Marcus Nispel is known as a work-for-hire type of director. The type of filmmaker that’s brought onto a project to craft a studio’s vision versus his own. Coming from the world of Platinum Dunes’ micromanagement, he’s worked on films that are not meant for auteurs. The projects he’s been a part of are calculated products, and Nispel is more than aware of it.
The Friday the 13th and Texas Chainsaw Massacre remaker knows how the game goes for his franchise starter films.
With Conan the Barbarian, Nispel got the chance to make a different type of blockbuster: a hard-R that features a misogynistic, barbaric lead. However, the director still was a “dog on many leashes,” as he described the process. Hopefully, Nispel still managed to create a version of Conan that lives up to the idea of an R-rated tent-pole release about a barbarian who thirsts for blood.
Here’s what Nispel had to say about avoiding film school, making someone else’s vision, and how filmmaking is like raising children:
Mr. Nispel, how are you doing today?
Good. I never got rejected from film school, but I also never went. Does it show?
[Laughs] Why didn’t you go to film school?
Actually, I painted myself into filmmaking. I was a designer and a painter, then wound up in designed-based film, conceptual stuff, and so on. In many ways, my access to Conan was Frank Frazetta. He was one of my heroes when I grew up. I just worshiped his stuff.
It makes sense you come from that background. You can see a painter influence in your films.
Yeah, you can’t stop it. The more movies I do, the more I actually shed that, at least I hope.
Starting off as an artist, what made you want to jump into these commercial driven projects instead of something smaller?
You know, the next movie I’m making is going to be done for a million bucks, and it’s about an idea I came up with. It’s very different. I envy — and I’m not an envious person — the kind of filmmakers that came out of the 70s, where you started with small, personal films. People look at those knife out of the water movies, and say, “Oh, let’s give him something a bit bigger,” then the director gets a big studio movie.
Now, it’s the other way around. You gotta make a big studio movie, do it well, then they will allow you to make the small film. The film school now is you start on top, then if you swim well, you maybe get to make a personal statement. If I had the choice, I would’ve done something small. It just didn’t come that way. If the love comes you accept it, in whatever state.
What I know about Platinum Dunes’ Brad Fuller and Andrew Form is that they know exactly what they want for their projects. What’s that experience like of almost making someone else’s vision versus your own?
Before I did my first movie, I did over a thousand commercials and fifty music videos. When you get one of those music videos, what am I going to do, go up to Puff Daddy and tell him how to look and hold his hands? You essentially follow a certain lead. In that regard, it’s very different from an auteur filmmaker when it comes to your job description. In particular when you’re dealing with a valuable studio franchise, it’s not just the fans, but also the guys wanting to resurrect that franchise. They care you do it in a certain DNA. Sometimes, they might know something I don’t. When I went to do Texas Chainsaw Massacre, I said we needed to find the next Sissy Spacek for the lead. They all went, “mmhmm, mmhmm.” [Laughs]
With Michael Bay being the producer, you don’t get very far with that. Most likely, I have a lot to be thankful for. Whenever the movie started to slow down a little, there was still Jessica Biel in the tank top.
Again, maybe they know something I don’t. For a movie like Conan, you are a dog of many masters. You go in understanding that, or you wouldn’t get the job. Somebody once told me, and I live by this as a rule, “If you do an adaptation of something original — a newspaper article, a television show from the 70s, a movie, or a handful of Frazetta paintings — you put together a group of people who all love that, and you talk to them. You realize there are ten key points you will agree on that you have to put in the movie, but everything else you must change.”
Coming off those Platinum Dunes films, which were successful, did you get more freedom on Conan because of that?
No, it makes no difference [Laughs]. The order is the same. The bigger the movie, the more tough it gets. What I found out is ever since I’ve had children, in particular as they get older, it changes my mind about how to make a movie. I go about my movies as I go about my kids. When they were born, I thought, “They’re going to be a lawyer, a doctor, or a director.” As they grow up, you realize they have their own minds and tell you what they want to be. Essentially, you’re there enabling them, keeping options open, and clearing the path. Really, they must take their own lead. While most filmmakers will pimp around their unique and single-minded vision, I very much listen to what the material and characters tell me. It’s the actors and the providers that shape it more than I ever can.
My kids are more influenced by people who I will never meet. I mean, their nanny and teachers spend more time with them than I ever could. It’s daunting and scary. I’m not a funny guy, but my kids are becoming funny because they’re watching The Simpsons. What am I going to do, stop them because what they’re doing isn’t what I had in mind for them? When you deal with a character like Conan, you live and sleep with it for 2 and a half years. When I go to the producers, I gotta tell them who Conan is. Can this be a PG or PG-13 movie? No, it can not. Should Conan be a little nice to the ladies? No, he is misogynistic. Maybe he shouldn’t spit and burp when he eats? No. You have to remind them we’re not making Prince Charming, but Conan the Barbarian. It’s an R-rated idea, and you have to be true to that.
You mentioned being a dog on many leashes with Conan, but they did let you make a hard-R movie about a misogynist. Considering that, I imagine you got away with a few things, right?
Well, they know what they bought. I just had a guy here from one of those blogs, and they’re daunting to read sometimes because so many people make this movie in their own mind. I’d holdup things to my producers to show them what fans want, and I would tell them we can’t cop out. Here, movies get reviewed before they’re even made or when people see the trailer.
You were just talking about Platinum Dunes, and they got a really nice approval rating from their panel at Comic-Con [for Friday the 13th]. One fan during the panel said to them, “Whatever you guys do, you can’t take his mask off!” When they came back, they said we had to reshoot the ending because the fans said we can’t take his mask off [Laughs]. There was a scene in Conan that was important to the story — I’m not sure I should be talking about this — that they wanted to cut. Arnold [Schwarzenegger] saw the movie, and he loved it and gave kudos to Jason [Momoa]. He also said, “I couldn’t quite tell what the movie was about,” so I told them we had to put it back in because of Arnold [Laughs].
Conan the Barbarian opens in theaters on August 19th.