Monday, March 09, 2009
The “Raiders” Story Conference
Hey, guys, you’re going to love this (and thanks, Viktor).
There is a link now available to download the 125-page transcript (in the form of a .pdf document) of the original 1978 story conference between Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Lawrence Kasdan for a little film called Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Some background first. Spielberg suggested that Kasdan write Raiders because he admired his Continental Divide script. Lucas agreed. Now, imagine with me: Lucas had just released Star Wars, the biggest film in the history of Hollywood and a cult phenomenon. Spielberg had just released Close Encounters of the Third Kind and before that, Jaws. Now Kasdan was called in to have a story conference with the biggest names in Hollywood who wanted to talk about their next blockbuster. The conference took place at the L.A. home of Jane Bay, who was Lucas’ assistant. They had 5 consecutive 9-hour days to talk about the story. This .pdf is a transcript from taped recordings of those meetings.
By the time Lucas and Spielberg setup these meetings with Kasdan, they knew for the most part what they wanted. This was just a matter of “okay, so, how do we tell this story?” Lucas did most of the talking. He seemed to be just talking through all of the ideas. He came across as, on the one hand, a strong driving force behind the film and on the other hand, a bit controlling. Spielberg occasionally threw in some exciting, funny, and even wacky ideas, which at times Lucas tried to dial down. But many, if not most, of Spielberg’s ideas would be used. Kasdan doesn’t say too much. I imagine he’s just soaking in everything he’s hearing, but he was certainly in sync with the filmmakers. He'd occasionally interject suggestions and also good questions about logic, characters, and plot.
Man-oh-man, Spielberg and Lucas were idea machines. They could’ve sat there coming up with Indiana Smith ideas forever. There were enough ideas generated in these meetings for two films, which they actually used for two films. I must say, it’s rather unusual to have meetings with a producer and a director and be given so many ideas. Not that meetings with producers and directors wouldn’t have a lot of ideas but I’m not sure you would encounter such a volume as this. For screenwriters, it’s a goldmine. If you try to forget the finished film and put yourself into Kasdan’s shoes and you have all these ideas thrown at you, it can be a daunting task. What do you keep? What do you throw away? How do you make all this work?
In any case, there were about 10 Screenwriting Lessons I took away from this experience and thought they might be worth sharing.
1) Before they ever discussed the plot, they figured out who and what their hero-protagonist is and how he'd be similar and also different from other heroes in cinema.
The story began with the character, which was integral to the concept. So much was said that it’s hard to condense, but here’s a taste:
(Key: G = George; S = Steven; L = Larry)
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.
G — He's the guy who's been all around the world. He's a soldier of fortune. He is also... Well, this gets into that other side of his character, which is totally alien to that side we just talked about. Essentially, I think he is a, and this was the original character and it's an interesting juxtaposition. He is an archeologist and an anthropologist. A Ph.D. He's a doctor, he's a college professor. What happened is, he's also a sort of rough and tumble guy. But he got involved in going in and getting antiquities. Sort of searching out antiquities. And it became a very lucrative profession so he, rather than be an archeologist, he became sort of an outlaw archeologist. He really started being a grave robber, for hire, is what it really came down to. And the museums would hire him to steal things out of tombs and stuff. Or, locate them. In the archeology circles he knows everybody, so he's sort of like a private detective grave robber. A museum will give him an assignment... a bounty hunter.
G — I think basically he's very cynical about the whole thing. Maybe he thinks that most archeologists are just full of shit, and that somebody's going to rip this stuff off anyway. Better that he rips it off and gets it to a museum where people can study it and rip it off right. That's the key also. He knows how to enter a tomb without destroying it. He knows what's important. He knows not to go in there like a bull in a china shop and destroy half the stuff that's valuable.
G — It's such an odd juxtaposition, especially going around. The first sequence is in the jungle and you see him in action. You see him going through the whole thing. And the next sequence after that you see him back in Washington or New York, back in the museum. Where he's in a totally academic thing, turning over this thing that he's got. Then in the rest of the movie you see him back in his bullwhip mode. You understand that there's more to him. Plus, it justifies later things that he... the fact that he's sort of an intelligent guy. Peter Falk is one way of looking at him, a Humphrey Bogart character. The fact that he's sort of scruffy and, not the right image, but...
S — Peter's too scruffy.
G — Yes. We'll figure a way of laying that out in his personality so it's easily identifiable.
S — Remember the movie Soldier Of Fortune with Clark Gable? There was a good deal of Rhett Butler in that character. The devil-may-care kind of guy who can handle situations. He's so damn glib he bluffs everybody around. People think that he's a push-over. He's challenged, and he always appears like a push-over. But in fact he's not. He likes to set himself up in these subordinate roles from time to time to get his way.
