July 1st, 2012
MH: It (referring to the iPhone recording the conversation) sounds amazing, even in places where there's a lot of noise.
ES: It's clear?
MH: Yeah. I think it does some noise cancellation, so it filters out background noise.
MH: So it comes through.
ES: All good?
ES: That's good. So where were we? Where would I don't know what you want to know?
MH: I don't remember exactly where we left off, but I was kind of. when I see kind of wanted to. to ask you about Conan. And what you were doing ball many bad with huh?
ES: Well, let me say that they finally published a book about it. It's called Conan the Phenomenon.
MH: I bought that book, but I haven't read it yet
ES: Well. It's interesting story. Someone started out to write the book and apparently there were issues. I don't know what they were so I won't speculate, but they ended up hiring Paul Sammon to write the book and I'd known Paul for years. He is probably the most devoted historian of the Conan movie that I know.
He's a funny guy in the sense that he has maintained such enthusiasm for it over the years. I find it. It's it's a warm sort of thing it was just nice to discover one afternoon. The book project had fallen apart, and there was Paul and he was rewriting the book. So I'd gotten wind of this book through somebody and the story's always been told wrong and as with the Star Wars story. That's the mystery to me as a working journalist is why nobody ever bothered to just call me up and ask me.
It could be that we've become such a celebrity society that. Unless you're an A-list celebrity nobody's particularly interested in what you have to say. But I know from experience that especially when it comes to performers that a lot of the A-list people really don't know... They're just not involved in the behind-the-scenes stuff in any kind of meaningful way.
So it's a curious... I'm being philosophical, but it's a curious modern phenomenon that journalists would rather interview, I don't know, Lindsay Lohan then talk to the writer and director of the film she was in. I would think from my own experience if I were running a story. I'd rather talk to the screenwriter, or the director, or the producer, or the costume designer, because you get really good stories. It's not that I wouldn't want to talk to Ms. Lohan. I'd be happy to talk to her, but that doesn't necessarily give you. the real story.
So I got in touch with Paul and I said I I want to see the manuscript. I said, just sent it to me. I was a little firmer than that, but they did, they sent me the manuscript. It was Dark Horse who published this and I got the editor on the phone and I said "look, the story has been told in such a botched way for all these years. I would like the opportunity to set it straight. And he said fine. So I went through the whole manuscript and I made written corrections and verbal corrections and the story of my involvement with the film, although you know, brief, is accurate. If you really want the story you can read it there. I mean I'll be happy to answer a couple of little questions if you'd like, but if you have the book already yeah, then it is there and what I would prefer to do is you know, like... Where do you have it? Is it here or is it
MH: Yeah it's here.
ES: Well you know, read it through, and I'm sure we'll see each other again. If you come back with a little list of questions where you want me to fill in some blanks for you, I'd be happy to do that. But it took seven years to do the film.
MH: Really, that along?
ES: Oh yeah. I'll tell you this because we were, you know talking so much about Star Wars. But there's this little USC Mafia. Of course George George Lucas and Walter murch and, you know I don't know whether Francis... I don't think he was a student there, but he was involved with USC somehow. I don't really know.
MH: I think he was a student at UCLA
ES: Was he?
MH: I think so, I'm not entirely sure.
ES: I'm not sure. Somehow he was mentoring George or they were good friends. I don't... I don't remember anymore. I'm sure but they both told me but isn't it funny after all these years I don't remember. But then there was John Milius, and Randall Kleiser, and Don Glut, and half dozen other people who basically all went to school together around the same time.
As it happened I just became friendly with Randal Kleiser. He had worked with Basil Poledouris on several films. Basil was a wonderful guy. I'm met Basil in Spain for he did the score for Conan and we just... Just... I just really was terribly fond of him. One of the regrets of my life is that I spent far less time with him as a friend, than I would have liked to. It's one of those strange coincidences in life.
My friend John Davison who? started out producing stuff for Roger Corman, we went to school together, John and Joe Dante were very good friends and business partners. And they both ended up working for Roger, or as they would say here 'Raja'. They both worked for Raja. And John was a producer and a manager for new world. He produced Airplane, but he ultimately produced RoboCop.
And I remember being out in L.A. once and they were just working on it, and I said I said "John... John... I want to see I want to see RoboCop!" because my friend Peter Weller was in it. Peter was a New York guy. He was part of the little community of young actors who were involved with Star Wars, he and Carrie Fisher were very good friends and Griffin Dunne. Griffin was one of Carrie's closest friends. Way back in the day her phone number was listed under Griffin's name. That's a funny thing.
So I was I was anxious to see RoboCop which had a buzz. So John was saying "I don't know. I don't know. It's not done. We're just finishing mixing it, blah blah blah." So I get this phone call at I don't know 11:30 in the morning says "Well, we're going to screen it. We're going to screen it over to MGM." He says, "you wanna to come and see the movie?" I said "yeah!" and he's says "Well you gotta be there in 45 minutes" and I said "where the hell is it?" and "well you go blah blah blah" and it's in the Cary Grant Studio".
So I got in the car and just raced over there. It was the first screening of the film. They just finished mixing it, and I sit down in the theater, and I turn and there's Basil Poledouris sitting next to me and I said "Basil, what the fuck are you doing here?" I mean I hadn't seen him for years. "I wrote the score for it."
