Alex Grand and Jim Thompson interview comic artist, fantasy illustrator and creative architect Bill Stout, discussing Conan the Barbarian and the Destroyer, Masters of the Universe, his work with Roger Corman, his Dinosaur art career with museums, murals and education books, and his journey to Antarctica. Edited & Produced by Alex Grand. Images used in artwork ©Their Respective Copyright holders, CBH Podcast ©Comic Book Historians. Thumbnail Artwork ©Comic Book Historians.Support the show (https://www.patreon.com/comicbookhistorians)
Alex: That’s awesome. So, now you also did The Beatles songs cover for Rhino Records in 1982 and there was some flak you got or rather Rhino got because Mark David Chapman appeared on the cover. Tell us a little bit about that.
Bill: Sure. I got a call from Rhino Records. They wanted to put out an album called Beatles songs. Now, these were not songs by The Beatles. These were songs about the Beatles. Like Ringo for President or We Love You, Beatles, Oh, Yes, We Do, that kind of stuff. So, I was trying to come up with an idea for the cover and I thought, I know, I’ll do like a cross-section of a Beatlemania convention, and show the guy who won the Ringo lookalike contest, the avaricious dealers and everything I could think of that would be at a Beatlemania convention. I thought, “Well, it wouldn’t be complete unless I actually included the one guy who collected one of the Beatles.” So, I included Mark David Chapman on the cover.
Bill: And Rhino didn’t catch that and they put the album out. And it started this outrage and record shops were returning the boxes unopened. Rhino got death threats. I got death threats. We ended up on the front page of The L.A. Times. We ended up in People magazine. My whole thinking back then was fans, they take this stuff way too seriously and the guy who took it more seriously than any other was Mark David Chapman. And so, I saw the cover as a sort of a cautionary tale – do not become this. And I later heard that Yoko Ono saw a copy of the album cover. This was after John had been assassinated, obviously. And she started laughing. She said, “Oh, John would’ve loved this. This is his sense of humor.”
Alex: That’s awesome.
Jim: That’s great.
Alex: And it says killer on the cover. But in a dark sort of comedy, I could see John liking it from various documentaries I have seen with him.
Jim: Was Rhino mad at you for it? Were they mad at you for doing that?
Bill: Well, they have a sense of humor. They were shocked. They were upset that they could not sell albums and they tried putting it out with the plain brown wrapper cover. That did not work. And they finally released it with– they took my cover off and released it with a shot of a collection of Beatles memorabilia. But I knew as soon as they said, “Okay, we’re going to pull the albums and replace them.” I started buying up– I bought boxes of those because I knew it would be a collector’s item. And I easily get 250 bucks a cover now.
Alex: Oh, nice.
Jim: That’s great. So, you still have some.
Bill: Oh, yeah.
Alex: All right. Audience if you need a copy, you got to contract Bill Stout. He will sell one for 250 each.
Jim: I might want one of those.
Alex: Yeah, I might want one actually, too. Yeah.
Bill: I think it is one of my best covers, actually. I love it.
Jim: It’s a really good cover. So, let’s get away from music for a little bit and go to your film and television stuff. You opened up your own production design studio. About what time was that here in Los Angeles?
Bill: Let’s see. Well, I was a huge Conan the Barbarian fan and my friend Bob Greenberg was working there and he said, “Man, you got to see what Ron Cobb is doing on Conan.” Now, I knew Ron Cobb as a political cartoonist. He did political cartoons that were originally printed in the L.A. free press and then they got distributed to all the underground newspapers in America. And that blew my mind that he was actually designing Conan. But I was so busy doing movie posters at the time, there is no way I could get over to the Conan offices. I remember I picked up the L.A. calendar which shows entertainment posters in that one week. The films just happened to coincidentally all come out at the same time.
Finally, I got a break in my schedule. But instead of going over to the Conan offices, I went to the ABA, the American Bookseller’s Association Fair. It used to take place every year. Usually, it alternates between L.A. and New York. That particular year it was in L.A. It is every single publisher and every single editor in the United States all in one building. So, it is a great place as an illustrator, I bring my portfolio and go booth to booth to booth and pick up enough work for the rest of the year.
Well, I walked into the ABA and the first person I ran into was Ron Cobb and Ron said, “Look, I’m the production designer at Conan the Barbarian. You are my first choice of who I want to work in this film. But I have an agreement with the director John Milius. He has veto power over anybody. I want to bring you into the art department. I have veto power over anybody he wants to bring into the art department. So, would you mind stopping in and dropping off your portfolio for John to see?” Well, it sounds like fun. It would be interesting where now movies are made.
So, I came in and Milius happened to be there and he looked through my book and he remembered that heavy metal story I had done, Shatter Like a Glass Goblin. He loved that story and the art that I did for that. And then there was my– I think my Dragon Slayers portfolio was in there and he handed the book back to me. And John’s a bigger than life dramatic guy and as he’s walking out the door, he turns his head to the side and he goes, “Hire him.” And so, I walked in to see Buzz Feitshans, our line producer on Conan. And Buzz told me what I’d be making on Conan and I nearly fell off the chair laughing because it was about 10% of what I was making in advertising. But I thought, “Well, it is just for two weeks. It will be fun to see how movies are made.” So, I agreed to do it.
What I found out later is when you are hired for a film, you’re always hired for two weeks. They want to find out if you are an asshole. If you are, once the two weeks is up, they can let you go and there is no hard feelings. But if you work out, then you stay there. Well, my two weeks became two years. I worked on a film for two solid years. And that was really my introduction to the film business in a big way. My receptionist when I started work there was Kathleen Kennedy. The guy whose office was across the hall from me, he was this young filmmaker named Steven Spielberg. And Ron Cobb and I would work on Conan during the day and then run across to Stephen’s office in the evening and kick around ideas for Stephen’s next film which was Raiders of the Lost Ark. And in my naivete, I thought the business would always be like that. And then they introduced me to George Lucas because he was a buddy of theirs and it was this very, very interesting and fascinating situation. And that really launched my film career and I have since then worked on over 50 films. I started as a storyboard artist and eventually became a production designer, I actually became a production designer in a very short amount of time. It took me two years.
Jim: Now, when did you do the work on the Buck Rogers Show in relation to this timeline?
Bill: That was just prior to Conan. That was 1978. And it was originally going to be three two-hour films for Europe. And in the middle of the shooting of it, they decided to make it an American television show. And so, to me, being called by them, it was just another gig, another freelance gig. And I did not take it as seriously as I should have. And I remember, I came in to show, basically, I’d work at my studio for a week, come in each Friday and show what I’d done. And I came in and I saw that they had listed my name at the top of this big chart of everyone working on the film as the designer for the film. I was like, “Woah, I was not expecting that at all.” And some other jobs came up and I sort of pushed Buck Rogers aside and then came back in, sort of, the following Friday, two weeks later and stuff. And so, I was basically showing them I was unreliable and I got fired on the spot. I think I drove home, I think I was crying all the way home. It taught me a very valuable lesson early in my career is that if you are working on a film, do not do anything else. You do not have time.
Jim: That’s interesting. That show ended up running for a few seasons, too.
Bill: Yeah, yeah. I designed all the insignias and costumes and a lot of different things for that.
Jim: And what did you do on Thriller?
Bill: On Thriller, John Landis called for me. He wanted me– the storyboard Thriller and I was– I don’t know what I was working on. It might have been Godzilla. But I said, “John, I can’t do it. But I have got the perfect guy for you. And so, I handed my phone over to Dave Stevens, who I was sharing a studio with. So, Dave got the gig, storyboarding Thriller. And then because of that, Dave developed a great relationship with Michael Jackson. Michael wanted him to design everything.
Jim: Now, was Stephen’s working for you at your studio, or were you just sharing space with him?
Bill: Dave was doing a lot of freelance stuff. He created the Rocketeer while he was at my studio. And then when I was made the production designer on Godzilla, I hired Dave and Doug Wildey to do storyboards for me.
Alex: Wow. Doug Wildey. That is awesome.
Jim: You later worked for Jackson, in part, designing some of the amusement parks at his ranch, is that right?