G — What I'm saying is that character just would not fit in a college classroom or even as an archeologist. He's too much of a scruffy character to settle down. A playboy, or however you want to do it. He's too much of a wise-guy, maybe that's a better way to say it, to actually be a college professor. He really loves the stuff, but he became too cynical, he's too much of a wise guy to fit into an academic situation, or even an archeological situation. He's really too much of an adventurer at heart. He just loves it. So he obviously took this whole bent that was different because it's just more fun. He just can't settle down. It's a nice contrast. It's like the James Bond thing. Instead of being a martini drinking cultured kind of sophisticate, he's the sort of intellectual college professor James Bond. He's a superagent.
S — Clark Kent.
G — Yeah. It's that thing, which is fun. It's the same idea, only twisted around a little bit...
On the name:
L — Do you have a name for this person?
G — I do for our leader.
S — I hate this, but go ahead.
G — Indiana Smith. It has to be unique. It's a character. Very Americana square. He was born in Indiana.
L — What does she call him? “Indy?”
G — That's what I was thinking. Or “Jones.” Then people can call him “Jones.”
2) A character arc? What's that?
There was also no discussion about an arc, and as you can see, they referenced characters that did not arc, such as James Bond, the Man With No Name, Superman, and some of Clark Gable’s characters.
3) A racy backstory can keep a plot moving.
Interestingly, the discussion about Marion was hardly as thorough as the one about Indy. For a while, they weren't sure what kind of girl to have as a counterpart to Indy. Lucas had first described the love interest as a blonde double-crossing German agent, which they ended up using in Last Crusade. Spielberg said, “She should have hair like Veronica Lake. You only see one eye at a time.”
There was talk about a big name professor who taught Indy everything he knew. Then there was the idea about this German girl, and for the sake of expediency, Kasdan suggested that Indy instead have an affair with the mentor’s daughter, which they loved. And then Lucas and Spielberg were off and running with ideas about how’s she’s been left in Peru and has this bar and is trying to get money together to get back to the States and loves (and resents) Indy to no end. In fact, Kasdan said he wanted Indy and this girl to already have a history when they meet because, “I like it if they already had a relationship at one point. Because then you don’t have to build it.” Hehehe…
Then the discussion turned to how old Marion and Indy were at the time of the affair:
G — I was thinking that this old guy could have been his mentor. He could have known this little girl when she was just a kid. Had an affair with her when she was eleven.
L — And he was forty-two.
G — He hasn't seen her in twelve years. Now she's twenty-two. It's a real strange relationship.
S — She had better be older than twenty-two.
G — He's thirty-five, and he knew her ten years ago when he was twenty-five and she was only twelve. It would be amusing to make her slightly young at the time.
S — And promiscuous. She came onto him.
G — Fifteen is right on the edge. I know it's an outrageous idea, but it is interesting. Once she's sixteen or seventeen it's not interesting anymore. But if she was fifteen and he was twenty-five and they actually had an affair the last time they met. And she was madly in love with him and he...
S — She has pictures of him.
And now consider the dialogue of that scene in the film:
INDY: I never meant to hurt you.
MARION: I was a child! I was in love.
INDY: You knew what you were doing.
MARION: It was wrong. You knew it.
INDY: Look, I did what I did. I don't expect you to be happy about it. But maybe we can do each other some good.
MARION: Why start now?
INDY: Shut up and listen for a second. I want that piece your father had. I've got money.
MARION: How much?
4) Consider the debate about un-sympathetic protagonists.
At one point, they figured out that he’d go to Marion to get a pendant thingee, a puzzle of some kind that her father collected and will help Indy find the Ark. But she doesn’t want to give it to him. And she goes with him on this adventure. So then the question became, how does he get this thing from Marion to solve the puzzle?
They tossed around an idea about him stealing the pendant from her, which prompted a short debate about un-sympathetic protags:
G — It would be nice if they left in a huff, they fought or something. He left rather pissed. I don't think he would leave without the pendant. That's the only thing that bothers me about that.
S — So he goes upstairs and stays up, plotting how he's going to take it off her.
G — That makes him into a real rat.
L — That's all right. He never does it. What he does is just the opposite, save her life.
G — No matter how you do it, the fact that he thought about it is the rat part.
S — Rhett Butler was a rat.
G — He wasn't a real rat --
S — He proved himself by raising her family. Before that he was a gambler, dealt with cheap ladies.
G — There's a difference between being a rat and somebody who's having fun. He never hurt anybody.
