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Interview with William Stout

William Stout is a titan of fantasy art. Since the 1970s, his notebooks have been home to dinosaurs, fierce barbarians, and creatures from beyond the stars. Stout has also worked in film and television, both as a production designer and as a writer. Today, he reveals some of his secrets to us...

Enrique Dueñas: Let's start witht he important stuff: what were your favorite movies as a kid?

William Stout: Without a doubt, my favorite film of all time is the 1933 King Kong. It was the first movie I ever saw. I was just three years old when I saw it at the Reseda Drive-in. As a kid, I also loved The Wizard of Oz. I also am crazy about nearly every version of Peter Pan, especially the Disney version and the Mary Martin musical.

ED: What do you remember about your collaboration with "Heavy Metal" magazine?

WS: I contributed to the European version (Metal Hurlant) before I contributed to the American version (Heavy Metal). When I was visiting Paris they did an interview with me and an article on my bootleg record album covers.

I didn’t really “collaborate” with Heavy Metal; they printed my Moebius Arzak story collaboration as well as my Harlan Ellison story adaptation (“Shattered Like a Glass Goblin”).

ED: I’ve always been amazed with your paleoart. It’s so colorful and unique! When did you start drawing dinosaurs?

WS: I began drawing dinosaurs when I was in the second grade. It was my third grade teacher who informed me that dinosaurs and humans didn’t exist at the same time. I got very serious about accuracy after Robert Williams critiqued a Tyrannosaurus I had drawn in the early 1970s. I joined the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology in the mid-1970s to keep up with all of the latest dinosaur info.

ED: Is there a piece of yours you are especially proud of?

WS: Yes; it’s “Mosasaur and Loons,” one of my prehistoric Antarctica paintings. Also, a contemporary Antarctic piece, “Macaroni and Boiler.”

ED: What's your favorite real, roaring, prehistoric beast?

WS: I’ve always loved the Tyrannosaurus rex. I have a skull cast in my living room. I also like the spectacular multi-horned head display of the Styracosaurus.

ED: Have you been following the recent wave of “speculative” paleoart? It's amazing how unrecognizable and alien some animals can look with a couple of tweaks here and there!

WS: I glance at it from time to time but it doesn’t really have much of an effect on me.

ED: What was your involvement in the “Buck Rogers” series of the 1970s?

WS: I wasn’t the show’s production designer, although I could have been if I had been smarter. Along with others, I designed the show’s emblems, weaponry, costumes and creatures.

ED: You’ve worked on many feature films. One of my favorites is the Invaders from Mars remake. Honestly, I consider it the best Tobe Hooper movie and way better than the 1950s original (you can hang me for that).

WS: I was responsible for designing all of the Martian stuff; the ship’s exterior and interior, the drones, the weaponry and all of the Martian culture. Stan Winston’s crew came up with the final design of the Supreme Intelligence.

I have always liked designing monsters for film. One problem, though, is that when an actor is in a monster suit, you can always tell it’s a guy in a suit. My pal Rick Baker came up with the idea of designing a backwards suit, so that the leg configuration was not that of a human. Stan Winston added a little person inside the suit as well, to operate the creature’s arms.

ED: When researching your career, I was extremely surprised to discover that you wrote “Warrior and the sorceress”! Was your idea to do a fantasy version of “Yojimbo” or it was more of a rewrite?

WS: It was writer-director John Broderick’s idea to make a science fantasy version of Yojimbo. I fought against that idea; I wanted to write something original. I changed the script as much as I could. I was horrified and embarrassed when I saw the final movie, as it looked like a rip-off of Yojimbo.

ED: I read somewhere that you were almost NOT credited for that job!

WS: John took my name off the screenplay, thinking I would never notice. I found out about it and called my lawyer. Roger Corman promptly paid me for the screenplay out of John’s salary and restored my credit.

ED: You also wrote one of the final episodes of “Godzilla: the series”, a pretty good action-adventure cartoon I loved as a teen.

WS: I wrote one episode, yes, the story with the giant scorpion.

ED: Keeping with Godzilla, I’m kind of obsessed with your version of the big lizard. There are many unfinished projects from the 80s, but "King of the Monsters 3D" is somewhat special. I think it would have been, easily, one of my favorite movies of all time. Could you tell us what your ideas and priorities were when redesigning the character?

WS: I didn’t want Godzilla to look like a guy in a baggy suit, so I added a little dinosaur anatomy to its design. The creature was going to be stop motion animated by David Allen. Sculptor-animator Stephen Czerkas constructed the stop motion creature based upon my re-designs. Rick Baker was building a huge robotic head of Godzilla for me.

ED: What’s your opinion of Fred Dekker's script?

WS: I thought (and still think) that Fred Dekker’s script was one of the best screenplays I have ever read. I would still make this film in a heartbeat.

ED: Was it very difficult to make the storyboard?

WS: Because the film was originally planned to be in 3D, that changed the compositions of the storyboards. To take advantage of the film being in 3D, we wanted lots of the film’s elements to be floating and not breaking the edges of the screen.

ED: Is there any scene that you would have liked to see on the Big Screen?

WS: The final death scene (Godzilla dies on Alcatraz). If that didn’t tear the audience’s hearts apart, nothing would.

