We needed a cemetery. Writer-director Dan O’Bannon wanted one densely crammed with headstones. We found an old olive grove in Sylmar and my crew and I turned it into the cemetery we needed (the cemetery entrance, by the way, was in a completely different part of the general Los Angeles area; it was in downtown L.A.).
We rented every tombstone that Universal Studios owned. I hoped that some of the Universal Monsters magic would rub off on us.
I also designed some special tombstones, plynths and monuments for the film. Those were being built for us by a company named Sequoia. O’Bannon especially loved my Weeping Angel design. It was beautifully sculpted by Leo Rijn (Leo and I ended up working together on a lot of projects).
We had paid Sequoia and asked them to deliver all of the pieces that we had commissioned to our olive grove.
They refused. They had just gone bankrupt. In spite of our having already paid them in full, they wouldn’t release our graveyard necessities. They were seen as company “assets” in the bankruptcy hearings.
It’s a shame, because Sequoia had several very talented artists working for them. One day, I was visiting Sequoia to see how things were going. I watched as a painter was about to age a crypt.
“How old would you like it?”
“How old would you like it? Thirty years old? Fifty years old? A hundred years old?”
“Uhhh…a hundred years old?”
“You got it.”
He took a canister with a hose and began to squirt paint on to the crypt. He began counting.
“Twenty years old…(squirt-squirt) forty…(squirt-squirt) sixty…(squirt-squirt) eighty…(squirt-squirt) one hundred.”
In less than five effortless minutes the faux marble crypt looked exactly one hundred years old.
I was astounded. I’ve often thought of apprenticing under that guy, just so I could learn his painting tricks.
We desperately needed to retrieve our cemetery pieces from Sequoia. So, I gathered art director Robert Howland, “Big Bob” Lucas and a few more of our biggest-muscled art department guys and drove over to Sequoia at midnight. We hopped their tall chain link fence and “stole” all of our stuff we had paid for, brought it all back to our cemetery set and put everything in its proper place for shooting the next day.
Dan so loved the Weeping Angel sculpture, it became the one item Dan took home as a souvenir from the film (I took some shelves; more about that later).
Afterwards, I found out that Leo Rijn had been stiffed by Sequoia. They never paid him for sculpting the Weeping Angel. I called Dan and explained the situation. He called Leo and told Leo he could take possession of the Weeping Angel sculpture. Leo picked it up from Dan’s backyard. Later, Leo rented out that sculpture to a number of films, finally earning some money from his beautiful work.
Several years later, when I was the production designer on Masters of the Universe, we were considering various construction companies to build the bulk of many of our movie’s key elements. The producers brought the representative of one prospective company in to meet us in the art department. I immediately recognized the guy as the head of Sequoia. When he saw me his face fell. Right in front of him, I took great delight in filling our producers in on how this guy had tried to screw us on The Return of the Living Dead.
You better believe that Sequoia never got the gig.
The movie biz is a very small world.