The man with the golden pen: Lawrence Kasdan
Sunday 13 March 1994
YOU HAVE written two or three of the biggest- grossing movies of all time. What is it that enabled you to do that?
It's a mystery to me. Raiders is unusual in that Steven (Spielberg) and George (Lucas) were both in tune with some kind of popular feeling. Their own interests are very much in line with what makes something popular. With the Star Wars sequels, you'd do well with them no matter what. I did a good job on them, but they were always going to be hits. Then The Bodyguard became a huge hit, and there was something mystifying about that. It's going to be the third biggest American movie ever released overseas, and I haven't a clue why. I could look at it in retrospect and say Kevin's very popular, and the music took off, but that's the way all movies are evaluated after the fact. That's not what carried it to such astonishing success - there was something in the core idea that was very attractive to people, particularly women, despite universal critical denigration. It had no critical impact whatsoever - none. It was just a huge hit. I couldn't tell you why now.
Is it possible to analyse what makes your style of direction less blatantly commercial?
I don't know, and I don't mean to denigrate anyone else. I think that popular movies work on a very simple premise and that I've been drawn to movies that work on a very complex level. But then maybe a lot of that is in my head. Sometimes when I go back and look at a Howard Hawks or John Ford film, or any film that I really love, I'm struck by the simplicity. What's confusing is that when I saw The Bodyguard for the first time, it evoked so many complicated feelings in me that I attributed them all to the film. But maybe really good art evokes that set of responses in people and yet is very simple in its own right.
I know that Steven Spielberg and George Lucas had been fans of Forties and Fifties adventure serials, but how did Indiana Jones evolve as a character when you wrote Raiders?
Steven had purchased my script, Continental Divide, which was very different from the film which resulted. Thc script had a kind of Hawksian speed, momentum, hopefully wit, about it. I don't think the film turned out that way, but Steven's enthusiasm for it was what got me involved with him and George. I think that what they were looking for was someone who could write Raiders in the same way that Hawks would have someone write a movie for him - a strong woman character, a certain kind of hero. So that's what got me the job. George had already had the idea of the way the guy dressed, and Phil Kaufman (director of The Right Stuff among others, and co-writer of Raiders) had provided the MacGuffin of the Lost Ark of the Covenant, which his orthodontist had told him about when he was 11 years old. George had told the idea to Steven, and Steven had said, 'Oh, that excites me'. When I was brought in, it became a Lucas-Spielberg- Kasdan movie. We sat down and decided on the kind of hero Indiana Jones would be, his name, his whip, and talked about the MacGuffin and serial films. After that we created the film by jumping through favourite moments from those kinds of films - the sort of thing we would like to see.
Raiders was produced on a scale, with a kind of modern technological ability, that went way beyond any of those serials, but the spirit of on- rushing events and constant crises - that's from the serial. I think what they brought me in for, and what I tried to do, was to give it a Hawksian spine. I'm interested in character, whereas a lot of people approach a script from plot or story or the production angle - you know, 'What can we do here?' I think what happened was that each of us was able to bring in something of our own.
Do you see Raiders as a Grail Quest?
I don't, because the search for the Grail has never been a powerful story to me. It's hugely powerful to Steven, and he sees most of his movies that way. My background is in literature, and the things that excite me are details of character - the way someone picks up something or a mood across the room. I don't look at The Seven Samurai in the large sense. I look at it moment to moment, at the essentials of life, the details, the direction of the story, the unexpected turns of character. I never approach a story and say: 'Oh, this is typical of life in downtown Detroit.' John Patrick Shanley (screenwriter of Moonstruck and others) is a friend of mine, and he called me up after he'd seen The Bodyguard and said it was one of the best things he'd seen recently. I was mystified by it, but I could see that as he talked about it, it went right to the heart of his own concerns, and that there was something so achingly sad for him about a man who is willing to give his life for a woman he is so much in love with but can never have. I think that's a very romantic idea, but some of that I'm aware of, some not. I approached The Bodyguard from the point of view of two characters I was interested in. I don't think I ever looked for a broad perspective in it, personally.
When you came to write The Empire Strikes Back, had the decision already been made to make it darker than Star Wars, or was that your influence?
I think I influenced that, and George was open to it. Over the three Star Wars films, he saw a trajectory. The Empire Strikes Back was the second act and, traditionally, the second act is when things start to go bad. George had made his biggest decision when he hired Irvin Kershner to direct, even though Kershner and I were acting as his tools. When it came to the third act, The Return of the Jedi, which functions as the relief, he chose a different kind of director, Richard Marquand, whose world view was much sunnier than Kershner's.
Did you have an affinity for science fiction?
My brother had been a science fiction aficionado but it had never interested me. There was a wall of science fiction books across the hall, but I'd never read them. I only became involved with Stars Wars because I'd written Raiders for George, and that was directly in line with all the things that excited me about the movies. He then hired me immediately to do The Empire Strikes Back. I was just a writer he liked who was immediately available.
