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The Man behind the Legend: An Interview with Drew Struzan

Wednesday, September 1st, 2010 | Posted by Fernando Caire

As both an artist and a lover of cinema, there is no describing the heartbreak I feel over the lost art of movie posters. We no longer have that human, hand painted, touch. It has been replaced by sterile computer graphics and cheap photoshop tricks. For years one man gifted us all with art that not only went above and beyond the average movie poster, but acted as windows to other worlds. It is an understatement to say he is one of the best because he is, in fact, the greatest movie poster artist who has ever lived. You can quote me on that. His skill is second to none and he has worked on posters for such franchises like Back to the Future, Star Wars, and Indiana Jones. Even the atrocious Star Wars prequels and the recent, pointless, Indiana Jones sequel had fantastic movie posters thanks to the one and only Drew Struzan. We got to interview Drew as he shares his experiences, his insight on movie posters today, and things to come.

[CG CHANNEL] Thank very much for sparing the time to answer some questions today. To start off, where did you begin before doing movie posters? Would you consider Star Wars: A New Hope to be your “Big Break”?

[DREW STRUZAN] Where did I begin? Well I choose the metaphor about the mountain you know? To get to the top you have to take one step at a time. Well I didn’t have a vision of anything except my family and to be an artist, so I started by drawing toilet seats and loud speakers for catalogs and stuff (laughs). I just worked here in Hollywood since I couldn’t afford to go to New York where all the work was. I picked up what I could and eventually I started to work for the record industry doing album covers. It still didn’t feed the family though so I took a job in a studio as an illustrator. The benefit of that was that was I got to work every day and the work I did got printed. Which means it got seen and getting seen is the cue because after two years the movie industry actually started calling the studio where I was working, asking me to work on posters. So at that point I realized people were actually looking for me so I quit and started working for the movie industry. That’s how I did it , it wasn’t an intent it was just a way to paint and feed the family.

Second half of the question do you think Star Wars was my big break? Well probably yeah, only because it was the biggest movie I had worked on until that time and after that they considered me, you know, for A-class movies.

[CG CHANNEL] You have made countless posters and book covers over the last 30 years. Is there a particular piece or series of pieces you have a really fond memory of?

[DREW STRUZAN] When it gets down to it, you know the difference between me and the general population? The general population defines things they call their favorites so they can attach to them, enjoy them, and follow them. As an artist you can’t do that. If I had a favorite I would never have changed and I would just stay the same and repeat myself over and over again. I want to keep drawing and keep inventing and keep creating. Therefore I don’t have in my mind some particular set of posters or any particular image that I say is my favorite or the one I’m completely excited about. I like every job, I like every opportunity and every challenge. That’s the way I like to live, I want something new every day. So I look back on all of them with their own particular fondness.

[CG CHANNEL] Well in that case, studios have required different deadlines I am sure. What is the tightest deadline you have ever been given?

[DREW STRUZAN] Now you’re asking memory questions and I don’t have a memory! (laughs)

[CG CHANNEL] Oh, I’m sorry!

[DREW STRUZAN] I live today and hope for tomorrow! (continues laughter) Tightest deadline? You know I’ve sat there in front of art directors and finished paintings at their demand ya know? I think the one that stands out is the one people have heard about many times. That was for “The Thing” way back in the 70s or 1980. They had actually called me on the telephone from Hollywood, I was living up in the mountains a hundred miles away. They called and said “Gotta project and we need a poster…uh…by tomorrow” (laughs) “We don’t have any reference material or anything but you remember that movie from the 50’s called “The Thing”? Well that’s it, just a remake of that movie…..So do a comp and we’ll take a look at it” (laughs). With no other material and no other knowledge than that, I just had to make a vague symbol of what I kind of recalled the felling of the movie was. So I did one drawing, faxed it to them, and they said “fine, paint it. We’ll need it by tomorrow morning at nine o’ clock”. I worked all day and all night into the next morning and got it finished. They sent a messenger a hundred miles up into the mountains and picked it up, drove it to L.A., they liked it and used it as the poster. It’s become kind of a fan favorite after all that and I painted it in what? Less than 24 hours?

[CG CHANNEL] That is intense!

