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Untold Tales of Hollywood #80

In our researching of crematoriums and mortuaries, writer-director Dan O’Bannon and I were given surprisingly generous access to their behind-closed-doors operations. At one mortuary the owner said, “You’ve never seen a corpse? Let me show ya.”

He reached over to a coffin-sized box in his office and lifted the lid. There was the body of someone’s granny.

Another owner took us down to see the retort (cremation oven).

“You’ve never seen a body when it’s burning?” He opened the door to the retort. “Take a look…”

Inside the oven I saw what looked like parts of several human beings burning.

“Uh…how many corpses are you burning in there?”

“Three. It saves time and money to do three at once. I just divvy up the ashes into three piles after they’re all burnt. The families of the deceased never know.”

As we left the different mortuaries and crematoriums, the same thing happened every single time. As we were walking to Dan’s car, an employee would come running out of the building. Making sure they weren’t seen, the employee would glance furtively around before breathlessly telling us, “I just have to tell somebody — they’re having sex with the corpses in there!”

Like I said, this wasn’t just once. This happened at every single place we visited.

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Untold Tales of Hollywood #79

Dan O’Bannon and I did a lot of research together for The Return of the Living Dead. We visited several local mortuaries and crematoriums so that we could see exactly what they looked like inside. Our goal was authenticity.

It would be an understatement to say that I was shocked by what we discovered.

We were given pretty free access to the behind the scenes world of the mortuary and cremation industries. I was able to do sketches of the crematorium ovens (called “retorts”). At one place we were left alone. Dan and I found several trays full of little brown paper bags. They were marked with names like “Baby Lewis” or “Baby Jackson. I realized these bags contained the ashes of infants.

Dan picked up one of the bags.

“We might as well see what this looks like.”

Dan poured the contents of the bag onto a counter.

“DAN!”

“Hmmm….looks just like vermiculite.”

We heard someone coming. Dan quickly scooped most of the ashes back into the bag.

I tried to include all of the nastiest and creepiest aspects of the retorts I saw into the one for our movie. There are some raised letters on the lower right hand corner. As I recall, they listed “Giler and Hill” as the oven’s manufacturer. This little dig was Dan’s doing. David Giler and Walter Hill had tried to cheat Dan out of his writing credit for Alien.

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Untold Tales of Hollywood #78

Film #18: The Return of the Living Dead (1984)
Director: Dan O’Bannon
Production Designer: William Stout

The Return of the Living Dead was not my first film as a production designer but it was the first film I designed that actually got made. Here’s how I got the gig:

My dear friend (and the production designer on Conan the Barbarian) Ron Cobb was a very gregarious fellow. He and his Australian wife Robin Love entertained a lot at their Santa Monica home. There would always be top writers, artists, medical professionals, attorneys, directors and others prominent in their field in attendance. One of Ron’s closest friends, writer Dan (Alien, Blue Thunder, Dark Star) O’Bannon, was usually there. I often brought new works and works of mine in progress to get feedback from the party guests. Dan was always the first to take a look at my new works. I didn’t realize at the time that he was sizing me up as a potential production designer for his directorial debut The Return of the Living Dead.

One evening I brought a cover I had done for the comic book Alien Worlds.

Black & White version.

Dan told me later he had doubts as to whether or not I could pull off the designing of the high-tech aspects of his film. Upon seeing how I had designed the astronaut’s space suit on the Alien Worlds cover, Dan told me he thought, “Ah-HAH! Stout can do high-tech!”

Despite the title, The Return of the Living Dead was not a sequel to Night of the Living Dead. O’Bannon wanted to make a film with an entirely new take on zombies. These were not going to be Romero zombies. These zombies would look different (not just having extras with dark rings around their eyes) and, unlike George’s zombies, our zombies could run and move fast. In my very first conversation with Dan, after I had been hired, Dan asked me, “Bill. You know how films have principle characters? Our movie is going to have principal zombies. I want you to design zombies that are unique, creatures the likes of which have never been seen before by a movie audience. I don’t want them to look like Romero’s zombies.”

Once the project was green-lit, Dan began to assemble his crew. For production designer, Dan gave line producer Graham Henderson a very short list of whom he wanted, two highly EC Comics-influenced comic book artists: Bernie Wrightson and William Stout.

Bernie was Dan’s first choice, I believe. Graham quickly did his homework and found that I had already racked up credits on several film — and that Bernie hadn’t (I think that Bernie was just starting Ghostbusters). He lied to O’Bannon, telling him that Bernie had passed on the project (I believe Graham never even called Bernie) but that he had signed me on as production designer. I got a bump in pay from storyboard artist — but not much. I was still making a fraction of what I had been making illustrating movie posters. It was a real challenge, though — and I love creative challenges.

