it’s a desperate fight between musclebound good and toy-spawned evil as Hollywood stands shoulder-to-shoulder with He-Man and the’ Masters of the universe”against the dreaded forces of the sinister Skeleton.
The demons of Eternia stare down from the walls of Skeletons throne room. They’re checking out a gnome named Gwildor who is in need of some heavy rest. Gwildor is tired, but he’s not half as beat up as the actor behind the makeup, 73-yearold Billy Barty. More than an hour of running down stairs and jumping over ramps has the actor low on energy. But director Gary Goddard isn’t about to give Barty or the other principals in this scene from Masters of the Universe much of a break. “OK, now remember, Dolph, you’re covering the others as they come down the stairs,” instructs Goddard in conference with Dolph “He-Man” Lundgren, Jon “Man-at-Arms” Cypher and Chelsea “Teela” Field. “Then, you move to the front and take the lead.” Actress Christina (St. Elsewhere) Pickles plays the Sorceress, and in this scene, she is imprisoned in a force field and observing the conference from another level of the set. Her pure white costume and headpiece form a stark contrast to the set’s muted, non-specific architecture. Conference completed, Goddard calls for another take on the hangar-sized Los Angeles soundstage. The scene, in which He-Man and friends storm Castle Greyskull, is run through a few more times. Lundgren, waving his sword as he scans the horizon for trouble, is a casting coup. From flowing blond locks to dancing deltoids, he is the spitting image of the Mattel toy. Goddard calls another break. Barty collapses against a weird piece of sculpture and sucks up juice through a straw. Lundgren walks off the set and is greeted by two on-call trainers. He playfully transforms his oversized sword into a machine gun and sprays those nearby with an imaginary hail of lead before handing it over. The other trainer hands Lundgren some monster weights for a quick pump up of his trademark biceps. Fourteen weeks into production, this superman is still finding it can’t hurt to stay in shape.
Masters of the Universe, starring Dolph (Rocky IV) Lundgren, Frank (Dracula) Langella, Jon (Hill Street Blues) Cypher, Billy (Legend) Barty, Courteney (Misfits of Science) Cox and Meg (The Emerald Forest) Foster, takes place in the mythical world of Eternia. The Sorceress has been captured by Skeletor (Langella) and his assistant, Evil Lyn (Foster), and the only thing that can save the Sorceress is the power of the Cosmic Key. Unfortunately, the key has disappeared into a time warp. He-Man and company follow the key to present-day Earth where the adventure continues.
Production designer Bill Stout (STARLOG #118), with the aid of such talents as Moebius of Heavy Metal fame (STARLOG #112), designed the futuristic sets and the look of the film’s familiar and first-time characters. Michael Westmore (STARLOG #104) is handling makeup chores while Richard Edlund and his Boss Films colleagues are executing all visual FX.
Masters of the Universe is a movie that was ultimately going to be made. The only question: Why has it taken this long? Since the musclebound toys were introduced in 1982, an estimated 120 million have been sold worldwide, according to Mattel (which manufactures them). The toys, in turn, have spun off successful cartoon shows, magazines and many other products. So, the audience for a Masters movie was definitely there. But getting the movie done right was a whole different matter.
Budgetary considerations for this exercise in myth, magic and muscles were uppermost in everyone’s mind. So, the surprise of the year has to be that Masters* budgeted at $20 million, is being made under the lowbudgeted Cannon Films banner. Mattel Toys, the corporate parents of He-Man, was another potential obstacle to overcome. Granted, it’s their baby, but the last time Mattel took heavy interest in a film was the 1982 flop Megaforce. “On Masters, we insisted on Mattel’s blessing but as little input as possible,” says the film’s producer Edward R. Pressman. “We knew going in that for Masters to work as a movie, we could not be restricted by a corporate entity. Our goal was to make a movie and not to sell toys.”
Even with those conditions settled, Pressman concedes that Masters of the Universe hasn’t been the easiest project of his career. Sitting in his office on the Warner Bros, lot, he offers several reasons why. “There has always been a stigma attached to films that come out of products,” says the soft-spoken Pressman, whose credits include Conan the Barbarian. “There’s also the fact that big-budget sword and sorcery films, like Krull, are expensive to make and don’t have a history of doing well.”
