.

Karla Nelson:  I love it. I love when I hear people know what they want to do, right? That’s so cool ’cause that’s not everybody that just says that’s what I want to do. And also, I love the art of story. That’s really the underlying way that we build relationships, regardless if that’s in a movie, in entertainment, or your marketing. I mean, it’s so speaking, right? Just how you connect with individuals. I love that. And I think there’s something though also, outside of passion, that really is important. And you obviously, being in the entertainment industry, have to have this strength in being successful, is the fact that you can facilitate a great team. Entertainment does this the best, especially with creating movies, right?

They create an LLC, they find the best talent, you come together, whoever does great gets to join in the next whatever it is that they’re doing in whatever project it is. And then they dissipate and then they come back together. I mean, I really think business should be done that way. If corporate American ran that way, you’d always have great people on your team. However, can you share a little bit about how you attracted those teams that you worked with and how it’s so imperative to have those talented people to … you’ve got to create it, but then you’ve got to execute it, and that definitely has a lot of weight on the people that you choose to work with.

J. Michael Roddy: Oh absolutely, Karla. That is so just perfect to talk about because in the entertainment industry everyone has this view of oh, it’s all about the passion and the emotion. But that doesn’t resonate with me in the business world or in the marketing world, or even in your relationships. In my opinion, it absolutely is all fundamental to the fact that you’re telling a story. Whether it’s a piece of marketing or the mission statement for a business or a new venture, it really is understanding how you want to connect with people, because without connection there is no story. And that to me, is the key. You have to figure out a way. And for me, it’s always been just really listening to people, seeing what their passions are, and how you can translate that. How you can connect someone’s passion with what you’re doing so that they understand and then want to help. They want it to be successful because they like it too.

That’s so succinct in the fact that the art of story is important and should be really focused on in education for any line of business. It is something that is imperative from, like I said, from base relationships all the way to Fortune 500 … You have to understand your story and you have to have a story that resonates with people so that they care. Why do I choose to go here for my service? Well, because I like the story of that. It’s not just the product, it’s the story behind the product or how the product … I interact with it. That is so key, and you have to let people in on that. They want to know that. Everybody wants a story. No one just wants mindless activity.

You look at some things out there and I think that’s where you see and you go sit in a movie, and you’re like, wow, I really didn’t care for that. Well, no one’s set out to make a movie that no one cared about. They spend many million dollars. And the same thing though. Any show that I’ve ever done, the first question I ask myself is what do I want to say to people with this show, and how do I keep that pure and connect with people? How do I touch those emotions within? Again, back to seeing a film that you might not like, for me, it’s like, all right, well, take a step back. I didn’t like the story but there were thousands of people that all got behind something. And it’s fascinating to me, where did it disconnect? How did it disconnect? And really study that, because I think you’ll find the key to why people love brands or why projects are successful or brands are successful, or unsuccessful, is how did they connect to people?

Karla Nelson:  Oh, I love that. It’s so true, all the way from the big picture, if you’re raising money, down to the boots on the ground, crossing the T’s and dotting the I’s. And I love what you said about building the team because I think this is definitely, especially in business, not valued enough, which is listen to your team and then find out what their passion is and what they’re good at, and help them sit in that space of doing what they love too. It’s one of the things that we teach and train, that 100% of the work is made for 1% of the population. Not everybody likes the same things or does the same things, and that underlining thing is people are different.

And so can you share with us just a couple of the ways in facilitating a great team, or the tools or the methods that you used? And some people come by this a little bit more naturally than others, but we all lead in different ways. How did you, with your team, have that connection and ensured that … because a lot of times in the creative space, you can kind of get the, I’m so in love with my idea, kind of thing, right? I mean, it’s just common because in our methodology, shakers and product people, especially if they’re in that mode, they just want to push everybody into something rather than pull, right? And the idea is not to press, it’s to attract. What did you do to attract your team to the purpose of a project?

J. Michael Roddy: Well, it’s actually very, very simple in my mind. And I’ll use sports, even though I’m not necessarily a sports guy. But nobody wants to be on a team that doesn’t get to play. I mean, the basis of that is if you’re on a team, you want to feel like you’re a contributor. You’re not just, oh, I’m the numbers guy, or I’m just providing art, or I’m just providing costume, or I’m just providing facts or graphics, or what have you. My base has always been get that team into a room, and when you’re assembling them, understand that everybody needs to feel safe and feel empowered to be creative.

Creative is a word that somehow has morphed into this mythical kind of gift that only a certain few can have. And then first thing I always say is everyone is creative. We are creative human beings. Now, does that mean that you can go paint something or express yourself in a way with photography or singing or what have you? I don’t know what your personal way of presenting or kind of being creative is, but I do know that from day one we are all given … it’s our basis to be creative. We want to tell stories. We want to communicate our thought and our emotion. Whether it’s when you’re a child and you don’t get what you want, before the parameters and the conformity are placed upon you, you openly express what you want.

