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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….

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Untold Tales of Hollywood #70

I am going to wrap things up here in regards to Conan the Destroyer.

I wanted to include another of my hanging miniature designs, “The Valley of the Gods”, but I haven’t been able to find it. It’ll turn up. When it does, I’ll post it. It shows Conan and his crew riding through a field of gigantic stone sculptures of gods from another era.

Meanwhile, here are two more set designs. The first is Jehnna‘s bedroom. She has just awakened from a nightmare. This is Pierluigi Basile‘s set sketch, followed by my interpretation of his sketch:

This next set is interesting as it was originally a long, narrow set for Dune. I stripped out the Dune aspects of the set and used the still existing wood construction and turned it into a long Conan the Destroyer set. Sorry about the glare; I shot this one framed and through glass.

Finally, a bit of office humor. I love what the Brits call “taking the piss” (taking down a pompous poser). There are a lot of big egos on a film set. Many of those huge egos are undeserved. These folks are often usually trying to make themselves appear more important that they actually are. I hate that unnecessary crap, so I often do something about it.

In a humorous way, of course.

The sheet below was posted one day without explanation. It indicates that we would be punching in with time cards each day. The idiocy of this is the fact that we were picked up from our hotels by the production each morning and then returned to our apartments in the evening via the company’s transport vehicles — so there was no need for time cards.

After I posted this, I wrote a public congratulatory note to the production company, noting that time cards were a clear indication that we were going to be paid for overtime. I thanked them profusely for the opportunity to make more money.

The time cards and their notices all suddenly disappeared by the next day.

In relation to living in Mexico, I’ve got good stories and bad.

One morning I was picked up by a company car that was taking several of us to work. We arrived at the front of one hotel but the guy we were picking up was not ready. So, we waited, parked on the street next to the curb. Suddenly, from out of nowhere, dozens of armed police officers appeared. Several surrounded our vehicle. One cop stuck the nose of his AK47 against the head of our driver, a fellow we had all come to regard as a friend. My American sense of “What the hell are you doing — you can’t do that!” immediately took over my mindset as I rushed to prevent something bad happening to our driver. Piero and my friends grabbed me and restrained me.

“Bill! Cool it! You’re not in the US!”

The cop shouted at our driver to get out of the car. All had weapons leveled at him. The cops immediately whisked him away. We never found out what he was arrested for, nor did we ever see him again. My attempts to contact him were thwarted by the authorities, another reminder that, Bill — you’re not in the US. This all could have happened because he parked a little too long in front of the hotel.

For the most part, though, I loved living in Mexico. The Mexican people were some of the kindest, warmest, most generous folks I have ever met. That’s why I was shocked one day when out of the blue Piero proclaimed, “I hate the fucking Mexicans!”

“Piero! How can you say that? These are some of the nicest, most gentle and hard working people I have ever met.”

“Exactly. They are very sweet fucking sheep. Would you put up with the shit they face each day from their police and government? No. Neither would we Italians.”

I kinda got his point. Most Americans consider Mexico a Third World nation. It’s actually one of the richest countries in the world. Loads of oil and valuable minerals, vast agriculture — generally, an abundance of most things countries consider valuable. But that wealth is in the hands of just a few Mexican families. It has not been fairly distributed to the populace in general.

I met some fine police officers in Mexico City. In general, though, if you get into trouble, the Mexican police are the last people you want to turn to. Notoriously corrupt, by going to the police your bad problems could become seriously much worse.

Funny corrupt cop story:
I was driving through Mexico City one day and the traffic light turned red. I stopped of course, to wait for the green light to go. The light turned green and I began to proceed. I was immediately pulled over by a traffic cop.

“What’s the problem, officer?” I said in Spanish.

“You just ran a red light.”

“No, I didn’t. The light turned red and I stopped. I waited for the light to turn green. It did, and I proceeded.”

“You ran a red light.”

“No I didn’t.”

“Would you like me to take you to the police station?”

