Untold Tales of Hollywood #29

August 12th, 2019

Eventually, our British accountant deviously sought to undermine Yugoslavia as our shooting location. He owned a house in Spain, which was clearly the reason he conspired to move the Conan the Barbarian production to Spain.

Somehow, through lies and deception, he convinced the producers we would be better off making our movie in Spain.

After that decision was made, I was given a choice:
1) I could move with the production to Madrid, Spain. It would take a while for them to generate work for me as they settled us into our new quarters, nevertheless, I would still be kept on salary and per diem.
or
2) While most of the rest of the company moved to Spain, I could live in Rome, Italy until they were ready for me. No salary, though, and no per diem.

Having never been to Rome, I chose Number 2.

I couldn’t believe my bus ride from the Rome airport to the center of town. The streets into town seemed to be lined with many of the most beautiful women I had ever seen. It seemed like I was in an entire city peopled with incredibly stunning Catholic school girls. Could this really be true, or was it an Italian Chamber of Commerce trick? On the bus I met a beautiful Thai stewardess. We were instantly attracted to each other. We would tour Rome during the day, and then I’d take her to dinner each evening. She would always order the same thing: a pork chop.

I ended up living in Rome for a few months. Every day the daughter of our set decorator (Giorgio Postiglione) would pick me up on her Vesna and take me to a museum I wanted to see. Around noon, we would go back to her family’s apartment where her mom would make me lunch. In the evenings, if I wasn’t chasing women, I would watch TV with the family.

Italian TV revealed just how uptight Americans are when it comes to sex — and how different we are from the rest of the world. One of the popular family (and I stress…family) variety shows was hosted by a transvestite. He introduced the next act, which was the popular disco singer Cicciolina (Ilona Staller). She was in a huge, shallow glass cup, covered in chocolate. Several nearly nude, well-muscled gay men carried in buckets of milk. As she sang her disco song, the men began pouring milk all over her until the chocolate was washed away, revealing her completely nude body. I can’t imagine this happening on an American network equivalent, something like the Ed Sullivan Show. Cicciolina later ran for a seat in the Italian Parliament — and won. Later, she became artist Jeff Koons‘ muse. Together they modeled for and produced several pornographic sculptures.

Sexual rules are very different in Italy (and the rest of Europe) than they are in the United States. In Rome, I was frequently encouraged by parents to date and have sex with their fourteen-year-old daughters. No one thought this was improper or unusual.

Giorgio told me a story about when he was working on a project out in the country. At noon each day he would have sex with a local girl in a beautiful forested spot. One day, while they were in the middle of making love, Giorgio heard muffled laughter. He looked up to see his daughter watching him from behind a bush, a big smile on her face. Then, Giorgio’s wife popped up. She laughed; Giorgio laughed, his daughter laughed and the girl laughed. Then, they all had a nice picnic lunch together.

I asked Giorgio’s wife if this was true. She confirmed Giorgio’s story.

“You weren’t jealous?” I asked.

“No,” she replied and smiled. “I know Giorgio is mine.”

Untold Tales of Hollywood #28

August 10th, 2019

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.

Untold Tales of Hollywood #27

August 9th, 2019

This was a fairly early production illustration I drew depicting Conan being trained to be a pit fighter:

In front of Dino DeLaurentiis‘ Beverly Hills office stood a brass sculpture of a lion, the symbol for Dino’s company. The testicles of the lion were highly polished, as Dino thought that grabbing the balls of the lion as he entered his building gave him good luck. Over time, those balls developed a patina quite different from the rest of the sculpture.

When Dino did not want any of us to know what he was saying, he would speak Italian. I began to secretly teach myself Italian.

Eventually, the Conan the Barbarian production moved from Dino DeLaurentiis’ Beverly Hills offices to Zagreb, Yugoslavia. I continued my secret Italian studies.

I loved Zagreb and Yugoslavia. To me, Zagreb was the most romantic city in the world. It was every bit as romantic as Paris but with an added patina of sadness. Everywhere I went in the city there were memorials to violent tragedies that had occurred during the city’s long, bloody history. The rest of the film crew hated Yugoslavia — but, then, they never left our hotel to experience that incredible city.

