"Return of the Living Dead"
Up next is an interview with RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD production designer William Stout.
1- How did you get involved with "Return of the Living Dead"?
The short answer is that I got a call from the film's line producer, Graham Henderson. He asked me to come on board. There's more to it than that, though. I knew Dan through my friendship with Ron Cobb (Ron had worked with Dan on "Dark Star", "Star Wars", "Alien" and Alejandro Jodorowsky's "Dune"). I didn't know it, but Dan was considering me for the job back then. He really liked my drawings, especially my dinosaur art. But he wasn't sure that I could handle high tech design. Then at one of Ron's parties, I showed him an "Alien Worlds" comic book cover I had done, the one with the astronaut sinking into the ground, surrounded by nasty little beasties. Dan told me later he had an "Aha!" moment seeing that piece. Because of how I had designed the astronaut's suit, Dan knew I could handle the high tech elements in "Return of the Living Dead". I later found out that I was Dan O'Bannon's second choice, his first being Bernie Wrightson. Graham lied to Dan about calling Bernie (he never did call him) because Graham wanted someone on the film with more film experience (by that time I had already worked as a storyboard artist and designer on twelve features).
2- What was it like working with Dan O'Bannon? Would you work with him again? What do you think of him, both professionally and personally?
It was both easy and difficult working with Dan --- and for the same reason: he knows exactly what he wants and he's very demanding about it. He's an artist as well, and has a great visual sense. That made my job a lot easier because we spoke a lot of the same graphic language and shorthand. It was only difficult when we disagreed (which was rare). Then, I had to come up with a lot of damn good reasons to deviate from his expressed vision.
Professionally and personally, Dan is a very complex guy. I've seen him exhibit the biggest, kindest heart in the world. On the following day he could be cold and brusque. You have to understand that directing is an awesome undertaking. The director is averaging three hours of sleep per night --- everything is on his shoulders. When you're stretched that thin, it's understandable that a guy might get snappy and have occasional lapses in social graces.
Would I work with him again? In a New York second. He's one of film's best writers, and anything he chose to direct I can guarantee you would be special.
3- Did you feel any pressure at all since you were the youngest production designer in film history?
Absolutely! I tried to make up for my naivete and lack of experience with hard work. I averaged eighteen hour days, six days a week. On Sunday I'd put in an eight hour day. I was a fully hands on designer; I spent every day on the set; I watched all of the shooting. I even helped Tony Gardner operate the half corpse and split dog.
4- Did you have any input at all in the ROTLD film poster or any other promotional art for the film?
No, sadly. I really, really wanted to do the poster for the film. I even had an idea all sketched out. But the making of films and the advertising of films are two separate worlds that rarely meet. Ironically, though, I've worked in both of them. The producers of "Return of the Living Dead" apparently didn't realize that prior to my work in making films, I had worked on the ad campaigns of over 100 movies and had drawn loads of movie posters!
Dan O'Bannon did have me do the film's Ralph Steadman-style title treatment (the red spattered scratchy lettering) that turned up on the crew shirts and a lot of the film's promo items.
5- What materials from your work on the film do you still possess?
I still have all of my original designs except for two: I sold one of my original Tar-Man designs at Comic-Con International last year, and I gave away one of my ROTLD storyboards to a contest winner as part of some ROTLD promotion. But I've still got everything else, including a storyboard book, a cast-made blooper reel and a rough cut of the film before the effects were added. I've still even got a ROTLD promotional matchbook with my ROTLD logo!
6- Which cast members were the easiest to work with? Which were difficult?
James Karen is a dream to work with and a helluva actor; I'd recommend him for any film. He would even show up on his non-shooting days to cheer on and inspire the other cast members. One day he even brought Jason Robards to the set! Don Calfa, with all of his great, funny show biz stories was another favorite of mine. He took his work SO seriously. As a filmmaker I really appreciated that.
Difficult? Despite working in what I would describe as "combat conditions" there were very few complaints from the cast. Although young, they were very professional, all ready to pitch in when needed. Brian Peck just loves special effects; he would always help when we needed a spare hand. The difficult people were behind the camera --- not in front of it.
7- Of all the work you've done, how often are you asked about ROTLD?
It's one of my most popular movies. It seems to grow in cult status each year. I can't tell you how many times I've been greeted with "More brains!" When you consider that I did a lot of work on big budget box office champs like the "Conan" films, "First Blood" and even "Raiders of the Lost Ark", it's amusing as hell that the one film everyone seems to want to know about is our little low budget pic "Return of the Living Dead."
8- Can ROTLD fans send you things to autograph? If so, how would you like the process to be handled?
I'm the world's worst mail correspondent. Send me something and you may not see it for years. That's the truth. The best thing in that regard would be to have me do it in person during one of my convention appearances. I generally appear at at least four shows around the country during the year. I'm always at San Diego's big show, Comic-Con International, where I always have a booth. Check out my website (www.williamstout.com) from time to time under "Appearances" for other shows.
9- How proud are you of your work on ROTLD? Is there anything you would've liked to have done differently?
