The (Annotated) 2002 John Arcudi Interview – Part Ten

…TO DESIGNING MOVIES

Ron Cobb’s Conan logo

ARCUDI: The work that you did for Conan the Barbarian… your storyboards were done in a comic book format.

Stout with Conan storyboard pages in Zagreb. Photo by Carl Macek.
Stout Conan storyboard page

Did you get that job on the basis of your work in comics? Or was that another coincidence?

STOUT: Kind of/sort of. It was a series of coincidences. My friend Bob Greenberg was working for Ed Pressman, the original producer for Conan. Bob knew I was a big Conan fan. I loved all of the [Robert E.] Howard stories, and the Frank Frazetta covers, and Roy G. Krenkel drawings. Bob said, “Man. You really gotta come by and see what Ron Cobb is doing on Conan.” It blew my mind that Ron was designing Conan. I mostly knew him for his brilliant political cartoons; I couldn’t wait to see what he was doing on Conan. I was aware that he had designed some of the creatures in the cantina sequence in Star Wars and that he had designed a lot of Alien. Before [John] Milius was attached to Conan the Barbarian, back when Oliver Stone was going to direct it, Ron had been working with Milius on a mountain man movie, Half of the Sky. As John wrote more and more of Conan the Barbarian, Half of the Sky slowly began being Conan-ized, until John finally realized that he wanted to direct Conan. He brought Ron with him over to Conan and made him the production designer.

In regards to visiting the Conan offices, I told Bob, “God, I’d love to – except, man, I’ve never been busier in advertising.” I was doing so many movie posters…it was unbelievable. There was just no time to come up for air. Finally, I got a break – but I didn’t go over to the Conan offices. Instead, I went to the ABA (the American Booksellers Association), which is the national book fair where every publisher in the United States gathers in one spot. It usually used to be in New York or L. A., sometimes Chicago or Vegas. It’s every publisher and editor in the United States, all in one big room. It was a great place for illustrators to get work. You bring your portfolio and walk from booth to booth, show your work and get hired. It was in L. A. that year at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

I had my portfolio with me, and who should I run into but Ron Cobb himself. He said that I was his first choice of someone to work with on the film. I don’t know how he was aware of my work, or whether it was just my portfolio that impressed him on the spot. But he said he had an arrangement with Milius, who by then was the director of the film, that whoever Ron hired John had veto power over and whoever John suggested for the art department, Ron had veto power over. So I had to show my stuff to John Milius. Ron asked me if I would come by the office and drop off my book. I said, “Sure. Sounds great.” It sounded like fun.

Cobb and Stout were the Conan the Barbarian art department for the first two years of pre-production. Photo by Carl Macek.

I was a huge admirer of Ron Cobb’s work. He did most of the important underground political cartoons in the ‘60s for the L.A. Free Press. Amazing artist and an amazing mind — a true genius. He invented the ecology symbol and donated it to the public domain. That original ecology symbol cartoon by Ron is now on permanent display at the Smithsonian.

I went in on a Friday. I was going to drop off my book, but Milius was actually there; I just handed it directly to him. I watched him look through it. He remembered the Harlan Ellison story I had illustrated for Heavy Metal called “Shattered Like A Glass Goblin”.

Toby Bluth, brother of Don Bluth, modeled the main character of “Shattered Like a Glass Goblin” for Stout.

He had really liked that story when it appeared in Heavy Metal. I also had my work from my recently published Dragonslayers portfolio with me, and he really liked that, too.

He handed me all of my stuff back and started to walk out of the room. John’s a really dramatic, bigger-than-life charismatic guy. As he’s walking out of the room, over his shoulder he grunted, “Hire him!” Just like out of a western. I was directed to talk to Buzz Feitshans, the show’s line producer. Our receptionist was Kathleen Kennedy, if you can imagine – a couple of years later she produced E.T.! I talked to Buzz who told me what they were going to be paying me to do the film’s storyboards. I nearly fell off my chair laughing; it was about 10% of what I was making in advertising.

