I sent a note to his agent, Eric Knight, explaining the project and what we'd be looking for. I tried to sell the movie a little, as I assumed they wouldn't have heard of it, and the title alone makes it sound a bit cheesier than it is. (I certainly had prejudged it a bit before I watched it—I was expecting something more along the lines of the Monsters and Madmen films, but actually Robinson is unironically good—beautifully shot, well acted, smart (if scientifically outdated) ideas underlying the whole thing—at least the first half, anyway.)
A few days later, I got a call from Eric, who told me this story: apparently, Robinson is one of Eric Knight's favorite movies from childhood, and as soon as he received my email he began thinking of ways to convince Bill to take the project. Once he'd worked up a whole spiel in his head, he called Bill to sell him on it—"Listen, Bill, you've been offered this project, and when I tell you the name you're going to think it sounds silly, but don't judge it until you've heard me out.... it's called Robinson Crusoe on Mars"—at which point Bill enthusiastically interrupted him, saying how much he has loved that movie since he was a kid! How's that for serendipity?
Once he was onboard, I sent him the following note outlining our thinking on the film:
Enclosed please find a DVD screener of the film, and a CD containing some reference photos. (The photos aren’t great—the film is obviously going to be your best reference.) I also threw in some Criterion DVDs just so you can get an idea of how all the parts will fit together—Eric mentioned you’re already familiar with our company, but I figure you might still enjoy the DVDs.
So here’s what we’re thinking about for Robinson Crusoe on Mars. We were thrilled to find out that you knew and loved this film, so if you have any additional ideas, we’re absolutely open to them, but hopefully the following will give you an idea of where we’re coming from in our interpretation of the film.
We’d like to focus on the first half of the film—the “struggling to survive alone in a harsh alien environment” part—rather than the later, “on the run from alien slavers” part. From our perspective, the alien slavers of the second half are both less visually interesting and less central to the film than the isolation of the first half, so we’d just as soon stay away from Friday and the alien ships on the cover.
We’d love to highlight the beautiful cinematography of the Martian landscape, and the “one man alone on a Great Adventure” isolation of Draper. And one of the strongest visuals, in my opinion, is Mona the monkey in her astronaut suit—it immediately gives you a sense of the period and some of the somewhat over-the-top flavor of the film.
(I keep visualizing a beautiful red-sky Maritan landscape (maybe in watercolors?), with Draper barely visible in the far distance, struggling to cross the expanse, and Mona the monkey in her astronaut suit in the foreground. But that’s just a rough idea, so don’t feel constrained by that.)
Another thing worth mentioning is that we’d like to make sure that some of the optimistic flavor of the sci-fi of this period comes through in the art. That is to say, this film is definitely born of a very positive vision of space travel, and of the future generally—none of the dystopian undertones of later sci-fi films have crept in yet. For all the danger in the film, it still has a pretty upbeat, “man conquers all” mindset—as the producer of this DVD, Curtis Tsui, put it, this is the era when “rocketships can still bring great adventures rather than toast your ass in space.”
So hopefully that helps give you a sense of where we’re coming from. Give me a call when you’ve had a chance to re-watch the film and we can discuss it further. It’s a thrill to have this opportunity to work with you, and I can’t wait to see what you come up with.
Bill took all that to heart, and sent us his first sketch:
Bill captured the mood we were looking for right off, but there were a couple technical problems, from our perspective. First, the big black mountain on the left is awesome, but given how much text and such we have to put on the back of our wraps, would likely be completely obscured, which would be a shame. Also, we felt like the composition worked better horizontal than just the cover by itself, which is really the primary thing people will see. I passed all this on to Bill and he sent back these sketches:
That first one is really close—awesome landscape, just the right sense of isolation. But we had the nagging worry that we weren't giving the viewer quite enough information: without seeing more of Draper and Mona, we don't get the details which give us the sense of period and context—meaning, mostly, the space suits. (Otherwise, the "Robinson Crusoe" in question could be a native Martian, or some 51st Century space cowboy or something, rather than a dawn-of-the-space-era-style astronaut.) But since we didn't want to lose the sense of isolation, the tiny man against the huge Martian landscape thing, I suggested separating Draper and foregrounding Mona. Also around this time Curtis found a particularly hilarious production still from the film, which I sent to Bill as a joke:
...and he responded in kind with this sketch, reproduced here for your entertainment:
Once that was out of everyone's systems, Bill sent us actual sketches, and we finally had an approved cover:
That second one was exactly what we were looking for. Draper's hunched over posture really gives the sense of struggle against overwhelming odds, and how can you not love Mona in the foreground? Since the jagged peak in the center was going to be pretty much obliterated by the branding and spine title treatment anyway, we figured we may as well lose it, and since Mona was already in her space suit, no need to keep Draper in his helmet. So we gave Bill the go-ahead to start painting the final illustration. Meanwhile, I decided to tweak the type a little bit, and eventually wound up here, which captured just a little bit more of the period look we were aiming for:
Then Bill's final illustration arrived, and can I just say, wow? He absolutely captures the period vibe we were looking for without looking at all dated, and it's absolutely gorgeous to boot. Everything we wanted and more:
And with the final type:
This job has given me plenty of opportunities to work with people whose work I've long admired, and almost without fail the experiences have been even better than I had hoped, and this was no exception—Bill was fantastic to work with, and I think the final package speaks for itself. Thanks again, Bill!