Untold Tales of Hollywood #9

Our A-Team receptionist, Kathleen Kennedy, was incredibly bright and ambitious. Within a couple of weeks of my working on Conan the Barbarian, she became John Milius’ personal assistant. Within about two months after that jump, she became Steven Spielberg’s personal assistant. Two years later she produced E.T. – The Extraterrestrial. That’s one of the fastest rises I have ever personally witnessed in the Movie Biz.

Did she deserve it? Hell, yeah. Kathy worked her ass off.

Allow me to present an example of Kathy’s character and work ethic.

If Steven called her up at 4:00 AM and told her, “You know…I think elephants would be great for tomorrow’s shoot”, her response wouldn’t be “What in the hell are you doing, waking me up at four in the morning!” Nope. Instead, it would be two questions: ”African or Indian? And what color would you like those elephants, Steven?”

And those elephants would be on the set, painted and ready at 7:00 AM.

On the Monday following my meeting with John Milius and Buzz Feitshans I began drawing the Conan the Barbarian storyboards. I started with Scene 1, page 1.

John came by to see how I was doing and looked at the traditional storyboard panels I had already produced.

No! I love your comics. Draw these boards so that they look like comic book pages.”

I asked John if he wanted to guide me in any way to come closer to his vision of the film.

I’ll never forget his response:

“Just draw them as if it was your movie. I already know how I’m going to shoot every frame of this film. But if you come up with something better, I’ll use it — and I’ll take credit for it!”

Now that’s a smart director.

(One of my “storyboard” pages from Conan the Barbarian)

I quickly discovered that my new boss, Ron Cobb, was not just a great artist — he was a genius. The best time I ever spent on a film was the two years I spent in a room with Ron Cobb. It was like sitting next to a fountain that gushed great ideas all day long, seemingly effortlessly. I’m a competitive guy (in the most positive sense of the word, I hope), so working with Cobb really inspired me to up my game. Ron’s wife, Robin Love, observed that we improved each other as artists. Ron became better at figure drawing and I became a much better designer through our influencing each other.

I believe I have only met one other genius in this biz — that’s Jean “Moebius” Giraud. Knowing both those guys made me curious as to the nature of genius. What did they have in common?

Both, I discovered, approached life with a child-like joy. You could watch the worst movie with Jean and he would always find something positive to take away from it. This non-judgmental approach completely frees and unblocks one’s creativity. Prejudging anything restricts your vision and excludes potential great ideas before they are even given a chance to be born.

Originally, John had hired Cobb to design Half of the Sky, a Jedediah Smith mountain man movie that Milius had written and was going to direct (coincidentally, Jedediah Smith is an ancestor of mine).

Two of Ron’s stunning  Half of the Sky production designs. For more, visit www.roncobb.net

Around that same time, John also got hired to overhaul Oliver Stone’s Conan the Barbarian screenplay. John ended up rewriting the entire thing. Milius fell in love with Conan. He eventually made the decision to drop Half of the Sky and direct Conan the Barbarian, while retaining Ron as his designer.

Dino DeLaurentiis became the main producer, although his daughter Raffaella, along with Buzz Feitshans, fulfilled most of the on-the-ground producing duties. John told me how he ended up with Dino.

“Dino’s very smart and has an eye for directing talent. He waits until a talented director has made a flop. Then, when everyone in The Biz is pissing on that director, Dino swoops in, telling the director how much he believes in him. In this moment of weakness, Dino signs the director to a three-picture deal. That’s what happened to me. My most personal film (Big Wednesday) bombed and when everyone else was blasting me, Dino came to me with tremendous sympathy and got me to sign a three-picture deal with him. Big, big mistake.”

John Milius was writing Conan the Barbarian as Ron and I were working on it. John would bring in a few pages each day and then nervously pace outside our office as we read them, waiting for our verdict.

His writing was absolutely brilliant. The tender, romantic parts that this big bear of a man had written brought me to tears.

As 1941 was trying so very hard to wrap up, Christopher Lee became a regular visitor to the Conan art department. Man, did this man love his voice! You could hear him coming from half a block away. It was clear to us that he was in our room trying to influence Cobb and I to suggest that Chris be cast in Steven’s next project, Raiders of the Last Ark.

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