“No, I would not.”

I’m usually pretty smart, so I’m amazed it took me so long to figure out that the cop was fishing for a bribe.

“OK; what’s the fine for running a red light?”

“Four hundred thousand pesos.”

That’s about $20,000.

“That’s insane! I don’t have that kind of money.”

“OK. Two hundred thousand pesos.”

The negotiations had begun. We haggled and haggled, always with the threat of him taking me to where I did not want to go: the police station.

I finally said, “Look. All I’ve got in my pocket is 400 pesos (about $20). That’s it. Not a centavo more. You are welcome to it.”

The policeman finally agreed. I reached into my jeans pocket where I kept my cash — and out popped a 10,000 peso bill.

Busted!

I covered my eyes and reluctantly handed the cop the 10,000 peso bill. He cautioned me to stay put. Then, he dashed across the street to a store. He came back and handed me my change: 9600 pesos. Then he waved me off.

So, he was a corrupt cop — but an honest corrupt cop. We had ultimately negotiated a payment of 400 pesos. The policeman honored that negotiation.

I found Mexico to be a mix of the beautiful and the profane, the incredibly kind and terrifyingly dangerous. It’s got, IMHO, the finest and most varied cuisine in the world. My favorite restaurant on the planet is in Mexico City: the narrow five-story Fonda Del Refugio. I ate there at least three times per week, trying to eat my way through their entire vast menu (I failed).

If you would like a sample of what it’s like to live in Mexico, I highly recommend the 2004 Denzel Washington movie Man On Fire. It’s the terrifying, unvarnished truth. If you think I’m lying or exaggerating, believe me —- I’ve got true, firsthand stories of my travels in Mexico that are much worse.

And even more that are wonderful.

Just in case you think this is a “Rah Rah America!” piece, it’s not. Living in Mexico, I found the only truly obnoxious people I ran into in Mexico City were Americans. Case in point:

I had breakfast every morning at the Century Hotel. The hotel hosted an incredibly diverse breakfast buffet — one of the best breakfasts I’ve ever encountered in my world travels. Eating there everyday I got to know the staff.

One morning, as I was having breakfast with my wife, I heard a small commotion. A few tables away, two Americans, a man and his wife, were browbeating one of my favorite waitresses. She was in tears. I offered to help. The man angrily accused the waitress of cheating them.

“It says one price, all included, for the buffet! Two bucks! She added a tip to our bill. She’s a damn cheating Mexican!”

“She’s actually a very nice person and the best waitress here. Let me see your bill.”

The guy showed it to me. Indeed, there was a two-peso tip added to their bill.

“So, you’re telling me you made this poor girl cry and fear for her job over ten cents?! I’ll be happy to pay your fucking tip.”

I reached unto my change pocket and threw a dime down on the table.

“Where in the hell are you from?” I asked. I was pissed off.

“Texas…Why?”

“I just want to makes sure I avoid disgusting assholes like you when I get back to the States.”

“You live here? With Mexicans?!!”

“Better than living anywhere near the likes of you, my friend.”

My oldest son was a baby at the time. When he fell asleep, we’d put him in a basket and carry him down the street to Fonda Del Refugio. Within the restaurant, we received angry glares from every American in the restaurant because we had brought a baby with us. The Mexican people there, however, lit up with big smiles upon seeing our sleeping infant.

They would gather round the basket and warmly whisper, “Gordito…” (little fat guy, a term of endearment. In Mexico a fat baby is a healthy baby) and then grin at us with approval.

My wife was grocery shopping one day. Our son was in a stroller. She got in line to pay for her purchases, then realized she hadn’t brought enough cash. She picked up the carton of milk in her basket and tried to return it to its shelf. The owner of the store stopped her. He took the milk and put it back in her basket — free of charge. He was very upset and near tears at the thought of our baby not getting the milk he needed.

“Your baby — he needs milk! Please — take it!”

Now that’s a typical Mexican.

