Today I’m talking with William Stout whose art and design career has spanned the last 4 decades and doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. He’s worked on numerous print publications over the years and was one of the first American Contributors in Heavy Metal Magazine. His film work has been legendary. He’s been a part of such films as Masters of The Universe (one of my personal favorites), both Conan films, Men In Black, The Prestige and the beautiful Pan’s Labyrinth. Some of his most famous work, however, appeared in 1985’s Return of The Living Dead directed by the man whom this week is dedicated to, Dan O’Bannon.
Blood Sprayer: Thank you for taking the time to talk with The Blood Sprayer today
William Stout: No problem; happy to do so
B.S.: Let’s talk about how Return of The Living Dead happened for you? what was the genesis of that experience?
W.S. : Dan O’Bannon was a close friend of Ron Cobb, the former political cartoonist for the Los Angeles Free Press. They both worked on Star Wars and Alien. At the time I was working with Cobb on the Conan the Barbarian movie. I ran into Dan repeatedly at Ron’s parties. I would often bring my work outside of Conan (I didn’t trust this movie career thing would pan out) to the parties for feedback. Dan always showed great enthusiasm for my work. I didn’t realize at the time he was considering me as his production designer for The Return of the Living Dead. Dan knew I’d create some great zombies; he just wasn’t sure I could handle the high tech aspects of the film.
One night I displayed a cover I had drawn for the comic book Alien Worlds. It depicted an astronaut sinking into the ground, surrounded by horrible little creatures. Dan told me later that as soon as he saw my stylings on the astronaut’s suit, he declared inside his head “Stout CAN do high tech!”
When the financing arrived for The Return of the Living Dead, Dan gave Graham Henderson, the film’s line producer, a very short list of whom he wanted to be his production designer: Bernie Wrightson and me. Graham was no dummy. He immediately did his homework and found that I had already racked up some significant film credits. Bernie hadn’t at the time (Bernie subsequently became the go-to guy for creature design). Graham called me and cut a deal. He lied to Dan and told Dan that Bernie (Dan’s first choice) wasn’t available. So, I got the gig.
B.S. : What was day to day life for you and Dan on Return of The Living Dead? What were some of the triumphs and challenges you faced?
W.S. :In my experience of designing on over 45 feature films, Return was one of the roughest films I ever worked on. The two people in key power positions, Dan and Graham, were often at odds with each other. I, being pretty green, was being ground up between the two of them. I quit filmmaking for nine months after Return.
Triumphs: Tar-Man; the Half Corpse; working with Dan; what I learned about filmmaking; seeing my designs implemented.
Challenges: Being saddled for awhile with make-up man Bill Munns; trying to please both Dan and Graham; often not knowing what the hell I was doing (I had a great art department thanks to Graham and I got lucky a lot); not being able to un-do Munns’ work (in other words, not seeing my designs implemented).
B.S. : The film features some of the most interesting character designs that have ever been in a film. I was wondering if you could take us through the design process of some of them:
- The Half Zombie: I created one drawing of the Half Corpse. Dan approved it immediately. I then drew a couple more views for the sculptor. The Half Corpse was beautifully executed by a very young (he looked like he was 14) Tony Gardner. Tony was recommended to me by my friend Rick Baker. It was operated by Brian Peck (who played Scuzz in the film), Tony and me (I’m a hands-on production designer; I worked the spine, making it move and ooze spinal fluid).
- The Yellow Man: My first Yellow Man drawing was also promptly approved by Dan. Unfortunately, it was executed by Munns. I don’t want this to be a dump session on Bill Munns, who is a very nice guy. But he just didn’t follow my drawings and it screwed us up.
The Re-Animated Medical Animals: I gave Tony Gardner a copy of my Carolina Biological Supply catalogue and he built the Split Dog. I might have helped in the puppeteering, or it may have just been Tony or Tony and Brian. It was wonderful! Zombie Trash: Despite my protestations, Dan insisted that I sculpt the transformed Trash. I can sculpt but I’m painfully slow (in contrast, I’m very fast as a graphic artist). I got some clay and some quick lessons from Tony. After I finished the sculpture Dan approved it. Tony added surface detail to the skin.
- And of course, Tar Man: My little masterpiece of the film. My first Tar-man drawing reassured Dan that he had made the right decision in choosing me to be his production designer. He was floored with what I came up with. I then drew several poses from different angles to aid the sculptor. Bill Munns actually did a pretty good first pass at the Tar-man. It was improved by Kenny Myers (and maybe Tony; I don’t recall). But what really brought the suit to life was the magnificent performance by Allan Trautman. Allan was incredible.
B.S. : Did you and Dan keep in touch after the film?
W.S. : Yes; we stayed good friends and had many projects we planned to do together.
B.S. : After Dan’s passing, you shared some of your favorite Dan stories on your site. I was wondering if you’d mind recounting some of those stories for our readers
W.S. : I’ve mentioned elsewhere that Dan’s tales often emanated from his own intense neuroses. O’Bannon was probably the most paranoid guy I ever met. He tapped that paranoia as a writer, creating classic scripts for Alien and Blue Thunder.
While making The Return of the Living Dead, I was in the process of buying a house with the Conan the Destroyer money I had squirreled away while living on my per diem down in Mexico City during the making of the film. Dan had just been through the process of buying a house.
Now, Dan was a researcher. He loved to research everything. Buying a home was no exception. On our hair-raising drives (when Dan was driving we ALWAYS missed our freeway exits) together to location scouts, Dan gave me the benefit of all of the house research he had just done.
Dan had determined that the absolute best house to own was a Spanish adobe-style home. He told me, though, that Spanish adobes had one drawback.
“The walls aren’t machine gun proof.”
So, at enormous expense, after purchasing his very expensive Santa Monica Spanish adobe abode, he had the house’s walls taken out and had steel plates inserted inside of them before replacing them. Now they were machine gun proof! Problem solved!
B.S. : In the past few years we’ve seen several new Return products hit the market including new dvd and blu-ray releases, action figures and a new retrospective book (Blood Sprayer Review Here). How did Dan regard the films following and the fact that even after all these years, the film is still reaching new audiences and people still love it?
W.S. : This all made Dan extremely happy and proud. Why wouldn’t it? Dan deserved all of the recognition he recieved. In fact, I think he deserved even more. He was key to outsider guys like me getting into the film business.
B.S. : Lastly, Dan had a large body of work but many would argue that Return will be one of the films he is most remembered for? How did he feel about this and do you think its a fitting legacy?
W.S. : I would say that in addition to The Return of the Living Dead, Dan will long be remembered as well for Alien. I think Dan’s entire output as a creator is well worthy of being examined in detail. He changed motion picture history in ways film buffs don’t begin to realize.
B.S. : Thank you again for taking the time to talk with us and we all truly appreciate your work and your participation in this tribute to an amazing talent.
W.S. : I only wish that Dan and I had found time to finish our projects together. Thanks!