Ron Cobb supported my hiring on the condition that I was given a strong art director. Graham gave me a great one: Robert Howland. Robert was fantastic at budgeting and scheduling, two important things that I was still learning. Robert was able to take my designs and make them real and, most importantly, inexpensive, as our budget on the film was just $1.5 million. Very importantly, Robert was really funny with a razor-sharp wit. I have found that in the highly stressful job of making movies, surrounding one’s self with people with a great sense of humor helps enormously at easing the job’s day-to-day tensions. Robert also knew skilled set designers that could take my drawings and designs and beautifully, practically and thoughtfully execute my visions for the film. I was in a truly earn-while-you-learn job situation.

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Untold Tales of Hollywood #77

After speaking with director Michael Chapman, I got right on it and churned out some more active Clan of the Cave Bear paintings. My new images were promptly sent to Michael and Tony Masters in Cannes.

The film got financed.

Here are all the paintings I did for this project:

In digging up these paintings, I rediscovered that my wife had posed for all of the Ayla images.

I would have loved to have done more work on Clan of the Cave Bear — but what could I do that Tony Masters couldn’t? I felt I would have been a redundant hire, so I didn’t push it, although I know I could have learned a lot about production design from Tony. Because of the nature of the film and its story, there weren’t a lot of sets that needed designing and building. Mostly, it came down to choosing fantastic locations where we could tell our story.

So, I was on to my next movie.

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Untold Tales of Hollywood #76

Film #17: Clan of the Cave Bear (1984)
Directed by Michael Chapman
Production Designed by Tony Masters

I met the incredible production designer/art director Tony Masters (2001: A Space Odyssey, Papillon, The Deep and Lawrence of Arabia are just a few of his credits) when he was on Dune and I was on Conan the Destroyer. Giles Masters, one of Tony’s sons, worked on both Dune and Conan the Destroyer. For cruel sport, the DeLaurentiis family tried to pit me against Giles. I saw what they were up to right away. I spoke to Giles privately and told him what was going on and we became good friends.

Brit Kevin Phipps was our Conan the Destroyer art director. He had a deep passion for architectural designs and the beauty of division of space. He was also a pretty outrageous guy sometimes, like when we went into the costume department and casually pulled his trousers down a bit to expose the top of his pubic hair, then trimmed a swatch of it with a pair of scissors, leaving a clump right on the cutting table. Kevin ended up marrying Debbie, one of the attractive costumers present for Kevin’s clipping ceremony.

One afternoon, Tony came to my drawing board and looked at what I was doing.

“You have no idea…You’ve got the best job in the business.”

I was more than a little stunned to hear Tony say that; he had reached the pinnacle of art direction. He was the production designer.

I later think I figured out what he was saying after I became a production designer. Yes, the production designer is in charge of the entire look of the film. But with that comes huge responsibilities, the potential to be ground up between conflicting directions from the director and producer, and the possibility that your best designs will be ignored and replaced with something mediocre. As a freelance concept designer, my hours were more regular and I got more of a chance to have some visual fun without too many responsibilities.

After production designer Tony Masters finished his work on Dune, he was hired by Michael Chapman (the cinematographer on Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The Fugitive) to design the film version of Clan of the Cave Bear. They still needed to raise money for Clan of the Cave Bear, so Tony recommended that I be hired to create some presentation art and paint a series of small pictures representing key scenes in the film to get investors interested.

This was right up my alley, as I had been creating presentation art well before I started making movies. I knew exactly what needed to be done.

Unfortunately, it was in conflict with what Michael and Tony wanted. They wanted the soft, poetic moments of the film portrayed.

“We want something quiet, elegant and classy; something rich and sophisticated.”

I tried to break it to them gently that what was really needed was a series of paintings playing up the most action-filled, scary and violent scenes if they wanted to get financial backing. They stood firm, however. I began with a series of 2″ x 3″ thumbnails:
Mike and Tony chose the most introspective domestic scenes for me to produce as oil paintings. I argued against it but conceded to their desires, I did do one extra piece for them, though, to take to the Cannes Film Festival: the big, scary cave bear attack. They reluctantly took that image with them.

About a day later, I got a frantic call from Michael in France.

“We need more of your action stuff! The only painting the investors reacted favorably to was your scary, action-packed cave bear piece!”

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Untold Tales of Hollywood #75

Film #16: Conan and the Eye of Death (1983)
Screenplay by William Stout

I have found that lots of the folks working in the film business are aspiring writers, no matter what their day job is. I was no exception. I wrote a Conan screenplay entitled Conan and the Eye of Death, a script that combined three of  Robert E. Howard‘s Conan adventures as a buccaneer/pirate, when Conan became celebrated and honored by his crew as Amra the Lion.

