Commentary on Movies and TV by Brian Holcomb

Tuesday, March 10, 2009


If you head over to MYSTERY MAN ON FILM you'll be in for a real treat. Well, that's kind of an understatement. This may be one of the true Holy Grails for those of us who are fascinated by the creative process. There's a link to a PDF available for download there, a 126 page transcript of the original story conferences for Raiders of the Lost Ark! From January 23, 1978 thru January 27, 1978, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Lawrence Kasdan spent 9 hours a day for 5 days hashing out the story and characters for their new film and it's all here. I have NO idea how this was allowed to escape and I sincerely doubt that the very controlling Lucas and Spielberg approve of it. But since it's available we now can observe the process with which each idea is suggested, tested, spun over and either developed or thrown away.

It's interesting to see how much of it is dominated by Lucas and how quickly he shifts his roles from Writer to Producer when he dictates that one of Spielberg's ideas is going to "cost another million dollars" and should be dropped. They are confused for a while as to what kind of heroine to put in the picture until Kasdan suggests that Indy had an affair with his mentor's daughter years ago and now she's grown up. They are way too excited to make her very underage and initially they want her to be as young as 10 or 12! But Lucas quickly becomes more conservative on this issue and says that they should make her 15, because at 16 or 17 it's no longer interesting. Lucas seems very concerned with keeping Indy cool but still a role model for children. I am sure he was thinking about his future deals with Kenner for the toys.

There is a constant discussion and argument over budget versus production value. Lots of talk about Hong Kong mogul Run Run Shaw and the use of stock footage. Spielberg seems to want crowds even if he has to steal the shots in Bombay. Lucas is more interested in making great stunts over the spectacle and thinks the money is best spent this way. It's interesting to see how Lucas, whose dime this was to be made on, is watching over the shop while Spielberg who had just come off a lot of bad press for budget overruns on the mega-bomb 1941 is more than happy to spend whatever necessary to make a great movie. I really think that the tug of war between these two, balanced by the story smarts of Kasdan really clicked, at least this one time.

It is fascinating to see how much Lucas seemed to understand the basics of storytelling at the time, basics which he seems to have lost today in the deserts of Tunisia. Here's a sample form the opening pages of the transcript which show just how much he seems to have understood about storytelling: (G=George Lucas, S=Steven Spielberg, L=Lawrence Kasdan)

G — We'll just talk general ideas, what the concept of
it was. Then I'll get down to going specifically through
the story. Then we will actually get to where we can
start talking down scenes, in the end I want to end up
with a list of scenes. And the way I work generally is
I figure a code, a general measuring stick perameter.
I can either come up with thirty scenes or sixty scenes
depending on which scale you, want to work on. A thirty
scene thing means that each scene is going to be around
four pages long. A sixty one means that every scene is
going to run twenty pages long. (?) It depends on, part
of it is the... (short gap in the tape) knock some of
these out, and this doesn't work out the way we thought
it would. You can move things around, but it generally
gives you an idea, assuming that what we really want at
the end of all this is a hundred and twenty page script,
or less. But that's where we really want to go. Then
we figure out vaguely what the pace of, how fast it's
going to move and how we're going to do it. I have a
tendency to work rather mathematically about all this stuff.
I found it easier and it does lay things out. Especially
a thing like this. The basic premise is that it's sort
of a serialesque kind of movie. Meaning that there are
certain things that have to continue to happen. It's
also basically an action piece, for the most part. We
want to keep things interspaced and at the same time
build it. As I build this up, you'll see it's done
vaguely by the numbers.

Generally, the concept is a serial idea. Done like the
Republic serials. As a thirties serial. Which is where
a lot of stuff comes from anyway. One of the main ideas
was to have, depending on whether it would be every ten
minutes or every twenty minutes, a sort of a cliffhanger
situation that we get our hero into. If it's every ten
minutes we do it twelve times. I think that may be a
little much. Six times is plenty.

S — And each cliffhanger is better than the one before.

G — That is the progression we have to do. It's hard
to come up with. The trouble with cliff hangers is, you
get somebody into something, you sort have to get them
out in a plausible way. A believable way, anyway.
That's another important concept of the movie — that it
be totally believable. It's a spaghetti western, only
it takes place in the thirties. Or it's James Bond and
it takes place in the thirties. Except James Bond tends
to get a little outrageous at times. We're going to take
the.unrealistic side of it off. and make it more like the
Clint Eastwood westerns.

G — The thing with this is, we want to make a very
believable character. We want him to be extremely good
at what he does, as is the Clint Eastwood character
or the James Bond character. James Bond and the man
with no name were very good at what they did. They
were very, fast with a gun. they were very slick, they
were very:professional. They were Supermen.

S — Like Mifune.

G — Yes, like Mifune. He's a real professional. He's
really good. And that is the key to the whole thing.
That's something you don't see that much anymore.

S — And one of the things that really helped Mifune in
all the Kurosawa movies is that he was always surrounded
by really inept characters, real silly buffoons, which
made him so much more majestic. If there are occasions
where he comes up against, not the arch-villian, but
the people around him shouldn't be the smartest...

G — Well, they shouldn't be buffoons. The one thing
we're going to do is make a very good period piece,
that is realistic and believable. A thirties movie in
the, even in the Sam Spade genre. Even in the Maltese
Falcon there were some pretty goofy characters, but
they were all pretty real in their own bizarre way.

S — Elijah Cook.

G-Elisha Cook might~not have"been-the brightest person"
in the world. In a way he was the buffoon of the piece,
but at the same time he was very dangerous and he was
very... They were strong characters. If we keep it
that mode of believability...

S — It's just like you don't put Lee Van Cleef as an
accomplice to... (garbled)

G — No, you put Eli Wallich.- Did you see "The Good, The
Bad And the Ugly"? The Eli Wallich character is a goofy
character, but at the same time he's very dangerous and
he's very funny and he's ... We can have that kind of
thing. The main thing is for him to be a super hero in
the best sense of the word, which is John Wayne, Clint
Eastwood, Sean Connery tradition of a man who we can all
look up to and say, "Now there's somebody who really
knows his job. He's really good at what he does and he's
a very dangerous person. But at the same time we're
putting him in the kind of Bogart mold, like "Treasure of
Sierra Madre" or ...

S — Or even the Clark Gable thing we talked about.

G — Yeah, the Clark Gable mold. The fact that he is slightly
scruffy. You don't know it until it happens.

Now, several aspects that we've discussed before: The image
of him which is the strongest image is the "Treasure Of
Sierra Madre" outfit, which is the khaki pants, he's
got the leather jacket, that sort of felt hat, and the
pistol and holster with a World War One sort of flap over
it. He's going into the jtingle carrying his gun. The
other thing we've added to him, which may be fun, is a
bull whip. That's really his trade mark. That's really
what he's good at. He has a pistol, and he's probably
very good at that, but at the same time he happens to be
very good with a bull whip. It's really more of a hobby
than anything else. Maybe he came from Montana, someplace,
and he... There are freaks who love bull whips. They just
do it all the time. It's a device that hasn't been used
in a long time.

S — You can knock somebody' s belt off and the guys pants
fall down.

Tellingly, Lucas doesn't seem to like this idea too much as it seems more broad than the rough and tumble adventure he has in mind(Which is exactly why I think RAIDERS stands tall above its more splatstickey sequels .) Flashforward to last summer and Crystal Skull is filled with this garbage (seemingly very much approved by the new Jar Jar mad Lucas), like Shia Lebouf swinging on vines a'la Tarzan following a horde of monkeys. Ugh.

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