Bill: Well, I designed the gates to Neverland.
Jim: Oh, that’s- okay.
Bill: Sort of Peter Pan themed wrought iron silhouettes.
Jim: Did you know Jackson?
Bill: No. Never met the guy. But we kept almost crossing paths because we both collect great illustrated books from the early part of the 20th century, Arthur Rock and Edmund Dulac, stuff like that. And one of the shops that I primarily got my books was a place called Cherokee Books on Hollywood Boulevard. Comic fans would know that place because upstairs is where Blume had a sort of a comic book shop. And that is where a lot of us would get our old and rare comics. But downstairs, his brother Gene, he ran the regular bookshop and he had some great old illustrated books. And I remember walking in one day and Gene said, “Man, the weirdest guy was just in here.” He says, “I almost threw him out.” He said, “He had on a big long raincoat and a big slouch hat and he had a disguise with a big nose and sort of Groucho Marx eyebrows and horn-rimmed glasses and big huge buck teeth and he looked like some homeless guy. And as I was about to toss him out and he said, ‘Gene, Gene, it’s me. Its Michael.'” It was Michael Jackson in disguise to buy illustrated books.
Alex: That’s wild. But he was disguising himself as far as back then, it looks like.
Jim: I wanted to ask one aspect about comics again, was it around this time that you did some of the alien world stuff for Bruce Jones for Pacific?
Bill: Yeah, I think– I cannot remember the date. Is that the early ’70s, mid-70s, late ’70s?
Jim: Yeah. I think, late ’70s, maybe end of the–
Bill: Yeah. It was funny. L.A. wanted to have an underground comic book scene like San Francisco had. And there were some financial backer guys who decided this was a good idea. And they threw a huge party. And that was where I first met– was the second time I met Robert Williams. And at one of those parties, we decided, okay, we were going to do an underground comic book called, Let Sanity Die, LSD. And each artist was going to have one or two pages. And then the center spread was going to be Roy Robert Crum, who’s going to Honey Bunch Comiskey, naked with her legs spread and you would lick her crotch and on her crotch, there’d be a dot of paper acid and so you come on to the LSD and then read the comic. Well, I was the only guy who finished these two pages. No one else did.
Alex: You sailed through the storm.
Bill: Yeah. But one of the nice things was I got to meet Robert Williams. Robert and I became really close. He is still one of my dearest friends. And I remember I showed him my, Lets Sanity Die pages and he goes, “Bill, you put too many claws on that T-Rex. They only have two claws on each hand.” And it embarrassed me. But he started me on the path to– if you are going to draw dinosaurs, you better know your stuff. So, I started. I joined the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology and began to build all my dinosaurs up from the skeleton up and it changed my life.
Alex: Yeah. So, now you worked on The Hitcher. You mentioned the first Conan movie as well as the second one. Jim Marty cover, Buck Rogers, Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Thriller music video, Invaders from Mars, Masters of the Universe. The list goes on. But I loved a lot of these movies as a kid. So, the first Conan movie. I love the tone of it. It is my favorite one. The second one, although I was not into the tone as much, I noticed that the look of it almost seemed more Frazetta-ish as far as some of the designs in there. Were you responsible for some of those designs that had a more of a Frazetta look to it?
Bill: Wait a minute. So, I did not hear anything.
Alex: Okay. So, the–
Bill: What was the question?
Alex: In the second movie, I noticed a lot of the visuals had a lot of a Frazetta look to it. Like they looked like some of the things I would see in Frazetta paintings like that wizard that was kind of like a gorilla with the red cape in the circle of mirrors, things like that. Did you design a lot of that stuff or did you contribute to some of those aspects of that film?
Bill: Yes. On the first Conan film, I was secretly teaching myself Italian because whenever Dino de Laurentis and his people did not want anyone to understand what they are saying, they speak Italian. So, I wanted to be able to eavesdrop on them. They discovered that. They discovered I was teaching myself Italian. They thought that was a riot. They thought that was hilarious. But they also thought, “Oh, this kid’s really serious.” And so, they started grooming me to be a production designer without my knowing it. And they gave me– I designed about two-thirds of the second Conan film.
Alex: Yeah. Two-thirds of the second one. Yeah.
Bill: So, I’ve got a very strong visual influence in that movie.
Alex: Yeah. Because I notice that some of them straight up look like Frazetta art in there. And I thought that was really fascinating because the first one was more of a barbarian feel. But the second one, it actually had some Frazetta aesthetic to it. So, that is awesome. That is basically from you then.
Bill: Yeah. And I also– I was the guy who pulled Grace Jones into the film to play Zuha.
Alex: Really? Okay. Tell us about that. Because I love Grace Jones, especially the ’80s Grace Jones period.
Bill: So, yeah. I was aware of her music and stuff. And if you recall, at the time, in terms of skin magazines, there was Playboy and We and Playboy on We. And there was Hustler and Chic and Hustler own Chic magazine, that was their chic version of Hustler. It was a high-class skin mag. And one issue, they had this incredible photo spread. It was Grace Jones and a white chick, both topless but in boxing trunks, boxing in a boxing room. And Grace Jones looked so incredibly feral in that and ferocious. My first thought was she has got to be in a Conan film.
Bill: And she would be terrific. She was really, boy, really got into the part, and was very believable as her character.
Alex: That’s amazing that you brought her into that film. That is awesome. So, then now, Masters of the Universe. So, I am a big, He-Man: Masters of the Universe fan, in general. Tell us about your work with the Cannon films and the production design for Masters of the Universe.
Bill: Okay. The first film I worked on for Cannon was the remake of Invaders from Mars. The script by Dan O’Bannon. It was directed by Tobey Hooper, the guy who directed Texas Chainsaw Massacre. And Cannon, boy, that place, that was a wild cat film company. At the time I was working for them, I think the greatest number of films– any of the big studios had in production was Warner Brothers had six films in production. And Cannon had like 80.
Alex: At the same time. Yeah.
Bill: What I loved about it, it was similar in Roger Corman. In that, if you had an idea for a film when you are a young filmmaker, you could get an audience with Menahem, the president of the company and pitch him and get a yes or no on the spot. You did not have to go through the whole chain of underlings. You can just talk to the top guy and if he said yes, you got your chance to make your film. You would not get much money, but you get your shot.
Alex: You make a movie out. Yeah.
Bill: Yeah. I loved that about those guys. They are crazy. So, after Invasion from Mars. Invasion from Mars, I design all of the Martian stuff except for the Supreme Intelligence, which was designed by Stan Winston’s group. But I got hired to storyboard Masters of the Universe. So, I started doing that. And the director, Gary Goddard, he and I just really hit it off. We had a shared passion for comics. He was a huge Jack Kirby fan. And so, we communicated in a shorthand that other people in the film did not have. If he told me, “Bill, this is great. Can you just Kirby it up a little bit?” I know exactly what he was talking about. I did not have to have him explain that.
Alex: Yeah. You spoke the same language.
Bill: Yeah. The opposite relationship with the production designer on the film, Jeff Kirkland. Jeff was this old English guy. And boy, he and Gary did not see eye to eye in anything. Now, Gary is one of the best pitchmen in the business, one of the best salesmen I’ve ever seen. I mean, he was phenomenal. And one day, he was taking all the Mattel people, Mattel Brass, through this studio where we were working, showing them all the progress on the motion picture. And he saved the art department for last because he knew that would be the frosting on the cake. And those guys just started flipping out. They were just so excited and so impressed. And Gary finishes off this incredible sort of performance presentation and he turns to Jeffrey Kirkland for sort of an agreement or acknowledgment, and Jeff lifts up his head and he looks at Gary and looks at the Mattel guys and he says, “It’s not going to be too fucking awful.”
Bill: Boom. Man, burst that balloon.
Bill: And about a week later, I do not know who has mutually agreed. But anyway, Jeff left the film. He recommends that I take over as a production designer.