So I watched... I was the first person who was completely uninvolved with RoboCop. I mean I was the first general public member to ever see the movie, and I sat between Basil and the screenwriter, I can't remember his name, nice guy. Funny, very funny, man. And I was knocked out by it. Did you like RoboCop?
MH: I love RoboCop.
ES: Well I was the first person in the world to see Robocop and it just knocked me out. I couldn't believe it. It was... Well, I don't want to review the movie, but when it was made there hadn't been anything like that. It was classic science fiction, but it was violent and funny and extremely political that was Verhoven. Paul was very — still is — a very political guy, but it was awesome in the screenplay. They really went for the jugular and the screenplay was just a full frontal attack on consumerism and all these things that were and still are near and dear to my heart.
So. I'm telling you the story partly because good story, but the movie business, it's a small world. All the people that you know and work with, you tend to work with them a great deal, and they they all come together, and it's a, you know not to be too poetic, but it's the warp and the woof of fabric.
All of us, we were all friends for all those years, so Conan was inextricably caught up with the USC Mafia. I had seen... This is not so much in the book. I don't think I talk about this very much, but I was really in love with The Wind and The Lion, you know that film?
ES: Do you like it?
MH: I can't remember when I last saw it. I can't even remember much about it to be honest.
ES: You'd better like it, it's one of my favorite movies
MH: In that case I love it.
ES: Oh good, I'm happy to hear that.
MH: I love Milius as a filmmaker, so...
ES: Well, growing up in Buffalo, New York. William McKinley was assassinated in 1902 at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo. And Theodore Roosevelt who was his vice president? Was... I was going to say flown in but they.... they train'd and horse'd and whatever to get him there. You know like that, and he was sworn in as President of the United States in a building that thankfully — given the history of Buffalo — is still standing. It's the... Is it called the something-something magine? I'm sorry. I'm not thinking, but it's on Delaware Avenue and North Street in Buffalo.
They, the National Park Service within the last few years completely restored the building and rebuilt the barn and carriage house, which had been demolished and it's just gorgeous this building. They completely reconstructed all of the rooms as they existed at the time that TR was with sworn in and they have this wonderful electronic exhibit that recreates the swearing-in ceremony.
It's very moving its really... You know someday you'll go there, and you'll want to go see this. It's extraordinarily good. It's one of the finest of the National American National Park Service exhibits. So growing up I was always extremely aware of Teddy Roosevelt, who was a great character. I don't know what, if anything you know about him.
MH: I know a few stories.
ES: You don't mind if we sit here a little bit, do you? Is it okay? Could I get a little more tea? (to the server) Just a little more hot tea?
TR... there are people who like TR... people who are into it call him TR, and the people who like Theatre Roosevelt are called tedheads. So I'm definitely a tedhead. I coincidentally became very good friends with a man named John Gable who was a wonderful man, whom I miss very much, he died a few years ago and he was the greatest living TR scholar and a lovely funny brilliant guy. Edmund Morris, who won the Pulitzer Prize for writing the three-volume biography of TR owed everything, well not everything, but just about everything, to John Gable. He was the source.
So. Again what I'm trying to say is that these things they interrelate in ways that are mystical, if you will. I am very much a Mystic. I observe that in the universe things happen and if you're a smart ass you think you can figure out why and I would — humbly is the right word — I would humbly suggest it's impossible. You can't know why. All you can do is observe. I mean here are you and I sitting at the table in an Indian restaurant on the Upper West Side talking about stuff. You found me. I'm who knows how the hell you found me, but here we are. And so I'm telling you the story all these years later. Well, that's mysterious too.
So I grew up on TR and I went to see The Wind and the Lion. Just knocked me out. Just loved it. I thought it was just the perfect kids adventure picture. John wrote the script himself. So when we came around to making Conan he was the guy want to have direct the picture.
There was a long drawn-out process about getting the picture made at all— written. I wrote the original script.
(to server) Oh, thank you very much. Thank you very much.
But I had Milius in mind from the beginning even when we were writing the script and... Nothing is straightforward in the film business, nothing. I can tell you a funny little story. I'm sure this is not in the book but Pressman had an office in L.A. and I was out in L.A. one time and the phone rang and it was Sam Peckinpah's agent, "Sam really wants to direct this picture, he heard about it, Sam wants to direct it, this is perfect for him, it's Sam's kind of picture!" — You know who Peckinpah was?
ES: You know the guy wasn't wrong really, Peckinpah would have been a...
ES: An interesting choice. And then I remember the guy saying "and you know what Sam hasn't had a drink for for a week now!"
That was the problem with Peckinpah, and with lots of other people; the motion picture business is rife with people's personal problems. We make jokes about Tom Cruise bouncing up and down on the sofa on the Oprah Winfrey show. That's nothing, that's just eccentric. What Tom Cruise does other times is the stuff that nobody outside the business talks about, and I'm not going to talk about it now.
I can tell you though — just to put it in the kind of perspective that I'm trying to frame — is that all the reason brouha with John Travolta (referring to sexual assult allegations in May, 2012) came as no surprise to me. Nor do I think it came as a surprise to anybody who has worked professionally in the film business for the last 30 years. So to the general public that was pretty shocking front page news. But in the business it was just...
MH: Another day.
