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Untold Tales of Hollywood #96

I’d like to make this final post on The Return of the Living Dead about its creator, writer-director Dan O’Bannon.

Photo by William Stout

If you’re a long time follower of my blog/journal, then you’ll recognize the rest of this post, as it was written in 2009 as a revealing tribute to Dan that I wrote after he had passed. I think these tales of this extraordinarily talented guy bear repeating.

O’Bannon Tale #1: Dan was fastidious in regards to climate control. He constantly was messing with (and breaking) the thermostats in the Burbank warehouse where we were shooting the interiors for The Return of the Living Dead.

His climate concerns were not limited to the set. They carried over into his home life, too.

One day he got into a conversation with the fellow who was regularly fixing his air conditioning. He quickly discovered that the repair guy was my Uncle Buddy (small world, ain’t it?). My uncle always has done excellent work; he knows his stuff when it comes to heating and cooling systems (he’s retired now). So, whenever anything went on the fritz in the O’Bannon household, which was often due to Dan’s own attempts to “fix” things, he called the air conditioning company, always demanding that “Billy’s uncle” (Dan couldn’t remember my uncle’s name) be sent out (my Uncle Buddy still calls me “Billy”; he’s known me since I was a baby). My uncle loved working at Dan’s home and he loved Dan and his eccentricities.

O’Bannon Tale #2: I’ve mentioned previously that Dan’s tales often emanated from his own intense neuroses. O’Bannon was probably the most paranoid guy I ever met. He tapped that paranoia as a writer, creating classic scripts for Alien and Blue Thunder.

While making The Return of the Living Dead, I was in the process of buying a house with the Conan the Destroyer money I had squirreled away while living on my per diem down in Mexico City during the making of the film. Dan had just been through the process of buying a house.

Now, Dan was a researcher. He loved to research everything. Buying a home was no exception. On our hair-raising drives (when Dan was driving we ALWAYS missed our freeway exits) together to location scouts and our sets, Dan gave me the benefit of all of the house research he had just done.

Dan had determined that the absolute best house to own was a Spanish adobe-style home. He told me, though, that Spanish adobes had one crucial drawback.

“The walls aren’t machine gun proof.”

So, at enormous expense, after purchasing his very expensive Santa Monica Spanish adobe abode, he had the house’s walls taken out and had steel plates inserted inside of them before replacing them. Now they were machine gun proof! Problem solved!

O’Bannon Tale #3: Like I do, Dan O’Bannon loved comics. Before he died, I had enthusiastically agreed to drawing a whole series of comics with him. We were both very excited at the thought of collaborating again. I had read so much of Dan’s work and knew him so well that I was convinced we were going to produce some great things together and make history in the world of comic art.

You may or may not know this, but Dan O’Bannon wrote what was to become one of the most influential comic book stories ever published. No, it didn’t do a lot to influence other comics. But it changed motion pictures forever.

The story is called “The Long Tomorrow.” It was illustrated by Dan’s friend Jean Giraud — better known to comics fans as “Moebius.” I believe it originally appeared in the French comics magazine Metal Hurlant and was reprinted here in the States in Heavy Metal.

Hunt it down. The entire look, ambiance and feel of the story was used by Ridley Scott as the visual template for Bladerunner. Scott even duplicated some of the panels as shots in his magnificent film.

That was not the first time that Dan had changed film making forever.

In the mid-1970s Dan was hired by George Lucas to design the onscreen computer graphics in Star Wars. Not long after that, Dan was hired by Alejandro Jodorowsky to work as the Special Effects Supervisor on Jodorowsky’s filming of Frank Herbert’s Dune. The phenomenal cast that was slated for this epic sci-fi adventure included Orson Welles and Salvador Dali. Together, Jodorowsky and O’Bannon assembled an amazing art department that boasted Moebius, Ron Cobb, Chris Foss and H. R. Giger.

I have to halt this story for a moment to emphasize the historical importance of what Dan and George Lucas have done for the art of cinema, art direction-wise.

