Dan O’Bannon, R. I. P.

I am really sorry to have make two postings today. Immediately after my Rocketeer posting I was saddened to learn that writer-director-artist Dan O’Bannon passed away yesterday. My heart goes out to his loving wife and son.

Dan hired me to production design “The Return of the Living Dead.” In doing so, he made me the youngest production designer in film history. It took an enormous leap of faith on his part to hire me for this huge, intense job. I’ll be forever thankful for his trust in me.

We met at one of Ron Cob’s parties. Dan had known Ron a long time. Ron designed the spaceship for Dan’s first film, “Dark Star.” Ron also painted the presentation art for a little film that Dan and his co-writer, Ron Shusett, were trying to pitch, a small sci-fi project entitled “Alien.”

Dan was at some of Ron’s parties at which I had brought the drawings and paintings from a work I had in progress at the time, my book The Dinosaurs–A Fantastic New View of a Lost Era. Dan was especially effusive about my work at those parties.

His effusiveness turned into a life-changing job the night I showed him a cover I had done for the “Alien Worlds” comic book. Unbeknown to me, Dan was considering me as production designer for his first film as a director: “The Return of the Living Dead.” He knew I’d have no trouble designing unique zombies for the project but he wasn’t sure I could handle the high-tech design aspects of the film.

Dan later told me that seeing my “Alien Worlds” cover was a revelation. “Stout CAN do high-tech!” he excitedly thought to himself.

Designing that film was one of the hardest things I ever did (I temporarily left the film biz for nine months after we had wrapped). It wasn’t the work that was tough; it was dealing with the bigger-than-life personalities, egos and power plays that were going on throughout the production. I came very close to committing felony assault on several occasions.

I saw myself as Dan’s protector on that show. I was always the first one to arrive at any meeting, making sure that Dan always had the “power chair” in the room. When several of our team conspired to take control of the film away from Dan, I stood by the guy who had given me this big break and warned him in advance of what was coming.

Dan saw stuff in black and white. You were either a friend or an enemy. He had decided quite early on that I was a friend (which I actually was). I was also a friend to the film, though, too, and often had to conspire to convince Dan somehow that what he wanted wasn’t going to be the best thing for our movie (like painting the mortuary walls bright red).

We got through that film and remained good friends. The two of us flew to Louisville, Kentucky (the film’s setting) to promote the movie at RiverCon. On the way back I got to meet Dan’s parents on our stopover in St. Louis.

We sporadically kept in touch over the years (I’m not the best at that and Dan was notoriously reclusive). Whenever we would get together we always expressed joy in being in each other’s company. We were extremely proud of our little film and were pleased and amazed when it became a huge cult classic. In recent years, Dan and I (and the great cast of the film) were guests at cinematic celebrations of our little horror comedy gem. It was always great to see Dan.

At our last meeting (at a Clu Gulager film festival) Dan took me aside. After the show and our Q & A, he asked if I would like to collaborate on a several new creative projects, including a new film, a board game, video games and a complete (and brilliantly inventive) revamping of his website. I excitedly agreed to all of the above. We hugged and departed.

Dan was a real true character in my life. Like a lot of the film people I’ve worked with, Dan was outrageous — bigger than life. There is too much that I’ve experienced with Dan or know about him to be contained in this one posting. I’ll be happy to share more of Dan’s character in forthcoming posts.

Until then: Dan, rest in peace. Let loose those inner demons at last. Perhaps they will settle as inspiration in the soul of another creator, perhaps not. All I know is that you, Dan O’Bannon, were one of a kind — and you were my friend.

5 Responses to “Dan O’Bannon, R. I. P.”

  1. Rick Tucker says:

    Bill,

    I’m real saddened to read this. The first time I read Dan’s work was in the collected Moebius editions (volume 4 and also in DHC’s “H.P. Rock City”) where his tale futuristic, but still noir, detective tale “The Long Tomorrow” is featured. A few years after reading that story I found Moebius selling prints of page 4 in French and managed to get one of the artist proofs of that print.
    Since then Dan O’Bannon’s name has been a magnet to good work.
    It’s good to know you two were friends.
    My condolences, for whatever that’s worth.

    Rick

  2. Scott Conner says:

    That’s terrible! I suppose like a lot of people, my first exposure to his work was through the movie Alien, and then from his segment in the animated Heavy Metal movie. I very much enjoyed his interview segments on the Alien Quadrilogy DVD set.

    Way too many good, creative people have passed away recently.

    I’m sorry for the loss of your friend, Bill. I’d like to hear more about him when you feel like sharing.

  3. Bill says:

    Thanks, Rick.

    Scott: you touched on something that everyone should know about. There were few interviewees as entertaining as Dan O’Bannon. If you ever get a chance to read or see any O’Bannon interview, don’t miss it.

    Dan is a fearless, outspoken, no-holds-barred and often hilarious interview subject. You won’t be disappointed.

  4. James Latta says:

    Knew I would find some hearfelt remembrances posted here in your on-line Journal Bill, about Dan. And you did not let me down.

    Glad he was inspired thinking of working with you again in his final days. That must have given him some great pleasure just imaging what you would both come up with.

    My condolences on the loss of such a talented and colorful friend. You made history together.

    All best,
    James L.

  5. Rick Tucker says:

    Bill,
    How did I forget Dan’s work on Alien?

    Thanks, Scott, for the reminder.
    My wife and I saw that film when we were first dating back in ’79. Reading the special Aliens coverage in Steranko’s Mediascene really brings me back and, yes, Dan’s mentioned prominently and there were a lot of Moebius designs accompanying the article (which may be why I liked Dan and Moebius’ “The Long Tomorrow” so much).
    Sometimes there’s no excuse for a shoddy memory.

    Rick

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