ES: Yeah, another day in the film business.
So we finally got John to direct the film. I went to school with Oliver Stone as you know and Oliver wrote a script for Conan. Oliver was very hot at the time, if you know the expression, he had just won an Academy Award for Midnight Express and the film business is very...
Edward Pressman who was the producer. The other producer of Conan said an interesting thing to me once, he said: "In the movie business things are not what they are, but what they appear to be". Did I tell you this story?
MH: I don't think so.
ES: Okay, I did tell somebody recently. I don't want to repeat myself. If you find me repeating myself just go <waves hand>, because I do that sometimes.
Plato believed that we didn't see the world directly, do you recall this? He believed that it was as though we lived in a cave and that there was reality and that reality cast shadows on a wall. And that we as human beings saw only those shadows, we didn't see reality directly. We saw an appearance of things.
One way to say it is that Hollywood's very superficial. That's a kind of simple way to put it, but the tyranny of Hollywood is that if you make a good movie on Monday you get a job on Tuesday, if you make a bad movie on Wednesday you don't get a job on Thursday. The fact that you made a good movie on Monday doesn't count anymore.
It's only: what did you do yesterday? It's worse than that. A friend of mine. well, I won't say who it is. He's one of the top A-list producers he has produced one of the major franchise movies.
He's a little younger than I am, but you know not twenty, right? And he took a meeting — went to a meeting — with a studio executive who turned out to be a young woman and maybe her middle-twenties, or maybe she was 28. And he starts to pitch his project to her, and he says, "it's a real Frank Capra movie".
Now. You know who Frank Capra is, I hope and she said "who?" He said "Frank Capra". She said "who's that?"
He said to her "Alright, I'm just going to stop this meeting now because it's clear to me that no matter what I say you're not going to understand it," and he said "I'm going to give you a little pep talk". He said "without Frank Capra you wouldn't have the job that you're having now. Because Capra was a man who made Hollywood what it was". It's true.
Capra established a storytelling form that everybody copied. Some of his films were amongst the greatest hits of all times. The difference between — oh, I don't know — Frank Capra John Ford is that Capra was a populist. He made films for the masses even though some of them were surprisingly political and sophisticated.
Frank Capra's movies are very straightforward and simple and very emotional. I'd say that that Capra is a major influence on Steven Spielberg. I know Steven, I met him. Steve must must have loved Capra movies. I'm sure they he did. I don't know that I've asked him that, but I would be surprised to hear otherwise.
And my friend said to her, he said "you owe it to yourself and to the business to know the history of the business that you work in, you want to know where it came from and how you got here". And he, you know, smiled and shook hands and left.
I'm sure she just didn't care. You know maybe she thought about it for 30 seconds, but she didn't get her job by knowing who Frank Capra was. She did her she got her job by doing certain other personal favors for people I'm sure. Use your imagination. You know how does it 26-year girl get a job as a head of production? It's... I don't know...
This is as true of Star Wars as it was of Conan or any movie. It was very, very difficult to get Star Wars made. I'm sure you're aware of that that. It's only because of Alan Ladd Jr. that the film really got made. He took a chance. Took a big chance. It took a seven years to get Conan made. Seven years. I would assert that my script and my concept for how to do the films to this day is infinitely superior to the work that got made and especially to that new thing, that they just made. Did you see it? It was Dreadful.
MH: Oh it was absolutely horrible.
ES: And I met the executive producer. I was at a big licensing show, and I met the guy. Sat down and talked to him and there was some fellow there who said "oh, you worked on the film?" I said "not only did I work on it, it was my idea to make the first place". I said, "it's just a shame that nobody ever listened to me about to do it". He says "oh what would you have done?" I said, "oh, write me a big check and I'll be happy to tell you". This was two-three years before they finally got the film greenlit, they had plenty of time.
But instead they talked to Pressman and he didn't know anything about it. It's to Pressman's credit that he listened to me. He listened me because I help them with Phantom of the Paradise. Did I tell you that story at all?
MH: No, not yet.
ES: Oh yeah you had wanted to hear that. I could tell you that story because that leads up to the whole Conan thing.
ES: Again this, you know, it's just little circles of people who are your friends. I was friends with Brian De Palma who had been a judge at NYU when my science fiction film Item 72D was in competition and so on. I knew Brian very well, and we had a lot of friends in common, Jay Cox, and you know all these guys. Brian was friends with George and with Spielberg and they all just hung out together. They dated the same people, it was you know...
It's always difficult to explain and I'm trying to explain with you because I perceive that you're a smart guy and having read enough of your stuff. I'm trusting you're sensitive to this.
This is not about people being celebrities. This is about people being friends. It's about going out to dinner with the guys. It's about you're in a funk and who do you call up and say "listen, come have a beer with me, cheer me up". It's about that. It's just sometimes when you tell the story the names that are in the story are names that people read the newspaper too, but that's not what it's about. It's about, who are your friends.
So, they had made this films Phantom of the Paradise, and Brian knew that I had a lot of friends in the comic book publishing business and what had happened with Phantom of Paradise is that they sold it to Fox. They got a — I don't know what the deal was — they got a distribution deal of some sort and it was... You tell me. It was Brian's second major picture. It's after Sisters, right?
MH: Yes something like that.
