I had a tough time pleasing my Conan the Destroyerdirector, Richard Fleischer, when it came to my designs for the Heart of Ahriman.
This was my initial design, very organic…a gold and ruby heart roughly in the shape of a human heart:
Richard passed on this design. He wanted something more traditionally jewel-like. I began to crank out red jewels and stands to hold them.
None of these pleased Richard.
Here’s the kinda funny end to this story: Richard Fleischer directed Neil Diamond in The Jazz Singer. As a parting post-shoot gift to the director, Neil gave Richard a large inscribed solid glass “diamond.” Fleischer was so frustrated in his search for just the right Heart of Ahriman jewel that he retrieved Neil’s glass diamond present and used that as the Heart of Ahriman in Conan the Destroyer.
Let’s take a little break from my set designs; we’ll come back to them later. In this installment we’ll examine some of the multitude of props and set decorations that had to be designed for Conan the Destroyer.
What’s the difference between set decoration and a prop? A set decoration is an object that is on set. As soon as an actor picks it up, it becomes a prop.
Despite my not caring for the final design of the Ice Palace, there was some fun stuff to create in relationship to the Ice Palace set. Here’s Ron Cobb’s design for the boat in which Conan and his merry band travel to the Ice Palace:
This is my design for the grotto underneath the Ice Palace:
These next two drawings showing Conan and Zula swimming to an underground opening serve as both storyboard panels as well as set designs.
The Ice Palace was an important set on Conan the Destroyer. It was difficult trying to suss out just what director Richard Fleischer wanted in regards to that set. I tried a number of directions. The one thing I knew I didn’t want was something that looked like the Fortress of Solitude from the movie Superman.
Here are a few of my designs, some completed, some sketchy and some partially completed.
I was none too happy with most of these. The director felt that way, too, and directed Piero to make the Ice Palace look just like Superman‘s Fortress of Solitude.
So, Pierluigi Basile and I set about designing Conan the Destroyer. This is a joke photo of Piero and me attempting to deal with Yugoslavian brushes when we were in Zagreb on Conan the Barbarian:
I designed the sculpture of Dagoth (before he gets transformed into the monster at the end of the movie).
Initially, Ron Cobb took the first stab at depicting Dagoth after he had been transformed into a monster. Because of Cobb’s cartooning background, his Dagoth was very humorous in appearance. It would have brought laughs instead of screams. Unfortunately, I don’t have a copy of Ron’s design. I do have, however, my two attempts at making Ron’s design scarier:
Trouble arose when Carlo Rambaldi (1925-2012) got involved. I have no respect for Rambaldi –– not as a designer nor as a human being. As director Joe Dante once put it, “Little kids in Nebraska know Rambaldi’s a fraud –– why don’t Hollywood producers?”
Rambaldi was down in Mexico with us because he was creating the sand worms for David Lynch‘s sci-fi epic Dune. I noticed something strange right away. All of the local Mexico City girls hired to help out Rambaldi all looked alike. I found out later that Carlo would go to discotheques to find his potential workers. He had a physical type that really turned him on –– it was doe-eyed hippy chicks. Carlo’s plan was classic Hollywood: jobs in trade for sex.
To make the sand worms look huge on screen, instead of sand, Carlo used microballoons: tiny bubbles of silica that functioned well as miniature sand, as they fell slowly. The problem with the microballoons, however, came if you were to inhale them. They would stay within your lungs for the rest of your life and begin to slowly cut through all of your lung tissue over the years. Wearing a mask was crucial to one’s future health. Yet Carlo never told his workers that. I saw them all working unmasked. He clearly didn’t give a damn what happened to those gals later in life.
Carlo insisted that he was the film’s creature designer. Fine by me, except for the fact that, in my not-so humble opinion, his designs were crap. Here’s his design for the transformed Dagoth:
I did a joke version of this design:
I drew this Dagoth design:
Then I drew this very H. P. Lovecraft/Cthulhu-inspired creature (Conan creator Robert E. Howard was friends with Lovecaft and contributed to HPL’s Cthulhu mythos):
Sadly (for the film), Rambaldi won out.
