Renowned movie-poster illustrator Drew Struzan was honored by both industry peers and fans at a packed, standing-room-only panel at Comic-Con International in San Diego.
If one thinks back on the most iconic movie posters of the past 40 years, it’s likely Struzan’s name is at the bottom of them: Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Back to the Future, The Thing, The Goonies, The Muppet Movie, Hellboy and Hook are only some of the standouts.
The focus of the panel was the release of the new documentary Drew: The Man Behind the Poster, which focuses on the artist’s life and work, and features interviews with some of the biggest names in film, from George Lucas and Steven Spielberg to Guillermo Del Toro and Harrison Ford. The documentary is finally being released after four years of production.
Joining Struzan for the panel were documentary producer Charles Ricciardi, documentary editor Jeff Yorkes, composer Ryan Shore, cinematographers Greg Boas and Thomas Mumme, How to Train Your Dragon director Dean DeBlois, and Being Human and The Mist star Sam Witwer. The panel was moderated by the documentary’s director Erik P. Sharkey.
Before the panel began, a four minute-clip of the film was screened, featuring clips of del Toro, Leonard Maltin, Michael J. Fox and Frank Darabont praising Struzan’s work, as well as Lucas and the artist talking about Star Wars.
“We saw you with George Lucas in that clip,” Sharkey said to Struzan. “You’ve worked with him on Star Wars and Indiana Jones. What has that relationship been like over the years?”
Struzan paused before answering, “What am I supposed to say after that [clip]? I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I’m just a working stiff, just like you guys. I don’t know how to do anything else. I’ve been drawing since I was a child. If there was no drawing paper in the house I used to draw on toilet paper and then roll it back up so it wasn’t wasted.”
As far as the relationship with Lucas, the illustrator said, “I don’t know what the relationship was. He’d call me on the phone and say ‘Do you want to do the picture?’ and I’d say ‘Yeah,’ and I’d hang up the phone and start conceiving an idea. I’d paint it and when I was done, I’d FedEx it to him. That’s the relationship.” He added that Lucas is a great, kind man. “I suppose we will never get divorced,” Struzan said.
He revealed he’d never met Lucas in person until a 1991 party for Spielberg’s Hook. They saw each other through the crowd, and Struzan approached him, but it was so loud that neither could hear what the other was saying. After a few attempted exchanges, Lucas shrugged and walked away.
“But this will tell you how sweet he is,” Struzan said. “An hour later I decide to walk around a bit. Some people were sitting at a table, and some of them were friends so I say hi. And one of them says, ‘Guess what? You’ll never guess what happened. George Lucas was just here and he was so excited because he just met Drew Struzan.’
“So the people you admire so much are just human beings,” he continued. “They are just doing what they love because they have a passion for it. And do you know why they do it? They just want to make people happy. That’s probably the greatest gift you can get out of life. That’s all I’m doing. That’s all that George is doing. And all of those other wonderful people you saw [in the documentary clip] … I don’t know any of them, but they think they know me. And I think they may be right, because the best part of me is my artwork. Thanks, guys.”
DeBlois said one of the reasons he wanted to start making movies is because he was inspired by Struzan’s posters. “In every case, Drew managed to boil down the image to what the movie was about. He would capture the emotional context. He would capture the adventurous side and the personalities and the fun of it. I always thought that was so magical. As time went by, he started doing fewer and fewer posters and finally went into retirement.”
He said Struzan’s retirement came about just as he was getting ready to start making movies. “The posters we were getting would just pale in comparison,” DeBlois said. He decided to ask Struzan if he would be interested in coming out of retirement to do the poster for How to Train Your Dragon 2.
“I reached out,” he said. “Drew came in for a meeting. I showed him what we had — early artwork. It turns out he really liked the first How to Train Your Dragon. So at this point I knew I would be doing a trilogy, so I asked him if he would be interested in drawing not only posters for the second and third movies, but to go back and do one for the first so it would be like the classic Star Wars trilogy. He agreed. I invited him to some early screenings. He was very astute. I think that’s why he’s such a good storyteller. He asked me some very good, relevant questions that helped clarify the statement of the movie. All the while he’s been a very kind person. I’m very happy to know Drew as a person and very happy that he did some concept art for us.”
