Belgian graphic artist Laurent Durieux has designed some of the most gorgeous movie posters of the past decade, working not for the studios but in custom-published runs just for collectors and fans.
You’ve probably seen his work: intricate, finely tooled reimaginings of classic films — “Jaws,” “King Kong” and “Casablanca,” to name a few — produced as limited-edition screenprints by companies such as Mondo, resold on eBay for thousands of dollars.
Durieux’s retrofuturist designs have appeared on everything from bottles of Francis Ford Coppola’s wine to the cover of The New Yorker.
This year, he was invited by the Annecy Animation Festival — the world’s top toon showcase, in the south of France, on the banks of Europe’s cleanest lake — to come up with the key art for their 2022 edition (seen below). In the spirit of the festival, the Annecy team brought Durieux’s design to life, so it could be projected before every screening.
Annecy offered the perfect opportunity to speak with Durieux, who was in town for a gallery show, about the stories behind some of his best work.
“I confess that I’m not a huge cinephile,” Durieux admits. “I’m not that guy who rushes out to see every movie. At the same time, I have a huge DVD collection with something like 1,000 Blu-rays at home. I guess you could say, cinema is not my top passion. My top passion is to make a beautiful image.”
Durieux is first and foremost an artist, and though he’s been approached to design original posters for golden-age greats, his visual references are decidedly old school: pulp fiction covers and vintage 1930s travel posters.
“My inspirations come from everywhere but the world of movies,” he says. “They come from 1950s advertising campaigns, especially the great American ones. They come from classic magazine covers, like Fortune magazine in the 1930s and ’40s. Among those artists, there’s one who influenced me most: Antonio Petruccelli.”
The Iron Giant
In 2012, Durieux was approached by Mondo — the Austin, Texas-based poster company, which works with studios to license cult classics for an all-new graphic treatment — about designing a movie poster, opening the door to a wider renown. The challenge: offer a fresh interpretation of Brad Bird’s 1999 animated feature. “Mondo had just released a beautiful poster by Kevin Tong, and I said, ‘It’s perfect. What can I possibly add?’” Durieux recalls. “I came to understand that it was kind of a test by Mondo to redo a poster that was already perfect to see what I could bring to it.”
Durieux looked to vintage travel posters for the solution, emphasizing the naturalistic dimension of a fantastical film, placing the boy and his robot in a sea of trees. The result was so well received that more commissions were soon to follow. “At my core, I’m most passionate about retrofuturism, but they came to me to work on movie posters,” Durieux says. “If it were up to me, I’d rather be making pictures of huge helicopters, huge airplanes and huge boats.” In a way, “The Iron Giant” offered the perfect marriage of those two sensibilities.
Durieux’s most sought-after poster is his take on Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws.” Again, the assignment called for Durieux to reinterpret a perfect poster. “The original ‘Jaws’ poster is iconic. That’s why I went in the opposite direction,” he says. “I didn’t draw the shark. I didn’t draw the bottom of the sea. I decided to make a poster that felt a bit lazy instead, except I wanted to play with the spectator.”
The idea started with the beach umbrella. “My idea was to tell a story. You know, it’s the Fourth of July weekend, the weather is beautiful, and the mayor wants everybody to go swimming because it’s good for business.” But something is not quite right with this idyllic image. As soon as you notice the black panel of the umbrella, the tone changes.
“I designed a lazy poster, but at the center of the image, all of the drama is there,” Durieux explains. “If you’re not paying attention, you don’t see it, and it remains a lazy poster. But if you’re being more alert, like when you go in the water and you see the shark, the adventure begins.”
Although Mondo works with many different artists to devise new posters for classic films, what sets Durieux’s style apart are the colors and the attention to detail. Inspired by the look of old etchings, Durieux uses digital tools to advance an approach that artists once did by hand. “I don’t think anyone else would do it this way because it takes so much time,” he says. Since the final posters are screen printed, that forces him to be selective about the colors he works with. “You can’t do a serigraph with 50 colors. I’m already pushing the maximum with 13 or 14 colors.”
