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Untold Tales of Hollywood #7

FILM #7: Conan the Barbarian (1979-1980)
Written and Directed by John Milius
Production designed by Ron Cobb

One of the first teaser ads for Conan the Barbarian, an image painted by the great Frank Frazetta and licensed by Dino DeLaurentiis to advertise the film. If you’d like a print of this historic illustration, then visit the Frazetta Girls website:

I was on Conan the Barbarian for two years, so I’ve got lots of Conan stories. This is going to be a multi-part entry.

How I Got The Gig:

It was 1979 (or maybe the end of ’78), I believe. I was a huge Robert E. Howard fan. I had read all of his Conan stories. I was an even bigger fan of the Frazetta Conan book covers. More than even his Edgar Rice Burroughs illustrations, these Conan pictures by Frank rocketed him to art stardom.

Bob Greenberg, a writer-film maker friend of mine was working as a P. A. (production assistant; the lowest rung of the movie biz ladder. A go-fer, essentially) for Ed Pressman, one of the Conan the Barbarian producers. I found out through Bob that they had hired the terrific film maker-comic book artist Richard Corben to create the storyboards for the Conan film.

Bob called me up one day. He had been assigned the task of taking care of and entertaining Richard while Corben was in town. Bob asked if he could bring Richard by my art studio. I enthusiastically agreed, delighted to finally have a chance to meet Richard Corben.

They arrived not long after our phone conversation.

Richard was a big guy. I’m 6’3″ and he towered over me. He was also a man of very few words. I tried to engage him on several different levels. His responses to my efforts usually resulted in a one syllable answer as he rocked back and forth on his heels, hands in his pockets, a big grin on his face.

I pulled out all the stops, showing Corben everything I thought might be of interest to him: dinosaur sculptures, my Peruvian human mummy head, my Egyptian mummy hand, gigantic Frazetta six-sheet movie posters — all kinds of stuff I considered to be cool or interesting.

I was striking out. He didn’t seem to be thrilled or interested in anything I was showing him. He kept smiling and rocking and giving me minimal answers to my questions. I asked him if he used his wife as a model.

“Nope. Tits’re too small.”

I eventually figured that Corben was a hard nut to crack and this was just one of those days when I was not going to connect, no matter how hard I tried.

After about two hours they bid me farewell.

The next day, Richard Corben quit the film (despite Richard’s brief time on the film — a day or two at most — he drew up a series of phenomenal storyboards for Conan). He got Dino’s contract, read it, and was deeply insulted. Richard didn’t realize that the first contract you get on a film is typically the studio’s first offer and the beginning of a negotiation. It’s not written in stone. You’re supposed to make a counter offer.

But Richard was used to dealing with ethical business entities. He expected an honest contract and Dino’s best offer. Because he didn’t get that, Corben was on the next plane back to Kansas.

Months later, I picked up the latest issue of Creepy, the Jim Warren horror comics magazine. Included in that issue was a Richard Corben mummy story. Richard wrote an introduction, explaining what inspired the tale. He talked about being hired on Conan and being flown out to Los Angeles, where he had a really bad time. The one highlight of his trip, though, was the great and exciting experience he had at William Stout’s studio where he got to see the coolest real life mummies. It was what inspired this particular mummy story in Creepy.

You could have knocked me over with a feather. It just goes to show, ya never know….

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Untold Tales of Hollywood #6

FILM #6: Nine Princes of Amber (1979)
Directed by Robert K. Weiss
Production designed by William Stout

(Above: Searching for an Amber logo style)

Nine Princes of Amber, based upon the popular Roger Zelazny Chronicles of Amber series of books, was a presentation art project — the most elaborate I’ve ever done. Robert K. Weiss, a big, jolly fellow with a perpetual twinkle in his eyes, hired me for this project. Robert is known for his comedies. He produced The Blues Brothers, Police Squad!, Amazon Women on the Moon and Tommy Boy among many others. Back then, The Kentucky Fried Movie was his sole film credit. Bob was also a partner in a rocket company.

Amber had the potential of being a new and different kind of film genre, a sort of blend between sword & sorcery and high tech sci-fi. Creating this mash-up in 1979 served me well when I became the production designer for Masters of the Universe years later.

Bob had hired Boris Vallejo to do some presentation paintings — at least half a dozen as I recall. Boris had already executed a series of drawings in this regard. Bob asked me to contact Boris to get his permission for me to complete these drawings as fully rendered paintings. Boris graciously gave me his permission and we became friends from that moment on. Boris is a very kind gentleman, talented artist and a great guy. His sweet wife, Julie Bell, is an incredibly talented painter as well. She and I are both Signature Members of the California Art Club, the oldest art organization west of the Mississippi.

It was fun working from Boris’ drawings. They were very dynamic. The compositions were already complete, so I didn’t have to worry about the designing of each piece. I focused solely on the color and rendering and capturing the effects in the way Bob wanted. I painted these with acrylics. They weren’t anywhere as slick as Boris’ finished art — I’m generally not that kind of painter. My interpretations had a gutsy, painterly roughness to them, and each had a different color scheme.

Above: Some Amber creature designs and an Amber comic book cover rough.

After those were completed, Bob had me work on ancillary licensing presentations. I did sample designs for an Amber Tarot deck, an Amber comic book (cover and sample page) and lots of Amber toys.

With my comic book background I was a natural to execute the Amber comic book cover:

(Above is a rough layout for an Amber comic book page)

I also painted a faux Amber movie poster.

(Roughs for my Amber poster. The design directly above was chosen to go to finish)

I gave Bob the price of $2500 for everything (decent money back then when my Hollywood apartment rent was only about a hundred bucks per month). Bob asked me, out of curiosity, how I came up with that figure.

“That’s the price of a Charles R. Knight Tyrannosaurus rex bronze that’s up for sale back east.”

I got the gig and I got the bronze (the only casting ever made by Knight).

When it became known I was working on a Zelazny Amber film, the Amber fans began emerging from the woodwork. They badgered me endlessly, trying to get cast in the film. One particular fan always dressed as Corwin (one of the series’ main characters) in public and insisted that everyone he met call him Corwin. This was my first taste of true fan loonyness. After this film experience, I tended to be more secretive when it came to talking about my current film projects.

Sadly, the film never ended up getting its financing.

I stayed friends with Bob. He invited me to The Blues Brothers set and introduced me to Robin Williams, John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. I was also invited to The Blues Brothers wrap party at which The Blues Brothers performed. Bob also insisted to Universal that I paint the poster for Amazon Women on the Moon.

Good guy, Bob.

PS: I’m still looking for finished color images from this project. When (if?) I find them I’ll add them to this post.