I did not have a lot of time to throw this together, so I used the structure of the Burt Lancaster movie The Crimson Pirate as the skeleton on which I fleshed out my tale.

Adapting Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories to the screen is incredibly difficult to do well. I started with breaking down the stories to their bare essence of plot. I quickly discovered there wasn’t much plot to Howard’s Conan stories. The bare stories I broke them down to wouldn’t work in a movie — the audience would have been way ahead of us for the entire film (not a good thing). The plot points were much too predictable or clichéd. Howard gets away with this because his descriptive details are fabulous — so fabulous that you don’t realize there is barely any story there. Often in these stories, Conan gets into a nearly unsolvable dilemma. What does Howard have Conan do in this kind of situation? He just has Conan bash his way out of the joint. Problem solved!

I found what I had to do was to make up a completely new story from scratch, then flesh it out with a healthy supply of Howard’s key story points and visual details. So, that’s what I did.

Upon checking my records, I discovered that Conan and the Eye of Death was the rewrite (I actually created an entirely new story but I still gave credit to Stanley Mann) I passed out at our first Conan the Destroyer production meeting. As you might have read in an earlier posting, nothing came of it except for pissing off the director and a producer.

I later learned that Raffaella DeLaurentiis had mentally put me in the box called “Designer”. Once you’re known for being good at at something in Hollywood, it can be difficult to jump categories.

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Untold Tales of Hollywood #74

One thing I found out about David Lynch that I loved was his strong work ethic. Even though he was directing Dune, one of the biggest sci-fi films in history, he always found time to practice his Fine Art. He posted his latest creations on the walls of the studio’s hallways.

I found them hilarious. The first one I saw was titled “Fly Kit.” It was a xeroxed piece of art. David found a large dead horse fly and very carefully had taken it apart. Then, he laid out the parts on a page with handwritten instructions on how to assemble the fly.

The next one I saw was “Fish Kit.”

While I was working on Conan the Destroyer, David finished his rough cut of Dune. I had been seeing phenomenal bits and pieces of Dune whenever I dropped by the room where Leslie Shatz was editing the sound for Dune. I saw loads of amazing scenes with Sting and Linda Hunt. I couldn’t wait to see the full, edited version. While I was there, David came up with a rough cut that was four-and-a-half hours long. The people who saw it (I, unfortunately, was not one of them) proclaimed it to be the greatest science fiction film in the history of cinema, the Gone With The Wind of sci-fi.

After the screening, Dino DeLaurentiis immediately demanded the film be cut down to two hours. I begged and argued with the DeLaurentiis family not to cut the film so severely.

“It’s an event movie,” I pleaded. “Have an intermission in the middle. The theaters will sell just as much popcorn. Or, release two different versions: a long one and a short one.”

Dino wouldn’t budge.

Sadly, once that final two-hour cut was achieved, the remaining footage was destroyed. Yes, destroyed. Forever. This was before DVDs and DVD extras. All of those great Linda Hunt and Sting scenes I saw didn’t make it to the final cut. The final cut’s opening? All of that text that flowed and flowed, explaining the story in words — all of that had been shot — but eventually cut, violating cinema’s “Show, Don’t Tell” rule. We will never see the masterpiece David Lynch worked so hard to produce. It’s lost forever. Those so-called “Director’s Cut” and “Extended version” copies of Dune available on video only add about ten minutes to the two-hour version. David disowned the final film.

I also unsuccessfully argued that the film have a huge, important symphonic score — not a rock score by the band Toto. Unfortunately, the DeLaurentiis were in a Flash Gordon state of mind (Dino produced a sort of goofy Flash Gordon movie and used the band Queen for the film’s score).

These are both battles I wish I could have won.

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Untold Tales of Hollywood #73

I continued my series of lunches with Dune director David Lynch. It felt like I just couldn’t connect with him. It wasn’t his personality; David’s a very nice guy. It just seemed like we shared almost nothing in common.

One day, as our lunch ended, David lit up.

“The Boys! he exclaimed. “Bill, you haven’t met The Boys!”

David stood up.

“Let’s go meet them!”

I followed David across the lot to his office. He unlocked his door, and with a grand flourish, he swung the door open.

“Bill, meet — The Boys!”

On David’s sofa facing me and the door were six identical Woody Woodpecker dolls.

David introduced us.

“That’s Biff, Larry, Fred, Hank, Sam and Chewie (I don’t recall the actual names he had for each one; these six I made up are similar and will suffice). Boys, meet Bill!”

What in the hell does one say in that situation? I’m a T-shirt-and-jeans kinda guy, not used to such mental shenanigans.

