It is fitting that I am sitting watching Masters of the Universe as I write this. Today’s generation, while they may yet receive a new Masters movie, they will never have any idea what it was like to grow with He-Man & Co and then one fine day you hear wondrous news: it’s going to be a movie.
There was no internet then, which for this guy in the audience, was a great thing. The only information you received before you saw the film was these things called poster books; these, and at times articles in the trades and finally perhaps a short ‘making of’ on TV.
I remember going with my cousins to see the film for the first time. Bill Conti’s score was perfect, the Vader-esque reveal of Skeletor (who was utterly incredible), the scale of the sets. It was all quite magical, and why not, it was Masters of the Universe – the live action movie.
Now I was perplexed when they left Eternia and came to Earth, and I often lament the fact when He-Man held his sword aloft for the final battle he didn’t utter the immortal line: By the power of Greyskull! Then of course Skeletor did promise he’d be back.Yet these are things that are minor in comparison to the sheer joy and nostalgic glee I exude as I watch MOTU now. I was a staple of my childhood, as it is for many, and this was our film version. It happens often nowadays. Something becomes huge, leaves a high water mark on the measuring stick of popular culture and bingo – there is pretty much a guarantee that there will be a movie. This was not always the case when I was young.
I recently had the good fortune to interview the maestro responsible for helming the movie that brought the beloved cartoon and toy line of my young life, to life.
We’ve heard all the stories surrounding the production of MOTU so I wasn’t going to ask him to rehash those. What we did discuss was some of the elements surrounding the film.
KH: The marketing of the film was not overwhelming as it is in these times, what was it like promoting the movie back then?
GG: Well the main issue was that Cannon Films was going bankrupt at the time, so they really didn’t have the kind of promotional funding one would expect for what was supposed to be their big summer film. In addition, because the studio had been unlucky for the year or two (or perhaps even longer) with the film slates they had been putting out, their credibility with exhibitors was not strong. This meant they could not get theatres to keep a movie playing in the 2nd or 3rdweek or beyond because they didn’t have any up and coming hits to bargain with. So “Masters” really made almost every dime in the first and second weeks of distribution. I know for a fact that by the second weekend, in my hometown of Santa Barbara, that by the second week it was only playing matinees. The movie was perceived as a “kids film” so a lot of theatres only played in the afternoons. The reason I know this is that I went to Santa Barbara that second week and planned to take my family and friends to see it, only to find out it was not playing in the evenings. Very disappointing. Another example was that Cannon had no money for a premiere – and the only reason we had one was because Mattel stepped up to pay the costs for the opening night premiere. Funny enough, I couldn’t attend because I was in Toronto overseeing the television series CAPTAIN POWER that I had created in partnership with Mattel. But the fact that Cannon could not “open” the film, with the proper ads, billboards, television commercials and so on is testament to the fact that they were just out of gas by the time we opened. In truth they were also low on funds to finish the film as I’m sure you already know from the documentary.
KH: Were you keenly aware of the MOTU phenomena before accepting to helm the film, were you a fan of the material?
GG: I was not a “fan” in the way that I was (and remain) for books like Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, The Dark is Rising series, The Book of Three, Doc Savage, John Carter of Mars, CONAN, and so on; or of The Fantastic Four, X-Men, Dr. Strange, Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD, The Avengers, Captain America and the Marvel Universe, or with films like Star Wars, Raiders, ALIEN and ALIENS — -the list is endless. I was definitely a fan of the genre(s) in all their many forms. I knew of He-Man – because how could you NOT at that time? I had seen some of the animated shows, I knew the toy line as I was consulting with Mattel at the time on a number of their toy lines, and with She-Ra – being part of the concept development (for instance, I created the concept for The Crystal Castle for another line, which they appropriated for She-Ra.) But I came at the movie not through Mattel, but through Ed Pressman who was looking for a director – he had already commissioned a script, and he had signed Dolph Lundgren following his star-making turn in ROCKY II – but he needed a director. Pressman saw the live stage spectacular that I wrote, designed, directed and produced (“The Adventures of Conan: A Sword & Sorcery Spectacular”) for Universal Studios in Hollywood and felt that I was a director, and one that I understood the genre. The fact that I was a fan of the genre but NOT a super fan of He-Man worked well I think – it allowed me to shape the world for this particular movie in a way that had consistent rules, and that certainly were in sync with the world of MOTU – but I was able to come at it with fresh eyes too.
KH: They are often stories of directors retaining props from the movie, I don’t suppose you came away with something cool like the sword of Greyskull or Skeletor’s staff?
GG: Of course! How could I NOT have a few reminders of my days on Eternia? I have SKELTOR’S SWORD and it is pretty cool. I have HE-MAN’S SWORD as well, but I loaned it to a friend. (This reminds me I need to get it back.) I also have the breastplate that BLADE wore, and a few other items.
KH: My wife is also a long-time fan, she wanted to ask if you still hand any of the MOTU toys and what kind of access were you given by Mattel in terms of research?