History lesson: The first production designers were originally called “art directors.” The two most important art directors (IMHO), William Cameron Menzies and Anton Grot (I borrowed heavily from Grot for my production design of Masters of the Universe), came from an illustration background (they have been reported to have been children’s book illustrators but I have yet to find a single copy of any book they illustrated. Their work does look like early 20th century children’s book illustration, however). Menzies began in the silent era with Douglas Fairbanks Thief of Bagdad; Grot designed the Errol Flynn swashbucklers.

Later in his career, William Cameron Menzies not only designed Gone With the Wind, he storyboarded the entire film in full color. On top of that, he directed a third of the film, including the famous “burning of Atlanta” sequence.

This presented GWTW‘s producer, David O. Selznick, with a problem. The film’s other director, Victor Fleming, did not want to share directing credit for the movie.

Selznick came up with a solution.

He approached Menzies, explained the problem, and then presented Menzies with his solution. Although Menzies would not get a director’s credit, Menzies would receive the on-screen credit “Production Designed by William Cameron Menzies.” That was the first time the title “production designer” was ever used. It quickly caught on and soon there were both production designers and art directors on movies.

Here’s the basic difference now between the two (and this varies from picture to picture): The production designer is responsible for everything you see on the screen except for the performances of the actors. That’s sets, costumes, make-up, special effects, props, etc. The art director usually is in charge of the Art Department’s budgeting and scheduling, with hands-on involvement in regards to the entire Art Department.

Decades later, the backgrounds of Production designers and art directors had changed. No longer were they from an illustration background. Instead, nearly all of them came from the world of architecture. In the studio system, set designers slowly worked their way up the ranks to become art directors. If they were lucky (and careful politically), some eventually became production designers after a few decades.

George Lucas changed all of that by hiring illustrator Ralph MacQuarrie to design Star Wars, along with a team of other talented artists (although Ralph didn’t receive the production designer credit; neither Moebius nor Syd Meade received the production design credit they deserved for Bladerunner).

Jodorowsky and O’Bannon shared the same vision, using comic book artists and illustrators to design Dune.

Unfortunately, the financing for Dune fell through and the project was suddenly dead. At that same moment in time, though, O’Bannon’s (and Ronald Shusett’s) script for Alien was greenlit. Ridley Scott brought Dan to London to work on the film. Dan mentioned the aborted Dune project and the great art department that had been assembled. Dan suggested that Ridley consider hiring the Dune Art Department to design Alien. Scott looked at their work and agreed.

The success of Star Wars and Alien briefly opened the doors for guys like me to enter the film business. I didn’t have to become an architect and slog away for decades in the hopes of becoming a production designer. In 1979 Ron Cobb (a production designer after five years in the business, beginning with Dan on Dark Star) hired me to work on Conan the Barbarian. That led to other films, and within three years (and with the mentoring and guidance of Ron Cobb and Pierluigi Basile) I became the production designer on an American Godzilla film (sadly unfilmed) and then The Return of the Living Dead.

The door pretty much slammed back shut not too long after that, although there have been a few exceptions (my friend Tim Bradstreet, known for his Punisher covers, just designed a film).

Dan O’Bannon had that vision, though. He knew that visual excellence in one medium could transfer and translate well to another medium. Bless him.

Dan and I attended the cast and crew premiere of Lifeforce, a film that Dan had written (with Don Jakoby) that Tobe Hooper had directed. I much preferred the film’s less pretentious and more honestly descriptive working title, Space Vampires (its title in the UK). In many ways, Lifeforce was a space program/sci-fi version of The Return of the Living Dead. I highly recommend Lifeforce, if only for the abundant nudity of the exquisite Mathilda May.

I was working with Tobe on the remake of Invaders From Mars (that Dan had written with Don Jakoby) at the time. Early on, Dan would visit me in the Invaders art department and suggest things to include in the film. I could tell that Dan was creatively frustrated and eager to direct again.

