If you know who Drew Struzan is, you already know he’s talented. The movie posters he’s painted include the Indiana Jones, Back to the Future, and Star Wars series, and hundreds more. If you don’t know who he is, this will be a wonderful introduction. It’s a documentary that movie lovers and artists will enjoy for obvious reasons. Yet as I often say about documentaries – they’re usually the most enjoyable films I see. You learn fascinating stories about peoples lives. And watching a guy go from rags-to-riches and almost back to rags again (it involves the most interesting lawsuit you’ll ever hear about).
Everything about watching the Struzan documentary will make you love the story; his talent, humble nature, and the great anecdotes.
As a music and movie lover I had not only been exposed to his work as a movie poster artist, but from the album covers he created. My favorite was Alice Cooper’s Welcome to My Nightmare, which Rolling Stone named one of the Top 100 album covers of all time. He did many other covers, including the San Diego band Iron Butterfly.
Getting that job brought him a steady paycheck. Before that gig, he made $3,000 the year he had his baby, with the doctor getting $1,500. Yet it was the jump to doing movie posters that really brought him fame and…well, not necessarily fortune. You’ll have to see the documentary to find out why the two don’t always go hand-in-hand.
You’ll enjoy hearing the big names talking about being fans and/or working with Struzan. Those folks include actors like Michael J. Fox (a fan even before the Back to the Future poster) and Harrison Ford (who got the Struzman treatment not only as Indy and Hans Solo, but the sci-fi classic Blade Runner). Yet I loved listening to Thomas Jane just as much. You see, he sort of played Struzan in The Mist. He jokingly talks about it being harder to get the brush strokes down as Struzan, than learning to hit like Mickey Mantle in the movie 61*.
Directors Guillermo del Toro, Frank Darabont and Steven Spielberg offer interesting stories, offering heaps of praise. It’s del Toro that gets the big laughs with his enthusiasm and cursing rants about the studios. It’s not only a nice splash of comedic relief, but it’s also rather thought provoking. Everyone likes to sit around and talk about how filmmakers in Hollywood have it made. They make millions and millions, as we gripe about paying $13 a ticket. Yet often times, the people that aren’t making $20 million a film like Harrison Ford, have to go on these angry rants because the studio heads are dictating how the art should be done. That might mean Struzan isn’t paid for a piece he was asked to create, only to have the director pay him out of his own pocket. It might also mean directors like Erik Sharkey, who made this interesting documentary, wasn’t backed by a huge studio and had to max out credit cards to create it.
Movie critic Leonard Maltin shares an opinion many of us have – “When I think of Harrison Ford, I think of Drew Struzan’s image of him.”
Ford said Struzan is as important to the movie as a John Williams score.
A woman in the audience at the Q&A we did after a showing, said “He’s the best one-sheet storyteller ever.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
See this documentary. If for any other reason…it’s a chance to see Steve Guttenberg in a movie again.
I’m giving it 4 out of 5 stars.
When I was asked to host a Q&A for this documentary, I jumped at the chance. I thought I only knew a few of his movie posters and album covers, but that was enough. His work is brilliant, and I’m a fan of documentaries. Little did I realize that, although the Reading Gaslamp Theatre is one of my favorite theatres in San Diego, it was the same weekend as Comic-Con. D’oh!
I only hope the crowds go to see this the week it runs downtown, and it draws crowds comparable to the ones Drew Struzan gets when he shows up on panels at Comic-Con.
The following are interesting questions that came up during our conversation, as well as the questions from the crowd.
I started out by saying “I got to know your work with album covers first, because of my record collection. Since movie poster art has changed, and we know your feelings on that from the movie…what are your thoughts on album cover art? Fans used to play the record, and stare at art work by you, or artists like Roger Dean (Yes). Then in the early ‘90s, it was all put relegated to a small CD sleeve. You can barely see the art work.”
Drew Struzan: I didn’t care. I had already stopped doing album covers long before that.
