Stout’s annotations are in italics.
We resume talking about the attempts to make A Princess of Mars as a movie. This was not part of the printed interview in The Comics Journal.
ARCUDI: A lot of the stuff you’re talking about, like, “Why does he have to be from Virginia?” — not to let anybody off the hook — is inherent in adapting material from one medium to another.
STOUT: I understand that completely. I am not so naive as to think that a straight adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs‘ novel would be effective or successful. It wouldn’t. Burroughs did not write screenplays. His novels are not structured the way that films are structured. If you adapted A Princess of Mars exactly the way it was written, the audience would be way ahead of you from the start and drop you shortly thereafter. You have to make changes. But the changes I am suggesting are changes in the structure, not in the inherent qualities in the material that got you excited about doing the project in the first place.
I know; I’ve adapted Robert E. Howard‘s work for the screen — I wrote a Conan screenplay, Conan the Buccaneer, based upon his years as a pirate, when he became known as Amra the Lion.
Adapting Howard was one of the hardest writing challenges I’ve ever had. His stuff reads great as short stories and novels, but as soon as you put his writing into the structure of a screenplay…well, the audience would be so far ahead of you. There is almost no formal dramatic structure in Howard’s works. Instead, you’re sucked in by his exotic descriptions and his action passages. When you start breaking his stories down into the bare bones of plot, you realize there isn’t much of one there. So, you have to take those elements that got you excited about doing the project in the first place and weave them through your own dramatic structure, using a fresh structure to set off Howard’s tableaus and key visual elements. You can’t directly adapt literary source material 99% of the time. But in adapting you don’t want to take the essence of what made this project special and just toss it out from the get-go, as was planned by the first A Princess of Mars producers.
ARCUDI: So, you’re not anti-adaptation, per se.
STOUT: No. Not at all. And, before I forget, in regards to John Carter of Mars — it’s already been made into a movie; a really successful one. So, we need to ask ourselves, do we need to make another? That film’s title is Return of the Jedi. Princess Leia is dressed as Dejah Thoris throughout the film; you’ve got Martian flyers as ERB described them; the main characters sword fight throughout the movie. If you look at it, Return of the Jedi is essentially a John Carter movie. So, if you make a John Carter movie, your audience, who are mostly unaware of the Burroughs books, is going to think you’re ripping off a Star Wars film.
ARCUDI: Of course, that’s usually why people make a movie anyway. They remake a movie that was already successful even if they don’t call it the same thing. So that’s not an argument that wins you any points in Hollywood.
STOUT: Except that they were really going for an “A” picture; they had McTiernan. I can see your point if they had hired some hack to direct. Some other directors, if they’d been hired, I’d say, “Yeah. They were just making a buck.” But this really wanted to be a special “A” project.
ARCUDI: What finally happened?
STOUT: John McTiernan had a pay-or-play deal. For our readers who may be unaware of the meaning of that particular bit of show biz lingo, allow me to explain: You have it in your contract that if the project is not a “Go” project by a certain date, you get paid regardless and then you’re free to leave. They did not have the money in place to go into production by the time John’s pay-or-play time period expired, so he took the money and went on to another film project. That was the end of Princess.
ARCUDI: I’m in the wrong business. So, you still have big problems with the film biz.
STOUT: When I first got into the film business it was a really exciting time to be in that world. Working on Conan the Barbarian with Ron Cobb; Raiders of the Lost Ark with Steven Spielberg; The Return of the Living Dead with Dan O’Bannon; Invaders From Mars and Masters of the Universe with Cannon Films; Roger Corman producing a film of my first screenplay (The Warrior and the Sorceress) — I’m a very lucky guy.
Most of the films I worked on early in my career were shot out of the country. There I was in my wild youth, traveling around the world on somebody else’s dime, experiencing all of these different cultures; living in Spain, Yugoslavia, Rome, Mexico and Canada. I was working hard, romancing beautiful actresses, having a really great time with this tremendous family of filmmakers. I didn’t realize it at the time, but there was a very special quality to the people that the Dino DeLaurentiis family would put together to make their movies (Okay; there was fucking Carlo Rimbaldi, too — there’s always going to be at least one fly in the ointment). I became very close to those people.