Durieux’s Hitchcock series — which includes striking posters for “Psycho,” “Rear Window” and “Vertigo” with deep blacks and vivid, almost fluorescent highlights — is best exemplified by “The Birds.” His design (one of three that Mondo has produced) features Marion Crane on the dock, overshadowed by a giant crow. “I needed a muted sky so her green jacket would pop,” he says of the palette.
As for the design, “I couldn’t do the same kind of poster if people had not seen the film,” he explains. With tribute posters, however, “There’s no financial pressure. The film has long since made its money back, so you can amuse yourself. That’s what’s fun: the collusion with the fans. It’s like a game. You know they know.”
These days, the vast majority of studio-created movie posters feature floating heads of the films’ stars, since conventional wisdom states that the cast — even more than the concept — is what lures audiences to the theaters. By contrast, very few of Durieux’s posters feature traditional portraits of the actors involved.
“It’s not that I don’t want to draw people head-on. It’s just that I only want to do so when you can’t think of anything else,” he explains. “With ‘The Master,’ the movie is about a kind of guru, the guy who created this cult, and so I needed his gaze. When you get drawn into a cult, it’s by someone who looks you in the eyes, like the serpent Kaa in ‘The Jungle Book,’ so I needed direct contact with the eyes. It’s always the idea that comes first.”
One of the challenges artists face when making after-the-fact movie poster commissions, which fans might not realize, is that the projects often require special approvals by the talent involved. In many cases, the stars won’t let their likeness be used at all for derivative products. “The Master” was an exception, since the poster was created during the Oscar season when the film was nominated. Mondo commissioned posters for all the films in the race, so they were considered part of the advertising campaign. “So you didn’t need to ask for likeness rights on promotional material.”
When approached about making a movie poster, Durieux is always looking for a fresh angle on the film. For Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now,” he came up with several possible solutions. “I started by making the jungle with the boat,” remembers Durieux, who also designed a striking image where Martin Sheen’s head emerges from the water — reminiscent of the late Bob Peak’s earlier poster, featuring the bald head of Marlon Brando.
“I sent two ideas to Francis, and I said, ‘I think I’ll do this one [of the boat] because it’s more original.’ And Francis said, ‘That’s too bad, because the other is very interesting, too.’ And I understood that the really liked the other one.” So Durieux decided to do them both. Coppola so appreciated the artist’s work on the poster that he asked that Durieux’s design be used as the cover of the final, most definitive home video re-release of the film.
“Apocalypse Now” wasn’t Durieux’s first time working with Coppola. A year earlier, he’d designed a series of posters for the “Godfather” trilogy — a triptych of highly unconventional images designed to evoke the distinctive feel of each film. “My connecting thread between the three posters was either the color orange or oranges themselves. I had noticed that in those films, each time we see oranges — blood oranges, naturally, which come from Sicily — or the color orange, it’s just before a scene of murder or violence.”
Durieux’s approach was partly dictated by restrictions related to the likeness rights. Mondo told him he could feature Brando, which he did, but he decided to do it from behind, offering an original reverse angle on the scene where Don Corleone is shot in front of the fruit stand. “Because of the contracts, I couldn’t necessarily draw the other actors, which meant I couldn’t focus my trilogy on them,” he says. “That’s why, for ‘Part II,’ I drew the child.” For the third movie, he was allowed to feature Andy Garcia, though Durieux believes, “Constraints oblige you to be creative. If you don’t have constraints, it’s much more difficult to make something interesting.”
2015 Telluride Film Festival
One of the most beautiful of Durieux’s posters — and the one he considers his personal favorite of all his work — was created in 2015 for the Telluride Film Festival, which takes place each year high in the Colorado mountains, in an old mining town whose Western-style main strip looks like something you might find on a Hollywood backlot. Durieux drew an imaginary movie theater on that central drag, placing a black bear directly in front of the box office — a touch that rhymes with many of his retrofuturist-styled original works, which feature wild animals wandering through mid-century towns.