Josh Board: One of the things I loved about your movie posters is that they sometimes make the actors look funnier. The way Walter Matthau looks at Jack Lemmon, or those Don Knotts eyes. Although I think you did make Marty Feldman’s eyes a lot wackier than they really were. Did he ever complain about that?”
Drew Struzan: He had died before he had a chance to complain about it.
Josh Board: It’s interesting how the actors faces can look funny, yet not be caricatures. Your PoliceAcademy poster shows each character trait, even comedian Michael Winslow’s mouth moving, as if he’s in the middle of making a sound effect. It’s why Harrison Ford was praising you so much.
DS: When I did a Mary Travers (Peter, Paul, and Mary) album, she flew out to see me with two dozen roses. She said she wanted to thank me for making her look so good.
Audience member: Which movie poster is your favorite?
DS: I can’t really answer that. It’s like trying to pick which child is your favorite.
JB: Well, I’m guessing most parents have a favorite child. They just don’t say which one it is. I think if you tell us which movie poster is your favorite…the other movie posters won’t be offended.
DS: Yeah, well…I really don’t have a favorite. They were jobs I was given. I did the job and I moved on.
Audience member: You said in the documentary that Police Academy poster was your favorite.
DS: No. I just really liked that poster. It shows that it’s a comedy, and all the actors faces are in there. I just didn’t like how they said in the movie ‘and he did a Police Academy.’ They said that in a way that could be insulting. People work so hard on a movie. They put their heart and soul into it. They write it, director it, and lots of effort is going into the whole process. So I don’t like when people make fun of movies. I had used that analogy before, about picking a favorite movie poster being like trying to pick your favorite child. I was in Japan, and they all just looked at me. They didn’t get it. Maybe it’s because they were sitting there thinking ‘I don’t know what he means. My favorite child is sitting right here.’
JB: Well, let’s ask director Erik Sharkey his favorite. He’s sitting right there.
ES: I really don’t have a favorite. It’s the same situation. I love them all. The Indiana Jones one might mean more to me, just because of my age and that time of my life when I saw it.
JB: Why did you decide to do a documentary on Drew?
ES: I grew up in a bad part of New York. When I’d go to the movie threatre, I’d look at all the movie posters. It was like a gallery. As I would walk by looking at them, it seemed like 8 out of 10 were his. I didn’t know anything about him, just the name Drew Struzan.
JB: With a name like Drew…did you start painting and drawing because your name was ‘Drew’?
DS: Well…they do say you should try to live up to your name.
DS: [laughing] I get asked that every day. I just don’t know. If they ask me, I’ll do it. But they haven’t asked me yet. I’ll still do posters for my friends, even if I’m not doing them regularly. If Guillermo or Steven called me up, I’d do it.
Audience member: Can I show you something?
[we waited as he pressed some stuff on his iphone, before holding it up]. It’s the movie poster for The Thing. It’s my favorite poster of all-time, and I have it as my screen saver.
JB: You got lucky there, Drew. He could’ve been pulling out a script for his movie, and asking you to do a poster for it.
DS: Then I would’ve just told him my price! [after the laughter died down, Drew said]
I got a call to do that poster, and the only instruction they gave me was ‘You know that movie ‘The Thing’ from the ‘50s?’ I said ‘Yeah’ and they said, ‘We want that.’
They needed it in a few days. It takes places in the Arctic, so I got this photo of me in a parka. I just started painting this image. The courier was at my house the next morning at 9:00 to pick it up. I told him to be careful because the acrylics were still wet. He had to drive it 100 miles. The studio called me when they got it. They said it was still wet!”
JB: Is that why we see the UPS drivers hand prints on the side of it? I thought that was all part of the scary imagery!
DS: Yeah, exactly! (laughter)
JB: Is it more rewarding to create a poster like that, having it turn out so well on such a short deadline?
DS: No. Maybe you can work better with a deadline. Others may enjoy it, but I prefer to do things on my own time. That might mean months later I go back and make changes on something.