Sharkey thanked Sam Witwer for not only participating in the documentary but for also sitting through a 3 1/2-hour rough cut of the film. He mentioned that when they were filming in Drew’s studio he noticed there was a large portrait of Witwer sitting there. “How did that come up, and what was it like to be painted by Drew Struzan?” Sharkey asked.
“Pretty damn good,” Witwer said. “I met Drew through Frank Darabont. We actually did a movie about Drew called The Mist, where Thomas Jane was playing Drew. So in the movie, Thomas Jane is in his studio and he’s got Drew’s art all over the walls. I made sure to steal one of those before I left the set, and now I have it at home. We met on the set and we were talking to each other for a while before I even knew who he was, about Star Wars or something. And then I was like, ‘What’s your name? Drew?” the actor pausing for dramatic effect. “What is your last name?'”
Witwer mentioned that he and Struzan kept bumping into each other at social gatherings and one day he, too, asked Struzan to come out of retirement and do some artwork for Being Human. “He said, ‘I’ll do it in exchange for you and your girlfriend posing for me for a project I am doing for fun.’ So just that we’re clear — the deal was Drew would only paint me … in exchange for painting me,” Witwer said as the room laughed. “So I got that treatment, and I also got the rare, rare privilege of watching Drew work. It really is something to see. I showed up every day just to see how it was progressing. I was smart enough to keep my mouth shut. So I just hung back and if you’re there long enough and you’re silent for so long and pretend you’re a couch, at some point he’s accepting that you’re there.”
Witwer said watching Struzan’s process was fascinating. “At first he’s unsure — it’s not working out. Then it evolves to the end where he’s like a prizefighter showboating a bit,” he recalled. “I got to watch that process where he was really starting to enjoy himself and that was very special.”
Struzan told the story of how he taught Thomas Jane how to paint for The Mist. Darabont had filled the character’s studio with Struzan’s paintings, and one day Jane showed up at his house. “A movie star showed up at my house. For 40 years, I’ve been painting alone. All of a sudden, there’s a movie star at my house,” he said. “At first he attacked the brush. I had to show him how to handle the brush, how to handle the bristles, how to hold it. It’s like a dance or a ballet. Then I showed him how to use a pencil. He had it down pat. He looked like an artist.”
When it came time to paint on camera, however, something changed. “Someone on set said, ‘No, no, no — that’s not how you do it! You put the paint on your hand and you mix it there,’” Struzan said. “So Tom asked me after I saw the movie what I thought. I was mad. I said, ‘What they showed you was bullshit. That’s not how I work. That’s amateurish stuff.’ Tom tells this story all the time to make fun of me.”
“When I saw that [the paint mixing on the hand] I thought it was so cool,” Witwer added. “I asked Drew what he thought, and he said he hated it. I asked him ‘Why? What’s wrong with that?’ Drew said if you mix the paint on your skin, it’s going to look different than it would on a white canvas.”
“But you should have seen me when I was killing those monsters!” said Struzan, referring to the end of The Mist.
“You saved the day,” Witwer said.
Sharkey referenced something Struzan said earlier about not knowing any of the people in the documentary, noting that Darabont and del Toro are indeed good friends with the artist.
“I started out on the streets, malnourished,” Struzan said. “Kicked out of the hospital because I was too young to be treated. I went through hell in life. I really did. My wife was the first person to give me love. Now I have people all over the damn place. I don’t know what I did to deserve such generous, kind blessings. Thank you all.”
Struzan said that whenever he’s asked which of the posters he’s painted is his favorite, his answer is always “the next one.” In turn, he asked the other panelists if they had a favorite.
