I quickly grew to love storyboarding. It was like making movies on paper.
Untold Tales of Hollywood #102
I intentionally channeled the clean, well-designed storytelling skills of Alex Toth in my boards for The Hitcher.
The Hitcher was a box office success. Robert Harmon called me to board his next feature, Eyes of an Angel. I passed. It was a dark, nasty script with a dog fighting background. I’m really glad I didn’t take that gig. The dog fighting subject matter was incredibly distasteful. I heard later that the set on that film had the ugliest of vibes. I was told there were fights on set, as many of the crew tapped into and were affected by the set’s and story’s mean atmosphere. The film was released direct to video, making The Hitcher Robert Harmon’s first and only theatrically released feature film.
I recalled the sage advice of director George Pan Cosmatos when he told me, “Getting your first film to direct is easy — it’s the second one that’s hard. With your first film, you could be the next Steven Spielberg. After you’ve made it, there is now visual proof that you either are or are not the next Spielberg. If you did well, your second film comes relatively easily. If you did not, you probably will never get another chance to direct.”
See You at POWER-CON!
Tomorrow (Saturday, September 11) and Sunday I’ll be guesting at Power-Con, the convention devoted to Masters of the Universe. Come by my booth!
It’s at the Anaheim Hilton. I’ll have MOTU original art on display and will be selling my German Masters of the Universe book with a translation of my long MOTU interview.
Cos-Play expert Rebekah Cox will be appearing dressed as She-Ra — wearing MY She-Ra costume design. Sadly, She-Ra was cut from the film.
I hope to see you there!
Untold Tales of Hollywood #101
Here are more of my storyboards for The Hitcher:
The similarity between my storytelling style and Robert Harmon’s caused a bit of embarrassment.
There are a lot of folks in France who are fans of my film work. The French pop culture magazine StarFix ran an article on The Hitcher. They printed some of my storyboards next to shots from the film and (wrongly) concluded that I had secretly directed The Hitcher!
Understandably, director Robert Harmon was not real happy about this.
Dennis Gassner quickly became a top production designer. He received Academy Award nominations for his work on Barton Fink, Road to Perdition, The Golden Compass, Into the Woods, Bladerunner 2049 and 1917. He won for Bugsy.
Dragon Con 2021
I have been selected by Dragon Con as their Artist Guest of Honor for this year. I’ll be doing lots of panels and sharing a multitude of fascinating stories, many about the 75 film projects in which I have been involved. I had more than twenty pieces of original art shipped to the show, including a new Dragon Con poster and a new poster for Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I hope to see as many of my friends and fans as possible — and safely. Instead of my usual location at AmericasMart, I’ll be set up in the Art Show room. Please follow my lead and take all necessary precautions. I take COVID very seriously. Do not approach me if you have not been double vaxxed. Even though I’ve been double-vaxxed, my grandchildren aren’t. I do not want to bring this terrible disease back to them, nor do I want this to be my last Dragon Con.
Let’s make this a Dragon Con to remember for all the right reasons!
Untold Tales of Hollywood #100
Dennis Gassner was The Hitcher‘s production designer. I don’t think I’ve ever met a production designer with so much class and taste. He had hired a smart, terrific and incredibly dedicated and talented crew, a few of which (myself included) who had worked as production designers on some of their previous films. The crew contained much more than enough knowledge to make this film.
The members of the art department that Dennis had assembled all had fast, sharp, wicked senses of humor. That skill atrophies without use; I was glad to be constantly upping my game in that arena with them around.
In addition to storyboarding the movie, Dennis asked me to design the County Sheriff’s station exterior and interior.
Untold Tales of Hollywood #99
The boards above conclude scenes 7 and 8.
Untold Tales of Hollywood #98
Film #20: The Hitcher(1985)
Directed by Robert Harmon
Production Designed by Dennis Gassner
The experience of making The Return of the Living Dead was so brutal, that I quit the Film Biz for nine months after making that film.
Then I was sent the script for The Hitcher. It was a terrific screenplay by a young new writer, Eric Red.
As I recall, Eric was hitchhiking from the Midwest to Hollywood to break into the Film Biz when he got stuck in the middle of nowhere with only enough money to make one last phone call. He used his very last quarter to make a call to set up a meeting in regards to his screenplay for The Hitcher.
Eric miss-dialed and called the wrong number with that last quarter.