The following day when we did another Q&A after the movie, somebody asked Drew if he’d be doing the poster for the next Star Wars movie. Another person asked what his favorite poster was.
DS: I get asked that all the time. I don’t have one. I like to tell people I look forward, not backwards. Somebody asked me yesterday if I look back at old posters and wish I did something different. No. I don’t think about them. It was a job, and I’ve moved on. You can’t just keep looking back at the past. You may eat a really great meal, but you don’t just want to cook that again the next night. You want to try something else. You might have a better meal the next night.
At this point, a friend of his in the audience yells “I know your wife does all the cooking. That statement kind of puts a lot of pressure on her.”
His wife Dylan looked back at him, smiling.
Audience member: Steve Spielberg is an art collector. Does he have any of your work?
DS: No, he doesn’t. George Lucas bought everything I had related to Star Wars. He wanted to be an illustrator and he really appreciates the art. He has it hanging all over the place. Spielberg has bought some of my stuff, but he does that to give it away. He gave one painting to John Williams.
Drew must have forgotten that Spielberg does have one piece of art that is really special to him. An audience member had this story, which quickly reminded him:
“I was at an art gallery in Pasadena years ago, and saw this painting you did of Abraham Lincoln. It was amazing. I had never seen that type of work from you. What inspired you to do that?
DS: Well…Lincoln inspired me! You know, that same picture you’re talking about…I saw the movie Lincoln. The Academy must be crazy, because that movie deserved to win every award there was. I knew somebody that was going to lunch with Steven. I told him to give the painting to Spielberg. He saw it and started crying.
At this point, all of us in the theatre were in tears as well. We’ve heard Drew allude to these stories about his bad childhood, and he seems to fear that he may not be a loving or kind man. Yet time after time, he proves he is. For example, somebody asked about a gallery that might show some of his work. Struzan mentions something in the future at Forest Lawn in Los Angeles. Yet he told the curator that he wanted it showing the work of Bob Peak as well. Peak passed away in 1992. Along with Saul Bass and Struzan, Peak has done the most popular movie posters around (they include: West Side Story, Camelot, My Fair Lady, Superman, Star Trek, and Apocalypse Now). Struzan had been talking to Peak’s kids, and they were worried people would forget their dad and his work.
Audience member: What’s the earliest picture you ever remember drawing?
DS: I don’t know. I was drawing before I could talk. If I wanted a glass of water, I wouldn’t ask my mom. I’d draw a cup, the faucet, and water going into it. It’s just what I did. We didn’t have money, and there was no paper around to draw on. I’d just crumple up toilet paper and write on that. Here’s something strange, though. One Sunday night my wife and I were walking in downtown L.A. Everything was closed, and we walked by this frame shape. In their window, they had a picture of cowboys and horses that I had drawn when I was a kid. It was signed and everything. I don’t know how they got that, but I knew it was mine. You can bet I went back there the next day!
Audience member: My favorite poster of yours is Frankenstein. How did you get involved doing posters for Mondo?
DS: They had called me, and I knew they were a smaller company and couldn’t really afford me. They just kept calling and calling, each year. They were really persistent. When I finally talked to them, they suggested using prints of stuff I had already done. Well, that made it a lot easier. That’s just free money. How could I turn that down?
DS: I don’t know! How many hours have you worked at your job?
Audience member: Too many (crowd laughs, Drew smiles).
DS: I just never know how to answer questions like that. This was a job for me and I was always given a lot of projects to do. I was working 12 hour days, sometimes 18 hours. I just wouldn’t even know how to begin to answer that. And what about movies like Hellboy or E.T.? I did posters for those films and the studio didn’t use them. Do I count that?
Josh Board: I can sort of answer part of his question. I saw some press materials that stated Drew did over 200 movie posters.
DS: So there ya go!