“When I got to Telluride, people asked me, ‘Have you been to Telluride before?’ And I told them no, I’d just looked at photos online. And they said, ‘How did you know we had a problem with bears?’ And I replied, ‘I don’t think you have a problem with bears, I think bears have a problem with you.’” Sure enough, in Telluride, all the trash cans are locked to deter the animals from seeking food in town. “I think one of my strengths is to take the ambiance or the spirit of something and condense it into a single image.”
2022 Annecy Film Festival
The Telluride poster harks back once again to those classic travel posters Durieux loves so much. That same spirit informed his design for the 2022 Annecy Animation Festival. Unlike Telluride, Durieux was already familiar with the town of Annecy. He’d visited the year before and been moved by the scenery.
“I started by thinking about how to incorporate the idea of a film reel,” says Durieux, who soon realized that he was embracing a cliché seen on countless film festival posters made over the past century. “Instead of being so literal about the idea of cinema, I knew I had to find a cinematic image. If I could do that, I wasn’t stuck drawing a camera, a zoetrope [or something we’ve seen a million times before]. As soon as I realized that, it freed me up to other ideas.”
One of the signatures of the city of Annecy are the paragliders one sees in the skies over the lake. “But a paraglider isn’t interesting to draw. It’s not original,” he says. “But if you replace those paragliders with sailboats, you have something light that evokes the sequence of a zoetrope, which they could animate.”
Elevator To The Gallows
Most of Durieux’s movie posters are commissions — projects suggested to him by Mondo or another party interested in getting his interpretation of a popular movie. Every so often, however, Durieux gets to propose the film himself. That happened with “Titanic”: a trompe l’oeil composition that depicts both the Heart of the Ocean diamond hanging around Rose’s neck and, hidden there in the shape of the chain, an overhead view of the ship. Durieux pitched the project to Mondo, they arranged the rights and voilà, the project became reality.
Another personal favorite from among Durieux’s prints was inspired by the 1958 Louis Malle film “Elevator to the Gallows.” The artist couldn’t get permission from Malle’s estate, “so I did that one without text, and I called it ‘Waiting for Julien,’ but it was clearly a wink to ‘Ascenseur pour l’echafaud,’” he says.
Durieux’s composition evokes not only the film, but also the work of Edward Hopper. The solitary figure of Jeanne Moreau leans against the wall, smoking, like the mysterious woman in Hopper’s “New York Movie.” Through the plate glass windows, the streets of Paris assume a “Nighthawks”-like feel. “I think it’s my most beautiful poster, but it’s not really a movie poster,” he says.
Some of history’s most successful movie posters cheat. They aren’t limited by what’s on screen, but instead suggest the emotion with which audiences ultimately imbue the experience. The original poster for “Pulp Fiction” — featuring Uma Thurman smoking in bed — is a good example. For his own homage, Durieux wanted to reconstruct a scene that only appears in pieces in the movie, pulling in details from the rest of the film.
“It’s a poster full of Easter eggs for the fans,” he explains. Look carefully and you’ll find a billboard for Red Apple cigarettes, a Big Kahuna Burger stand, Butch’s beat-up old Honda and other key vehicles from the film. “You even have the Gimp,” says Durieux, pointing out a tiny detail nearly everyone surely misses. Check out the mirror on the motorcycle, and sure enough, reflected there is a character who never makes it out of the basement in the movie.
In a sense, it makes real a place that only exists in our imagination, a fantasy portrait of Los Angeles. “The diner was destroyed in 1999, and all that remains is a single low-resolution jpeg,” Durieux says. “My goal was to redo the montage of the film. The strength of ‘Pulp Fiction’ is the way everything cuts together, so I set out to assemble those elements and make a single scene that represented the film.”
Reprinted from Variety: LINK