Untold Tales of Hollywood #39

August 24th, 2019

Film #12: First Blood
Directed by Ted Kotcheff
Production designed by Wolf Kroeger

I got a call from my Conan the Barbarian line producer Buzz Feitshans. He wanted to hire me to storyboard a new action film he was producing, First Blood. It was co-written by Sylvester Stallone, who would also star in the film. Out offices would be in Vancouver, British Columbia; we would be shooting in and around the BC town of Hope. The director was Ted Kotcheff. I had just seen his film North Dallas Forty and was knocked out by it. I have no interest in football whatsoever, so I considered my liking it quite an achievement. The executive producer (one of our money guys) was Andrew Vajna.

They flew me up to Vancouver where I promptly made my first mistake: I told the truth.

When checking through Canadian customs, I was asked the purpose of my visit.

“I’m working on a film here.”

BOOM! Virtual sirens went off and I was hustled to another room. I should have answered, “I’m on vacation and plan to spend a lot of money here as a tourist.” Instead, I was perceived as a thief, here to steal a job from some poor Canadian. Buzz got called and he sent one of the show’s fixers to straighten things out. When I got to our offices, the film crew looked up at me like I was an idiot, then resumed their work.

First Blood was an action picture with plenty of action. I was hired to storyboard the action sequences.

Initially, Ted Kotcheff, the director, was not happy that I had been hired. He felt as if I was impinging upon his turf as a director. I put him at ease.

“Look, Ted — I’m here to serve you. This is your film; you direct me. If I’m not telling the story the way you would, just let me know and I’ll change the imagery. If you want to experiment and try something out, then let’s do it. If we find out it doesn’t work, all we’ve done is wasted some bits of paper and a little time — not hundreds of thousands of dollars in film and crew expenses.”

Ted at first seemed greatly relieved — then truly excited by the possibilities. We began working together very closely and happily.

I asked line producer Buzz Feitshans why he always hires a storyboard artist for his films.

“When the film is in production and we’re shooting, the director on average is getting three hours of sleep per night. There are some days when the director shows up totally fried. When that happens, we shoot the boards.”

Buzz also did something else I found to be really smart. Everyone in the crew gets a daily call sheet. It tells them what’s shooting that day, where it’s taking place and who and what will be needed on set. Buzz would print the storyboards of what we would be shooting that day on the back of the call sheet, creating a visual shorthand for the entire cast and crew, saving enormous amounts of time and, therefore, money. Brilliant!

I asked Buzz why he hired me in particular. Except for Conan the Barbarian, I did not have a lot of real film making experience.

“Because you’re cheap.” (I was being paid what Buzz had been paying me on Conan the Barbarian)

Producer Andy Vajna drove me to the sets being built in Hope. It was a long drive, so we had some long conversations. He explained that he didn’t give a damn about the “art” of film making — he just wanted to make what we in the business call “popcorn movies” or hits. Andy told me he was all about making lots and lots of money.

“Couldn’t we do both?” I asked. “Why not strive to make great films that are also incredibly popular?” said the naive storyboard kid.

Andy, originally from Budapest, had a house in Hong Kong (I believe some of his early films were martial arts movies). He loved Hong Kong and claimed it hosted the best restaurants there of any cuisine you would care to choose.

“Best Italian food? Hong Kong. Best seafood? Hong Kong. Best hamburgers? Hong Kong.”

In Hope, I met production designer Wolf Kroeger. We hit it off right away. Wolf treated this green kid (me) as if I was a long-time fellow professional. I deeply admired his sets for Robert Altman‘s Popeye. I had very mixed feelings when it came to Altman and his films, though (loved his early stuff, hated his later stuff), and Wolf felt much the same way. His tales of working with Altman explained and illuminated a lot of the suspicions I had regarding that director.

I visited locations outside of Hope with the crew. I learned a lot from our great cinematographer Andrew Laszlo. He let me look through his viewfinder as Ted explained a shot he wanted to do of Rambo running up to an unseen cliff edge. Using the viewfinder, I panned across the ridge. Laszlo saw what I was doing and gently corrected my camera motion. Instead of a straight pan across, Andy slightly rotated the lens to put us in Rambo’s shoes and get the sense and feeling of a much more dizzying experience on top of the cliff face.

