May 19th, 2012 (Part 1)
MH: Okay, so last time we talked about the film scene in the 60s and all about you and where you come from. So this time I'd love to focus on comic book store and that whole story. And it's like there's kind of a bunch of entrance ways into that, but I guess my first question would be: You met Lucas doing the festival circuit with the student films, is that right?
ES: No. I never met him.
MH: Okay, you saw him?
ES: No, no. George had made THX 1138 at USC, and I made Item-72D at NYU. Item-72D— what I like to say was the first big science fiction made at film school, but George did it like a few months before us. So they were the two important science fiction films in the festival circuit at that time.
And I'd won a couple of rewards, but he had won more. Of course he had Walter Murch and Francis Coppola, and all these great guys. John Byrom wrote the screenplay, and I actually saw John a couple weeks ago. He was in the city. They showed The Razor's Edge at the Rubin Museum and I went down to say hello. I hadn't seen him for 25 years. He has really white hair now.
So I was aware of him because people used to confuse our movies. They'd say to me, "Oh, you made that THX movie!", and I go "No!" He would he was sort of, not on purpose, but stealing my thunder. Marty Scorsese taught at NYU at the time, and he took my film all over the world, which was really nice; I mean people really liked it.
MH: Is it available to see anywhere?
ES: Well, that's a really good question. I need to have it re-transferred now, digitally. I was thinking about it recently. I have a VHS tape of it, which is just so so. There are a lot of people in the film that went on to become very well know. Hervé Villechaize is the one that most people know, he was a small person. He was on Fantasy Island and The Man with the Golden Gun, he plays knick knack on the James Bond film. We were very good friends.
There are people that work with Ingmar Bergman in the film, people that it went on to work with Robert Downey Sr. We got a lot of good people.
Well, that's a whole story about making that film, but that's how— I have no— I don't think I ever asked him if he knew about my film. Interesting, it's funny, it never came up. But I remember telling him the story and how he used to piss me off so much because, I mean he wasn't doing it on purpose, but there it was.
It's one of the reasons I changed the title of the movie from Item-72D to Item-72D Adventures of Spa and Fon, was so that it stood out from THX 1138. They were inadvertently similar. So, no I never met him at that time.
Ask me another question, I'll get refocused
MH: So when when did you meet him?
ES: Well, I met him through Jay Cox who was well, let's see at that time I'd known Jay for maybe three, four years. We had met — I remember exactly when I met him — it was in Washington DC during a very big, very famous student strike in May or June of 1970. Because this is when we were filming that film Street Scenes. Have you looked up Street Scenes yet?
MH: I looked up it up, yeah.
ES: So you see all the people that worked on that. I would love to see it again, somebody's trying to find his tape of it for me. George worked on the film about Altamont, Give Me Shelter, I think that's the one that you worked on. So it was funny, it was an interesting sort of parallel in our lives.
George had just made American Graffiti and Jay was the— I guess he was the film critic at Time Magazine at that time. It was he and Richard Schickel. I think Dick Schickle was— Well, Dick was there before Jay and Dick was sort of slowly moving out of doing that, into producing films. He did a wonderful documentary called The Men Who Made the Movies, if you can ever find it it's great. It's all these first-person interviews with all the key figures and movies who were alive then, this was in the 70s.
So by coincidence I had run into Jay. Jay is in that film, he and Verna (Fields?) were in Washington because he was covering the student strike for Time. And He and Verna were dating and so she came with him and they were in this hotel room, when I filmed this discussion amongst all these people who were there.
And I had always liked comic books from when I was a kid, but especially I loved Walt Disney comic books and Uncle Scrooge. But I liked other things too, EC comic books and I was really into comic books as an art form and a storytelling form. When I was in college— I been a been a painter almost all my life, I was painter and an artist, and I studied with an artist named Audrey Flack. You can look Audrey up (spells last name). She's one of the most famous photo realist American painters. I didn't know who she was when I was studying with her, but we got along very well.
I turned her on to comic books, this was when I was in school, because the guys who were good were really good. Their knowledge of anatomy was extraordinary, there are comic book artists who were not so good, but somebody like Frank Rosetta, or Johnny Ramita, or all the EC comic guys, Al Williamson, Wally Wood, Reed Crandall. I had become friends with Wally Wood. You can look him up too (spells last name), while I was still in school. I used to study yoga and — it's funny story — I would go to this yoga school that was run by Swami Satchidananda who was a wonderful man. One of the few guys who wasn't a phony, he was the real deal. He was a sincere, traditional holy man. He had no money. He lived very simply. He practiced what he preached, unlike a million other guys. I mean the worst of them now is this Deepak Chopra guy, don't get me started.
So Satchidananda had a school on West End Avenue, and I would go and the men's changing room was formerly a closet. So, we would all be in there and it was like, I don't know, four feet wide and on one side there was a coat rack so you could hang your pants up, and on the other side was two feet where you squeeze in with all these other sweaty guys trying to get into the t-shirts. And Peter Max used to go there, that's how I know Peter. It was a very popular place as it turned out, because it was the best of all of them. I'd just always been interested in yoga when I was a kid, and I somebody took me there and I was so pleased to find a real place to go. I ended up being a yoga instructor for many years, I was really into it.
I was very asthmatic as a child and I studied yoga breathing, and it really helped me. So I'm standing there, and this guy is taking his pants off, a little shorter than I was. And we were chatting as you do when you're standing around in your underwear and I said "what do you do?" and he says "well, I used to draw comic books". I said "oh cool," I said "what's your name?", and he says "oh people call me Woody". And I sort of stopped in my tracks, and I said "you're not Wally Wood are you?". Are he goes "how the hell do you know who I am?" and I was young and gushy and... anyway we became very good friends. That's a whole, very interesting story, that I won't tell you.
But Woody was a sad case. He was a very depressed man. And I was happy I got to spend time with him, but anyway. But you know, these guys were the best of the best, so a little bit at a time I've become friends with all these people.
And there was a man named so Phil Seuling (spells last name). Phil was the second guy to start comic book conventions. The first was a man named David Kaylor (spells last name) who ended up working for me years later, David was this gay guy who loved comic books and had been very prescient, and he had a little quiet comic book convention before, but very much like the one that Shel Dorf had in San Diego. It's documented in Morgan Spurlock's film Comic-Con, which is just playing around. I new Shel, but I never went to his thing and now, you know, the ComicCon in San Diego is a zoo. I mean a 150,000 people go there.
