Tony Stella has steadily become one of the most sought after film poster artists for his beautiful realist approach reminiscent of the 1980s one-sheet glory days. Here he talks to us about his early influences, the downsides of nostalgia and why doing good work is more important than a fat paycheck.
So Tony, how did your love of drawing begin?
I was a really sickly child and always at home which is why I used to draw so much. I had a shitty immune system from the get-go. My father would drag me to museums and I would always have a pen and paper with me. I was also hanging around with lots of grown-ups as my father was in the theatre doing rehearsals late at night and I would just draw and draw and draw. I admire him for how he dragged this pestered child through all these museums as I don’t know if I could do this as a dad myself now, but he always says that he saw me liven up after a museum visit.
Were there any particular artists that influenced your work early on, and what was your early experience of being an artist, before getting into movie poster art?
Well through my father early on it was Giacometti and Bacon. But I had so many styles in my work which is what curators in the fine art scene rejected, as they didn’t know how to market me and how to put a stamp on me. They asked ‘can you do this type of painting for 20 years?’ and I was like ‘No’ as I have no interest in that. I also just hated the environment of the art world and was constantly disappointed by people that I didn’t respect… which is so stupid in hindsight as I didn’t see that my attitude was fuelled by anger in hating everything and then asking ‘why don’t you love me?’ when my work was rejected!
It was hard having to go through the whole interview process, calling people up and traveling into the city with your portfolio in the rain and then being rebuffed by secretaries. So I came with a lot of aggression and resentment early on which makes you a person no-one really wants to be around, and this is what you become through the process which is similar to a lot of people on a creative journey.
So when did your art and your love of film begin to merge?
My passion and love for cinema started really early with my father as he’d show me lots of stuff that he thought I should see. Also in my group of friends a knowledge of cinema was a real currency… and it wasn’t just the usual mainstream stuff. I was really lucky because a friend’s mum worked for a French film distribution company in Germany, so she would make us sit and watch Antoine Doinel and Truffaut films when we came home late from writing graffiti.
By just messing around making artwork for film I could pay homage to other people, and I was much more comfortable with that… being in the background… it was just about making work for this thing that I loved. It’s funny because those are the origins for most of our generation, where you caught something on television and it would live on in your mind and gestate… you lived with the VHS cover art of the movie you’d seen, so you make it up in your mind and start drawing it… and that’s really how I started. I wanted to have these bought VHS covers, the ones that we never had in Italy, so I used to draw and design my own.
In the end that’s what saved me, as the internet came about and my friends suggested I put my work out there… so through these early sites like Tumblr people started seeing my work and crediting me… so what I manifested with pen on paper made it out into the real world and that became really motivating. It’s a reminder that you have no idea what these passions you have when you’re young will turn into.
Many of the most well known poster artists such as Drew Struzan, Bob Peak and Bill Gold are known for their realist approach – something that seems to inspire your work, but I notice there is a more free-form look and feel to your earlier posters that are more reminiscent of work by illustrators and designers like Hans Hillmann and Saul Bass.
All these styles that you notice in my work is why I never took up longer narrative work like comic books or graphic novels as I’m too hectic and manic. The reason why I am not an absolute Drew Struzan devotee, although i love and admire his work, is that I could never fathom how you could do a comedy in the same way as you do an action film. So for me the joy comes from switching styles as much as possible and that comes from all my influences. My grandfather did a lot of classic design work and architecture in the 1950s and 60s, so this inspired the inky, simple style of mine where I reduce everything down to the bare bones.
I just don’t want to be nailed down where people say ‘we hired Tony Stella to do his thing’. This happened recently and you can tell they had no clue. I’m very insistent and I find I have to do a lot of… and I hope this doesn’t sound too arrogant… educational work, even with allies, where we have to do many, many rounds of talks before they fully understand the movie. So when I present something to people, I feel like I really need to know how to explain why I arrived at a certain solution.
Does this knowledge of film depend very much on the type of client your working for? Working with The Criterion Collection or Arrow Films who have a greater knowledge and appreciation for the history of film is different to the more mainstream clients that perhaps know less?