Here are two sets of some of my First Blood storyboards:

Untold Tales of Hollywood #38

August 23rd, 2019

Film #11: Monster in the Closet (1981)
Directed by Bob Dahlin

Monster in the Closet was a low budget horror flick directed by Bob Dahlin, a protegé of Robert Altman‘s, I believe. Dahlin and his coterie came to me to design the guy-in-a-suit title monster. Bob called in a lot of favors for his little film and ended up with Howard Duff, Claude Akins, Henry Gibson, Donald Moffat, Paul Dooley, John Carradine, Stella Stevens and many other Hollywood luminaries in his cast.

During our discussion of the film I suggested that the monster shouldn’t just be a monster —- but a monster with a big surprise. How about having the real monster living inside of the big monster?

Bob loved that concept. I briefly boarded the idea:

Then, the heavy lifting began.

Dahlin had no idea as to what he wanted either of the two monsters to look like, so I began shooting in the dark. I nailed the big monster design fairly quickly:

But Bob couldn’t decide upon the inner creature. I pitched him lots of designs, well after the time we had negotiated for my services ran out. Each time he came back to me, he had to pay me more. Ron Bakal, my attorney back then, did a great job of negotiating for the extra work. Eventually, this low budget film had no more money in the budget left for further designs, so Ron negotiated a deferred payment — and profit participation — for subsequent designs. He also negotiated that when any of film’s profits began to come in, that I would be the first to be paid — ahead of everyone else, including the director and producers. Good deal!

Here are all of my inner creature designs (not in order):

I’m not sure (I haven’t watched this movie since it came out), but I think they went with the following:

Note the notes. I always write lots of note regarding my creatures and their design.

Untold Tales of Hollywood #37

August 20th, 2019

Film #10: Heavy Metal (1981)
Directed by Barrie Nelson
Written by Dan O’Bannon

I only worked on the B-17 sequence in this film, designing gremlins. Again, my work on this was a quick favor for some friends on the movie, as I was still working full time on Conan the Barbarian.

Lots of jobs and job offers flowed into Ron Cobb‘s and my Conan art department. If we could turn a job or problem around quickly for a friend, we usually did so.

In this case, the Heavy Metal folks contacted me (I think it was through Ron), asking me to direct the B-17 sequence and design the story’s gremlins. Because of Conan, I didn’t have the time to direct the  B-17 story but I was honored to be asked. I drew up several different kinds of gremlins for them (I think Cobb drew some, too), though. I think I might have copies of those designs — but who knows where?

Now, did any of our designs get used in the movie? Maybe, but truly, I have no idea. Perhaps I should watch it again.

Untold Tales of Hollywood #36

August 19th, 2019

Film #9: Tanya’s Island (1980)
Directed by Alfred Sole
Art direction by Angelo Stea

My pal Mick Garris brought me aboard on this one. I don’t recall what role Mick had on this picture. My pals Rick Baker and Rob Bottin were on this stillborn baby, too.

The movie starred D. D. Winters (Denise Katrina Matthews). Years later, Prince changed her name to Vanity (he originally wanted to call her “Vagina”, but she refused) and she embarked on a singing career with her group Vanity 6. In 1995 she left Hollywood and the entertainment business to serve the Lord and practice her Christian faith. Her Tanya’s Island experience may have been one of the reasons she left The Biz. There was a sex scene in the film. I don’t recall whether or not it was a rape or consensual according to the script. As related to me by some of my friends who were on set, both D. D. and the male actor in the scene were instructed to have real sex on camera, which is completely unprofessional if not illegal.

I was asked to paint some fairly large paintings that appear in the film. One was of a mastiff with a human face (which reminded me of that composite creature in the Philip Kaufman Invasion of the Body Snatchers).

The painting originally looked much nicer than this. The beautiful background and foreground I had created for this picture was sloppily painted out by someone in the art department up in Canada. This job, which I did mostly as a favor, falls under the heading of “No good deed goes unpunished.” D. D. wasn’t the only person abused on this picture.

The other painting was a bloody silhouetted night time cityscape. I think I may have painted a third piece as well — I hope not.

Director Alfred Sole is best known for his second film, Alice, Sweet Alice, Brook Shields‘ movie debut, an okay horror film. He also directed Pandemonium (I created the one sheet art for that movie but didn’t notice he was the director until a few minutes ago). After directing about five films, in a sort of reverse career move, he became a production designer, most notably on the great TV series Veronica Mars.

Untold Tales of Hollywood #35

August 18th, 2019

There’s a great scene with a gigantic snake in Conan the Barbarian. Originally, the script called for Conan to drip sweat on the snake, which makes it open its eyes.

Being a reptile enthusiast, I approached writer-director John Milius.

“There’s a problem with this scene, John.”

“What is it?”