Originally, Wilt Chamberlain was going to wear Rambaldi’s monster suit. I watched Carlo sculpting the Dagoth creature.
“You know,” I commented, “that Wilt is not going to fit in this suit design of yours.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about. This will fit Wilt perfectly.”
“I’ve stood next to the guy. Your suit would fit me ––– but Wilt? No way. You should have made a body cast to sculpt over instead of eyeballing it.”
(An attempt at a body cast of Wilt was made at one point. Unfortunately, Carlo delegated the task of making a plaster cast of Wilt to two of his girls –– neither of whom had ever made a body cast before. They mixed the wrong ratio of plaster to water, so the cast never took. This mishap nearly got Rambaldi fired, as we were working on a very tight schedule that did not allow for re-dos)
Carlo continued to disagree and kept sculpting.
Guess what? The suit didn’t fit.
The sleeves and the legs of the suit had to be cut open to accommodate Wilt’s girth. That’s why in the end of the film, when Dagoth gets transformed, it takes place at night during a lightning storm. That was done to make it deliberately difficult for the movie audience to see that the Dagoth monster suit was being barely held together by diaper pins.
Andre the Giant (an even worse fit for Carlo’s suit) has credit for playing the transformed Dagoth. I wasn’t on set when those scenes were shot, so I can’t tell you who was in the suit. I can tell you that I never once saw Andre the Giant while I was on the film.
In preparing for this series, I found a note I had written to Raffaella DeLaurentiis. I thought you might find it interesting. It was written just prior to my grand faux pas of passing out my own script rewrite at that first Conan 2 team meeting.
“Dear Raffaella, I would ask a tremendous favor of you. Let me re-write the Conan script. As it is now, it’s a “Hercules movie” script. It is not Conan. It is very 1950s. It has no surprises. Let me fill it with surprises. It has poor structure. Let me give it structure. Let me make it into a Conan script that contains all the savage grace, exotic atmosphere and magic of Conan. I would keep the characters and locations, so as not to disrupt the design work and construction that has been done. I will not ask for credit. I will not ask for extra money. I only ask that you give me 10 one-half working days to do it in and that you continue my pay as it now is. I would work on art the first half of each day and the script on the second half. In 10 working days, or less (hopefully in just one week), you would have my script.I would work weekends on my own time on the script, also. If this is too bold, try me for four days and see what you get. If it displeases you, fine. If not, then I proceed. I offer this in deepest respect for you and for the stories and characters created by Robert E. Howard. Sincerely, Wm Stout”
Obviously, my bold proposal was ignored.
Also in my digging, I found some photos from the day Jack Palance came into the Conan the Barbarian offices when we were considering him for the role of Conan’s father.
Jack argued that he should be given the role of Conan. I’m not sure that Jack understood we weren’t about to fire Arnold.
I personally thought that a twenty years younger Jack Palance would have made a perfect Conan. In fact, check out my comic book page storyboards for the opening sequence where you might notice that in a few panels I drew Jack as Conan’s father. Palance was so insistent on playing Conan, however, that he lost the role of Conan’s father to William Smith, another casting choice I had the boldness to insist upon.
I also found a couple of photos from the first day I met Arnold Schwarzenegger:
Working with Pierluigi Basile as my production design mentor was extremely enlightening. We had worked together on Conan the Barbarian. I loved his Italian approach to life and film making. I never saw him not working, even late at night — except for at meal times.
When we were working together in Zagreb on the first Conan film, when it was lunchtime, Piero (Pierluigi’s nickname) would find a large box and then spread a red and white checkered tablecloth over it. This where we in the art department would have our wonderful lunches. Great food, great wine, great jokes, great conversation — then back to work. Piero turned me on to “misto” or “mixto” (meaning “mixture”), the habit of mixing water and wine to decrease the chances of a headache, hangover or sleepiness.
