Interview: Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway Songwriters Christopher and Elyse Willis Discuss Creating The Newest Mickey Mouse Song, Star Wars, and More (Exclusive)
Today, I had the pleasure of interviewing Christopher and Elyse Willis who recently released their single “Nothing Can Stop Us Now” from the new ride Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. In the interview, I talk to them about their experience with the Paul Rudish Mickey Mouse shorts, working with Russi Taylor, Star Wars, and more.
How did you each first get involved with Disney?
Christopher: In my case, I heard about a casting call for the Mickey Mouse shorts back in 2012. I had been assisting other composers and wasn’t established at all but was very fortunate in that Disney TVA was doing blind casting calls which meant that the executives who were listening didn’t know if it was a big name or not. I had actually been assisting and working behind the scenes on several Disney movies by then. I worked with Rupert Gregson-Williams on Bedtime Stories and with Henry Jackman on Winnie the Pooh and so I really was able to throw myself into there and get that gig. All of my Disney stuff since then has grown out of the relationship with the Mickey shorts.
Elyse: I think by the time you (Christopher) had started working on the shorts, I had sung on a handful of Disney movies. I’m a singer and had been fortunate enough to have been asked to sing on some of those films. Then when Chris got the Mickey shorts gig, it became quickly apparent that there were going to be a number of needs and opportunities for singers on those episodes. I think, initially, they weren’t quite sure how they were going to handle everything and the first episode where they needed singers was more work and more challenging than I think they had originally anticipated because they’re all so specific and there is such a variety of the type of singer of specialty that people do that was required. And so they were like “Oh, your wife is a singer! Can she help find singers and sing on this?” And I was like “Yeah!”
Christopher: Elyse is being quite modest about that actually. So, without her, we had to find two yodelers. It took the music department and me weeks to find the yodelers that we needed and the next thing that was needed was an opera singer to be the whale in O Sole Minnie and Elyse found two singers and it seemed to take her about an hour or two of making calls.
Elyse: Well, Chris is being very nice (laughs). The point is, it happened very naturally and was a good use of our skills and our knowledge and then over the years, we became really good friends and very close to the Mickey team. When songwriting became a bigger part of the Mickeys, that sort of was an organic process of us working together and working with the team. So, it stemmed out of our really solid relationships.
I’m curious, since you guys have almost a hundred shorts now that you have written for, how you are able to find inspiration and keep from repeating yourself?
Christopher: In some ways, I feel a bit sheepish about it because the impetus musically comes the directors and the editors and the writers. Basically, all of the people on the Mickey team come to every short with this massive amount of listening and thinking that they have been doing. A lot of it is vintage obsessive going down these crazy rabbit holes of listening to discover this enormous amount of music that people don’t necessarily know now because it’s not in the mainstream zeitgeist. In every case, the music in the episodes have come out of these conversations. I remember Alonso Ramirez Ramos who did the Carnival episode. He had actually gone to the Imagineering library, which is just down the road from TVA. They have a library full of books and recordings to do with everything that Imagineers have ever wanted to research. And he actually got me a bunch of books and CDs because he got so obsessed with Carnival. In the end, it almost always ends up being the case that there are so many ideas we have that there isn’t enough room for all of them. All of the bizarre instruments and the winks and nods that we all collectively want to get in there. I really owe them a lot because what ends up sounding like it’s pouring out of my brain is really me interacting with them.
There is such a rich legacy when it comes to Mickey Mouse and Disney cartoons and so it is cool to see that they are still doing those vintage style cartoons with the music that, like you said, you don’t necessarily hear other places anymore.
Christopher: Yeah, and you see them doing it conceptually and visually too. It’s fun to have things where, if you get interested and curious, you can go very deep and there’s a lot of references to Disneyland rides or references to quite obscure movies or just strange stylistic things. Paul Rudish introduced me to Martin Denny who wrote the music that used to play outside the (Enchanted) Tiki Room for decades. Incredibly obscure Disneyland reference but we went off and listened to all of this Martin Denny music.
The new ride Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway was inspired by the shorts as was the song you wrote for it and I am curious what your initial thoughts were when you got the phone call and were asked to participate in this first-ever Mickey Mouse ride for the parks.
Christopher: It was crazy. To bounce off what we were just talking about, it was crazy to think that people who were so interested in the legacy not only of the company’s films but also of the rides, we were now able to double back and turn the cartoon back into a ride. I think in terms of the songwriting is that the song is part of telling the story of the ride. You hear the start of the song at the start of the cartoon that you get to watch before the ride even kicks off. The enormity of thinking about the heritage of Disneyland songs and it hit me right away. But also, it was a while ago and it hardly seemed real back then.
