It's been nearly three decades since Conan the Barbarian last graced the silver screen and his return has been long awaited by fans of Robert E. Howard's Cimmerian hero. Count among those fans producer Fredrik Malmberg, whose dream of bringing to life the Hyborian Age goes back even further, predating the famous John Milius/Arnold Schwarzenegger version.
Helming the project is Marcus Nispel, who has finessed his taste for cinematic blood with horror remakes like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the 13th. For both men, the most important part of bringing Conan to life is to create a version unlike any other.
SuperHeroHype sat down with Malmberg and Nispel to talk about finding the core of the Conan mythos, the potential for an expanded Howard cinematic universe and, in some ways similar to the travels of the warrior himself, the long, long road to Conan the Barbarian.
SuperHeroHype: I can tell by the way you're smiling that you're eager to talk about this one.
Marcus Nispel: I can talk to you guys effortlessly, but I can hardly carry on a conversation with my wife and my own children after two years of this. You live in this completely artificial world and when you go home, it's sometimes hard to shift gears.
SHH: Are the kids fans of Conan?
Nispel: They're twelve now and they were there when we were shooting. To them, it's kind of like daddy's job more than anything else. They have a weird way of getting into that world. They hung out with Leo [Howard, the actor who portrayed Conan as a child] a lot and when we shot that scene with the pigs, they kept talking about it. I can show you the same scene without cuts and it still looks incredible. He's a real martial arts champion and they said to my wife, "Leo is like a grown up in a child's body!" They were playing with him the week before and then they saw him bludgeoning ten pigs.
SHH: Well, even though you've been in this world for two years, Fredrik has been trying to bring Conan to the screen even longer. When did you first come across the world of Conan?
Fredrik Malmberg: I think it was in the '70s when I came across "Savage Sword of Conan" as a teenager. Back then, comics weren't so hardcore. We had, in Europe, James Bond and some cool comics, but the rest of it were all Marvel and they had to follow the Comic Code. "Savage Sword" did not. You had this guy who was surrounded by women with big breasts and he was chopping heads off. It was just a very cool character. I did pick up the paperbacks later, mostly because of the Frank Frazetta covers. The style of fantasy art at the time was mostly slicker, bodybuilder, oiled style. The Boris Vallejo style. That didn't do it for me at all. Frazetta had brush strokes that were full of emotion and animation and those dark skulls. It appealed to my dark side, I think.
Nispel: And he ran the franchise out of his childhood room.
Malmberg: Yeah, I did. Of course, I didn't actually own Conan back then, but I was making games and comics and stuff from my little boy room. Then I saw the film. I was over here in the states where I interned for a year. I saw the film and that was the year I saw "Excalibur" and some other great movies. I loved that film. [John] Milius is such a great writer. That was the first time I saw Arnold, too. Arnold was like, "Wow, what is this?!" He was like a walking special effect. It was a great movie. It didn't really feel like Conan from the comics, but it didn't matter. It was a great movie. Then I went back to Sweden and immediately published in Swedish the Howard books. Because of the infusion into the brand, everybody wanted the Conan stuff. Toys and comics, which is what I love. So in 2001, there was an opportunity and my company stepped up and bought the character outright. At the time, it had been mismanaged for ten years and it was really all over the map. You had little children cartoon Conans and the hardcore Marvel comics. We set out to clean that up and said, "Let's not stop here. Let's put good stuff out. Good comics. Talk to Dark Horse. Talk to the Funcom guys who made a fantastic MMO videogame. We knew we had to do a movie reboot, but it took five or six years within the studio system before I realized that we weren't going to get a movie made there. We had to take it out, so we took it out in 2007 with strict production criteria and here we are. Actually, four years may seem like a long time but, in terms of moviemaking, that's not a very long time.
Nispel: In a funny way, that was the R&D. The making of the movie never stopped. There was never a lull as far as the mythology goes because of the videogames and the comic books and the action figures. It all adds and, to me, that was always my access. My access to a lot of the franchises I'm excited about came through play.
