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Dan O’Bannon, Part Two

O’Bannon Tale #1: Dan was fastidious in regards to climate control. He constantly was messing with (and breaking) the thermostats in the Burbank warehouse where we were shooting the interiors for The Return of the Living Dead.

His climate concerns were not limited to the set. They carried over into his home life, too.

One day he got into a conversation with the fellow who was fixing his air conditioning. He quickly discovered that the repair guy was my Uncle Buddy (small world, ain’t it?). My uncle always has done excellent work; he knows his stuff when it comes to heating and cooling systems (he’s retired now). So, whenever anything went on the fritz in the O’Bannon household, which was often due to Dan’s own attempts to “fix” things, he called the air conditioning company, always demanding that “Billy’s uncle” (Dan couldn’t remember my uncle’s name) be sent out (my Uncle Buddy still calls me “Billy”; he’s known me since I was a baby). My uncle loved working at Dan’s home and he loved Dan and his eccentricities.

O’Bannon Tale #2: I mentioned in yesterday’s Journal entry that Dan’s tales often emanated from his own intense neuroses. O’Bannon was probably the most paranoid guy I ever met. He tapped that paranoia as a writer, creating classic scripts for Alien and Blue Thunder.

While making The Return of the Living Dead, I was in the process of buying a house with the Conan the Destroyer money I had squirreled away while living on my per diem down in Mexico City during the making of the film. Dan had just been through the process of buying a house.

Now, Dan was a researcher. He loved to research everything. Buying a home was no exception. On our hair-raising drives (when Dan was driving we ALWAYS missed our freeway exits) together to location scouts, Dan gave me the benefit of all of the house research he had just done.

Dan had determined that the absolute best house to own was a Spanish adobe-style home. He told me, though, that Spanish adobes had one drawback.

“The walls aren’t machine gun proof.”

So, at enormous expense, after purchasing his very expensive Santa Monica Spanish adobe abode, he had the house’s walls taken out and had steel plates inserted inside of them before replacing them. Now they were machine gun proof! Problem solved!

O’Bannon Tale #3: Like I do, Dan O’Bannon loved comics. Before he died, I had enthusiastically agreed to drawing a whole series of comics with him. We were both very excited at the thought of collaborating again. I had read so much of Dan’s work and knew him so well that I was convinced we were going to produce some great things together and make history in the world of comic art.

You may or may not know this, but Dan O’Bannon wrote what was to become one of the most influential comic book stories ever published. No, it didn’t do a lot to influence other comics. But it changed motion pictures forever.

The story is called “The Long Tomorrow.” It was illustrated by Dan’s friend Jean Giraud — better known to comics fans as “Moebius.” I believe it originally appeared in the French comics magazine Metal Hurlant and was reprinted here in the States in Heavy Metal.

Hunt it down. The entire look, ambiance and feel of the story was used by Ridley Scott as the visual template for Bladerunner. Scott even duplicated some of the panels as shots in his magnificent film.

That was not the first time that Dan had changed film making forever.

In the mid-1970s Dan was hired by George Lucas to design the onscreen computer graphics in Star Wars. Not long after that, Dan was hired by Alejandro Jodorowsky to work on Jodorowsky’s filming of Frank Herbert’s Dune. The phenomenal cast that was slated for this epic sci-fi adventure included Orson Welles and Salvador Dali. Together, Jodorowsky and O’Bannon assembled an amazing art department that boasted Moebius, Ron Cobb, Chris Foss and H. R. Giger.

I have to halt this story for a moment to emphasize the historical importance of what Dan and George Lucas have done for the art of cinema, art direction-wise.

History lesson: The first production designers were originally called “art directors.” The two most important art directors, William Cameron Menzies and Anton Grot (I borrowed heavily from Grot for my production design of Masters of the Universe), came from an illustration background (they have been reported to have been children’s book illustrators but I have yet to find a single copy of any book they illustrated. Their work does look like early 20th century children’s book illustration, however). Menzies began in the silent era with Douglas Fairbanks; Thief of Bagdad; Grot designed the Errol Flynn swashbucklers.