I love traveling outside the United States. It always gives me a fresh perspective on my own country. This was my first time living behind the Iron Curtain of communism. I was shocked to discover a huge American lie. It is pounded into us that America has the most freedoms of any country in the world. We pride ourselves in our Freedom of the Press. What shocked me was the discovery that this communist country of Yugoslavia had a much greater Freedom of the Press than we have in the United States. At the local Zagreb newsstands I could find almost any American publications (Time, Newsweek, Playboy, etc.) — but also a plethora of communist publications — something you won’t find in the United States. The diversity of magazines from America and all over Europe that were available in Yugoslavia was staggering. Yugoslavians, unlike other communist country citizens, were also quite free to travel outside their own country.

I discovered from living in Zagreb (and later in Madrid) that just like there are all kinds of Democrats and Republicans, there are all kinds of communists. None of the communists I met and befriended in Yugoslavia and Spain were out to destroy the United States. We were just friends with different political philosophies.

Production designer Ron Cobb asked me to draw up some different views of the Hyborian city of Shadizar, based upon his designs.

You can see that the above picture is damaged along the bottom. After I left the production most of my original art for the film that I produced in Zagreb and Madrid was stolen (most likely by one of the producers). When I was asked to work on Conan the Destroyer, my originals suddenly, almost magically, reappeared and were returned to me (right when I was suing Dino for the loss of my originals). They had been poorly stored, however (lots of water damage), and most of my original paintings and drawings were beyond saving. I never let that happen again.

It’s a shame, as I really made some creative breakthroughs with a lot of that art. Since Shadizar was a crossroads city in Hyboria, I figured that there would be a multitude of languages being spoken there. To accommodate the difficulties in communication that would arise in such a city, I thought that the signage in Shadizar would be completely visual and non-verbal. An undertaker’s sign, for example, might be a hanging basket full of skulls. I had a great time designing all of that non-verbal Shadizarian signage.

Despite Zagreb being a major city in Yugoslavia, it was pretty behind when it came to art supplies. If we wanted decent art supplies we had to have stuff sent to us from Italy. Not knowing this, I came to Zagreb pretty empty handed. I went out to scour the city for paints and drawing tools. The watercolors I found were a little kid’s set, small cakes of color in an aluminum tin. The brushes that came with it did not come to a point — they flared out.

I needed a crowquil pen. That’s a dip pen that is a combination of a removable tip with a holder.

I walked into a shop. A shop staff person asked me what I was looking for. I said I needed a pen tip and holder (I did a drawing to show her what kind of pen tip I was looking for). She directed me to a fellow staff member. He produced a satisfactory tip, which he gave to another person in the shop to wrap. Another person rang me up. Still another person took my money. Another one gave me a receipt, and another handed me my bag with the pen tip (I had to go to another shop to purchase the holder).

And that’s why there was no unemployment in Yugoslavia.

Most of the businesses in Yugoslavia were government-owned. But if your business had a threshold number of employees (I don’t recall the exact minimum), you could take the business private.

I needed female companionship. I thought that I might meet someone in one of the city’s discos. I went to a disco in a nearby large hotel. The music selection there was bizarre: a Frank Sinatra song followed by a Yugoslavian folk song, followed by an American country western song; then an Elvis Presley rocker followed by some British Invasion hit, then a swing tune and a disco number. There was no consistency whatsoever except that the club’s musical inconsistency was extremely consistent. You could not guess what was going to be played next.

There was a dress code at that disco; guys had to wear coats and ties. The women were dressed up in various periods of fashion. I scouted the room and found the most beautiful woman there. I approached her and asked her to dance. She spoke English pretty well and was a good dancer. Most of the people dancing in the place were dancing Old School swing and jitterbug style. There were grim watchers throughout the club. If it looked like I was getting too physically friendly with my dance partner, they would intervene and caution me.

My dance partner that night was named Vesna. She became my Yugoslavian girlfriend and I asked her to teach me Serbo-Croatian. The next day my lessons began. Vesna decided we should play mini-golf (miniature golf) for my first lesson. It was a quick and fun way to learn numbers in Serbo-Croatian (I still remember them). Although this Slavic language bore almost no similarities to English, I found I was learning fast, thanks to my beautiful teacher.

