Untold Tales of Hollywood #18

July 16th, 2019

Conan the Barbarian needed a Valeria, so John Milius called Academy Award-winning director (and famed choreographer) Bob Fosse.

John described the role to Fosse. She had to be extremely fit and physically capable for the amount of action scenes she’d be performing. She also had to be gorgeous and graceful.

Bob immediately gave Milius two names: Ann Reinking and Sandahl Bergman.

We never saw Ann (a huge heartthrob of mine); she may have been busy with a show.

I was there in the office, though, when John gave Sandahl the role of Valeria.

(Above: One of Sandahl’s professional head shots at the time.)

John asked me to sketch Sandahl as her new character.

(Above: A polaroid I shot of Sandahl on her first visit to the Conan offices.)

He had her strip down a bit for me so that I could see her sleek muscled limbs.

(Above: Sandahl posing for me. John Milius is far right. The poster I did for The American Success Company is on the wall behind Milius.)

I eventually did an oil painting portrait of Sandahl as Valeria (I’m still looking for it so that I can post it here).

To make Valeria’s sword more sleek and feminine, the sword’s cross guard was pretty much removed.

Big mistake.

There’s a damn good reason that swords have cross guards. Although the sword looked really cool, not having that cross guard meant that in a sword fight, there was nothing catch the opponent’s blade and prevent it from cutting Valeria’s fingers or hand. We learned this very quickly, as Sandahl came close to losing some fingers in one of her first fights.

I got to know Sandahl pretty well. She was one of my favorite people on Conan the Barbarian — incredibly kind and thoughtful. She’s down to earth with no show biz ego problems at all. For Sandahl, it’s all about doing her best. Her dance training allowed her to move with an animal grace and ferocity, carrying herself like a panther — perfect for the Valeria character. Later, she, my wife and I became good friends until jobs and geography pulled us apart. In more recent times we were both on a Conan Q & A panel at a screening of the film in Hollywood. She has maintained her incredible shape and teaches dance — and is still as sweet as ever.

Untold Tales of Hollywood #17

July 15th, 2019

You can file this missive under “Office Pranks”.

One afternoon John Milius produced a sling and a bag of plums.

“We need to do some target practice,” he proclaimed.

Ron Cobb and I followed John outside until we faced the side of one of Warner Brothers Studios‘ huge buildings.

“You see that office window, top floor, third from the right?” john asked. “That’s (Robert) Zemeckis and (Bob) Gale‘s office. Let’s see if we can hit it.”

Zemeckis and Gale had written 1941. They were working on their new project, Used Cars, a hilarious comedy that both Milius and Steven Spielberg were producing.

We all took turns using the sling to hurl ripe plums at Zemeckis and Gale’s office window. Occasionally we were successful in hitting it. Splat!

Spielberg also produced Back to the Future with Zemeckis directing from the Zemeckis and Gale original screenplay. Ron Cobb was chosen to create the car which he decided to base upon a DeLorean, a great visual joke for those in the know. Back to the Future was a gigantic hit, making the greenlight for Back to the Future 2 a no-brainer.

Upon embarking on Back to the Future 2, Zemeckis and Gale began to get notes from the studio. Giving filmmakers “notes” is a studio move to control the creators and an attempt to give the film the widest appeal possible. Instead, what usually happens is that the project gets watered down and diluted beyond recognition.

Writers and directors hate getting “notes”.

After the first batch of notes demanding changes were delivered, Zemeckis and Gale confronted the suits at Warner Brothers.

“Do you really think you know how to make a sequel to Back to the Future better than the guys who created the first one?”

The notes ended.

After awhile, it was decided that we should move our Conan offices from the A-Team building in Burbank to the Beverly Hills offices of Dino DeLaurentiis.

For Christmas, John Milius gave Cobb and me official British commando sweaters and United States Marines Kabar knives. These were pretty big, heavy duty knives.

“I think we need some knife throwing practice,” John declared.

Cobb found a door-sized sheet of heavy plywood. Ron drew our target: a life-size distraught dungeon prisoner chained to a wall. We placed the panel at the far end of the hall that led to our offices.

