The character of Conan the Barbarian has, since two big screen offerings in the 1980s that helped launch the acting career of Arnold Schwarzenegger, been something of a dormant volcano. Periodically, there would be rumblings as to a big new movie (especially before Schwarzenegger became “The Governator” of California) or franchise reimagining, but as with so many would-be projects in Hollywood, the elements never quite completely aligned in a manner that turned possibility into a reality. That all changes this week, of course, with the anticipated debut of Lionsgate’s “Conan the Barbarian,” starring “Games of Thrones”‘ Jason Momoa in the title role.
Participating in a recent Los Angeles press day for the film, ShockYa had the chance to sit down in person and speak with some of the cast and crew one-on-one about their takes on the material, and the long shadow of its legacy. And what better place to start than with one of the writers who was charged with shepherding the character back to the screen — even if screenwriter Sean Hood, who also currently teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, jokingly couldn’t quite understand why we wanted to chat with him. The conversation is excerpted below:
Sean Hood: I always make fun of the writer’s position in all of this, because we have the least celebrity value whatsoever [when it comes to interviews].
ShockYa: You feel like the perpetual “plus one”?
SH: (laughs) Exactly, always! In the entire moviemaking process, actually.
ShockYa: So it’s instructive! What do you think contributes to the enduring popularity of the character of Conan the Barbarian, who’s been around almost 80 years?
SH: I first encountered Conan when I was about 11 years old. My father had just moved us to Los Angeles because he was a trumpet player and wanted to play with the L.A. Philharmonic as opposed to the Victoria Symphony. So every weekend we’d go down to Hollywood, which at the time wasn’t really built up, and was really grungy. There were all these old, dusty bookstores and memorabilia stores. We’d pick through the comic books and used records, and I would look through all the old pulp magazines and novels. They were all in horrible condition, and like $4 apiece. None of them were bagged and boarded, they were just kind of tossed in a corner. I started seeing all these old weird tales and amazing stories that were stacked up. They were literally falling apart in your hands, but I loved the covers. And the most lurid covers were always the Conan stories. They were always the ones with scantily clad women about to be sacrificed at the altar. And I remember grabbing a bunch that were Robert E. Howard stories. That’s the first way I encountered “Red Nails” and “Queen of the Black Coast.” When I took them and read them the pages would crumble in my hands. I’d read “The Hobbit” and Ursula K. Le Guin stories, but I’d never encountered something where there was such unadulterated sex and violence. It shocked me. I was like, “I’ve got to find more of this stuff!” And then I read more of [Howard’s] stories and I read incarnations of the comic books. And for me the reason that the character is enduring is that — besides the obviousness of the fact that it’s fun that he’s this barbaric, politically incorrect character — we live in a world today where everyone spends time enclosed in these little boxes and we don’t want to risk [things], we spend time indoors and very, very physically safe, and here’s this character who only lives in the moment. He doesn’t care about the past, he doesn’t care about the future. He seeks out the most dangerous situations just because that’s what he does. There’s a physicality to him, and the reason that you see him without a shirt so often is that it’s physically about interacting with your environment, whether it’s warfare or sex or anything else. It’s all very primitive, and basic. The swordplay is very different than what you would see in a regular action movie, with gunplay. It’s different, being that close up, with the edge of a blade. So I think that physicality and those encounters with danger that we don’t get anymore [contribute to his popularity].
ShockYa: You said the character doesn’t care about the past, but he sort of does, because the movie is by and large a vengeance tale.
SH: It is, it is. That was one of the things we wanted to make sure that we got. This particular story is supposed to fit in with all the other Conan stories, and we wanted to get across that this is a character who says, “I live, I love, I slay — I am content.” That’s the kind of person he is. Now that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t see the man who killed his father and want to get revenge, but we also see a character almost like the character of James Bond, who doesn’t seem to hold on to things that have happened in the past or worry about things that happen in the future, he’s just dealing with the here and now. So yes, there is the revenge tale, and that was different than Robert E. Howard’s version, because he never had an origin story. But I still wanted to stay true to the character, because that’s what I love about him. He seems to go from place to place and thing to thing not with a higher moral goal in mind, but living for survival and what is happening at the moment.
ShockYa: Obviously there were lots of different possible incarnations and iterations of a new “Conan” movie over the years, some involving Schwarzenegger, many not. You may know either [a lot or a little] about the different scripts that were out there, but what was it like coming on board after (fellow screenwriters) Thomas Dean Donnelly and Joshua Oppenheimer had crafted a draft? All screenwriters both rewrite and get re-written, but what’s the rewrite protocol in a situation like that?
SH: I know the previous writers because Hollywood is a small community and with genre writers we tend to read each other’s work constantly. And the reality of the screenwriter’s craft is that you often write drafts and then someone else comes on to write another draft. It happens all the time for a million different reasons. We all try not to take it personally. I mean, why would Donnelly and Oppenheimer take it personally that I was rewriting one of their scripts when they know more than likely they’re going to be hired to rewrite one of mine soon enough? In fact, they almost were hired to rewrite one of my “Hercules” scripts, but that’s another story.
ShockYa: But when you get that assignment, do you have or feel an obligation to reach out to the person behind the previous draft?
SH: If I know them. I know a lot of writers, obviously. Some of them are just Facebook friends. But I usually do reach out to them, because you want to keep those relationships up. But there’s also normally a lot of stuff going on behind the scenes, and so you want to know about it. For instance, I was working with (director) Marcus (Nispel) on another project, “Subterranean,” and the previous writer was a friend of mine, J.T. Petty. So I immediately called him and asked about his experience, what they’d already talked about and what kind of ground they’d already been over. He couldn’t continue writing it because he was off directing a picture. That’s why it’s bad when you see drafts pop up on the Internet, because they’re often just the tip of an iceberg, and you have no idea, contextually, what the process was to get the script to that place.