[DREW STRUZAN] Yeah it’s kinda fun (laughs). Kind of weird because you think of how many millions they spend on a movie, and at the last minute…”so what do you got?” (laughs). It’s like they’re risking your years of endeavor on an overnight project (laughs) but it turned out fine.

[CG CHANNEL] The drawn movie poster montage disappeared in the 90s. How do you feel about the path movie posters are taking today? I mean as far as most of them being slapped together in photoshop?

[DREW STRUZAN] Well, I mean I have many feelings about that. It became a disappointment to me because of the loss of work and the loss of appreciation of dealing with an artist. I quit, I had forty years and it was fabulous until I retired, so I quit and that was my initial response. I don’t mind computers as a tool but it’s a shame it has not only changed the feeling of the world but also the industry. There’s a lack of the handmade human touch that people enjoy. That motivates, inspires, and transcends the page and becomes a part of people’s lives. That’s what I was trying to do all my life, that’s what I feel I accomplished in many ways. It feels, for the most part, that it is gone. Not to say there aren’t great designers out there doing great things, because there are. But the mentality of the people who commission the work and buy it has changed. Now it’s just a money maker instead of an art form. The people that run the show aren’t artists anymore, they’re businessmen. So the computer enabled this new attitude.

[CG CHANNEL] Do you think traditional poster art will ever make a comeback?

[DREW STRUZAN] That’s what concerns me most of all because now, will it come back? Will paintings and art that connection from human to human be gone forever? Or will there be a renaissance? Will people go “We need to have more of our humanity and less of our industrialization”…I don’t know. It’s sad and I don’t think it will ever come back. Once a man has power, it’s a very rare person who would give it up. So I don’t think it’s going to change.

[CG CHANNEL]:(

[DREW STRUZAN] Yeah it’s very depressing! (laughs)

I'd like to see you do THIS in photoshop!

[CG CHANNEL] (laughing) It is true unfortunately, I remember the Hellboy poster you did for Guillermo Del Toro. It was so beautiful and epic but they decided to go with a photoshoped version instead which felt really boring in comparison. That really disappointed me as a fan of the film.

[DREW STRUZAN] The Hellboy thing was kind of done in those last 5 years of my painting career where the only time I got work was when people like Guillermo, who are lovers of art and artists themselves, they wanted art. So they did it regardless of the attitude of the powers that be. Of course the result was they didn’t use it. It was really heart breaking ya know? Guillermo loved it, I mean he said “This is my movie! This is perfect! This is great!” and he really fought for it but even he didn’t have the power to change their minds and attitudes. So it just wasn’t used, I got a lot of that the last few years where I did the paintings for the lovers of art.

[CG CHANNEL] I understand you have a new book coming out this month? What kind of work can we expect to see in it? Anything new or never before published?

[DREW STRUZAN] Yeah that’s why we did it. “Let’s show them something they haven’t seen before!” so that’s exactly what it is. I mean I have a couple of books that show the movie posters and stamps and book covers, and stuff, all the finished art. But one thing we never showed was all the comps that I do leading up to the finished painting. Artists in particular, maybe the general public too, find that extremely interesting. I would do… who knows?… how many dozens and dozens of designs, drawings, and compositions and paintings before I would ever do the finished work. So these are those pieces. There’s some 300 pieces of art in the new book. So there’s all kinds of concepts and designs that people haven’t seen before. Plus a little bit of insight as to how it really works in the industry. Plus it’s really cool, I got Frank Darabont to do the Introduction which he was free to do whatever he wanted. You know an introduction is supposed to be a paragraph or two, he wrote a five page introduction! (laughs). I put the book together in chronological order from when I was young to when I quit. We talk about the changing industry and the change in life from being a kid in the gutter to retiring from a really good job. I think it should be a fun book all around.

[CG CHANNEL] Well I pre-ordered mine on amazon already (You can do the same HERE )

[DREW STRUZAN] Oh did you!? (laughs) Well I’m talking to the choir!

[CG CHANNEL] It really does look great and on top of your new book you also have a documentary film in development? When can we expect that to be released and what will it cover?