The number he accidentally called was that of an agent — Dan O’Bannon‘s agent. The agent listened to Eric’s pitch over the phone and immediately wired him the money to complete his trip to Hollywood. Red’s screenplay was sold immediately and his career in film suddenly skyrocketed. What are the odds?
Robert Harmon was signed to direct The Hitcher. When I got hired, Robert was out of town on a location scout.
“Since Robert’s not here, what would you like me to board?”
“Start with Page One, Scene One and go.”
Which is what I did. I began to fill the walls with my storyboards for The Hitcher. Members of the film’s crew would occasionally pop in to see what I was doing. From every single one of them I got the same bizarre response. Each person gasped looking at my boards and said something to the effect of “Holy cow…” or “Oh my God…” Then they would leave the room. I was mystified as to their response. It felt really weird.
The line producer came to see me.
“We want to show you Robert’s first film as a director. It’s a short called China Lake. We’ve set up a screening for you at 6:30 PM over at Technicolor.”
I drove over to Technicolor. I had the screening room all to myself. I told the projectionist he could roll film.
China Lake began to unspool.
I was shocked. China Lake looked like a film I had directed but had forgotten I’d directed it. Robert Harmon’s visual storytelling and screen composition styles were exactly the same as mine. Now I knew why I was getting such weird reactions from The Hitcher team.
Robert Harmon got back from his location scout a couple of weeks later. He came in, briefly glanced at the boards, and proclaimed, “Yup. That’s exactly how I’m going to shoot it.”
I pictured the hitchhiking monster as a skeletal, vulture-like character and drew him that way. I thought Harry Dean Stanton would have been perfectly cast as this devil-like hitchhiker. Here’s how I boarded the film’s opening:
Untold Tales of Hollywood #97
Film #19: Spawn of the Dead (1985)
Screenplay by William Stout
It seemed like every crew member on The Return of the Living Dead had written a sequel to Dan O’Bannon‘s directorial debut, myself included. I won’t recount the plot or show the zombie designs I did for my story, however, as I still would really like to make this film! I don’t want my original elements lifted and used in another film before I get a chance to use them.
I followed the same rules that made The Return of the Living Dead so special, beginning with what Dan O’Bannon called “Principle Corpses”. Each zombie design was unique, interesting and colorful; no George Romero-style zombies.
Toward the end of the making of The Return of the Living Dead there was an attempted coup. Thinking I was on board with the coup, I was told that the film was going to be taken away from Dan O’Bannon.
“He’s gone over budget. We can get him on that.”
I was deeply offended by this attempt to wrest away the movie from its creator. I immediately went to Dan and reported what was going on behind his back.
“Thank you, Bill. I knew you were on my side.”
Ron Cobb told me that Dan tended to see things in black and white terms.
“You’re either Dan’s good friend or his great enemy. There are no shades of gray in Dan’s world.”
The morning of the coup attempt Dan came in prepared.
“Before we begin,” Dan stated, “My accountant is here. I am writing a check for $100,000 to cover our film’s budgetary overruns.”
The opposing side had suddenly lost their key pawn in this power struggle. Their opposition melted away; they had nothing to stand on. Dan was still the movie’s director and we proceeded to finish the film.
Producer Tom Fox (1935–2004) asked me to be the production designer for a TROTLD sequel. I read the script he gave me. I was appalled. Two thirds of it were a direct rip-off of Dan’s screenplay. Tom mistakenly thought that the success of TROTLD was due solely to its “Living Dead” title. He didn’t realize that it was the originality of Dan’s script and story that made TROTLD so special.
I told Fox in no uncertain terms that not only I would not be designing the film but that I would sue him if he used the zombies I owned and created from the first film, particularly the Tar-Man.
I confronted the writer in regards to his plagiarism. His reply was total bullshit.
“Dan’s film is so great, yet I feel not enough people got to see The Return of the Living Dead, so I kept as many elements from the first film as possible in the script so that the public would come to realize what a genius Dan is.”
So, you’re celebrating the originality of Dan and his works by stealing from him?
A few sequels to The Return of the Living Dead were made. I haven’t seen any of them. Our little ($1.5 million) original film has turned into a gigantic cult film. Whenever a screening is announced in Los Angeles, it sells out within minutes. The cast and I were guests at various horror conventions, traveling together to a couple of dozen shows over the course of a year or so. We discovered that for some people, The Return of the Living Dead was their all-time favorite film.