 

Untold Tales of Hollywood #26

August 7th, 2019

Writer-director John Milius asked me to create a teaser poster for Conan the Barbarian. I complied, but I was hampered by the fact that I had no photo reference of Arnold Schwarzenegger — I just painted his face from memory. I’m posting it here but I am saying out front that I consider it to be pretty mediocre.

Later, I did some small studies for potential poster art.

I never did a finished painting but I painted these little roughs which I think are more successful than my teaser painting.

John later asked for a painting of the film’s climax, after Conan beheads Thulsa Doom. The beheading of Thulsa Doom, by the way, was John’s attempt to do the final scene in Apocalypse Now (which John wrote) his way.

Milius originally wrote the role of Thulsa Doom for Sean Connery. When Sean passed on the offer, I heard John call James Earl Jones and tell him, “I’ve just written this role especially for you.” Actors love flattery like that; I noticed throughout my film career that it was one of the most common lies in The Biz. When I became a production designer, I used a variant: “You’re my first call. It’s you whom I want to work with more than anyone else in the business.” Lies, lies, lies.

Two more Sean Connery-related stories:

One day during the making of The Wind and the Lion, John made Connery ride up and down a distant hill for most of a day. That was because Sean had developed some irritating issues with Milius and John knew that Connery hated horse work. It was John’s revenge on Sean.

This story is better: Terry Leonard was our stunt coordinator on Conan the Barbarian. John had worked with him previously on The Wind and the Lion, as Terry was Sean Connery’s stunt double. The scene that had to be shot was one of the Raisuli (Sean’s character) riding down a slope towards an enemy. Upon reaching the enemy, the Raisuli beheads him.

“Where do you want the head to land?” asked Terry.

“Wha-a-at?” replied Milius.

“I said, where do you want the head to land?”

John was taken completely by surprise.

“Uhhh… here!

John drew an X in the sand with the toe of his shoe.

“Okay,” Terry replied. “Set up your camera.”

Terry, dressed as the Raisuli, mounted his horse and rode to the top of the hill. A dummy of his enemy was on horseback as well at the bottom of the hill near the cameras and crew.

John shouted “ACTION!”

Terry rode down the hill at a full gallop. When he got to the Raisuli’s enemy, Terry swung his mighty sword and decapitated the dummy on the horse. The head flew into the air and then bounced across the ground until it came to a stop…right on top of John’s X.

And that’s just one reason why John Milius always used Terry Leonard as his stunt coordinator.

Untold Tales of Hollywood #25

August 1st, 2019

Ron Cobb created this great heading for our company stationery:

More of my designs for Conan the Barbarian
Here was one of my first set and costume designs:


And here’s the bazaar at Shadizar:

Untold Tales of Hollywood #24

July 31st, 2019

Before we look at the Cimmerian village in Conan the Barbarian, I’d like to share a brief Q & A I had with my friend, artist Aaron Lopresti.

Aaron asked (after seeing my Conan comic book page-style storyboards): These are fantastic, Bill. But why so detailed and finished for storyboards?

My answer:

Every film I’ve boarded has had a different degree of finish to the art. My Conan work is one extreme. I’ve also done quick, near-stick figure drawings and everything else in between. It all depends upon the film and depends upon the director.

For Conan, I was trying to kill two birds with one crowquil; I was designing for real lots of the film’s visual elements (costumes, armor, sets, props, etc.) at the same time I was telling our story with my boards. That’s, of course, why it was taking me so damn long to do each page.

The work I was doing inside the panels was so detailed that I could hand copies of the panels off and get that stuff built. I didn’t want to draw generic comic book sword and sorcery stuff (Marvel Comics Conan); I wanted what was on the page to be very, very specific.

You also have to remember that up until Conan the Barbarian, there were no sword and sorcery films. We were making up an entirely new movie genre from scratch. The Europeans in our art department didn’t get it. “Is it like a gladiator movie?” “A little bit…” “Is it like a Viking movie?” “A little bit…” “Is it like a samurai movie?” “A little bit…”

One of the most difficult things to get across was that Howard’s Conan stories were originally written for horror pulps like Weird Tales. Ron Cobb and I kept emphasizing that this film should be SCARY! Those seemed to be fights we didn’t win all that very often.

