Lucas walked into the meeting with an outline of the story, but he wanted to flesh it out with his writer and director. In the transcript, he begins by articulating a recipe for the contemporary blockbuster: the picture will consist of one big set piece after another.
“And each cliffhanger is better than the one before,” Spielberg adds, warming to the idea. “What we’re doing here, really, is designing a ride at Disneyland.”
The hero, Lucas explains, is a globe-trotting archaeologist, “a bounty hunter of antiquities.” He’s a professor, a Ph.D.—“People call him doctor.” But he’s a little “rough and tumble.” As the men hash out the Jones iconography, they refer, incessantly, to other films, invoking Eastwood, Bond, and Mifune. He will dress like Bogart in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” Lucas says: “the khaki pants…the leather jacket. That sort of felt hat.” Oh, and also? “A bullwhip.” He’ll carry it “rolled up,” Lucas continues. “Like a snake that’s coiled up behind him.”
“I like that,” Spielberg says. “The doctor with the bullwhip.”
After establishing his hero, Lucas proceeds to walk through the film’s plot, beat by beat. There’s the opening sequence in South America, which Lucas describes as “misty and primeval, ‘King Kong’-ish.” (If you want a further sense of what a clever pastiche of earlier films “Raiders” ended up becoming, and haven’t seen this astounding supercut, it is well worth watching.)
Lucas captures the second act of the film pretty aptly:
In the essence it’s just bullshit stuff where he wanders around Cairo trying to uncover the mystery of his puzzle. At the same time, you meet all these interesting characters and every once in a while somebody throws a knife at him, or he beats somebody up, or somebody beats him up. Typical Middle Eastern stuff.
But most importantly, the film had to hurtle at a furious clip. Lucas envisioned the whole story as one elaborate chase: the hero chases Nazis, Nazis chase the hero, and everyone races to find the Ark of the Covenant. They needed a love interest, of course. “She’s sort of a Marlene Dietrich tavern-singer spy,” Lucas suggests, of the character who would become Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen). She works in a bar, he continues. It’s like Rick’s Place, in “Casablanca.”
Kasdan: This is in Cairo?
Lucas: No. This is in Nepal. She’s stuck there.
Kasdan: Who are her customers at this Rick’s Place in Nepal?
The filmmakers want Marion to have a romantic history with the hero. They also want to cast a young actress in her twenties, however. This raises logistical questions. But it’s an easy fix:
Lucas: He could have known this little girl when she was just a kid. Had an affair with her when she was eleven.
Kasdan: And he was forty-two.
Lucas: He hasn’t seen her in twelve years. Now she’s twenty-two. It’s a real strange relationship.
Spielberg: She had better be older.
Over the intervening decades of enormous wealth and success, both Lucas and Spielberg have carefully tended their public images, so there is a voyeuristic thrill to seeing them converse in so unguarded a manner. As the screenwriters Craig Mazin and John August pointed out recently on the Scriptnotes podcast, one delight of reading the transcript is watching Spielberg throw out bad ideas, and then noting how Lucas gently shuts him down. Spielberg, who had sought to direct a Bond movie—and, astonishingly, been rejected—thought that their hero should be an avid gambler. Lucas replied that perhaps they shouldn’t overload him with attributes. (Lucas himself had briefly entertained, then mercifully set aside, the notion that his archaeologist might also be a practitioner of kung fu.) There’s a good reason we seldom get to spy on these conversations: really good spitballing, like improv comedy, requires a high degree of social disinhibition. So the writers’ room, like a therapist’s office, must remain inviolable.
Spielberg fires off ideas with an adolescent’s stamina—and not all of them are bad, either. In fact, among his spontaneous interjections are some of the most iconic episodes in the film. “I have a great idea!” he exclaims. “There is a sixty-five-foot boulder, that’s form-fitted to only roll down the corridor, coming right at him. And it’s a race. He gets to outrun the boulder!”
Lucas eggs him on during these riffs, pushing him to wring the full potential from each sequence. Spielberg conjures a scene in which the hero falls asleep on an airplane, only to wake up and discover that the other passengers have parachuted off, and the plane is in free fall. “He’s trapped in this airplane and it’s going down.”
“Then what happens?” Lucas says. “One sentence further and it’s a great idea.”
Like a number of ideas from the meeting, the flight-from-hell sequence proved too much for “Raiders,” and was incorporated, instead, into “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” But what is extraordinary, reading the transcript (which runs to nearly a hundred and fifty pages), is how many inspired elements from the film were originally cooked up in these conversations. There is the nefarious monkey in Cairo. (Spielberg: “The monkey should be dressed up as a little Arab.” Lucas: “I like the idea of not only having a turban but also a little backpack.”) There is the clever plot device through which the Gestapo agent Toht burns his hand by grabbing the headpiece of the Staff of Ra, and the scar gives the Nazis a clue to the location of the ark. (Kasdan suggests that a fire might add intensity to the fight in Ravenwood’s bar; the flames heat the medallion—et voilà.) Even the final shot of the film, in which the Ark is filed away in a government warehouse, is settled upon in the meeting. The big winner at the end, Lucas concludes, is “the bureaucracy.”
At one point, hours into the conversation, Kasdan asks, “Do you have a name for this person?”
Lucas: I do.
Spielberg: I hate this, but go ahead.
Lucas: Indiana Smith.
The transcript does not note the sound of crickets, but nor is there any burst of enthusiasm.
Lucas: It has to be unique. It’s a character. Very Americana. Square. He was born in Indiana.
Kasdan: What does she call him, Indy?
Lucas: That’s what I was thinking. Or Jones.