Initially, there was only one promotional appearance for The Return of the Living Dead. Dan and I were guests at RiverCon in Louisville, Kentucky. It made a kind of crazy sense, as our film was set in Kentucky. The smoke, fires and explosions at the end of the film was actual Louisville news footage from a chemical disaster the city had suffered years previously.
On the way back to Los Angeles I got to meet Dan’s parents (on our stopover at the St. Louis airport, as I recall). Another piece of the puzzle that is Dan O’Bannon was revealed to me by Dan just before I met his mom and dad. When Dan was growing up, he told me his parents ran a roadside attraction that contained fake freaks.
Some of the folks we met at RiverCon went on to create WonderFest, one of my all-time favorite conventions, a Louisville show I attend every year. Each year I’m in Louisville, I usually get approached by a local TROTLD fan who whispers to me that he knows where where we shot every scene in Louisville. I don’t have the heart to tell him that we never left the L. A. area during the making of our movie and that most of the film was shot inside a Burbank, California warehouse.
One year WonderFest celebrated an anniversary of The Return of the Living Dead. Among the invited guests were Linnea Quigley, James Karen and myself. Just before I got up on stage for a TROTLD panel I was approached by the moderator, my great ol’ pal and talented artist-writer Frank Dietz.
“Bill,” he confided, “We’re going to pull a trick on Linnea. Jimmy is going to pretend that you shot the entire film in Louisville. Are you in?”
“I am definitely in.”
I took my place at the onstage panel table. We began discussing the making of the film.
At one point, James Karen said, “You know, I think for me, the best experience I had was shooting the film here in Louisville.”
Linnea looked confused and stunned.
I joined in.
“Yes; the folks here were so friendly and helpful during the making of our film.”
Linnea looked as if she had just entered The Twilight Zone. Jimmy expanded upon our lie.
“I think my favorite person here was the mayor.”
“Yes,” I added, “He was a great guy. He helped us so much.”
Jimmy took our fib into the stratosphere.
“He was truly remarkable. He had a hollow wooden leg which he filled with the finest Kentucky bourbon. He’d ask you if you wanted a shot. If you said ‘Yes’, he would do a handstand and let you fill your glass from the spigot in his wooden leg.”
“He was so generous,” I added.
“And incredibly kind,” Linnea chimed in. She was now convinced that we had made the film in Louisville, that she had met the mayor and had tasted the bourbon from his hollow leg. She began to innocently add her own false memories to the conversation.
We eventually let her in on the fact that we were joking.
“Oh my God,” she said. “I thought I was losing my mind.”
Untold Tales of Hollywood #96
I’d like to make this final post on The Return of the Living Dead about its creator, writer-director Dan O’Bannon.
If you’re a long time follower of my blog/journal, then you’ll recognize the rest of this post, as it was written in 2009 as a revealing tribute to Dan that I wrote after he had passed. I think these tales of this extraordinarily talented guy bear repeating.
O’Bannon Tale #1: Dan was fastidious in regards to climate control. He constantly was messing with (and breaking) the thermostats in the Burbank warehouse where we were shooting the interiors for The Return of the Living Dead.
His climate concerns were not limited to the set. They carried over into his home life, too.
One day he got into a conversation with the fellow who was regularly fixing his air conditioning. He quickly discovered that the repair guy was my Uncle Buddy (small world, ain’t it?). My uncle always has done excellent work; he knows his stuff when it comes to heating and cooling systems (he’s retired now). So, whenever anything went on the fritz in the O’Bannon household, which was often due to Dan’s own attempts to “fix” things, he called the air conditioning company, always demanding that “Billy’s uncle” (Dan couldn’t remember my uncle’s name) be sent out (my Uncle Buddy still calls me “Billy”; he’s known me since I was a baby). My uncle loved working at Dan’s home and he loved Dan and his eccentricities.
O’Bannon Tale #2: I’ve mentioned previously that Dan’s tales often emanated from his own intense neuroses. O’Bannon was probably the most paranoid guy I ever met. He tapped that paranoia as a writer, creating classic scripts for Alien and Blue Thunder.
While making The Return of the Living Dead, I was in the process of buying a house with the Conan the Destroyer money I had squirreled away while living on my per diem down in Mexico City during the making of the film. Dan had just been through the process of buying a house.
Now, Dan was a researcher. He loved to research everything. Buying a home was no exception. On our hair-raising drives (when Dan was driving we ALWAYS missed our freeway exits) together to location scouts and our sets, Dan gave me the benefit of all of the house research he had just done.
Dan had determined that the absolute best house to own was a Spanish adobe-style home. He told me, though, that Spanish adobes had one crucial drawback.