There wasn’t really anything I could point to to explain this new genre. Frank Frazetta‘s work looked great but most of what he painted wasn’t functional and worked only for the moment that Frank was depicting. It looked cool on a book cover but ridiculous when we tried to build some of that stuff for real (for what I consider an embarrassing example, look at Cher‘s period of Frazetta-influenced costumes. Yikes!) Remember, everything we designed also had to be — or at least look — functional (Cobb’s Wheel of Pain really worked; it was truly functional). It really helped having Ron’s and John Milius‘ historical perspective to ground us in a kind of fantastic reality.

Cobb and I were really the only two guys on the film who knew what this new movie genre should look like (except for some of the sculptors and sword makers we hired for specific jobs, the two of us were the entire Conan art department for over a year or two). We had to draw and paint up a storm to get across our vision in a way that our fellow filmmakers could understand. I personally went through the major prop houses in Madrid and hand picked items we could alter to achieve our vision. There was a lot of mix & match used to get what we wanted.

Now, let’s look at little Conan’s Cimmerian village.
Here is Ron Cobb’s map of the village:

Here’s my re-drawing/clarification of that map:

…and a production drawing I did of the village (with little Conan chasing a dog):

A quick hut sketch:

Untold Tales of Hollywood #23

July 30th, 2019

Meanwhile, back to Conan the Barbarian

BTW, I just added more pics to my Valeria post. Check ’em out!

Work progressed on Conan. My work on the storyboards ceased as Ron began assigning me different sets, props and costumes to design.

One of the first sets I designed was the witch’s hut. Here was my exterior (sorry about the reflections! I’ll try to find a better shot and post it):


And here is a progression of interiors:

Rutger Hauer 1944–2019

July 29th, 2019

A terrific actor has left us. Rutger Hauer has passed at the age of 75.

(Poster art by Drew Struzan)

He is best known to genre fans as Roy Batty, the lead rebel replicant in Ridley Scott‘s sci-fi masterpiece Blade Runner.

Mr. Hauer was also in a film I worked on: The Hitcher.

I was first introduced to Hauer through his Dutch films directed by Paul Verhoeven. My girlfriend Alison Buckles was working at a Hollywood revival theater that primarily showed foreign films, art films and interesting public domain films (like the Why We Fight series whose interest has been recently revived due to the Five Came Back doc). The theater was a two-person operation (Alison and the projectionist). Alison sold tickets to the films and then turned around and sold snacks and drinks. It was a lot for one person to handle so I often joined her and pitched in, either selling tickets or fulfilling the food and drink orders of the theater’s patrons. After this flurry of activity, the first movie started. I’d sit in the back of the theater and watch the films, jumping up to help sell refreshments between movies. I had a blast.

I saw a lot of Verhoeven’s great Dutch films there. I would have never have guessed that the same guy who directed these deeply artistic and spellbinding arthouse films would eventually be making pure popcorn movies like RoboCop, Total Recall and Starship Troopers. I must have watched Keetye Tippel (1975; Cathy Tippel in the US) at least six times. Rutger Hauer really stood out in Verhoeven’s Soldier of Orange (1977).

Hauer quickly made the transition to English-speaking roles and Blade Runner. Blade Runner is now considered one of the greatest science fiction films ever made. My first glimpse of Blade Runner was at Comic-Con in San Diego. My pal Jeff Walker was promoting the film and a copy of the trailer was showing at the convention on an endless loop. I was blown away by the visuals; I watched that trailer over and over.

(Panel from Dan O’Bannon & Moebius’ “The Long Tomorrow”)

I spotted the huge influence that Jean “Moebius” Giraud and Syd Meade had on the film’s look.

(Production painting by Syd Meade for Blade Runner)

I’m a huge fan of this film and own at least five different versions of this seminal movie.

Blade Runner was also a gigantic box office flop in the US.

Because of this, for years I was warned to never mention Blade Runner during a movie pitch.