JB: I know everybody asks you all these questions about your movie posters, but I’ve always loved album cover art. You did albums for people like Earth Wind & Fire, the Bee Gees, Tony Orlando & Dawn. I just wonder if when you did Sabbath Bloody Sabbath…did you put the record on afterwards and think – ‘Yikes! Ozzy does a lot of screaming.”
DS: I never did that. I’m not a musician. It’s not my job to do that. You’re the critic. It’s what other people do.
[It’s also mentioned in the movie that he’s the only person working for that company that didn’t go to the concerts. He did his work, and then went home to his wife and baby.]
JB: When you went from album covers to movie posters, did you start paying more attention to other movie posters? You walk by a theatre and think – I really like how that artist painted the alien.
DS: I never had time to go to the movies. I was always working. When I did, I really didn’t care about what other movie posters had. I just did my job with the posters. Often times, it could be a collaborative effort. The studio might tell me what they wanted, and I did it that way. There were times I’d get a paragraph about the movie, and that was it. I remember being in a board room and there was a meeting about the movie, and I just started thinking of all these ideas and how I would do the poster. These thoughts just jump into my head. I remember I went to a screening of Pan’s Labyrinth. There were just four people there. Me, Dylan, and Guillermo del Toro and his wife. He was telling me he had all these ideas and things he wanted me to do for the movie poster. He came over to my house the next day and I told him what I wanted to do. He said “Great, do it.” He didn’t even tell me what all his ideas were. When I was on the phone with George Lucas once, he asked me for ideas. I just came up with them right there. So at meetings, I just get these ideas.
DS: No. I never took notes. I didn’t have to worry about forget those things.
JB: That’s interesting. Often times, songwriters will have a tape recorder near their bed, because they get an idea while they’re sleeping, and they forget it in the morning.
DS: I never forgot my ideas. It’s like John Lennon said when he talked about how he wrote songs. He’d go to sleep and dream them, and get up and write them.
JB: Do you remember seeing a movie poster as a kid that had a big influence on you? Maybe walking by and seeing Casablanca, and loving how the hat looked on Bogart.
DS: No. I didn’t see movies as a kid. We didn’t have any money. I don’t remember looking at any movie posters.
JB: I guess that’s just hard for me to wrap my mind around. Your posters are so iconic. It could be Burt Reynolds in some goofy movies like Stroker Ace or Cannonball Run. I can remember looking at the poster still. I was a kid staring at it, thinking the gang on that poster looked like they were having a good time. It’s strange that you don’t have movie posters you remember vividly.
DS: You know what people don’t realize? They always think people think the way they do. So they have trouble understanding somebody that thinks differently than they do. Maybe I’m off somewhere on Mars, I don’t know. A woman wrote a really interesting book on that topic, and how people can’t understand people that think differently. She talked about the different types of personalities.
At one point, Drew mentions his son Christian (who is in the documentary). He’s in the audience and helps answer a question. I asked him if it was hard getting into art when his dad was so well known. I told him a story about local basketball Hall of Famer Bill Walton, having his son Luke sitting on the bench for the Lakers. He hated people coming up and saying to him in the store, “Are you Bill’s son?”
He would snap, “I’m a Laker! I’m not just Bill’s son.”
Chris Struzan: I did my art, and yeah…having him for a dad and everything he’s accomplished…but I did my own thing.
(he went into a lot more detail about their relationship, but I was holding a microphone, not a notepad).
Josh Board: At least when you were a kid, you could bring a movie poster into show-and-tell, and say “Oh yeah, my dad also did this.”
As he laughs, his mom Dylan tells a great story about their grandson.
Dylan Struzan: He was drawing recently, and I asked him what he was drawing. It was Star Wars. Darth Vader, of course. I asked him if he had his dad help him. He said his dad didn’t always draw it right and said, ‘I can do it. I’m an artist. My dad’s an artist. Grandpa is an artist, and I’m an artist. When I go to kindergarten, I’m going to tell them I’m an artist.’”