Bill: And it was funny because I was told at 10:00 a.m. that I was the new production designer. By noon, I was getting congratulatory calls from all over the industry, when they knew about– my own family even knew about it. It was like– it is such a small tight business. It is just– it’s amazing. So, I became the production designer of the Masters of the Universe. It so happened that my pal, Mobius, was living in Santa Monica at the time trying to get a film project of his off the ground. So, I was able to hire Sean to work for me on Masters and that turned out great. And that was perhaps the easiest film that I ever worked on because the production was so screwed up, there is no way I can be late on anything.
Alex: So, you are always ahead of the curve?
Bill: Yeah. Trying. Trying.
Alex: All right, Jim, go ahead, your turn.
Jim: Okay. So, you had mentioned Roger Corman a few minutes ago. I wanted to go back to your relationship with him and you work with him. I have met Roger before he came to my class and spoke. He was incredibly generous to my students and very kind. What was it like and what were the projects you did with him?
Bill: Well, Roger bought my first screenplay. It was a screenplay called King of the Dark Planet. And I remember it was a sword-and-sorcery film. My first choice for the lead was David Carradine. And David indeed got cast as the lead in the film. But that came about because I saw an ad of someone looking for some screenwriting experience. He wanted to hire a screenwriter for the sword-and-sorcery film. And I called the guy up. His name was John Broderick. And John said, “Are you familiar with GOR?” And now, I thought he meant G-O-R-E. Like, gore. No, he was referring to GOR, which was a series of paperbacks by– I think the guy’s name was John Norman. And there is sort of SNM, Sword-and-Sorcery.
Alex: Combining genres. That’s great.
Bill: But I did not know that at the time and I said, “I’m very familiar with gore.” I am a big horror movie fan. So, I got to go with John and he started pitching me on this idea. He did not actually have an idea. He just wanted to make a Sword and Sorcery film based on the GOR books. And so, I started doing designs, and then I started asking them about the story. I ended up writing the screenplay. And it was a very painful experience because I rewrote it at least eight times and each time I thought– when I finished, I thought it was perfect. But John would come through and he would say, “No. This does not work. This doesn’t work.”
He had a lot of experience in the business. But for me, it felt like it was flaying my own skin off my body in writing this. But eventually, I wrote it and then he said he took it over to Roger. But Roger passed on it. And so, I forgot about it for a while. At the time, I was doing posters for Roger. I called up the art director, I said, I was just keeping in touch to remind him of my existence. And I said, “So what’s going on there?” And he says, “Roger is producing a film called, King of Dark Planet.” I go, “What?” I said, “Have you got a copy of the screenplay there?” He goes, “Yeah. Yeah. Actually, I got it.” I said, “Okay. What does the first page say?” He says, “King of Dark Planet, original screenplay by John Broderick. And I go, “And?” He said, “No, there’s no and.” So–
Bill: John has stolen the film from me and Roger’s done this decent act to check it right away. He took it out of John’s pay because John was directing the film down in South America. And so, I got this frantic phone call from South America, from Argentina, from John Broderick saying, “What have you done?” I go, “Well, I got the proper credit for my writing the film.” And he said, “How could you do that?” He says, “Well, it’s easier to sell a film if there is only one name on the screenplay,” which is a huge lie. So, that was the end of my relationship with John but it was the beginning of my relationship with Roger.
When the film was ready to come out, Roger called me and he said, “I’d like to show you the poster.” “Great.” So, I come in and there is a poster and it’s David Carradine and a sexy woman and stuff. And Roger changed the name from King of Dark Planet to Warrior and the Sorceress. And I said, “Roger, it looks great. But there’s no sorceress in the movie.” And Roger says, “Bill, you have got to understand, by changing the title to Warrior and the Sorceress, it allows us to put a sexy woman on the poster, draw in moviegoers. Once we have their money, who cares if there’s a sorceress in the movie?”
Alex: That’s hilarious. Package it just right.
Jim: So, what else did you do with Corman?
Bill: I did the poster for, Up from the Depths. I did the poster for Lady in Red, John Sayles movie.
Jim: Oh, sure.
Bill: Robert Conrad as Dillinger and Pamela Sue Martin as the Lady in Red. And then I fell into doing stuff with de Laurentis family, in Conan and all that stuff. And many years later, I saw that Roger was being presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award. So, I thought, you know what, I think I was at Monster Blues at the time. So, I tried to dash across town and just show my support for Roger and so I did. I made it down twenty films since working for him. He had been keeping track of my career the entire time. I said, “Roger, you’re wasting your time. There are better things to do than to watch what I was doing.”
Jim: Oh, that sounds like him though.
Jim: What about Jim Henson? The never-made dinosaur film–
Jim: Did you work with him? Did you know him directly?
Bill: What happened was that Liza Henson, his daughter, she wanted to make a mini-series on Cope and Marsh. Two famous paleontologists who had a battle between each other over their lives. So, she’s trying to get her father interested in producing it. So, they went on vacation to the Bahamas and basically Jim’s idea was to– he said, “Before I invest in this Cope and Marsh movie, I want to do my third– what he called his realistic muppet films. He had done Dark Crystal and he had done Labyrinth and he was looking for a third project.
Bill: He said, “I think doing a project, an entire film with dinosaurs would be great.” So, they brought a whole bunch of dinosaur books with them. He said, “Then the research we do on the dinosaurs whatever we discovered, that can be applied to your Cope and Marsh story.” So, they’re going through books. They are on the beach and their maid brings them their lunch on a tray. She looks up what they’re doing, and she goes, “Oh, you think those are dinosaur books? I’ll show you a dinosaur book.” She comes back and she hands them my book, The Dinosaurs: A Fantastic View of the Lost Era. She goes, “This is a dinosaur book.” They started looking at it and they were amazed by the fact that it was not like any of their other dinosaur books.
They were not just portraits of dinosaurs. They showed dinosaurs living and breathing and doing stuff and everything. Then they looked at my bio on the back of the book. They said, “Oh, my God, and he works in film.” So, Jim told Liza, “As soon as you get back to LA you contact him, and we start making our dinosaur film together.” So, they got back to LA, and Liza set up a meeting between her father and her and I came in. Basically, the end-result of the meeting is we should really do a dinosaur movie together. Well, we had two more meetings like that and I could see nothing was being done.
So, for the third or fourth meeting, I brought in a treatment that I’ve written. Basically, the plot and story of the film. They read and I began designing the dinosaur. At that time, they discovered that Lucas and Spielberg were making Land Before Time, which is actually taken from my children’s book, The Little Blue Brontosaurus, and they lied to Henson and told him they would have their film out a year before his. So, Jim did not want to look like he was copying Lucas and Spielberg with the dinosaur film, so, he killed the project and after a few years, “Our dinosaur project is back on again. I’ll talk to you in a few days.” Two days later he died.
Jim: Oh, okay. So, he had–
Bill: So, I never know–
Jim: He’d kill it because of a competing project but then when he was about to go back on, he passed away. Wow, that is crazy.
Bill: Yeah. Yeah.
Jim: So, I want to throw out a few other films that you worked on in and I want to know what you did on it and any stories you have in relation. Men in Black, The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz, Pan’s Labyrinth, Prestige, and The Mist. I know with some you designed characters or some others you might have done something else. If you could just kind of run through those a little bit.
Bill: Yeah, don’t forget, Predator.
Alex: Predator, I love that.
Bill: So, Predator, I was called in by Rick Baker. All my early friends in the movie business were all makeup guys: Rick Baker, Rob Bottin, we just hit it off. So, Rick called me in; I was excited because this was my big studio film. I’ve been doing Indie stuff prior to that and I had a meeting with John Vallone, the production designer and with the director of the film– it’ll come to me– any way they sent me the script. I’ve read the script. John McTiernan, director of the film.
Bill: I’ve read the script, I said, ” You know, this is incredible. You’re going to get two audiences here.” The director said, “What do you mean?” He says, “Oh, well, you’re going to get the action-adventure crowd, but the ending is incredible. With that ending, you’re going to get a whole another audience.” He goes, “What are you talking about?” I said, “Well, the ending. Arnold killed some predators. Then he’s looking at the carcass of the predator, he’s looking at it, looking and he gets closer and closer and he reaches down and he opens it up and inside is these tiny frail little alien.” I said, “What a cool commentary on man as a hunter, that’s has to load himself up with all this technology and things to go big on him and everything. I think that is a fantastic ending.” McTiernan looked at that and opened the script and he reread it, and he tore those pages out right in front of me. I said, “John, what are you doing?” He says, “Well, we can’t have that and that would mean Arnold beat up on women.”
