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Untold Tales of Hollywood #33

Before I depart from Conan the Barbarian, I’d like to share some photos and a drawing from the era.

Ron Cobb: Genius, art hero and an important mentor of mine.

Me back then…pre-gray!

The best two years I have ever spent in the film business were the two years I spent in a room with Ron Cobb.

Here’s a rough of a birthday card I drew for John Milius, depicting him as a big bear with his paw caught in the honey jar, titled Ursus Erectus:

The good ol’ days of film making.

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Untold Tales of Hollywood #32

My time on Conan the Barbarian was coming to a close…and the film had not even begun to be shot.


Ron Cobb‘s design for our big final Thulsa Doom set:

While I was still in the States, my friend and publisher Byron Preiss paid a visit to my La Brea studio. He asked me, “If you could do your own book on anything, what would you like to do?”

I thought Byron was just being conversational.

“I don’t know,” was my brilliant response.

Scattered around my studio were various drawings I had done for my pal Don Glut‘s revised Dinosaur Dictionary.

“Would you like to do one on dinosaurs?”

“Sure…” I replied.

A couple of months later, while working on Conan I received a call from Byron.

“Bill! We got our book deal! Bantam Books wants to publish your dinosaur book!”

I suddenly had this big book project dropped into my lap.

Young, dumb and full of the energy of youth, I thought I could do both projects at the same time: work as a designer on Conan and write and illustrate my dinosaur book.

Boy, was I wrong.

It started out great. While in Madrid on Conan, during my off-work evenings I would venture up to my apartment building’s rooftop and draw sketches for the illustrations I wanted to have in my dinosaur book, while watching my Lufthansa friends cavort in the swimming pool.

Eventually, though, I was forced to face the reality of my book’s deadline. I couldn’t do both. I decided to leave Conan to finish my book and then jump back to Madrid to complete my work on Conan.

Before returning to the United States I planned a trip around Europe to do research for my dinosaur book at the great European natural history museums — which is what I did.

Once back in L. A., I began producing the finished art for my dinosaur book. To keep my interest in this massive long term project, I decided to experiment and create dinosaur illustrations in the various styles of my artistic heroes.

“What if Andrew Wyeth painted dinosaurs…What would that look like? Or Arthur Rackham? Or the Detmold brothers? Or Moebius?”

By doing this I was stretching myself artistically and learning lots of new style chops. Originally, the book was to have 50 color illustrations and about 30 black and white pictures. I bumped those color illustration numbers up by being clever: I would do the required black and white illustrations in full color and then tell Bantam to just print them in black and white. I got the response I was hoping for:

“We can’t print these in black and white…They’re too beautiful!”

I eventually bumped the picture numbers up to 80 full color illustrations and 50 black and white pictures. By doing so, this became a much more important book for Bantam.

I stopped mimicking different artistic styles. I no longer had time for that indulgence. I never had what I called “my own style” prior to my dinosaur book. But the pressure to produce to meet my deadlines meant plunging into the pictures and finishing them as quickly as possible. Out of that, what people recognize as my own style emerged.

By expanding the illustration count, I was also delaying my return to Conan. Month after month slipped by. One day I got a frantic call from Madrid. It was one of the producers — and he seemed to be literally crying over the phone out of sheer desperation.

“Bill! You’ve got to come back! We need you! John won’t come out of his trailer. Ron is directing Second Unit. We need to have you back here designing and directing, too.”

It was a tough choice. I loved my Conan family, especially Ron Cobb. But my dinosaur book was the chance of a lifetime. Bantam was gearing up for a huge promotion. The first printing had ballooned from 2000 copies to 250,000 copies — a quarter of a million books! LIFE magazine did an unprecedented eight page full color spread on my dinosaur book.  Conan the Barbarian would be John Milius’ movie; The Dinosaurs – A Fantastic New View of a Lost Era would be all mine.

I finished The Dinosaurs about the same time Ron and John returned from Europe. I gave Ron Cobb, John Milius and Buzz Feitshans a nice dedication in my book.

The Dinosaurs – A Fantastic New View of a Lost Era became a bestseller. It changed my life and my art career forever.

Conan the Barbarian didn’t do so bad, either.

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Untold Tales of Hollywood #31

You might want to go back and check on some of my earlier posts. I’ve added quite a few more images as I discovered much more Conan art while digging through my archives for this series. I also found and posted a couple of my Raiders of the Lost Ark storyboard drawings.

To warm up each day while I was working in Europe, I’d do a small Conan-related sketch. Here’s a typical example:

I created a lot of costume designs for the film, as the visuals of our new genre had not been established (as I stated in earlier entries, art conservation was not one of my producers’ fórtes).

They were beautifully interpreted by our costume designer, an Englishman named John Bloomfield. John and I also worked on Conan the Destroyer. By the second film, he needed no help from me. He totally “got” the genre by that time and created a truly incredible wardrobe for our cast.

Prior to John, our costume designer was Dario Cecchi, an old friend of the DeLaurentiis family. Dario, who was gay, was extremely attracted to me. He told me he loved to gaze upon my “Botticelli hands”. Dario loved to bring Francesca DeLaurentiis to hang with his gay circle of friends in Madrid. I didn’t understand why Francesca’s presence was blowing their minds, until Dario revealed to me that Francesca looked exactly like her mother, Silvana Mangano, in her youth. Until then, I had no idea Silvana was such a huge gay icon — a kind of Italian Judy Garland.

Dario was a sweet guy — but he was on the wrong film, in way over his head. Not surprisingly, Dario and John Milius did not see eye-to-eye.

Dario burst into my office in Spain one morning, very upset.

“I am running out of ways to cover Conan’s pee-pee!” he lamented.

John had Dario fired and replaced him with John Bloomfield.

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Untold Tales of Hollywood #30

I was talking previously about the Shadizar signage. I’ve got fragments of several pieces depicting signage and standards that I can share. These were stolen from the production and, subsequently, obviously, very poorly stored under damp conditions. They mysteriously and coincidentally 😉 turned up when I was sought after to work on the second Conan film, Conan the Destroyer.

I figured that there would be fast food (street food) stalls in Shadizar. I came up with something that John Milius loved: Lizard-on-a-Stick. He made sure to include it in the movie.

Me at Jadran Studios just outside of Zagreb. In a very short time I had covered the walls with imagery for the film. Man, I wish I was still that skinny!

Here’s a standard I found that was designed by Ron Cobb:

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NEW Monsters Sketchbook Volume 6!

William Stout‘s Monsters Sketchbook Volume 6 boasts 52 pages of monster drawings, including 16 illustrations from the UK’s Hammer Films.

Within that sub-genre are all 6 of Dr. Frankenstein‘s Hammer monsters, plus a portrait of Dr. Frankenstein himself, Peter Cushing. Also included are the four stop motion animation scenes cut from When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth.

Limited to just 950 signed and numbered copies, this collection is a bargain at just $15.00.

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Untold Tales of Hollywood #29

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.
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.”

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Untold Tales of Hollywood #28

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.

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Untold Tales of Hollywood #27

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.


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Untold Tales of Hollywood #26

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.