“The walls aren’t machine gun proof.”
So, at enormous expense, after purchasing his very expensive Santa Monica Spanish adobe abode, he had the house’s walls taken out and had steel plates inserted inside of them before replacing them. Now they were machine gun proof! Problem solved!
O’Bannon Tale #3: Like I do, Dan O’Bannon loved comics. Before he died, I had enthusiastically agreed to drawing a whole series of comics with him. We were both very excited at the thought of collaborating again. I had read so much of Dan’s work and knew him so well that I was convinced we were going to produce some great things together and make history in the world of comic art.
You may or may not know this, but Dan O’Bannon wrote what was to become one of the most influential comic book stories ever published. No, it didn’t do a lot to influence other comics. But it changed motion pictures forever.
The story is called “The Long Tomorrow.” It was illustrated by Dan’s friend Jean Giraud — better known to comics fans as “Moebius.” I believe it originally appeared in the French comics magazine Metal Hurlant and was reprinted here in the States in Heavy Metal.
Hunt it down. The entire look, ambiance and feel of the story was used by Ridley Scott as the visual template for Bladerunner. Scott even duplicated some of the panels as shots in his magnificent film.
That was not the first time that Dan had changed film making forever.
In the mid-1970s Dan was hired by George Lucas to design the onscreen computer graphics in Star Wars. Not long after that, Dan was hired by Alejandro Jodorowsky to work as the Special Effects Supervisor on Jodorowsky’s filming of Frank Herbert’s Dune. The phenomenal cast that was slated for this epic sci-fi adventure included Orson Welles and Salvador Dali. Together, Jodorowsky and O’Bannon assembled an amazing art department that boasted Moebius, Ron Cobb, Chris Foss and H. R. Giger.
I have to halt this story for a moment to emphasize the historical importance of what Dan and George Lucas have done for the art of cinema, art direction-wise.
History lesson: The first production designers were originally called “art directors.” The two most important art directors (IMHO), William Cameron Menzies and Anton Grot (I borrowed heavily from Grot for my production design of Masters of the Universe), came from an illustration background (they have been reported to have been children’s book illustrators but I have yet to find a single copy of any book they illustrated. Their work does look like early 20th century children’s book illustration, however). Menzies began in the silent era with Douglas Fairbanks‘ Thief of Bagdad; Grot designed the Errol Flynn swashbucklers.
Later in his career, William Cameron Menzies not only designed Gone With the Wind, he storyboarded the entire film in full color. On top of that, he directed a third of the film, including the famous “burning of Atlanta” sequence.
This presented GWTW‘s producer, David O. Selznick, with a problem. The film’s other director, Victor Fleming, did not want to share directing credit for the movie.
Selznick came up with a solution.
He approached Menzies, explained the problem, and then presented Menzies with his solution. Although Menzies would not get a director’s credit, Menzies would receive the on-screen credit “Production Designed by William Cameron Menzies.” That was the first time the title “production designer” was ever used. It quickly caught on and soon there were both production designers and art directors on movies.
Here’s the basic difference now between the two (and this varies from picture to picture): The production designer is responsible for everything you see on the screen except for the performances of the actors. That’s sets, costumes, make-up, special effects, props, etc. The art director usually is in charge of the Art Department’s budgeting and scheduling, with hands-on involvement in regards to the entire Art Department.
Decades later, the backgrounds of Production designers and art directors had changed. No longer were they from an illustration background. Instead, nearly all of them came from the world of architecture. In the studio system, set designers slowly worked their way up the ranks to become art directors. If they were lucky (and careful politically), some eventually became production designers after a few decades.
George Lucas changed all of that by hiring illustrator Ralph MacQuarrie to design Star Wars, along with a team of other talented artists (although Ralph didn’t receive the production designer credit; neither Moebius nor Syd Meade received the production design credit they deserved for Bladerunner).
Jodorowsky and O’Bannon shared the same vision, using comic book artists and illustrators to design Dune.
Unfortunately, the financing for Dune fell through and the project was suddenly dead. At that same moment in time, though, O’Bannon’s (and Ronald Shusett’s) script for Alien was greenlit. Ridley Scott brought Dan to London to work on the film. Dan mentioned the aborted Dune project and the great art department that had been assembled. Dan suggested that Ridley consider hiring the Dune Art Department to design Alien. Scott looked at their work and agreed.
