Legendary Poster Artist Drew Struzan On His Process And His Legacy

Next week, on September 14, the spotlight will shine on a man who really should need no introduction. The work of Drew Struzan, the poster artist responsible for iconic movie posters from “Star Wars,” “Back to the Future,” “Indiana Jones” and any number of classics from the ’80s and ’90s (“Goonies,” “Coming To America,” “Police Academy”… get the picture?), will be featured in a new book from Titan Books, “The Art of Drew Struzan,” which contains not just poster art but anecdotes and concept/unreleased designs, many of which have never been seen before.

Drew was kind enough to take some time out to chat with MTV in support of the coming book. He was really a delightful interview. In the latter part of the book, there’s an unfortunate trend with some of the movies where he was asked to create art by someone involved with the production only to have the studio go in another direction. An overall change in the industry’s approach to movie posters was a key component in Drew’s decision to retire. He was a delightful interview nonetheless, a man who is obviously pleased with the turns life has taken and thankful for his good fortune.

“I had a wonderful life, more than I ever expected,” he said of his 40-plus year career. “Came from the gutter and got to do some really fun stuff. I mean how many people get to do what they love for their living? I got to do that. What am I to be bitter about? I am well, well blessed.”

Drew continues to create art on his own time, but he’s quite satisfied with the idea of spending more time with his family, his grandson. “I don’t mind not working 24 hour days, missing every weekend and every holiday for years on end so I don’t mind that,” he explained. “I miss my friends, I miss the good times, I miss making beautiful things for people to enjoy, but I can still do that without the studios. I was forced out by circumstance, but I don’t mind personally.”

What’s incredible is that, although his work is often easily identifiable, Drew doesn’t actually have a process that he sticks to for putting a movie poster together. This is largely the result of the unpredictable nature of a film production. “Everything you can think of would be how it works,” he said. “There are no rules, you don’t have to have a license to practice. It’s whatever the people want is what they do.”

Sometimes he’d see the actual movie, sometimes a rough cut or dailies. On occasion it was just a bunch of stills or, at times, even less. “Raiders of the Lost Ark” is one such example of working on a barebones amount of information, little more than “a one paragraph synopsis.”

“They wanted to keep it a secret. Even from the guy working on it,” he said. “I had maybe, I don’t know, 10 or 12 stills from the film. It was very limiting.” Of course, everything changed once Drew established himself as the man with the right artistic vision for the series. “Once they decided that my look was the Indy look, well, of course, then they gave me more freedom as well as trusting in me that I wasn’t going to divulge the movie to anybody.”

“Back to the Future” is another notable gallery featured in the book. A remarkable number of unused mock-up compositions are included, many of which don’t even fall close to the iconic image that most people know: Marty McFly standing beside the time-traveling DeLorean, a look of shock on his face as he stares at his watch.

“The poster, some do believe it really sells the approach to the movie really well so they go through a lot of changes trying to decide what the image ought to be,” Drew said. “In one image you’ve got to represent all of the music, the story, the characters, the film… the two hour experience. So we go through a lot of different ideas and concepts: do we do it symbolically, or do we illustrate the whole concept, or do we find something that just epitomizes it.”

“For me it was always, you can’t tell [the whole] story… but what you can do is represent the spirit of the film, what you are going to feel when you go experience this story. So we go through those different stages.”

One of the “Back to the Future” comps in particular looks like it sells a John Hughes movie; it’s just three pairs of legs standing side-by-side. “The one with the three legs, that was actually Steven [Spielberg]’s idea. He said, ’Remember the opening for My Three Sons the T.V. show back, whenever that was, remember the three feet with the tapping toes and stuff?’ So he thought that would be a cool idea for this.”

Drew continued, “We present those concepts and everybody kind of mulls over them. [In this case] they liked them all and couldn’t make up their minds, so I did color versions of the same ones and they went through that. So you keep going through different stages until something continues to draw their interest. It’s a whole process– I don’t just sit at home and do what I please, I work just as the film is made, it’s a collaborative affair, everybody gets involved cause there’s so much at stake.”

Unfortunately, things change. “Hellboy” and the second “Harry Potter” are two notable examples of films that Drew did work on, only to have the studio decide to go in another direction. “It’s the changing times, it’s not peculiar to me or even the movie industry. The whole world is like a rug being pulled out from under us,” he explained.

“The studios only think digitally now. Most of the young people running the place never hired artists, never worked with artists, they don’t know what to do with art if they had it, so it’s all digital now. Even if they have it and you show it to them… they [still] don’t understand. I’m not the one to explain why they feel that way or why they don’t understand, but it’s what happened, it’s what happened to my job, what happened to the industry.”

Even as he lays this all out, there’s not a hint of bitterness in Drew’s voice. It’s encouraging to hear, and it speaks to his own personal attitude towards the work. It comes out as he tries to address the age-old question: What is your favorite project that’ you’ve worked on?

“You know, I gotta say what I’ve said a million times, favorites are something that other people live by cause its how they attach, and how they enjoy their lives. I can’t do that, especially as the creator,” he explained. “If I have a favorite I’d repeat myself day in and day out and I’d be dead. I gotta keep doing something different, something new.”

“My favorite is truly the next one because I’m better, I’m smarter, I’m more mature, I’m more experienced. Not to say that there weren’t wonderful experiences, because I can go on for days about the cool things that I got to do in my life and in the movie industry and people will think that was the greatest life ever. But really for an artist, tomorrow is the best day of my life.”

To up-and-coming artists who want to follow a similar path, Drew’s advice is simple. “I guess you have two choices: you can either paint because you’re in love with it or you can paint for money,” he said. “Either choice is right, either choice is fine. I chose the latter and happened to get the money too. I’m not saying it will happen for everybody, but if you make your choices based on what makes you happy then you will never be regretful of what your choice was.”

“How do you get the job? I don’t know, just make your choices and take your chances, roll the dice, you know? There’s no one way of doing it. To do something you love is rare, an artist can choose to do that. It’s not necessarily a choice for many or a fancy lifestyle but it is a choice for happiness. What more do you want?”