ES: It's like his fourth film. It's not his second movie, but the earlier films are the ones that Chuck — Chuck what's-his-name — he produced a couple early feature phones for Brian. Bobby De Niro's in one of them. Little comedies, not bad actually.
If you ask me what the titles were, or what they're about I couldn't tell you, but I remember seeing them at the time, and they were very entertaining. They were good films made on a low budget and it was absolutely clear that Brian was a very talented man, even that early on in the game. And Sisters was the movie that made him, that was this big breakthrough picture. Pressman produced sisters and they went on to produce Phantom of the Paradise.
The first thing that happened was Universal threatened to sue claiming copyright infringement on the Phantom of the Opera. And Brian called me up and said isn't it public domain? And I being, you asked me if I liked horror films, I loved classic horror films... It was just at some moment in around the time of Mario Bavin, Dario Argento, these films all turn a corner where they head right for the gutheap.
And this is just taste it just wasn't my... just wasn't my thing. But I knew everything about Frankenstein and Dracula and Phantom of the Opera, and the German films, I loved that kind of stuff.
So I had, I don't know, I had a first American edition of Phantom of the Opera, I still have it. And apparently Universal had some rights that had survived because they had done a remake. Excuse me, a remake had been done in England. Hammer did it and Universal had the American distribution, so they had some rights in it. So that was a mess and they ended up having to pay off Universal somehow. I don't know what the settlement was.
But Fox didn't get it, Phantom of The Paradise. Have you ever seen it?
ES: And do you like it?
MH: Yeah, I like it. It's a weird film and it took me... I didn't like it when I first saw it, but it's grown on my since then. It's a very special film.
ES: Yeah, I would say I was at the time — I saw it a lot of times — it's a very quirky little film that has some... Bill Finley's performance is awfully good and Paul Williams is very good and has some good songs in it. I find it a little uneven. But it has all the makings of a cult movie for sure.
Fox came up with the pitch line "he sold his soul for rock n roll," because the story is a combination of Faust and Phantom of the Opera. It isn't a rip-off a fan of the Opera at all really. I didn't think that anybody had much of an infringement case. It's just, you know, people... You get an attorney and they go for whatever they can go for. The original campaign was sort of very psychedelic and garish, I actually have one of the original posters in kind of a rough shape, but it was all printed in these Dayglo colors, and it was a kind of a collage of moments and images from the film. And I try to remember the history of this — was this... — this was just around the time of Woodstock right? It was just like shortly after Woodstock, am I wrong?
MH: I honestly don't remember.
ES: Well I won't assert this, but you check, do the fact-checking (the first Woodstock was held in 1969, Phantom of the Paradise was released eight years later in 1974). It was around that time and Fox's feeling was that they wanted to capitalize on the rock n roll angle. But it wasn't a music movie. I mean it wasn't a concert movie is what I'm saying. John Demi came along and stopped making sense. There were people who made real concert movies, and that's not what this was at all. And it's the classic case... John Carter being the case du jour of a studio having, well in the case of John Carter a wonderful movie, and the case of Phantom of the Paradise a very good movie, and just not knowing how to sell it and just having a go down the drain. It gives me great personal pleasure to see that John Carter is now in profit and is one of the top selling blu-ray DVDs in history. It's like. Did you see John Carter?
ES: Regardless of what you think it's a very entertaining movie, and it just got bad mouthed to death. It's just a pity. So the same thing happened at Phantom of The Paradise. It was just positioned wrong. They tried to position it as a rock n roll movie and when people went to see it. They went "wow this is weird".
There's not enough songs right. There weren't enough concert numbers. And it was all full of very eccentric little movie-related gags. If you're a film buff Phantom of the Paradise is loaded with in-jokes. You know the expression. Garrett Graham, is that what his name was? Garrett is very funny. And Bill gives this very impassioned performance, Bill Finley.
So Brian came to me and the first thing they wanted was to get someone to publish a comic book, because they figured, you know if we get the comic book out there it'll help build it. So they actually hired me to help them market the film.
And I remember going to Warren Publishing, to Jim Warren, he was the publisher of Famous Monsters of Film Land, and Creepy, and Eerie, and Vampirella. Did you know those magazines? Jim Warren was one of the great eccentrics in comic book publishing. A brilliant, highly neurotic, very, very, very eccentric man.
I think he's still around but I haven't seen Jimmy in years and I was always very fond of him. Plus he — in those magazines — he published some of the best work of the day. He sustained some of the geniuses of comic books in their old age who otherwise could not gotten any work out. Williams, and Joe Orlando, Frazetta. I mean all these people weren't hired then. He had great writers and he also pushed the edge of what you could do in comic books sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse.
I remember when I owned my book store. That the Vampirellas, some of the stories have become so graphic that we couldn't legally sell them to children because of the way the laws were in the United States at the time. Certain forms of nudity, you weren't allowed to sell them to people under 18. I had friends who have been arrested. I mean literally arrested, taken off in handcuffs for selling Underground Comics. A fellow named Phil Sewing and his then girlfriend were arrested for selling Robert Crumb comics. The police came and called them off to the whosgop(sp?) and I remember going to the police station to help bail him out?
And it was some sort of political harassment that went on, but if you ran a business you had to be responsible and careful. And I believe in community standards. I might not agree with them all the time, but you know communities have standards and I go with the flow and if I don't like it then I protest and try to get the law changed. That's that's how I am. I'm a big believer in pushing boundaries, but doing it legally.