Was it like writing a western, or perhaps a morality play?
Well, once involved in the saga, I related to it strongly because it's elemental stuff. But I sometimes kid around and say it's about Hollywood. It's about imposing your fantasies upon others. A Jedi knight has the ability to take a weaker mind and control it, and that's what Hollywood's about. If the studio says to you, 'We're not going to make this movie', you, as a Jedi knight, say, 'We are going to make it'. And then the studio agrees. That's what the Star Wars saga is about - it's about following those things which are strongest in you and imposing them on the world. Making a career in Hollywood is like that if you want to do your own work. If you want to do what they want you to do, it's easy. You just say yes. But if you want to do what you want to do, you're constantly manipulating the chaos of the system.
Does that require immense force of will?
It's been very clear to me since the very beginning what is necessary for me. It seems like it's my job to oppose what is going on and use it for my own purposes. I've seen very talented people who will not oppose it. Their work is fine too. I don't think they're less forceful than me; I don't think they even see a conflict. But I think there's something natural in me that saw the studios as the enemy. So does it require a large force of will? I think that you inherently have a feeling about it. There are film-makers who are much more radical than me who would look at me and say; 'Well, he's part of a system, and he does Hollywood movies.' I don't see it that way. I think that character is destiny, and you do the things you have to do.
You've had quite an unusual career in that you operate within the parameters of Hollywood, but you function as a writer / director making personal films. You don't do contract jobs or make a film for the sake of making one.
No. Often I want to, but when it comes to signing on the dotted line, I can't bring myself to do it. I don't think that reluctance comes from a pretentious place; I think that I'm not capable of doing it. I can't bring myself to do even those movies that turn out to be hits. I can't get my head around them. So my career and my work have evolved very naturally. I always do the things that are right for me - not necessarily feeling that everything else is wrong. This relates to how a director's power and influence over a film is so complete that, no matter what other people try to make it, it becomes a personal film. You see it in a movie like The Untouchables. It was a questionable script in my mind, and when I read it, I said I didn't know what to do with it. But Brian De Palma knew how to turn it into a Brian De Palma film, to take the moments he related to and blow them up so that they became the most important things in the movie, while the other stuff was thrown away.
In talking about your writing process, you've used the word 'density' - how you pack a great deal into each scene.
Anything I say about this now is influenced by the changes in my process over the years. Looking again at some of my favourite films, and seeing that they're simpler than I thought they were, has influenced my approach to the writing and directing of films. My initial response to them was that they were infinitely complex, that one image of Lawrence of Arabia, say, conveys so many ideas. So when I started writing, I was trying to pack all those ideas in to convey them to other people, because I wasn't going to direct those films at that time. I've been writing screenplays now for 25 years, and it's taken me all this time to see even a glint of where I should be heading, which is to aim for a certain simplicity and stop trying to pack the screenplay with as much as I can. On the other hand, that early approach served me well in that the people who read the screenplays were able to see the mood very specifically and didn't have to imagine that much. Sometimes, though, I think that I've been too specific in the writing, and now I'm trying to fight that urge.
Do you write fast?
Very. I wrote Wyatt Earp in three months, and it's a huge story - more than three hours. I used to outline what I was going to do. I don't do that so much any more. It's part of trying to loosen up the process and not know what's happening. But I think I'm a linear person, and when I write I don't write a quick draft and then go back. I don't like to leave anything behind me because I'm uncomfortable with it. I tend to write a scene many times over before going on. The last time I was really doing drafts was when I was working for George Lucas. Now, I will sometimes revise and make little changes, but the essentials don't change. I take a lot of time and effort with the first draft, and I'd rather shoot that. I believe in initial responses to people and things.
Do you write in a three-act structure, with each scene triggering the next?
I think I do. And now it's become so completely ingrained in me that I don't have to think about it. Grand Canyon is as loose a film as I've ever written, and when I was done with it, I saw that I was following exactly the same kind of structure I had been using since I'd learnt it in college. I hadn't thought about it once during the writing - which is what you're hoping for.
By the time you finished Jedi, did you feel the need to address more obviously adult themes?
From the very beginning, that's where my interests lay. All the time I spent with George over three pictures, there was a tension about what kind of movie we were making - between George's concerns, which are archetypal, and mine, which are specific and human. I see myself as a humanist. All my interests are humanist ones. Anyway, I actually made Body Heat before Jedi, but George asked me as a favour to come and do Jedi with him. After having had the experience of directing and loving it, to go back and write for another director was a difficult thing for me to do. But we sort of turned it into a lark. George is good company, and we had fun, and I liked Richard Marquand - he was a lovely guy. We did the work very fast under enormous time-pressure, but a lot of the production design, effects and so on had already been prepared, and it was real easy.