Question: Why was Blade Runner a bomb in the US but successful in Europe?

Answer: Casting.

In the United States, Harrison Ford is a popular film hero. He’s Han Solo, he’s Indiana Jones. But if you look at Blade Runner objectively, his character in that film is the Bad Guy. He is hunting down replicants whose main initial crime is just wanting to live. Americans didn’t want to see Harrison Ford as a Bad Guy, so they avoided the film during its initial run.

The Good Guy is really the Roy Batty character who will stop at nothing to extend his own life and the lives of his fellow replicant friends.

In Europe at the time, Rutger Hauer was a hero, a leading man. So casting him as the beleaguered Roy Batty fighting for his life made perfect sense to European audiences.

I didn’t want Rutger Hauer for The Hitcher (1986).

My first choice was Harry Dean Stanton.

I loved Stanton’s dark, vulture-esque looks and drew him in my storyboards for the film.

I had no say in the casting, however, and Hauer was chosen to play John Ryder. Hauer did a great job playing Ryder, a character who just might also be The Devil.

The Hitcher is one of the films I worked on of which I’m pretty pleased with the end result. We had an amazing cast and crew for that film and a good script by Eric Red. I consider Rutger Hauer’s performance a key element to that film’s success.

RIP, Mr. Hauer. Your soliloquy at the end of Bladerunner (much of which Hauer wrote the night before the scene was shot) should be your epitaph.

“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.”

Untold Tales of Hollywood #22

July 27th, 2019

I met George Lucas in person and spoke with him just once, while I was working on Conan the Barbarian (he and John Milius were pals, both USC Film School graduates) — but I’ve had many, many associations with him. He’s a very loyal guy who has never forgotten who was there for him in the beginning.

My first encounter with George was when he was looking for artists to do Star Wars posters. The film had just been released. I had seen the mysterious ads placed all over town: “May The Force Be with You” What in the hell was that all about? A mystical religious pic?

After the movie opened, I kept driving by the famous Graumann’s Chinese Theater. The lines were long as the film had begun picking up amazing word of mouth. With each passing day, the lines weren’t getting any shorter — they were getting longer! I was too busy to see the film; I had loads of ad jobs on my plate. Finally, I got a break in my schedule. I had to see what this Star Wars phenomena was all about.

After parking, I strolled up the two or three blocks-long queue, starting at the beginning, hoping to recognize someone who might give me cuts in line.

“Bill!” a familiar voice shouted. It was my pal George, an underground comix distributor, with his very young son Leo. Leo was dressed in costume. I would find out about half an hour later that he was dressed just like Luke Skywalker.

They gave me cuts. George was blown away that this was my first time seeing the film.

“George,” I said, “The movie’s only been out two weeks. How many times have you seen it?”

“Four.”

FOUR! In just two weeks?! Holy cow — this must be one heckuva film!”

“Bill — You have to promise me you’ll sit with us. I wanna see your face at the beginning.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about but, yeah, I’ll be happy to sit with you guys. Huh…see my face…”

We entered the theater, found great seats and waited for the movie to begin.

It began with the famous slanted text crawl — that was different; it reminded me of some of the old sci-fi serials. And then the first spaceship flew into view from overhead.

“Ohmigod,” I said quietly to myself. “This is a-mazing!

Then the second, much BIGGER ship flew over. I nearly jumped out of my seat. I had never seen anything like it. I suddenly knew that I was watching cinema history — movies and special effects had just made a spectacular leap.

I immediately began bringing my mom, brothers and friends everywhere to see this film — just so I could see the look on their faces at the beginning of the film.

Oh…and little Leo, the tot dressed like Luke Skywalker the first time I saw Star Wars? That was Leonardo DeCaprio.

Untold Tales of Hollywood #21

July 26th, 2019

This is one of my favorite stories. A short version (not by me) of it was published in Los Angeles magazine many, many years ago. It’s going to interrupt my Conan the Barbarian stories — but that’s OK, as this tale begins during my early months on Conan, so it’s chronologically valid.

Above: Fan commission

FILM #8: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1980)
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Story by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman
Screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan

John Milius and Steven Spielberg were best buddies. Nevertheless, there was a rivalry between them. I was witness to their frequent habit of trying to gently one-up each other. Typically, what Steven had, John wanted. And what John had, Steven wanted.