GG: I have a few of the toys from that time period, and yes I was given EVERYTHING on HE-MAN at the time. Originally they wanted to have tons of characters, and they showed me ALL of the, past, present and future. Animation, videos, toy catalogues, actual toys, books, comics – the works! They also had wanted us to literally bring the characters to life as they appeared as toys which would have been – no so great. What I really wanted to understand was the lore – the backstory and the legend along with the characters. I also knew we did not have a budget that was going to allow for tons of additional characters (as say in the Cantina scene in STAR WARS) and I was very much into trying to keep the story “real” within the context of the fantasy and it’s world. The story that David Odell devised, again because of budget limitations, was a “fish out of water” story with He-Man suddenly on present-day Earth. What I liked about that was that it gave me the freedom to select only the characters I thought we could focus on while not ignoring the other ones. By that I mean I am not saying there is no BATTLECAT or ORKO in this story – they just were not there to make the Cosmic Key jump to earth. They are still there on Eternia waiting for He-Man and the gang to return. We also did not have a need for Prince Adam in the Earth setting and to use it would have seemed forced – at least I thought so at the time. I convinced Mattel (who had approval over script, star, director, and costume design among other things) that we should follow the STAR WARS or WIZARD OF OZ model – a character that has to reach somewhere and accomplish something, picking up a series of friends and comrades along the way. In the end, it’s their combined talents and powers that allow for defeat of the antagonist, thereby restoring the universe. And in this case I went with ACTUALLY restoring the Universe!
KH: The movie has had great longevity, what do you attribute this to?
GG: Well I think it’s a combination of a few things. First, I worked very hard once production began to transform the script from a simplistic “teens meet alien warrior on earth and fun ensues’ to something with a bit more gravitas. Remember I grew up on fantasy and action adventures and Arthurian myths along with comics and movies – I wanted to try and lift the material up – I did not want to make a campy movie that didn’t take the characters seriously. I wanted to make it real, and I wanted the story to have some weight, and I wanted the performances to be outstanding. The Odell script had nothing on Eternia other than a final scene in a cave there where the Eternians find an American Flag – suggesting it was Human from Earth (and Americans at that) who somehow created Eternia. I proposed, even with the limited budget, that we bookend the movie on Eternia so that we had a context for He-Man and Skeletor and the Eternians. I also took a page from Lucas, from Jack Kirby and from most of the great heroic sagas – I started with the Villain having the upper-hand – -with He-Man on the defensive. I knew that Dolph was relatively new to acting, and so I decided to surround him a cast of strong actors that would help to bring out the best in him. I also wanted the movie to speak to the kids (and parents) that would see it – so we had the action, we had the fantasy, we had the cool stuff like the Air Centurions and the Laser Whip and Skeletor turning into a God. But the movie – in terms of it’s core message – was when Kevin is about to give up on trying to recreate the musical key that will get our heroes back home. And Gwildor steps in and says “Only one of you Kevin – only one of you in all the Universe..” +And that is great paring down of an incredible quote from Martha Graham about the uniqueness of every artist — ) I thought “well if one kid “gets it” that he or she is unique – the ONLY one of him or her in the Universe – “ that it might inspire them to follow their own star. As it turns out, many adults now quote that to me when they know I directed the film – though they don’t know I wrote that line. I also came up with “Good Journey” and the parting gesture – because as the Eternians meet and then head in different directions to take care of business – it sounded strange for them to say “good bye” (too earth-like), or “farewell” (too Shakespearean) and so I remembered the saying “life’s a journey, not a destination” – and said let’s try “Good Journey” and that worked. People also remember “I will have all or I will have NOTHING!” and “I am not in a giving mood this day” (which is from Richard the 2nd I believe). All of this is simply background for what I was trying to do. Key to everything was deciding to essentially build the picture around Skeletor – and getting Frank Langella to play him. Meg Foster followed. In these two I had the foundation for great villains that I thought would drive the dramatic through line. Gwildor was created as a kind of stand-n for Orko (though some reviewers thought it was an attempt to emulate R2/D2 which is really a stretch). I guess the short answer is that we really tried to work the script into something more than a quickie “let’s make a buck off He-Man”, we got some committed actors to take on the roles, led by Langella’s amazing performance as Skeletor, and we were all committed to the vision of trying to treat the material seriously even though it was based on a toy line. I think the sincerity of the cast shines through, and I think the story was timeless (even though most of it took place on present day earth) and I think it had enough “cool stuff” that was at least a bit original. Ultimately if something stands the best of time, it’s because it made an emotional connection with the audience – and I think in this case – it seems it really did.
KH: Hollywood technology is at a place now where so much that had to be reconfigured to do He-Man on a budget could be achieved with significantly less difficulty then when you made the picture. There have been reports of a new MOTU film in the works for a while. What do you think given the constraints you faced could be the outcome for a new production?