Karla Nelson:  I love that. So true. I love the kindergartners when they ask them, can you dance? Yes, I can dance. Can you sing? Yes, I can sing. Can you … yes, I can do that.

J. Michael Roddy: No one’s told them they can’t, right? Society hasn’t told them they can’t. Well, somehow when that elevates and you get older, creativity has now become, I’m not creative, I’m not a creative person. It’s like, you’re absolutely a creative person. We’re all put together with a very unique series of adventures and life and relationships that no one else has. So if you’re telling me in a room when you come in, oh, I’m just here to do the numbers, I don’t want that on my team. I want your perspective. What do you think about this? What do you think about this? And empower them to express their thoughts. That doesn’t mean that okay, you just said this and now we’re changing this … the entire scope. No. But I got your perspective and I know how there are other people that are going to feel like you, so I should take that into account. How can I reach you to make you love this? How can I reach you to say “Oh my gosh, I’m really interested in that”? That is the base of it, is really-

Karla Nelson:  Yeah. I love that.

J. Michael Roddy: … collecting everyone any saying this is not just me. This is us. I want to know what you think about it and I want to know what you think about it. It doesn’t mean ownership, but it kind of does mean … well, it does represent te fact that I am involved.

Karla Nelson:  Yep. You’ve got it.

J. Michael Roddy: You respect me, you respect my opinion. And the person that’s involved in a product wants that product to … they want to share that. Once you have involvement, then you have the need to tell the story. And that to me, is the basis for anything.

Karla Nelson:  Yes. And business, corporate America, we call this, and I can’t stand this buzz word, Michael, is employee engagement. It’s like that just means people hate their job. Okay? That’s it. And Gallup says 70% of people hate what they do everyday simply because the opposite of putting a square peg in a round hole and not taking the time to listen to them. These little, simple things that can fix the fact that people become disengaged and then closed off. And the best teams I have ever worked with, and we facilitate this and we have all around the world, is the one where everyone gets to put their thumbprint on it. And it’s still better when you get perspective from every different person on your team, so I love that. And I just think that you have a natural gift of that, and being aware of it, it’s awesome that you can communicate that so others can utilize it.

I just think that there’s some people are just naturally more inclined to be able to stop and then facilitate that and listen to what’s going on, which is an incredible asset. And one of which is critically important because the largest cost to any business is employees that are not engaged, and turnover. It’s critical. It’s absolutely critical, and it’s so much fun when you’re having a great time and everybody gets their freedom to contribute. So I … go ahead.

J. Michael Roddy: I want to be very specific. There seems to be a lot of … I don’t want to say threat, but it does seem like from the outside when you hear that, well, I’m giving up control. No, you’re not giving up control. You actually are more in control because you’re expressing exactly what you want and you’re having a conversation. The minute you tell somebody this is what you have to do, and they don’t understand it, they don’t care. If I don’t understand why I’m doing something, I don’t care. I mean, it’s mindless. Whereas even a small conversation, hey, I really need you to do this for me because … and here’s the story. All right. I now become a part of that story and I can be the hero of that story. Because why? you need this from me. You just said that. There’s the activity. You need this from me because you need my perspective, you need my talent, you need my story to join your story so that we can be successful. That to me is the key.

And again, engagement. Engagement, even though it sounds active, it also sounds so bland. It doesn’t sound fun. And there is a problem out there in my opinion that a lot of people are passively moving through their existence. Things are happening to them and they’re not a member of their own story. You write your own story, and your level of engagement is important. I wish this is something that we … I wish I had had this at an earlier age in my life because again, it’s a mind shift that just allows you to do what you want to do and pursue what you want to pursue. Again, is everyday rosy and is everyday “oh my gosh, I’m filled with this and this?” No, but I move the bar. I move towards my goal. And that’s a level of success.

Karla Nelson:  And even if you take a couple steps back, it’s okay ’cause you’re going to move forward and move forward. It’s definitely not a sprint, right? We’re running a marathon. So okay, so I have to ask you about … Well, when we met, I was with a colleague and they thought we met the most amazing, incredible super star on the planet because you created this incredible Halloween leader at Universal Studios called Jack. Which by the way, now I’m fully Jack understood. I know where he came from. I had to come back home and check this out ’cause everyone at this event knew who Jack was. So I definitely got an education there. You’ve got to share a little bit with how that happened, and then we’ll bridge over and let our listeners know about the book you just came out with, and then how they can get a hold of you.