I mean we talked about Street Scenes. That Street Scenes movie was a real boundary pusher for sure. I was tear gassed making that film, so you know we were pushing the limits.
So Jim Warren was willing to do things that Marvel and DC were not and this was just before there was a minor explosion of new comic book publishing companies. This may be more than you want to know but a few years, in some ways, into the story of my life, back in the 1940s when comic books first started there were a lot of companies. There was Marvel, and Timely. But there were many other smaller companies that came and went. Little independent companies. And there was always a rise and a fall of those, and what had happened is that through the 1950s comic book publishing sort of contracted and it came down to only a couple of major Publishers: Marvel, DC and Dell which published all the Disney comic books in the United States. Atlas was around for a short period of time. But there was next to nothing.
Come the 1970s there was a revival of interest in comics. My bookstore was intimately involved in this because we got so much publicity. And you know they'd come from the New York Times (Dec 10, 1978) and interview me, and I wasn't like your typical Corner newsstand guy, so they get a different kind of story when they talked to me, than they would get from "getcha papers here. Want to buy a comic book kid?," nothing wrong with that, you know, there were different stories.
We were in the New Yorker (red. looks like February 7th, 1977). We hit the more sophisticated Publications, so it contributed to a general rise of interest in the comic book as a storytelling form. It led to me having a National Endowment for the Arts grant — which is a American federal government grant to make a film about the history of comic books and comic strips — and ultimately to this TV show that I did for CBS about all this.
MH: What was that called?
ES: I don't remember what it was called (it had a very long official title, so no wonder he couldn't remember, it was: American comic strip art, with interviews: Dean Young and Jim Raymond, Ralph Bakshi, Dik Browne, Ray Bradbury, George Lucas, Will Eisner, Milton Caniff, John Cullen Murphy, Sean Kelly, Johnny Romita). It was on a program called Camera Three, and I actually have a broadcast-quality tape of it that ought to get transferred before it disintegrates, you've reminded me. Remind me again. I'll give you a copy of it. My project was called The Men Who Made the Comics.
Where was I? I'm sorry? I was about to make a point.
MH: I'm sorry.
ES: No it's alright, I just get a little tired sometimes. What was I saying?
MH: You were saying it led to them making that TV show.
ES: Ah. What happened was that some entrepreneurial types decided that this was a juncture in history where it might be possible to start a new independent comic book company and in fact people did. There were probably half a dozen of them. The surviving ones as I said had been Marvel and DC and Archie, Archie Comics, and a company called Charlton. And all of a sudden there were half a dozen new ones. Some of them have survived. Dark Horse. It comes out of that attempt to start new companies and Dark Horse has been a stable company that's lasted for a couple of decades now.
So here we are with the Phantom of the Paradise Who do you get the publish it? Well Marvel wasn't going to publish it. And DC absolutely wasn't going to publish it. DC had become very conservative in their idea of what sort of things ought to be published in comics books. I'm not talkin about sexiness or anything like that. It was just that they were... DC was very traditional, it was about Superman, and Batman, and The Flash. The genius as you know of the Marvel universe is that everything is all related. Spider-Man, and Iron Man, and The Fantastic Four all live in the same city. Not so in the world of DC.
They inhabit completely different, non-contiguous worlds and DC as a publisher has been struggling with this for thirty years now, and they still haven't resolved it and the proof of the pudding is The Avengers movie. Have you seen it?
ES: Did you enjoy it?
ES: I loved it. It wasn't a masterpiece, no, no. It was The Avengers, but it was exactly what it what it should have been. It was fun, it was exciting and all those little story strands all went (sound) and it all came together, and it will only just get better. It'll just keep getting better and better. I mean if you like that kind of stuff.
I mean it's still... It's still guys running around in colored underwear with capes. It's not... There's nothing... It's not Grand Illusion. It's not Citizen Kane. It's not Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. It's not any of those things. It's the Avengers, but it's just what it ought to be.
DC has not pulled it off. I snuck in to see some of the Green Lantern movies and I'm glad that I snuck in. I watched I don't know, the last 20-30 minutes of it and I thought it "that's enough". But I'm sad about that. That makes me sad. I wanted Green Lantern to be good movie. I really did. I love that stuff. If I go out to see The Flash or The Green Lantern or... of all them Batman movies of the ones that work the best. They work very well. The Batman movies are what they should be. The story's good, the look is right. They haven't been able to pull the Superman movie off. How tragic is that? Superman is one of the great iconic, mythic characters of the 20th century and the best of all the Superman movies are still the 1950s television shows with George Reeves.
They captured the flavor of the story. And the very, very, very best of all the Superman things ever, are the max Fleischer cartoons. They're brilliant. They are works of Genius. I will defend that endlessly, not right this minute, but if you dare to ask me the question. I'll give you two hours about why they're just... They got it. They're influential to this day. If you look at the television cartoons. They're all a copy of the Fleischer cartoons. The look; everything about them. They just got it right.
Phantom of the Paradise was a little too sexy for Marvel, so they weren't interested and I remember pitching this to Jimmy Warren. It's funny, I had forgotten all about this. I went this office, and he said he said — he had a big desk, you know, a big impressive desk — and he stood up, walked around the outside of the desk, and he says go sit down in my chair.