But it really started here in New York, because the business was here. The comic book business started in New York City in the late 30s. I'm not going to go into the history of it, but just to... a few of the people that feed into the story.
Did you read Mad Magazine as a child, ever? Do you know who William C Gaines was? Bill Gaines was the publisher, but his father was MC Gaines (spells last name) and we published what was called Famous Funnies, which became not the first comic book, but the first very popular comic book. So Bill started in that business and he published EC comic books, which are the greatest comic books ever done. Mostly remembered for Tales from the Crypt, but all of the finest comic book artists in history worked for Bill. The only thing that remains of that Empire is Mad.
I'd become friendly a little bit at a time with all these guys, because I really admired them a great deal, and I think part of me at one time had wanted to draw comic books. I ended up, for a whole lot of reasons, not following up on it. I did actually draw a comic strip when I was in college. I drew a couple of installments of it, it was called Suny Daze (spells it). It was a political satirical, strip that a friend of mine wrote. His name was Jeremy Taylor (spells it), he's become a very popular writer of sort of self-help books. I haven't seen him in years, but he was a political firebrand when we were kids, he was older than I. So he wrote it and I drew it.
And then I had become interested in film, I think I told you that; Peter Adair. So I drifted away from wanting to draw comic books, but I was amongst the first group of people that was really interested in making comic books into movies.
So this fellow Seuling put on a comic book convention, which in those days was fairly small, but they grew and grew, and what survives of that in New York City, is the Comic-Con at the Jacob Javits Center in the fall.
So I went to one of these one Sunday and Jay walked in with Bobby DeNiro. And we got in a conversation about Marty, and at that time I was living on East 83rd Street and Jay lived very close by, so we started to get together and visit and talk and stuff.
I had opened a small business to make a little extra money because getting to write screenplays is a long, slow, torturous process. And originally it was a sublet on a side street. And Jay used to come in all the time because he was into it too. We both really loved it as a literary form. This is long before that term graphic novel had been coined, you know the term now? People didn't— graphic novel is a sort of pretentious way of renaming comic books so that they don't sound like trash. People thought the comic books were trash.
Somewhere around this time. I got a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to do a film interviewing all the great living comic book and comic strip artists, it's how I met some more people. Milton Caniff, Chuck Jones who actually wrote a comic strip, people don't know it, Ray Bradbury, some Disney people, Dick Cumer and Hal Foster who did Prince Valiant, Jack Kirby, sure you know Jack Kirby is? Jack and I had been very good friends before he moved to California. And most, well maybe not most importantly, but Carl Barks who was the guy that Invented Uncle Scrooge, and was a really key figure in my life. He was my hero.
So I had a small circle of friends that appreciated comic books the same way I did. I found myself in business, and the people who were coming in, I don't know, you know, they just read comic books. It wasn't the same— It was hard for me, because they didn't see it the same way that I did, but Jay did. So we used to talk and Marty used to come by all the time and— Look it was...
All the professionals found out about this store a little bit at a time. We moved the store from East 83rd Street onto Second Avenue. A fellow who had opened a shoe store died, and his son sold us the— he got what they called key money to give us the lease. It's hard to get places.
And the day that we moved and opened it up a writer for the New York Times came by and was just smitten with it because there'd never been anything like it. There's a fellow named Robert Beerbohm (spells name). He's a great character, he lives in the midwest, but he knows a lot about this too. If you ever really get into it.
He did a history and it turns out there was one store in Northern California that have been exclusively a comic book store about a year before this one, so this was the second one in history, but the first one in New York City. There are people that had antique shops that sold comic books, but this was just only comic books, that's all we had.
I had met a guy from Englishtown, New Jersey that I could buy old comic books from wholesale, very inexpensively. And that's what started it, made it feasible.
The Overstreet Price Guide that just been published (spells overstreet). Bob Overstreet did a price guide to comic books, and that's what really kicked everything off. That's a whole long story. I won't tell you that, but if you want to get the pieces of the puzzle...
Everybody came in the store. Stan Lee used to come in, these people would walk in the door and introduce themselves to me. I remember Bill Everett walked in one-day. Bill Everett invented the Submariner, which is one of the only ones— they haven't made the Submariner movies yet, but they will, because they want it for The Avengers.
A lot of these guys had a hard time, they were all freelancers, they didn't have a pension, and they eventually found themselves out of work. Stan Lee — whatever a lot of people may say about him — hired back all of his friends from the 1940s. He was, and still is, an important guy and like anything else there are politics to the comic book business and people have strong opinions about Stan Lee, and Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko. But Stan, in his way, generally helps a great many people. So I just got to be friends with all these guys, because I was a professional writer, and I was a filmmaker, and an artist. So I related to them on their own ground, I was not your typical businessman and probably not a very good one; I managed to pay the rent.
But one day Jay walked in with George Lucas and Gary Kurtz. It was right after American Graffiti it come out and George and Gary used to come to New York City all the time because they were "discussing accounting" with the Universal.
All of the movie studios, I'll say this categorically, engage in "creative accounting," and I remember this very well because what Universal had done, is they re-released The Sting, which had won so man Academy Awards, and American Graffiti, which won some as well. I can't remember for score, or editing, I don't rememberwhat it was, but it was nominated for a number of things. So they put them on a double Bill and then claimed because The Sting had won more awards than American Graffiti, that a higher percentage of the box office belonged to The Sting. So, there were many discussions about this.
And it was funny that years later ended up working for Universal, and I had an office in the same offices that George and Gary used to come to all the time.
Well George wanted to make Flash Gordon, and they had done pretty well financially when American Graffiti, and he was in the market to buy some original art. And at that time comic book original art was cheap. You know. If only I had been rich; but I still have some nice things.
So I found some Alex Raymond originals for George, and he just used to come around all the time because we got along very well. We were interested in all the same things. And I always say, I might have said it to you before, that in all the years that I've known him, I've always just really enjoyed and admired what he did. I've never been jealous of him, because if you put me down, alone in a room and said come up with a movie, I wouldn't have come up with Star Wars.
