Drew Struzan Interview: Creating The Thing Poster, and Much More – /Film

This interview was conducted by Guest Contributor Erik Sharkey.

If you don’t know the name Drew Struzan, you definitely know his artwork.

Drew has painted iconic movie posters for some of the biggest franchises in history, like Star Wars, Back to the Future, Harry Potter, and Indiana Jones. My generation grew up seeing his beautiful posters for films like The Goonies and Big Trouble in Little China in the theater lobby and in full page newspaper ads. Drew’s posters were a big part of the moviegoing experience. They captured the imagination of the films we loved, and sometimes we wished that the movies were as good as Drew’s posters.

I grew up as a fan of his work and was lucky enough to direct the documentary about Drew’s life and career, titled Drew: The Man Behind the Poster. We became good friends while making the documentary and he’s been a constant source of inspiration ever since. Drew is someone who usually prefers to let his paintbrush do the talking when it comes to his art, but recently he was kind enough to give me this exclusive interview, and /Film is the perfect place to share it.

During our conversation, we discuss his techniques to create a great movie poster, his recent King Kong poster release, how similar he is to Star Wars creator George Lucas, his iconic work on posters for The Thing and the Indiana Jones series, and how he occasionally comes out of retirement for the right project.

Bottleneck Gallery recently released a beautiful poster that you painted of the original King Kong. What is it about that film and the character of Kong that motivated you to paint it?

I have always loved King Kong. Some people think of Kong as a villain, but I never thought of him as that. Kong is the hero. The villains are those who try to destroy that beautiful creature. I didn’t approach it like it was a painting for a movie poster. I wanted to do something different. I’ve been painting in different mediums. And I’m not just painting, I’m scratching and sand papering and doing all kinds of things. Whatever the subject is crying out for, I do. Doing this painting of Kong was like freedom for me because I wasn’t painting for someone else. I keep working on a thing until I love it. Now that I’m retired, I can do something to my heart’s content and do what I like. I think Kong came out wonderfully.

How did you approach doing movie poster art when you first started out?

I had to do something different, and I think that the trouble with a lot of early movie posters is that they looked too much like classic illustration, which feels like it’s telling the whole story. I didn’t want to do that. I felt that art was more than just telling the story. In fact, telling the story in a poster is wrong for a movie. I wasn’t looking to tell a story. I’m looking to give a person a feeling about something they could hope for. I asked as the directors what they’re doing and why they were doing it. I try to find the best in what they are doing. Then I paint that way. I look for the best pictures I can find of the actors and scenes. I look for the color palette. Then I design a composition that is open ended. Not closed ended saying, “This is what you have to think about this.” Open ended means the viewer explores the subject from their point of view. I love when that happens. I feel like I’ve done a good job when that happens.

Which one of your posters do you think is a good example of open-endedness?

My favorite one showing open-endedness is The Thing. They called me about nine o’clock at night and said, “Do you have time to do an illustration for us?” I said, “Oh, yeah.” So, they asked me, “Have you ever seen the movie, the ’50s movie, The Thing?” I said, “Yeah, I saw that movie.” They said, “That’s it.” That’s the information I got about what they wanted me to paint. That’s it. So, it was quite open ended, wasn’t it? My thinking was, “Okay, I don’t know anything about it. I don’t know who’s in it. What’s different about it, why people should come see this one if they’ve seen the one from the ’50s?” That’s when I came up with the idea. I’m not gonna paint anything. I’m going to paint it in an open-ended way. See what you want to see or don’t see. If you know the painting, that’s what I did. It’s just a guy standing there. He’s got on his snow outfit. He’s obviously standing in the cold and the snow and he has some lights coming out of his face. And that’s the thing you can’t understand. Hopefully the response is, “I’ve got to go see this movie and find out what this is about.” And that’s how I paint open-ended pictures, to inspire people to want to go and find out what the movie is about.

I always thought your artwork for the movie First Blood was a powerful poster of a single figure.

Well, thank you. It’s a guy with a big gun, and the first thing we know is that he was in a war of some kind, but I want the image to be beautiful. I want it to be kind. I want it to be loving. Big tough guy with a big gun and bullets, how does that relate to what I’m saying? What’s the color in it? It’s basically a blue picture. And blue is the most comforting and loving color you can paint. Does it not look peaceful? I could have painted blood dripping from them, which a lot of movie posters have done, but that’s not what I paint. I want to make the world a better and more beautiful, peaceful, and kind place. So, you’ll see that in every picture I paint. 

In all the years I’ve known you I have never asked you: what is your favorite Star Wars movie?

My favorite Star Wars movie is still the first one because of the storyline. When I saw the movie and I saw what it was about, it became perfect for me to feel and paint. From the first movie all the way through episode seven. I was doing it the way I felt about the story and the photography. George really gave me freedom. I don’t know if most people know or not, but he wanted to be an illustrator. He loves illustration. George bought and owns every piece I ever painted for his films. That was a wonderful thing that he did for me.

