Friday, October 19, 2012

Po-Man talks with artist Mort Künstler!

Although he’s known today as America’s premier historical artist, Mort Künstler has painted everything from Classics Illustrated front covers to Mad magazine back covers, with thousands of works in between, during an incredibly prolific career that has spanned over 60 years. During the 1970s he was one of the most prominent artists working in the field of motion picture promotional art, painting the posters for movies ranging from THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE and THE TAKING OF PELHAM 1-2-3 to THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD and THE OMEGA MAN. Earlier this year Mr. Künstler took a break from his very busy schedule to talk with Chris Poggiali about his years designing some of the most exciting movie posters of the 1970s. The full Q&A appears in the latest issue of Cinema Retro (Vol. 8: #24), on sale now. Here are the outtakes from that interview.

Chris Poggiali: You were commissioned to do two different paintings for THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (1972), which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. Did you always paint more than one piece for every movie?

Mort Künstler: No, most of the time it was one. In the case of THE TAKING OF PELHAM 1-2-3 (1974), they asked for three different pieces. There was one that was used for the European poster, of the train coming at you with a guy silhouetted in the doorway.

Then there was another one that I don’t know if they ever used, which shows people on the subway car reading and doing what they’re doing, and three guys among them who all look alike with the same glasses, raincoats, the hats… [Laughs] It’s before the subway car gets taken over.

Poggiali: And then there’s the most common one, with the gun in the foreground.

Künstler: Right, the big machine gun coming from the lower left corner.

Poggiali: You did something similar in the art for BREAKHEART PASS (1976).

Künstler: With the foot in the foreground, about to step on [Charles Bronson’s] hands...

Poggiali: …as he’s hanging from the train! With one image, you manage to capture the action, excitement and danger of these movies better than any trailer.

Künstler: I specialized in that sort of stuff and developed a knack for it, so the work came to me. And I enjoyed doing it.

Poggiali: There’s also a wonderful sense of depth and detail in your work. A great example of this is your art for the Moms Mabley comedy AMAZING GRACE (1974).

Künstler: Oh, that was fun! They told me “Exaggerate it, make it crazy! We want [Moms Mabley] to be coming right at you!” That was done for a movie boutique, which was what we’d call an agency that just did movie advertising. I think it was Rosebud.

Poggiali: Rosebud -- as in the sled?

Künstler: Yes, and they had something from CITIZEN KANE in their waiting room -- maybe the director’s chair or the camera that was used? It wasn’t the sled though! AMAZING GRACE was a very different style for me, almost cartoonish. I don’t know if you would’ve recognized that as mine.

Poggiali: But your signature appears on many of your movie posters.

Künstler: Well, the movie people never wanted to have the artist’s name on the poster. They weren’t interested in selling the artist -- they wanted to sell the movie and the names of the actors. If you signed the picture they would almost invariably take it out. So I used to sign a lot of these movie posters in such a way that they never found it! [Laughs] I remember the signature on AMAZING GRACE. I painted it on the car bumper. For THE TAKING OF PELHAM 1-2-3, it’s on a car card -- y’know, the advertisements on the subway? I made one of the car cards my signature.

Poggiali: What about THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE?

Künstler: I think I put it in the splash of the water. Who knows? I don’t remember. I used to have fun hiding the signatures, like it was a game. I assume other artists did the same thing, because a lot of people know who painted these movie posters. One you probably wouldn’t know I did was THE HINDENBURG (1975).

Poggiali: You didn’t sign that one?

Künstler: No, I couldn’t get the painting done in time! They didn’t give me enough time for it to make the poster, but it was used in every ad you ever saw, in black-and-white and in color. The movie poster itself was done slapdash by someone else, I don’t know who.

Poggiali: That’s the opposite of what happened with GO TELL THE SPARTANS (1978).

Künstler: I did the poster for that one.

Poggiali: And somebody else did the artwork for the newspaper ads. Another poster of yours I really like is THREE THE HARD WAY (1974), which features an ensemble painting of Jim Brown, Fred Williamson and Jim Kelly over three smaller paintings depicting each of them in a separate action scenario.

Künstler: That was done for a movie boutique, but a good part of it was my own concept. It was one of the few times where I was called in at the very beginning, so I had input on that one. I said, “It’s called THREE THE HARD WAY, so why don’t we have three separate pictures of the three stars?”

For the full interview, pick up the latest issue of Cinema Retro (Vol. 8: #24), on sale now!


Robert said...

His artwork bursts with vitality, and its a tragic shame the poster artists of today do not have anything approaching his sense of style or imagination.

Marc Edward Heuck said...

The Rosebud movie ad agency was operated by Merv Bloch and Nelson Lyon, who of course were also responsible for the newly-appreciated subversive sex comedy THE TELEPHONE BOOK.

Fun fact: when Embassy Pictures' Joseph E. Levine agreed to release THE TELEPHONE BOOK, they hid behind the moniker Rosebud Releasing Corporation (since it carried an X rating). And apparently, Embassy got to keep that name, because decades later, after Levine was gone and Embassy's theatrical arm was taken over by DeLaurentiis Entertainment Group, when it came time to release Sam Raimi's EVIL DEAD II, which was given a rejected X rating by the MPAA, it once again carried the shadow imprint of Rosebud Releasing!

Temple of Schlock said...

Very interesting, Marc! We knew the part about Rosebud Releasing but were unaware of the connection to the ad agency. Thanks (as always) for your comments.