Jim: Yeah. Well, from that ’80s, macho perspective, that makes sense.
Bill: Yeah. So, I ruined the ending of that film. Anyway, on Men in Black, ILM had spent nine months on the big creature at the end of the film, creature they called Edgar which is sort of like a praying mantis, cockroach kind of thing that Vincent D’Onofrio turns into.
Bill: They finished all the animation and everything and then showed it to Spielberg and Spielberg said, “Not scary enough.” They freaked out because they spent all this time and now, they are running out of time. One of the guys there said, “He really loves Stout stuff. Call Stout.” While I was working for Spielberg at that time designing a series of our case called, Game Works. I get a call from ILM and they described the problem they’re having, and they said, “Could you redesign the creature at the end of the film but not too much? Just make him scarier because we don’t want to start from scratch?” I started doing sketches while I was on the phone and the next day, I faxed them drawings, like, redesigns of the creature and stuff and they went with it. Okay, so name another one.
Jim: Let’s see, Muppets’ Wizard of Oz.
Bill: Muppets’ Wizard of Oz was directed by a friend of mine, Kirk Thatcher who also is a collector of my work and great screenplay. Both Kirk and I really wanted this to be a theatrical release, but they insisted on it being made for TV and movie but I’m a huge Oz fan. I’ve got all the original illustrated Oz books.
Jim: Oh yeah, we are going to talk about Oz a little bit later as well.
Bill: Yeah. So, it was fun to take those Muppet characters and cast them as the Wizard of Oz characters.
Jim: Yeah and what about Del Toro and was Pan’s Labyrinth the only thing you did with him?
Bill: Yeah, that was the only film I have made with him. The way that came about was Guillermo and I have all these friends in common. They will keep saying the same thing, “Oh, you got to meet Guillermo. You two, you’ll hit it off like two peas in a pod.” But we kept missing each other. Well, Frank Darabont is another collector friend of mine. He is a film director directed Shawshank Redemption and every year at Comic-Con, Frank would host a big dinner for all his favorite artists and occasionally it included a couple of film directors.
One year, he hosted a dinner and he sat me opposite Guillermo so that’s when I first got to meet Guillermo. Guillermo came by my booth the next day and he bought a couple of pieces of mine and he said, “Would you mind delivering this to my home? I’ve got something I’d like to talk to you about.” So, I said, “Sure. I don’t mind at all.” So, I drove over to his house and he showed me his spectacular collection which I’m sure probably just a fraction of that collection because I saw the gigantic show of his collection at the LA County Museum of Art. It was unbelievable.
Bill: He starts to tell me about the story that he wants to make as a film and it’s the story of Pan’s Labyrinth and he would like me to work as a designer on the creatures. In the middle of this, he gets a phone call and he said, “Oh, excuse me, I have to take this call.” I hear his end of it which is, “Oh, hello? Oh, oh, thank you. Thank you so much. Oh my gosh, that is really incredible. I feel so honored. I’m sorry, I’m going to have to pass on your offer. I need to make my little Spanish film now.” Then he hangs up. I go, “Guillermo, what’s all that about?” He said, “Oh, that was Warner Brothers. They just offered me, Harry Potter.”
Jim: Huh, wow.
Bill: I went, “Oh my God.” My esteem for him just shot sky-high, that this guy blew up the Harry Potter franchise to make his little Spanish film told me so much who he was as a filmmaker.
Bill: So, I ended up–
Jim: Maybe his best film with that so it was the right decision.
Jim: Unless you like money, I suppose.
Bill: Yeah and we were just hoping beyond hope that – “Please, just let it get one Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film,” well, it got four nominations and won two Oscars. So we’re really excited for Guillermo.
Alex: Yeah, as good as it sounds like it’s the right decision.
Jim: And also Prestige?
Bill: Prestige, that was interesting, Christopher Nolan film and about two rival magicians who descend into insanity in their feud, played by Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale. So, he wanted late, turn of the century 1900 style magic posters for use in the film not actually to promote the film but for use in the film. There was a scene that was cut from the film where one of the magicians is at that the printers and they’re pulling the prints stuff the lithography stones and holding them up and showing their poster for the next event.
So, I did three fake 1900 style movie posters and Nolan said, he wanted the posters also to reflect the magician’s descent into insanity. So, the first one I did was Hugh Jackman and there’s all these little frisky mischievous devils around him and stuff, and these very, sort of, light and but look, also looking of the time. Then the final poster I did of Christian Bale is Bale is looking up into the universe and there is a bad omen of a shooting star and then there’s a gigantic skull in space behind that.
Bill: So, that is what happened with those.
Jim: What about, let’s see, The Mist?
Bill: Oh, The Mist? That was made by Frank Darabont.
Jim: Yeah. It was another Stephen King adaptation, wasn’t it?
Bill: Right. Yeah. With Thomas Jean as this movie poster artist who was actually if you look at the movie posters he’s working on, they’re all drawn by Drew Struzan who was the movie poster artist of our generation. So, it was a chance to work with Frank, and the first day, I did a bunch of designs of the monsters based on the short story that Stephen King had written. I sent those over to Frank and the next day, I got diagnosed with prostate cancer and so that meant, “Sorry, I couldn’t stay on the film.”
Bill: But, they pretty much made those big spiders almost exactly like my designs so I can see my influence in the creatures there.
Alex: In The Mist.
Jim: What about Dinosaur in 2000?
Bill: That was a funny situation in that. I was approached originally in 1989. I got sent a script by Disney and I read and it was all about dinosaurs but something bothered me and I realized, “Oh my God, I think this is the script to the Paul Verhoeven film that he’s making with–” oh, who’s the Star Wars animator? Well, it’ll come to me. Anyway, so I thought, “This is someone else’s project,” and I’m not the kind of guy who steals projects from my friends or from other people that I know and admire. So, I immediately called up the animator and I said, “Look, I got sent a script by Disney,” and I explained what’s going on. He says, “Yeah, that’s our movie but we came up with a budget of 80 million dollars to make the film and Disney said, “No way would we spend 80 million dollars on a dinosaur film.” So we dropped it off and so he said, “Go ahead, do the film with our permission.”
Alex: Oh, okay.
Bill: So, it sounded like they wanted me to start on the following Monday but then Monday I didn’t hear anything from them, and then I didn’t hear anything for a year. A year later, Disney contacts me, “We’ve got this film. We think you’d be perfect for this.” They sent me the script. It was the same script. They did this to me every year for about eight years and to the point where I’m just like, “Yeah. Yeah. It’s the same. Yeah. Yeah.” Then one year they said, “No, we’re really going to make it this time. We’re really, really going to make it. We’re having the attorneys work on your contract and stuff as we’re speaking right now and we really want you on this film.” Again, they made it sound like I was going to start Monday and then didn’t hear anything from them. About two months later, I got a call from one of their attorneys. He says, “Look, we really, we want you in this film, we’re trying to get you on this film but there’s a problem that you insist on working at home,” which I never insisted on. I said, “Well, I can work with the studio.” They said, “You can work at the studio? That’s great, we’re going to push this right through.”
Nine months later, still not working on the film, I got a call from a different Disney Attorney. He said, “I just want to let you know we’re really close to having on this movie.” I said, “Well, just to alleviate your concerns, I’ll be happy to work at the studio.” They go, “Work at the studio? Oh, my gosh, union would kill us. Can you work at home?” I go, “I can work at home.” “Great. We’re going to push this right through.” So, finally, it did become real and it became a situation where I worked at home, I would do design the characters and I bring them in every Friday and show the progress on what I’ve done with the film. The first problem that they gave me and I really like difficult problems and this isn’t a good one. We got a whole family of Iguana dancing in this movie and they’ve got to be really distinctive characters but to us, all Iguana dance look-alike. “Can you design this so that they’re accurate but at the same time distinctive so that the public immediately knows who’s who?” I said, “I think I could do that.” So I did and they were so pleased with that, they had me design the rest of the characters in the film.
