Of course, the pressure would be on to craft a project that all parties (Disney, Jackson, and the production team) could agree on... But imagine how Disney Imagineer Rick Rothschild must've felt when he was given just three days to cook up concepts to present to Michael Eisner, George Lucas, and Michael Jackson. Yikes.
Still, in three days, Rothschild developed as many good concepts for the team to choose from.
The first idea played off of Jackson's love for Disneyland. In the film, he would've stayed inside Disneyland after hours to explore, waking the park's Audio Animatronics figures along the way. Of course, it would've crescendoed with a full-on "Thriller" style dance performance inside Pirates of the Caribbean – his favorite ride.
In another concept, Michael would've played the part of a forever-young forest sprite (a logical fit given how much he loved Peter Pan - so much so that his exclusive Santa Barbara, California manor was called Neverland Ranch. Here at Theme Park Tourist, we even did a deep dive as we looked into Neverland Ranch and the theme park Jackson had built there, modeled after Disneyland). When a cruel, frosty ice queen threatened the forest and its enchanted inhabitants, Jackson's gift of song would've melted her heart and saved the forest and its mythological creatures.
All parties zeroed in on the latter idea, but knew it was more fit for Fantasyland than the attraction's destination in Tomorrowland. Luckily, Jackson and company were thrilled with the idea of reformatting the story to fit George Lucas' interstellar style. Rothschild reworked the idea as an "Intergalactic Music Man" who would arrive at a dismal, industrial alien planet bearing the gift of song to soften the heart of a ruthless empress.
With a story in-hand, production on the world's most extravagent music video was set... SPACE KNIGHTS was ready for production!
With a plot set, it was time to retroactively create a cast.
First, Michael's character... Still unnamed, it was Ford Coppola who began to toy with some ideas. Ultimately, he and Michael liked the idea of naming the character after the Greek goddess of dawn – Eos. Like the mythological deity, Jackson's character would be a light-bearer, bringing warmth and life to a cold and lonely industrial planet, (crafted by Harrison Ellenshaw, who'd created many of the groundbreaking space backgrounds for Star Wars). The character became Captain EO, and the working title Space Knights was dropped.
The film's other lead – the Supreme Leader of the cold, industrial planet was initially famed actress Shelley Duvall (known for dozens of films, not the least of which being The Shining). Only one thing stood in the way... Michael was determined that the Supreme Leader would be scary – really scary – as he felt that children liked to be frightened. Duvall, then, would play an ugly, twisted, industrial character who'd seemingly fused into the tattered and rusted planet. When she arrived for pre-production, crewmembers needed to take a casting of her torso to create prosthetics to cover her. The claustrophic Duvall was so horrified by the process, she opted out of the production entirely.
A little-known actress named Anjelica Huston took over. As luck would have it, just as production began, Huston won an Academy Award for her role in Prizzi's Honor, catapulting her into fame and making her a star in her own right opposite Jackson. In 2015, Lemorande told Yahoo! News, "We suddenly had a way bigger star. She became famous very quickly after Captain EO. She didn’t have an Oscar before we hired her. If she had an Oscar before we hired her, I’m sure she wouldn’t have done the job."
Perhaps the next most important members of the cast would be the imagined ones. Lemorande and the rest of the crew developed a ragtag team of fantastical explorers to be part of EO's crew. The flying housecat/butterfly hybrid Fuzzball, the double-headed navigator and pilot pair Idey and Ody, the robotic security officer Major Domo, and the unforgettable fan-favorite, Hooter. Michael, particularly, was said to be deeply fascinated by the puppeted creations.
Guts, Grabs, and Grandeur
With everyone on set, filming for EO began.
Even then, the conflicting desires of Disney, Coppola, Jackson, and the mostly-absent George Lucas led to disagreements, re-shoots, and editing. As ideas grew, so did the budget as Jeffrey Katzenberg (then part of Disney, soon to be exiled by Eisner to create their competitor, Dreamworks) tried to refuse budget increases against Lucas' insistance.
Meanwhile, Coppola wanted to be sure that the inevitable dance number was integrated into the production, rather than just being "tacked on" at the end of a short film. A problem arose there, too: Michael Jackson hadn't told anyone what or how he'd be performing. In fact, he'd written "We Are Here to Change the World" and "Another Part of Me" just for the film.
In editing, Disney executives were horrified by the number of crotch-grabs (a signature dance move) Jackson had slipped in. They insisted that editors cut the shots to block out the "obscene" dance move, but ultimately editors decreed it too time-consuming and – frankly – impossible. Another potential edit? Michael's voice. While his signature singing voice was the whole point, executives feared that Michael's naturally high-pitched, childlike speaking voice might surprise audiences. Allegedly, they considered digitially lowering or even dubbing over Michael's speaking voice altogether, but ultimately no one had the guts to break the news to Michael, so they simply left his natural voice in place.
Captain EO might've been the boldest, wildest, most cutting-edge music video ever made. But one aspect of the production trumps all others: its budget. The film cost somewhere between $17 and 30 million. True to form, no one from Disney is talking. Assuming the lowest end, that would mean that the 17-minute Captain EO cost $1 million per minute – by far the most expensive film "per minute" ever created at the time. And despite its miniscule runtime, production took a full year, wrapping in June 1986.
Even so, one thing remained to be seen: would anyone even like this unprecedented collaboration? On the next page, we'll celebrate the attraction's Grand Opening and see (and hear and feel) exactly what guests did... Read on...