Marcus Nispel and Fredrick Malmberg on ‘Conan the Barbarian’
Boy howdy, is Marcus Nispel not what I imagined. The director of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake and Friday the 13th (also the remake) enters the room wearing a bandana on his head and loose-fitting, monk-like clothes and speaks with a pleasingly quiet tone of voice. More like a philosopher than the director of ultra-violent action films like Conan the Barbarian, opening this Friday. I sat down with Marcus Nispel and Conan's producer Fredrik Malmberg to talk about how they approached their adaptation, how they balanced R-rated madness with mainstream accessibility, how Arnold Schwarzenegger got involved in the final cut of the movie and why they chose Morgan Freeman to replace (the very different) Mako for the iconic opening narration.
CraveOnline: Before we begin I wanted to say that I thought your Friday the 13th was really underrated.
Marcus Nispel: Thank you!
CraveOnline: I don’t know why so many people didn’t care for that one but went for some of the other remakes, but I thought that one actually improved on the original.
Marcus Nispel: Thank you!
CraveOnline: Although the original wasn’t actually that good. I thought [the remake] was actually solid, nicely structured, got through everything that we needed to…
Marcus Nispel: I think I know how to pick ‘em, you know? And if you do something that is loved by so many, everybody has their idea of what it should be. It’s always very, very hard, but that’s sort of the job. It’s not for pussies. And to take that on and say, “How about making an amalgamation of…”
CraveOnline: Yeah, especially when you watch the original Friday the 13th franchise. It takes like six movies to get Jason to the point where everyone recognizes him as an undead zombie kind of thing. And you don’t go there, but you take us through the first four.
Marcus Nispel: Because you’d have to make another movie about his mother…!
CraveOnline: Yeah. No one wants that. You did a fantastic job of restructuring everything so that it became the Jason movie…
Marcus Nispel: I think the writers had a lot to do with it.
CraveOnline: Well, I hope so!
Marcus Nispel: The same is true here [on Conan] because of what the writers did. You see, when you make a movie about Conan you don’t make a movie about the books, or which book, or which story, about a movie that was done in the 80s or the comic book franchise. You have to be able to squint at it and draw an equation. It was very interesting… The writers went out and sort of strung up all these episodes. My access to Conan was always through [Frank] Frazetta. […] He went to all these places… The human sacrifice, Conan bludgeoning a mountain of Cro-Magnons, whoring it up at a bar! Really, even if you look at the Robert E. Howard books, that repeats itself. So you look at what became of Conan throughout the ages, how we as a people change, and how market’s changed, and then you squint at it and draw an equation, whether it’s Friday the 13th or it’s Conan. And it’s fascinating to me as I [take on] certain archetypes. There are much more valuable movies being made, I’m very aware of that.
CraveOnline: Artistically valuable, you mean?
Marcus Nispel: Oh yeah. There were no prequels or sequels to The Hurt Locker, and there is no series based on Casablanca. So what is it that appeals [about] a very primal character like a Leatherface, a Jason, a Tarzan or a Conan that makes [them] such Holy Cows? [And] rightfully so.
CraveOnline: For both of you, was that what excited you most about Conan, taking that character on in particular?
Fredrik Malmberg: Well, it was obvious we had to make a remake or reboot the franchise, because as owners of the character, owners of the rights, we had been doing videogames and comic books and kept the books going, but of course to get it to the masses of the new generation it was 30-35 years since the old movie really got to millions of people. So knowing that the themes were really classic… Conan as a character, an iconic character, has really classic themes, we felt that just we had to for a new generation. But that’s not an easy thing to do because it needs to be a big movie, it has to be R-rated which means the studios don’t want to spend too much money on it… It’s a big task to make a movie like this, and that’s why we approached Millennium, and Millennium helped us to realize the vision. And when Marcus came on board, it was pretty much already agreed that it will be. We were going, go-go-go…!
Marcus Nispel: I wasn’t aware of that.
Fredrik Malmberg: It was really fast process to production.
Marcus Nispel: You know what you have that’s constant in all of these incarnations of the story is a basic character, and I knew it would end in a bodybuilding or look-alike contest. And I tried to explain to everyone what I liked about the character, what I saw about him. The way it’s written, the way the character is conceived, not everybody can play him. He’s the kind of guy that can grab a woman’s ass and get away with it.
CraveOnline: He’s Italian?
Marcus Nispel: She would laugh, and he would get laid, right?
Fredrik Malmberg: He’s a Cimmerian!
Marcus Nispel: And if he doesn’t, 90% of what we’re trying to do with him won’t work! It’s the difference between a Sean Connery and a George Lazenby. You’re going to love him for being the bad guy, or bad boy, or being unapologetic in a very old-fashioned, primal way. And if he doesn’t have that, you don’t have that character.