Then the knife-throwing practice began. It was a long hall and we threw those knives hard. Sometimes they’d stick; other times they’d slam into or bounce off the board. And, occasionally, someone would round the corner and just miss being skewered or beheaded by a flying knife.

Our practice bouts were frequent, so for the safety of non-Conan civilians, we were instructed to loudly shout “THROWING!” as a warning before each knife pitch. Eventually, our practice wore a hole through the chained prisoner’s heart, and our knives began to penetrate the Delaurentiis walls.

Boys will be boys…

Untold Tales of Hollywood #16

July 13th, 2019

As you can see above and below, I’m still using Jack Palance‘s likeness for Conan’s father.

And that was as far as I got with the Conan the Barbarian “storyboards”.

I became intrigued by what Ron Cobb was creating as production designer. It looked like he was having way more fun than I was having.

Here, I probably should define the term “production designer”. A production designer on a film is in charge of everything you see on the screen except for the performances of the actors. He or she is in charge of designing all of the sets, costumes, make-ups, special effects make-ups, set dressing, props, the special visual effects and floor effects. The production designer is the eyes of the director.

A little cinematic history: The term “production designer” was invented by David Selznick for William Cameron Menzies in 1939. Menzies had directed a third of Gone With The Wind but Victor Fleming, his co-director (who also directed The Wizard of Oz that same year), refused to share the directing credit, thrusting producer Selznick into the middle of a dilemma. Menzies did much more than art direct GWTW — the title of “Art Director” was not enough for or fair to Menzies. Selznick solved this problem by giving Menzies a credit that read “Production Designed by William Cameron Menzies” — which was absolutely true. Menzies storyboarded GWTW in full color.

(Above) Some Menzies Gone With The Wind storyboards. Menzies directed the famous Burning of Atlanta sequence. Some GWTW trivia: Part of what got burned in that sequence were once the gigantic native gates from King Kong.

There’s a photo of someone holding up one of Menzies’ storyboards and adjusting the tilt of an actress’ hat to match Menzies’ drawing. Menzies was unbelievably hands-on with GWTW.

So, prior to Gone With The Wind, the visionaries who designed films were called art directors. My two favorite old school art directors were Menzies and Anton Grot, who designed the Errol Flynn swashbucklers.

(Above) Anton Grot design for Captain Blood.

When I decided to become a production designer, Menzies and Grot became my heroes. We shared a similar background; we had all been storybook illustrators prior to getting into film design.

(Above) Rudolph Valentino bookplate designed by Menzies.

(Above) Menzies design for Valentino’s The Son of the Sheik.

Later, that changed. From the 1930s to the mid-1970s, most art directors had architectural backgrounds. They would begin as draftsmen, progress to set designers and then, if lucky after about ten or twenty years in The Biz, they might get to become art directors. If they were very lucky, after years of being an art director, they might get the chance to become a production designer.

What changed all of that?

Two films: Star Wars and Alien.

George Lucas had illustrator Ralph McQuarrie essentially design Star Wars. Ralph didn’t get the Production Designer credit but believe me — McQuarrie designed Star Wars.

(Above) Ralph McQuarrie Star Wars design (more at starwars.com)

Alejandro Jodorowsky was set to direct his version of Dune. For that film, he had assembled an art department Dream Team: H. R. Giger, Jean “Moebius” Giraud and Chris Foss. Right when the funding for Dune fell apart, Jodorowsky’s pick for Special Effects Supervisor, Dan O’Bannon (Dan did the computer effects for Star Wars) got a phone call from director Ridley Scott. Scott informed Dan that Scott was going to direct Alien, a screenplay written by O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett. Dan mentioned that it would be a shame to break up the Dune art department. Would Ridley consider keeping them on for Alien? Scott agreed and Dan convinced Ridley to also add Dan’s close friend Ron Cobb (Ron had also worked on Star Wars, designing creatures for the cantina sequence, as well as the spaceship in Dan’s first film, Dark Star) to the art team.