L — I'm a little confused about Indiana at this point. I thought he'd do anything for this pendant.
G — But he still has to have some moral scruples. He has to be a person we can look up to. We're doing a role model for little kids, so we have to be careful. We need someone who's honest, trusting and true. But at the same time he's confronted with this difficult problem. We have a great thing when she won't give it to him. She doesn't like him.
L — What if you see them separate, and you see them both thinking about it, and it's clear that she's going to give it to him. Then he saves her and she doubts his motivation, was he coming to steal it? Or was he coming to rekindle the romance? It doesn't have to be crystal clear to her.
Interesting to me that they didn’t have a debate about un-sympathetic protags when they were talking about Indy having an affair with the underage daughter of his mentor. That builds sympathy how? But they’re terribly concerned about losing sympathy if we might watch Indy consider stealing the pendant from Marion. (Also, here, Lucas and Spielberg were both projecting their own unique feelings onto Rhett Butler. Rhett WAS a cheating rat and he never once redeemed himself with that dysfunctional family he created. He spoiled the hell out of his wife and his little girl, which was in part why she died.)
However, I think there might be some screenwriting nuggets here. What happens in the past, off screen, good or bad, does not affect sympathy. It’s what we see the character do in the present that determines how much we will or will not care about that character.
5) Consider how tension was always a high priority as they laid-out their plot for the film.
The first scene was all about building the tension to a big payoff, which was a boulder as Spielberg suggested. But you had to set that up first and work your way backwards. So going backwards, you create tension with the near betrayal against Indy when he put the map together and had to use his whip on the man that pulled out the gun. You have the fresh poison darts of the Hovitos. You have his entourage not going any further when they reached the stone sculpture of a Chachapoyan demon. You have tarantulas. You have the dead competitor in the Chamber of Light. You have the pit. You have the dart floor in the Foyer of the Sanctuary. And then you have the big payoff to all the big danger that all of these details setup.
The consideration in Act Two was about maintaining tension. Here are highlights of comments George made…
G - People are trying to kill him as soon as he arrives or maybe even before he arrives on the airplane. As soon as he gets there, there are knives coming out of walls, all these slimy characters are following him, all that stuff that happens in those places in the thirties…
…There's a lot of tension because we have established that everybody is trying to kill him. People are following him all over the place…
…The idea in the middle sequence was to create sort of a race, tension, who's going to find the Ark first situation.
So much of the tension and gags was a matter of backtracking. Consider how Indy is finally underground in the temple. He found the Ark and had it hoisted up. At this stage of development, the temple was not full of snakes. The Germans grab the Ark and seal Indy inside to die. So what do you do with Indy then?
How do you raise the tension and suspense in this scene and also find a way for him to escape? They first decided that the temple be suddenly filled with water and Indy floated up to a place where he figured out how to escape. This idea could be setup with Indy entering a sand temple and there's moss on the walls. But will audiences believe that there could be so much underground water in a desert? Lucas suggested setting that up verbally by talking about an underground water system. Nah. How about filling the temple with sand? Nah. Then Spielberg suggested that the Germans lower hungry lions into the temple to kill Indy, which would give him the chance to use his bull whip. Nah. How about rats? Or how about snakes? Hundreds of thousands of snakes. It could be a giant snake pit.
And then they were off and running about the snakes in the temple.
S — It would be funny if, somewhere early in the movie he somehow implied that he was not afraid of snakes. Later you realize that that is one of his big fears.
G — Maybe it's better if you see early, maybe in the beginning that he's afraid: "Oh God, I hate those snakes." It should be slightly amusing that he hates snakes, and then he opens this up, "I can't go down in there. Why did there have to be snakes? Anything but snakes." You can play it for comedy…
So then they go back to figure out when and how you can setup the snake joke in the opening sequence. A lot of screenwriting is backtracking, of setups and payoffs.
6) Consider their approach to exposition.
So Indy’s in Cairo with his friend. We're at a scene that we know will be full of exposition, that is, the Staff of Ra was too long for the Germans and they’re digging in the wrong place. So the question was, "what are we going to do to make the scene interesting so the audience doesn’t fall asleep?" And the idea was presented that this exposition could be done over dinner that’s been poisoned. As they pick up tainted food and gesture with it, we fear for their lives. They loved it. (And I've been saying this for years - great exposition is always given in the context of something else.) Okay, now that we have the setup, how do they figure out the food is poisoned and survive? A pet nibbles on it and dies. Okay, what kind of pet?
S - What if it's an animal we hate, an animal the audience can't stand. It's always after our hero and doesn't like him very much, like a mongoose.
G — A monkey is a perfect thing.
S — What animal don't people like?