“Snakes don’t have eyelids — but here’s what we can do: When Conan drips sweat onto the snake, have the snake’s pupils dilate, to show its been awoken from its slumber.”

And that’s what we did.

Moral (from the Unwritten Rules of Hollywood): Never present a problem unless you already have the solution.

Untold Tales of Hollywood #34

August 17th, 2019

Here’s another Conan warm-up sketch:

While going through my archives, I came across a sheet of paper filled with a story that became legendary within the DeLaurentiis family.

Here’s the set-up and the story:
One evening I met two of Dino’s daughters, Raffaella (who was one of our producers) and her younger (sixteen-years-old) sister Francesca, both very attractive women. The next day I performed a little personality test. At breakfast, I presented Raffy with a beautiful red carnation, which I had purchased from my favorite flower stall in Zagreb. I then presented Francesca with my breakfast sugar cubes, knowing that she had a sweet tooth for lots of sugar in her morning coffee.

Raffy was gracious, but complained she had no boutonniere.

Francesca seemed charmed and delighted by my humble gift. I then showed Francesca my Conan art, which she had never seen, and we became fast friends.

About twenty minutes later I was approached by Sigo, who beckoned to me to come out of my (and Ron Cobb‘s) office. I don’t recall what Sigo’s job on the film was; he was probably a DeLaurentiis “fixer”. Sigo looked like a Yugoslavian hitman, dressed head-to-toe in black leather, with a dead-eyed look on his face. Lurking not too far down the hallway from Sigo was Francesca’s uncle, Alfredo DeLaurentiis, his usual grim countenance appearing grimmer than ever.

Sigo leaned forward, searching deep into my eyes for intentions. He spoke slowly and seriously:

“Don’t…touch…leetle…girl.”

“Don’t worry,” I joked. “There are plenty of sixteen-year-old Yugoslavian girls.”

Alfredo glanced away when I looked over to him.

Sigo’s cold expression melted into his more familiar gap-toothed grin.

“Of course, you know I’m only joking…” he laughed.

I stared deep into the eyes of this human crocodile and knew he wasn’t.

“Oh, of course,” I reassured him.

Sigo’s eyes then caught Alfredo’s. The slightly grim and anxious old Italian’s brow knit in acknowledgement. He turned and retreated silently back into Cobb’s office, followed by Sigo. I trailed Sigo with Nino Rota’s The Godfather theme playing inside my head.

This story spread and became part of the film’s backstage lore. Many decades later I ran into Raffaella at Dino’s funeral service in L. A. When her eyes caught mine she burst into a huge smile of recognition.

“Don’t touch leetle girl!” she laughed.

Untold Tales of Hollywood #33

August 16th, 2019

Before I depart from Conan the Barbarian, I’d like to share some photos and a drawing from the era.

Ron Cobb: Genius, art hero and an important mentor of mine.

Me back then…pre-gray!

The best two years I have ever spent in the film business were the two years I spent in a room with Ron Cobb.

Here’s a rough of a birthday card I drew for John Milius, depicting him as a big bear with his paw caught in the honey jar, titled Ursus Erectus:

The good ol’ days of film making.

Untold Tales of Hollywood #32

August 15th, 2019

My time on Conan the Barbarian was coming to a close…and the film had not even begun to be shot.

 

Ron Cobb‘s design for our big final Thulsa Doom set:

While I was still in the States, my friend and publisher Byron Preiss paid a visit to my La Brea studio. He asked me, “If you could do your own book on anything, what would you like to do?”

I thought Byron was just being conversational.

“I don’t know,” was my brilliant response.

Scattered around my studio were various drawings I had done for my pal Don Glut‘s revised Dinosaur Dictionary.

“Would you like to do one on dinosaurs?”

“Sure…” I replied.

A couple of months later, while working on Conan I received a call from Byron.

“Bill! We got our book deal! Bantam Books wants to publish your dinosaur book!”

I suddenly had this big book project dropped into my lap.

Young, dumb and full of the energy of youth, I thought I could do both projects at the same time: work as a designer on Conan and write and illustrate my dinosaur book.

Boy, was I wrong.

It started out great. While in Madrid on Conan, during my off-work evenings I would venture up to my apartment building’s rooftop and draw sketches for the illustrations I wanted to have in my dinosaur book, while watching my Lufthansa friends cavort in the swimming pool.

Eventually, though, I was forced to face the reality of my book’s deadline. I couldn’t do both. I decided to leave Conan to finish my book and then jump back to Madrid to complete my work on Conan.

Before returning to the United States I planned a trip around Europe to do research for my dinosaur book at the great European natural history museums — which is what I did.