I said okay. I guess was in my late 20s. So I sit down in Jim's chair. He says "now pretend that you're me". And somebody walks in your office and they want you to publish comic book of this movie you've never heard of. And the movie's already come out". And he said, "would you do it?" And I said "yeah, sure I'd do it!" P.S. he wouldn't do it.
The problem with Phantom of the Paradise is that it had opened already, it was out. And when I set up the comic book for Star Wars, which I did. I set up a lot of comic books from movies. I set up the Star Wars comic book adaptation, I set up the computations for Sinbad in the Eye of the Tiger, for the Towering Inferno...
We couldn't get Phantom of the Paradise to happen, but people used to call me off because I'm, you know, I knew right people so I could go in and pitch it to them. The secret was you had to do it six months before the movie was coming on because the comic book had to be written, drawn, printed, and distributed before the movie was ever on screen.
You can ask me to tell you about tje Star Wars story. Are you tired?
MH: No. It's just the music.
ES: Oh, we can have them turn it down.
MH: No no, it's fine.
ES: What time is it? I haven't thought about this stuff in a long time. So what we ended up doing for Phantom of the Paradise is redoing all the posters. I got an artist named Neal Adams, who was one of the best, very dynamic artist. And another artist named Richard Corben, who was very famous for his coloring. He would do color using an airbrush. It was mechanically separated color. The color was done by hand and in his brain he had to know how much yellow, and how much blue, and how much red to put together to get the particular thing. And Richard could do this, he was amazing. No one could do it as well as he could do it. It was one of those idiot savant skills. I don't know what to say. Not that. I mean, Richard is a very smart guy and I'm not saying that he was dumb. I'm saying the...
I don't know how he did it. His brain his brain cells were just right. And he would do it. So we had this poster design... I don't even think I have a copy of it anymore, but it's a very striking poster, and it was used for the second release of the film, and it did in fact help a little bit, but it ended up being sort of a little too little, too late, or not enough. It was not enough, too late, but the film has kind of survived. It's still... people like it and they rerelease it and I know people talk about it. So... And you knew the film. So that led to my working with 20th Century Fox and you know helping them with certain promotional things and by the time that Star Wars came along I already knew everybody at Fox in New York, so I was always in and all that office all the time.
These things were all happening kind of at the same time. So after... You know I really in a truly modest way really help them out with Phantom of the Paradise for a pittance, it did not make me rich I'll tell you. But I think Brian was happy and listen, if you spend a year and a half year life making movie and the distributor bungles it. You feel badly. I can only imagine how Andrew Stanton felt about John Carter. Until it started to turn around, I mean must have felt awful. He's a very talented guy. I don't know him I'd love to meet him. I think Wally is one of the greatest movies ever made. Like, just, it's... Do you like Wally?
MH: Yeah, I love it.
ES: Wally is... my favorite Wally story is we want to see Wally and I just loved it and George invited us to see a screening of the Clone Wars animated film so Renee and I went to see with at the theater right around the corner here. It was, you know, a private screening and so we came out of it, and you know it was an okay movie. It was alright. I mean, it was really a kind of expanded pitch for the TV show. And it struck me at the time that if I was 10 I would have just loved it, because it had all the characters and it looked neat, but I wasn't the audience for that film, so we're walking out, and in the theater, you know it's an aplex (sp?) you know and right across they were showing Wally, so I said "oh, let's go in it watch like a couple minutes", so Renee and I go in and we're standing at the back of the theater. And I don't know, there were, you know eight, ten people in the theater. It was ten o'clock at night.
So we came in at just about the point where Eva... Where the spaceship comes back for Eva, and he doesn't want to lose her and he grabs onto the fin of the rocket ship. That was about where we walked in the theater, so we'd missed about, under nine minutes of the film and I was standing and watching it and I turn and Renee wasn't there.
And I went to the door, and then I finally looked and in a trance she had walked into the theater and just sat down. She didn't say a word to me, and I laughed and I giggled. And I went and sat down and watched the whole movie again. Just couldn't walk away from it. I don't... I've watched it like six or seven times. I can't put that movie... I have to stay away from it because I'll start to watch again. The great, great movies are so rich that no matter how many times you watch them you find more texture or something in there. That separates the men from the boys if you will.
So one day Pressman. Call me up and says "you got any ideas for movies?," I said "sure," and he says "why don't you come over to the office?" He had this little office on 20... In the twenties, 21st, 22nd Street. It was over on the East Side. And it was actually a little building back behind some kind of a little apartment house, you had to walk along some kind of thing and he had like a little separate building.
He had produced Sisters out of there, and Badlands. He made a couple of... there's a film called Out Of It (sp?) I think with Jon Voight. He produced a couple low budget black and white films with some very interesting people. I mean it was he who got Terry Malick started. Ed Pressman was the son of the guy that founded the Pressman toy company. A very famous American toy company. They made their fortune on a game that's called here Chinese checkers. You know the game? It's played with marbles.
MH: Ah yeah.
ES: It looks like a big star and you move your marbles across I don't remember how to play it anymore. But his dad brought that game into the market somewhere around World War Two and they made a fortune. And the company still exists. His brother Jimmy runs the company now.