Star Wars and Alien were huge hits. This allowed a crack in the door for guys like Ron Cobb and me to become production designers. We didn’t have to wait twenty or thirty years to become one. It was clear we could draw and design movies that garnered positive responses from movie audiences. Anything we could think of that we wanted on the screen, we could draw. If we needed some of our designs drafted in more proper architectural form, we’d just hire the guys to implement that from our designs. When I production design a film, I lean heavily on my art director, assigning him or her the duties of scheduling and budgeting. This gives me more time to spend on the film’s designs.

I should mention that there are three kinds of production designers.

1) Guys like Menzies and Grot (and later, Cobb and me) who came from an illustration background — guys who can really draw.

2) Trained architects who are especially good at designing things related to architecture — like sets. Examples would be most production designers working in The Biz.

3) The third kind of production designer can’t (or doesn’t) draw and has never been trained as an architect — but they have strong visual ideas and a great knack for visual metaphors. A terrific example of this kind of production designer is Jurassic Park‘s  Rick Carter. If Rick doesn’t draw, how does he get his design ideas across to other people on the film? Rick makes visual collages that express his ideas from photos and art he finds in books, magazines and other forms of research. Then he hires illustrators and set designers to make them all real and functional.

All three types of production designers are valid. There are brilliant examples from all three backgrounds.

After Conan the Barbarian, I rose to the position of production designer very quickly (less than two years). At that time I was reputed to be the youngest production designer in the history of film (I doubt that record still stands — but it might). Once I achieved that title I was typically overseeing the work of about 1250 people on each of my films. I discovered the job to be primarily managerial — making sure that everyone was not deviating from my vision. For the most part, the only time I actually had to design the film was on weekends.

Ron quickly began to trust me as a designer and he began to let me design elements for the film he didn’t have time to design.

Like John Milius’ approach to writing Conan the Barbarian (John’s a real history buff), Ron’s approach to designing Conan was historical — and ingenious. Ron’s concept was this: OK; we know what Egyptian architecture and cultural artifacts looked like 2000 years ago. We know what Egyptian architecture and cultural artifacts looked like 3000 years ago. Working backward, as if we were animating the reverse evolution of Egyptian architecture and cultural artifacts, we could visually guess what Egyptian architecture and cultural artifacts would have looked like 4000 or 5000 years ago. We did that with many ancient cultures, envisioning what they looked like prior to their presence in their know history. In essence, we were un-designing history and making the Hyborian world of Conan feel very real.

It was a variation on what I learned from Russ Manning when I was assisting him on the Tarzan of the Apes newspaper strips. We were working on a sequence with strange bird-like humanoid creatures. In the sequence Tarzan had been captured and tied up by them.

“Bill,” Russ instructed me, “make sure that when you draw those ropes that you make them as realistic as possible. That way, if the reader believes the ropes — something the reader is familiar with — the reader will more easily believe our story’s fantasy elements.”

Untold Tales of Hollywood #15

July 12th, 2019

I felt that Richard Corben’s boards were damn near perfect (I’ve always admired Richard as a great graphic storyteller), so I didn’t vary much from his opening page of storyboard panels. After that, I was on my own.

Here are the first boards I did; they’re in a more traditional storyboard format. They were drawn on vellum, hence the wrinkling.

After John Milius told me he wanted comic book-style boards I began telling John’s tales of Conan as if it were a comic book.

On the very first day working on the film, I tacked this picture near the top of my drawing table:

Next to this photo I had written in bold hand lettering: “This actor has to be in our movie.”

The two actors being considered for the role of Conan’s father were Jack Palance and William Smith. Had either of these fine actors been younger, I think they would have been perfect for playing Conan. I was there when both actors came in to meet John on separate occasions.

Jack Palance was the first to be seen. He was enthusiastic and in great shape. So much so, that he insisted on being cast as Conan — not Conan’s father. We couldn’t do that; Arnold Schwarzenegger had already been cast as Conan. In my boards, though, I drew Jack as Conan’s dad.

