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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