CONAN THE BARBARIAN's Cinematic Present and Future With Producer Fredrik Malmberg
This summer's Conan the Barbarian saw pulp novelist Robert E. Howard's brutal antihero back on the screen for the first time in a quarter century. With Game of Thrones star Jason Momoa in the lead and Marcus Nispel (Texas Chainsaw Massacre) in the director's chair, Lionsgate hoped to resurrect tales from the Hyborean age onscreen for the current generation.
With the DVD and Blu-ray release of the movie on the way November 22nd, we spoke with producer Fredrik Malmberg (Let Me In) about bringing the character back to the screen, about casting the notorious barbarian, and what's next for the franchise.
Twitch: So what made Conan ripe for resurrection in 2011?
Fredrik Malmberg: I'm a huge fan, personally, of the character. I think Rob E. Howard's writings are spectacular, and I think this particular hero--or call him an antihero, I guess--he's very unique. Because there aren't that many heroes or characters written in the pulp era that are fresh even today. So it was a challenge, but it was also a big honor to be involved with.
Twitch: It's a tricky line with the character, though: he's pretty brutal and metal, while his world is sometimes depicted with a lot of high fantasy elements. And when bringing that to a movie, I have to imagine it's tough reconciling those two audiences.
Malmberg: I wouldn't say that was really a problem. The challenge was to retain the integrity of the character as Howard wrote him, [and that] requires a certain dark tone sometimes. Because Conan is not all happy, all good, because he's multi-faceted and he has a dark side to him and that's, I think, why we can relate to him.
It's not so much a problem, but Howard's Conan feels more grounded and realistic than say, high fantasy such as Immortals, you know? Of course, the challenge is you have to make a movie that is visually appealing to today's audience, but also happens to feel like a prehistory that's actually happened.
Twitch: What were some of the other visual themes and ideas your team was attempting to get across with your version of Hyborea [the setting for most Conan stories in the past]?
Malberg: Well, we really wanted to embrace the R-rating. We felt that with the Marvel comics and with R.E.H.'s writings, this was clearly a world with naked women and beheadings. And that generally generates an R-rating. So that combined with a need to have a budget big enough for the epic scale so that we could show Hyborea and the other lands of the Hyborean age, so that we could exploit it on the big screen, and I think we succeeded there. I think Marcus really nailed that.
Twitch: And why was he a good fit for the material? I mean, I've enjoyed some of his work in the past, but this horror director doesn't immediately strike you as the go-to guy for Conan the Barbarian.
Malmberg: Marcus, he really courted us. There were talks with other directors before, but Marcus kept coming back and pitching. Several times, not just to me, but to the other producers as well and he was very persistent. And he had come off of Pathfinder, which had mixed emotions for him and I remember he said the inspiration for why he made Pathfinder was Conan. And he really felt this was the opportunity to work on the real thing, so to speak. So he kept knocking on the door, and was very persistent, and came in. And at the end of the day, there was an opening and everyone agreed that Marcus was the one to take a shot at this and he went off and did that.
Twitch: And what about casting Jason Momoa as Conan? What did you feel he brought to the role?
Malmberg: It was not an easy thing. Because we were clear from the start that we didn't want to have a famous, a world-renowned actor because we basically were going to make a movie that was a reboot of a classic. And no one could really fill Arnold's shoes, because that was the breakthrough role for Arnold. And we wanted to find someone who was like Arnold in those days, somebody who was a in similar situation now.
Yet, when we started doing the casting, either they were very, very big bodybuilder guys and they couldn't act in the auditions, or they were just, quite honestly, too small. It was our casting director--and we had probably tested 150, 200 guys from the whole world--and then our casting director, Kerry Barden, [was] casting Game of Thrones. And he had just seen Jason onscreen for that, and he just said, "Guys, I have Conan." And he came in and just nailed it and we said "This is our Conan." And I think you're absolutely right, he's big, he's 6'4", and he's muscular but he's a real guy. He's not a bodybuilder and you can tell he's working really hard to build all that muscle. We knew that he was constantly working [out].
