‘Drew:The Man Behind The Poster’: Tues 11th Nov (5pm)/Sun 16th Nov (9pm), The Albert Room, Leeds Town Hall, 1700 (97 min), £6 (£5 concession), please visit leedsfilm.com for tickets
‘Drew: Film Posters Exhibition’: Fri 31st Oct till Weds 10th Dec, North Bar, 24 Upper Briggate, Leeds, opening times vary, FREE
‘Are you okay? You seem a little down…” [deep, deep sigh] “Yeah, s’okay, I’m fine…”
There’s a specific moment at the back end of the documentary, Drew: The Man Behind The Poster, when I felt like the wind had been completely taken from my sails. Bittersweet memories came flooding back in a wave which seemed like it was targeted straight at me, out of everybody in the room.
Okay, tell you what – let me come back to that.
Drew: The Man Behind The Poster is being screened as part of the 28th Leeds International Film Festival, with last nights screening in conjunction with Thought Bubble Sequential Arts Festival, and explores the background of one of the movie industries greatest icons in the field of hand-painted film poster art: Drew Struzan. Film makers such as Frank Darabont, Guillermo Del Toro, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, and avid fans Michael J. Fox, Steve Guttenberg and Harrison Ford (all of whom have been painted by Drew for now-famous posters) eagerly line up to sing praises for an artist whose unique sensibility is now sorely missing from today’s movie marketing. From tough times as a struggling yet determined art student, to producing memorable album covers in the 70’s for the likes of Alice Cooper, to creating iconic representations for Star Wars, Indiana Jones and Harry Potter, Erik Sharkey‘s award-winning documentary* tracks the career of the man considered the benchmark for photo-realistic artwork, even today when clumsily Photoshop-ed posters are the norm.
I have always been a rabid Struzan fan – a number of prints of his posters are in my collection and I cannot pick my favourite, it changes from day to day – and yet, I was actually a little apprehensive about finally seeing this documentary for myself. I own the book that the documentary refers to at the close of the film and, reading it, you get a sense of someone forced out of the industry, unwillingly, by marketing departments who simply couldn’t care less about the quality of work produced over market research which couldn’t quantify, either way, the contribution of a movie poster to the overall aesthetic of a film. It’s a powerful tone on page but one which can come off a little whiny – Struzan has always been open about the fact that he’s, first and foremost, an artist for hire (but then, so did Michelangelo!) but he also knows exactly how good he actually is and the book often reads like he was a butterfly, crushed by the faceless automatons of the film business. Thankfully, when you have a film filled with fans and celebrity adorers which also hold him up as a butterfly, that sour edge of sermon of the book is diluted somewhat!
This film is absolutely a celebration of Struzan’s work, squeezing in as many frames of artwork as possible from the massive back catalogue through the decades. Close-ups reveal the detail that goes into each piece – and, as the film rolls through the years, shows off the many techniques Struzan employs to achieve the glow and vibrancy of his work, from acrylic to pencil to airbrush… Any and all methods are used to capture an energy of the film being represented (even if, sometimes, the films themselves didn’t exactly match up to the poster – Masters Of The Universe is one example picked out as a lacklustre effort, raised by Struzan’s evocative artwork, back in 1987). But this documentary chooses not to necessarily examine the skills employed, but more fêtes that ineffable quality in Struzan’s work – the use of naturalistic lighting, the sense of energy that makes each image pop and glow, either on close examination or on a advertising billboard, at a distance. The word ‘magician’ is used here more than once.
It was also interesting to hear about Struzan’s attempts to balance the desire to create solid work and the necessity to do business that would actually get that work seen – Struzan will admit that he has never been the most reliable man when it comes to money: getting married and having a child at an idealistic young age when getting paint supplies overruled providing for his family, introducing his already formidable portfolio to agents at a discount rate, getting entangled with a number of disreputable agents, eager to exploit our hero (the come-uppance and karma of one provides the biggest laugh of the documentary, however guilty)… Struzan has been lucky to have found those in the business end of art publication who have always had his back, and to be lauded by film makers, eager to celebrate the classic hand-painted styles of a bye-gone era. It’s just a shame that era had to end.