I think you’re right, and what I’ve found is my favourite work doesn’t necessarily pay as well but the jobs allow me to work on things I really love. Doing these luxury edition DVDs which have sort of become the LP art of the movie world is just fantastic. These deluxe editions where you get two or three posters, essay booklets and they’re really decked out… and for Japanese film, which is my true love, Arrow are doing pioneering work where we can go a little bit beyond the five or six directors that everyone knows like Kurosawa, Mizoguchi and Ozu. They’re putting out these editions where I put a lot of effort into them.… I do the booklets and the posters and portraits of directors because I know the material so well and have such a love for it. On the bigger releases you get to work with Producers who usually share that passion and communication can happen on a deeper level. You can go into details and exchange ideas that can often not be realised with a large marketing department.
But it’s worth saying that limitations and restrictions imposed by some marketing departments provide me the freedom that I didn’t find in the art world where I was told ‘do anything! I can always deal with notes from marketers like ‘red doesn’t sell’ or ‘please don’t point the gun straight at the camera’ as I can understand that and it’s not a big deal as these concerns are usually real world concerns and can be worked around.
Have you ever walked away from a job?
Yeah lots of times and I’m kind of known for that. On The Underground Railroad job I walked away about 6 times, but in that case the Director Barry Jenkins really had my back… but that’s very rare. I walk away a lot because the money isn’t great, and I do it for the passion, so if I do work that I hate and it finds its way out into the world, it follows me around. If you make too many compromises that stays with you for way longer than the paycheck.
'I walk away a lot because the money isn’t great, and I do it for the passion, so if I do work that I hate and it finds its way out into the world, it follows me around. If you make too many compromises that stays with you for way longer than the paycheck.'
Why do you think there’s been a resurgence and growing appreciation for hand-crafted, limited edition posters for classic films? Does the popularity of Marvel and the fan culture that follows in its wake have anything to do with it?
I think our generation that grew up and got into positions of power and decision-making identify with these images from the past. But that’s also the evil that has sort of beset us because now it’s all retrofitted nostalgia, so we’re not telling new stories, we’re seeing the same stuff over and over again… The Ghostbusters and Back to the Future and Spiderman rehashes which is something that we unfortunately snuck in the door alongside our love.
We’re now the parents so we’re giving our kids the things we loved. So there’s a huge marketing potential which Marvel saw and exploited. It’s ironic that although they have limitless budgets their posters are so bad! I’m sure their board meeting discussions are about how making digital, photoshopped head-shot posters will bring in new younger crowds, but most of the artists of the golden age are still alive and could have created amazing limited edition posters that the older generation would have loved! But a lot of these guys like Drew Struzan have either retired or are just turned off by all the endless rehashes of Star Wars and Disney films. Back then the artists worked with the directors who would give direct input, but now you’re given over to a whole department that are going to pick apart your ideas.
'I think our generation that grew up and got into positions of power and decision-making identify with these images from the past. But that’s also the evil that has sort of beset us because now it’s all retrofitted nostalgia, so we’re not telling new stories, we’re seeing the same stuff over and over again…'
Even though people like the great Italian poster artist Renato Casaro came back to do some work with Quentin Tarantino for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood the film-makers could have made a much bigger deal of this than they did. I remember walking past the huge posters by Tom Jung for The Empire Strikes Back on my way to school and it was like the Sistine chapel for me. Now we have these small icons on streaming sites and nobody really cares if it’s a proper piece of art made with oil paint –and it’s not in their interest to pick up those couple of fanboys that really appreciate movie poster art.
The exception is something like The Underground Railroad where they weren’t targeting the everyday crowd, and were running a campaign which helped to buffer their prestige as it’s a historical project with roots in literature and still an important and current topic.
It’s fairly unlikely though that this more risk-taking approach to commissioning art for movies will become the mainstream right?
Well this more independent approach always lives in small groups and wherever there’s a cultural movement… it’s the downtown New York art scene of the 1980s for example… but now we balloon these things up so quickly that they get watered down. All these subcultures that get targeted or used to try to connect with audiences. Cultures that had a real local flavour, where everyone knew each other, are harder to find now. But this local culture was healthy and was all overseeable, but now with this ballooning you get yourself into unhealthy situations really quickly, like the indie film-maker getting picked up too fast, to scale up a passion project that took 30 years to realise and now he or she has to do five movies in two years.
