B&S About Movies: Masters of the Universe isn’t really a He-Man movie, huh? It’s a Jack Kirby movie.
Stout: Oh, absolutely. You nailed it. Gary Goddard, the director of the film, is a huge Jack Kirby fan. When I started out in that film, it was just to storyboard the movie. But on the side, I would do some costume designs and different things. Gary just loved my work. And plus, we had a great shorthand, because we had such a passion for Kirby.
When Gary would say, “Can you Kirby this up a little bit more?” I knew exactly what he was talking about. But the production designer we had didn’t know comics. He was a guy from England named Jeff Kirkland. He and Gary were constantly butting heads. Finally, Jeff left the film. He recommended to Gary that I take over as the production designer. A production designer, for those who don’t know, is responsible for everything you see on the screen except for the performances of the actors.
B&S: You had Jean “Moebius” Giraud working with you, correct?
Stout: Giraud was a really good friend of mine. He was living in Santa Monica at the time trying to get some animated films off the ground. I hired him to do some of the design work for Masters of the Universe.
B&S: I must confess, as a kid, I wanted the movie to look like the toys. And as I get older, I love the movie more and more.
Stout: I didn’t want He-Man to look like that toy because he looked like a rejected member of Abba. Horrible haircut! We did a redesign and Mattel, of course, fought me every inch of the way.
B&S: And now they make toys of your designs. Cannon referred to it as the “Star Wars of the 80s.” The movie has the feel of something like Star Wars, there’s some grandeur to the character designs. You did Kirby it up.
Stout: Our goal was unique and I wanted it to have a terrific look.
B&S: Did you know Kirby?
Stout: We were actually good friends. Here’s a Kirby story: I was doing a lot of work for Mattel. I did the box art for Heroes in Action, SWAT, Big Jim and other stuff. They called me up one day and said, “Oh, we’ve got something we think is right up your alley.”
It was an entire line of superhero stuff and they said, “We want art like this.” And they showed me some Jack Kirby art.
I said, “You know what? Why don’t you hire Jack? He just moved to LA and I bet he could use the work.” They replied, “Do you know how much money you’re turning down?” (laughs)
I knew how much they paid me, but I would have felt like such a jerk if I had ripped off Kirby and made money off Jack when he could have done it.
Two months later, I’m at a convention and I run into Jack and I ask how the Mattel job went.
He got excited and said “You’re the guy. Oh my God, I never made so much money in my life. That job came just after I had moved to LA. I had no contacts. I had no jobs. I didn’t know where my next paycheck was coming from. This Mattel job saved my life. It was so much money. Why did you turn that job down?”
I said, “That job was meant for you. It had to be your gig. The right and proper thing was to have you do the job.”
He was a pretty spectacular guy. And so nice and so honest. So down to Earth.
I got to ink an issue of The Demon. Mike Royer called me. He wanted to take some vacation time. He said, “Would you like to do Kamandi or The Demon?” The Demon! I wanted to do the monsters. Talk about a learning experience. I inked right over Kirby’s pencils. Talk about pressure!
B&S: What inspired the gold costume for Skeletor?
Stout: Well at that point in the film, Skeletor gets all the power in the universe. It’s got to change him and I just decided this sort of gold supervillain look would be awesome. I tried to make the costume as lavish and intricate as possible. The costume designer fought me on that because she wanted to use Western Costume to make the costume. I wasn’t really happy with their work. She was also very upset that I was designing all the costumes for the film, which was her job. And I told her, “Look: 20 years from now, people will look at this film. It says ‘Costume Designer: Julie Weiss.’ And the public will never know I did it. So don’t sweat it.” (laughs)
B&S: Going through your resume and I thought I knew everything you worked on and I keep being surprised. You worked on House?
Stout: That was a fun gig. I did three or four huge paintings for that. I did the layouts for them and my studio mate Richard finished all of them but one.
B&S: Big Ben looks like a Jack Davis drawing, so more EC Comics.
Stout: Yeah, I also did the art that got the financing for the film. I used to do a lot of that back when I was doing movie posters. They were called presentation paintings. Nobody in Hollywood likes to read, but they’ll happily look at a picture. As an example, there was a producer named Sandy Howard who produced low budget movies. He’d come to me every year and he’d have 12 titles.
He’d say, “OK, Terror Train, teenage girls terrorized on a train:
I would do 12 pictures to go with those titles. He wouldn’t even have a script. But then he would take those pictures and those twelve titles to the Cannes Film Festival or to MiFed in Italy. He’d get the financing for all twelve films. And that’s how a lot of movies were sold back then.
B&S: The Cannon way of selling movies.
Stout: It was wacky. At a time when I think of the major studios, Warner Brothers had the most in production with six, Cannon had like 82 movies in production.
B&S: Sometimes an ad would say, “A new Dustin Hofman project” and that’s it.
Stout: And yet they had never talked to Dustin about that.
I actually attended the black tie opening for Delta Force, a film directed by the president of the company. It starred Chuck Norris. A tuxedo opening for a Chuck Norris movie! After the movie, the premiere audience went back to the Cannon offices where they had four parking garages. Each level of the parking garage had a different chef serving spectacular food all night long. And every single person who ever worked for Cannon was there that night. I ran into Charles Bronson and all kinds of movie stars. It was crazy.
The line producers on Invaders from Mars had worked with Menahem Golan when he was in Israel, because that’s where Menahem came from and they told me this one story about him directing this scene. His wife came onto the set with their new baby. Menahem got really excited when he saw the baby. He grabbed the baby and put him in the back of a buckboard and then he stood back and called “Action!” The horses took off and the buckboard hit a bump which launched the baby flying into the air. Menahem’s wife lunges to get the baby and he stops her and says, “Darling! Never in the middle of a take.” (laughs)
B&S: What did you do on The Willies? Creature design?
Stout: Was that Brian Peck’s movie? (laughs) Because I don’t even remember doing that. Brian was a great guy, he helped so much on the set, he even helped puppeteer the half corpse.
In our final chapter, we’ll learn about some of William Stout’s true passion projects.
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To get some of Mr. Stour’s art, visit The Worlds of William Stout and explore.