Jim: Oh, that is great. So, were you pleased with the film?
Bill: Yes and no. Originally, when I started working on the film, I was working with Tom Enriquez, a really incredible, talented artist, and we were determined that there was going to be no talking in the film. No talking dinosaurs. No talking Lemurs, none of that. So, I wanted to tell the entire story visually and I remember when I saw Jurassic Park and the first time you saw that big beast with the dinosaurs, my first impulse was, “Hey, just drop me off here. An hour and a half with the dinosaurs.”
We did the first five minutes of the film as an experiment to show that we could tell the entire story visually. That was also the first promotional trailer for the film. Then, Disney, had me going to different conventions around the country promoting the movie and they gave me two video cassettes. One with the five-minute intro where the dinosaurs don’t talk and then the second trailer where the dinosaurs do talk. So, I’d show the first tape and man, you could feel it in the audience. People who wanted to see that film, they wanted to see that film now. They were so excited about being dropped in the Cretaceous with these dinosaurs. Then I would show them the second videotape and they would lose all interest. “Oh, they talked.” But Eisner insisted that they talk so he was the boss he won out, but I would still like to make it out with no talking. But I think the first five minutes, one of the best dinosaur films I have even seen.
Jim: Alex. The dinosaurs.
Alex: Yeah, speaking of dinosaurs exactly, so you mentioned Byron Preiss earlier.
Alex: There’s some point of the intersection because you and Steranko had some contributions toward Raiders of the Lost Ark. You’ve also both worked with Byron Preiss. So, in 1981, The Dinosaurs: A Fantastic New View of a Lost Era has been described as a book that started the Dinosaur Renaissance, the dinosaur appreciation renaissance of the modern age, so tell us how that came to be? How impactful was that? Tell us also about your relations with Byron Preiss as well?
Bill: Sure. Yeah, the impact of that was enormous. In fact, if you look on the last page of Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton acknowledges me as an inspiration for the film. So, that came about because Byron Preiss was one of my regular publishers and he was visiting me from New York and he was at my studio. I just completed a whole series of black and white illustrations for my friend, Don Glut for inclusion in the Dinosaur Dictionary. Don had written a book Dinosaurs Dictionary and since the publication of that book many years later, so many new dinosaurs have been found, Don felt compelled to revise the book and his goal is to have at least one illustration per listing. So I agreed to do four and that turned into 44.
Byron is visiting me as my studio and he said, “If you could do your own book and anything, what would you do?” I thought he was just being conversational. I actually, I had no answer for him and he saw all these Dinosaur Dictionary illustrations laying around, he said, “Oh, would you like to do on dinosaurs?” I said, “Sure. That’ll be fun.” Forgot about it. Two months later, I got a phone call from Byron, “Hey, we got a book deal. Byron wants to do your dinosaur book.” Suddenly I have this gigantic project dropped in my lap.
Now, while I was doing the Dinosaur Dictionary Illustrations, I thought, “You know, this may be the only picture of this animal that the public ever gets to see so it better be accurate.” So, I joined this society of vertebrate paleontology and began to rely upon the greatest paleontologists in the world, the guys who gave me my feedback. This was before faxes so what I would do is I would make Xeroxes on my pencil drawings and then snail mail them to the paleontologist. Usually, the guy who discovered that creature and get his or her input and then it would go back and forth until we are both happy. So, one of the reasons I wanted to do the Dinosaur Book is there was so much new information coming out about dinosaurs that was not getting to the public. That they were not stupid. That they were not slow. They were fast. Some of them had feathers. They took care of their young. That is why I thought it would be a great idea to just combine all that new info into one source and that was my Dinosaur book and from moment that came out, I became the Dinosaur man.
Bill: I have been into, ever since.
Alex: Yeah, because I mean you’ve collected dinosaurs and books, museums. It is actually a whole other career for you and what’s interesting is your accuracy. You mentioned earlier that the Kurtzman curse of needing to be accurate. It is interesting to apply that to an animal that’s not around anymore so we have to have research. You are always up to date on all the new research and it’s become actually a scientific journey for you as well it sounds like.
Bill: Yeah, absolutely. The first museum show I was ever in is called, Dinosaurs: Past and Present. I had 11 pieces in that and I used to be the biggest movie nut you’d never want to meet. I mean, I would see everything. I’d go to film festivals. I’d go to movie marathons where you enter the theater on Friday and don’t come ’til Sunday. Walking up the center of Hollywood, a friend of mine spotted me from his car and pulled over and said, “Hey, Bill, how are you doing?” I said, “Oh really excited. I’m going to see this new movie.” He looked at me like I’m some kind of a schmuck. He said, “Really? Movie? Man, two hours in the dark.” He says, “You can be having your own adventures instead of watching somebody else’s.”
Bill: Man, he flipped his car away. From that moment on, I scheduled an adventure someplace in the world every year. First, it was the Galapagos Islands and Machu Picchu in Peru. Boy, it really feeds me as an artist to have these experiences to go to different countries and different environments and things. So, I’m trying to remember where I was going on this. Let’s see. Oh, so one of my adventures I decided I was going to go to Antarctica.
Bill: I have these big beautiful photograph books by the greatest photographers in the world and they all said the same thing, “Christ, they couldn’t capture the color of what was down there because of the limitations, the chemicals, and emotions in photography.” I thought, “Oh, I don’t have that problem. Anything I see I can put down on the papers.” So I thought, “This sounds like a great place to go for an adventure.” So I went on a cruise ship down to Antarctica; also went all over to Patagonia as well. I was not prepared for how spectacular this place was. I thought, “I’ve got to do something to save and preserve this for my kids and my grandkids.
Bill: Prior to going down there, people say, “Hey, Bill, where are you going this year?” And I’d say Antarctica and they say, “Oh, man, why do you want to do that? It’s just a bunch of snow and ice?” Or, “Oh, make sure you take a lot of white paint.”
Bill: So, while I was on this ship I thought, “What can I do to change the public’s perception that Antarctica is just a bunch of snow and ice?” I thought, “I’ll do an exhibition of oil paintings showing the rich diversity of life that I’ve discovered here in Antarctica and do that as a one-man-show and have that travel.” The other instigation in this whole thing, once I found out that the Antarctic Treaty which protects Antarctica was due to expire in 1991 and this was 1989. I thought, “Well if I don’t go now, I may never get the chance if they don’t renew that treaty.” The treaty was an outgrowth of the International Geophysical Year. A year of international cooperation amongst scientists in 1958-1959. It was so successful that President Eisenhower did not want to see that spirit disappear so he extended it by creating the Antarctic Treaty that states that no country owns Antarctica all the while that was protected, there’s no commercial exploitation of the continent. No mining; no oil drilling. All information is shared.
Even at the height of the cold war, the Soviets could come to any of our stations and look at what we were doing. We could do the same with them so it was this little oasis of sanity at the bottom of the world. So, I went down there and I thought, “I’ll do it, an exhibition of painting with the wildlife of Antarctica and make sure that every kid drags their parents to see the show. I’m going to make half the show pre-historic Antarctica with the dinosaurs.” So, as soon as I got back to LA, I flew to Dayton, Ohio to the Byrd Polar Research Center and got a crash course in the Antarctic paleontology from Dr. David Elliott and I began doing the paintings. After the first five paintings were finished, I invited the director of the Natural History Museum of LA county to see them. He looked at them and he said, “Bill, you’ve got your show and we will travel it for you.”
Bill: So, it traveled for seven years. It was instrumental in getting the treaty re-signed to protect Antarctica for 50 years. But, the unusual thing about that experience was I used to say, I subscribed to what I called the pinball school of career planning. I bounce here, bounce there, bounce there. I go all over the place on the production designer, I’m the art director, illustrator, painter. Well, when I was doing those Antarctic paintings, when I finished, I didn’t want to stop. I find I had the sense of, “You’ve come home. This is what you were meant to do.”
