FrightFest Film Review: Drew – The Man Behind the Poster

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Paint A Vulgar Picture

Moviegoers of a certain age will be familiar with the art of Drew Struzan. He’s the nominative determined pencil and paintsmith behind a string of famous one sheets, amongst them – the iconic image of Michael J. Fox looking aghast at his watch on the Back to the Future poster, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, the Police Academy series and, er, the Star Wars Special Editions triptych, but we’ll not embarrass him any further by underlining the association.

Yes, if you were a fan of those vintage promos that provided a static montage of the movie’s principle action and characters, each sized according to their relative importance and contractual stipulations, a style George Lucas called “the people mountain”, so thank God he’s not a writer, then Struzan’s artwork is already part of your pop cultural landscape. But who is he? Erik Sharkey’s documentary tries to find out.

If you accept the movie’s contention that poster art is dying in a ditch, and it’s hard not to when one sees the predominance of dull photographic reproductions that pass for movie posters these days, then this is a revealing look at one of the trade’s most successful and enduring artists: a man out of fashion in an age of moribund, mercenary marketing.

Sharkey shows us a reserved man, awkward on camera, who graduated from illustrating album covers, Alice Cooper’s Welcome to my Nightmare amongst them, and found favour with an industry attracted to his realist depictions of characters, augmented with an otherworldly sheen. It’s that magic, Sharkey suggests, ventriloquising contributors like Leonard Maltin and Steve Guttenberg, that ensured his longevity. If we associate Struzan with the golden age of Lucas and Spielberg, it’s because no artist, with the exception of John Alvin (painted out here), better married the magic of their movies with complimentary artwork.

Struzan put you in the picture, set the tone and modeled expectations, and a grateful industry paid him handsomely for it until they realized that Photoshop could knock up a one sheet in an afternoon and undiscerning cinemagoers were indifferent to the drop in quality. In poster art, as in musical composition, Hollywood stopped trying when their focus groups told them casual patrons didn’t register the effort. The story of Struzan’s forced retirement is the story of American cinema’s degeneration. If movies aren’t as good as they used to be, and it’s an argument with some force, any investigation would have to subpoena Struzan.

The artist may be reserved but the film reveals he’s not burdened by modesty. Sharkey’s camera shows reticence cloaking self-regard. Often Struzan will refer to his own talent, his “magic” and revels in anecdotes about moments of inspired creativity, not least the evening he created the poster for John Carpenter’s The Thing based on a couple of sentences of information passed down the phone (an account we’ve cause to doubt as the famous image depicts the character’s coats with uncanny accuracy). In one scene he chuckles as he recalls the moment a man he alleged hoarded his early artwork, effectively stealing it, died of a heart attack before he could sue Struzan for making the allegation. The rights and wrongs of the case aside, it’s an uncomfortable moment.

If Struzan seems enamored by his own skill, he’s aided by gushing from the film’s many admirers. Okay, this is a movie that celebrates his work, but it comes at the expense of aforementioned contemporary John Alvin, who isn’t just a glaring omission from the story, but in a couple of instances is actively obliterated from it. As Maltin and Spielberg go moist for Struzan’s E.T and Blade Runner artwork (used for the Final Cut release), “definitive depictions” in their view, they neglect to mention the man whose work was chosen to represent the movies on theatrical release, one assumes on merit. Alvin’s drawing of E.T’s hand touching Elliot’s (a hand modeled on his daughter’s) is surely iconic, so too his image of Deckard, gun raised, over futuristic L.A skyscrapers. Struzan’s coy about the movies he didn’t get first time around, “they gave it to someone else”, but not to talk about that someone and retrospectively relegate their work to runner up status, is a major falsenote in a documentary that ostensibly celebrates the medium.

Still, there are fascinating tidbits and, as we hope for in any documentary, moments of unintentional hilarity caught for posterity. The commentary on Hollywood’s industrial myopia is timely and important, while the moment Struzan meets Harrison Ford for the first time, the former so instrumental in creating the iconic image of the latter, is telling, not least because one wonders why Ford, in thirty years, hadn’t made an effort to meet him sooner. But the real thigh slapper comes during a walkabout with George Lucas at his Presidio HQ. Fawning over Darth Maul, a character Struzan loved to paint, he tells an uncomfortable George he wants to see more of him, apparently unaware that the underused villain was killed in just one of many Phantom Menace missteps. Lucas smiles politely and turns away. Struzan may have created the art but he apparently declined to watch the movie. An egotist perhaps, but, we realise, a pretty good judge all told.

Directed by: Erik Sharkey

Country: US

Year: 2013

Running Time: 97 mins

6 Responses

  1. Samantha says:

    Your review is strange as it reads to have some animus or bias against Struzan from the outset and it taints your entire review here – in favor of John Alvin it seems?

    The film doesn’t forget or obfuscate John Alvin, Bob Peak, or the work of any other myriad of talented artists. There could equally be individual documentaries devoted to any of those artists and their works. Yet, this film wasn’t about those other artists. However, you come across as almost eager then to tear down or cast aspersions against Struzan himself for this transgression of your imagination.

    • Ed Whitfield says:

      Congrats for noting the opinion in the review, Samantha. It’s capturing my feelings after viewing the film that makes it a review and not a synopsis. What’s strange is that you’ve come to the piece with some preconceived idea that my job was to sit through it, wide eyed, and have no view at all.

