The (Annotated) 2002 John Arcudi Interview – Part Eleven

Stout’s annotations are in italics.

Living in Madrid was incredible. I made friends with lots of German and Swiss Lufthanza flight attendants who were living in my high rise apartment building (Apartamentos Villa Magna). They always invited me to their rooftop parties. They had German sausages flown in for these get togethers.

As happened in Yugoslavia, I ended up with a lot of Communist friends, too. They were not the bogeymen of American propaganda. I discovered that just as there were all kinds of Democrats and Republicans, there were all kinds of Communists, too. I was surprised at first, but then it made total sense.

Each Friday at 6:00 PM I would dash over to the local comic book shop, Totem. The owner would close the place up, only allowing comics professionals inside the shop. I got to meet many of the best Spanish comic book creators. We would talk comics, comics, comics. Then, at 8:00 PM we would walk a couple of blocks to a nearby cafe restaurant.  The owner was a big comics fan. He would have a long table all ready for us. He comped us all of our food and drinks the whole evening into the wee hours. It was incredible!

I happened to be in Madrid for an annual national comics awards presentation. The cream of Spain’s finest comics creators were all in attendance. I got to meet them all. My favorite guy was Carlos Giménez. I consider him the Will Eisner of Spain. At that time, he had two autobiographical comics graphic novels out: Barrio and Paracuellos (there have since been many additional volumes of each title). Paracuellos was about his growing up in a Catholic orphanage during Franco‘s rule in Spain. Barrio was about his becoming a young comic book artist in Franco’s Spain. They were brave, honest books. In response to his books, Carlos’ Barcelona studio was bombed by Franco supporters.

Those books were so compelling that I translated both of them, word by word. Later, I tried to convince American publishers to reprint his works in America. Eclipse was the only company that was interested. I designed a cover and wrote an introduction. I got Will Eisner to write a foreword — but it just didn’t happen…at that time. In 2016 — 36 years later — the book was finally published by IDW.

The publisher used my cover design, my color for the cover, my cover lettering and Will’s foreword — but not my intro. They never told me about the book nor sent me a copy. Apparently, no good deed goes unpunished — or unrewarded!

I had a Spanish friend who was nicknamed by women I knew as The One. He was relentless in his sexual pursuit of women. He was terribly attractive and he knew it. He had his look and his moves honed to perfection. He wore tight, sexy jeans. He had lightly sandpapered the part of his jeans that covered his penis, to make that region stand out. He quickly became my friend when I started picking up hot, young female tourists and bringing them back to my apartment and up to my apartment’s roof, where there was a swimming pool.
I found The One amusing at first. But underneath that overly produced and planned image of his was a really good guy, actually. When he found out I would be leaving Spain, he arranged a wonderful, very Spanish, very mysterious farewell party for me. He purchased a powerful bottle of an extremely alcoholic moonshine drink called aguardiente. He brought a stone bowl to prepare the beverage. There is a traditional, mysterious chant that is recited during the making and serving of the drink.

“With this bellows I will pump, the flames of this fire which looks like that from Hell, and witches will flee, straddling their brooms, going to bathe in the beach of the thick sands. Hear! Hear the roars of those that cannot stop burning in the firewater, becoming so purified.And when this beverage goes down out throats, we will get free of the evil of our soul and of any charm. Forces of air, earth, sea and fire, to you I make this call: if it’s true that you have more power than people, here and now, make the spirits of the friends who are outside, take part with us in this Queimada.”

The aguardiente is set on fire during this ritual. It burned seemingly forever, making me wonder just how much alcohol was in that stuff (I later learned: over 50%)! When it was ready, The One ladeled the aguardiente into special cups — and it was still burning within each cup! I felt very honored; it was an incredible, touching night. I bailed at 5:30 AM, as I had to be at work on Conan at 7:00 AM. The part was still going strong when I left, making me wonder, when do the Spanish sleep?

STOUT: So, there I was, working on Conan the Barbarian during the day, and every other spare moment I was doing preliminary sketches for the illustrations for my dinosaur book, THE DINOSAURS – A Fantastic New View of a Lost Era.

It soon became readily apparent to me that I was not going to be able to accomplish both the movie and the book and do both projects justice. I announced to the production that I was going to have to leave the show to finish my dinosaur book. I told them, “It’s only going to take me a couple of months; I’ll come back well before shooting.” A couple months turned into two years once again. Shooting came and went. God, I got really desperate calls from overseas to come back to the film. I could tell one producer was in tears on his call to me. But my attitude was – not the most professional attitude for a filmmaker – that this is Robert E. Howard’s and John Milius’s Conan, or even Ron Cobb’s Conan, but this is my dinosaur book. So I stuck with and finished the book. Much to his faith and credit, after the book came out line producer Buzz Feitshans hired me to do storyboards for First Blood.