I came up with a film that was just like Close Encounters. I came up with a film that was just like Indiana Jones. I mean, it's uncanny. I used to think that Spielberg had put a radio implant my brain and was stealing my brain waves. It was funny, but it was annoying sometimes.
I think I told you the story, if I didn't I'll tell it to you later, George came over my house one day and I was writing this film called Starship Under. And I'd hired Howie (Howard) Chaykin, this comes back into the story, to do storyboards for me, this is before Howie was famous. Do you know who he is? Howie was just like one of the guys that we used to— my girlfriend, and I— Howie Chaykin Barry Smith. I don't remember who, oh Mike Kaluta, Bernie Wrightson. Do you know any of these people? Well they're now all the mainstays of comics, but we were all young and we'd go out for beer and have dinner, you know, it was just the guys that I hung out with.
So I liked Howie's style, and I'd hired him to do storyboards for my movie. I remember George sitting on my sofa one day with his feet up going through these drawings, and he's saying "boy, these are really great who drew these?" And I said, "I'm not telling you, he works for me".
And he says "well..." and then he gets this one, and he says "there's a scene in Stephen's movie that looks just like this". And I said, "what?" and he says "yeah", it was a big, big secret. I mean nobody knew anything about Close Encounters, nobody knew the fucking name of the movie! So there I was. George and Stephen are like really best friends, and they always helped each other on the pictures. People used to say that they would trade two percent on each other's films and then consult. Which meant they'd look at the cuts, and go to the screenings, and read the scripts. You know, the same thing we would do for any close friend, but they made it a business arrangement, so that was never any friction about it.
But I've always just enjoyed George's pictures, I loved Red Tails, I thought it was just great. I hope they make the other two movies. It's a wonderful idea to do it. Just before the movie opened said, George said "gee, I hope you enjoy it," and I said... Well, I just knew I would.
The worst mistake they ever made was Howard the Duck, and I remember talking to George about that a couple years before they made it. He always wanted to do it. But they made a mistake on the script. Too bad. I used to hang out with Steve Gerber who invented Howard the Duck. He was a great character. If you ever want to know about him, I'll tell you the stories about that, but Gerber was this strange guy with a really unique sense of humor. It didn't translate well to film and I suspect they got scared in the middle of the film because it was too cerebral, and they started throw sight-gags in it, and they sank it. It's too bad, but it's still a unique picture. It's not like anything.
MH: That's true.
ES: What can you say?
So the big view is that for all those years whenever George and Gary or George and Marsha would come to New York, they'd always call me up. We'd go out to lunch or dinner, and very early on George gave me a script. <illegible> and it's called The Star Wars: The Adventures of Luke Starkiller from the Journal of the Whills (spells). It's the very first script, and he said read this, tell me what you think. So, I don't know, I'm guessing this about 1973? '72 or '73.
I still have it in the interoffice envelope from Universal, because they had a little Bungalow at Universal. Studios. I used to go there all the time, it was great, I loved that. It was in the woods at Universal and California; Universal City. There were these little buildings all surrounded by trees and lawns, so it was it's like walking into a forest someplace, they were little two-story buildings, and I guess either they gave them to you or you rented them? I don't know what the deal was and I never thought to ask.
And I was in and out of there all the time, because when I went to make this film on the National Endowment Grant, we went to visit Carl Barks — this all a lot of order I'm afraid — but Carl Barks lived in Goleta at the time. He was very secretive, he didn't like anybody to know who he was, or where he was. He's a whole story. My interviews with him have been published a couple times. Some people consider them that best interviews. I think it's because I was an artist, so I was very interested in his work from the point of view of how did he draw them, how did he write the stories, how how was everything laid out. And I don't think early on, nobody asked those questions, they just wanted him to do fan drives and get his autograph. Carl and Gary and I became very, very close friends over the years and I really loved him. I mean he was— he became like my great uncle or my grandfather or something, I don't know what, I'm being silly.
MH: Was Gary involved with that movie?
ES: No, no, but the before we were going to drive down there I was over at the office and Gary who is very shy and very quiet – the both of them are very quiet — George is a very quiet guy, he's come out of himself that he's become a pretty good public speaker in his own way. He's very much to the point. But you used to be able to not get three words in a row out of him and Gary was worse. Gary the most reclusive person ever.
(phone rings) Excuse me. breakfast on an assistant. Yeah, you got these marketing calls until alone. They random dial your phone, and if you pick it up you go into a database and they keep calling you that so if I don't know who it is. I don't pick up. Research. you know what
You know what, I need to return this call.
This is very old friend of mine who oddly enough fits into the story. Oh well, you'll record this. Ask me when I get off the phone, I'll tell you this little tory, I'm going to call her. It's just, this is a story about how it's a small world. As you know I was born and grew up in Buffalo, New York and for a short time I went to the University of Buffalo and at that time I had wanted to be a journalist, which still sort of interest me, I still write for Publications when they ask me. But I made some friends two of whom were Roberta Friedman and her her then boyfriend, whom we later found out she was married to.
Oh, I'm blocking his name, no matter but I can tell you another time if it's important. Anyway, we were, you know, buddies. They were the people I hung out with, the same way I used to hang out with all the comic book guys in New York, and all my friends from NYU. We'd go out to dinner, go to the movies. I don't know what you call that.
(Is it okay?) You're okay, and Okay, so.
We stayed in touch, and I hadn't seen Roberta in years and one day. another friend of mine, Michael Jablow, who he's become a film editor and lived in the neighborhood and used to come in my book store to get comic books, he and I become friends because he was film editor, which is what I used to do; I cut a lot of movies.
And he walks in with Roberta. And I said "Roberta, what are you doing here?," and it turns out that independently she had become friends with Michael. So we were back in touch and I would see her from time to time, and then she moved to LA. She was a very devoted experimental filmmaker, she makes what I like to call dancing dot movies, which are these movies where the screen turns green and purple dots dance all over it, either in rhythm to the music or not, and then the dots turn yellow and red, and that goes on for a long time. Sometimes with or without music so I call those dancing dot movies. She was very good at it, and had retrospectives.
So I'm in LA once, and I don't remember how this happened, but I ended up having lunch with her and she was a post-production special effects supervisor on The Empire Strikes Back, so she was working for Gary. I mean, talk about a small world, this was none of my doing, do you understand, and just one of those small world coincidenes.
