How Spielberg came to direct George Lucas script for “Raiders”: Op-Ed

FlickeringMyth Blogspot: Hot Rods & Droids: A George Lucas Profile

“We both have a tradition that, when we have a film opening for which there are high expectations, we get out of town,” stated filmmaker Steven Spielberg, who vacationed with colleague George Lucas in Hawaii while Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and Star Wars (1977) were being theatrically released. Lucas asked Spielberg what he would like to do as his follow-up effort. “I said I wanted to do a James Bond film. United Artists had approached me after Sugarland Express [1974] and asked me to do a film for them. I said, ‘Sure give me the next James Bond film.’ But they said they couldn’t do that. Then George said he had a film that was even better than a James Bond. It was called Raiders of the Lost Ark [1981], and it was about this archaeologist-adventurer who goes searching for the Ark of the Covenant. When he mentioned that it would be like the old serials and that the guy would wear a soft fedora and carry a bullwhip, I was completely hooked. George asked, ‘Are you interested?’ and I said, ‘I want to direct it,’ and he said, ‘It’s yours.’”

George Lucas discussed the concept of the tale with Philip Kaufman (The Right Stuff) who came up with the idea of the Ark of the Covenant as being the device that drives the plot. Kaufman had heard about the Ark from his doctor when he was 11 years old; he subsequently left the project when given an opportunity to direct a Clint Eastwood movie. “Originally, he was a playboy and lived the fast life in Manhattan,” revealed Lucas. “He used his treasure hunting to fund his lifestyle. When we got on to that part of it, Steven and Harrison Ford both fought the idea. I kept pushing it and pushing it and it’s still there, it’s just not ever talked about. Especially in the first movie, Indy is driven by the significance of what he’s going after, not the money. He’s basically a mercenary, but it’s the thrill of discovery that keeps him going. He loves archaeology and he loves discovering the truth about ancient civilizations and history.” To write the screenplay Steven Spielberg recommended Lawrence Kasdan from whom he had bought the script Continental Divide (1981).

Director Steven Spielberg, Harrison Ford on the set of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, 1981, (c) Paramount

“Our outlining was immense, but not detailed,” stated Kasdan who had a four-day story conference with Spielberg and Lucas. “We knew who the three main characters would be, but there wasn’t a word in anybody’s mouth. There were no broad strokes and real structure to Raiders’ plot. I had to come up with all of that. I also had to do a good bit of research. My first draft of Raiders had a lot of information about the Ark of the Covenant, most of which has survived into the final film. It’s been simplified and might sound like a lot of hocus pocus, but the majority of the superstitions and history that the picture attributes to the Ark are beliefs that have been held by people for years. Additionally, I did a lot of reading about archeology, the attitudes and lifestyles of 1930’s America, and that time’s international alliances.”

Producer Frank Marshall, who had previously worked with director Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show), recalled, “Larry, George, and Steven had a ball picking exciting moments they’d known as kids from the movies and wanted to see in a movie again. I’d look at them and say, ‘But where are you going to get a flying wing?’ The practical side of it. But it was one of those times when you just come up with all the great toys and the wild ideas you can think of, and then you say, ‘We can do it.’ There was a great, positive atmosphere that George created. His motto was, ‘We can do anything, and we can figure out how to do it for a price.’ That was the challenge.”

Looking back on the picture, George Lucas observed, “What I learned on Raiders is that you set the whole thing up. Get the script pretty much the way you want it. Then, if you hire the right person whom you agree with, you go with their vision. I let Steve direct it whatever way he wanted to direct it. But the truth is that we agreed completely on the vision.” Lucas and his screenwriter had some differing opinions. “I had to write, under duress, a different version of the scene where Brody [Indiana Jones’ college supervisor] goes to his house,” explained Lawrence Kasdan. “George wanted Indy to be a playboy, so Jones was going to answer the door wearing a tuxedo. Then, when Brody went into the house, he would see a beautiful [Jean] Harlow type blonde sipping champagne in Indy’s living room. My feeling was that Indiana Jones’ two sides [professor and adventurer] made him complicated enough without adding the playboy element. One of the factors that’s so great about Harrison’s performance is that he makes that combination believable. He didn’t overdo it. There’s real charm to [Harrison] Ford’s performance as the professor, yet you can also believe what Indy does later on is part of the same person. Luckily, that ‘playboy’ scene was never shot.”

Former studio executive Michael Eisner, then at Paramount, upon reading the first 20 pages told Frank Marshall, “‘That’ll take the whole budget.’ But George had enough clout already to say, ‘We can do it, and here are the people involved.’ And we did it for $18 million. And it’s still the most fun and the most rewarding experience I’ve ever had.” Central to the production being able to rise above the budget restraints and logistical difficulties was the creative partnership between Lucas and Spielberg. “Everyone was concerned,” admitted Marshall. “After all, we were shooting in seven countries on three continents. And if you can imagine moving a whole company from Tunisia to Hawaii. Yet we came in two weeks under schedule. George and Steven have a great relationship. It’s a partnership made in heaven, sharing the creative endeavor. They’re both responsible filmmakers. Steven loves directing, George doesn’t. Steven takes in projects others have developed; George likes to develop all of his own.”