So, I decided to continue to paint Antarctica and make a book which when its finish, would be the first visual history of life in Antarctica in the earliest prehistoric times to the present day. About that time, I found out that there was a grant that the National Science Foundation offers called the Antarctic Artists & Writers Program grant. Every year, they pick one or two artists, writers, and photographers to go down to Antarctica. So, I applied for that grant and I got the grant for the 1992 and 1993 season and went down there. I was living in Antarctica two months based on McMurdo station – the largest station in Antarctica, and two months based on the Palmer station, the smallest station in Antarctica. I took over 12,000 photos and brought back 130 field studies.
Bill: When I got back I continued to do paintings of Antarctica for the book and I did about 80. I got 20 to go but I saved the 20 hardest ones for last.
Alex: Yeah. Wow and I’m sure you just get faster and better at it each time. So, you’re probably challenging yourself just as much each time and it’s probably just evolving as time goes on.
Bill: Absolutely. And one thing that’s really helping since I– how long is this, these last 20 years which this is my last ones. Prior to that, I painted 12 murals for the San Diego Natural History Museum.
Bill: Those are really ambitious to include my largest painting which is 14 feet by 34 feet.
Bill: It depicts the San Diego Bay two million years ago during a feeding frenzy. Boy, that’s my favorite thing of everything that I do, is murals.
Alex: Murals, yeah, ’cause they’re so big. It’s the scope of everything.
Bill: Yeah and plus great artistic legacy, they’ll be up long after I’m gone. One of my big heroes is Charles R. Knight. He painted the murals for New York and for Chicago and painted Tar Pits mural here.
Bill: So, it is carrying on that sort of legacy.
Alex: Yeah. It becomes a culture, a culture of that location too. You become part of that culture.
Alex: Also, like you said as far as museums, Smithsonian Institution, the British Museum, Royal Ontario Museum, and the American Museum of Natural History. So, you’ve had a lot of involvement in this aspect of your life, very multi-dimensional, one more thing on dinosaurs before Jim goes close to the final section is, Universal is going to do a Jurassic Park animated series in the 1990s. Tell us about that and what happened to it?
Bill: Yeah, I got a call from Will Mineo, who is working for the Universal Cartoons Studios and he asked me if I would consider designing a prime-time animated series for adults based on Jurassic Park. He said they wanted to hire me because I had more of a European comic style and they like that style. So, I began designing all that stuff and they actually shot a beautiful trailer. It is an incredible trailer. I have got on videotape. They went to Steven Speilberg to show him to get his approval. By that time, Steven had been so inundated with Jurassic Park stuff that he was sick of it. He will not even look at the trailer and he just said, “No, I’m not interested in that TV show.” So, that killed it.
Alex: So, they killed it.
Jim: Okay. So, you had talked just a minute ago about bouncing around in terms of your career and going from one thing to another. I’m going to do the same thing for a minute and cover a lot of things that I’m interested in that you’ve done. You had mentioned Oz and I am a big Oz fan myself. What was the theme park in Kansas City?
Bill: Oh, man that was one of the best jobs I have ever had in my life. There was a guy who wanted to build a Wizard of Oz theme park resort in Kansas City. I got hired by a landmark entertainment group to be one of the key designers for the park. I designed The Haunted Forrest, I designed, let’s see, The Witch’s Castle and I designed Munchkin Land.
Jim: Oh, man. That sounds great.
Bill: It was incredible. We had a Flying Monkeys roller coaster and all kinds of cool stuff. I remember getting up to go to work and seeing my two sons that I said, “Boys, they’re paying me to design Oz. It doesn’t get better than that.” It really was one of the best gigs in my life. But it turns out that the government and the atmosphere in Kansas are incredibly corrupt. The investor, they were bleeding this guy I called it, The Death of a Thousand Cuts. “Oh, you need a permit for that. You need a permit for this.” They’re bleeding the guy dry to such a point where the governor of Kansas said, “Hey, stop. Lay off this guy. We need this theme park. This will be great.” They backed off for a while but then they started coming back in. Finally, he ran out of money.
Jim: That’s just tragic.
Bill: I know.
Jim: Do you still have all the designs?
Bill: Although, I thought the wisdom of having a theme park in Tornado country was not real sharp.
Jim: No, but you had to have it in Kansas. So, there’s no way to not do that.
Bill: Absolutely. Yes, you enter the park and it’s 1900 Kansas. You go through Kansas and then step into the Dorothy Gale’s house and tornado’s coming. The room starts to shake and starts to move and everything. The tornado hits and you’re seeing stuff outside the windows. Finally, the house sets down and you go out the front door that you came in and you’re in Oz. What they did is they designed the house so that they could rotate 180 degrees. You’d enter in and during the confusion of the tornado, you wouldn’t realize that the house was turning and suddenly you open door and you’re in Oz just the way it happened.
Jim: That sounds fantastic.
Bill: It was fun.
Jim: What a tragedy that it never came to fruition. You also did some illustrations for some Oz books, too, didn’t you?
Bill: Yes. That was through Byron Preiss. They were officially licensed through the bound estate. I did the Trouble Under Oz and The Emerald Wand of Oz. Emerald Wand of Oz is the one I did first, Trouble Under Oz. It was that interesting. He sent me the manuscript for the first Oz book. I read it and I called Byron up immediately. I said, “Byron, I’m not going to this book. This writer does not understand Oz at all. It’s just one of the worst things I’ve ever read.” That’s it, hang up. About a month later, he sends me another manuscript. He said, “Look, we took into consideration everything that you were saying and made all the changes you were asking for. Please read this.” Well, I couldn’t believe it was written by the same person. It was fantastic. The rewrite was absolutely incredible. I found out later, it’s because it was written by a different person.
Bill: It was written by Sherwood Smith. Sherwood and I were guests at an Oz Convention in San Diego. I approached her about that. I didn’t know at the time that she hadn’t written the first one. I said, “I can’t believe the difference in quality between the first manuscript and the second one.” She said, “That’s because I had nothing to do with the first one.” And I said, “Yes, your manuscript, you totally got it. You understood everything that is Oz. It was so inspiring.” So, we did those two books together.
Byron was sort of operating a slight pyramid scheme and that he was getting paid money for some projects and then using that money to pay off somebody else. Well, he had been paid for my illustrations for the last Oz book. But, instead of writing me a check, he used that money to fund something else, and not long after that, he died in a tragic accident. So, I never got paid for the second Oz book. The publisher wanted me to do a third Oz book which I had been planning to do. I was actually going to do it as a tribute to Byron until I found out about the financial situation. The publisher wasn’t going to pay me again because they’d already paid me but I never received the money. I wasn’t going to work the third book without receiving any money for the second one. So, we hit sort of a stalemate.
Jim: Did they do the third book with somebody else?
Bill: It got dropped.
Jim: Now, besides the Oz park, you’ve done designs for other theme parks including things for Disney all over the world, right?
Bill: That’s right. I’ve designed elements of all of Disney’s theme parks. Euro Disneyland, Tokyo Disneyland, Anaheim, and Orlando.
Jim: Do you approach them differently based upon which location they’re in? Or would it be something that could transfer to any of them?
Bill: I always let the problem dictate the solution and so it becomes a highly individual thing whether that can apply to being moved other parks is sometimes it can, sometimes it can’t. But I always try to solve the problem that’s given to me in the best possible way.
Jim: Were these specific attractions at the parks? Go into a little bit of detail.
Bill: Sure. For Euro Disneyland, I designed a lot of the Buffalo Go Wild West show. Anaheim, I designed a lot of Toon Town. Also, I was the first designer in Indiana Jones ride. Let’s see. For Orlando, I designed a whole series of clubs. I designed, actually, a major undertaking. It was the first project that Walt Disney Imagineering brought me in and it was called Disney Island. Basically, their problem was Epcot. Next to Epcot were these two huge hotels, the Dolphin and the Swan. When Epcot would close, then the public would go into downtown Orlando and spend their money at clubs and restaurants there. So they said, “Bill, design us a place in between the hotels and Epcot that will keep people on the property. It’s got to have restaurants, it’s got to have shops, and it’s got to have clubs.”