I was tricked into working on the second Conan film, Conan – King of Thieves (later retitled, due to Arnold Schwarzenegger‘s insistence, Conan the Destroyer, as Arnold at the time was being accused of some kind of theft). I was led to believe I would be working with Ron Cobb again. Ron was on this film for a few minutes, until my deal on the film was sealed.
I read the Stanley Mann script and hated it. The writer seemed to know nothing about Robert E. Howard’s character of Conan. He violated most of the rules Howard set up to define his most popular character.
So, I rewrote the script.
As I recall, the first film meeting was at director Richard Fleischer‘s home in Beverly Hills (Richard was the son of legendary Popeye/Betty Boop animator Max Fleischer). The meeting included the director, the producers (Raffaella DeLaurentiis and Stephen Kesten) and me. The meeting also possibly included the production designer (Pierluigi Basile) and producer Buzz Feitshans. Maybe Ron Cobb, too — but I doubt it.
I entered the room holding a large grocery bag. I then said, “What’s that smell? It’s horrible!“
I reached into my bag, pulled out a screenplay and very physically sniffed it.
“Oh! It’s this script! It STINKS!”
I reached into my bag again and began pulling out copies of my rewrite. I gave a copy to each person at the meeting.
“Here…this is a much better script.”
I was still pretty green to the Film Biz (and the rules of the Writers Guild), so I had very little idea as to how outrageous that action on my part was. I found out later that right after I had left the meeting that Fleischer exploded with rage.
“Who in the Hell is that asshole?!! Fire that jerk!!”
Raffaella defended me.
“Oh, that’s just Beel (her Italian pronunciation of my name). He loves Conan and is a very good, very passionate artist. He just wants to make the best Conan film possible. He’ll be okay and I think you’ll love what he brings to the movie.”
Raffy prevented Fleischer and his producer pal Stephen Kesten (who was just as furious — if not more so — than Fleischer; Steve and Richard were good friends with writer Stanley Mann) from firing me that day. I had naively broken a lot of Show Biz rules. Of course, we didn’t end up using my version of the screenplay, which would have been a huge violation of WGAw rules.
Conan the Destroyer came together very quickly. Here’s why:
Dino DeLaurentiis was using every single soundstage at Mexico City’s Estudios Churubusco to make David Lynch’s Dune. A few of the soundstages were eventually freed up — but Dino did not want to relinquish them. So, he didn’t.
“We make a Conan movie,” he pronounced. A (bad) script was whipped up and Conan offices were established down in Mexico City. Many of the workers on Dune were also taken on to work on Conan the Destroyer. To save money, I took existing set constructions from Dune and turned them into Conan the Destroyer sets. If there was a long hall Dune set, I completely redressed it and turned it into a long Conan set, saving the film loads of time and lumber expense.
The production set me up with a nice rooftop apartment in the Zona Rosa (Pink Zone) area of Mexico City, the safest part of the city. I was just a block or so from the city’s great Chapultepec Park. We prepped the film at Churubusco studios and shot interiors there. We shot the exteriors of our film around different picturesque parts of Mexico. I didn’t know it at the time, but the Dino DeLaurentiis family was having me groomed to be a production designer (they actually began grooming me on the first Conan film. They gave me much more responsibility on the sequel). They admired my initiative, especially after discovering that I was secretly teaching myself Italian so that I could eavesdrop on their conversations. They found that hilarious and began to help me with my Italian studies.
The almighty American dollar went a long way in Mexico, so much so that I was able to live off of my per diem (paid to me in US cash, as the Mexican peso was quickly dropping in value on a daily basis), never touching my paychecks. Later, upon my return to Los Angeles, I used that stack of paychecks as the down payment for the house I now own in Pasadena.
This was my favorite sequence in Godzilla – King of the Monsters. It’s dramatic, poetic and mysterious, thanks to the film’s marvelous screenplay by Fred Dekker. This is the scene where the boy, Kevin, really connects with Godzilla.