I think our role as illustrators is to try to educate and lift up the appreciation for craft, because if you get exposed to good work for long enough it starts to seep into the thinking of the people in charge. But that’s a slow process and it needs lots of time, so posting stuff consistently and keeping up the quality goes a long way. People like The Criterion Collection have all these great old movies and are commissioning some great artists which has made everybody rise up a little bit. Arrow really invest in artwork, Vinegar Syndrome invest in artwork… these people see that using local talent for marketing great older films to specific countries really works.
'I think our role as illustrators is to try to educate and lift up the appreciation for craft, because if you get exposed to good work for long enough it starts to seep into the thinking of the people in charge.'
Who’s work do you currently admire?
When I first went online in 2015 and started to look more at other people’s work I saw Midnight Marauder’s work and thought it was just on another level. It can become a bit frustrating working in this industry so we started to chat and share our complaints but also talk about how we can work together… so I would just send him artwork to play with as he was really excited to work with illustration rather than photos or a collage style, so we were working like a DJ duo… really in sync with what we loved and thought worked well, and that vibe has continued for about five or six years now.
Tony Stella and Midnight Marauder
It’s such a gratifying experience when you find the perfect frame for your artwork. We did so much work for Phantom Thread before the film even came out as he loves Paul Thomas Anderson and I’m a huge fan of Dior, fashion and Paris… so just getting all this stuff out that people appreciated helped to cement that working relationship we’ve now established. His work I think is just on another level and I think it shows based on how much of it is copied out there. His layouts are so sophisticated and subtle that you need a really special eye to pick up on the ways he uses typography and composition. I think also his dual background (he’s French but living in the US) helps us to connect as I also have a mixed background.
(see Midnight Marauder’s work here)
How much of what you do with Midnight Marauder is speculative and how much is official?
It used to be a lot more speculative when paid work dried up. Although we’re both pretty well established there are these shakeups where people don’t know what to do… like with the recent Covid situation. It used to be seasonal where September and March are great due to all the releases but January is dire if you don’t have anything lined up… so we would both have time available. I’d have work lying around that just never went anywhere so I’d just send it over to him to work on. But we only do speculative work when there’s something that he loves or I love that’s coming out. The rest of the time he might bring me onto one of his jobs as people sometimes see his work thinking he’s done the painting, so they get the both of us. I seldom bring the clients over to him as they don’t value that extra finesse that he brings… they’ll just slap any old type on it. So we work in very different parts of the field but when it comes together it’s great. I’m always baffled that clients don’t see how they can get the best of both worlds when they hire us, as we really try to make something that will have lasting value and can be sold to collectors long after the film is gone because so much passion and effort has gone into it. I just don’t think that anyone is going to look back 10 years from now and say ‘oh this is a beautiful Godzilla poster they made with tons of filters’.
Another person’s work I really admire is Akiko Sternberger’s… I’m one of her biggest fans. She is so skilled, she’s generous and I’ve got so many jobs through her. Everything she gets is totally justified and I couldn’t heap enough praise on her. Something I appreciate in her that I don’t see in pretty much anyone else is that she changes all the time. She does a 60s style for one job and a super-digital approach for another… uses modern technology for one piece then does a pencil drawing… she can basically do it all! For that to be so successful and for people to accept that multiplicity and value what she does is just inspirational
(see Akiko’s work here)
And she’s another artist with a varied background…
Yeah you feel like an outsider when you have a different accent or look a bit different… and maybe this thing of retreating into your skill because you feel like you don’t necessarily belong anywhere could play a part. The thing you say which is ‘I need to stick out in order to be accepted… I need to draw, I need to be funny’. And it’s a really interesting point because there are lots of artists that are outsiders because of maybe being dyslexic or a bit sickly. If you’re the jock superstar you won’t be the introvert and burrow inwards and into your obsessions. No-one wants to hear about your Antoin Duenel insights when you’re at high school!