Your films have often been described as slick or glossy. What's your reaction to that?
I am left-handed as a writer - I do everything else right-handed. At the point at which I could have developed ambidextrously, my parents were told, 'Oh no, leave him alone'. It meant that I have never been able to write in a classical style - I've always smudged what I've written and I hate my handwriting. In my mind, a beautiful hand always represented slickness. So when people started describing my films as slick, it didn't bother me. There are slick things in Kurosawa that people would never call slick. I try as much as possible to use a dissolve when a dissolve is right and cut when I'm supposed to cut. You're never right all the time. Sometimes you feel you're completely out of tune with the critical mode. You look around and you see lots of people being praised and then you don't want to be praised. It becomes bothersome after a while if you think your work is being underrated because it doesn't have a certain kind of flashiness, but that's momentary compared to your conviction that your own work is better on a second or third viewing. We live in a first-viewing world, but I don't make these movies for one viewing. I can look at Lawrence of Arabia or High and Low or Ikiru and be thrilled every time. That's the ideal I'm working toward.
This is an extract from 'Projections 3: Film- makers on Film-making' (Faber & Faber, pounds 9.99, out 21 Mar). We have 20 copies of the book to give away to the first 20 readers to tell us who directed 'Continental Divide'. Answers on a postcard to: Projections 3, IoS, 40 City Rd, London EC1Y 2DB, by Fri 18 Mar. Usual competition rules apply. 'Wyatt Earp' is released this autumn.
Kasdan: a biography
FOR SOMEONE who has had a hand in four of the biggest grossers in movie history, Lawrence Kasdan is surprisingly little known. Partly, it's down to screenwriters' perennial lack of recognition: his hits (The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Return of the Jedi, The Bodyguard) have been as a hired gun. His shots from the heart, as director-writer, haven't blazed into the same meretricious glory as those of Oliver Stone, who shared with him the top writing accolades of the 1980s.
His parents were frustrated writers (his father worked in an electrical store in West Virginia). A whizz at college and an immediate success in advertising, Kasdan swiftly broke into Hollywood. The script that set him on his way, Continental Divide (1981), was written in two hours on the lawn of Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It looks like it: a pallid comedy culture-collision between a Chicago journalist and a Colorado ornithologist, the sort of screwball Hepburn and Tracy would have screwed up and thrown in the bin.
But it brought Kasdan to the attention of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. It's hard to assess Kasdan's contribution to their mega- hits, since he was co-writing and working from others' stories. But The Empire Strikes Back, the trilogy's most satisfying part, brought feeling and character to Lucas's puppet world. And, for those of us who think Raiders is one of Spielberg's worst films, there's some relief in Kasdan's dry repartee.
The Bodyguard, though written before the other hits, was, amazingly, rejected 66 times before acceptance in 1975 - only to be forgotten by everyone except Kevin Costner. I say amazingly, because it's a near perfect screenplay: entirely frivolous entertainment doesn't come much more charming or intelligent. Its huge success owes much to Kasdan's well-drawn characters.
Kasdan's directorial debut, Body Heat (1981), took languorous delight in giving another genre, film noir, a deep kiss of life. Though sometimes the steam and the references (to the likes of Double Indemnity) became oppressive, the dialogue (exhaled by Kathleen Turner and William Hurt) had a rare, libidinous crackle.
By now Kasdan was big. The critical nay- sayers marshalled their case: slick, formulaic, simplistic, were the terms used. The Big Chill (1983) tweaked a nerve, with its group reuniting for a weekend after a friend's funeral, and took a caning. Its portait of withered idealism may have been too close to the bone of those writing. But if the characters seem close to types, they're the types that the people one knows have grown into.
The actors' authentic intimacy was due to the long rehearsal period, which Kasdan, in the manner of his hero Howard Hawks, put them through. In recent cinema, only The Outsiders has launched as many outstanding acting careers. The cast has stayed loyal. Kevin Kline pulled the short straw, starring in a disastrous western, Silverado (1985), and, in Kasdan's debut as a non-writing director, the feeble comedy I Love You to Death (1990).
William Hurt fared better with the emotionally frozen hero of The Accidental Tourist (1988). Though based on Anne Tyler's novel, the film plugs in to a key Kasdan theme: the tension between our cravings for security and experience (it's there even in the donnish adventurer, Indiana Jones). As an illustration of the way bereavement trivialises and distances the world, it's in Don't Look Now's league. It also, though, confirms a tendency to allow enticing openings to lose their way.
Kasdan's most recent film is his underrated take on Los Angeles's haves and have-nots, Grand Canyon (1991), which grapples unsettlingly with America's malaise. Its commercial failure means Kasdan needs a hit. Another western, Wyatt Earp (out later this year), with Kevin Costner, whose best work has been for Kasdan, may just provide it. Whatever else, it won't lack intelligence. QC
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