I'm extremely proud of my work on "Return of the Living Dead", especially considering how hard it was to make that film. It turned out fine, mostly due to the strength and persistence of Dan O'Bannon's vision and great script. Having said that, there's tons of stuff that I'd have done differently, the main thing being the corpse make-ups that were so poorly executed (not Kenny Myers' stuff --- he was great) due to having a friend of the producer foisted upon me for the beginning of the shoot. Ironically, that's an area where I have a lot of friends; I could have called in lots of favors and had astounding corpses all throughout the film. I'm sure that Rick Baker would have pitched in with something amazing. Just look at my board of corpse designs entitled "The Boys"; THAT is what should have been in the film and wasn't.
10- What was the general mood on the set? Did you find it a difficult or easy environment to work in?
"Return of The Living Dead" was one of the hardest films I ever worked on. It was a real trial by fire --- so difficult and grueling that I quit the film business for about nine months afterward. The mood on the set each day was often extremely tense. They don't know it, but I came THAT CLOSE to taking out a crew member or two on occasion. I'm very protective of my crew and won't stand for their abuse.
Most low budget pictures are really tough because nearly everyone working on them is not working in the job that they really want. So you've got a whole crew of dissatisfied people who think that they can do everyone else's job better. And with a first time director --- well, EVERYONE thinks that they could do a much better job, just given the chance. They're all full of it, of course --- especially in regards to Dan.
11- Are you happy that, after many years, ROTLD is *finally* being re-released on home video? Since DVD can offer us bonus material, are you hoping sketches, etc. would be included in a stills gallery?
I'm a big video bonus fan (going back to laser discs). so I'm really happy that ROTLD might get its proper treatment on DVD. I'm hoping that my art and comments will be included on the disc, but you never know about these things. "Masters of the Universe" just got re-released on DVD with director commentary. They never even bothered to contact me even though I've got tons of stories about the making of that film and four entire flat file drawers filled with hundreds of the original paintings and designs for that film!
12- What did you think of ROTLD the first time you watched the completed film?
Except for the some of the corpses which I wished had been better executed, I loved it. It's a smart, funny film that plays by the rules and delivers a solid hour and a half of entertainment. I've watched it over and over and still get a kick from it. It really holds up.
13- Do you enjoy hearing from ROTLD fans? Any funny/odd experiences you could share?
I LOVE meeting fans! I've met ROTLD fans who can quote entire scenes, word-for-word, from the film. I'm always amazed by what an effect that film has had on people. The funny part is that Dan chose Louisville, Kentucky as the film's setting. Louisville just happened to have some huge chemical fires around the same time, so we used that real footage at the end of the film. My wife's from Louisville, too. Odd.
14- What is your creative process like?
To design a film, I first meet with the director to get a feel for what he wants. Then I read the script. Then I read it again so that it all really sinks in. Then I read it a third time and make notes. I compile a list of all the sets that have to be designed, noting whether they're interior or exterior, day shoot or night shoot, all the special effects and all the special make-ups. Basically, I put together a thorough design job work list for myself. Then I start drawing, usually painting pictures of key scenes in the film, making sure that I am in synch with the director's vision. These paintings set the tone for the rest of the production, explaining visually what we're after. They serve to inspire the studio and investors as well. As we get closer to shooting, my pictures get faster and looser; time is my enemy. I begin hiring my crews, starting with a strong art director. As production designer I am responsible for everything you see on screen except for the performances of the actors. That means I am in charge of all the set design, costumes, makeup, vehicles, special effects make-up, props, set dressing and special effects. On "Masters of the Universe" I had over 1200 people working under me. I also often argue with the director of photography about the lighting. I'm a hands-on production designer, so if it's in the budget I'll see the film all the way through post-production. Designing a film is a ton of work.
15- How much freedom did you have on designing ROTLD? Did the film's budget restrict your ideas greatly or do you prefer challenges like that?
Within Dan's strong vision I had an enormous amount of freedom. Dan trusted me to come through on things. Several times, though, I was thwarted by the line producer who often had his own agenda that had little to do with the final quality of the film that I could discern. Yet, more often than not, the line producer came to my aid when needed. He was another complex guy I have yet to figure out.
I love challenges, especially ones like "We only have a dollar and fifty cents for this; can you make it look like it cost a thousand bucks?" Anybody can make a thousand bucks look like a thousand bucks; there's no trick to that.
16- Are your children old enough to watch ROTLD? If so, have they and what did they think?
I made the mistake of running a video of ROTLD at my Mom's house during a holiday visit. Everything was great until Tar-Man appeared. My four year old son shot straight up out of his chair, screaming, and ducked behind the chair. He wouldn't come out until we had popped the video out of the machine. I had forgotten about the potency of that scene and that great performance by Allan Trautman.
17- Have you seen the 2 sequels to "Return of the Living Dead"? If so, what did you think of them?
I have not seen either of them. I was offered the first sequel. I read the script and was shocked, angered and deeply offended that entire sections of Dan O'Bannon's original script had been plagiarized. I couldn't believe that these people could be so clueless.
What made "Return" special was that it was original in concept and design. That fact has been (and apparently still is) lost on the powers-that-be who mistakenly thought that people went to see the original "Return" because of the strength of the "Living Dead" title brand. That indeed may have gotten the first few bodies into the theaters, but after that it was the word-of-mouth about how funny, creepy and especially original Dan's film was that kept them coming back for more. That is exactly what has made the first film (and not the sequels) a cult classic; it's not merely because it had the good fortune of having "Living Dead" in the title.