John had Ron Cobb and William Stout.

During the day, Ron and I would work on Conan. At 6:00 PM we’d put our pencils down and cross the hall to Steven’s office where we’d kick around ideas for Steven’s next film, Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Eventually, Steven asked us to jump the Conan ship and join him on Raiders. He wanted Ron as production designer and me as the storyboard artist, the same roles we held on Conan.

Although I had stopped contributing to the after-hours discussions of Raiders (there’s no way I could keep up with the brilliance and knowledge of Ron and Steven; as I recall, I think I mostly just sat there, grinning like an idiot), Steven still wanted me on the film. To help Steven out, I drew a few panels from the sequence in which Indiana Jones fights the Nazis on the truck:

Both Ron and I ultimately turned Steven’s offer down. We felt compelled to be loyal to Milius, as John had given the both of us huge breaks in the film business.

I recommended to Steven that my studio mate Dave Stevens take my place as the Raiders storyboard artist. I showed Steven Dave’s work and arranged for Dave to come in and meet Steven. Dave was hired on the spot and he took up where I left off with the Nazi truck fight sequence. Dave, of course, did a fantastic job.

Steven still wanted me, though. I had an open offer to work on Raiders. But he REALLY wanted Cobb more than anyone.

One day I came in to work and saw Cobb at his drawing table.

“Ron, you look kinda shell-shocked. What’s up?”

“It’s Steven,” Ron replied. “He said if I’d jump ship to work on Raiders, he’d let me direct the sequel to Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”

Ohmigod…What did you say?”

“I told him I don’t know how to direct!”

“What did Steven say?”

“I’m directing today. Come by and I’ll show you how.”

Like you can learn how to direct in one day. Well, maybe with Steven as your instructor, maybe you could…

“I passed. I told Steven I felt compelled to stay loyal to John. Steven was not happy and withdrew the offer.”

“Yikes.”

After we made Conan the Barbarian, Ron returned to Santa Monica. Steven contacted Ron and apologized — adding that, if he wanted, Ron could still direct the sequel to Close Encounters, with Steven producing. Ron began work on the project. He collaborated with the great John Sayles on the script for Night Skies (the project’s new title). This thriller of a story was based upon an allegedly true tale of two different groups of aliens who had a shoot-out over a farm in Nebraska. Rick Baker was hired to construct Ron’s aliens.

About this time I paid a visit to Ron.

“Ron — What’s the matter? You look miserable.”

“It’s Steven. He’s finished Raiders. Now he’s turned his attention to my film. He’s makes changes every single day. He’s made so many changes that it doesn’t feel like my film anymore. I’d give anything to get off this movie.”

Wow.

A few days later Steven approached Ron with an offer.

“Ron, I don’t know how to tell you this…but I’ve got to direct this film. I’ll give you $10,000 and a point in the film if you’ll walk away.”

Ron accepted Steven’s offer.

About nine months later, Ron and his wife Robin Love were invited to the cast and crew screening of Steven’s movie (Steven gave Ron a bit part in the film as a doctor). I asked Ron how it was.

“I am so glad I didn’t make it. It’s much too maudlin for my tastes.”

Ron and Robin forgot about the movie until several months later when, while reading the movie industry trade papers, they saw that Steven’s film, no longer titled Night Skies — now titled E.T. – The Extraterrestrial, had grossed over $400,000,000.

“Ron,” Robin asked, “don’t we have a point in that film?

“I think we do!”

Ron dug through his papers and found the agreement he had made with Steven.

Ron called Universal.

“Oh, thank god,” the Universal finance person said. “This is the first verifiable point we can pay off on. I’ll have your first check messengered over to you right away.”

A couple of hours later, Ron received a check for about $800,000 (!).

Ron had one of Steven’s points, so Ron’s point not only included E.T.’s box office royalties, but participation in the video, DVD, Blu-ray, toys, books…well, everything E.T.-associated. To date, Ron has made well over ten million dollars for not directing E.T.

Only in Hollywood…

And, honestly — it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.