I had loved William Smith as an actor ever since I saw him in Grave of the Vampire, a great little cult horror film with an amazing opening written by David Chase (creator of The Sopranos).

We knew we were going to shoot Conan the Barbarian in and around Zagreb, Yugoslavia. It turned out that William Smith was not only in great shape and up for the role, he was also fluent in Serbo-Croatian, the language spoken in that part of Yugoslavia. Bill got cast.

Each page of the Conan storyboards was taking me forever because as I was telling the tale of Conan, I was simultaneously designing all of the armor, the Cimmerian village, the horses’ armor and the costumes. Plus, I was taking the time to do very finished art — a true rarity when it comes to storyboards, which typically are very quick and loose, just tight enough to convey the composition of the frame and a sense of what’s going on in the frame (I’ve seen “finished” storyboards that were no more refined than the Richard Corben roughs I just posted). I’m known to be very fast as an artist but my speed wasn’t exhibiting itself on these pages.

Within the script, a scene describing Thulsa Doom’s assault on the young Conan’s Cimmerian village surprised me. After the impalement of a Cimmerian mother, one of Thulsa Doom’s troops, while riding through the village, grabs her Cimmerian baby by the arm and dashes its brains out on a post(!).

Robert E. Howard‘s Conan stories have been described as “a pornography of violence” but I felt that this particular bit was way over the top.

John! You’re not going to really shoot that are you?”

“Of course not,” Milius replied. “But if I include it in the script, Dino (DeLaurentiis) will be horrified. He’ll demand that it be taken out.

John imitated Dino’s Italian accent: “Don’t keel the baby!”

I’ll reluctantly remove it from the script. Dino will be happy and he’ll feel like he’s made a real contribution to the film. Having gained that satisfaction, he’ll leave me alone on the stuff that I truly want to include.”

I also took the time to include a joke panel to surprise John. He was delighted.

New Stout Art for Comic Con!

July 11th, 2019

Here’s a preview of one of the larger new pieces of original art I’ll be selling at Comic Con next week (booth 4803):

Untold Tales of Hollywood #14

July 11th, 2019

A couple of days ago I dug up the first Richard Corben storyboard page plus his roughs for his other storyboard pages for Conan the Barbarian. I thought you might like to see them, as they’ve never been published.

Each of the following images are two pages, side-by-side, except for page 13.

From what I can gather, Richard drew all of this in one or at the most two days. His graphic storytelling is so beautifully simple, clear and cinematic.

Untold Tales of Hollywood #13

July 10th, 2019

Body builder Arnold Schwarzenegger was cast in the film before I was hired on Conan the Barbarian. We had a poster featuring Arnold — and his stats — on our wall. The poster proclaimed Arnold to be 6’ 3” (my height).

One day it was announced that Arnold was going to pay us a visit so that he could show director John Milius Arnold’s progress on learning his sword fighting moves.

Arnold walked into the art department, clad only in a pair of red trunks. My first thought was, “My god — this is the most beautiful human being I have ever seen — a true Adonis…”

My second thought was, “…and he lies about his height. I’m 6’3” and I’m looking down at him.”

Milius came into the room.

“Okay, everybody. Let’s all go over to the park where we can watch Arnold go through his sword moves.”

We followed Arnold to a little pocket park just outside of our A-Team offices. He went through the sword routines he had been practicing. When he finished, Arnold turned to Milius.

Arnold is gifted when it comes to reading people.

“John,” he said, “something is wrong.”

“No — I’m fine. It’s all fine.”

“No — I can tell. You don’t like something.”

“Don’t worry about it. There’s nothing you can do about it.”

“It’s my body —right?”

“What?!”

“Yes, it’s my body.” Arnold continued. “You don’t want a body builder’s body for Conan — you want more of an athlete’s body.”

“That’d be great, but…”

Arnold made carving motions down the length of his arms and legs.

“So, if I trimmed here and here, and here…”

“You can DO that?!”

Two weeks later, Arnold returned to the A-Team offices. I had never seen anything like it. Through diet and exercise, he had completely re-sculpted his entire body. I knew right then that if Arnold Schwarzenegger set his mind to a goal, nothing could keep him from accomplishing it. Years later, as soon as he announced he was running for governor of California, I knew he was going to win.