I’d been doing advertising for a while – for over 120 movies. I thought, “This might be fun for a couple of weeks. I’ll get to see how movies are made.” Well, the two weeks turned into two years. I later found out that new talent is always hired for just two weeks. They want to find out whether or not you’re an asshole. If you’re not and you deliver good work, your employment gets extended. If not, you’re let go with no hard feelings from either side. The Film Biz is quirky. That guy you fired just might be a future employer in The Biz, so you can’t take the chance of offending him. It was an interesting time to get into making motion pictures. John and Buzz were just finishing their production duties on 1941, which Steven Spielberg directed. Buzz was going crazy, as Steven kept adding more shots to an already over-budget, over-time schedule movie.

We were all sharing offices. Ron Cobb and I would work on Conan during the day, and then put down our pencils at 6 p.m., and walk across the hall to Steven’s office. I’d watch them kick around ideas for Raiders of the Lost Ark. It was just one big, exciting, happy family there. We were in those offices for a good chunk of a year, maybe less. Then we moved to Dino DeLaurentiis’ offices in Beverly Hills. That was a whole other experience meeting the DeLaurentiis family and dealing with them as producers. At first I had a lot of animosity toward them; I didn’t respect the films they were putting out. Later, though, I learned to love and appreciate the international crews they put together. They made me feel very much a part of their family.

After a year or so, we took off for Zagreb, Yugoslavia. I began living in Zagreb, with the intention of making the film there.

I started to learn Serbo-Croatian and made a lot of great Yugoslavian friends; I just loved the heck out of Zagreb. I found it the most romantic city in the world, even more so than Paris. Because of its sad and violent history, there was a layer of sadness over the city that added to and deepened its romantic qualities. I met a beautiful woman named Vesna at a discotheque. We began a relationship. It was she who was teaching me Serbo-Croation and giving me an insider’s view of the delights that Zagreb had to offer, and educating me culturally as well.

Stout in his Zagreb office

It was my first time living behind the Iron Curtain. I was startled to learn that this Communist country had a much greater freedom of the press than in the United States. I could buy any American magazine on their newsstands: Playboy, Time, Newsweek, etc. – but also available was an equal array of Communist magazines; complete freedom of information. Go ahead; try to find a newsstand in the U.S. that carries an entire rack of Communist magazines. They did not fear a healthy marketplace of ideas and free discussion. I must emphasize that this was Yugoslavia — not the Soviet Union. Yugoslavia was not aligned with either the Soviet Union or Red China. Its citizens were allowed to travel and vacation outside of their country. My eyes were really opened to one of the great American myths that we’ve all been spoon-fed since we were kids. As a staunch conservative, as a strong advocate of our Constitutional guaranteed free press, I was shocked. See how this all sort of relates to undergrounds?

Marshall Tito was the last of the great WWII leaders. I was living in Zagreb when he died. He was Yugoslavia’s Abraham Linclon. Before Tito took over Yugoslavia’s five states and united them, Yugoslavians were killing more Yugoslavians than Nazis. Tito united those five states to defeat the Nazis. His death was HUGE. The entire country mourned. I felt embarrassed that President Carter did not travel to Yugoslavia for Tito’s funeral. All of the other world leaders were there.

I had a front row seat to history. I watched as Yugoslavia immediately began to unravel, foreshadowing the tragedies to come.

After several months the producers decided they couldn’t make the movie in Zagreb – it became Madrid, Spain instead (In actuality, moving to Madrid was the conniving plan of our film’s accountant, an uptight Brit who owned property in Madrid and just wanted to get back to where he could work from home and be with his family. I think the locations we found in Yugoslavia were much better — and less frequently seen on screen — than those we found in Spain). They gave me the choice of either coming with them to Spain, being paid and sitting around for a month while they set up our offices and things, or I could take that month and go without pay and spend my time in Rome, Italy.