So, I'm very happy and I think also for me he was a great choice because Conan is supposed to be very flexible, very fast. He's described more as a panther than an ox. So I really thought Jason was a great choice. I'm very, very happy with Jason.
Twitch: I love reading the interviews with the guy and see him speak, particularly because he has this dark, infectious sense of humor. Did that influence the role at all?
Malmberg: I think so. He went into the source material, he read some of the short stories, and he came in and discussed the character and how he would react to certain decisions and certain situations. Of course, a big part of Conan's persona is that he has that humorous... that mirth. He got a funny side to him, or he's got that dark humor, which I think he and Jason share. He's supposed to be able to go from killing people to going to a party in the flicker of an eye. And I think Jason sort of went under the skin of Conan, so to speak.
Twitch: What kind of discussions were there around having the movie be shot in 3D?
Malmberg: Well, we didn't shoot the movie in 3D, it was converted in post. When we started the whole project, we started shooting in the spring just as Clash of the Titans had gone up in theaters and that was, of course, a very big success for Warner Brothers. And Marcus had not been shooting 3D movies before and we didn't, of course, want to disrupt the process--because shooting in 3D is one thing.
And then we found a stereoscopic supervisor who came on set and was acting as an advisor in case of us wanting to convert it at a later stage. Which we subsequently took the decision to make in the fall after we wrapped. We had a discussion and everyone thought that in addition to the 2D version we do a 3D version. So that was really a decision that Lionsgate made for their domestic distribution needs.
Twitch: A lot of theaters in my area were only showing the 3D version and I know that--in some cases--it turned people off or maybe kept them from going to see Conan. How much were you cognizant that this might be an issue?
Malmberg: I do think it's a problem. I think there seems to be a divider that the older audiences prefer the 2D version and the younger audience is used to and kind of expects a bigger event when they go to the theaters and they prefer the 3D. And contingent on the movie, these movies tend to take in 70% on the 3D screens, so it's a big portion of the theatrical side. And if you can attract crowds of people to the theaters, that's a good thing for everybody--it increases the box office.
But I think it is a challenge, as you point out, because you have to deliver two good movies because the theaters in the area don't want to show the 2D. And there are very many reasons for that too because, of course, their economy needs to work as well and they can charge more for 3D movies. So we took the decision to offer both. And I think with the DVD coming out, a lot of people who missed the movie on the big screen can catch up hopefully on the screen at home.
Twitch: What are some other Conan properties on the way at this point? Could you tell us a little about your next R.E. Howard project, Vultures?
Malmberg: Well, Vultures is not really the next [project], we're developing a couple of Howard characters--one of them is Kull and one of them is Vultures, one is Dark Agnes and several others. So we're working on them and Conan, of course, is the biggest name of them all and we will see, we will sit down in the spring when the results of the DVD launch and tally up the numbers, I'm certain that there will be Conan interpretations in the future. The question is more about the rating and the budget and before we can analyze all the figures from worldwide, it's a little premature to say when the next goes into production. But I'm sure there will be another Conan movie.
Twitch: Anything in terms of more games in the future or any other sorts of properties being developed with the character?
Malberg: Oh, absolutely. Of course, the biggest gaming event has been the Age of Conan MMO. That's now gone to Free to Play--that's actually gone to a hybrid Free to Play model. It's an MMO similar to World of Warcraft or Everquest where you basically just play in the world of Conan. And that's actually been doing phenomenal. We've actually added--when I say "we" I mean our licensee, Funcom--has added 600,000 into the game since the summer. So that's a very healthy population and that's going on.
And meanwhile, of course, the other workhorse for the IP is, of course, Dark Horse Comics. We have pretty big plans for Conan in the comic books for next year and the year after. So it's very vibrant, very alive, and those are the two main, core companies we work with.
Conan the Barbarian will be available on DVD, Blu-ray and VOD on November 22nd.