Mar 28, 2013
Mar 26, 2013
'I’m just about to start my second semester teaching a history of film course at NYU, which means I’ve spent the last few months getting up close and personal with a list of classics — On The Waterfront, Vertigo, The 400 Blows, The Graduate, The Godfather, Raging Bull. I have come out of the experience with three observations to share: 1) The 400 Blows is as close to perfection as anything touched by human hand. 2) James Stewart can’t kiss a woman convincingly. 3) Great films arise when there is a triangulation between director, actor and protagonist — when all three are linked by the same spiritual umbilicus. As first written, Budd Schulberg believed On the Waterfront to be the story of the priest but Kazan knew it to be the younger brother, Terry’s film. In a remarkable letter to Brando which should be read by anyone curious about directing actors, he singled out Terry’s orphan status, and struggle for recognition, explaining, “Marlon this part is much closer to you and to myself, too.” The Greek immigrant who had ostracized himself from the Hollywood community by testifying before HUAC, Kazan saw his own knotted history in the part, and stayed on Brando’s side of the camera during rehearsals. “On the Waterfront was my own story,” he said. “Every day I worked on that film I was telling the world where I stood and my critics to go and fuck themselves.”
This goes beyond merely saying that certain actors become a director’s alter egos. Scorsese worked with De Niro many times but it was only on Taxi Driver and Raging Bull that they seemed to take up residence within the same lost soul, on loan to them from writer Paul Schrader. Two people must tell their most intimate story through third. Mike Nichols struggled for long months to cast Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate, as written a blue-eyed, blonde-haired, southern Californian wasp. For a while, Robert Redford was in the frame. “Are these people having a breakdown?” thought Dustin Hoffman when was approached, “the guys name is Benjamin Braddock. He’s like six feet tall, he’s a track runner.” Nichols told Hoffman, “Maybe he’s Jewish inside.” And of course he was: The Graduate is all about spiritual misplacement, about being a stranger even to your own family, so Hoffman’s feelings of being miscast — which persisted right up to the film’s opening — were crucial. Nichols, the displaced Jewish boy, the lone observer, had finally worked out why the part had been so hard to cast: “without any knowledge of what I was doing, I had found myself in this story”. The list goes on: the Godfather is Coppola’s shadow-King as much as he is Brando’s; One Flew over The Cuckoo’s Nest is Milos Forman’s kiss goodbye to soviet Czechoslovakia as it is Nicholson’s middle-finger salute to Hollywood. It also explains the airlessness that hangs over Citizen Kane, for of course actor, director and part are already united in the singular frame of Orson Welles himself. What was never sundered cannot coalesce." — Intelligent Life
Mar 24, 2013
Mar 13, 2013
... I just signed up to write a monograph of the director to be published worldwide by Palazzo Editions in the Autumn of 2014. Entitled Martin Scorsese: A Retrospective,
"the book proceeds chronologically through Martin Scorsese’s extraordinarily rich and varied career as a film director. Tom Shone, the British film critic and writer, is currently the film critic for The Economist quarterly magazine Intelligent Life. He was previously the Sunday Times film critic from 1994 to 1999 and has written for Slate, the New Yorker, the New York Times, and the Daily Telegraph. He is the author of Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer, published in 2004. He lives in New York and teaches film history at NYU."Tonight, celebratory meatballs!
Mar 12, 2013
“I’m driving one day, the phone rings and it’s Bill Murray, and he says, ‘Ted Melfi, I don’t know who you are, but I love your script.’ He asked me to meet him at LAX and go for a ride as he returned home from a golf tournament. I met him in baggage, we got in a town car. He pulls the script out of an attache case. It’s dog-eared and there are notes all over it. We stop at an In-N-Out Burger, and spent a three-hour drive to I don’t know where discussing the script. He understood everything about the character, and his notes were simple, direct and to the point. He said, this character is who I am at times, and this is how I talk, at times. It was one of those days where you think, if I died tomorrow, it would be okay.” — Ted Melfi, on getting the okay from Bill Murray
Mar 4, 2013
Most anticipated films of 2013:—
March 29th The Place Beyond the Pines (Gosling, Cianfrance) May 3rd Iron Man 3 (Downey, Paltrow) May 10th The Great Gatsby (DiCaprio, Luhrmann, Mulligan) May 17th Star Trek 2 (Pine, Quinto, Cumberpatch) June 21st Monster University (Pixar) World War Z (Pitt, Enos, Forster) July 3rd The Lone Ranger (Depp, Verbinski, Hammer) July 12th Pacific Rim (del Torro) August 9th Elysium (Damon, Foster, Blomkamp) October 11th Captain Phillips (Hanks, Greengrass) Oldboy (Olsen, Lee, Brolin) December 20 Saving Mr Banks (Hanks, Thompson) December 25th The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (Stiller) Also Inside Llewyn Davis (Coens, Mulligan) Robopocalypse (Spielberg, Hathaway) Nightingale (Gray, Phoenix, Renner, Cotillard) Gravity (Cuaron, Clooney, Bullock) August: Osage County (Wells, Cumberpatch) Wolf of Wall Street (Scorsese, DiCaprio) Labor Day (Reitman) Foxcatcher (Miller) The Counsellor (Scott, Pitt) 12 Years A Slave (McQueen) Before Midnight (Linklater) Nebraska (The Grand Budapest Hotel Abscam Project (Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight (The Bling Ring (Drinking Buddies (The Young and Prodigious Spivet ( Carrie (Moretz, Peirce) 12 Years a Slave (Fassbender, McQueen) Her (Spike Jonze) Parkland (Landesman) 42 (Helgeland, Ford)