Conan the Barbarian: Directed by Marcus Nispel

Lionsgate’s new 3D version of “Conan the Barbarian” continues a pop culture legacy that has spanned nearly eight decades and inspired generations of artists from the worlds of fiction, comic books, video games, animation, and film and television.

First introduced in 1932 in a series of short stories by pulp fiction writer Robert E. Howard, Conan the Barbarian helped establish the burgeoning genre known as sword and sorcery, pre-dating the work of fantasy master J.R.R. Tolkien by twenty years.

Since then, he has become a bona fide cultural icon, capturing the public imagination as an idealized vision of unbridled masculinity, a tough, imperturbable hero with no allegiances and the ability to overcome impossible odds with brute strength and a seasoned warrior’s skill.

“I think the appeal of Conan is that he doesn’t conform to anybody,” offers director Marcus Nispel. “He’s not politically correct. He’s not living by anyone else’s moral standards. He’s a barbarian who depends on no one but himself.”

While no Conan feature can ignore John Milius’ 1982 original, Nispel and producers Danny Lerner and Les Weldon of Millennium Films see that film as only a small part of a much larger Conan universe that has continued to develop over the decades since his inception.

Says Lerner, “We’re not approaching this as a movie based on a previous incarnation of the character. We’re approaching it as a film based on an entire culture.”

For Nispel, who has retold the classics with his new takes on “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “Friday the 13th,” portraying Conan in a new film is all about maintaining a respectful balance between homage and reinvention. “We’re going back to the mythological Conan as he’s described in the Robert E. Howard stories,” he explains. “But at the same time, we can’t deny that the popular consciousness has changed and things have shifted. People’s demands of who Conan should be have changed, and yet there’s a certain amount they wouldn’t want us to change.  So the mantra in making CONAN THE BARBARIAN is ‘give people what they want but don’t give them what they expect.’ ”

The obvious first step in this endeavor was finding Conan himself – no small task considering the character’s towering physicality and stoic charisma. In December 2009, the filmmakers had been actively reading actors for over a month when casting director Kerry Barden suggested Jason Momoa, fresh off of shooting HBO’s upcoming “Game of Thrones.”

“When we first met Jason, we saw everything that we hoped Conan would be,” remembers Weldon. “He has the imposing physicality. The confidence. And there’s a sense of unbridled energy to him that’s essential for the character.”

Adds Lerner, “I can’t imagine a single actor that I have worked with or seen on screen that could fit into those shoes as perfectly as Jason does. He is a natural athlete.  He has the aggression, the power, the energy needed. And when you actually read Robert E. Howard’s descriptions of Conan, they describe Jason exactly.”

The half-Hawaiian, half-Irish actor made his name in the globally popular “Baywatch” series, followed by extended runs on “North Shore” and “Stargate: Atlantis.” Momoa was only six years old when Milius’ film was released, but he remembers encountering the images of Conan created by visionary comic book artist Frank Frazetta, whose darkly sensual, lush style helped define not only the Conan comic book universe (and the film’s poster) but the entire sword-and-sorcery genre.

“When you see those drawings, they just they speak to you,” says Momoa. “Our goal has been to capture the hero featured in Frazetta’s pictures. That was our aim.”

Frazetta’s images also considerably impacted Nispel’s and production designer Chris August’s vision of the film. “You can’t shoot Conan in a vérité style,” says Nispel. “You have to paint it, choose new angles, light it graphically, and then you’re able to tell the story in such a way as to suspend the disbelief of an audience.”

That said, both Nispel and August agreed that the film should feel like a lost piece of history, an epic about real people in a real ancient time. Explains August, “We decided the environment should become a huge part of the film and that it should have a very dirty, gritty feel. Magical, but in a more brutal way.”

“Marcus had this vision to try to do as much of Conan as possible in camera, meaning we actually saw what was being filmed without adding a whole lot of CGI,” recalls Weldon.