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Untold Tales of Hollywood #24

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:

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Untold Tales of Hollywood #23

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:

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Rutger Hauer 1944–2019

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.”

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Untold Tales of Hollywood #22

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! 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.

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Untold Tales of Hollywood #21

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.”


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.”


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.

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Untold Tales of Hollywood #20

One day Fred Rexor paid a visit to our Conan the Barbarian offices in Dino DeLaurentiis’ Beverly Hills office compound. As I recall, Fred was from somewhere in the Midwest.

Fred Rexor is an interesting guy. After seeing John MiliusThe Wind and the Lion, Rexor wrote Milius a laudatory letter, proclaiming it the first real American film in decades. The letter was so beautifully written and impassioned that, in response, John sent Rexor the Raisuli’s sword (the Raisuli was played by Sean Connery). Fred returned it, professing to be not worthy of such an honor.

Thus, their friendship began.

John told me that during the Vietnamese war, Rexor had assassinated over eighty Vietnamese government officials — despite the fact that there is no official government record whatsoever of Rexor ever actually being in Vietnam.

This revelation led to Rexor’s involvement in Apocalypse Now. According to John, the opening montage of Martin Sheen in a Saigon hotel had been shot. Milius and Francis Ford Coppola arranged for a screening of the montage for Rexor.

Fred was instructed: “As you watch it, just say whatever comes into your head.”

According to John, Rexor’s free association became the basis for that film’s opening voice-over monologue.

I asked Rexor about the difficulty of gaining good intelligence in Vietnam. He told me about a desperate situation he had been in.

Fred was holding three Viet Cong soldiers captive. A large chunk of the Viet Cong army was rapidly heading their way. Rexor needed information fast, and the Viet Cong weren’t talking.

Fred lined them up in a row. He placed the tip of his revolver in the middle of the first soldier’s forehead and then asked him a question.

The soldier refused to answer. Rexor immediately pulled the trigger and blew the man’s brains out, then pointed his revolver at the forehead of the second soldier.

“I didn’t have to ask him anything. He started talking a mile a minute, quickly telling me everything I needed to know and more.”

When Fred arrived at our office, John’s personal assistant, Saralo, was practicing some martial arts moves.

“What’s that?” asked Fred.

“Kung Fu”, Saralo replied. “Do you practice it?”

“No”, Rexor replied. “I practice another form of defense; it’s called ‘Gun-ning’. It’s the dog that barks here and bites there.”

Later, John invited Rexor to his home. In John’s garage, Milius stated a dilemma he felt he had to deal with.

“I’ve got a box of live hand grenades. I should probably dispose of them. I wouldn’t want the kids to find or get into them. I’m not quite sure, though, what to do with them.”

“Give them to me,” Rexor responded. “I’ll be right back.”

Fred was back at John’s before an hour had passed.

“What did you do with them?” John asked.

“I left the box on the corner of the busiest intersection in Watts,” he replied. “They’re doing God’s work now.”

John named one of Thulsa Doom‘s henchmen Rexor.

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Untold Tales of Hollywood #19

John Milius cast champion surfer Gerry Lopez as Conan’s right-hand man, the thief known as Subotai. John held to a theory that someone who had achieved supreme genius and excellence in one field would have no problem transferring that high level of quality into all other fields.

Like acting.

Gerry had a pretty strong surfer accent, so his lines were dubbed by Mako, who also played the film’s wizard.

We did a screen test with both Arnold Schwarzenegger and Gerry at a nearby sound stage. Upon arriving at the sound stage production designer Ron Cobb immediately began painting on the wall behind Gerry and Arnold. It looked like Ron was painting bands of clouds. It was not very impressive until Ron had me look at what he had done through the movie camera.

Holy moley! Ron’s background sprang to life. It looked totally three-dimensional and completely believable as a distant, atmospheric sky. I was awestruck by Ron’s knowledge and his command of values (dark and light systems).

This was all presented as a screen test for Gerry. In actuality it was Arnold that was being tested. John wanted to see how heavy Arnold’s accent was and if he could overcome it. Arnold, after all, had to carry the picture.

I remember one of Arnold’s lines. He was supposed to say, “This is not my father’s sword.” Instead, it came out as “Dis iz not my fadda’s soo-wahd.”

John Milius got very depressed. Eventually, of course, with vocal coaching and a lot of work on Arnold’s part, his accent got much better and more understandable.

Arnold and Gerry didn’t really hit it off until one day when their car pulled to the side of the road. They got out of the car for a stretch. Arnold walked over to the side of the road — and threw up. Gerry saw this and walked over to Arnold, then turned and added his own vomit to the pile. A light of recognition ignited in their eyes. Both of them could vomit at will! It made sense in a way. They were both athletes who needed to keep their weight down. An occasional purge would do the trick. They became good buddies and kindred spirits from that moment on.

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Untold Tales of Hollywood #18

Conan the Barbarian needed a Valeria, so John Milius called Academy Award-winning director (and famed choreographer) Bob Fosse.

John described the role to Fosse. She had to be extremely fit and physically capable for the amount of action scenes she’d be performing. She also had to be gorgeous and graceful.

Bob immediately gave Milius two names: Ann Reinking and Sandahl Bergman.

We never saw Ann (a huge heartthrob of mine); she may have been busy with a show.

I was there in the office, though, when John gave Sandahl the role of Valeria.

(Above: One of Sandahl’s professional head shots at the time.)

John asked me to sketch Sandahl as her new character. I drew a quick portrait sketch first, to familiarize myself with her distinctive features:

(Above: A polaroid I shot of Sandahl on her first visit to the Conan offices.)

He had her strip down a bit for me so that I could see her sleek muscled limbs.

(Above: Sandahl posing for me. John Milius is far right. The poster I did for The American Success Company is on the wall behind Milius.)

Some of the following Valeria sketches were returned to me by the producers when they needed me to work on the sequel, Conan the Destroyer. Obviously, storing them properly had not been a major concern of theirs.


Some helmet designs:

I eventually did an oil painting portrait of Sandahl as Valeria:

To make Valeria’s sword more sleek and feminine, the sword’s cross guard was pretty much removed.

Big mistake.

There’s a damn good reason that swords have cross guards. Although the sword looked really cool, not having that cross guard meant that in a sword fight, there was nothing catch the opponent’s blade and prevent it from cutting Valeria’s fingers or hand. We learned this very quickly, as Sandahl came close to losing some fingers in one of her first fights.

I got to know Sandahl pretty well. She was one of my favorite people on Conan the Barbarian — incredibly kind and thoughtful. She’s down to earth with no show biz ego problems at all. For Sandahl, it’s all about doing her best. Her dance training allowed her to move with an animal grace and ferocity, carrying herself like a panther — perfect for the Valeria character. Later, she, my wife and I became good friends until jobs and geography pulled us apart.

L to R: Sandahl, me, my wife Kent. Sandahl and I were promoting Conan the Barbarian up in Seattle.

In more recent times we were both on a Conan Q & A panel at a screening of the film in Hollywood. She has maintained her incredible shape and teaches dance — and is still as sweet as ever.

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Untold Tales of Hollywood #17

You can file this missive under “Office Pranks”.

One afternoon John Milius produced a sling and a bag of plums.

“We need to do some target practice,” he proclaimed.

Ron Cobb and I followed John outside until we faced the side of one of Warner Brothers Studios‘ huge buildings.

“You see that office window, top floor, third from the right?” john asked. “That’s (Robert) Zemeckis and (Bob) Gale‘s office. Let’s see if we can hit it.”

Zemeckis and Gale had written 1941. They were working on their new project, Used Cars, a hilarious comedy that both Milius and Steven Spielberg were producing.

We all took turns using the sling to hurl ripe plums at Zemeckis and Gale’s office window. Occasionally we were successful in hitting it. Splat!

Spielberg also produced Back to the Future with Zemeckis directing from the Zemeckis and Gale original screenplay. Ron Cobb was chosen to create the car which he decided to base upon a DeLorean, a great visual joke for those in the know. Back to the Future was a gigantic hit, making the greenlight for Back to the Future 2 a no-brainer.

Upon embarking on Back to the Future 2, Zemeckis and Gale began to get notes from the studio. Giving filmmakers “notes” is a studio move to control the creators and an attempt to give the film the widest appeal possible. Instead, what usually happens is that the project gets watered down and diluted beyond recognition.

Writers and directors hate getting “notes”.

After the first batch of notes demanding changes were delivered, Zemeckis and Gale confronted the suits at Warner Brothers.

“Do you really think you know how to make a sequel to Back to the Future better than the guys who created the first one?”

The notes ended.

After awhile, it was decided that we should move our Conan offices from the A-Team building in Burbank to the Beverly Hills offices of Dino DeLaurentiis.

For Christmas, John Milius gave Cobb and me official British commando sweaters and United States Marines Kabar knives. These were pretty big, heavy duty knives.

“I think we need some knife throwing practice,” John declared.

Cobb found a door-sized sheet of heavy plywood. Ron drew our target: a life-size distraught dungeon prisoner chained to a wall. We placed the panel at the far end of the hall that led to our offices.

Then the knife-throwing practice began. It was a long hall and we threw those knives hard. Sometimes they’d stick; other times they’d slam into or bounce off the board. And, occasionally, someone would round the corner and just miss being skewered or beheaded by a flying knife.

Our practice bouts were frequent, so for the safety of non-Conan civilians, we were instructed to loudly shout “THROWING!” as a warning before each knife pitch. Eventually, our practice wore a hole through the chained prisoner’s heart, and our knives began to penetrate the Delaurentiis walls.

Boys will be boys…

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Untold Tales of Hollywood #16

As you can see above and below, I’m still using Jack Palance‘s likeness for Conan’s father.

And that was as far as I got with the Conan the Barbarian “storyboards”.

I became intrigued by what Ron Cobb was creating as production designer. It looked like he was having way more fun than I was having.

Here, I probably should define the term “production designer”. A production designer on a film is in charge of everything you see on the screen except for the performances of the actors. He or she is in charge of designing all of the sets, costumes, make-ups, special effects make-ups, set dressing, props, the special visual effects and floor effects. The production designer is the eyes of the director.

A little cinematic history: The term “production designer” was invented by David Selznick for William Cameron Menzies in 1939. Menzies had directed a third of Gone With The Wind but Victor Fleming, his co-director (who also directed The Wizard of Oz that same year), refused to share the directing credit, thrusting producer Selznick into the middle of a dilemma. Menzies did much more than art direct GWTW — the title of “Art Director” was not enough for or fair to Menzies. Selznick solved this problem by giving Menzies a credit that read “Production Designed by William Cameron Menzies” — which was absolutely true. Menzies storyboarded GWTW in full color.

(Above) Some Menzies Gone With The Wind storyboards. Menzies directed the famous Burning of Atlanta sequence. Some GWTW trivia: Part of what got burned in that sequence were once the gigantic native gates from King Kong.

There’s a photo of someone holding up one of Menzies’ storyboards and adjusting the tilt of an actress’ hat to match Menzies’ drawing. Menzies was unbelievably hands-on with GWTW.

So, prior to Gone With The Wind, the visionaries who designed films were called art directors. My two favorite old school art directors were Menzies and Anton Grot, who designed the Errol Flynn swashbucklers.

(Above) Anton Grot design for Captain Blood.

When I decided to become a production designer, Menzies and Grot became my heroes. We shared a similar background; we had all been storybook illustrators prior to getting into film design.

(Above) Rudolph Valentino bookplate designed by Menzies.

(Above) Menzies design for Valentino’s The Son of the Sheik.

Later, that changed. From the 1930s to the mid-1970s, most art directors had architectural backgrounds. They would begin as draftsmen, progress to set designers and then, if lucky after about ten or twenty years in The Biz, they might get to become art directors. If they were very lucky, after years of being an art director, they might get the chance to become a production designer.

What changed all of that?

Two films: Star Wars and Alien.

George Lucas had illustrator Ralph McQuarrie essentially design Star Wars. Ralph didn’t get the Production Designer credit but believe me — McQuarrie designed Star Wars.

(Above) Ralph McQuarrie Star Wars design (more at

Alejandro Jodorowsky was set to direct his version of Dune. For that film, he had assembled an art department Dream Team: H. R. Giger, Jean “Moebius” Giraud and Chris Foss. Right when the funding for Dune fell apart, Jodorowsky’s pick for Special Effects Supervisor, Dan O’Bannon (Dan did the computer effects for Star Wars) got a phone call from director Ridley Scott. Scott informed Dan that Scott was going to direct Alien, a screenplay written by O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett. Dan mentioned that it would be a shame to break up the Dune art department. Would Ridley consider keeping them on for Alien? Scott agreed and Dan convinced Ridley to also add Dan’s close friend Ron Cobb (Ron had also worked on Star Wars, designing creatures for the cantina sequence, as well as the spaceship in Dan’s first film, Dark Star) to the art team.

Star Wars and Alien were huge hits. This allowed a crack in the door for guys like Ron Cobb and me to become production designers. We didn’t have to wait twenty or thirty years to become one. It was clear we could draw and design movies that garnered positive responses from movie audiences. Anything we could think of that we wanted on the screen, we could draw. If we needed some of our designs drafted in more proper architectural form, we’d just hire the guys to implement that from our designs. When I production design a film, I lean heavily on my art director, assigning him or her the duties of scheduling and budgeting. This gives me more time to spend on the film’s designs.

I should mention that there are three kinds of production designers.

1) Guys like Menzies and Grot (and later, Cobb and me) who came from an illustration background — guys who can really draw.

2) Trained architects who are especially good at designing things related to architecture — like sets. Examples would be most production designers working in The Biz.

3) The third kind of production designer can’t (or doesn’t) draw and has never been trained as an architect — but they have strong visual ideas and a great knack for visual metaphors. A terrific example of this kind of production designer is Jurassic Park‘s  Rick Carter. If Rick doesn’t draw, how does he get his design ideas across to other people on the film? Rick makes visual collages that express his ideas from photos and art he finds in books, magazines and other forms of research. Then he hires illustrators and set designers to make them all real and functional.

All three types of production designers are valid. There are brilliant examples from all three backgrounds.

After Conan the Barbarian, I rose to the position of production designer very quickly (less than two years). At that time I was reputed to be the youngest production designer in the history of film (I doubt that record still stands — but it might). Once I achieved that title I was typically overseeing the work of about 1250 people on each of my films. I discovered the job to be primarily managerial — making sure that everyone was not deviating from my vision. For the most part, the only time I actually had to design the film was on weekends.

Ron quickly began to trust me as a designer and he began to let me design elements for the film he didn’t have time to design.

Like John Milius’ approach to writing Conan the Barbarian (John’s a real history buff), Ron’s approach to designing Conan was historical — and ingenious. Ron’s concept was this: OK; we know what Egyptian architecture and cultural artifacts looked like 2000 years ago. We know what Egyptian architecture and cultural artifacts looked like 3000 years ago. Working backward, as if we were animating the reverse evolution of Egyptian architecture and cultural artifacts, we could visually guess what Egyptian architecture and cultural artifacts would have looked like 4000 or 5000 years ago. We did that with many ancient cultures, envisioning what they looked like prior to their presence in their know history. In essence, we were un-designing history and making the Hyborian world of Conan feel very real.

It was a variation on what I learned from Russ Manning when I was assisting him on the Tarzan of the Apes newspaper strips. We were working on a sequence with strange bird-like humanoid creatures. In the sequence Tarzan had been captured and tied up by them.

“Bill,” Russ instructed me, “make sure that when you draw those ropes that you make them as realistic as possible. That way, if the reader believes the ropes — something the reader is familiar with — the reader will more easily believe our story’s fantasy elements.”