But when his father died his mom took it over and — Lynn, Lynn Pressman — and she was a real piece of work then. Eddie had no interest in working for the toy company, but he had inherited some money and he used it to produce films. He had gone... I may have this wrong, but my recollection is that he went to the London School of Economics and somehow got interested in film, and figured out how to become a producer.
So, I guess that, you know, he felt that we got along well, and I guess he appreciated whatever it was I had done for them, and he said "well, you know if you could do whatever you wanted to do. What would you make?" and I said "I'd make Conan. Conan the Barbarian" and he said "Why?"
The comic book was just starting to become the top-selling comic book. This is the Barry Smith Great (illegible) Conan, are you familiar with the books?
MH: Yeah, yeah.
ES: And again, you know it's the same thing. The group of people that I socialized with, included Mike Kaluta, Bernie Wrightson, Howie Chayken and Barry Smith. We all had girlfriends. They were all you know comical people and we'd go to the movies together and go out for dinner and it was just like that. They eventually became... They published this very famous book called The Studio. These guys were the 'Pretenders to being the great artistes' of comic books.
They pushed the boundaries, of course Howard Chaykin comes back into the story because when George and I start to become friends one of the things that we talked about was, you know, doing the comic book and George was looking for people that design stuff and he said "find me all the people that you think are good", so I would go through and bring him stacks of comic books, so you know "this guy's good, and this guy's good," and of course Chaykin's stuff was in there.
He was doing... what was Howie doing? I can't remember what it was called, but it was like an outer space thing (red. it was probably either Ironwolf or Cody Starbuck: https://kitbashed.com/blog/howard-chaykin-cody-starbuck). It wasn't Carson of Venus that was Mike Kaluta's. I can't remember what Howie's character was, but he had these very interesting spaceships, and I remember George really liked those like the look of that. People have these visions in their head. I may have said this to before, but if I haven't now say it now. I've never been jealous of George because if you put me alone in a room and said "think of something," I would not have thought of Star Wars. It's not something. I would have thought of. Spielberg on the other hand... I came up with half a dozen projects that Steven got to make. I've always been I've always been annoyed that Steve got to make these things.
So, basically Pressman I have to give him credit, he... I mean I'd made films before I had worked on lots and lots of films, but I had never had entree to the people with money in Hollywood. Some of that has to do with my upbringing. In my family capitalism was not favored topic. What can I say? It's just how my family was. My grandfather had been a big supporter of unions and was a kind of a liberal man. So it hadn't been part of my growing up, is knowing how to put together big business (illegible; deals?) So Pressman was actually very good and very generous about it. You know, show me how to do it. Probably enough so that I could get him the things that he needed in order to do what he had to do. So I remember getting him the comic books, the Frazetta paintings in particular because it the Frazetta paintings are iconic, and we would go to these meetings, at all the major studios with this person or that person, another person.
And they hired me and then Pressman insisted on hiring Roy Thomas. Who was the editor of the comic books. This comes back again to what I was saying about things being what they appear to be. Roy Thomas had absolutely zero experience writing screenplays. Good comic book writer, good editor, but he had a name connected to Conan.
Ultimately, that's how Oliver Stone gets into this, is because he won this Academy Award, and so he was hot and Pressman was able to make a deal with Paramount simply on the strength of Oliver Stone's name, to get a budget and to get a script written.
His company hired me and then Roy Thomas as my co-writer to write a script. I won't tell you very much about it. Because I still entertain ideas that someday somebody will pay me for this, but I had a five film cycle. It was five movies where certain characters develop slowly over the first two or three films and there's a big payoff in the fourth and the fifth film. And I couldn't get anybody to listen. They just couldn't see it.
I was influenced by the original books, which had these story arcs that went out over several stories, and also star Wars was in the making and we were always talking about the fact that they were going to make nine movies. I just I just took that seriously. Plus, this was very important to me and also to George: Serials. Serials have 11, 12, 15 chapters. It's exactly where Star Wars comes from. It's the Flash Gordon serials? It's exactly where Indiana Jones comes. It's an amalgam of all these 1940s movie serials — Republic serials especially. Are you familiar with Republic Series?
ES: Okay, very good, saves me a lot of yakking.
So it seemed perfectly appropriate to me to do. And James Bond, that was the other part of it. If you look at the James Bond films, the early James Bond films. I can't remember where it happens, around the third film they introduced Blofeld. And Blofeld is a continuing character, usually just a hand with a cat. I mean you never see what he looks like.
And when he finally shows there's even a whole subplot about what he really looks like or how many of him there are. It's very clever. The early James Bond films are very much influenced by Republic serials they, you know, absolutely had that Cliffhanger quality to them.
The books which I've not read I understand are much more sophisticated. But the movies are not. The movies are very much action driven films, but the storylines are very clever. They're constructed with the concept that the character will come back, that some of the villains will come back, and that the story arc will keep going. So my idea of Conan was absolutely influenced by all of those things. It was no one thing, it was all those different things, and I have to say cuz I know and I'm not going to tell you: it's a great idea what I have, and if somebody had just listened the Conan series would be in a completely different place.
The people who got closest were the ones who did the television series with that German fella? It had like a couple seasons. It wasn't great, but it wasn't terrible.
MH: When was this?
ES: 10-15 years ago?