My wife took the milk and groceries back to our apartment, then dashed back to the grocery store with payment for the milk, of course.

Next: David Lynch and Dune

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Untold Tales of Hollywood #69

Pierluigi Basile and I were deeply involved in creating the set in which Jehnna (Olivia D’Abo) enters a circular crypt. I was intrigued by Olivia for a couple of reasons. She was incredibly attractive, especially the first time she showed up at the commissary for lunch in her quite revealing diaphanous Jehhna costume. In addition, she was the daughter of one of my favorite singer-songwriters, Michael D’Abo. Mike wrote “Handbags and Gladrags”, as well as the Foundations hit “Build Me Up Buttercup.” He replaced Paul Jones, the lead singer of Manfred Mann, after Paul left the band. The very poppy D’Abo iteration of Manfred Mann had loads of UK and European hits. Their big #1 American hit (sung by D’Abo) was their interpretation of Bob Dylan’s “Quinn the Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn)”, which Dylan loved.

Piero changed the look of the Iron Dragon, making it more rounded and dome-like, giving it a kind of salamander look.

In the story, Jehnna enters a sacred chamber by walking through the Iron Dragon’s mouth. Here’s Piero’s sketch of that interior:

As you can see, it was originally planned to have Jehnna enter the sacred chamber totally nude. That idea didn’t fly with a PG-rated movie. Nevertheless, here’s my interpretation:

I love this circular set. The idea for this set is that it is a sacred chamber, honoring the great warriors of the past. Each of the warriors’ mummified heads are kept in individual nooks. Below their head is a symbolic stylized bronze bas-relief sculpture that represents who they were in life. Below that, at the base, is a collection of weapons and other items that were precious and meaningful to the warriors.

Piero had me design a load of bas relief tiles for this set (I don’t recall if they were used on the inside of the dragon set or on the outside). I made a HUGE mistake and made every tile different:

It was really stupid of me to make them all different. They were only on screen for a second. There’s no way a viewer could tell if they were all different or not. In retrospect, I should have designed about a dozen or so, and then rotated them to create the illusion of them all being different. I wasted my time and the production’s time making each tile unique, excusing myself and convincing myself that I was creating Art to stand the test of time. Bullshit, Bill — you’re making a quick Conan movie. Get it done, don’t waste time and move on. It’s called the “Film Business“, sucker — not the “Art of Film.”

Here’s the thing about the film biz: You’re tested a lot to see how clever or smart you are. In all of the many job interviews I’ve had in The Biz (and there have been a lot), I have never been told what job I was up for. That used to blow my mind; now I accept it. On the job, you often aren’t given detailed instructions. They want to see if you’re a self-starter and can get stuff accomplished without having to ask a bunch of questions. That’s one reason why my rotting mammoth set piece was so well received. I didn’t ask anyone’s permission to come up with that design; I just thought it up and did it.

Piero could have told me the solution to the tiles design dilemma. But he wanted to see if I would come up with that solution on my own. I failed that test Big Time.

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Untold Tales of Hollywood #68

This is an interior Conan the Destroyer set I designed where Conan (Arnold Schwarzenegger) battles with Bombatta (Wilt Chamberlain). Production designer Pierluigi Basile did a rough sketch, loosely indicating what he wanted. Following that sketch is my interpretation.

This is how it looked in the movie:

All of that beautiful marble? It’s all painted plywood. The Mexican crew members were so skillful at faux marble that you had get mere inches away from it to see that it wasn’t real marble.

This was another set design, Queen Taramis‘ bed chamber, a sexy scene with Arnold and Sarah Douglas. Here’s Pierluigi Basile’s sketch, followed by my interpretation of his drawing.

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Untold Tales of Hollywood #67

This is about a beautiful set that got cut from the film. It began with a thumbnail sketch by Conan the Destroyer production designer Pierluigi Basile. At the bequest of the Dino DeLaurentiis family, Piero was grooming me to become a production designer.