CraveOnline: I noticed a very interesting balance being struck throughout the film, because on one hand you’re making an R-rated movie, coming out tits a-blazing, blood and guts, and on the other hand it does seem like you’re trying to make it accessible to people who won’t necessarily like that. There’s this speech Conan’s friend says, talking about how he has “the heart of a lion” and that kind of stuff… Actually, no. Better example: The first time you see Conan as an adult he’s freeing slaves, not because there’s any fortune in it for him but because of the principle of the thing. Not every version of Conan would have done that.
Fredrik Malmberg: I think that actually that’s a good scene, because I don’t think that Conan, to be true to the character, he’s not a messiah [or] savior. He probably was going to rob the caravan, [but] “There’s no money here, that guy is not here,” but he probably thinks there’s money down there. He’s a thief. He’s with his pirate friends. But at the same time and then they’re saying, “Let’s leave.” Then of course he has that strong moral fiber, and he says, “You know what? No man should live in chains,” and just goes for it. And then also these guys are warrior buddies, and like to…
Marcus Nispel: It’s a very different interpretation, for example, from [John] Milius’s Conan. A lot of the Conan fans disagreed with the fact that he [was] described as a slave. He was never a slave. He would rather have cut off his own arm than be in shackles, and Fred always pointed that out to me, so this sequence is actually very different. It’s an odd shift of gears. Our Conan really [joins the story] about half an hour in. The first fifteen minutes are about him as a kid and his early years. Then Conan and mythology go through a shift of gears, hanging with thieves and pirates, but no real quest yet. And it’s not until he recognizes one of those characters that killed his father that he goes on a quest. That’s half an hour into the movie. That’s a really late start! You have that in the Tarzan movies: he has to grow up with the tree house and all that…
CraveOnline: Yeah. Any origin story. Spider-Man took forever to get going. My favorite scene in this movie, it’s a little scene, but there’s a lot of really dark subtext to it. It’s between Rose McGowan and Stephen Lang. She’s sort of approaching him about, “If we can’t resurrect Mom, I can be my Mom…” And it was very… Was that her idea, that subtext?
Fredrik Malmberg: The idea was always there in the script, but she really took it in a whole way.
Marcus Nispel: Can I give a great tidbit?
Fredrik Malmberg: Yes…!
Marcus Nispel: There’s a great tidbit. Maybe I shouldn’t say it.
CraveOnline: No, no, you should say it.
Marcus Nispel: I just love to say I’m right. That scene was out [of the movie] two months ago. Arnold [Schwarzenegger] watched the movie. I had protested like crazy. Arnold watched the movie, liked the movie a great deal, loved what Jason did. He only had one question: what informs the bad guys? And actually the first thing I said when they asked me what would I do with the script, I said you need a bad guy. And that scene went in and then later went out.
Fredrick Malmberg: But I have to point out that it was actually Sean Hood, one of the writers who came up with, and it was brilliant, was to change what was essentially a male character at one point, Farik, and he came up with, “You know what? Instead of having this lame boy prince, or whatever, it would be much more interesting to create that dynamic between a daughter.”
Marcus Nispel: I wanted Stephen Lang [to be] sort of a Bruce Willis, blue collar warlord kind of a guy. And I said, “How would a guy like that feel if he fathered a child with a witch who wound up like Marilyn Manson?” (Laughs) – You know, one of those goth kids who’s hanging out at Universal Studios…
Fredrick Malmberg: After that scene, actually, I remember when you went “Cut,” and Stephen came out, we were there, and I said, “It got a little steamy there, didn’t it?” And he said, “Yeah, she was sucking knuckle there.” (Laughs)
Marcus Nispel: (Laughs) – It was the closest thing to a Marilyn Manson amongst females.
CraveOnline: You’ve got a good point. Last question. Biggest surprise of the movie for me… It opens, obviously you couldn’t get Mako, which is tragic, but you replaced him with Morgan Freeman. What…?
Fredrick Malmberg: Very different opening!
Marcus Nispel: We couldn’t get who?
Marcus Nispel: Oh yes, of course!
CraveOnline: What went into that decision? Because Morgan Freeman has a very different opening style than Mako did. Mako was very “live theater,” Morgan Freeman’s a bit more serious.
Marcus Nispel: I said, “Get me the voice of God. Get me the voice of Crom.” In many ways the Mako character was very important for me, and it was actually one of the things I asked to be in the movie, was… Conan had friends. In the mythology, thieves [and] pirates were his friends. And Mako says a very great thing, and I’m going to quote this wrong most likely, but I felt was so important to have. Because Conan is a constant. He’s not going to pour out his little heart, or tell the leading lady about his tragic childhood. And Mako says, “He is not allowed to cry, so we cry for him.” He needs those characters to articulate for him because he’s not the sharing type.