Once back in L. A., I began producing the finished art for my dinosaur book. To keep my interest in this massive long term project, I decided to experiment and create dinosaur illustrations in the various styles of my artistic heroes.

“What if Andrew Wyeth painted dinosaurs…What would that look like? Or Arthur Rackham? Or the Detmold brothers? Or Moebius?”

By doing this I was stretching myself artistically and learning lots of new style chops. Originally, the book was to have 50 color illustrations and about 30 black and white pictures. I bumped those color illustration numbers up by being clever: I would do the required black and white illustrations in full color and then tell Bantam to just print them in black and white. I got the response I was hoping for:

“We can’t print these in black and white…They’re too beautiful!”

I eventually bumped the picture numbers up to 80 full color illustrations and 50 black and white pictures. By doing so, this became a much more important book for Bantam.

I stopped mimicking different artistic styles. I no longer had time for that indulgence. I never had what I called “my own style” prior to my dinosaur book. But the pressure to produce to meet my deadlines meant plunging into the pictures and finishing them as quickly as possible. Out of that, what people recognize as my own style emerged.

By expanding the illustration count, I was also delaying my return to Conan. Month after month slipped by. One day I got a frantic call from Madrid. It was one of the producers — and he seemed to be literally crying over the phone out of sheer desperation.

“Bill! You’ve got to come back! We need you! John won’t come out of his trailer. Ron is directing Second Unit. We need to have you back here designing and directing, too.”

It was a tough choice. I loved my Conan family, especially Ron Cobb. But my dinosaur book was the chance of a lifetime. Bantam was gearing up for a huge promotion. The first printing had ballooned from 2000 copies to 250,000 copies — a quarter of a million books! LIFE magazine did an unprecedented eight page full color spread on my dinosaur book.  Conan the Barbarian would be John Milius’ movie; The Dinosaurs – A Fantastic New View of a Lost Era would be all mine.

I finished The Dinosaurs about the same time Ron and John returned from Europe. I gave Ron Cobb, John Milius and Buzz Feitshans a nice dedication in my book.

The Dinosaurs – A Fantastic New View of a Lost Era became a bestseller. It changed my life and my art career forever.

Conan the Barbarian didn’t do so bad, either.

Untold Tales of Hollywood #31

August 14th, 2019

You might want to go back and check on some of my earlier posts. I’ve added quite a few more images as I discovered much more Conan art while digging through my archives for this series. I also found and posted a couple of my Raiders of the Lost Ark storyboard drawings.

To warm up each day while I was working in Europe, I’d do a small Conan-related sketch. Here’s a typical example:

I created a lot of costume designs for the film, as the visuals of our new genre had not been established (as I stated in earlier entries, art conservation was not one of my producers’ fórtes).

They were beautifully interpreted by our costume designer, an Englishman named John Bloomfield. John and I also worked on Conan the Destroyer. By the second film, he needed no help from me. He totally “got” the genre by that time and created a truly incredible wardrobe for our cast.

Prior to John, our costume designer was Dario Cecchi, an old friend of the DeLaurentiis family. Dario, who was gay, was extremely attracted to me. He told me he loved to gaze upon my “Botticelli hands”. Dario loved to bring Francesca DeLaurentiis to hang with his gay circle of friends in Madrid. I didn’t understand why Francesca’s presence was blowing their minds, until Dario revealed to me that Francesca looked exactly like her mother, Silvana Mangano, in her youth. Until then, I had no idea Silvana was such a huge gay icon — a kind of Italian Judy Garland.

Dario was a sweet guy — but he was on the wrong film, in way over his head. Not surprisingly, Dario and John Milius did not see eye-to-eye.

Dario burst into my office in Spain one morning, very upset.

“I am running out of ways to cover Conan’s pee-pee!” he lamented.

John had Dario fired and replaced him with John Bloomfield.

Untold Tales of Hollywood #30

August 13th, 2019

I was talking previously about the Shadizar signage. I’ve got fragments of several pieces depicting signage and standards that I can share. These were stolen from the production and, subsequently, obviously, very poorly stored under damp conditions. They mysteriously and coincidentally 😉 turned up when I was sought after to work on the second Conan film, Conan the Destroyer.

I figured that there would be fast food (street food) stalls in Shadizar. I came up with something that John Milius loved: Lizard-on-a-Stick. He made sure to include it in the movie.

Me at Jadran Studios just outside of Zagreb. In a very short time I had covered the walls with imagery for the film. Man, I wish I was still that skinny!

Here’s a standard I found that was designed by Ron Cobb: