FILM #7: Conan the Barbarian (1979-1980); Part Two
Written and Directed by John Milius
Production designed by Ron Cobb
How I Got the Gig, continued…
My friend, Conan the Barbarian production assistant Bob Greenberg, also told me that Ron Cobb had been hired to be the movie’s production designer. This amazed me, as the world primarily knew Cobb as a political cartoonist for the Los Angeles Free Press (a free lefty hippy weekly newspaper). Ron’s brilliant Freep cartoons were distributed to underground newspapers all over the country. Ron invented the ecology symbol as one of his weekly cartoons — and donated it to the Public Domain.
I think the cartoon panel above finely exhibits the depth of thinking that goes into everything Ron creates. Cobb said that within two weeks his symbol was being used all over the world. If you would like to see the original art, it’s on permanent display at the Smithsonian.
I was dying to see what Cobb was doing on Conan. Bob offered to give me a tour of the Conan offices. I had to decline, as I was up to my ears in movie poster commissions. During one week in August, I had six movie posters in the Los Angeles Times Calendar section. There was just no way I could get away to see the Conan stuff.
I finally got a break in my schedule — but I didn’t head over to the Conan offices. Instead, I went to the ABA (American Booksellers Association). The ABA trade show is held every year, usually in New York or Los Angeles, sometimes in Las Vegas or Chicago. It’s every editor and publisher in the entire country, all in one big room. Taking a portfolio from booth to booth is a great way for an illustrator to pick up work. I had just entered the show’s main lobby. I had my portfolio with me, all ready to nab some new jobs, when whom do I run into but Ron Cobb.
Ron told me that I was his first choice for his first art department hire — but that he had an agreement with the show’s writer-director, the legendary John Milius (his writing credits include Dirty Harry, Jeremiah Johnson, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, Magnum Force, Red Dawn and Apocalypse Now; he also wrote and directed Dillinger and The Wind and the Lion). They gave each other veto power over anyone the other guy wanted to include in the art department.
Ron asked me if I could come by the Conan offices and drop off my portfolio for John to see. I agreed. I thought it might be fun to see how movies were made.
The next day was Friday. I drove over to the Conan offices which at that time were part of Milius’ A-Team (the name of his production company) offices across the street from the Warner Brothers Studios. Milius happened to be there when I arrived. He quickly looked through my book.
(This is a page — before adding the text — from Harlan Ellison‘s anti-drug tale “Shattered Like a Glass Goblin”. Toby Bluth, brother of Don Bluth, modeled for the naked man on this page, the story’s lead character)
John fondly remembered the Harlan Ellison Heavy Metal story (“Shattered Like a Glass Goblin”) that I had illustrated for the Byron Preiss EC Picto-Fiction style book, The Illustrated Harlan Ellison, then handed the book back to me and headed for the door. When he got to the doorway Milius cocked his head slightly to the right and dramatically barked “Hire ‘im!” over his shoulder.
I went in to see Buzz Feitshans, the film’s line producer (the producer who budgets and schedules the movie and actually works day-to-day on set on the film). I would be hired for two weeks as the flm’s storyboard artist. When he told me what I would be making on Conan, I nearly fell off the chair laughing. It was about 10% of what I was making in advertising. I thought, “What the hell — it’s only for two weeks. I can take the financial hit — and it might be fun to see how movies are made.”
I signed on.
Green to the Film Biz, what I didn’t know was that newbies are always hired for just two weeks. The film company wants to find out if you can deliver and whether or not you’re a jerk and difficult to work with. If you are, at the end of two weeks you’re let go. No harm, no fowl, no hurt feelings or embarrassing situations. If you deliver the goods, however, and are considered great to work with, your time on the film is extended (in my case, on Conan, for two years).
John Milius and Buzz Feitshans were also producing 1941 for Steven Spielberg, which was beginning to finally wrap up, so Steven’s office was across from the office Cobb and I shared.
Kathleen Kennedy was our receptionist.
Quite an amazing entry point into the real big time Movie Biz.