And that introversion is something associated to the film-lover too – people that spend too much time in dark theatres or not going out because they’d prefer to watch Kung Fu or Fellini movie marathons!
Yeah and movie critics like Mark Kermode and Alex Cox and British public television helped us to connect and belong to this wider community of film lovers. I used to religiously watch Alex Cox’s Videodrome when I lived in London which was basically the TV equivelant of the Criterion collection, giving you an hour of insight before the movie started. TCM in America would invite guests onto their shows but it was brief… so the UK really took this stuff seriously. Kermode with his Exorcist special (The Fear Of God: 25 Years Of The Exorcist) really provided some insight to the film that we’d never seen before, and he was responsible for the rediscovery of films like Sorcerer (William Friedkin), which I was lucky enough to have done the artwork for the reissued Tangerine Dream soundtrack.
What was the experience like working on the Quentin Tarantino book cover and also the fan poster art you did for Once Upon A Time in Hollywood?
Well I didn’t do the cover for the book but I tried. And the poster Midnight Marauder and I did was one of those speculative things. I really detested Tarantino’s last few films but as the news came through that he was making a Sharon Tate story based in LA about the history of movies, and Bruce Lee was going to be in it, I was like… amazing! Then we watched it and the first posters came out which we just thought were so lazy and unimaginative, so I called MM and we pulled a one nighter and we posted it and then it went wild on the internet. I just think there was a thirst from everybody who was disappointed by the other posters… and we stayed true to the 60s narrative, creating something that understood that world.
But there was so much drama around this poster after it went viral, which was our first experience of this even though we’d posted stuff up before which never got picked up officially. We were so early with that hand-made poster that I think it then prompted them to put the Steve Chorney poster out which was hand-crafted. I then posted up lots of threads about the origin of our poster and the links to Renato Casaro (who they also used to make fake posters for use in the film) because this was my world and I grew up watching those old Italian westerns as a kid. But the whole thing became a really negative spiral for us… on one side all these fans writing into the film company asking why they’re not using them and then some theatres putting them up but then us not being able to sell them. It just got really complicated.
The book cover was another - last - attempt to give it an authentic 1960s paperback look. Sadly they went with the photographic version. So there is only my private copy - probably very much fitting the theme of alternate endings and 'what if's...'
It’s clear you have a love of Japanese cinema – so what is it about it that appeals to you and are there any elements or ideas of their film-making or story-telling approach that inspires your creative approach?
Well it was the first type of cinema that I could champion which was my own because my father didn’t know so much about it, but he knew enough to show me Seven Samurai. I was six years old and I just thought this is It!… everything that happened afterwards was because of that experience and it’s still for me the best film that’s ever been made bar none. So that experience just led me to a general Japano-philia and I lived, studied and worked there for a while which deepened my love for it even more. Film-wise I was just very attracted by Japanese storytelling which is very different to Western storytelling… there’s more a sense of hierarchy with the characters with underlings and under-bosses that has more nuance. There’s also a connection between Italy and Japan generally… a big division between rich and poor, the importance of family and caring for the elderly. They’re both quite folkloristic cultures and the Japanese and Italian languages are also not spoken as widely as Spanish, French, German or English… so I felt like I was coming home by being in Japan.
Watching films constantly when I was there even if I didn’t understand them just helped to enrich my appreciation for that culture and it just absorbed its way into my work. What I found a hard barrier to cross however was the lack of critique when it came to fine art... so everything tends to be commodified into fashion and design but on a superior level. I miss Japan very much and it's a long dream to realise an exhibition and a book that contains all of my Japanese film work.
My Oscar moment though, and it’s linked to this love of Japanese cinema that I have, is that my poster for Tokyo Story is in Yasujiro Ozu’s house! I have a photo of it there that was sent to me by the curators and it’s my treasure.
What advice would you give to people wanting to get into your line of work?
I'm often asked that but I don't really know what advice to give because for me it's beyond a job... it's a manic passion – so it carries me through the tough days and disappointments. I did this long before I got paid for it and would keep doing it regardless.