ED: You were even in line to direct a Rodan spin-off! What would have been your approach?

WS: The same as Godzilla; have the audience go to see the film expecting the sub-par effects of the Japanese version, then surprising them and wowing them with a great story and spectacular state-of-the-art special effects.

ED: Have you seen the latest Godzilla movies by Legendary Pictures? What’s your opinion?

WS: I think they are pretty good. They really made me want to make our version, though.

ED: You also redesigned the entire "Masters of the Universe" world for the movie. What do you remember about that experience?

WS: It was pretty wonderful. Working for Cannon Films was always humorously astounding. The production was so screwed up I couldn’t be late on anything. It was a great time to be in The Business. We had a lot of freedom back then. You could just think up a movie and then make it!

ED: Is there a character or costume that you are especially proud of?

WS: Yes, the collaborative re-design of He-Man that never got used. My throne room set was the talk of the town. I took two huge soundstages and knocked out the wall between them to make one of the biggest sets Hollywood had seen in decades. Every visitor wanted a photo with them sitting on the throne. I think what Moebius and I came up with made the film richer and deeper.

ED: We have to talk about “Conan the barbarian”. What were John Milius' mandates?

WS: I began as a storyboard artist, drawing traditional storyboards. John Milius saw what I was doing and stopped me.

“I like your comics work. Make the storyboard look like comic book pages.” I asked John for visual and story input. He said, “Just draw it the way you would if you were the director. I know how I am going to shoot every single scene. But if you come up with something better, I’ll use it and take all the credit for it.”

ED: What was it like working with Ron Cobb?

WS: Those two years with me and Ron in the same room were the best two years I ever spent on a film.

ED: You told me that you were living in Madrid for a whole year.

WS: Yes; we began in Yugoslavia but then switched our locations to Spain. I love Madrid and Spain in general. I would love to live in Spain for couple of years.

ED: I know you're a big fan of Robert E. Howard. What is your favorite story?

WS: “Red Nails.”

ED: Were you disappointed to learn that the film would bear very little resemblance to the original tales?

WS: I’d have to disagree with the very premise of your question. I think there is a LOT of Howard in the first movie but with historical references as well to make that Hyborian world more believable.

ED: Of course, Conan the Barbarian is an absolute classic of fantasy cinema. We can't say the same for the sequel!

WS: Huh, that horrible script! It was also a good learning opportunity, though, as the DeLaurentiis family was grooming me to become a production designer. They let me design two-thirds of the film. And, I loved living in Mexico City. Unfortunately, I was saddled with having to use the incompetent Carlo Rimbaldi.

ED: Keeping with the pulps, I know that you’re also a Lovecraft fan. Why do you think his work is now more popular than ever, a century after his death?

WS: People love watching scary movies. Lovecraft’s stories are some of the scariest. They start out normal and then he lets the horrors slowly creep into the story.

ED: You worked on Del Toro's "Mountains of Madness".

WS: Actually, I created a HellBoy pin-up for my friend Mike Mignola that is set in Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness world. Guillermo bought the picture and told me he really wanted to make At the Mountains of Madness with me, Mike Mignola and Wayne Barlowe as the film’s designers.

ED: Of course, the Universal version was cancelled back in 2011, but I've heard there's a chance the project could be resurrected by Netflix. Do you know anything about it? Is there any chance you'll be part of the film?

WS: I have no idea. I would love to make it with Guillermo; I would become the only designer and illustrator of that story who has actually lived in Antarctica.

ED: You also worked on “Pan’s Labyrinth”. Considering that this was a limited-budget indie film, did you impose any limitations on yourself when drawing?

WS: At first, I was just interpreting Guillermo’s sketches, doing my own versions. I wish I had spent more time on my designs for the film. I was only just beginning to visually dig into the film’s designs when my time was up. I offered Guillermo a free week of my time but he passed.

ED: How did you spend the COVID years?

WS: Those were two of my most productive years as an artist, as all of my travel and convention appearances were cancelled. I used all of that extra time to create art.

ED: I am terrified by the rise of generative AI and the idea of automating art. Many young people are losing job opportunities and it seems that there’s nothing we can do to stop the march of a technology that delights corporations and curious people alike. Do you have any opinion on this issue?

WS: I sort of agree with you. AI might just become another artists’ tool –– like PhotoShop (which also ended a lot of artists’ careers). With nearly all new technologies, there are great outcomes and advantages and bad ones, too.

ED: I've heard you're putting together a book about your work. Can you tell us more about it?

WS: I am putting together a multi-volume autobiography on my career in art. I’ve done too much stuff for just one book. The first volume is William Stout – Prehistoric Life Murals. I am just finishing up on a three-volume box set on all of my comics-related work. Volume Three alone has well over 600 images. Those will be followed by a book on all of my underground comix work, a book on all of my music-related work (my most requested book), a book on my entertainment advertising, a book on all of my film designs and the very first book on the history of life in Antarctica.

ED: The last question: If you could travel back to the past, what historical figure would you like to meet?

WS: That’s a tough one. A few come to mind: Howard Pyle, Mark Twain, Joseph Christian Leyendecker and Charles R. Knight.

ED: Again, thank you very much for your time. I congratulate you on your incredible career and wish you the best in your future endeavors.

WS: Thank you, Enrique!

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