This story first appeared in the Oct. 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
He’s the artist who gave Rambo his gigantic gun (and sensitive gaze) in the poster for First Blood. He made Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia look like timeless movie icons with his poster for Star Wars. He turned Harrison Ford‘s face into a canvas all its own with his artwork for Indiana Jones.
His name may not be familiar in every household, but his work is. Over the course of his four-decade career, Drew Struzan, 67, has painted more than 200 film posters, always in a style all his own: heroism brushed with humanity, humor softened by a tinge of sorrow. Which is why, on Oct. 23, he’ll be honored with the Saul Bass Award at THR‘s Key Art Awards at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood.
“Drew manages to embody not only the film narrative in the poster but the actual magic of going to the movies,” says Guillermo del Toro, echoing the sentiment of the scores of filmmakers who have benefited from Struzan’s artistry over the years. “He encapsulates both an era and an experience.”
Like all true artists, Struzan knew his calling the moment he picked up a brush — although his parents were hardly encouraging while he was growing up in Oregon and California. They gave him “no support, no understanding,” he says. But he found comfort in art. And, in 1965, at the age of 18, he was accepted into Los Angeles’ Art Center College of Design. “I fell into the entertainment industry because I went to school here,” he says. “It didn’t matter what I painted, I just wanted to paint.”
He got his start in the 1970s, during the golden age of record-album art, painting covers for everyone from Roy Orbison to Liberace. But it was an LP he did for Alice Cooper in 1975 that got him noticed by a key art producer, who hired him to paint movie posters for $250 a week. “I thought I was rich,” says Struzan.
Stars adore Struzan, partly because he captures nuances of personality that cameras some- times cannot. Mark Hamill has more gravity in his face in Struzan’s 1978 Star Wars poster than he did in any of George Lucas‘ films. Sylvester Stallone has never looked more pensive than in Struzan’s 1982 poster for the first Rambo movie, even if he is holding an assault weapon. (“The hero thing with the huge gun you saw on posters for many years,” says Struzan. “But this was the first one.”)
Struzan’s last major artwork, before he retired in 2008, was for del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, painting the poster before he saw the film in English. “Guillermo screened it for me in Spanish,” he says. “I didn’t understand a word. But Guillermo says the perfect movie is one that’s told in pictures, not through words.” The same can be said of posters. “My job,” says Struzan, “is to capture the spirit of the movie, how it feels. People will see it because they want to feel that emotion. It becomes iconic when they can have that feeling every time they look at the poster.”
Struzan’s early versions of the poster had Fox holding back the hands of a clock, like Harold Lloyd in the 1923 silent film Safety Last! But the final version “immediately connects,” says Struzan. “A DeLorean — transparent, disappearing, sexy! Light streaking out, fire under the wheels. I want to see this movie!”