I got the chance to conduct an interview with Dan Lanigan, film prop aficionado and host of the new show, Prop Culture. In this show, streaming exclusively on Disney+, Dan Lanigan searches for film props from classic Disney films and talks to numerous important people who helped make them happen. In this interview, I discuss his show, the process of making it, and the possibility of a second season.
How did your love for film props begin?
I’d always been a fan of movies and behind the scenes, but I think when I had my first encounter with movie props was as the Disney MGM Studios. I would go there in the summers to visit my brother and we would go to the parks. The park that I always wanted to go to was the Disney MGM Studios park because I loved Raiders of the Lost Ark and they had the Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular! Also, I loved the backlot tour where you would get on with the carts and then get off at the museum. At any different time, they would have props from The Nightmare Before Christmas or The Rocketeer or Indiana Jones all of these amazing things and I was just obsessed with it. I don’t think I consciously thought “How do I get ahold of these things?” but it was in my brain. Then, in the early days of the Internet, people were selling these things who had worked in the films directly and that’s how I came across it.
Tell me about the origin of Prop Culture and how it came about?
I have been collecting for over 20 years and I think part of my interest in collecting had to do with my interest in filmmaking. I was a big fan of photography and I had made little movies when I was a kid. I started to realize that maybe this was something I could do for a living and the more I learned about props and the more I would come out to LA to do other business and prop deals, I wanted to try my hand at production. One thing led to another and I was working at a production company where I helped create a show called Race to the Scene and started working on other shows and all the while I’m thinking “I want to do a show on movie props!” I want to celebrate what’s great about this stuff, not the financial value, but the cultural value. I tried pitching the show out to several companies for a number of years and nothing happened and then I had the opportunity to pitch it to the Disney+ team with my creative partner Jason Henry and Disney+ said: “Yes, please, we love this idea!” 24 hours later they told us they wanted to do the show.
You have a great balance in your show of being able to inform as well as to entertain.
The platform that Disney has given us has allowed us to share the love of these movies through these props and talk to the people who are, in a lot of ways, the stars of these movies. They are the ones who are making these amazing worlds and making the movies come together. It’s a good way to educate people on how the process of making movies works and in a fun way and also in a way that puts light on the people who us collectors respect. It allows more people to realize who they are and this crazy process that you have to go through when you make a movie.
One of the things about your show that I noticed was that it is great for families. Did you set out with the goal of making this a family show or did that just fall into place?
I always knew that it was going to be family-friendly. I had hoped that families would want to watch it together. I don’t know if we consciously designed it that way. But certainly working with Disney+ and the movies we chose were very specific so that families could approach it and watch it. Me being a father myself, having a daughter, I want to do things with her. She is interested in these movies and I would think other kids would be as well.
What was the timeline for the show? For example, did you shoot all the New York stuff in one go or did you take several trips there?
For the format, we made it feel like that journey was all condensed. The entire series shot over 6 or 7 months. We would be working on finding pieces and then if we could go to a location and shoot a couple different segments for different episodes, we would. But we still went to New York a couple times, just due to the nature of finding the people and getting their availability. So, it was kind of all over the board but we had a very clear goal of what we were trying to do and still leave it open enough to have discoveries in the show. There were a lot of discoveries we made in the show and a lot of things that just kind of happened on the day. I’ll give you an example: when we shot the segment with my daughter, that wasn’t planned. We were shooting some stuff for the intro of the show. We have different themes for each episode and the theme for Mary Poppins was family because of the connection with my father. But when we got there to shoot it, I thought that, though I’ve sat down and watched it with my daughter before, this will be the first time I’ve actually shown it to her on film. So, I sat her down on my lap and said “Why don’t you guys film this” and it just kind of happened and it was real. It was super awesome because, again, there were lots of times where these moments just kind of happened; people would show me things I didn’t know they were going to have or I showed them things they didn’t know that I had. There were a lot of discoveries in the moment that happened, even though it is still a TV show when it comes down to it.
What films would you want to do if there is a second season?
We’ve been building a list since working on season one of movies we would want to do for a second season. My number one favorite, which may not be possible, would be Dragonslayer. I love that film! I have a deep connection to that movie and I think that film was very important in a lot of ways both in the film industry and for fantasy films and the people that it inspired. Also, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Black Hole, The Rocketeer, Hocus Pocus, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which is a Fox film that we would love to do. It would be nice to do Edward Scissorhands, another Fox film. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, I would love to do that although that would be one where there would be a lot of searching because I know there is stuff out there but there is a lot that has been thrown away. Flight of the Navigator was an important one to me when I was young and would also be good to do. Pete’s Dragon also was a big one for me and I honestly think that my obsession with dragons, through Dragonslayer and Lord of the Rings, started with Pete’s Dragon. Elliott was the thing for me.
Have you considered doing animated films too or even props for rides from the parks?
We talked about ride pieces early on and I think it is an interesting idea and something that Disney should do. For me, I felt like films are a category in their own right and I’d like to focus on all the great films. If we can connect the ride with the film like in the Pirates case, absolutely. But I would love to see Disney do a show just about the history of the rides specifically and how they have changed, with props and things like that. I think that would be a great show, but separate from Prop Culture. Animated films, on the other hand, although slightly different from the format of the physical props, I think we could totally do. We’re thinking about possibly pitching Fantasia because that was a very important film to Walt and it has such an interesting history. There are artifacts out there leftover, artwork and maquettes, and the music stuff. I think it could be a lot of fun. So yes, animation is definitely something we want to tackle, and getting back into the Animation Research Library would be great.
How has the hobby of collecting film props changed and evolved since you started collecting?
When I started, it was very much a secretive hobby. A lot of people who collected didn’t talk about it because they were worried that the studios would think that the stuff they had was stolen, which, looking back, really wasn’t the case and in a lot of cases they didn’t really care. It was also very secretive from the perspective of the collector not wanting to share their secret ways of getting stuff. It’s very much become much more public. But as part of that, it’s also become more difficult to get the more iconic, interesting pieces because the reality of the situation is, the more attention it gets, the more valuable it gets. That’s something I didn’t want to talk about with the show, but it is the reality of collecting.
How do you hope that your show continues to help this passion evolve?
I think what it will do is, by bringing more attention to the artifacts and the artists, I hope it will be considered a true art form to the public’s eyes. I think it will help museums develop exhibits to show this stuff in a more prominent way. Maybe it will allow kids growing up to want to dive into those trades and skillsets that they need in the movie industry because there are so many different types of art forms that are needed. I really want to shine the light on these wonderful artists that you don’t hear about that are so important to these movies. What’s different between this show and an EPK- style show is yes, we are showing how this stuff is done but we are also showing how it affects people and that is a big difference. It allows people to look at it a little bit differently and think, “Wow, maybe this is something I should take more seriously” because it does affect people in such a profound way. Hopefully, we can get enough people who watched the show that Disney wants to do a second season. We will definitely work hard to get a second season!
Thank you so much to Dan Lanigan for taking the time to conduct this phone interview.
Check out all episodes of Prop Culture, now streaming on Disney+.
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