When we filmed the segments of you and George Lucas together for your documentary, it looked like you guys have very similar personalities.

We are quite similar. We’re both introverted. When we were opening the Indiana Jones ride [in] Disneyland, the news was there and the president of Disney there and George Lucas was there. The president of Disney got through with his speech and he said, “George, would you like to add something to it?” And he said, “No.” And then he asked me. So, I gave it my best shot. We had been standing out of the limelight in the back, leaning against the wall, shoulder to shoulder for like an hour while the pomp and circumstance was going on. This is not what either of us are about. We get together and we just we click without even conversation. We’re just quiet people.

You famously said that you could draw before you could talk.

Yes, I did. Somehow Stanford University got the news that there is this kid in San Jose who can draw like an angel. They came to my parents’ house when I was about five years old and gathered up all my drawings. They took them back to Stanford to study. To this day, I don’t know what they were studying. I guess I was unusual but those of us who are freaks in this way still have a gift to give. We work our asses off, pardon me, learning how to share our gift. I got to paint movie posters. And now people show me their appreciation and their thanks. I’m happy to be the freak.

You also studied illustration at Art Center College of Design.

I did go to Art Center. I had absolutely no money at all. I didn’t have a car. I didn’t have anything. I didn’t have food. I was accepted straight out of high school. The first two semesters were stressful. I was often kicked out because I was always late paying my tuition, but I was still a straight A student. They saw what I could do. That earned me a scholarship. Art is what I love. It’s what I can do, and I do it well. I still work at it. I try to make it better with each stroke of the pen. 

How did you develop your technique after college?

The first paintings I did for the movie industry were oil paints. I had no idea. We weren’t taught the reality of working while I was in school. So I painted this picture because that’s the medium I used in school. Big problem. Oils dry too slowly for the deadlines that are imposed upon an illustrator. Necessity forced me to quickly change to acrylics, which dry immediately. Another advantage is that you can make changes to the work. With oils, you paint on canvas and it’s heavy and creates texture. To paint over oils to make a change doesn’t work. You always see what was under it. I developed a technique where I first paint the illustration board with gesso. It puts a texture on the board. Then I paint with acrylics, but instead of painting with a brush, adding more texture, I paint with an airbrush which creates no texture at all. It adds the color. That method makes it so easy to make changes to the art. When I painted Hook, Dustin Hoffman wanted his portrait changed. I painted out half the painting and repainted it. I laid down a new coat of gesso, redrew the portrait, then airbrushed the color. You cannot tell that it was ever changed. That method made the work easier, faster, and better. It made everybody happier, too.

One thing that artists who work digitally don’t have is an original painting. All your work is done by hand, so you have original paintings that are very valuable that you can sell.

Oh, yeah. Of course. When I was first in the business and getting to do movie posters, I was hoping I’d live long enough to see the works become a desirable product that people would buy. It happened. Ha! I’m old enough. Ben Stevens and Galactic Gallery in Texas are selling the work. I had a good career and now I am making a living even while I am retired.

You have come out of retirement on occasion for certain projects, like doing a triptych of posters for the How to Train Your Dragon films and the illustrations for Dylan Struzan’s book, “A Bloody Business.” 

Well, Dean DeBlois, who writes and directs the Dragon films, is a friend and I love his movies. And my wife Dylan wrote a book about organized crime in America. Dylan was friends with the last living godfather from the ’20s and wrote his truth about his life with guys like Meyer Lansky and Charlie Lucky. I did 24 illustrations for her, one for each chapter. She jokes that’s the perk she gets for being married to an illustrator. She’s my wife, the one I love. So, I wanted to make her happy. And the people that get the book are going to be happy. She got marvelous reviews for it.

Even though you are retired, you continue to paint for yourself. What has been inspiring you creatively in recent years?

I paint things that I think are valuable to humanity and people. I’m painting endangered animals, not just renderings, but ones that have heart, soul, and feelings. I hope people will value the animals that God made. I trust that people will love the animals, trust them, and support them before it is too late and they’re gone. 

I can’t speak for anyone else but I’m not ready to quit. I don’t know in the history of the masters of anybody that just quit painting because they got old. It doesn’t happen because they know who they are and what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. You know, old artists never die, they just can’t remember where they left their paints.

What are your thoughts on the character of Indiana Jones and the way he’s portrayed by Harrison Ford, and how has that inspired the art you created for the film posters?

The way Harrison portrays Indy is the way I paint him. If you ask me, Harrison Ford is a national treasure. He brings magic to the role. He makes us love Indiana Jones. We see that character and long to join him on his adventures. Add to that, the filmmakers immerse us in Indy’s world. When I create the poster, I hold on to that emotional concept. I want the poster to look like an adventure. The color and the images must speak of power and fearlessness. That’s Indy. That’s what Harrison portrays on the screen. He gives me a lot to work with and, for that, I am grateful. I’m excited that we have another story on the horizon. I look forward to Indy’s next journey.

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