GG: Well I just read an interview with McG who has signed on to direct it. There have been multiple writers and directors announced over the last decade or so – but this time it seems real. And in the interview that McG gave, he was not only complimentary about my film, he went on to state that there were only THREE great screen villains: VADER, GRUBER, and SKELETOR – which was great to read. While a lot of people have acknowledged Frank’s incredible performance in MOTU, he’s always left off the “Top 20 Greatest Sci Fi/Fantasy Villains” and on other such lists. And I can tell you – his performance as Skeletor is one for the ages – far away and above many of the so-called ‘great screen villains” on some of these lists. Also, McG’s take seems strong to me. I had hoped there would be a sequel to my film, and if so, my desire was to take the story to Eternia and to develop Eternia as a world of its own but with the depth of Middle-Earth. The difference being that Eternia is not only sword & sorcery and magic and strange creatures – it’s also high tech with flying battle stations and advanced weapons. It sounds like McG intends to create that world, and with what is possible with digital creation now – there’s no limit obviously. And he can bring BATTLECAT to life in a way we could not have in 1987. So I am happy to know that McG has some appreciation for my film, and for Frank’s Skeletor (and I would presume Meg Foster’s intense Evil-Lyn) – and I think he’s got a firm take on what that film could be.
KH: Time has flown, do you have any endearing memories of the making of MOTU you can share and did you in the wake of the film stay in contact with any of your collaborators?
GG: Too many stories for this interview – and all of the quite good – but then memory is that way, we tend to remember the good things and block out the arguments and battles and all of that. As John DeCuir (production designer of films that include CLEOPATRA, KING AND I, SOUTH PACIFIC, GHOSTBUSTERS) advised me when I started on MOTU – “Remember Gary, the pain is temporary, film is forever.” I didn’t quite get it when he told me that, but by the time the production was over, I understood it very clearly. A number of stayed in contact for a long time – including Courtney, Frank, Chelsea, and our editor Anne Coates (who prior to MOTU edited a little film called LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and many, many other great films). Bill Stout – the production designer – was a friend before the film began and has been a steadfast friend since. We’ve worked on may projects together since then.
KH: You never know if a film is going to be a success, and Francis Coppola said time is the ultimate critic. Has time, in your opinion been kind to MOTU?
GG: BY THE POWER OF GRAYSKULL YES IT HAS!!! While we had some very good reviews, a lot of them just went for the jugular – the negative reviews always started with several paragraphs on the property and how it was a toy line, then an animated show – and always with a sense of looking down their nose on the entire enterprise. I’m not saying it was Academy Award material, but there is no question that many critics went to this with their knives out – finding very little to applaud. But – in the last few years – I see so many positive thoughts, reviews (from the DVD and Laser Disc releases) and I have had so many people react when they hear I directed it – with a big smile and “Oh my god – I LOVED that movie when I was a kid” – and you know, that’s a great feeling. The critics are long gone, never to have had they challenge or joy or creating something – they live only to feed of the work of others. But what I did remains, and it seems to have done what it was supposed to – it ENTERTAINED a generation, and in some cases, it delivered a positive message, and many years later, a lot of people cherish it. For me, that is simply fantastic. If you think of all the tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of movies, television shows and other popular entertainment that gets made – the fact this is one of those that has stuck around. And that seems to have a sizeable number of people who remember it fondly – well – that’s a testament to film that we made, and to the cast and crew and incredible team that worked to make it happen. I’m quite proud of it – on so many levels. And someone just sent me a new review from inverse.com where the guy actually says that MOTU is – “in a way” with its way of juggling tongue in cheek drama tone with heavy drama – that it’s a rough prototype for the modern Marvel films. I love that comparison – and when you know I wanted to dedicate the film to Jack Kirby – you can certainly see that Marvel comics influenced a lot of where I took the movie story.
KH: Directorially, if given the opportunity, would you get back in the saddle and reboot MOTU, possibly reaching for that grander vision that during the time it was made was unattainable?
GG: I would LOVE to – but I think McG is going to do a great job. But if Marvel needs a director for the INHUMANS, I’m ready.
KH: In summation, what was/is MOTU to you?
GG: An amazing adventure. In fact, even as the characters in the movie were on a journey, our little company of actors and key craftsmen – we were on a journey together too. That was a magic summer, challenging as it was. And for me, as someone who grew up in a lower middle class family, who dreamed to one day make movies, to create stories and epic sagas, it was a dream come true. At times I was dead tired, and at times I was frustrated at fighting the time, the weather, the effects team, the countless kobayashi-marus’ one must solve to get a movie made, completed, and into the theatres – I loved every minute of it. I think back on it as my “Summer of ‘42” but my affair was with the movie itself – the making of the movie, and all of the love and pain that goes with it. I wouldn’t trade that for anything.
KH: Thank you wholeheartedly for this opportunity Mr. Goddard, as a kid form whom MOTU was a staple and to you for bringing to life on the big screen I am sure I speak for all fans when I say thank you.
GG: Only one of you Kent – only one of you in the entire Universe…
Thanks for letting me reminisce!
After the interview was over I watched MOTU again.
Don’t wait any longer, hold aloft your magic sword, and say it with me:
BY THE POWER OF GREYSKULL!
Now go and watch the movie. Relax, Relive, Reminisce, Rejoice. You have the power.