That was a gigantic project called Disney Island. I worked on that for about two years. We had a gigantic presentation for Michael Eisner and for other folks. I was told later it was the most elaborate presentation they’d ever seen a Walt Disney Imagineering, it had smokes, it had lasers. We recorded a soundtrack to it and everything. It was huge. I think I gave that presentation about six or seven times. At one time, it was just for architects. Michael Eisner had a real thing for architects and he wanted to be close to all the greatest architects in the world. So, he had us give the presentation to all these architects. One of them was an architect named Jon Jerde. He designed that shopping center in San Diego looks like an M.C. Escher design.
Alex: Oh, yes.
Bill: Anyway. Later, I was told that they were not going to do Disney Island for two reasons: it was over budget and no one would ever come to it. I said, “Over budget? You never gave me a budget. Give me a budget, I’ll work through the budget.”
Bill: They forced down to Orlando to tell us all this stuff. Then, I dropped the huge bomb. I said, “Not only that, I will come in under budget. I will do it not in five years, I’ll do it in two years. I’ll make this place in two years.” That totally scared the hell out of them because all their projects were five-year projects. And I saw the way they work. I saw, they just padded time and padded time and me being in film, I’m thinking, “Well, this is inefficient. This is inefficient.”
Bill: I know who to hire to get this done. It’ll cost the thirds of the price. It’ll take less than half the time. Basically, they were afraid that I’d just shown the emperor has no clothes, that it would ruin all the stuff in making projects take too long and everything. I would have completely have disrupted their entire system.
Alex: Yes, of chicanery.
Jim: So that was the end of that. There was no way–
Bill: It wasn’t quite the end of that. Years later, I started working for one of the guys, one of the key guys who I had hired for Disney Island. He now had hired me to this gaming arcades for Spielberg. He mentioned the big shopping center at Universal City Walk.
Bill: He found out I’d never been to City Walk. His jaw just dropped. “We’re going right now.” “Oh, sure. Okay. I don’t know why we need to do this so urgently.” So, we went up, hiked up to were City Walk was and I looked at it and I said, “Oh my God. They built Disney Island.” They were all my ideas.
Bill: At Universal. In City Walk.
Jim: That’s where City Walk is? It is taken from– that’s- aww.
Bill: It is my Disney Island. I said, “Who’s the architect on this?” They said, “Jon Jerde.” I said, “I pitched to John Jerde.”
Bill: As soon as the project got canceled, he took it to Universal and built it. It was interesting for me because, for one, they built it. They showed that could be done and Universal is way cheaper than Disney and they still built it. The other thing was the place was packed. They told me it would never attract anyone. And, here it was, it was built, and it was packed full of people.
Jim: Oh, yes. It was always packed.
Bill: Yes. A couple of years after that, the LA Times ran a big article on Jon Jerde about what a genius he was, an architectural genius and stuff. They kept mentioning City Walk. Finally, I sat down, I wrote a letter. I said, “Look, this is the origin of the City Walk.” I send it in and The Times published my letter. Then it became this back and forth thing on the front page of the LA Times.
Alex: Oh wow.
Bill: Walt Disney Imagineering, they were taking these articles and they were blowing them up wall-size and putting them up on the walls in the hallways so people could read these. Half the people were thrilled that they’re finally getting credit for City Walk and the other half was pissed off, had the nerve to take credit for a Walt Disney project because I’m not Walt Disney.
Alex: Uh-huh. Wow.
Jim: City Walk gets copied over and over. I mean, its influences are not just there but if you think of Kodak Center and other things, they incorporate lots of those visuals to other places here in LA as well. That seems to be a theme that’s developing, that people rip you off and you don’t get the credit for it.
Alex: Yes, and that’s happened a few times.
Bill: Yes, that’s the business.
Jim: Yes, that’s true. A couple of other things. Richard Matheson is one of my favorite writers especially his Twilight Zone.
Bill: Me, too.
Jim: But also I Am Legend and things. Talk about your work with him.
Bill: Well, Mick Garris is a good friend of mine. He’s a film director but he also is a writer. I believe he just published a book. I was invited to the book party for the publication of his book. I looked at the roster of writers, it’s publishers and I say, “Wow, you got some great people here. Boy, I wish you would get me to illustrate one of your books. You do really nice books.” He said, “Well, do you like Richard Matheson?” I go, “I love Richard Matheson. He is one of my favorite writers in the world. He is incredible.” He says, “Well, nobody knows this, but he wrote a children’s book.” I went, “What? Matheson wrote a kid’s book?” He goes, “Yes, the only he ever wrote. There’s some input by Charles Beaumont, too, in the book.” He said, “Would you like to illustrate that?” I go, “Are you kidding me? I’m starting already. This is great.” It was called Abu and the Seven Marvels. It’s an Arabian nights fantasy.
We won a ton of awards for that book. The best thing for me was getting to know Richard because we did book signings together. He’s the sweetest, nicest guy. We would commiserate on all the times that both he and I have been stolen from Hollywood. I remember at one of the signings, I said, “So, Richard, are you getting any people wanting to make this as a film? Make Abu as a movie.” He goes, “Oh, my God. I’m getting all kinds of people that really want to make this as a movie.” He said, “But I tell them, ‘I’ll sign the rights away under one condition: You have to have William Stout as your production designer.'” I said, “Richard, don’t do that. Just take the money. I’m fine with my career. I appreciate you saying that. It is a wonderful thing. I am really tickled and honored and stuff. Just get the damn thing made.”
Jim: It’s never been made, has it?
Bill: No, no, no.
Jim: It’s a beautiful book. The illustrations are just lovely to look at.
Bill: Oh, thank you.
Jim: You got a lot of accolades for that.
Bill: I did. I won gold medals from the Society of Illustrators and all kinds of stuff.
Jim: Now, go through some of the people like that that you were lucky enough to work with, another one, and you’ve mentioned being friends with him. But, you did a collaboration with Giraud, too, right? With Moebius?
Bill: Yes. It was funny. Scott Shaw– boy, I guess this is in the early ’70s, he had a friend going to UCLA who had a subscription to a magazine called Pilote. It was a French comics magazine.
Alex: Yes, Pilote. Yes.
Bill: He said, “You got to see this stuff they’re doing in France.” He brought me over and I’m looking through these Pilotes. Then, I’ve gone, “Oh my God. The best western comic ever made is done by a French guy?” It was Lieutenant Blueberry by Jean Giraud. He’d sign name his name as Gir on those. He says, “Well if you think that’s great, wait ’til you see what he does as a Science Fiction artist under the name of Moebius?” He showed me that stuff. I was like, “Holy cow. This guy is astounding.” Jean made a trip to California and I think he was staying at Sergio Aragones’s house. And Sergio called me up and had me come over and introduced me to Jean.
We just hit it off and became friends. So, when I would go to Paris, I would see him. When he’d come to LA, he’d see me. We’d always try to look for ways to work together. His agent, Jean-Marc Lofficier, I just love this guy because he is the most honest agent I’ve ever met in my life. We hit it off because I love talking business. So, I was just like our business can be just as creative as art. I was a skilled negotiator and so is Jean-Marc. Every time we would break through and get a new plateau or new press or new perk, we call the other guy and say, “Hey, we just got this.” Both of us were amping up our contracts together by trading information and what was possible.
Alex: Yes, that’s awesome.
Bill: One thing I didn’t get that was really amazing that I’ll never get was Jean was hired to design an entire floor of a place called Metreon in San Francisco. It was one floor for Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak and one floor is all Dr. Seuss. I forget who the other floor was. But, there’s also a whole floor completely designed by Moebius. It was like stepping into Moebius’s brain. It was absolutely incredible. It was all sponsored and paid for by Sony. Jean-Marc called me up, he says, “Sony was so delighted, so happy with what Jean did. They bought him a Frederic Remington painting.”
Bill: Like, “Oh my God. That’s unbelievable.”
Jim: That’s amazing.
Bill: Yes. So, Jean-Marc called me one day, he said, “Bill, we are putting out these Moebius comics and we would love to have you involved.” I said, “So, tell me about the Moebius comics.” He says, “Well, Jean has done lots of different stories that had never been published. Some of them are just in pencil form, some are half-finished. You get first to pick on what to take from Jean and adapt.” I found an Arzach story he had done. He had penciled, I think, the first couple of pages and then roughed in two more pages, and then just lost interest. So, I took that, and then I finished the story. I made it an eight-pager and did it in sort of Arzach’s style and stuff. It ran on recently in black and white in Moebius comics and then in color in heavy metal. It’s one of my favorite stories.
