Directed by Marcus Nispel, “Conan the Barbarian” works as a reboot. "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 all very graphically, and then you're able to tell the story in such a way as to easily 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. The reality-based approach that Nispel proposed married well with Lerner's and Weldon's plan to shoot the film at Nu Boyana Studios and locations throughout Bulgaria. Says Lerner, "In terms of production value, it was far easier in Bulgaria to create the set pieces and props and dressing to bring Hyboria to life and create a visceral experience."
Nispel and August found everything they were looking for during an extensive location scout across the country. "Bulgaria has an amazing landscape and a long cultural history that was perfect for the project," reports August. "While scouting along a river, someone would point up and there would be caves that monks had carved out of the hills. It really felt like Conan's world, very tough and harsh but at the same time stunningly beautiful."
"Nowhere are the middle ages more prevalent than they are in Bulgaria," avows Nispel. "Why create fake digital sets when there's a gigantic cave (Prohodna Cave in Lukovit) or a prehistoric forest (Pobiti in Kamani, Varna, near the Black Sea) right there in front of you?" With a production schedule taking shape, Momoa headed straight into an intensive training regime, spending six hours a day for a month and a half with the Los Angeles based action design team 87eleven before heading to Bulgaria. "That process really helped me understand the character," says Momoa, who did most of his own stunts. "Conan speaks through his sword. He's got to because he's not one for words. So the sword training with Master sensei Chad Stahelski really helped me find Conan's core." Weight training with Eric Laciste rounded out the day's work and helped the six-foot-five actor bulk up before cameras rolled.
As casting continued, the role of Tamara, Conan's accomplice and eventual love interest, went to action-veteran Rachel Nichols (STAR TREK, G.I. JOE). A novitiate of a Greek-influenced monastery and a master of martial arts, Tamara is a "pureblood," a direct descendant of the Sorcerers of Acheron whose blood will awaken the power of the Mask of Acheron. After meeting with Nispel, Nichols jumped at the chance to play a smart, capable woman who breaks the mold of typical fantasy heroines. "This is not a case of Conan doing all of the action and Tamara sitting by passively as the damsel in distress," explains Nichols. "Tamara is smart and strong and if given the choice of fight or flight she chooses to fight. She's Conan's female counterpart and she goes toe to toe with him."