Pressman, however, has a real affinity for the cinematic possibilities of the Masters clan and with good reason. Their creation was basically inspired by his Conan film. “Initially, Mattel had licensed the rights to make Conan toys,” Pressman recalls. “But when they saw the film, it was too rough and R-rated for them, so they sorcery concept and went ahead and created their own line of toys, the Masters characters.” Pressman made a second attempt to drum up interest in the Conan toy rights in 1982. During a meeting on that matter, it was suggested that Masters of the Universe might have some screen potential. Pressman agreed but had reservations about a bigbudget movie whose target audience stopped at age 10.
“I contacted David Odell [the film’s screenwriter, whose credits include Supergirl and The Dark Crystal] and he suggested a reverse kind of Wizard of Oz storyline that would take the Masters characters out of Eternia for a time and into our world. It seemed like a good idea, one that could be made on a reasonable budget and, most importantly, something that was interesting enough to attract a non-child audience. At that point, Gary Goddard was brought in on the project and we set about trying to get a studio interested.”
That was a task worthy of He-Man. “Almost every studio turned Masters down,” reflects Pressman. “If the idea of making a film out of a toy didn’t scare them, the projected cost did. Finally, Cannon agreed to make it, but there was still some wrangling before they agreed to the $20 million figure. Even now, there’s still a lot of tension about how much this film is costing.”
He Man’s Heroics
In Skeletor’s throne room, Goddard and his assistants are walking down the set’s central walkway, instructing more than two dozen beefy armor-clad extras not to move or blink in the coming scene. Goddard calls for a run-through of the scene in which Skeletor is met by Evil Lyn upon his return from his latest round of wrongdoing. The shot unfolds as the two nasties meet amid the phalanx of guards. “Have preparations been made?” growls Skeletor. “Everything is in order,” purrs Evil Lyn. When director Gary Goddard was a young boy, it was the movie Ben Hur that set him on the road to filmmaking. Goddard, between set-ups of this scene, notes that there are similarities between that classic film and Masters of the Universe.
“It has big sets and big locations like Ben Hury ” he offers, “and we’re using many extras as well. We are also adding things like blue screen, opticals, miniatures and all kinds of special FX. It’s all here.”
Including the expected headaches. Scuttlebutt has the film anywhere from 10 days to two weeks behind schedule at this point. Goddard claims that any setbacks, including the day the Cosmic Key prop snapped in half, haven’t been major in scope.
“George Lucas once said that nothing works on this kind of film,” chuckles Goddard, “and he was right! All these machines, the props … nothing works. A great amount of improvisation has been involved in making this film.”
Goddard’ s background is in staging and directing live theater. He also created the concepts for the Japanese Pavilion at EPCOT Center and conceived and staged the live “Conan the Barbarian” show at the Universal Studios Tour attraction. Goddard was about to make his film directorial/writing debut with the fantasy Children of Merlin in 1984 when he was contacted by Ed Pressman and agreed to direct Masters. “The last two years have been a lot of onagain, off-again, on-again,” says Goddard. “David and I worked on the script and then started to go into pre-production with another studio. By the time we actually got the go-ahead with Cannon, it was almost
“We’re trying to make something new,” he maintains. “There are new creatures and a different looking world. What always intrigued me was the essence of what made the Masters character so popular. The blend of sword and sorcery with science fiction has struck a nerve. So, we’ve tried to reflect those elements that have made Masters so successful in other forms. We had no intention of Masters being an exercise in camp. Everybody has to believe in what they’re doing here.”
Skeletor’s face makeup isn’t quite right even at this stage of the game. Which is why Michael Westmore hovers over Frank Langella like a determined dentist, attempting to do justice to Skeletor’s choppers. The difficulty is how to place the teeth so that the mouth works properly. One of Westmore ‘s two alternate ideas finally works, and the evil one is back in business.
