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The film poster is an integral part of any film. From the moment it is glued to the billboard, the cinema foyer or the side of a bus, we’re invested in a movie’s atmosphere and know its stars. In fact, some of the time the posters are better and more memorable than the big-screen efforts themselves (we’ll mention no names but you’ll notice that this feature does include the poster for Labyrinth).

MONOCLE invited two connoisseurs of the form to discuss the art and appreciation of handsome marketing materials. Director Nicolas Winding Refn is a master of suspense and creating strange cinematic worlds that are very much part of the real one. In Drive, Bronson and Only God Forgives, he has given his poster artists plenty of retina-burning food for thought. Steven Chorney has mastered the art, having illustrated for the blockbusters of the 1980s and 1990s and, most recently, the weird and wonderful Inherent Vice. They spoke on the telephone, Refn from Copehnhagen and Chorney from Los Angeles.

Refn has just released The Act of Seeing, a book of his “accidental” collection of movie posters. The collections mostly covers sex films, horror, shlock and pulp.

Nicolas Winding Refn: I am in no way a walking encyclopaedia of film but I’ve always liked elements of things or artefacts that are on the verge of disappearing from history. I like that I have the “collector” gene in my body and a lot of stuff has been music or movie-oriented. The book started five years ago with a New Yorker named Andy Milligan, a fairly extreme filmmaker who pulled in horror, sex and melodrama. He was interested to see if I wanted to buy his poster collection and I said, “Sure, why not?” And without knowing quite what I’ve said yes to, a couple of months later 1,000 posters arrived and my wife said, “What’s in the boxes?”

Steven Chorney: And you said, “Nothing!”

NWR: Yeah, “Nothing!” So I opened the boxes and it was like a time machine into an era that’s long gone. Most of the people from that period are now dead so there’s very little documentation or anything visual. And so I decided to make a poster book but I had one rule: that it had to be the most expensive poster book ever produced and consist of posters for films no one has ever seen.

SC: They are very, very specific demands; I like that. These movie posters are so different to how we make them now; they really tell you what’s in the movie and what to think, don’t they? I don’t know what genre you’d call some of these – sex films, exploitation; they look wicked! They’re all about smouldering passion, agony and ecstasy. They kind of remind me of Reefer Madness: girls wearing shocked expressions and not much else. For these movies the only way to get people into the theatre was to work up their adrenaline over something. Sure, movie posters have changed but so have the movies.

NWR: This stuff was considered completely without value. It was pulp. Now it’s of great value. What once was considered trash becomes very precious because of time. But the designs were incredible. In a way, all they had was the poster and the film had to live up to it.

SC: Oh boy, I definitely have respect for that – if you’re saying the poster was the best thing about the film.

NWR: Well these guys had five bucks and a lot of creativity. Again, I don’t really want to go and see all these movies. I mean, God, some of these titles... Some of them you couldn’t even reproduce: Torture Me, Kiss Me? Death of a Nymphette? This was certainly an era where there was a lot more openness or flexibility and there was much more of an underground sensibility. I was looking at The Nest of the Cuckoo Bird, which if you look at it by itself could be a pop-art painting but it happens to be a poster for a film that doesn’t exist anymore. But generally, movie posters nowadays do nothing more than just remind people of a name, don’t they?

SC: Well in some ways that’s an oversimplification. Sure, we kind of look at the computer as a bogeyman – invading everything and taking the artistry away – but if you’re at the controls you still have to be a creative person. Having been in the business for some time I think it goes deeper than that. Now, there’s not just one poster for a movie. Now, you have an advance poster as a teaser and then you have these character posters; half a dozen or more for each character. This is what happened for Inherent Vice. Then you have a pay-off poster. So there’s no one artist doing one poster anymore; it’s a whole group of people and they’re supplying all these different ideas. In the end the top brass at the theatre and the motion picture company has to say yes or no, or they do it by committee. So some creativity has been taken out of it but I don’t think it’s just at the artist’s end.

NWR: It’s a good point. It’s not the artist that went away but it’s the whole attitude towards artistry that has really changed. Today there are easily as many, if not more, wonderful graphic designers that have a great eye and careers but our whole attitude towards a lot of visual campaigning is getting more and more sterile, you know? I think it’s wonderful that there’s a reaction against this; small film companies suddenly pop up and say, “Goddammit, we know there’s a strong fan base for creativity and we know how to make a visual interpretation of someone’s favourite movie, old or new.” It really shows that there’s a whole underground movement coming into the foreground. In a way it’s like the renaissance of vinyl.

SC: Yes, I have great hopes for the industry because we love it. I do notice a lot of interest in the illustrated movie poster as opposed to what you see now, which straddles the line between photo and computer-generated art. A few years ago one of the galleries that I sell some of my commercial work through booked an auditorium at Comic-Con in San Diego and put some of us illustrators on a panel to discuss our work. We were worried that nobody would turn up but it was standing-room only; they had to turn people away. That was an indication, along with people’s comments and questions, that they all wished they could see illustrated posters again and wanted to know how we go about our work.

NWR: We should talk about some favourites before we go. The first movie poster I remember was from a holiday in France when I was about eight; all I can remember is that it had a zombie-cannibal element to it. The next thing I know it’s the 1980s and I’m walking around Manhattan and I see your Labyrinth poster and David Bowie’s face everywhere.

SC: When I moved out to California I badly wanted to illustrate album covers; I hadn’t thought of movies. My first poster was for Animalympics and I’m kind of embarrassed about it now. But you know, it’s worked out; I’ve come a ways since then.

‘The Act of Seeing: Vintage American Movie Posters Through The Eyes of a Fearless Dreamer’ is published by Fab Press

Nicolas Winding Refn

Hailing from Danish film-making stock (his father is a director, his mother a cinematographer), Refn made his name with crime trilogy Pusher, in which actor Mads Mikkelsen also rose to prominence. After breaking British talent Tom Hardy in Bronson, Refn has worked in Hollywood, directing the Palme d’Or-winning Drive and Only God Forgives, a stylised crime thriller set in Bangkok.

Steven Chorney

Chorney moved to the west coast of the US in the early 1970s to follow his dream of becoming an album-cover artist but ended up working for a small agency that art-directed TV commercials. He eventually became an award-winning illustrator who is known for injecting humour and drama into posters for blockbusters such as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Licence to Kill and Labyrinth.

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