It’s when you get to see a range of Struzan’s posters writ large that you can really appreciate the framing, palette and detail that he uses and so, it’s great that a complementary ‘exhibition’ of posters, held at the North Bar on Upper Briggate, only a short walk from the Town Hall, has been put together in Leeds for people to see them in one go: Blade Runner, The Goonies, The Thing, Indiana Jones, Star Wars… all the big hits are represented. Even Mallrats!
Now, I say ‘exhibition’ but, in actuality, the North Bar is first and foremost a thin, rather hipster-ish bar which just so happened to have the wall space available to hang a bunch of posters that anyone can buy from pop culture stores anywhere, placed behind hardly the best representative plastic framing and under harsh florescent lighting. I’m not knocking the venue at all – the wheat beer which was recommended was a gorgeous drop and the Ham & Cheese Toastie was incredibly moorish, I’m not sure what condiment the barman put in there put it added a cracking zing which set me up for the day – but a pub is a pub is a pub and it was very difficult to take a true step back and really appreciate the work on display. I’m just grateful that patrons can, at least, get a glimpse into Drew’s world for however brief this installation is up for.
I also have a couple of grievances towards the presentation of the screening itself: held in the Albert Room of the Leeds Town Hall, it became essential to sit at the very back of the room to take in a massive, almost wall-filling screen, mounted high at one end, flanked by a PA system which echoed the soundtrack up into the high, cavernous ceiling, rendering huge chunks of dialogue echo-ridden and lost – Michael J. Fox, in the throws of a light Parkinson’s attack during his interview portions, was completely inaudible and, if it wasn’t for the staccato trademark swearing of Del Toro, framing his sentences, the bombastic Spaniard would’ve required subtitles for his segments. I spent the entire screening wishing that dampening boards could’ve been hung from the ceiling for this presentation or, at the very least, installed surround fill speakers so the volume could’ve been dropped and the echo reduced. I’ve never been to a screening at the Town Hall before and it doesn’t bode well for a screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey, planned for next week in the Victoria Hall.
Still, I wouldn’t have missed this for the world. I have been eager to see this documentary since I heard of its production at the beginning of the decade and, while I’m certain that one day it’ll make its way to Netflix or iTunes, I wanted to see this in a surrounding that reflected that which Struzan’s work has always done – enticed you from off of the street and into a dark room with a massive image, enjoying the presentation as a communal experience. Home cinema be damned; the big screen’s where it’s at. The book is where I could slow down and really dive into the breadth of work he’s produced over the years; ‘Drew: The Man Behind The Poster’ is where I could see other appreciators swim with me, too. Safe to say, I prefer the documentary over the book.
Ahh, yes: the book. Let’s go back to my introduction, and the reason that the person sat next to me at the screening felt that, maybe, I could do with some fresh air.
The documentary had covered Struzan’s retirement from movie posters, with him spending more quality time with his family and painting for art’s sake to his own timetable and desires, and had faded to black for the final wrap-up. The second the return fade-in showed the famous hanging banners of San Diego Comic-Con, inside the Convention Centre, I knew what was going to be covered next – and, specifically, when. It would be 2010, the year that people would first get a glimpse of clips of the documentary in its initial rudimentary form at a panel, dedicated to Struzan; the year that Frank Darabont showed up as a surprise at the back of the room, joining an audience of fans already on its feet for the man himself who was then presented with an Inkpot Award, out of the blue, by the moderator; the year that Darabont then brought out Struzan to Walking Dead fans on the Exhibition Floor and proceeded to sign a limited edition print that Struzan had done for his old friend on the AMC stand.
And it was the year that I attended San Diego Comic-Con for the very first time – I had bought the book on the Friday and had been told that Drew would be on the stand signing books for an hour or so on Saturday morning. I had jumped out of the Hall H queue on the Saturday morning to get my book signed, only to find that Struzan had done his bit and left for the day, twenty minutes earlier.
Bugger. My chance at meeting the maestro and I’d missed it by a hair. At this point, I felt that 2010 was going to be my only year attending the con and now I was never going to meet the one and only Drew Struzan. Ahh, regrets: I have a few…
(Thank goodness, then, for the appearance at Hard Rock Hotel the following year, when he presented a limited signed print for Cowboys And Aliens along with the films director, Jon Favreau, to fans who had been queuing for six hours in the California sun. Yes, I was one of the dedicated. Boy, that lobster-pink sunburn was so worth it!!)
* Best Feature Film, 2014 Dragon-Con Independent Film Festival