Anyway back to what I was saying, so I'm in the office and Gary goes (mimics coughing) and he says "do you suppose you could get Mr. Barks to sign something for me?" I said "sure," so he pulls out one of the rarest of all the Uncle Scrooge comic books, it's the one called Back to the Klondike, I think it's called, Back to the Klondike. And I said "where do you want to sign it, on the cover?," and he opened it up and said "no, no," and there's is little white space at the bottom of the first page of every comic book, and he says "have him sign it in there".
And I remember later showing it to Carl, who was not young and couldn't see well, and he's going "that's not much space!" and he went and he signed this little, tiny— I asked him if he wanted it signed to him, and I think he signed it to Gary.
And George was very excited about— we were comic book fans, you have to understand, we were what they've now called geeks. But this is before comic books became what they are now. The Avengers, a true comic book movie if ever there was one, is now about to become the top grossing motion picture in world history. It's just astounding. No one would have guessed, and Mike uslan who does the Batman movies told me that when he bought the rights to Batman people told him he was crazy, they said "you're wasting your money". I always dreamt of making some of the Uncle Scrooge comic books into movies. I just I so wanted to do it.
Did I tell you the story about having a job interview at Disney?
Well, let me back up and tell you that very briefly when I was at NYU some girl at school with, I don't remember her name anymore, she was just a lovely. Woman, I'm sorry. I've lost touch with her, but she got some kind of a writing scholarship at Disney. I jad no idea these things existed, I was just busy producing and directing as many films since I could do.
I worked on everybody's movies. I would just— my whole idea then and now is if you want to learn how to do something, you do it. You just keep doing it and doing it. Reading about it is no good. The number of biographies and autobiographies of film people that I've actually, you could count them on one hand. I just watched a documentary that Marty made about Elia Kazan. I couldn't sleep one night. I watched it at four in the morning on Renee's iPod. And it was sensationally good, and I hate saying that about anything that's only an inch and a half high and three inches wide, but it was remarkable, and Marty said it took him a little while to learn to focus on the work and not the man. I'd never known this he never said it to me, but Kazan's movies were what really inspired Scorsese.
As far as I knew it was cowboy movies, you know, I mean Marty love every kind of movie in the world. We used to go to the movies all the time, that's really how I know him, is because we used to go to the movies. We were always going to the movies, Gaery, George, and I would always go to the movies, all the time!
So that's what it was for me. I saw the movies as just the work, you know, the more movies I saw the more I tried to figure out how they were written, or how they were photographed, and I would do all those things. I even worked in a film lab, I mixed the chemicals to develop film for a guy who was later arrested for becoming a bootlegger. I didn't know it at the time, but he turned up in jail one day and boy was I glad I wasn't around.
So, what was I saying?
MH: Carl Barks.
ES: So the Carl Barks thing, oh, yeah, I know what it was: she arranged for me to get job interview with the story apartment at Disney, and I went and I was thrilled to death. That's what I wanted to do. I wanted to work for Disney. I dreamt of it my whole life when I was a kid. Without telling you the whole story there was an exhibit called The Art of Animation, that was really a promotion for Sleeping Beauty, but they tried it out in Buffalo Buffalo Museum of Science? And I was taking art classes there at the time, so every week for 3-4 months, I spent three hours a week in this exhibit. I still have drawings I did from this exhibit. It's how I learned all about animation from this, it was a wonderful exhibit.
Years later I worked on Nemo with Ken Anderson, who was an animator and later a design guy, he designed Robin Hood, and Ken was lovely man. And they hired him to work on Nemo in LA and we got to be friends, I hadn't known him well before then. And I told him this, and he said "oh, I went to Buffalo dozens of times to set that exhibit up". He was one of the designers, so see you know, it's a small world. I know that sounds stupid, but it is a small world and Disney wrote a song about it, so there you go. I won't sing it unless you're really rotten to me, then I'll sing. You'll be sorry.
The guy that interviewed me was very nice and he said "there's nothing to do, Walt's dead," he says "we don't make anything here anymore". They made TV shows, and he said "there's hardly any opportunity for directors because the only thing they did was the intros and outros for the Disney shows".
They weren't doing hardly any original programming. It's when I think Ron Miller was running a studio at the time. The football player that Diane married. And he said he'd keep me in mind, but they took me through the whole studio and the story department and I told him all the stuff I wanted to do. I wanted to make a film from a book called The Crock of Gold and he took me — in the story department they had a room, it's about the size of this restaurant, maybe a little, and the walls will lined with file cabinets, and they had coverage on every book ever written and some that weren't — and they had wanted to make A Crock of Gold. He pulled it out, and somebody had read the book and evaluated it, and it eventually became Darby O'Gill and the Little People. And I've never known that. But there was— you know, I had been very tuned in somehow. This is a great mystery to me, if you let me I'll refer to it often, but this book The Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, he really nails this. I'm a mystic. There are two things I believe in life: one is to the best of your ability, you need to be kind to people. Kindness is the most important thing there is. All the other religious talk, I don't know, but if you're kind I think you can't do better than that. And the other thing is I don't understand it all. The great mysteries in life is where were you before you were born? Where do you go after you die? And what's the best thing to do in between, and it's just from my point of view, it's unknowable. So I have these, I call them mystic beliefs. My favorite quote, this sums it up for me: Jean Cocteau, the French filmmaker, (spells it). Find out who he. Blood of a Poet?
MH: Wages of Fear?
ES: No, somebody else. That's somebody else, and I'm not thinking what his name is. You look up Cocteau.
But he said once, "the thing that amazes me most in life is that when I take a bath I don't desolve". Think about it. You can either take that for granted, or you can say "well, that's amazing." I'm of the point of view that the most amazing thing in life is that when I take a bath, I don't dissolve
So all these things happen. You meet this person, you talk to that person, this thing hooks up with that thing. I have no idea. I don't understand, but it's endlessly fascinating to me. Kurt Vonnegut wrote about in Cat's Cradle. That's what it's all about, is how the hell do people meet each other, why, and what does it mean?