Later in his career, William Cameron Menzies not only designed Gone With the Wind, he storyboarded the entire film in full color. On top of that, he directed a third of the film, including the famous “burning of Atlanta” sequence.

GWTW‘s producer, David O. Selznick, had a problem. The film’s other director, Victor Fleming, did not want to share directing credit for the film.

Selznick came up with a solution.

He approached Menzies, explained the problem, and then presented Menzies with his solution. Although Menzies would not get a director’s credit, Menzies would receive the on-screen credit “Production Designed by William Cameron Menzies.” That was the first time the title “production designer” was ever used. It quickly caught on and soon there were both production designers and art directors on movies.

Here’s the basic difference now between the two (and this varies from picture to picture): The production designer is responsible for everything you see on the screen except for the performances of the actors. That’s sets, costumes, make-up, special effects, props, etc. The art director usually is in charge of the Art Department’s budgeting and scheduling, with hands-on involvement in regards to the entire Art Department.

Decades later, the backgrounds of Production designers and art directors had changed. No longer were they from an illustration background. Instead, nearly all of them came from the world of architecture. In the studio system, set designers slowly worked their way up the ranks to become art directors. If they were lucky (and careful politically), some eventually became production designers.

George Lucas changed all of that by hiring illustrator Ralph MacQuarrie to design Star Wars, along with a team of other talented artists (although Ralph didn’t receive the production designer credit; neither Moebius nor Syd Meade received the production design credit they deserved for Bladerunner).

Jodorowsky and O’Bannon shared the same vision, using comic book artists and illustrators to design Dune.

Unfortunately, the financing for Dune fell through and the project was dead. At that same moment in time, though, O’Bannon’s (and Ronald Shusett’s) script for Alien was greenlit. Ridley Scott brought Dan to London to work on the film. Dan mentioned the aborted Dune project and the great art department that had been assembled. Dan suggested that Ridley consider hiring the Dune Art Department to design Alien. Scott looked at their work and agreed.

The success of Star Wars and Alien briefly opened the doors for guys like me to enter the film business. I didn’t have to become an architect and slog away for decades in the hopes of becoming a production designer. In 1979 Ron Cobb (a production designer after five years in the business, beginning with Dan on Dark Star) hired me to work on Conan the Barbarian. That led to other films, and within three years (and with the mentoring and guidance of Ron Cobb and Pierluigi Basile) I became the production designer on an American Godzilla film (sadly unfilmed) and then The Return of the Living Dead.

The door pretty much slammed back shut not too long after that, although there have been a few exceptions (my friend Tim Bradstreet, known for his Punisher covers, just designed a film).

Dan O’Bannon had that vision, though. He knew that visual excellence in one medium could transfer and translate well to another medium. Bless him.

More to come…

2 thoughts on “Dan O’Bannon, Part Two

  1. Bill;

    I was saddened to hear about O’Bannon’s passing. Another of his gems, which I have yet to see mentioned, was “The Resurrected,” a canny, conscientious, thoroughly engaging and creepy film adaptation of “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.” It remains, for my money, the most satisfying film adaptation of Lovecraft yet.

    I was really looking forward to more from this guy. It’s a loss.

  2. Hi Jim,
    Dan’s underrated horror film “The Resurrected” is wonderful — especially that wildly scary moment when the lights go out. Dan told me I would have been his choice for production designer again but “The Resurrected” was a Canadian production that required him to hire an all-Canadian crew.

    Dan was a very visual guy. He made my job on “The Return of the Living Dead” a lot easier because he could draw to communicate exactly what he wanted. His storytelling style was very clear; I learned a lot about visual storytelling from working with Dan. There was no waste with Dan; he always got right to the essence.

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