Jim: That’s great. The last one I want to mention is, I have your 2013 Legends of the Blues book which I got at a Comi-Con years ago.
Bill: This is one of my favorite gigs.
Jim: I want to say how much I enjoyed that. Were you looking at it as a sequel to the Robert Crumb book that preceded it?
Bill: This is how it came about, I told you I have prostate cancer. I had surgery and I was told, “It’s going to take you two months to recover.” I go, “No, I’ll be back on my feet in a week.” No, it really took two months. But, I’m not the kind of guy that can just sit around and not do anything. So, I had the Robert Crumb trading cards and I had all this free time. So, I made a list of everybody that Robert hadn’t drawn. Personally, for me, he hadn’t drawn the chest guys, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, and he hadn’t drawn Robert Johnson. I was like, “This is great.” So, I made a list of 50 and I did 50 portraits that looked like Crumb trading cards. Just prior to that, I had done a gig for Shout Factory.
It was 2006, it was called the Year of the Blues in America. So, I have decided to put out these best-of collections. They got permission from Robert to use its trading cards as the CD covers. But, there are three people he hadn’t drawn and he didn’t want to do anymore. So, they had me draw them in the same format. I had so much fun I continued to work in that format when I was recovering from my surgery. After I finished the first 50, I called up Denis Kitchen who was Robert’s agent and an old friend mine and head of Kitchen Sink Enterprises. He was the original publisher of the trading cards, Robert’s trading cards. I said, “Look. What do you think? I told more I had done now. How about putting out a set of these as trading cards.” He said, “Bill, you notice anything unusual about Robert’s choices?” I go, “Yes, he did the really ancient guys, like sun house and stuff.” He goes, “Yes, public domain.” He says, “You guys are much later. So, you’re going to have to deal with them or their estates, get their permission and approval of their missus.” I go, “Oh, it sounds like a nightmare.”
I guess I just did these for myself. Denis said, “Would you consider doing them as a book.” I said, “Wouldn’t I run in the same problem?” He says, “No. A book is not considered exploitation like cards or T-shirts. A book is considered a benefit to the public so these rules do not apply.” I said, “Well, Denis, you’re Robert’s agent. You were his agent on the collected and card book, how about if you represent me on this.” So, I contacted Robert and Robert said, “Man, I can’t wait to see what you do.” The book access a compliment to Robert’s stuff. I was having so much fun I thought, “Well, I really love the British Blues, too.” So, I made a list of a hundred British Blues players. I got to have the modern guys, too. Paul Butterfield, Mike Bloomfield, Jimi Hendrix, Jack White, Stevie Ray Vaughan. It’s planned as a three-volume set. During this COVID-19 stuff, I’ve been getting lots of work done in that book, on the second book.
Legends of the British Blues is, let’s see, I’ve completely written it, I completely penciled it, completely inked it, and I have colored 75 out of the 100 portraits. I’ve been working on that. That was such a total joy to research because prior to that I thought, “Well, British Blues, I know everything about those guys. I know who the godfathers were and all that stuff.” I was so wrong. In my investigation, I found out all kinds of people that I wasn’t aware of who were really key to starting the British Blues explosion. I think it’s a book that will surprise a lot of people. There’ll be expected people like the Rolling Stones and The Yardbirds and The Animals and Ben Morris and stuff. There’s going to be a lot of people under that will surprise their readers.
Jim: I cannot wait for that. Because my seven-year-old is at home, we’re going through an album each day and I’m talking about it. We did B.B. King’s Cook County Jail. He said, “It sounded like old people.” We did Albert King and he said, “I like that a lot better.” When I got to the White Stripes, he goes, “I want to hear that again.”
Bill: Yes, that is a nice track.
Jim: This is how he is processing it.
Alex: Yes, that is cool.
Bill: I took my sons to see White Stripes at this tiny club. It was their first gig in LA. It was absolutely incredible.
Jim: Yes, I am a huge fan of that. Just great.
Alex: One more question before we wrap up is, you mentioned the COVID-19, how it is gotten, basically, forced a lot of people to stay indoors and work on stuff that is within their personal space. You are talking about catching up on projects like the Blues stuff. Because you have seen different industries, you have worked in different industries, how do you think this affects the pop culture industries like comics and movies? Will there be an effect, or will everything basically just go back to normal after a while? What is your prediction on all that?
Bill: I think nothing will go back to normal. I think it will form a semblance of a new normal. There is a lot of people, because of all the shutdowns, are losing their jobs and they will be entering different careers. We are going to see them again in the film, music, or book publishing business. The fact that Diamond shut down the distribution of comics, hit the comics world really hard. I do not know what the fall of that is going to be like. The streaming of the movies has become very successful and that is scaring the hell out of the theater owners.
Bill: Stuff will come back but it will not come back in the exact same form that it was.
Alex: Mm-hmm. Yes. There has been some broadcast from Jeppe that he’s going to start renewing some distribution on May 20th. I think it will probably just depend on how tight each individual state is as far as what will be distributed. Because Walmart’s considered kind of that essential location as far as groceries, then there are also some comics that are being distributed to Walmart to get to places. It will be interesting to see what happens with distribution and this and how different arms of distribution and in digital comics. Will things shift to this traditional Diamond to Walmart and digital? I do not know. It will be interesting to find out.
Bill: Yes, it is. It is a really interesting time for comics. I consider this up until the advent of the virus, a really golden age for comics. In that, it is wide open now. You can do any subject that you want, you can work in any style that you want. If you want to do a comic that is all done in pastels, you can do that. You can do oil paintings; you can do this traditional pen and ink. You can write compelling stories about being a hospital filing clerk. It is an amazing era to be experiencing comics right now.
Alex: Yes, it is. As far as artistic and what is possible for sure because anyone can do anything. That is true.
Jim: Some of the publishers like First Second and some of the other children, the inroads and the Children’s Book Stores, and what they are providing in terms of comic creators are just fantastic. I was just reading John Jay Moose’s children’s book that he just did. It was like, “God, this is just lovely, lovely stuff.” You can do so much.
Bill: Yes, I did a story for my grandson’s favorite comic which is Spook House. That is put out by Eric Powell. It is scary stories for kids.
Jim: Oh, sure.
Bill: I thought I’d just surprise him. I did a three-pager for Eric that ran in the second season of Spook House. That was total fun. There’s some great, great stuff out there. I was at a show and a writer named Frank Gold dropped out some of his books. Incredible comics for kids. So, I’ve been buying all those up for my grandsons. It’s tough now that the local comic shop, well, all the comic shops have been closed in California.
Alex: Yes. Yes, that’s the thing. There’s something about that experience of going to one. It is a nice feeling. I, for sure, miss that already. All right. Well, this has been a really fun podcast at the Comic Book Historians. Thanks so much, Bill. Jim and I are big fans of yours. It’s really impressive. It’s almost like you were kind of like that, quintessential West Coast person that his mind was open and that you just explored everything that you’ve just kind of had your mind on artistically. You never held back. You don’t have walls. You continue to be a pioneer artistically. Thanks so much for talking with us today. It was a huge deal for us.
Jim: Yes, this was a real treat for me. Thank you, Bill.
Bill: No, you’re welcome. That diversity, it’s a double-edged sword. I tell my students, I say, “Look, if you want to become famous, do the same thing over and over and over. Doing what I did. That’s the slow path to fame.” It also makes you incredibly hard to collect because you never know where my stuff is going to appear next. It could be an album cover, it could be a book, it could be a film, you never know.
Alex: Yeah, well, it sounds like Jim and I are going to have to talk about that marketing path and stuff.
Bill: Yes, I prefer that path because I used to watch my friend Bernie Wrightson after he draws his swamp thing over and over and over. That’s not for me.
Alex: Yes. Your mind is open. You’re basically absorbing and producing from all angles, it’s awesome.
Bill: Thanks. It keeps it fun for me, too.
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