If you haven’t seen Dead & Buried, a 1981 film Dan wrote with Ron Shusett, definitely track that baby down. It’s got one of the best openings in horror cinema. The rest of the film plays out like a classic Twilight Zone.

Dan told me he wrote Blue Thunder in response to the police helicopters that would hover over his abode at night. They drove him nuts. He used to stand on his rooftop and angrily flip off the cops above him as they shined their Night Sun down on him.

Total Recall was a Philip K. Dick adaptation (from We Can Remember it For You Wholesale) by Dan and Ron Shusett (it was later stated that Ron wrote the picture by himself and that Dan loaned his name to the writing credit to make it easier for Total Recall to get funding. I don’t know if that’s true or not). Originally, the lead character was a meek little Walter Mitty kind of guy (which makes much more sense, dramatically, than the film’s final incarnation if you think about it). When Arnold Schwarzenegger signed on for the lead (which turned Total Recall into a hot “go” project) nearly everything had to change, script-wise, obviously.

Let me end with a bit about my experience with Dan in recording the commentary for MGM‘s The Return of the Living Dead DVD:

Dan and I met at the recording facility. He was anxious. Dan was carrying what looked like a large briefcase. I got distracted by one of the producers. When I turned back to Dan, he had vanished.

Getting close to our taping time, I decided to use the restroom. I found Dan inside. His case was on the sink, opened. It was a thoroughly stocked professional makeup kit.

“I just can’t trust anyone to make me look good, so I always do my own makeup for camera.”

I watched as he skillfully applied various substances to his neck and face.

“You know,” he confided, “I’ve never done this before, this commentary thing.”

“Don’t worry, Dan,” I replied. “I have. I’ve done this live at conventions. They’d begin our film and hand me a microphone. I did live commentary throughout the entire movie. It’s not so hard and the fans love hearing all of that behind-the-scenes stuff.”

“But I’m worried I’ll just clam up, that I won’t be able to think of anything to say.”

“You’ll think of things.”

Dan seemed truly worried.

“You’ll cover for me if that happens, won’t you? I’ll be depending upon you. Really.”

“Sure. Not a problem, Dan.”

We entered the sound stage. Each of us were miked and our volume levels were set. They projected our film on to a huge screen. All we had to do was begin talking about whatever came into our mind about the making of the film, triggered by the images we were seeing.

Dan had no need to worry. From the very first frame of the movie, Dan was off and running; I could barely get a word in edgewise. He was stepping all over my favorite TROTLD stories but I figured Hey! — this is Dan’s movie, it’s his moment to shine. So, I pretty much just filled in the few gaps where Dan took a break to breathe or when he actually paused for some reason or another.

That same day we shot the DVD’s Designing the Dead documentary (a short doc on my production designing of the movie), so I ended up getting my own proper face and voice time anyway. We both had a lot of fun that day.

And that DVD of our little film became MGM’s biggest selling DVD of the year!

Bless you, Dan. I’ll always think of you with amazement, awe and a smile. I am very, very lucky to have known you and to have counted you as one of my friends. Sleep well, my brother, at last.

Dan and Me in the TROTLD cemetery.

1 thought on “Untold Tales of Hollywood #96

  1. That’s an excellent salute to O’Bannon. I didn’t follow his work as closely as I should have but I DO know, “The Long Tomorrow” (one of my ALL TIME favorite stories illustrated by Moebius, I even hav an artist proof print of the page of detective confronting the thugs in the hallway) because of Dan’s work on Alien.
    I actually like “Life-force”. Mathilda May’s nude scenes are definitely worth the price of admission. I found the ending of the film to a lot like the film’s end of Quatermass and the Pit. That’s not bad thing. (Quatermass in DVD was a lot harder to find. I remembered it as a kid on those late night monster tests and finally bought one of eBay, already having a multiformat DVD player due to living abroad so many years)
    One question, will those comics you adapted h of Dan’s stories ever see print? I’ve never seen them.

    Rick (I’ll let you know when I have my walls machine gun proof)

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