ES: No, no. There was a Conan television show.
MH: A Conan television show? Huh.
ES: Yeah. Now they added all these characters in. There was a dwarf, and the dumb sidekick, and a couple of girls. They they try to make it into like the A-Team kind of a TV show and they found this German bodybuilder who was okay. He was okay.
But because it was TV series they could do story arcs. Xena in some ways captured a lot of kind of things I would have liked to have done with Conan. Xena wasn't bad, for you know a sword and sorcery fantasy TV show. Not brilliant, but you know, not bad at all. And of course a Big Red Sonja rip-off, Xena.
I wrote one of the Red Sonja origin stories for the comic books.
MH: Oh really?
ES: Yeah, yeah the Red Sonja number one. I love this story. It's Red Sonja and the Unicorn, have you ever read it?
ES: Oh, it's in the collections. It's I happen to really liked the story, I could be prejudiced, but I just like it.
You know I plotted a few Conan comic books, too. I had... One of the Intriguing things about Conan, I'm just digressing, but Robert E. Howard based it upon history, but not one history, every history, whatever part of history he thought was fun. He wrote a Conan story and incorporated, it could have been Egyptians, or Babylonians, or Vikings, or American Indians. It kind of didn't matter to him if it was not modern and it was exciting, he just threw it in. I mean, the guy wrote like 400 stories. Amazing.
I have to say, I'm running down a little bit. I'm good for another little bit, but I'm getting a little tired.
I'm not sure where I'm going with this but, there were right issues about Conan that ultimately led to the formation of what's now called Conan Properties. They consolidated all the different rights. Some portions of Conan were public domain and other portions of Conan people had written what are called pastiches, you know the expression?.
ES: Very good, your grasp of English is actually good. And the pastiches were legitimately under copyright. And all those guys they were they were people. Sprague de Camp and Lynn... I don't know what's his last name. I'd read all this stuff when I was growing up. You know, they were my my heroes so it was fun to get to work with them, but we'd have these vitriolic meetings where they'd be "oh no, Conan supposed to be blah blah blah," and they'd have very strong ideas and because their stories have been written like in the 1950s, 40s, 50s, 60s, they were copyrighted, so there's a whole amazing story, a little too long for me to tell you today, about how all those rights were put together and they form this common properties. It was formed by an attorney who saw a business opportunity who knew nothing about Conan. He was Arthur Lieberman. Arthur was always pissed off that he couldn't get people to buy Conan for kids pajamas. I said Arthur, "Conan is not for four-year-olds, that's not..." and he said "but we could sell a lot of pyjamas!"
I said "maybe you could solve pajamas to the kids of bikers. They might buy them for their kids". He's always at odds. He was always trying to remake the property. To be like I don't know, Mickey Mouse of something so they could sell more stuff. They didn't understand who the market was or how to market to them and nobody was listening to me. I don't know why, that's just how it is sometimes. You tell people stuff that's good for them, and they don't want to hear it.
So this script, it went all around Hollywood and there there was some people that just loved it. They got it, but the studio people... It was too new, it was just too different.
What I wanted to do was an amalgam of movie serials, James Bond, Ray Harryhausen, but with a kind of Straw Dogs, Sam Peckinpah sensibility to it. It's one of the reasons when Peckinpah called up I was very tickled because I thought well you know this is part of what I was thinking about, but I wanted it really to be a boys' adventure picture.
I don't know PG-13 existed with the time, but it would have been the equivalent of a PG-13 film, but maybe a soft R. I certainly would have liked to have seen a European version with nudity in it. And a little gore, not lot because I'm not into that, but Star Wars, the first Star Wars guy gets his arm car you know pretty shocking. I don't know if it's still in the film, is this still in the film?
MH: Oh yeah.
ES: So my scripts had a level of realism in them that was not common in adventure films at the time. I was very influenced also by the Monty Python movies Jabberwocky, and Holy Grail, I don't remember what years they came out, but they were very realistic. You know, people lived in dirt and filth, and when they got stabbed they'd bleed. I mean, it's a joke, in the films, but it's probably what life was like.
And I remember I'm going to the studio when they were making Dragon Slayer Gary (Kurtz) and I went over to ILM when they'd moved into their new digs and George and Gary and I went into a screening room, and we watched... They had just done a composite of one of the scenes with the dragons and I remember walking out, and George he said "well what do you think?" and I said "well, you know it looks good, but everybody's too clean," I said "you know, all their clothes are pressed," or something like that. And Star Wars was all about a lived in the universe right? People had dirty clothes and the spaceships were scratched. It was one of the reasons that they didn't do computer animation on the spaceship early on in Star Wars was no way to get them to look dirty.
I remember talking to Gary about it at great lengths because they had access to early... We went up to see when they were making Tron. We went up to one of the people that did the special effects for first Tron movie. It was what they call ray tracing software that went back to World War II, and they were doing those things that look like I don't know little u-shaped, things that walk on... I don't know what they're called, maybe they have a name. But they all looked smooth and shiny because that's all you could do is smooth and shiny. And you couldn't do spaceship except smooth and shiny spaceships, and that wasn't the look of Star Wars. So by that same token, the look of Conan was was always dirty, and rough, and smelly. That's what I thought it should have conveyed.
I've got to stop.
MH: Alright. You've been going for a long time too.