So it ended up— I never worked at Disney, but I pitched them some of the comic books. There was and Uncle Scrooge comic where he goes to the bottom of the ocean, and I loved that. I still think it made a great film. When it came around many years later, and they did DuckTales for television. Did you ever see that? The original ones were all taken directly from Carl Barks stories. I actually sat in Carl's living room with him and watched DuckTales.
I have a photograph of Carl watching DuckTales. I was very jealous in a way, I would have loved to written those. I came up with a great script, and I pitched it to the producer, and he loved it. They called me in the office because they liked it so much, but they had only just a week before bought a script that was superficially similar, and you only do so many shows in the season, and he wasn't going to contract for two shows that resembled each other. Too bad.
Carl Barks comes back in the story after Star Wars comes out. Remember to ask me one of these days. So, George, well I could tell you really good story, this has been published this story, but it's still good story, and I can't lay my hands on the published version, so I might as well just tell it to you.
George had wanted to make Flash Gordon, you know this I'm sure, because this is common knowledge. They really wanted to make it and Flash Gordon— the rights had moved from Universal to King Features Syndicate. Now, American Graffiti was Universal and they went to Universal and said "we'd like to do this," and they said "well too bad, we don't own it anymore". So they went to King Features Syndicate, which is here in New York on the east side, they're over near the river up on the second floor someplace, on a side street.
And they had all these meetings and King Features said "well, who are you? If we're going to give Flash Gordon to somebody, we want it to be somebody famous, like oh, I don't know Fellini. If Federico came to us we'd let him do it." Now this was in the era of what they called pop art, are you aware of this movement? Pop art? And King features famously published for pop art posters. One was a Flash Gordon. One was a Price Valiant. One was of the Phantom. And what was the other one? Oh, no isn't that a good question. Well they measured about 18 by 24 inches. They were full color, and they were ready for framing. I guess they sold a lot of them. It's one of the things that brought con folks out of the closet. It's that the imagery was iconic to people? And no one had ever stopped to think that there were actually human beings who wrote and drew them. You threw your dime at the newsstand, took it home, read it, and threw it away, or traded it with your friends, or wrapped fish in it. That was the joke about Mad Magazine, that it was suitable for wrapping fish, or garbage.
That was the idea. People thought ill of comic books, and the reason I got a grant from the federal government was that I said "look, the two great American art forms — uniquely American art forms — are jazz. and comic books". They didn't happen anywhere else really, not the comic book, there are precursors to the form in Europe. There are cartoons with dialogue balloons that go back to the 17th century in England. But no comic books. Trashy paper, full color. Superman. Batman. That was a uniquely American thing. So I thought that was a worthy topic.
So I got some money from the government and made this film, that ended up in fragments on CBS. That's another whole story. But this is while I owned the shop and I had started, in doing research, I had started to meat all these people. And I became really good friends with a fellow and his girlfriend, who actually lived on the east side near where I did.
And they were in charge of destroying all the original art at King Features Syndicate. Let me say that again. They were paid by the hour, to take the original art, and tear it up, and throw it away.
ES: Well, some genius at King features Syndicate had been sold a microfilm system that worked with sixteen millimeter film, and they photographed it— what you need to remember is that, at that moment in time, which was 72-73, nobody was reprinting comic strips from the 1930s except in Italy and in Spain.
And it wasn't a big contributor the bottom line. They were doing better licensing Betty Boop than they were Flash Gordon and The Phantom, and some of them were still being syndicated in newspapers, but it wasn't a big profit center for them, and they were arrogant and didn't see the value of this stuff.
This is art work that's now, the least of it, is worth tens of thousands of dollars. Beach. They had Prince Valiant, they had Flash Gordon, they had Krazy Kat. They had Little King. They had everything. I remember that vividly. I used to handle them all the time. That artwork if it were all together in one place, now would be worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Disney did the same thing. They took all the cells from Snow White and they sold them at Disneyland for a dollar. They just wanted to get rid of them. So this was in the air, King Features was not significantly more stupid than everybody else. It's just how people thought. But thankfully— well what they did every day is, they take out the original art, they put it down under this camera, and they photograph it unto a little tiny strip of microfilm, which was then developed and filed away.
Let me skip ahead for a minute. That microfilm? It was great. Oh was just great. When the explosion of reprints happened, and they went back to the microfilm on the stuff that they had destroyed? The images were so grainy and so blurry, they had to pay people to retouch them all in ink. They had to blow them back up to a reasonable size and pay people to retouch them all. But Debbie and her boyfriend — what was his name, Chris — they were a extremely idealistic, very smart and more than a little larcenous.
And they worked out a system of getting the stuff in garbage cans and then picking it up before the garbage trucks came. Thank God they did it. They rescued thousands and thousands and thousands of pieces of some of the most important American artwork in history. And well, yeah illegally, but so what? It would have been in a landfill or in an incinerator. Some other friends of mine did that at DC Comics; they were paid to tear the stuff up, and they tore it up in such a way that they could tape it back together again, so they could steal it every night. It was Marv Wolfman and Len Ween (sp?), and then God they did it. They're top writers now. The thing all these people had in common is that they loved this stuff.
So, King features had told George and Gary to go take a hike. He just wasn't famous enough for them. I don't know. They must have made him an offer and they just didn't want to take it.
So one day I said "George, some friends of mine work at King". I said "have you ever seen the artwork" and he goes "nooo," and I said "interested?" and he says "Oh, yeah!"
So we snuck him in up the back stairs. We didn't go through the office because they all knew who he was, because he'd been up there so much. And I remember coming up this flight of stairs and you turn left from the stairs, and there was this room with a window and they had a big table, and all this stuff was there. It was the original art and the proof sheets. I still have some Prince Valiant proof sheets which are full size black and white proof sheets, and they're gorgeous. I have to find somebody to give them to. I have dozens of them. Not as many as I wish I had, but...
So for, I don't know, two to three hours, George and I sat in the back room at King Features Syndicate reading Flash Gordon off the original Alex Raymond drawings. Just page after page after page of it. It was wonderful. I've no idea where they went.
From time to time I would get one for him. I mean he wasn't super wealthy the way he is now, but he could afford to buy things that I certainly couldn't. I'm so glad he did, because. they're there, he still has them. He said, it was funny, at the Red Tails screening, he says "oh, you know I'm still collecting comic art, I still have all that stuff," and I laughed. He says " it's just like the old days, nothing's changed," he says "nothing's changed".
