When screenwriter-producer Chris Morgan met with Arnold Schwarzenegger this fall to pitch him a proposed sequel to “Conan the Barbarian,” the Governator required convincing on one matter above all others – and it had nothing to do with wearing a furry codpiece.
At a time when Schwarzenegger, 65, is attempting to reclaim his throne in Hollywood after years stalking Sacramento’s corridors of power, why should he return to Conan? Why should he follow in his own footsteps to the pre-“Terminator” role that shot him to stardom?
“To put yourself out there in your 60s? As Conan the Barbarian? I could see why he’d hesitate,” Morgan said. “You’re really putting yourself out there.”
In the end, though, Morgan – whose screenwriting credits include the last four “Fast & the Furious” sequels and the hit 2008 Angelina Jolie thriller “Wanted” – convinced Schwarzenegger to sign on to the upcoming “The Legend of Conan” by framing the project as the pop cultural equivalent to catching up with an old friend: “Not a reboot, not a remake. Just an update. Where has the character been all this time? A catch-up with Conan.”
The project is the latest splashy star vehicle for Schwarzenegger, who inhabits a small part in the two “Expendables” films, and will next be seen as a sheriff battling a drug cartel in “The Last Stand,” set for release early next year, and the upcoming “Ten,” a David Ayer-directed thriller in which he portrays a Drug Enforcement Administration agent.
Any devotee of author Robert E. Howard’s fantasy pulp serial, published in “Weird Tales” magazine in the early 1930s, can tell you that Conan was never just a barbarian. As the tagline for director John Milius’ 1982 film explains, Conan is many things to many people — “Thief. Warrior. Gladiator. King.” – among them. In Morgan’s reimagining, “The Legend of Conan” picks up the story deep into Conan’s magisterial rule over his kingdom, toward the end of a wildly multifaceted existence.
“He’s not going out and fighting battles, but he ends up getting drawn into something,” Morgan explained. “And he has to access the barbarian he was in his youth. I love that Conan has been many things in his life, notably a pirate, a major tactician and a commander of men. In this movie, we’re going to tap into some of those things – things you haven’t seen on screen yet.”
And that necessarily involves acknowledging that the movie’s star is no longer the oiled-up Mr. Olympia he was in his physical prime. Rather than try to CGI-in muscle bulging pectorals that no longer exist, Schwarzenegger — his bulk diminished by age — will be dutifully portrayed as the lion in winter that he is.
“I want the warrior whose joints have started to fuse together, who has to crack the cartilage so he can pick up a sword again,” Morgan said. “I want the guy who’s not necessarily lost a step, but there’s some rust he has to shake off. I want to embrace that. It makes it a greater hero story.
“Conan needs to be faced with challenges,” he continued. “The greatest challenge to him isn’t the armies that are set before him. It’s, on some level, self-doubt, a little bit of slowing down and forcing yourself to be heroic beyond what people expect of you. What I don’t want is for him to step back in and look the same. That would defeat the purpose of our story.”
Of course, Conan was brought back to the screen in 2011 with former “Baywatch” and “Game of Thrones” star Jason Momoa swinging the broadsword, but the $90-million, R-rated film flopped, taking in just $48 million at the box office.
Morgan describes himself as a “huge fan” of the Barbarian and says the first film influenced much of his screenwriting. But despite the producer’s evident zeal for his dream project, Morgan may not be the one to draft the “Legend of Conan” script in the end. Although Universal Pictures wants the movie ready for a summer 2014 release, the writer is obligated to first deliver a seventh “Fast & Furious” installment first.
“No matter what, I’ll be there every step of the way,” Morgan said. “Whether it’s penning this quickly or selecting the writer, it’s me guiding the process or being a real honest-to-god producer. I’m excited either way. I’m really, really stoked.”
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