“Skeletor has been the only major problem,” Westmore confides. “And that has only been from the nose down. But when you’re dealing with one of the film’s main characters, you almost have to accept that there’s going to be some fine tuning.”
Westmore, an Academy Award winner for his work in Mask, isn’t an advocate of strings and cables as adjuncts to makeup. He kept those items out of his Mask creations and is doing the same in Masters for Goddard.
“Gary told me that his concept was to hire actors to play the parts,” Westmore says. “He wanted me to keep the appliances as thin as possible, so when they talked, the emphasis was on their speaking and not on the manipulation of strings and wires.
“There was a real challenge for me on this film to create fantasy characters that would come across as real people. Putting a guy in a rubber suit and having four other guys move levers out of camera range is fine, but it’s not makeup.”
Working hand in hand with Goddard and production designer Stout, Westmore sculpted and modeled his way to finished makeup for Skeletor, Blade, Karg, Gwildor (whose ear wiggling is the only concession to mechanical movement), and a host of other “otherworldly” creatures who populate the Masters universe.
Westmore, who jumps from Masters of the Universe to promoting his newly created cosmetics line, claims he wasn’t limited in his approach by the characters being toys. He adds that a great deal of effort wasn’t expended on research.
“Hey, I’ve got a nine-year-old,” he laughs. “Not only is the cartoon show always running, but the first time I stepped on his He-Man doll in the middle of the night, I had all the research I needed.”
Meg Foster, who’s also accustomed to research, is a serious actress. Phrases like “inner journeys of self-discovery” pepper her conversation. Hearing that particular comment from Meg Foster dressed to the nines as Evil Lyn, however, appears just a shade curious.
“This film is not Shakespeare,” Foster announces, relaxing in a cramped dressing room. “At least not Shakespeare in the grand theatrical sense. But the challenge of making toys into living, breathing creatures is one that I’m taking very seriously.”
Foster, whose piercing eyes prove striking even through her Evil Lyn makeup, claims patience has a great deal to do with her work in this production.
“Because this is the first film I’ve done with so much special FX, I’ve had to alter my approach to acting to a degree,” she says. “But the changes I’ve had to go through have been worth the effort because Masters has been so much fun to do.”
The actress, whose previous film The Wind has yet to find U.S. distribution, claims working alongside Frank Langella has been an education. “You can’t work with somebody of that caliber and not pick up something,” she says.
Pointers aside, Foster has no idea what this role will do for her career.
“I don’t really know,” she muses. “I have always done things that I wanted to do, not because they would necessarily prove to be the right career move. If being in Masters helps my career, fine. If it doesn’t, then I have still had the opportunity to do a part that was fun.”
Billy Barty is no stranger to makeup. A good portion of his career has been played out behind a layer of latex or rubber. However, Barty, who has appeared in such films as Day of the Locust and Legend, readily admits that dealing with the Gwildor disguise hasn’t been easy.
“I didn’t realize that the makeup would be as full as it turned out to be,” says Barty, who after becoming Gwildor for a day’s shoot, is awaiting his call to the set.
“I have had to overproject my lines to get them out through the makeup,” he says, “and I’ve already been told that I’ll have to loop some dialogue after the fact. But it’s like everything else; you get used to it. In fact, I’ve gotten so used to being in this makeup that, after 14 weeks, people not in makeup are beginning to look strange.
“We need pictures like this one,” insists Barty. “We’re bombarded with so much reality in our everyday lives that it has destroyed our urge to dream. Fantasies like Masters of the Universe spark imaginations and encourage people to dream again.”
Barty puts down the juice container and struggles to his feet as Goddard calls for yet another round of storming Castle Greyskull. Lundgren trades his weights for his broadsword, is sprayed with some glistening stuff to imitate sweat, and wanders back on to the set to join Barty, Cypher and Field behind a futuristic pillar where the action will begin.
Goddard is about to put the group through their paces when he is suddenly interrupted by a sheepishly grinning Cypher who raises his hand with a request. Cypher, with a crew member to assist him, disappears off-stage as the Masters of the Universe cast and crew dissolve into laughter at this very real plight set in this very unreal fantasy world. Man-at-Arms has to go to the men’s room.