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Untold Tales of Hollywood #78

Film #18: The Return of the Living Dead (1984)
Director: Dan O’Bannon
Production Designer: William Stout

The Return of the Living Dead was not my first film as a production designer but it was the first film I designed that actually got made. Here’s how I got the gig:

My dear friend (and the production designer on Conan the Barbarian) Ron Cobb was a very gregarious fellow. He and his Australian wife Robin Love entertained a lot at their Santa Monica home. There would always be top writers, artists, medical professionals, attorneys, directors and others prominent in their field in attendance. One of Ron’s closest friends, writer Dan (Alien, Blue Thunder, Dark Star) O’Bannon, was usually there. I often brought new works and works of mine in progress to get feedback from the party guests. Dan was always the first to take a look at my new works. I didn’t realize at the time that he was sizing me up as a potential production designer for his directorial debut The Return of the Living Dead.

One evening I brought a cover I had done for the comic book Alien Worlds.

Black & White version.

Dan told me later he had doubts as to whether or not I could pull off the designing of the high-tech aspects of his film. Upon seeing how I had designed the astronaut’s space suit on the Alien Worlds cover, Dan told me he thought, “Ah-HAH! Stout can do high-tech!”

Despite the title, The Return of the Living Dead was not a sequel to Night of the Living Dead. O’Bannon wanted to make a film with an entirely new take on zombies. These were not going to be Romero zombies. These zombies would look different (not just having extras with dark rings around their eyes) and, unlike George’s zombies, our zombies could run and move fast. In my very first conversation with Dan, after I had been hired, Dan asked me, “Bill. You know how films have principle characters? Our movie is going to have principal zombies. I want you to design zombies that are unique, creatures the likes of which have never been seen before by a movie audience. I don’t want them to look like Romero’s zombies.”

Once the project was green-lit, Dan began to assemble his crew. For production designer, Dan gave line producer Graham Henderson a very short list of whom he wanted, two highly EC Comics-influenced comic book artists: Bernie Wrightson and William Stout.

Bernie was Dan’s first choice, I believe. Graham quickly did his homework and found that I had already racked up credits on several film — and that Bernie hadn’t (I think that Bernie was just starting Ghostbusters). He lied to O’Bannon, telling him that Bernie had passed on the project (I believe Graham never even called Bernie) but that he had signed me on as production designer. I got a bump in pay from storyboard artist — but not much. I was still making a fraction of what I had been making illustrating movie posters. It was a real challenge, though — and I love creative challenges.

Ron Cobb supported my hiring on the condition that I was given a strong art director. Graham gave me a great one: Robert Howland. Robert was fantastic at budgeting and scheduling, two important things that I was still learning. Robert was able to take my designs and make them real and, most importantly, inexpensive, as our budget on the film was just $1.5 million. Very importantly, Robert was really funny with a razor-sharp wit. I have found that in the highly stressful job of making movies, surrounding one’s self with people with a great sense of humor helps enormously at easing the job’s day-to-day tensions. Robert also knew skilled set designers that could take my drawings and designs and beautifully, practically and thoughtfully execute my visions for the film. I was in a truly earn-while-you-learn job situation.

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