With the release of Lionsgate Film’s Conan the Barbarian, the world’s most famous barbarian returns to the big screen, continuing a pop culture legacy that has spanned nearly eight decades and inspired generations of artists from the worlds of fiction, comic books, video games, animation, and film and television.
First introduced in 1932 in a series of short stories by pulp fiction writer Robert E. Howard, Conan the Barbarian helped establish the burgeoning genre known as sword and sorcery, pre-dating the work of fantasy master J.R.R. Tolkien by twenty years. Since then, he has become a bona fide cultural icon, capturing the public imagination as an idealized vision of unbridled masculinity, a tough, imperturbable hero with no allegiances and the ability to overcome impossible odds with brute strength and a seasoned warrior’s skill.
Conan the Barbarian was filmed over 12 weeks on locations throughout Bulgaria, and at Nu Boyana Studios’ diverse sets and stages. Production Designer August, and a crew that sometimes numbered 400, created about 60 different sets.
Filming in the elements, whether it was the snow-covered forests at Zlatnite Mostove or the rainy, village battlefields at Bistrica, required a cinematographer who could make the most out of existing light situations. “Much of our lighting approach was based on weather conditions, on locations, on colors that were available,” says director of photography Thomas Kloss, who works regularly with Nispel.
Peopling the world of Conan the Barbarian with visually memorable characters was one of Nispel’s priorities during production, so he relied heavily on the talents of his design team, comprised of costume designer Wendy Partridge, hair stylist Aldo Signoretti, and makeup effects experts Scott Wheeler and Shaun Smith.
“Marcus was very open to our input in creating the characters, not just their look,” says Wheeler. Stephen Lang was cast only one week before shooting so his look was designed through emails between the actor, director and Wheeler. “He came from the plane to the studio, sat in the chair, we did a life cast on his nose and then two days later we did a makeup test.” Khalar’s distinctive vertical scar on his nose eventually became a story element and is established as a fresh face wound in a flashback.
McGowan credits costume designer Wendy Partridge for creating Marique’s goth-punk look. “The costumes were feats of engineering, and it took two people to get me in and out of almost every one of them,” says McGowan. “All of them except for one I could not sit in, so at lunch I would just kind of stand in my trailer because I didn’t want to hurt them. They were all leather and had so many different pieces.”
Wanting to create a specialized brand of action for Conan the Barbarian, Lerner and Weldon brought in Second Unit director and stunt coordinator David Leitch, stunt coordinator Noon Orsatti, and select members of the action design company, 87eleven, to choreograph and facilitate the fight scenes. Says Leitch, “We tried to update the sword fighting from the original film and make it more multiple-attacker, a little more active, more modern, and step up the energy. The old Conan was one block, one hit. This Conan takes on a lot more all at once.”
Keeping a tight schedule at the studio in Bulgaria, the stunt team often had to teach actors the action sequences on the same day they were shot. “We landed on a gold mine with Jason Momoa,” reports Noon. “He has all the talent in the world and he looks spectacular with a sword. We were also excited to have a lot of really good action actors come on board, like MMA stars Bob Sapp and Nathan Jones, to play the parts of Khalar Zym’s henchman. It allowed us to pull off some big physical action scenes.”
The stunt team also had the constant encouragement of Nispel, who continually sought ways to create innovative action scenes. “Marcus has a need to do this movie in a way that will blow his own mind and so hopefully blow the minds of the viewers,” says Momoa.
“He also has the desire to truly collaborate,” adds Perlman. “To him, it doesn’t matter who has the good idea, whether it’s the actor or him or somebody else. He’s really willing to shift on a dime and incorporate something he hasn’t thought of.”
Though it has been more than twenty-five years since Conan’s last appearance on screen, Nispel believes this is a particularly opportune time to be revisiting the iconic hero. “We live in a very artificial world,” says the director. “We spend most of our day in front of computers, borrowing knowledge, borrowing real experiences. Conan gets you into a world where you still get dirt under your fingernails and where you don’t have to ask everybody for permission. You can go about things in a more primal way.”
“People are drawn to the kind of passion that Conan has, about making things right in the world and fighting for what you believe in,” Lerner says. “CONAN THE BARBARIAN gives people the opportunity to live out those impulses in a fantastical, mythical place.”
Related Link: View the Full Production Notes for Conan the Barbarian