      Inevitably critics write reviews that draw attention to aspects of a film that someone who enjoyed it may object to, and the cliche that follows is always the same: “you were inclined to hate it.” Let me set your mind at ease. I had no preconceived ideas about the film at all. I sought it out because I’m a fan of Struzan’s work and that entire tradition. It’s simply not true that the review has it in for Struzan; it’s a reaction to what he says and the way he’s treated by the filmmaker. Of course one expects a movie called “Drew” to focus on that artist, but as part of a process of contextualisation it’s also reasonable to expect the discussion to be tied to contemporaries. You wouldn’t make a movie on Hammer horror and feature one film would you?

      You say the film doesn’t forget Alvin, Peak and co., that’s nonsense, it does. In fact it’s worse than that, it features E.T and Blade Runner and attempts to pass off their poster art as Struzan’s, which as we know is less than the whole truth. I found the labelling of his work as definitive, in relation to those movies, disrespectful to Alvin (whose name is never mentioned), and I imagine his family would too. It looked at me as if the price of access to Struzan was fluffing his ego by painting out his rivals.

      • Samantha says:

        It is the basis for your entire thesis that remains baffling to this casual reader. I’m still unsure how a film created to tribute a singular artist and his work is somehow then “forgetful” or “disrespectful” of other artists by not mentioning or including them.

        Simply, if a tribute film was titled “Hammer Horror”, then I would expect the film to focus on those films.

        I’m also unclear where you believe the film presents others work as Struzan’s, as I never perceived the same in viewing the film 3 times already.

        Any objections though you may have about Struzan’s work being labeled as “definitive” images would seem to be with the holders of those subjective opinions (Lucas, Speilberg, Maltin, etc) or popular culture itself, wouldn’t it?

        Again, to this casual reader, it does seem that you’ve projected a slight, rivalry or animus which apparently only exists in your subjective imagination.

        To debate or contrast the artists against one another, as if it was WWF seems a silly and unconstructive exercise to do in my opinion but a task you’ve clearly sought to take on, instead of simply appreciating each artist and their work on their own.

        • Ed Whitfield says:

          If you’ve seen the film three times there’s no excuse not to notice that portions of those talking head interviews are selected in such a way, and cut together with the relevant poster art in such a way, as to effectively attribute the aforementioned movies to Struzan. These are the contributors’ opinions yes, but you seem oblivious to the filmmaker’s role in selecting footage and controlling the edit. Perhaps you think movies make themselves?

          To put it another way, these sections are indistinguishable, bar the most fleeting of asides, from the parts that talk about the commissions he did get. It’s clear that the movie is consciously constructing the impression for the uninitiated, that he’s responsible for the lot.

          You may be baffled at why anyone would expect the artist that did get the gig to be mentioned, if not then but later when the decline of the art form and tradition is general was being discussed, because as I say that’s historic context, but this being a documentary and not a piece for Struzan’s website, I’m not sure others would take the same view.

          Roger Kastel featured for example, and quite right too, but a cynic would say that as a contributor they could hardly justify cutting him out! I don’t blame Kastel for mounting his Empire Strikes Back poster art in the background because that’s the only tip the viewer had that he was involved in Star Wars. Perhaps he had an ink-ling. On that subject the film featured Struzan’s 1978 re-release poster, and talked it up as though it were the original theatrical release poster that’s now something of a classic, without mentioning or even showing the original. Now I knew it was the re-release poster not the original, but I wouldn’t have known that were this movie my only source. Would a viewer wanting to know more about the subject know? Did you know? Why omit that information? I suggest to solidify the association between Struzan and Star Wars in the audience’s mind without complications like the other artists involved.

          Again, this is as much the story of these movies promotion as it is Struzan’s, you can’t divest one of the other, so this means consciously and deliberately painting out Struzan’s peers. Yes, the film’s primarily about his career, but it’s standard documentary practice to place your subject within its proper cultural and historic context.

          No, really – watch a few. I wouldn’t lie to you.

          Incidentally, it’s not the job of a documentary filmmaker just to lazily reflect perceptions that may exist in popular culture. It’s precisely because the casual viewer, as you put it, associates Struzan with just about every major release of the ’80s that it’s necessary to name check his peers. That’s the act of documenting. Of course I expect a film called Drew to be about that artist. My surprise was at the way, somewhat underhanded in my view, that the film uses slight of hand to expunge the contributions of people like Alvin, who worked on the same movies. A name check would have been enough; a spur for the audience to go away and learn more about the artists of the period, after all what’s this movie for if it’s not a celebration of the form as much as Struzan himself?

          It’s not about pitting these artists against one another. They compliment one another. However, the audience is entitled to ask, assuming they watch the film and register the omissions as I did, why this documentary retrospectively attributes movies to Struzan that he was not commissioned to represent first time around. It’s a legitimate reaction to the film whether you like it or not. Not my agenda but the filmmakers’. I’ve just recorded it.

          Watch it a forth time, see what you think.

  2. Martini Shot says:

    Interesting debate here.
    So in a movie titled “Drew, that is focused on Drew Struzan and his work, where contributors are all extolling Drew Struzan and his work, this writer is upset that it’s was about Drew Struzan and not others.
    Got it.

    Moviemaking and movie marketing is a collaborative effort, but as is pointed out by the assembled creatives and panelists, whether you like it or not, Drew Struzan’s art has arisen and resonated in the public consciousness to become the definitive images associated with those films. As Leonard Maltin says when thinking of Harrison Ford, you often think of Struzan’s art, instead of the actor himself.

    Is that the fault of Struzan? Is that some Machevellian plot on the part of Struzan, director Erik Sharkey, and popular culture to erase all other artists who may have also contributed to those movies? Get real.

    • Ed Whitfield says:

      The main points again:

      1) The movie was cut to create impressions that were historically false
      2) The movie was edited to conflate opinion and fact
      3) All decisions are made consciously and with intent: movies don’t make themselves.

      Any further questions?