Star Wars (1977)
With dozens of Star Wars-related posters, book jackets, comic-book covers, and even postage stamps under his belt, Struzan’s artwork has become synonymous with the franchise. ”Most of my working life has been connected with Star Wars,” he says. It all started with a poster commissioned by George Lucas well into the first film’s game-changing release, but the job originally belonged to Struzan’s friend Charlie White. ”But Charlie didn’t do portraits, and he asked me to work on it with him,” Struzan says. ”It ended up being George Lucas’ favorite painting.” The original ”circus poster”—a major piece of movie-marketing history—went missing for decades until one morning when Struzan stepped out of his Pasadena home. ”There it was leaning against my studio door,” he remembers. ”Someone must have felt guilty, so I just turned around and gave it to George.”
Indiana Jones (1981?2008)
Struzan’s realistic rendering and portraiture evokes earlier styles of illustration, such as the covers of The Saturday Evening Post. It’s a perfect match for another nostalgic property: the Indiana Jones series, for which Struzan has done nearly all the major artwork. ”I would go through all the still photography,” he says. ”And Indy has this look on his face in this one shot of a thousand shots that I’m looking at, and that’s who he is.” Indy’s face may belong to Harrison Ford, but his body is all Struzan, who often poses for the characters in his paintings. A pair of bullwhips hang on his studio’s wall, props he uses when modeling. ”I even got a message once from Harrison thanking me for being his body all these years,” he says.
The Thing (1982)
Time is a luxury rarely afforded a poster artist, and sometimes the deadlines are daunting. Take his haunting, evocative image for John Carpenter’s polar chiller. ”That was literally overnight,” he recalls. ”They called in the afternoon and said, ‘Do you want to do a poster? We need it tomorrow morning.”’ The poster is one of Struzan’s most abstract, mainly because the studio, Universal, didn’t give him many plot details. (The vague title wasn’t much help either.) ”So I came up with the concept, did a Polaroid of me in costume, faxed it to them. I worked on it all night, and at 9 a.m. there was a knock on the door. It was the delivery guy; I handed it over to him, and that was that.”
Back to the Future (1985)
It’s rare to hit a home run on your first swing. Before producing a painting, Struzan hands the studio a variety of potential designs known as ”comps.” These usually begin as basic sketches, but over time he makes them more detailed and in color. ”I wanted to stay ahead of the pack,” says Struzan, ”so I kept stepping it up until I was handing in what was essentially a finished painting as a comp.” With Back to the Future, the end result (right) was very different from the first comp (above left). ”It was the technique that impressed them,” he says, ”so then we applied it to this other concept.”
The Goonies (1985)
Struzan tries to identify the heart of a movie and find a single image that encapsulates it perfectly—even if that image isn’t in the movie itself. ”I’m not telling the story, I’m telling the concept,” he says. ”For The Goonies, the picture of them all hanging on for dear life isn’t actually a shot in the film, but it’s an interpretation of what the movie is: that adventure, that peril, all those characters.”
Everyone has an opinion in Hollywood. So Struzan often produces multiple versions of a poster before a studio signs off. ”For Hook, I did 60 drawings,” he says. ”Different compositions and different ideas.” Much of Struzan’s trademark aesthetic—colored pencils and airbrushed acrylic paints on a gluelike base of gesso—comes from the need to change things at a moment’s notice. ”I had to develop a technique where I could do it fast, make it changeable, and not make it noticeable that it was altered in any way,” he says. ”My style is born from necessity.”
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Despite his acclaim, Struzan considers himself ”a working stiff.” Early in his career, he was quite literally a starving artist, often having to choose between food and art supplies. So no job was ever too small. ”I did a painting for a guy in Texas who was running a poster shop and he wanted a new version of Creature From the Black Lagoon,” says Struzan. ”I wasn’t getting paid a lot.” Years later, director Frank Darabont bought one—and hired Struzan to do art for The Shawshank Redemption‘s 10th anniversary.
Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace (1999)
International film publicity tends to be tailored to specific markets, with separate posters and trailers targeted to different moviegoing cultures. But for the long-awaited mega-blockbuster return of the Star Wars franchise, George Lucas insisted that there be only one poster worldwide. ”Artists don’t get rich, but in the sense that people saw and enjoyed my work all at the same time all around the world,” Struzan says, ”that’s about as big of a blessing an artist can get.”
Struzan says he was never an industry player, merely a willing brush for hire. In fact, he never even met George Lucas in person until 1991, at a wrap party for Hook. But over time he began getting assignments from filmmakers who had grown up with his work. Longtime fan Guillermo del Toro commissioned a poster for his 2004 film Hellboy (an early sketch, above left), but first the director had to get over his nerves. ”Guillermo wanted me to work for him, but he was afraid I was too unapproachable,” says Struzan, laughing. ”I was not used to that because I’m no big deal! I’m just the guy in the background.”