“Hi, Boys!”

I’m still mystified by that encounter.

Estudios Churubusco
was a lot looser than the studios I worked in Stateside. Part of the studio contained a collection of wild animals that were available for the films being made there. I loved visiting that part of the studio, getting to see these creatures up close. None of them seemed to be trained; they all seemed like they were still wild. But one had to be careful. Unlike the United States, in Mexico you’re responsible for the stupid things you do. If you get hurt, bitten or mauled, it’s your own damn fault — you don’t try to sue somebody. I kinda liked that: being responsible for one’s own actions.

I was delighted to see a kinkajou. I explained to British art director Kevin Phipps, whom I had brought to see the animals, that I had heard kinkajous make good pets. After hearing that, he approached the cute little critter — and it bit him.

One day production designer Pierluigi Basile and I heard that the animal section of Churubusco had a big tiger. We walked over to see the tiger, which was chained to a large tree. After a few minutes, I noticed something really scary. There was a helluva lot of zigzagging slack in that tiger’s chain — so much so that there was nothing to really keep the tiger from leaping and attacking us. I pointed this out to Piero.

“Piero…We need to slowly back away from the tiger. DO NOT turn your back to the tiger. That will automatically trigger an attack response.”

Watching the huge tiger watching us, we slowly backed up until we were out of range of the big cat.

I learned later that same tiger had attacked and killed a few careless workers over the past few months. Lawsuits? Naw…If the Churubusco tiger got you, it was your own damn fault.

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Untold Tales of Hollywood #72

Conan the Destroyer and Dune were both produced by Raffaella DeLaurentiis. Dune was being directed by David Lynch.

I secretly drew caricatures of both Raffy and David on napkins during lunch. Then, I cleaned them up a bit and colored them:

David Lynch and I share a lot of the same friends. All of these same friends had been telling me over and over for years, “You gotta meet David; you’re like two peas in the same pod. You’ve got so much in common.”

Since we were working for the same production company, I typically saw David each day in the commissary at lunchtime.

I approached David one day, mentioning our friends in common and how they thought we should get together.

David lit up.

“Let’s have some lunches together!”

We had our first lunch together the following day. I tried to connect with mutual interests.

“Do you like horror movies, David?”

“NO! I hate being scared”

Wha––? The guy who created that terrifying Dennis Hopper character in Blue Velvet hates being scared?!!!

I tried relating to David with all kinds of stuff. None of it connected. I wanted to talk about horror and fantasy; he wanted to talk about the joys of watering his nice lawn. When David began to extol the virtues of his cup of coffee, it eventually clicked that in David’s TV show Twin Peaks, Kyle MacLachlan was playing a dead-on impression of David throughout the series. I used to see Kyle each day at lunch (he was one of the main stars of Dune); I couldn’t have asked him about that, though, because Dune happened years before Twin Peaks. I later took a directing course given by Martha Coolidge (more about Martha later in this series). Kyle was there the day Martha talked about casting, playing some of the different kinds of actors I might run into at a casting session.

I also saw another Dune cast member at lunch: Sean Young. Attractive as she was, she kind of radiated “LOOK AT ME!” crazy, so I avoided her.

I got to explore a lot of the Dune sets. The handiwork and craftsmanship on Dune was astounding. The furniture had fine, intricate wooden inlays — stuff that would never show up on camera. It was better for our skilled Mexican crew to do the inlay work for real, as doing faux inlay work was harder and more time-consuming than doing it for real. Raffaella ended up with an incredible key chair from the film. I wish I had one!

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Untold Tales of Hollywood #71

Film #16: Dune (1983; released 1984)
Directed by David Lynch
Production Designed by Tony Masters

As we were under the same production company (Dino DeLaurentiis), Conan the Destroyer was sharing offices and crew members with David Lynch‘s  Dune. My office was just down the hall from Leslie Shatz‘ sound editing bay.

One afternoon Leslie came racing down the hall.

“Is there anybody here with a California accent?” he shouted.

“I’m from California, but I don’t think I have a California accent,” I replied.

“Come with me!”

We went to Leslie’s office. He gave me some lines to read. It was a bit of dialogue from a black robot who was working for the film’s bad guys.

I spoke the lines and Leslie recorded me.

“Great! Thanks!” he said. “You were perfect.”

“I thought you said you needed a California accent…”

“I did — and you have one.”

“What do you mean?”

“One of your lines was ‘That’s just the way we found him’.”

“Yessss…”

“You said ‘That’s just the way we found’im.’ You Californians slur your words together. David’s going to love it!”

He was referring to David Lynch, the director of Dune. Some of my tales of David Lynch next time….