So this project 'The Star Wars' started to evolve over time. They had the script and he was particularly interested in meeting people who could do a comic book or do storyboards, and ultimately, initiallysomebody who could do a poster. Now he's working with Ralph McQuarrie at the time.
And when I made the film on the National Endowment Grant one of the people I interviewed was George. We went over to Ralph's house. Ralph had a little studio out behind his house, I remember it had a screen door on a spring that would slam closed every time you opened and closed it. He had a drawing table and it turned out, I might have said this to you, but it's now in sort of chronological order, it turned out I had the only photographs of George and Gary and I and Ralph McQuarrie together in his studio, and the only photographs of the drawings sitting out on his drawing board and on the wall. They've been reprinted a million times now, they're in The Art of Star Wars books. It's like the frontispiece in The Art of Ralph McQuarrie.
I have photos of the original Millennium Falcon. Make sure you ask me the Millennium Falcon story.
MH: I would love to do that.
ES: And I had George on camera as the only person that ever interviewed him on camera at the time, and I kept asking him— What I used to do is pre interviews. This is how it used to work in those days, this is sort of interesting to know. 16 millimeter film was very expensive. And you couldn't just turn the camera on and record the way that you're doing now. You're not even using tape, this is going on to a computer chip. And you'll, I don't know, upload it to your computer. I don't know how you work, but it's a little file of dits and dots. Not literally, but figuratively, and 16mm movie film, well you had to buy the film, you had to develop it, you had to workprint it. It was a whole long process. In those days it cost tens of thousands of dollars, in modern terms, it cost hundreds of thousands dollars to shoot in 16, which is theoretically the cheapest of all the forms.
Now you can go buy a little cassette for six bucks and shoot two hours. You can use a hard drive and just reuse it. I mean you don't have to use materials.
So you'd pre-interview people. My crew and I — was Michael Sullivan and Sam Grossman and I — went over to George's house and pre-interviewed him for like an hour or so. I remember Sam fitting a microphone on him, and I think we have a photograph of it. I have photos of this. so if you get your act together I'll give you some of the photos. But you have to do something nice with it.
MH: I'd love to.
ES: So. (phone rings) Excuse me again.
(Comes back, we're trying to find the topic) Yes, I know what it was. We we pre-interviewing George at his house, and he and Marcia had a little house on Lucas Street, I said "is it anything," he said "no, it's just a coincidence,", and it was a sweet little house. It had the strangest backyard. The backyard was entirely taken up by one tree. There was no room for anything else except this tree. There was no grass. There were no flowers. There was just this tree from the back of the house to this fence and then to the sides of the houses next to it. And I remember they had a really great little rocking horse, a wooden rocking horse, in the house.
And it had a little bedroom and... (food arrives)
Georgia had just come back — I don't remember what he did; a radio show? — somebody interviewed him for something and I remember him, he said he mentioned this book, The Hero With a Thousand faces, the Campbell book. And I remember him saying that he told them that he was interested in that kind of mythology, and he said "do you think that's a good thing?" and I said "yeah, I mean, that's a good book. It's an interesting thing." So far as I know that was the first time he ever talked about that in an interview.
But over the years he and Joe Campbell became friendly and a lot of the interviews for PBS were done at George's house. So it went way back. I guess he'd taken an anthropology course at one time or another. It seems to me he went to a junior college someplace, but I could be wrong.
But he and his sister had a big comic book collection and because I was making a film about the influences of cartoon art, comic strips, comic books, I kept pressing him about that and he said that there wasn't a comic book influence on Star Wars. I've always suspected that that was because at the time comic books were considered so low class that he may not have wanted to have stigmatized it. I even asked him that on camera. I thought I could nail him, and he wouldn't answer the question, he was annoyed.
I didn't interview Ralph on camera; we didn't have enough film. I mean these days you'd walk in with a digital camera. You could interview the cockroaches.
I have quarter inch tape of that interview someplace. If or somebody comes up with a budget I'll find it. Nobody has ever heard that interview.
MH: From that period that's very rare.
ES: I ought to find it and get it done and send it to George. I don't think he says anything emberrasing.
MH: It's always fun to hear the stories fro come back before— by now he's been interviewed so many times he can't help but just tell the same story again and again, almost. He must have told it a thousand times. But back then it was so fresh.
ES: Well it hadn't happened yet. There was no Star Wars, only those paintings. And not even all the paintings. It was still Luke Starkiller, and Chewbacca look different. I mean it was really different, it was different. This was absolutely before the Millennium Falcon as we know it had happened. It was a big struggle to get that design.
(a lot of noise) It's Chinatown.
There are never quite happy with this earlier design. I actually have photographs of George making pencil marks on Ralph's painting. That's what they were talking about the day I was there. The painting wasn't finished yet. It was a long thin ship, with sort of two sections in the center and a lot of glass, and it wasn't resonating with them.
Sometime later George came by in New York and asked me if I had any pictures from Disney's Mars and Beyond? (youtube.com/watch?v=E0sbqqYo97s). Have you ever seen it?
ES: Disney did a couple of space programs. Men in Space, mars and Beyond, and there's one other one—which is a drama—and I can't remember what it's called. They're on DVD now, you can get them, they're very good.
So, Willie Lane and some of the other German scientists from Project Paperclip, were working for the Air Force I guess it was—Werner von Braun—and they were advisors and were doing these shows that were a projection of how we would go into space, and they're awfully good. They hold up really well after 60 years.
To Mars and Beyond is a whole show about the kinds of ships that they're going to have to build to get to Mars and they made a fleet for the film, which is animated, but at the top is a kind of big disk almost looks like a flying saucer and then it has a long sort of cone-shaped column hanging down from the center. It looks a lot like some of the cloud city.
But I had a very, very rare little Disney book that I loaned to George and never got it back. He's still got it someplace! It had pictures of it. And I think that round part was a kind of seminal idea for the Millennium Falcon. At least it changed the shape the Falcon doesn't look exactly like this at all. Cloud City looks more like it, but it's a different idea than Cloud City. These were supposed to be spaceships.
My guess is that it was developed at ILM. They had a room where they had all these model kits. You know about this? Every kind of model kit there was, but especially these great Japanese model kits. There used to be a place here in Chinatown where you could buy them.