I chose Rome. I knew eventually I was going to be in Spain, but I’d never been to Rome. I got to spend a month or two in Rome. Every morning the daughter of our set decorator would come by on her motor scooter; she’d pick me up and take me to a different art museum, the zoo, or a different park or a different Michelangelo sculpture. Then she’d take me back home where her mom would make me a nice Italian lunch. It was a pretty idyllic situation.

Italy and Italian culture blew my mind. On the bus trip from the airport to downtown Rome I never saw so many beautiful women in my life, so much so that I began to think that the Rome Chamber of Commerce deliberately lined the streets into Rome with gorgeous Catholic schoolgirls. The Italians I met kept trying to sexually hook me up with young women. Parents encouraged me to date and have sex with their beautiful fourteen-year-old daughters. That was not considered unusual in the least. If you were married, you were expected to have a mistress (or mistresses). It was not considered a big deal; it was normal.

Sometimes I would spend the evening watching Italian TV with our set decorator’s family. We watched a very popular TV show one night. It was a family variety show hosted by a transvestite. As some disco music began to play, six gay guys approached what looked like a gigantic martini glass full of eith liquid mud or chocolate. A woman arose from the brown mud. She was singing to the disco music. As she sang, the six gay guys began pouring milk on her, washing away the mud from her body until she was completely mud-free and totally nude. This was all considered normal entertainment for an evening family variety show in Italy. It really shined a light for me on how uptight Americans are in regards to sex. Kids, Mom, Dad and me — we all enjoyed the show. By the way, this gorgeous Hungarian-Italian blonde disco singer-porn star, Ilona Staller, a.k.a. Cicciolina, was elected to the Italian Parliament a few years later. She was married to artist Jeff Koons from 1991-1994.

I met a gorgeous Thai stewardess on the bus going from the Rome airport to the center of Rome. We began dating. She was funny; no matter where I took her to eat, she always ordered a pork chop.

My life is full of astounding coincidences, one of which happened late one night in Rome. I had been out partying and drinking one night. It’s easy to get lost in Rome, especially at night; lots of little side streets and narrow walkways. I was a bit tipsy and walking in what I felt was the general direction of my hotel. It was very late and I was pretty much the only guy on this particular street as far as I could tell. Then, at the end of the street in the direction I was heading, I saw the figure of a man walking toward me. As we got closer, he began to look more recognizable. Suddenly, I shouted, “Benjamin!”

It was Benjamin Fernandez, who had been our art director on Conan when it was back in Zagreb.

“Bill!” he cried with a big smile on his warm Spanish face. “What are you doing here in Rome?”

I explained. He then blew my mind with a job offer.

“I’m making a movie with David Lean. Would you like to join me?”

David Lean? Holy shit! He directed Lawrence of Arabia and Bridge on the River Kwai. What an opportunity! But I felt I had to stay loyal to Ron Cobb and John Milius, so I passed. But what are the odds of me running into my pal Benjamin late one night on the deserted streets of a city the size of Rome — and getting offered work on a David Lean movie?

At the end of that time I went to live in Madrid to continue pre-production work on the film. I got very familiar with Madrid; I usually bopped over to the Prado each day during lunch to look at paintings and pick up girls. About that time, something else reared its head.

Before I had left for Yugoslavia, a friend of mine, Byron Preiss, who had published a lot of my work, was visiting my studio. I had just completed a whole bunch of pictures for Don Glut’s Dinosaur Dictionary. Don had asked me to do five pictures for his new Dinosaur Dictionary, because he wanted an illustration for every listing in the book; that five turned into about 40 or more. So I had all of these dinosaur pictures laying around my studio. Byron was visiting and he said, “If you could do your own book on anything, what would you do?” My lightning response was, “I have no idea.” He saw the stack of dinosaur pictures, and he said, “Well, would you like to do one on dinosaurs?” Thinking Byron was just being conversational, I said, “Oh, sure. That’d be fun.” Well, a couple of months later Byron phones up and tells me we have a book deal – Bantam wants to do our dinosaur book. I suddenly had a gigantic book project dropped into my lap. So I’m thinking, I can do this. I can design a motion picture and write and draw a dinosaur book at the same time.

Wrong!

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