Drew Struzan: It’s so funny with my son doing his art. I am an introvert, and he’s really outgoing. Tony, who really helped me with my career, also works with my son. Yet they go out, they’re drinking buddies. I’m just sitting here thinking…wait a second. I’ve just always been a little uncomfortable in social situations. Maybe it’s from having a childhood where my dad never expressed his love for me. I never had a birthday party growing up. My wife had a birthday party for me, and all these people came over. They were so nice and loving, and I just wasn’t sure how to handle it all. I’m used to being in a studio by myself, painting. Since I didn’t have that love growing up, it’s sometimes hard for me to express it.
Dylan Struzan: You’re fine, honey. Sometimes we might just be in social situations that can be weird.
Josh Board: If you’re dad had been a loving father, and encouraging you to do more art…praising you when he saw your drawings…do you think your style may have been different?
Drew Struzan: How would I know that? That’s one of those ‘what if’ questions. There’s no way to answer that. I don’t know.
Josh Board: Are you bummed out that you never got to do a movie poster that showed Harrison Ford wearing that earring?
DS: You know…I liked you yesterday. Today, I’m not so sure [laughter from the audience]. I would’ve never painted him with an earring, unless the character he’s playing was wearing one.
JB: Since you had done a poster for a Stephen King movie, and provided your paintings for his film…would you have liked to have done a book cover for him?
DS: Oh, I don’t know. He has all his illustrators and artists.
Audience member: A book of his did have your illustration. It was for The Mist.
DS: Oh. Well…there ya go!
Josh Board: We often hear stories about old blues musicians or early rock bands that had the rights to their songs basically stolen from them. Since you were doing these amazing album covers, and being paid only $250 for them…now when the bands have T-shirts with those logos, or things like this (I pull out my Black Sabbath CD)…because when you got your payment back then, it was for an album cover. They never said that in the future there would be CDs. Or when you did the art, was it just signed over to them and they owned it?
DS: I don’t get anything for these. That often happens with the artists. They can be paid very little. I was just at Comic Con and signed a thousand posters. I didn’t get any kick back or anything for that. I’m thrilled that people love the work. It’s nice that my work is being seen.
JB: Well, this album cover for Sabbath Bloody Sabbath…in 7th grade my friends mom made him get rid of it. She’s a Christian, and didn’t like the 666 on here.
DS: Do you know what ‘666’ means? All of that is biblical. I was a minister in those days, and all of the stuff on this had biblical meanings. The back of the album cover had the good guy, dying. The front had the bad man dying. All they told me was that they wanted a cover with a man dying. I suggested doing the back cover as well.
JB: Also, they mentioned in the movie that you made yourself the dying man. That was a brilliant idea. You should’ve taken that with you to the movie posters. Indiana Jones could be standing there with his whip, and you’d be right there behind him, looking over his shoulder. There could be a light saber fight in Star Wars, and there you are near a storm trooper.
DS: (as he points to me) What is with this guy?
JB: Hey…I’m going to keep throwing the jokes out there. I’m hoping some of them work.
DS: Why do you think your friends mom was so offended by that illustration?
JB: She was really strict about that. She often sighted those studies in the ‘70s where they’d play heavy metal albums backwards to see if there were hidden messages. The fact that this actually had a ‘666’ on the cover just kind of put her over the edge. And, it doesn’t really help that you have these naked women on here. I mean…see this? That’s a boob right there. It’s hard to tell, because CDs are so small, but on the record album, it is a lot more noticeable [the crowd laughs, as Drew rolls his eyes].
But getting back to you signing all those posters without being paid…if you ever get to a point where you need the money, you can always go to Comic Con and get a booth and charge for your autograph. There would be long lines paying the money. I mean, every year Chewbacca is there. He charges $25 an autograph, and there are always 4 or 5 people standing there waiting. He’s just a tall guy that wore that Chewbacca suit.
Drew Struzan: Then I better get a Chewbacca suit.