There's still one place, and it's close to here, I'll take you and show you what they look like. And there's Little Tokyo; I'm sure they went to Little Tokyo and got them. There's a whole team of people, there was Richard Edlund and all these guys that loved building models anyway, and there was like a big table in the room, I don't remember exactly how it was, but I remember his brightly lit, and there are a lot of metal section shells that had all these model cuts that were opened, and they would use pieces of tanks, planes, cars, whatever they could stick together that made a shape or texture. It wasn't literally anybody's kit.
Now this is just an idea because I remember walking in there when they were working on it at some point or another, so I'm guessing—this is just a guess—that there were discussions. with all the model builders and George could very well have said "I'm thinking it should be kind of round like a flying saucer somehow".
What can you do with that? And so they made some kind of under shape, and it was pretty big because they had to get lights inside it and they had to have a fan, because they get hot. And they must have just noodled with it; they kept sticking stuff on it until it took shape. I don't know if they only did one or if they did a whole bunch of different ones until they came up with the right idea. But you're right. In the beginning it wasn't there and then it was there. And that always sort of made sense to me as a process.
I know for a fact George likes to look at a lot of different reference stuff, and he sort of digests it and is influenced by it. They never copied it, it was always all completely original. But they would reference things that everybody loved because it was fun. What they call 'homage', you know the expression? There's all kinds of stuff that an homage to Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers. I was noticing that the spaceship unit at Star Tours in Disney World very much resembles one of the space ships from The Flash Gordon serial. It's not exactly like it, but it looks enough like it so that I look and think "oh, that's cool". They sort of referenced that; it has a sort of sharp nose. It looks a little like a knife. There's nothing of any of those films that's a recreation of anything.
But they were all just playing.
If you talk to Richard Edlund, I bet you he would (inaudible)...
MH: Did he have a falling out with Lucas around or after Star Wars?
ES: I don't know. I don't think so. The guy that there were problems with was the original guy, what the hell is his name? Richard came in later, it was the first fellow, he's a tall guy. I remember Gary was in New York and he was very upset because it had to call some people on the carpet (not sure this is the word he says), and it was because they weren't getting enough work done quickly enough. They were just kind of being Californians, sitting around and being slow.
George and Gary are all about working very hard. They always worked hard all the time I ever knew them, they were always working. We'd get together— I remember going over to a girlfriend's house one night with George and Gary and George was just so tired he fell asleep in the chair. And Gary would come to town and be in New York for 12 hours to get some business done and I was writing a film and he would come pick me up. And I'd go to the airport with him in a limo, because it takes an hour and a half to get out, to Kennedy, so we'd have a meeting In the car. Then he'd get back on the plane and the car would drive me back to the city. But Gary would fall asleep in the back seat. Just gone. They were flying all over the world all the time.
MH: So let me ask you, Jack Kirby's New Gods. Some people think that there's a lot of influence there. Did George ever talk about that?
ES: I don't know, like what?
MH: There's a guy called Mark Moonrider. There's Orion who's the son of a guy called Darkseid who's the evil guy and Orion is the good guy. There's something called The Source. It's very distant, it doesn't feel like you're reading that and you're seeing Star Wars, but you can definitely see some parallels. It's something I've seen several places, and one of the places I saw it actually mentioned Supersnipe, which is why I've been thinking about it.
ES: I don't know, what years were those? I don't remember.
MH: Early 70s or late 60s.
ES: Where'd you find those? (presumably showing him some photos of Supersnipe)
MH: There's a forum thread, some guy owned these, and another guy owned some old McQuarrie prints that had been made, that he's bought online recently.
ES: How cool. Yeah, that's the rarest one of all. I have some of those.
ES: This one is even signed by you.
ES: Yeah, I authenticated some of them because they're too easy to reproduce.
Well, you know what, I interviewed Jack for the movie around the same time I interviewed George. So I know he was working on that, he did these incredible collages. But George never met him then, I don't think so. And the character Darkseid (spells it). Jack wasn't the most imaginative writer in the world I have to say. He was a terrific artist, but Jack was better working with Stan, because Stan was a really terrific writer. Still is.
So Kirby's stuff has a kind of nuts and bolts quality to it. There was a rumor that Mister Miracle. You know the comic book Mister Miracle was based on Jim Steranko, who was a comic book artist. Jim told me that once, he says "Oh, you know Jack based that on me!" So I said to Jack "Jimmy said that you based Mister Miracle on him and Jack went "he did?" and he says "oh well, that's interesting!". I suspect that Jack based it on Houdini. I mean Jack was old enough to have seen Houdini, and he lived on the Lower East Side. I never asked him, but I wouldn't be surprised if Jack saw Houdini jump in the river with chains on when he was a kid. Jack told me all these stories about growing up on the Lower East Side. I lived a block away from where he grew up. I never knew it.
Well New Gods and Forever People, they were very mythic, but a little simplistic. It's one of the reasons they didn't play well as they didn't have enough juice. Darkseid has survived as a character— I think i't's a gooda character—I think it's a good character—Darkseid is, I think, based on the golem. It looks like the golem. If I were to put my money on where Darkseid came from Scare from that'swere to bet my money on where Darkseid came, that's where he came from. Because Kirby came from a culturally Jewish background, his family came from Eastern Europe. I have some great stories he told me. But that's the mythology that you grow up with.
Just need to look at The Golem, the 1920s movie (1915) , and look at Darkseid, there it is. When you go home, you look, and you'll see. And the New Gods is all about pollution. Darkside's planet is the pollution planet and Jack had just moved out to California, and the Forever People is all about bikers and hippies. It's not terribly original, really. And you notice that none of those storylines survive particularly, they all just fell away, except for Darkseid.
Remember, I just told you the story that George came back from doing an interview where he mentioned Joe Campbell, so all of those hero elements are things that Campbell discussed. I've done it too, I've written things and— I was very interested in Carl Jung, more than Campbell, personally. And Jung talks about archetypes, all these hero archetypes. So I'm sure that I deliberately picked characters that represented archetypes. But at a certain point when you're telling a story, the story has to have juice to it. It's gotta have some life. It has to be organic. You can't— well you can, you can make a story that's completely artificial. You can pick one from column A and one from column B.