Malmberg: That's part of your expertise and, I think, part of the fandom's. Our challenge was that there was a disparity between the three main parts of the fanbase. There were the Arnold fans. All they cared really about was getting a new Arnold film.
Nispel: It's happening right now. Just read the bloggers.
Malmberg: Then you have the comic book guys who really loved the comics. Then you had the Robert E. Howard fans who felt some scorn after the first film because, back then, when you released a movie, you didn't really think that you might one day reboot a franchise the way you do now. The stakes are higher now and it's much more challenging now. With the internet, there's the downside that just 100 people can be very influential and really try to crush your project, whatever it is. The upside, though, is that we have so much wealth to help carry us.
Nispel: We will most likely offend them all (Laughs) because everyone has their own idea of what it should be.
Malmberg: That's the beauty of a book. If you see a movie and that inspires you to go read a book, that's great. A book is a personal experience that you experience inside your own head. When I go to see a movie, I want to be immersed into that world and see that filmmaker's version of something.
Marcus: It's like going to Ronny Howard and saying, "How dare you cast Frank Langella to play Nixon. Everybody knows that Anthony Hopkins is Nixon." And he goes, "I'm making a movie about Nixon. I'm not making a remake of Oliver Stone's "Nixon". I looked the same way at this material. To me, it was never a remake. Even to the disciples that say, "You have to go back to the books!", when you look at the covers of the early Howard books, the guy looks like Dean Martin.
SHH: There is something that seems a little more forgiving about the fans of Conan in that the continuity isn't as nitpicky. It's not like other comics where fans might go, "Well, Spider-Man didn't fight the Green Goblin that early on." They tend to love the world of Conan and are happy to see new adventures.
Nispel: They love the world, but they're very particular about it. If you look at science fiction fans or horror fans, they're very, very particular. It's actually my favorite audience and it's the toughest because they're very creative people. They f–k that stuff. I said it to [Producer] Avi Lerner when we went in, "This will be your toughest movie ever because you're working for a fanbase that cares and you're working with a filmmaker who cares. This is a Holy Grail. We cannot spoil the burger."
Malmberg: Even as we were just starting, we'd get contacted by the makeup artist from "300" who said, "We have to make this. We are big Conan fans," or the hair guys or the costume guys. Then Jason Momoa would go, "No, Conan would not say this because…" or "Conan would do this." It was a big ship and it was not easy for Marcus to hold the rudder because everyone was so opinionated.
Nispel: I remember doing the last scene and Jason had been such a dear working though all of this. In the last scene, on the last day, he was supposed to hold up the sword. It was the first time he refused to do something. I didn't care one way or another, but he wanted to hold the sword up hilt first, almost like a cross. One producer said, "No, no! The sword has to point up, just like, you know…" He says, "What? Just like Arnold did? I don't want to do anything just like Arnold did." He knew he had done that because he had seen the photos. He had never seen the movie, he professed. In a way, that was what we were all trying to do. To do our own Conan, but with great reverence for what's in our collective consciousness. In a way, that's much, much harder than making something up on the spot. And it makes it harder to sell because everybody now has an opinion. Remember in comic books when they used to sell Chip Away sets? You had a choice between Michelangelo 's David or a baseball player that was encrusted in Plaster of Paris. The figurine is made of a harder resin, so you go at it with a rubber mallet and a plastic screwdriver. You would reveal the sculpture and it would give you the feeling that you sculpted it. In a way, that's my job. The difference is that it's not in there in a harder resin. It's in your mind and his mind and the minds of ten other producers and hundreds of thousands of fans. They have in their collective subconscious that action figure. That's really it. Yeah, it's in there, but no one had defined it quite yet. That's really the best way to put how I look at my job.
SHH: Moving forward, the plan is to expand out Conan's cinematic universe?
Malmberg: Yeah, I think the beauty of the Conan universe is that it's not really a three story arc. There are so many episodes where he is a thief, a warrior, a pirate or a king. He's everything. It's all up to the audiences whether they come to the theaters. The verdict is out there.
Conan the Barbarian hits theaters in both 2D and 3D this Friday, August 19th.