[DREW STRUZAN] Well it’s being done by artists instead of a studio, it’s independent guys from New York who are doing it for the love of the art. They’re still working on it, of course the love and desire is to have it released theatrically so most people can enjoy it. That’s a matter of finding someone who believes in the film. That’ll be the second job, the first job is to make the art well the second is to sell it. They want to release it theatrically and if it’s not then they’ll take it around and show it to different places, get some input. Take whatever avenue they can whether it’s TV or dvd or who knows what. It’s a different view from everybody, from the man on the street to very famous people working in the industry. Talking about a passion that most people never hear them talk about and that is the passion for art and, more particularly, movie posters. You will see people you think you know in a whole new light. Which I think might be really good for art , for people to see it’s a piece of everyone’s life and they should get involved in art. That’s my hope, that’s why I’m involved.

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[CG CHANNEL] Since your retirement in 2008, what have you been working on?

[DREW STRUZAN] Well a big part at the start of it was on the day I quit, my first grandson was born, so I’ve been a babysitter for quite a lot of the time (laughs). The desire has always been for me to be a painter, to be an artist, that’s what I’ve always done. I was an illustrator for practical means and now that I don’t do that and don’t need to do that anymore .I’m just doing what I’ve always done. I’m still painting and still sculpting and just enjoying art for the sake of the art for no other reason than the pure love of visual stimulation I guess. So I’m still painting, that’s what I’m doing.

[CG CHANNEL] Well that’s very good to hear!

[DREW STRUZAN] I don’t have any other option. This is my hobby, this is my life, this is my passion, this is what it’s all about…making art. Yes we are a peculiar people (laughs).

[CG CHANNEL] (laughing) Indeed! I actually noticed your most recent commission for Frank Darabont’s “The Walking Dead” at comic con this year.

[DREW STRUZAN] Yeah not bad for a retired guy huh?

[CG CHANNEL] (laughs) Yeah that kind of threw me for a loop, I was like “wait what!?”. It was an unexpected but pleasant surprise.

[DREW STRUZAN] There was an interview Frank did where people were talking about me retiring and his response was “Well he’s only retired as far as his friends will let him retire” (laughs) So he kind of came around because he’s working on “The Walking Dead” and he, as a lover of the art and movie poster, he said “You gotta paint my poster for me!”. So I did cause he’s my friend and you always stand up for your friends, so I did it for that reason.

[CG CHANNEL] That is really cool. Well you have been an inspiration for countless artists. What advice could you give to the aspiring artists out there?

[DREW STRUZAN] Artists everywhere are very classic in their life. You have to have a passion for something that doesn’t always make a living for you. The only way to keep to it and to be happy is to have that passion and that drive to just keep doing it. For rich or for poor or for young or for old, we just do it because we love it. There is nothing like doing what you love in life. So sometimes the rewards aren’t there but you have to choose, you want money or you want to fulfill your heart and your passion? So just keep on and who knows where you will emerge. It may come to all kinds of great things or you can just end up being a happy person. All I can say is hold onto your dreams and maintain that passion because when I was born I did it, when I was doing well I did it, and now that I’m retired I’m still doing it.

[CG CHANNEL] Well thank you very much for your time. It was an honor and I look forward to getting your new book in the mail!

[DREW STRUZAN] Well thank you too!

Be sure to visit Drew’s website at www.drewstruzan.com. I would like to end the article with a gallery of his artwork as well as a video tribute to Drew Struzan by none other than my favorite internet reviewer, the Nostalgia Critic.

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  • http://www.apricotmantle.com Apricot

    Wow! This is great Fernando. Thank you Drew and Fernando. I especially enjoy the story about the poster for The Thing! I also think it is sad that the human touch is gone from movie poster art. :( I gotta get me that book.

  • http://KneadableEraser.blogspot.com Gordon Tarpley

    Great Post!!! Struzan has been one of my favorites since I was a kid. very cool!

  • Pingback: O Informante » Blog Archive » Os designer dos posters de Star Wars e outros filmes dá entrevista.

  • LeTiCiA

    I agree! I appreciate learning the history of where all those great beautiful classic posters that I remember as a kid came from <3 I'm ordering that book right now ") Thank you!!!

  • kart3d

    Thanks a lot for this great interview of a legend.

  • http://www.activebodi.com Wade McMaster

    It’s a shame when art seems to become less popular and technology takes over, that skill factor starts to disappear. This guy truly is the best poster artist ever, some of these I didn’t even know where hand painted! I thought some of them were photos!

  • http://www.berubefilms.com Jonathan Berube

    Wow the drawing of Natalie Portman is very solid, great style…

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