Untold Tales of Hollywood #12

July 9th, 2019

Ron Cobb did a beautiful job designing the swords for Conan the Barbarian.

Cobb’s design for Conan’s father’s sword (www.roncobb.net)

Close-up of Ron Cobb’s Atlantian sword handle and hilt design (www.roncobb.net)

John Milius found Jody Sampson, a man John declared to be “the finest sword maker in the world” and commissioned Jody to make the hero version (the sword used for close-ups) of Conan’s sword. When it was delivered, Milius was beside himself with glee. He proudly invited Steven Spielberg over to gaze upon this incredible sword.

“Watch this!” John instructed.

Milius took the sword and threw it at a wall. The sword did not stick in the wall — it zoomed right through it, arriving at a stop just inches away from the head of a film editor working in the next room.

John retrieved the sword and offered it to Steven.

“Test it out,” Milius offered. “This sword can cut through an engine block!”

Steven took the sword and swung it toward the floor. Upon hitting the floor, this very expensive sword broke in two.

Steven sheepishly handed John back his sword pieces and left the room. Milius had the most shocked and forlorn expression on his face that I had ever seen.

PS: I just dug up and added new images to post #10.

Untold Tales of Hollywood #11

July 8th, 2019

John Milius saw an advance screening of 1941. He declared it the greatest comedy in the history of film.

Steven put Kathleen Kennedy in charge of 1941’s premiere. Kathy outdid herself. This premiere became the last great over-the-top Hollywood premiere ever produced. Kathy gave me and my girlfriend Alison Buckles tickets to the premiere. I dressed up as a WWII fighter pilot with flared at the thigh breeches, long boots and a vintage WWII leather flight jacket. The premiere was held at Hollywood’s Cinerama Dome with klieg lights scanning the skies. The Dome appeared to be packed with Old Hollywood’s elite.

I really enjoyed 1941 — but it felt like I was the only audience member who did. I found Eddie Deezen hilarious (Kathy told me that in person, he was exactly like the character he was playing). But when I laughed at anything in the movie, the people around me turned and glared. They were not having a good time and seemed to resent that I was.

When the picture finished, Alison and I left the theater to discover that Kathy had Sunset Boulevard closed from the Cinerama Dome to the Hollywood Palladium.

Vintage WWII ambulances manned by period costumed drivers shuffled audience members down the street to the Palladium. WWII soldiers and nurses were everywhere. Air raid sirens blared. On a billboard overlooking Sunset Boulevard, the propellers of a P-40 being flown by John Belushi suddenly started spinning, and then both the propellers and plane lit up with fireworks.

We walked to the Palladium. It was a re-creation of World War II era Hollywood all the way. As soon as we arrived, we were escorted inside. The interior of the Palladium was decked out to look like a 1940s USO club. An Andrews Sisters look-alike trio were singing on stage. After the Andrews Sisters, a 1940s-style crooner took the stage. All kinds of take-home swag was waiting for us at our dinner table, including a model kit of Belushi’s P-40. The waitresses and busboys were all dressed according to the vintage roles they were playing. Alison and I had a blast.

The reviews for 1941 that came out the next day were devastating. The critics had been waiting for Hollywood’s Golden Boy to fall — and their knives were sharpened and ready.

“My god,” Milius said. “From the reviews you’d have thought that Steven had slaughtered innocent women and children. He just made a bad movie.”

Later, though, Milius decided that “The only honorable thing for Steven to do is to commit Seppuku.”

After 1941’s premiere, we at A-Team were instructed to never mention 1941 in Steven’s presence ever again.

New John Carter Piece

July 6th, 2019

I just completed this John Carter of Mars piece. Unframed, it’s $2750 with free domestic shipping. The image size is about 13″ x 9″, inks and watercolor on board.

If I don’t sell it this week, it’ll be framed for Comic Con with a price bump.

Thought you might like to see it, whether or not you’re interested in purchasing it.