G — A rat.
S — A pet rat.
G — It doesn't have to be a pet.
L — He's looking the other way, the rat comes up.
S — That's a pretty brave rat.
G — It wouldn't come on the table.
So then they’re off and running about this pet monkey. Why is the monkey here? Is it a family pet? Maybe it just attaches itself to one of the characters and won’t go away. Is it dressed up like a circus monkey? Perhaps it’s secretly helping a German agent? Well, what kind of bad things can a monkey do for a German agent? It was hilarious. I was rolling. But ya know, figuring out those details is crucial to a script. Finally, at one point, Spielberg suggested that the monkey humorously do the “Heil, Hitler” gesture. Lucas responds, “That's up to you and the trainer and the monkey.” Hehehe...
They had to be laughing as they were talking about this.
So we’re back at the dinner scene. The exposition about the Staff of Ra will be fed to the audience in the context of Indy possibly eating poisoned food. It’ll be a bad secret agent monkey that eats the food and dies. Spielberg had a hilarious suggestion that I loved:
S — …it would be funny if, as they're talking about this and the olives are between them, you see a hairy little paw is pulling olives off the plate, coming in and out of frame. Finally the paw comes up to grab an olive and begins slipping, like palsy. You use a little mechanical paw. And then you hear a thump.
Of course, the final result was the quick "bad dates" scene. All of that thought and work for something so quick. Welcome to Hollywood.
7) No idea is a bad idea when you’re brainstorming.
These guys were all over the place with ideas and there’s nothing wrong with that. As I mentioned earlier, many of the ideas discussed, like the plane crash sequence and mine cart chase, were used in the second film. So what helped determine which sequence should be kept and thrown away? Redundancies in concept. You already had a chase scene here, so why have another one here? Let’s come up with something different. You know? That kind of thing.
At one point, when the bad guys had captured Marion, they were debating what to do next.
G — What can he chase them with? What if he jumps on a camel?
S — I love it. It's a great idea. There's never been a camel chase before.
L — Is this camel going to chase a car?
S — You know how fast a camel can run? Not only that, he can jump over vegetable carts and things. It could be a funny chase that ends in tragedy. You're laughing your head off and suddenly, "My God, she's dead."
S — We still have the big fight in the moving truck to do. And now we have a camel chase.
G — We've added another million dollars.
S — Not really. How much trouble can a camel be?
8) Consider their approach to budget.
Keeping the film cheap was a way of testing the idea of Indiana Smith. Lucas said, “Part of it is the energy of making it reasonably low budget. It’s also a test of the idea. If it’s good, then we’ll be okay.”
9) Consider their approach to the ending.
G — If you follow classic dramatic plotting, that's what is going to happen. You put your biggest boom last, and you create as much tension as you possibly can.
I’ve also been saying this for years, what I coined, “The Big Bang Theory of Screenwriting.” If you’re going to have a big bang in the beginning, you sure as hell better have a bigger bang in the end.
There was a lot of discussion about the ending and ideas about how to make it bigger than the opening sequence. This involved a sub to a secret island, the ritual with the Ark, everyone getting fried, Indy saving Marion, a mine cart chase back to the sub, and somehow the entire island completely blowing up. Interesting how early concepts had Indy much more active about resolving the conflict and yet how strangely satisfying the ending is with Indy just closing his eyes.
10) Consider the transcript as a whole, the sheer volume of thought, discussion, analysis, questions, and debate about the story before they ever sat down to write the script.
It’s like what Billy Wilder said, “You always start with too many ideas.”
Raiders looked deceptively simple and easy and fun, but the story required so much more thought than you can imagine. The good films always make everything look so easy but they never are. And I suspect that many aspiring writers fail because they jump into their stories with too few ideas, without brainstorming first, without outlining, and without really thinking through the story. Certainly not to this degree as we see in these story conferences. And so the question is, “Have you put as much thought into your story?”
Let me conclude with this anecdote from Raider.net:
By August 1978 Kasdan had finished his first draft and hand-delivered it to Lucas. When they met Lucas took the script, laid it aside, told Kasdan that he would read it later that night and offered him to go for lunch. During the lunch in the restaurant, Lucas offered to Kasdan to write the script for The Empire Strikes Back. Unfortunately, Leigh Brackett, the film's writer had passed away right after delivering her first draft and Lucas wanted someone to make revisions. "Don't you think you should read Raiders first?" was Kasdan's reply. "Well, I just get a feeling about people. Of course if I hate Raiders, I'll take back this offer," said Lucas. The next morning, Lucas called Kasdan and told him he was ecstatic about the Raiders script and he was very anxious for him to work on Empire.