We planned this as a hanging miniature effect.

Here’s my take on Piero’s sketch:

This low-domed structure in the middle of the jungle would have been a miniature built by Emilio Ruiz del Río. Out of sight, blocked from view by the miniature, would be a guy with a huge cage full of birds. As Conan approaches the building, a signal would be given to release the birds. With perhaps the inclusion of a few animated birds, it would appear on film that the birds were fleeing the structure on the approach of Conan.

This is another collaboration between Piero and me. Piero penciled the piece; I inked and colored it.

This is another creature I designed for Conan the Destroyer.

It’s been so long since I worked on the film (or have even seen it) that I forget whether or not the creature made it into the movie.

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Untold Tales of Hollywood #66

The first set design I did for Conan the Destroyer was for a side entrance to the Castle of Thoth Amon:

I was also called upon to design the transformation of Thoth Amon to become the flying creature that abducts Jehhna. Here is Pierluigi Basile‘s sketch:

The works that follow are my interpretations of Piero’s drawing. They are mostly meant as a design for the creature as well as a guide to the team that would be animating the flying creature.

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Untold Tales of Hollywood #65

I love Old School special effects. I hate the term, “We’ll fix it in post,” meaning that we didn’t get the shot we needed in the can, so we’ll have to fix it later in post-production.

A favorite Old School special effect of mine is the Hanging Miniature. That’s when you hang something in front of the camera so that it looks like it’s part of the scene.

We needed a shot of the City of Shadizar on top of a mountain ridge. We found the right-looking mountain –– but it was the wrong size. If we built the City of Shadizar on top of the mountain we had found, the towers of the city would have been several miles high….which would be impossibly ridiculous and a real budget buster.

So, I took a picture of the mountain and then drew and painted the city of Shadizar on top of the mountain, the way we wanted it to look:

Our great model maker, Emilio Ruiz del Río, took my drawing and used it to sculpt Shadizar. It was mounted on an extended arm so that the actors could cross under the arm and not break the illusion we were after.

This is Emilio’s model before he added the rocks that would match the actual mountain and then removed the wooden supports.

Emilio did a fantastic job of blending his rocks with those of the real mountain.
Here is how it looked on screen, with the actors in place:

Amazing!
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Untold Tales of Hollwood #64

Let’s get back to the Conan the Destroyer set designs.

There was a line in the script that read something like, “Conan and his merry band of adventurers cross the desert.”

That inspired me to think, “What if we saw Conan and crew as small silhouettes off in the distance with the rotting carcass of a mammoth in the deep foreground, letting the audience know that we were in The Hyborian Age and to expect the unexpected.

This painted drawing was the result:

Production designer Pierluigi Basile showed director Richard Fleischer my rotting mammoth picture. Richard got very excited and dashed out of the art department. He promptly returned with our great director of photography, Jack Cardiff, in tow and showed him my picture.

I admired Jack Cardiff enormously. He had shot many of my favorite films, including A Matter of Life and Death, The Red Shoes and African Queen. His magnificent work on Black Narcissus earned Jack a well-deserved Oscar. Cardiff and Fleischer first worked together on The Vikings.

Jack turned to me with a twinkle in his eye, pointed to my picture and told me, “I’m going to make it look exactly like that.”

Sure enough, everyone pitched in to get this shot in the film. The crew even got live vultures for the shot, just like in my drawing. The vulture’s wings were clipped so that they couldn’t fly away.

Unfortunately, the crew did not realize that in addition to being good fliers, vultures are really good runners. As soon as the vultures were placed on the rotting mammoth carcass sculpture and the crew stepped back to get the shot, the vultures all jumped off the carcass and took off across the Sonoran desert.

After the vultures had left…

For the next two hours our crew was chasing vultures all over the Sonoran desert.

They finally captured and wrangled the last vulture. This time, the vultures all had their claws tied to the mammoth carcass with small leather straps…

…and we got our shot.