Elyse: I would say also because of the cartoon at the front of the ride, it’s sort of like doing a regular Mickey short. It’s not to make light of that but we didn’t think of it the same way as if it had been Pirates or The Haunted Mansion, where the song was just continuously playing through the ride. Basically, everyone is watching a short and we have to tell this story and by the end of the ride, we have to make it all make sense. So musically and lyrically tying the whole story up in a nice bow all had to happen. But it started from this place of almost being exactly what we would do in a regular Mickey short.
The big difference, I would imagine, between something like a ride versus a short is that on a ride you are working with Imagineers and people who are actually building this thing rather than the artists and the animators. I wonder, has the song changed as the ride was being worked on or has it stayed the same during the whole process?
Christopher: I think the song itself has stayed pretty constant. We actually couldn’t write the end of the song until I had an idea of what that scene was going to be like mechanically. Is that true?
Elyse: I think, basically, the song has remained constant. The version of the song that was released as a single doesn’t have the exact same ending as it does in the ride. Basically, the ride takes you on a journey musically and lyrically in a very particular place that, without having gone through that journey if you are just listening to the song on its own, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. So, the single version of the song kind of ties it up in a nice little bow before we go off on that journey. If you imagine that you saw the entirety of the short that everyone is seeing in the beginning, that might be how the song ends in that episode.
I was very excited to hear when I listened to the song that Russi Taylor, the longtime voice of Minnie Mouse who sadly passed away last year, was able to be part of it.
Elyse: Yeah, it was really special actually. I was actually in the booth with her when she recorded it. It was an incredible moment and memory. The last recording session we did with her was for the last Mickey short which is the one where she sings the song that she has written to Mickey called Carried Away. That was the last time we saw her in person. As you probably know, she was married to the voice actor of Mickey. I remember her telling me during the session for that song that it was so special because in the episode she is playing the ukulele and singing, and he would play the ukulele when they would sing together. We were so glad that she got to finish that round of the shorts and to be able to be the voice on the ride. We wouldn’t have it any other way.
I know you have done Disney projects apart from the Mickey Mouse shorts. One of them, Elyse, is your involvement with Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, in which you were the vocal contractor. I was wondering what that role involves and what it was like working with John Williams and his music?
Elyse: Well, I suppose every project is sort of unique in terms of the exact responsibilities of a vocal contractor. But for the last Star Wars, we had the Los Angeles Master Chorale which was the official choir that was singing on the score which was amazing because we all sing together all the time. I think you can really tell when people are comfortable with each other and are blending and know each other. In the case of Star Wars, I was mostly just the person who was doing the official paperwork and making sure everyone knew where they needed to be. But also, generally having a finger on the pulse of things, making sure that they were getting what they needed and coordinating with various people from John Williams’ team behind the scenes to making sure we are all on the same page and in a good place for the recording sessions. In this case, we had our artistic director of Master Chorale Grant Gershon who was there helping out musically. Often, that doesn’t happen and often it is the vocal contractor directly connecting with the conductor, composer, or composer’s team. It was a pretty amazing experience. The chorale had three sessions with John. The first session was just us, which was amazing. He was on the podium conducting. The second two sessions were with the orchestra which is a very rare thing these days. The final session we did was actually the last day of recording on the film. We had a full orchestra; I would say probably somewhere between 60 and 80 and then 100 singers in the room and all of us together with John at the podium. It was so momentous because not only was it his very last session for the film but his last Star Wars session. There were a lot of people who wanted to be present for that, so Bob Iger was there, Steven Spielberg, Mark Hamill, it was a party. He was so very generous to us and so gracious to include us in this process.
My last question is for both of you: with this pandemic going on, most of us are stuck at home and I’m curious, do you guys feel inspired to work on new music during this time or have you been passing the time binging TV shows or moves?
Elyse: A little bit of both (laughs).
Christopher: We have been working on some things, most of which we can’t talk about. We have been doing some writing. Since I do a lot of animation, I’m finding that after a considerable amount of stress and head-scratching, the animation studios that I work with are finding that they can continue. They’ve sent people home, but people are working from home. Strangely, I’ve found that my work has hardly slowed down at all and composers are reclusive to begin with. The sad thing is that we have lots of music that has been written and it’s been building up and we’ve no idea when we’re going to record it.
Elyse: Unfortunately, all of my singing work is gone. Hopefully to some degree, those of us who have the ability to record from home will still be able to work when the time comes. As far as live performance, that is completely gone. But we do what we can, and a lot of people have been able to be very creative during this time so that may be a silver lining out of this.
Thank you to Christopher and Elyse Willis who took the time to conduct this phone interview. Be sure to look out for the upcoming film The Personal History of David Copperfield, released by Searchlight Pictures for which Christopher wrote the score.