The success of Star Wars and Alien briefly opened the doors for guys like me to enter the film business. I didn’t have to become an architect and slog away for decades in the hopes of becoming a production designer. In 1979 Ron Cobb (a production designer after five years in the business, beginning with Dan on Dark Star) hired me to work on Conan the Barbarian. That led to other films, and within three years (and with the mentoring and guidance of Ron Cobb and Pierluigi Basile) I became the production designer on an American Godzilla film (sadly unfilmed) and then The Return of the Living Dead.
The door pretty much slammed back shut not too long after that, although there have been a few exceptions (my friend Tim Bradstreet, known for his Punisher covers, just designed a film).
Dan O’Bannon had that vision, though. He knew that visual excellence in one medium could transfer and translate well to another medium. Bless him.
Dan and I attended the cast and crew premiere of Lifeforce, a film that Dan had written (with Don Jakoby) that Tobe Hooper had directed. I much preferred the film’s less pretentious and more honestly descriptive working title, Space Vampires (its title in the UK). In many ways, Lifeforce was a space program/sci-fi version of The Return of the Living Dead. I highly recommend Lifeforce, if only for the abundant nudity of the exquisite Mathilda May.
I was working with Tobe on the remake of Invaders From Mars (that Dan had written with Don Jakoby) at the time. Early on, Dan would visit me in the Invaders art department and suggest things to include in the film. I could tell that Dan was creatively frustrated and eager to direct again.
If you haven’t seen Dead & Buried, a 1981 film Dan wrote with Ron Shusett, definitely track that baby down. It’s got one of the best openings in horror cinema. The rest of the film plays out like a classic Twilight Zone.
Dan told me he wrote Blue Thunder in response to the police helicopters that would hover over his abode at night. They drove him nuts. He used to stand on his rooftop and angrily flip off the cops above him as they shined their Night Sun down on him.
Total Recall was a Philip K. Dick adaptation (from We Can Remember it For You Wholesale) by Dan and Ron Shusett (it was later stated that Ron wrote the picture by himself and that Dan loaned his name to the writing credit to make it easier for Total Recall to get funding. I don’t know if that’s true or not). Originally, the lead character was a meek little Walter Mitty kind of guy (which makes much more sense, dramatically, than the film’s final incarnation if you think about it). When Arnold Schwarzenegger signed on for the lead (which turned Total Recall into a hot “go” project) nearly everything had to change, script-wise, obviously.
Let me end with a bit about my experience with Dan in recording the commentary for MGM‘s The Return of the Living Dead DVD:
Dan and I met at the recording facility. He was anxious. Dan was carrying what looked like a large briefcase. I got distracted by one of the producers. When I turned back to Dan, he had vanished.
Getting close to our taping time, I decided to use the restroom. I found Dan inside. His case was on the sink, opened. It was a thoroughly stocked professional makeup kit.
“I just can’t trust anyone to make me look good, so I always do my own makeup for camera.”
I watched as he skillfully applied various substances to his neck and face.
“You know,” he confided, “I’ve never done this before, this commentary thing.”
“Don’t worry, Dan,” I replied. “I have. I’ve done this live at conventions. They’d begin our film and hand me a microphone. I did live commentary throughout the entire movie. It’s not so hard and the fans love hearing all of that behind-the-scenes stuff.”
“But I’m worried I’ll just clam up, that I won’t be able to think of anything to say.”
“You’ll think of things.”
Dan seemed truly worried.
“You’ll cover for me if that happens, won’t you? I’ll be depending upon you. Really.”
“Sure. Not a problem, Dan.”
We entered the sound stage. Each of us were miked and our volume levels were set. They projected our film on to a huge screen. All we had to do was begin talking about whatever came into our mind about the making of the film, triggered by the images we were seeing.
Dan had no need to worry. From the very first frame of the movie, Dan was off and running; I could barely get a word in edgewise. He was stepping all over my favorite TROTLD stories but I figured Hey! — this is Dan’s movie, it’s his moment to shine. So, I pretty much just filled in the few gaps where Dan took a break to breathe or when he actually paused for some reason or another.
That same day we shot the DVD’s Designing the Dead documentary (a short doc on my production designing of the movie), so I ended up getting my own proper face and voice time anyway. We both had a lot of fun that day.
And that DVD of our little film became MGM’s biggest selling DVD of the year!
Bless you, Dan. I’ll always think of you with amazement, awe and a smile. I am very, very lucky to have known you and to have counted you as one of my friends. Sleep well, my brother, at last.