Because of Conan and First Blood, my film career was pretty much launched.

ARCUDI: You’ve worked on a lot of films that never got made. Probably the most famous one was the American Godzilla.

STOUT: That was in 1982 and ‘83. I spent close to two years on that one. That’s another thing about the film business: for every project that goes past the initial okay point, maybe one percent gets to production. And out of those that go to production, only 10% of those ever make it to the theaters. There’s no guarantee that even if your project does get lucky and green lit that anyone is going to see it, which can be pretty damn frustrating. There are also what I call the “X-factors” in making films. You can write the best script, hire the best director, do your best design work, but since film is such a collaborative process, there are any number of other links in the chain that can completely screw up the final product. You can do all of your best work and have it messed up by lousy editing, bad photography, a miscast actor or crappy music. This process of movie making is so difficult that when I see a good film to me it’s like an absolute miracle. I know that somehow this thing was able to make it through this treacherous gauntlet to survive with its integrity somewhat intact. Then when I see pictures like Brazil or Moulin Rouge, which are not only great films but movies in which the people involved – primarily the director in those two cases – took so many risks at so many levels, I am literally moved to tears of joy and astonishment. I have an inkling as to what the filmmakers went through to achieve what they accomplished.

ARCUDI: Maybe this is a sore subject, but on Godzilla you did a redesign of the Godzilla character for your American version, right?

STOUT: Yes. Godzilla was a fabulous project. Fred Dekker had written this spectacular screenplay that read like a really good Spielberg film. Steve Miner, who had done the Friday the 13th movies, was producing and was also going to direct it. This was before he did House, Soul Man or The Wonder Years. He turned out to be a really fine director. This was my first film as a production designer. I was originally hired to do presentation paintings for the project.

Preliminary charcoal drawing made prior to the painting

I did one big presentation painting and then Steve needed storyboards done to get a realistic effects budget. If you hand 10 effects companies the same script, they’ll have 10 different ideas of what those effects are going to look like – and 10 different bids. But if you hand them storyboards, then we’re all pretty much on the same page. So I began doing storyboards for the film.

Around the time I was doing that, I got a visit from Mentor Huebner, one of the greatest storyboard artists who ever lived (Trivia note: Mentor’s wife Louise was the Official Witch of the City of Los Angeles!). He did a lot of the Hitchcock films [like] North by Northwest, and Bladerunner…just a spectacular guy; over 200 films to his credit.

Storyboard panels by Mentor Huebner

He looked at what I was doing and said, “These boards are so detailed – you know what you’re doing here? You’re really designing the film.” I was drawing fairly large, detailed boards because of the nature of the film and because the boards were also part of Steve’s presentation to the studios. I was designing all of the sets and drawing the set dressing, suggesting costumes and everything else.

“You should ask to be the production designer.”

I thought about what Mentor said to myself: “God, he’s right.” I approached Steve and asked him if I could be the production designer. He gave it some thought and he did his homework. He called people I’d worked with and came back to me and said, “Yes; if you hire a strong art director, you can be the film’s production designer.” I was really excited. It was an astonishingly swift rise, to go from storyboard artist to production designer in just two years.

If I haven’t explained in prior blog entries, a production designer is the director’s eyes. He is responsible for everything you see on the screen, except for the performances of the actors. As production designer, I’m in charge of all the set designs, costumes, props, special effects, hair, make-up, storyboards, special make-up effects and set decoration.

I ended up storyboarding about 85% of the film; another 10% of the film was boarded by my studio mate Dave Stevens and his friend Doug Wildey (the creator of Jonny Quest), who I hired to help me out and speed things up. Rick Baker was on board to do the large robotic heads of Godzilla. From my designs, Steven Czerkas made Godzilla’s armature and then made a fully functional stop motion animation puppet.

New Godzilla meets old Godzilla

Dave Allen was going to do the stop-motion animation. At the time, there wasn’t any CGI to speak of – certainly nothing efficient or affordable. It was a first-class crew all of the way with a great script on top of it. The story had a lot of heart. Beginning with the Golden Gate Bridge, Godzilla attacks San Francisco and ends up dying on Alcatraz.

And, it was all going to be in 3-D, initially (we eventually dropped doing it in 3-D because of expense issues). Obviously, there were effects in almost every shot (that’s why the whole film needed to be boarded). Obviously, it was going to be a very expensive film. So this expensive film was being pitched right at a time when there were four hugely expensive films that had just bombed dramatically – one of them being Heaven’s Gate. The studios mistakenly lacked confidence in Steve as a director who could pull off a picture like this. You can’t blame them; he didn’t have the track record he’s got today. It was a great project that should have been made but sadly never was. I’d still sign on to make Steve and Fred’s movie today in a heartbeat.

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