Untold Tales of Hollywood #28

Here is my interior design for King Osric‘s castle from Conan the Barbarian:

These are some of the tapestry designs I drew for the interior of King Osric’s castle:

Here’s a much more psychedelic version:

This shows the progress on a spider tapestry:

Originally, we planned to shoot Conan the Barbarian in Yugoslavia. I was excited by this decision, as so few films had been shot there (as opposed to Plan B: Spain). I thought we could get something fresher and more exciting on the screen with these little-used locales.

TV in Yugoslavia was a hoot. In the hotel I was living in, they showed a different movie every evening. The films were always shown in their original language with Serbo-Croatian subtitles (unless, of course, the movie was Serbo-Croatian). This was a one week turn around schedule, however. The hotels in Yugoslavia didn’t expect you to stay longer than a week, so once the seven films were shown over seven consecutive days, they repeated. So, every Thursday I watched Elliott Gould as Philip Marlowe in Robert Altman‘s The Long Goodbye. I saw that film many, many times.

Just as we had lots of different TV westerns, Yugoslavia had its equivalent: Partisans vs. Nazis. There was every manner of format in the Partisans vs. Nazis genre — and they all seemed to be patterned after American TV westerns. There was, for example, the Partisans vs. Nazis version of Bonanza: a patriarch with three grown sons, with the Nazis as the black hat Bad Guys.

There were commercials on Yugoslavian TV — but they never interrupted a film or TV show. They were shown in half hour blocks between shows and movies. Commercials were called “EPP‘s” — Economic Political Propaganda. You were sternly warned you were about to see them, prior to their screening.

My Yugoslavian girlfriend Vesna had visited the United States. One of the things that horrified her while she was there was our TV commercials. She thought we were crazy.

“You have EPPs for dogs!” she said in disgust.

She was referring to dog food commercials.

Every country I traveled to in Europe had one thing in common: they were nuts about Laurel and Hardy. Their movies were always playing in every city I visited. In Yugoslavia they were called Stanlio i Olio (pronounced Stan-lee-oh ee Oh-lee-oh). I took Vesna to a movie theater showing a couple of their films. The movies were in their original English language with Serbo-Croatian subtitles. This created an interesting phenomena: The Yugoslavians could read the subtitles faster than the dialogue was being spoken. So, they would laugh at a joke — then I would laugh a few seconds later.

Vesna educated me about Yugoslavia. She not only taught me Serbo-Croatian, she taught me the history of her people and her country. There was a lot of great architecture in the heart of old Zagreb. I marveled at a building erected in around 1200 AD. It was like out of a fairy tale. Vesna told me that this ancient home was actually for rent. I mentioned out loud that I would love to live in a place like that.

“How much?” I asked.

“Don’t even think about it. It’s very expensive.”

“How much? How expensive?”

“Really; you don’t want to know. It’s exorbitant.”

“Just tell me, Vesna.”

“OK. The rent could be as much as two hundred fifty, maybe three hundred dollars.”

“Per month?”

She looked at me as if I was an idiot.

“No — per year!”

Living in Yugoslavia, I learned of the hatred that Yugoslavians had for the Soviet Union. Typically, if you spoke Russian you would not be treated well in any of the Yugoslavian shops. Despite the fact that every Yugoslavian I met spoke Russian in addition to Serbo-Croatian, the Yugoslavs pretended not to know the language if their customer was Russian. Every citizen older than three years old knew Red Cross emergency first aid and CPR, just in case there was a Soviet invasion. Half of the country could be mobilized to fight the Soviets in just twelve hours; the entire country — every man, woman and child — could be mobilized in 24 hours. Yugoslavia was the only communist country that was not aligned with either the Soviet Union or Red China. Yugoslavia was independent — and proudly so.

Yugoslavia was also an approved vacation spot for a lucky few in those other communist countries. Dubrovnik was nicknamed “The Jewel of the Adriatic”, famed for its coastal beauty.

I dined at one of the more expensive Zagreb restaurants with Ron Cobb and his wife, Robin Love. The restaurant looked like it was right out of a 1930s MGM Hollywood movie. It was grand, to say the least, with huge columns and incredibly high ceilings. I felt like I should have been wearing a Fred Astaire tux to this place — the waiters all were. The official drink in Yugoslavia, I learned, was a plum brandy called slivovitz.

We watched a large table full of local Yugoslavian friends and family having dinner. Every once in awhile, a member of their party would stand up and sing what was apparently a very sad song. Sometimes his fellow diners would join in. By the end of the song the original singer would be falling apart in a cascade of tears, his friends hugging and comforting him and helping him back down to his seat. Then it would begin again with another member of their party. This went on all night long, through the entire course of their meal.

The food was wonderful, but half of the items on the menu were not available — especially anything green. Yugoslavia was a meat-and-potatoes country.

I became especially fond of cevapcici (say-VAHP-chee-chee), minced beef served in a fresh pita bread envelope. It’s their most popular fast food — the Yugoslavian equivalent of our hamburger. On my very last day in Zagreb I found the very best cevapcici joint. They steamed their pita bread with beer.

President Marshall Tito, the last of the World War II leaders, died while I was living in Yugoslavia. It was like having a front row seat to history. He was the Abraham Lincoln of Yugoslavia. Before he took power and united the five Yugoslavian states into one nation, the Yugoslavians were killing more of each other than the Nazis. Shamefully, our U. S. President did not attend Tito’s funeral (he sent the vice president in his place). The film crew and I watched the national funeral on TV. I wept.

When someone dies in Yugoslavia, an important part of their funeral service is something called a Memory Book. In this book, everyone writes down their feelings and memories — good or bad — about the person who has passed. This Memory Book is kept and then handed down over the years to family members. I found this a wonderful tradition. If you wanted to know what your great uncle Stief was like, you could read all about him in his Memory Book.

When Tito died, there was a Memory Book in every shop in Yugoslavia. People poured their hearts out, writing about their beloved leader. The books were then collected and preserved for all to read at Tito’s national tomb.

Tito was the glue that held Yugoslavia together. As soon as he died, I could see the entire country beginning to unravel. The flames of old hatreds began to be fanned. The fear of The Other grew exponentially. I felt terrible watching this happen to a proud nation I had fallen in love with — but there was nothing I could do.

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