J. Michael Roddy: Oh, well that’s very kind. I was instrumental in some of the creative development of Halloween Horror Nights for a number of years. And one of the things I did while I was there is I created a spokesperson for Halloween. I remember vividly there was a need to really communicate what is the Halloween Horror Nights experience to guests. And they were having focus groups and trying to figure out what scared people and hook into that, and you know my history of horror and just loving the genre, I heard that people were afraid of clowns. And to me, that was a no brainer. I’m like, well, I understand why people are afraid of clowns. They’re supposed to provide joy and comical relief, but there’s a lot of mischief to clowns as well. Trick or treat and scaring someone is kind of the adrenaline filled version of being mischievous.

So I came up with this character named Jack that was a clown that became their spokesperson that year, and was hugely successful because he could be fun or he could be frightening. There was an air of mischief. You never knew what he was going to do, and he worked perfectly for communicating what is, again, the base emotion of Halloween, right? The reason we love Halloween is because, all right, I’m safely going to be scared. I want to be scared but I don’t want to get hurt. I don’t want it to be real, I just want the feeling, the adrenaline, the fun. You know, why people get on rollercoasters and what have you. And he communicated that perfectly, and he has been around ever since. That was year ’99, 2000.

Universal still uses him from time to time, which I’m very proud of. We got the right actor to play him and I love that that is one of my … when people in the industry that are in the haunt industry or Halloween industry, they know me for that and I take great pride in that because again, they know his story and I created his story. So the act of storytelling works. You know the story. And then the fact that you can add onto the story. I mean, I’ve seen fan art and I’ve seen people really adding to that character, which is fantastic. And he continues to grow some 19 years later.

Karla Nelson:  That’s awesome. I thought that was the coolest story ’cause everybody that was at the event just … I felt like I was with a super star. I’m like, yeah. Even though at the time, I’m not very … the haunting industry would not necessarily be where I would be like, woo-hoo, because I just get too startled. I try and I try. But it’s so cool, and I love the art of storytelling obviously. We’ve gone through that. And you’ve taken that and your background, first starting out with Jaws, which how amazing. The story there and … nobody is ever going to forget the do-do-do. It’s two keys on the piano. It’s incredible. Then to you creating Jack, and most recently you’ve written a book called Haunter’s Tale. And you also have a podcast on iTunes called Monster Kids. So if you’d like to share a little bit about that and then let our listeners know where they can get a hold of you.

J. Michael Roddy: Oh, sure. So Haunter’s Tale was my work in the haunt industry over the years. I’ve met tons of really great creative people. And there’s a lot of fun in the haunt industry. Again, it’s filled with people who want to be mischievous and scare people and tell these great stories. Horror is one of the base stories that we share. The survival of something, or something traumatic that happens, or something scary that happens. There’s a cathartic kind of transformation that goes with it of I survived or I came out of it better. So basically what I did with Haunter’s Tale is a collected a bunch of these people, these friends and peers that have worked across the country, and I said, “Okay, what would you do if I gave you a vehicle to tell what you think is scary? And you can do that in any way. You can write an original story, or a script, or a piece of poetry, or you can draw, or you can take a photograph, or tell true ghost account. Anything you want to do, just as long as it’s in that realm.”

And the book came out, it’s so diverse and so much fun. I mean, there’s activity pages in there that one of the artists did a zombie activity page because he loves the fact … being a kid and loving horror, he wished he’d had that as a kid. So this is volume one, and it’s available on Amazon. And it’s an easy read. You can pick it up and thumb through it and pick a story. The other thing that’s great is you see the original contributions, but then afterwards there’s something called Scare Cred, and each one of the contributors … there’s an interview that let’s you know what they love about the genre, what they love about Halloween, and what they love about what they do. It’s really a great way to understand this offshoot genre, and I’m really proud of it. And hopefully they’ll be a volume two coming very soon.

Again, you can find it on Amazon right now. The other thing that I have is a podcast called Monsterkids. That’s all one word. It’s on iTunes, and it came from a documentary I made called Monsterkids, which really focuses on the fact there are all these people that discovered the horror genre when they were kids and loved it, and still love it in today and in some cases have made careers out of it. Effects artists, authors, filmmakers, actors. And that documentary really looked at that in an hour format, but this is my podcast to kind of continue that and talk to other people about their stories of why they love horror and why it’s a positive genre.

Karla Nelson:  Yeah. I love it. I’m telling you, at the event we were at, everyone was incredibly passionate and some of the nicest people I think I’ve ever met in one place. Well, thank you so much for joining us today, J. Michael Roddy.

J. Michael Roddy: Thank you. And I really appreciate being a guest, and thank you for what you’re doing. This is fantastic.

Karla Nelson:  Thank you, sir. We’ll talk to you soon.

J. Michael Roddy: Bye-bye.

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