Gary Kurtz was, or perhaps still is, a Quaker. He was a very spiritual kind of guy. And I talked to you about the influence of these Chinese films. All the lightsabers really come from Japanese swordplay, samurai. I felt like there was a kind of— I can't remember what it's called now. The Japanese dress up in these big padded outfits and whack each other in the head with these swords. Kendo. Lightsabers look an awful lot like Kendo swords. Much more than they look like samurai blades.
John Milius was a big part of that group and I ended up working with John on Conan. They're all really good friends from school. I know that Milius went to see all those films, because when we were doing Conan I remember sitting in a room with him and Basil Poledouris, and they had these drums, and they're working out this drum theme, and I said "what's that?" and he says "it's from Seven Samurai".
Milius's films were loaded with film references. All of them were. I said this probably twelve times already, but George and Gary and I and Scorsese and Jay Cox—I just went to movies with Jay a week ago, we haven't gone for a long time—but he called a long time, but he called me up and said they're showing this Morgan Spurlock film about Comic-Con at the Academy says want to come meet me so I went we used to go the movies twice a week—that's all we ever did all of us, we'd we go the movies.
I was telling Renee, Carrie Fisher used to have a party once a month and the first time I ever went I went with George and Gary. And she had all her friends there and they were all talking, and George and Gary and I were in the corner talking about movies. Did you see this? Did you see that? Well? It's just like this. It's just like that.
You mentioned Wages of Fear. I went to see the remake, Sorcerer. George called me up, he and Marcia were in town, and George and Marcia and my then-girlfriend and Paul Hirsch—who is the editor of Star Wars—and his wife Jane, the six of us went to see Sorcerer. It was the week that Star Wars opened, I remember this, did I tell you this story? Not a long story, but it's a very revealing story.
We were standing at the northwest corner of 86th Street and 3rd Avenue. The Loews Orpheum used to be there, there's a Papaya King that's still there. They tore down the original movie theater where Star Wars played and put in a new one that's mostly underground.
And I met met him there and George walked away from us for a minute, and there was this huge line waiting to get in to see Star Wars. It was around the block every day from when the theater opened at nine or ten in the morning, because it was summer vacation time because they had opened somewhere around Memorial Day, so kids were out of school. Whatever it was, kids were out of school.
And I remember George standing there by himself staring at the line and just shaking his head. They couldn't believe what was going on. It was no accident, but still, nobody had seen anything like that for decades.
There had been movies like that years before, but not for a long time.
Psycho was like that. People lined up to see Psycho. Hitchcock choreographed it, he made sure they would line up. I remember going to see psycho and waiting in line for an hour to get in the theater. There have been anything like that long time. And Star Wars was different because people did it spontaneously.
Let me clarify something here this one thinks it's always wrong. Supersnipe was a business that I started with a friend. It was called the Supersnipe Comic Book Euphorium (spells it). Euphorium. Not Emporium. Euphorium. There might have been some early things that said Emporium, but it got changed. And it existed for a number of years before I met George.
Where the confusion comes in is that he approached me about opening an art gallery. They were very interested in selling posters. If you look at the history of Star Wars you see that there are a stupendous number of really beautiful posters done by a whole panoply of some of the best artists. They would get a different artist to do each poster. Some of them were theatrical one sheets, some of them were limited edition posters. The very first poster was the Chaykin poster. If you want, ask me and I'll tell you the story of that poster.
But they were interested because part of their deal with Fox was that they kept the merchandising, they kept the ancillary rights. And Fox was happy to do it because they got George for next to nothing. I don't actually remember the deal anymore, you probably know better than I do. He either directed it for a little or nothing, in order to retain those rights. And the other thing, we can come back to this too, I can tell you for a fact that when the movie opened the merchandising on Star Wars was worthless. There was nothing. Nobody was interested.
Ask me to tell you the story of the comic strip with Al Williamson, who wasn't interested. It's a great story, part of it is in the Russ Cochran reprint book (1991). Al remembered what really happened. It's wonderful story, but it's a twenty monite story. So, later I'll be happy to tell you each of the stories in turn, but we started a separate Corporation for the art gallery, which George and I owned. We each owned half of the stock, and it was in a separate place, but we kept the name because it had some brand recognition in the city. Supersnipe was a comic book in the 1940s. Did you look this all up? It was a little kid named Koppy McFad, and the subtitle of the strip was "Supersnipe, the boy with the most comic books in America".
So it became the store with the most comic books in America, and for a while it was. We were the first store to sell a million comic books. It was just that time, it was that moment.
So I actually licensed the name from Conde Naste for many years. Nobody wanted it. So they got some smart young guy a number years later, who said "I'm going to take it back from them, fuck 'em". So he gave us a hard time, and took it back. He had visions of sugarplums. He was going to make a fortune licensing it. It had no value to anybody. If it had any value at all, it was because of us, because we used it as a name.
So George was never a partner in the comic book store. It's not true, but he and I owned the art gallery together. And that art gallery existed for less than 10 years. It was the first art gallery of its kind in the world, that only sold comic book and comic strip art, and illustration there were other galleries that had exhibits from time to time. There was one gallery that had an exclusive for New Yorker magazine art. It was on Madison Avenue, I'm not remembering the name right this minute, and they once had an exhibit of some Windsor McKay stuff, I remember. They would have occasional exhibits of other things, but the Supersnipe Comic Art Gallery was the first and only gallery that had nothing but that, that's all that it sold, and we we represented all these comic book artists, who were just suddenly getting their artwork back for the first time. Remember, I told you the stories about it being destroyed? That's because the syndicates owned it. They bought it outright. And the money for the artist was in doing the work, not in selling the artwork. The money now is in selling the artwork, if you're any good. If you're famous, you can sell your artwork for incredible amounts of money. But this was not true then.
I started out selling artwork in the comic book store. They were all my friends. I would get artwork from Howie (Chaykin), from Mike Kaluta, from Barry Smith. I used to buy stuff from Frank Frazetta, and resell it. I can remember buying stuff from Frank for a hundred bucks. You know the painting of the Deathdealer? I have the original sketch of that, I bought $125. It's beautiful. It's only about this big. It's one of my treasured possessions, but that was a lot of money then, that wasn't so cheap. There was a month's rent.