ShockYa: What about with “Conan”?
SH: “Conan” was a slightly different situation because they were so close to shooting when I was brought on board. I got the call and was writing literally a couple hours later, and had to hand in revised pages by that Tuesday because everybody had to know what was going on. That was a slightly more stressful situation, and I didn’t have the leeway to start connecting with people with people and doing research. But especially post-strike I think feature writers are getting a little bit better about reaching out and connecting with one another.
ShockYa: You mentioned the genre screenwriters community, which I have some interest in. For a long time I think genre filmmaking was kind of ghettoized. That’s changed, but do you find that tag, just as a writer, constraining, or do you not mind it so much?
SH: I did [find it constraining] when I first got out of film school, because all my filmmaking heroes were independent filmmakers or real auteurs. I mean, even in the genre world I was all about David Cronenberg, or even David Lynch, if you could call him a genre filmmaker. One of the first scripts I sold got me a deal with Dimension Films — you know, one of the kings of genre. They had a lot of straight-to-DVD movies, and uncredited rewrites on things. I bristled at first, the idea that I was being pigeonholed as a genre writer, but then two things sort of changed my attitude about it. I realized that I was a genre writer because I was steeped in genre as a kid. My mother and father loved it, in different ways. My father loved the B-movies, and my mother loved high literature, like “The Turning of the Screw” and “The Haunting,” that sort of thing. She was an English teacher. So I realized that I could embrace it that way. And also there’s a funny thing that happens in genre movies. You’ll notice that almost every great director has done a horror movie, for instance, and I think one of the reasons that Stanley Kubrick or Roman Polanski would want to do a horror film or paranoid thriller is that although there are certain elements that can feel kind of rigid, cinematically filmmakers are allowed to explore the most [within genre films]. And one of the things that I’m interested in most in filmmaking is trying to make people’s inner lives visible on screen, so you can participate emotionally in their lives. It’s very difficult to do. In a novel you can write an inner monologue or something, and speak to exactly what a character is feeling or remembering. In a movie you can’t do that very effectively; it’s a very objective medium, in that you’re watching from afar and you’re not necessarily inside people’s heads. But genre has an ability to project people’s emotions, fears and desires outside and into ghosts or all these other things where you’re playing out an inner psychology. And that’s exciting.
ShockYa: You teach screenwriting at USC as well. What professional job or assignment have you had that taught you the most about the business, in a good or bad way?
SH: Well, the screenwriting class that I teach at USC is one of the last courses that production students get before they go out in the real world, and it’s very much about the rewrite process. I think what aspiring screenwriters don’t realize about the process is that they think it’s like a play — you go in a room, write a screenplay, and it’s pretty well settled: you hand it over, and they make it. And of course what you discover is that filmmaking, from concept through all the different drafts and then the shooting version, filming and editing, is kind of an ongoing rewrite process. You find it changing and moving. So actually the most formative experiences I had were those early Dimension days, where you had no time. They’d say, “OK, we’re shooting in three weeks, you need to rewrite this script and make it good.” You say, “Well I can’t do that!” But actually you can. You just sit down and write as fast as you can, and people keep hounding you with new notes, some of which you hate and some of which you love. That kind of pressure-cooker experience allowed me to step away from the process in a way that was very healthy creatively, because too often screenwriters are a little too precious. I was a prop guy for a couple years, so I had the experience of knowing that even on big, giant movies like “True Lies,” there was still an element of making it up as you went along. Sure, everything was planned, but everything would also change day-to-day. And all sorts of creative things happen when you have happy accidents, and are put in situations and into pressure where you can’t get what you originally want, and have to come up with a solution. So that’s what I try to bring to the class — the idea of a screenplay being a protean document, and that being a good thing.
ShockYa: It’s a “living document,” which I suppose might upset some conservative screenwriters.
SH: (laughs) Right. But it has to grow, and if it doesn’t it’s not alive, and you’ve sort of killed it. The rewrite process never ends until the script is abandoned or the movie premieres. I mean, I was literally writing re-shoot scenes in the middle of the editing process on “Conan,” I was writing new voiceover for the [narration] as late as the spring. And that’s just part of the process. So that’s what I try to teach — getting feedback, and then just going back to it, going back to it, going back to it.
ShockYa: Wrapping up, is there anything definitively on tap next?
SH: Oh, plenty of things. There’s a “Hercules” project I have, on which I’ve done many different rewrites. So we’ll see how that goes. And I have a very exciting project, based on a true story, about the journalist Nellie Bly, who was one of the first investigative journalists in New York. She charted her career out by feigning insanity and having herself committed to a woman’s asylum. When she was in there she realized there were all these horrible things happening — murders, rapes and abuse — that she was experiencing firsthand, but then she also realized she didn’t have an exit strategy. Even if she let the cat out of the bag and said, “Oh, I’m a journalist, this is all a joke,” no one would believe her because there were (virtually) no female journalists. So it becomes a story about her trying to get out of that asylum, and right now there’s an exciting actress interested in the project. Right now the working title is called “Blackwell,” because that was the name of the asylum. I’m very excited about that one, because it’s a movie that’s like “The Black Swan” in that sure, it has all these genre elements in it, but it’s based on real historical events and you don’t need to make up the horror because the horror is already there. It’s very psychological, where I can flex all these genre muscles, but essentially in something that’s a period and character piece.
Written by: Brent Simon