Yorkes said there are too many to mention. He remembers when he was younger and flipping through the newspaper movie ads and having a lot of favorites. “I didn’t realize they were all from the same artist. I just knew that I liked them,” he said. “When The Goonies came out and there were different variations. Each week a different character was on top, hanging from the stalactite. [I also liked] Back to the Future and Hook. I was so excited to see the movie because of that poster,” he said, glancing over at Struzan. “You owe me eight bucks.”
Sharkey said, as a fan, he too can’t wait to see “the next one.”
Witwer said he views the Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom poster as one of his favorites. “I wasn’t allowed to see the movie, so that poster was the movie for me. Who was the maniac with sharp teeth with a heart in it and looking all happy about it? There’s something about Drew’s humanity that slips into his art, where you identify him.
“I remember going into a bookstore when I was 21 and I saw the name Drew Struzan on a book and I immediately knew this was the guy that did all those posters that I liked. And I opened the book and I was right,” Witwer continued. “I don’t know how I knew that. There was something about his style that spoke to me. And his movies just seemed more exciting than the others. Temple of Doom specifically is such a whacked-out, wonderfully clever, amazing piece with some embellishments that have more to do with who the characters are inside then what they look like outside. Like Mola Ram having sharp teeth.”
Struzan then related a story about the first time Lucas saw the Temple of Doom poster. “He asked me why I gave him sharp teeth. I said I thought he looked better that way. George looked at the poster again and said, ‘Yeah, you’re right.'”
Witwer also mentioned the Return of the Jedi poster and how he wondered what the meaning was behind Vader’s blue lightsaber and Luke’s red one, thinking there was an interesting story behind it. When he asked Struzan about it, the artist shrugged and admitted, “It was a mistake.”
Struzan had no idea that, 35 years later, people would be questioning everything about the movies and the choices made, and making up stories about lightsaber colors. “It was just a mistake,” he reiterated.
DeBlois said The Empire Strikes Back poster left a huge impact on him. He said he grew up poor and didn’t get to see many movies, and when he did it was only once. “I had to commit it to memory. Drew’s poster was an accessible image that I could use to remember the movie,” he said. DeBlois begged the theater owner to let him keep the poster when they were done with it.
Sharkey said he came to the film as a geek and a fan, and just wanted to know more about Struzan. About two weeks after Struzan agreed to be filmed, Sharkey got a call from the illustrator saying Lucas was on board. “Then I was like, ‘Oh man, I really have to make this movie now.’”
Struzan said he wanted to ask Sharkey a question, and said he could say no if he wanted to, but he wanted the audience to cry: “Why do you have such passion for this?”
“In 2001 I had a fiancée who was the love of my life, my best friend,” Sharkey replied. “She worked in the World Trade Center and she was killed on Sept. 11th. She worked in Tower Two. I was working across the street that day, so I was down there for all of it. She wanted to be an illustrator, that was her big dream. And one of the things we would discuss was Drew Struzan’s work. She had such admiration for it. So after she died, I guess I died inside. I was walking and talking but I was dead inside. But making this movie started to put passion back in my heart because I was celebrating something that meant so much to her and I was getting to be creative myself.
“It made me really realize the power of the arts,” he continued. “It’s like when you’re feeling awful and you see that right movie or hear that right song and it lets you know that you’re not alone? Drew’s work did that for me. The process of making this movie, meeting my heroes, it inspired me and Drew inspired me. Thank you, Drew, for giving me this gift.”
As audience members cried and clapped, Thomas Jane ran on stage from the back of the room and embraced Struzan.
“I was hanging out with my daughter playing Minecraft, and I had a little trouble getting around,” Jane said. “But we pulled ourselves away so I could come over here and pay tribute to you, man.”
Jane went on to recount the story of how Struzan taught him to paint for The Mist. He got to the part about mixing paint on the hand, and the panelists and the audience laughed as he described it the same way Struzan had.
Drew: The Man Behind the Poster will be coming to theaters soon.