During the pre-production for Raiders of Lost Ark, Steven Spielberg remembered George Lucas advising him, “‘Don’t try to make the greatest movie in the world. Just get the story told one chapter at a time. Think of this as a B-movie.’” Executive Producer Howard Kazanjian (Demolition Man) served as the liaison between Lucasfilm and Paramount. “Originally everybody thought that the part of Indiana Jones should go to Tom Selleck [Quigley Down Under],” said Kazanjian. “Steven and George wanted him because he was the ideal character.” Upon learning that an offer had gone out to Selleck, CBS immediately put the television series Magnum P.I. into production thereby making the actor unavailable for the production. “Steven is the one who said Harrison would be great, right after Selleck,” confessed George Lucas who was reluctant to use Harrison Ford because of his association with the Star Wars franchise. “I was cast late – like two weeks before the cameras were scheduled to roll,” said Ford, who had a number of questions and suggestions for Spielberg. “We flew overseas together, took out the script, and spent 10 solid hours discussing it on the plane. By the time we disembarked, we had a working rapport.” Lawrence Kasdan was pleased with the casting decision. “There are wonderful heroics in Raiders, but they’re never super-human,” said Kasdan. “Again, that has a lot to do with Harrison Ford. He made Indy come across as a very likeable and competent guy. That brand of capable hero was a very important element of the great adventure pictures.”

Cast with Ford are Karen Allen (Scrooged), Paul Freeman (Centurion), John Rhys-Davies (Victor Victoria), Alfred Molina (An Education), and Denholm Elliott (A Room with a View). “I thought Karen had a spunky personality that was very winning,” said George Lucas who agreed with Steven Spielberg’s suggestion to have English actor Paul Freeman play the French adversary René Belloq. “When I was sitting in the office in L.A. reading it,” remarked Freeman, “and I got to the bit with the monkey, I thought, ‘This is wonderful, it’s a really witty adventure story.’” Alfred Molina was not too happy about being covered with tarantulas on his first day of shooting. “I was covered with at least a couple of dozen spiders,” recalled Molina. “I hear Steven say something like, ‘Why aren’t they moving? They look fake.’ And the spider wrangler says, ‘Because they’re all males, you see? We have to put a female in there, then they’ll fight.’ So he puts the female on me – and suddenly all hell breaks loose. These spiders were running, dropping, and fighting – they were running over my face, and Steven is going, ‘Shoot, shoot, shoot! Alfred look scared, look scared!’ Trust me, I was scared.” As for filming the slithering creatures inhabiting the Well of the Souls, Lucas stated, “I wasn’t there when they shot the snakes. And that’s one of the reasons why Steven directed the movie and I didn’t. I didn’t want to sit on a soundstage with snakes, trying to get that sequence right.”

“My feeling was that we should have edited a little of the chase sequences so that we’d have time to properly establish the characters,” confided Lawrence Kasdan. “George Lucas, though, doesn’t put as much emphasis on personal development as he does on action.” However, Kasdan had to admit, “What’s great about Raiders is that it moves so fast and its conclusion is so incredible, that by the time I got to the ending, I didn’t care about the flaws.” The creator of the tale recognized that commercial success was far from being a certainty. “This film could very easily not be a hit,” declared Lucas whose gamble paid off as Raiders of the Lost Ark grossed $384 million worldwide. “It was this offbeat movie, almost a Western. Nobody knew what it was, or what to make of it. But the word spread very fast and excitement started to build. Once they saw it, they loved it. It was one of those films that after it was put together, it worked like crazy.” At the Academy Awards, the swashbuckling adventure tale won Best Art Direction & Set Decoration, Best Visual Effects, Best Editing, Best Sound and a Special Achievement Award for Sound Effects Editing while receiving nominations for Best Cinematography, Best Director, Best Original Score and Best Picture. The BAFTAs lauded the movie with Best Production Design & Art Decoration; it also competed for the Anthony Asquith Award for Film Music, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Film, Best Sound and Best Supporting Actor (Denholm Elliott). The American Cinema Editors handed out the Eddie for Best Edited Feature Film to Michael Kahn. Other nominations included one from the Directors Guild of America, the Writers Guild of America for Best Original Screenplay – Comedy, and the Golden Globes for Best Director. In 1999, Raiders of the Lost Ark was inducted into the National Film Registry.

Seeking to make his directorial debut, Lawrence Kasdan needed a name director as a sponsor and backup if the production ran into trouble. “He thought the overseeing business was pretty ridiculous,” remarked Kasdan who delved into the world of film noir with the adulteress murder tale Body Heat (1981) starring Kathleen Turner (Romancing the Stone) and William Hurt (Gorky Park). “He thought I was perfectly capable of directing the movie, and he didn’t know what function an overseer served. But the tradition goes on, and now I’m doing it for somebody.” Lucas agreed to be an uncredited executive producer. “There would have been a giant controversy about me making this picture. And it wasn’t me making this picture, it was Larry.” Lucas asked for a fee that was more than Kasdan was being paid but he told Kasdan that the money could be used if the movie went over budget. “That was an extraordinary generous thing to do,” said the rookie helmer. “And he made it possible to make the film with no interference at all.”

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