That began to change dramatically in the 1990s. Most of the really nice people I knew in the business got out of the business. Because the expense of making movies had risen dramatically, fewer films were being made. Because of the greater costs involved in producing each film, more hung in the balance for the studios for each film. The studios also got extremely greedy. A healthy profit was no longer enough; the profits on each film had to be obscene or the film was considered a failure. In a climate like that, studios tend to play it safe. They do less adventurous projects. They make lots of sequels. They give the creators much less freedom. Most of the nice people got out of the business and the sharks and the really reptilian people took over — with apologies to my friends, the snakes and lizards.
ARCUDI: You don’t want them running the country. (Now there’s a prescient comment, John!)
STOUT: Too late for that. Each film project started to be less and less fun as a job. In fact, the last several films that I did the people I was working with kept asking me the same question: “Bill, you’re a really nice guy. What are you doing in the movie business?” You hear that enough times and you start to think, “Maybe there’s something to what they’re saying.” I started doing less production design and more of what I call emergency design surgery — design E. R., or design paramedic services. If you need a creature or something special designed or if you have a particularly hard design problem in your motion picture, come to me and I’ll work on it for a couple of days or weeks and solve it. In. Out. That usually works out pretty well for everybody. I get a taste of the business again, enough to make me realize why I don’t want to be in it permanently, and I get another credit on my resume. It’s a nice hit-and-run and I don’t have to deal with the politics.
ARCUDI: There’s kind of a big question actually that I’m sure will open up a bunch of other avenues, but working extensively in the industry as you were before you struck what’s analogous to a “script doctor” type relationship, did you feel that, artistically, film design stunted your growth?
STOUT: Oh, absolutely. Working in the film business is weird. You’ll never work harder in your life than working on a film. If you’re not working seven days a week, twelve to eighteen hours a day, you’re not doing your job — and there’s somebody very ready to take your place. On the other hand, it can make you really lazy as a writer or an artist.
When I write screenplays, I don’t have to use the precise language that I would use if I was writing prose. That’s not important to what you want to convey in the screenplay. It’s the opposite, in fact. You want as little variation as possible in your descriptions of recurring characters, things and events so as not to confuse the reader (and, eventually, your audience), to let him or her know that you haven’t just created something or someone new but, instead, you’re returning to something previously mentioned in the script. So, writing screenplays over a period of time can make you lazy with your choice of words.
As a designer, you are only asked for finished work in the very first stages of the film. That early finished work is mostly to set a visual direction for the production and to inspire your investors. The closer you get to production (the shooting of the film), the faster you have to turn out the art, the less finished your work gets until, finally, using Conan the Destroyer as an example, I was scribbling designs on the backs of envelopes and then handing them to the model maker so he could run back to his shop and start building it for a shot later that week!
You’re not really producing what anyone would call “art”. You’re creating designs in service of the final art, which is the motion picture itself.
It makes you sloppy as an artist. If you’re not careful and stop using your finishing skills and disciplines that you have honed over the years, you can lose them. If I had stayed strictly with production design I would have lost my ability to do the fine brush inking that I do or the detail work that I can achieve in oil paint. It’s “Use it or lose it”. I spend about a year or two on most of my films. That’s a lot of time away not only from my family but from my easel perfecting my oil painting skills. That’s time away from my drawing board perfecting my drawing and inking abilities. Things don’t have to be drawn perfectly for film. They just have to be clear enough so that someone can understand how to make or build it.
ARCUDI: Correct me if I’m wrong, but in a film you’re really doing all of these things, no matter how creative you are, in furtherance of someone else’s ideas. Do you find your imagination sapping away from you when you come away from a film as well? Are you at a loss for concocting your own imagery for your paintings?
STOUT: No, actually — I think it’s the opposite of that. I think film making is incredibly stimulating because you’re working with some of the smartest people you’ll ever encounter in your life and constantly solving really difficult problems on the fly — like visually creating the ERB Martian culture.
Prior to my involvement with the film, as an ERB illustrator, I’d never thought of that material with the same amount of depth that I approached it when putting it on film. My illustrations all stopped with Frazetta, Krenkel and Williamson.
Going beyond what they had done never occurred to me; there was never that demand. But in the film version of those characters and settings, there has to be a certain level of richness and realism that goes deep below the surface. Plus, as an illustrator, you can get away with being vague; you can’t when you’re designing a film. Someone’s going to build whatever you’ve drawn, so your drawings have to be specific. You also compress a lot of visual information into that hour-and-a-half. I find that kind of thinking really inspiring.