Bill Gold: The Man Behind the Movie Posters

If iconic film art is your thing, then look no further than Posterworks.
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If iconic film art is your thing, then look no further than Posterworks.

In 1942 , a young man at Warner Brothers art department created a poster for Casablanca. Over the next sixty years, posters for A Streetcar Named Desire, Dial MFor Murder, Bonnie And Clyde, Bullitt, My Fair Lady, A Clockwork Orange, Get Carter,Dirty Harry, The Untouchables, Unforgiven became coveted items, cherished by movie-goers all over the world. Bill Gold’s life’s work spans six decades and over two thousand films. He is the man behind campaigns for the greatest movies the world has ever seen. A new book, Bill Gold: PosterWorks, celebrates his career. Here, the man himself talks about a selection of his favourite posters.

Bullitt

While working on this, I saw the whole book of stills, saw the movie and came up with this poster—with the strips or bands coming across from the right referring to the title sequence, and Steve McQueen as the police lieutenant in San Francisco leaning against them. The knack was to try and pickthe image that people would remember, like this one of Steve McQueen leaning. It wasn’t shot specially. It was part of the stills pack. I just got lucky, I guess.

My Fair Lady

I had seen the stage musical on Broadway a couple of times, with Rex Harrison as Prof. Higgins and Julie Andrews as Eliza Doolittle, and I knew it by heart. This campaign is very close to my heart as well, a favourite of mine. The movie had Audrey Hepburn instead of Julie Andrews, Cecil Beaton’s costumes and sets which were important, George Cukor directing and it was a very expensive production. Warner Bros. had invested about $17 million in it. We had to put all that over in our design. Here we have illustrator Bob Peak’s work-in-progress charcoal drawings, squiggles to get his juices flowing. Eventually he would hit on something I liked and he liked, and he would develop it—and that’s where we would end up. The faces of the principal characters, the hats, scenes from the movie in the background. Eventually, I was happy with the way both principals looked, and now we had to add some extra elements to embellish it. I said, ‘Yeah, I like it—but I’d like to see the top of the umbrella.’ And ‘I’d like some extra detail.’ Which is what he did. So the final poster is a collage of charcoal drawings, with colour added on top. I designed the lettering, which has become so symbolic of the movie, inseparable from it almost. We sat and did twenty lettering styles until we found something we liked, something that stays with the movie, has the feeling of it. The photo taken at the première shows some people who were very important in the movie business, very important to Warner Bros.: including Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn, Jack L. Warner, Cecil Beaton, Stanley Holloway, George Cukor. What a line-up! And our poster behind them.

Bonnie and Clyde

We got together with Warren Beatty and I believe we had Faye Dunaway at the meeting as well, and Warren was in charge: it was his movie. He wasn’t sure what he wanted, how to market Bonne and Clyde. It was a sensational, dramatic action-thriller but he also wanted it to look authentic and real and exact—so, looking at the poster, you couldn’t make the mistake of thinking it was just a story. It was about the Depression years, 1930s America. Hence the sepia and the period lettering and those kinds of aesthetic choices. We worked from a specially shot photograph. Beatty was delighted with the final campaign. The famous copy—‘They’re young…they’re in love…and they kill people’—was by Dick Lederer.

Barbarella

The ‘Style B’ one-sheet poster was the only one I had something to do with, if I recall. They didn’t use it on the main campaign, but today the ‘Style B’ is the one that seems to attract the most attention. The other one had an illustration by McGinnis. I was called by Paramount, saw the movie and went through the stills pack. It was sort of a sexy science-fiction movie, very late 1960s. A mixture of sex and space age. The still of Jane Fonda with her strange rifle was in fact a publicity shot from the stills pack. It was not specifically shot by us.

“Sixty years of Hollywood memories are richer because of Bill Gold,” Clint Eastwood.

The Exorcist

I picked the still out of the stills pack—of the priest Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) arriving at the house in Georgetown for the exorcism with a briefcase in his hand—because it struck a chord with me. When you looked at this still, you knew somehow that whatever is about to happen inside that house is not going to be good! I adapted it with Dick Knipe for the final poster, taking a lot of the detail out of it and turning it into a design, and after that no-one wanted to see anything else. I’d been specifically told by William Friedkin and Warner Bros. that we mustn’t use an image of the girl possessed, or show anything that had any hint of religious connotation to it. They were concerned about that. Friedkin was very involved, he was there all the time. For the other ideas, we shot some specially posed photographs which are not from the movie: the open door and something going on inside—you just see the hand; the girl on the bed; the girl smiling. But Friedkin and Warners rejected all of them, told me to chuck them out. They certainly picked the right image, which was used all over the world. And the movie became the biggest hit in Warners’ history.

Hair

This had been a very successful stage musical: the love generation, the dawning of the age of Aquarius, all of that. So it was an exciting project at the time. None of our work was used, except the poster with the crowd of dancing young people which became part of the international campaign. We played with various lettering styles—some on hippy jewellery, some more modern like a name in lights; taking Bob Peak’s art and creating comps out of it. He brought round to show us the picture of the sun coming through the hair, and when you look carefully it’s a clinch as well. A brilliant concept, dreamed up by Peak, which explains the title, but which unfortunately isn’t practical for any piece of advertising. I didn’t meet the director Miloš Forman —we only came in after they’d finished. I called Bob Peak and we saw the movie together.

Catch-22

This was directed by Mike Nichols, for Paramount. We used military-style lettering and tried to capture the irreverence of the novel: putting war in its place, down the pan, the flying figure unloading his bomb—the title down the bottom gives something for the bomb to land on. ‘The nice thing about war is that the person who kills you really has nothing against you personally.’  I like the clarity of these posters. They’re clever. But none of them was in the end used. They thought they were too clever…

The Enforcer

This is pure Bill Gold—the design, the photos, the layout, the lettering are all mine on this movie. I suggested to Clint that I wanted to come up to San Francisco, bringing some sketches with me to show what I would like to photograph. He said ‘Great.’ The first sketch showed Harry Callahan pointing his .44 Magnum out of the windshield of a car, which has been shot out. The gun is coming out of the passenger side, so you can clearly see Clint’s face. I’d had the drawing done by Dave Passalaqua, an illustrator from one of the schools in Manhattan. Clint said, ‘That’s good, let’s shoot it.’ We cut the window from out of a car and put him in it, with his hand coming through the broken windshield and spray on his face to make him look sweaty. Then I wanted a big image of Clint on one side with him holding his police badge right in front of the camera. The badge shows the words ‘SF Police’ and ‘Inspector’ so you know immediately who the character is. I took this photo against a blank background, and added his wallet as well. For the third one we wanted the Golden Gate Bridge in the background, but it was always fogged in. So we went back to the set and had him hold onto a piece of black plywood with one hand and his gun in the other—then later shot the bridge without any fog and put the images together in the darkroom. And for the fourth, I wanted Clint walking in Chinatown at night in that famous way of his—with the neon lights shining on both sides of his face, and both sides of the street showing as well. But when I took the shot, I was looking up at him whereas the street-scene seemed to be looking down at him. The perspective wouldn’t work. So I ended the background at three-quarter length and let his legs and feet come down below the line—that way I didn’t have to show any perspective. It’s a design trick which I did in the darkroom. Clint loved everything and said, ‘Go with all of it,’ so we had four different campaigns for The Enforcer. He could make that happen. The studio shots were all done in one day, on an elevated set in a hotel room in San Francisco.

Bill Gold: PosterWorks is available from 11 November. To order and for more information visit www.reelartpress.com

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