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Untold Tales of Hollywood #76

Film #17: Clan of the Cave Bear (1984)
Directed by Michael Chapman
Production Designed by Tony Masters

I met the incredible production designer/art director Tony Masters (2001: A Space Odyssey, Papillon, The Deep and Lawrence of Arabia are just a few of his credits) when he was on Dune and I was on Conan the Destroyer. Giles Masters, one of Tony’s sons, worked on both Dune and Conan the Destroyer. For cruel sport, the DeLaurentiis family tried to pit me against Giles. I saw what they were up to right away. I spoke to Giles privately and told him what was going on and we became good friends.

Brit Kevin Phipps was our Conan the Destroyer art director. He had a deep passion for architectural designs and the beauty of division of space. He was also a pretty outrageous guy sometimes, like when we went into the costume department and casually pulled his trousers down a bit to expose the top of his pubic hair, then trimmed a swatch of it with a pair of scissors, leaving a clump right on the cutting table. Kevin ended up marrying Debbie, one of the attractive costumers present for Kevin’s clipping ceremony.

One afternoon, Tony came to my drawing board and looked at what I was doing.

“You have no idea…You’ve got the best job in the business.”

I was more than a little stunned to hear Tony say that; he had reached the pinnacle of art direction. He was the production designer.

I later think I figured out what he was saying after I became a production designer. Yes, the production designer is in charge of the entire look of the film. But with that comes huge responsibilities, the potential to be ground up between conflicting directions from the director and producer, and the possibility that your best designs will be ignored and replaced with something mediocre. As a freelance concept designer, my hours were more regular and I got more of a chance to have some visual fun without too many responsibilities.

After production designer Tony Masters finished his work on Dune, he was hired by Michael Chapman (the cinematographer on Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The Fugitive) to design the film version of Clan of the Cave Bear. They still needed to raise money for Clan of the Cave Bear, so Tony recommended that I be hired to create some presentation art and paint a series of small pictures representing key scenes in the film to get investors interested.

This was right up my alley, as I had been creating presentation art well before I started making movies. I knew exactly what needed to be done.

Unfortunately, it was in conflict with what Michael and Tony wanted. They wanted the soft, poetic moments of the film portrayed.

“We want something quiet, elegant and classy; something rich and sophisticated.”

I tried to break it to them gently that what was really needed was a series of paintings playing up the most action-filled, scary and violent scenes if they wanted to get financial backing. They stood firm, however. I began with a series of 2″ x 3″ thumbnails:
Mike and Tony chose the most introspective domestic scenes for me to produce as oil paintings. I argued against it but conceded to their desires, I did do one extra piece for them, though, to take to the Cannes Film Festival: the big, scary cave bear attack. They reluctantly took that image with them.

About a day later, I got a frantic call from Michael in France.

“We need more of your action stuff! The only painting the investors reacted favorably to was your scary, action-packed cave bear piece!”

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