A Conversation with Lawrence Kasdan
This week on On Story, Lawrence Kasdan, screenwriter of The Big Chill, The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark and many more, remembers the creative process behind some of his greatest films and getting to the heart of a story.
- The best response you can have to a payoff in a thriller
is someone goes, "Oh, right, I forgot, of course..."
[multiple voices chattering]
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From Austin Film Festival, this is On Story.
A look inside the creative process from today's
leading writers, creators, and filmmakers.
This week's On Story,
The Big Chill , The Empire Strikes Back
and Raiders of the Lost Ark screenwriter, Lawrence Kasdan.
- I had written Bodyguard ,
it was turned down 57 times.
And my agent sent me,
he had little cards so it didn't take much,
but there was a frame thing that had all 57 rejections,
and a comment about, do this, not that, so on.
But I just kept writing.
Then somebody optioned The Bodyguard after all that time.
So if you get 57 rejections,
you're on your way to something good.
[Narrator] In this episode, Lawrence Kasdan,
screenwriter of The Big Chill, The Empire Strikes Back,
Raiders of the Lost Ark and Silverado,
shares the creative process
behind some of his greatest films.
- There's this blockbuster Larry,
that a lot of people know,
who has brought us these iconic films,
the best Star Wars.
And then there's the Larry Kasdan that writes
and directs these really heart-filled stories that
have great charismatic characters.
So I want to talk about how you go from one to the other,
to breaking into writing for film in the first place.
- I grew up in West Virginia
and I wanted to write when I was very young.
And there was a playwriting teacher at the
University of Michigan who had taught Arthur Miller.
That was pretty impressive.
And he was in his 80s when I was applying to college,
but he was still teaching.
And I applied to Michigan and I got in,
and I took that course three times.
And when I was done,
Meg and I had met and we were about to get married.
And I had gotten a Masters in teaching English, because--
instead of bone spurs, you know--
and a friend of Meg's family said--
he ran an advertising agency
and kept writing.
And then I got an offer for one of these spec scripts.
And that sort of opened things up.
Because I had been writing so much, with so much failure
that I had another script to submit immediately.
And that ones sold.
And Steven Spielberg bought Continental Divide .
And when I met him for the first time, he said,
"George Lucas and I,"
I mean, I'm two weeks out of advertising,
"are going to make an adventure movie."
And I showed him Continental Divide .
"And we're interested in you writing it.
Are you interested?"
And we went to see George, and it was very odd meeting,
Frank Marshall was in that meeting and I had not met
until that day, he had never met George
and we're into it and George says,
"You know what I'm going to do, we're going to do this story,
"and the guy's named after my dog, Indiana,
"and he has a whip and a hat
and he's chasing the lost Ark of the Covenant."
And that was the MacGuffin that Phil Kaufman had come up with
when Phil Kaufman was going to direct the movie.
And he said Phil Kaufman, when he was 11 years old,
was at the orthodontist
and the orthodontist told him
about the lost Ark of the Covenant.
they just told me that much about it.
And George did something I've never seen him do since,
which was, he got up from behind his desk,
he walked into the center of the room and he said,
"Let's all shake hands on this."
We hadn't been offered the job yet.
And maybe this is an historic moment.
And we all shook hands.
And as Frank and I, who were not part of this
were walking off the lot.
Frank said, do you think we got that job?
And I said, I don't know, but-- [laughing]
when we get home, we'll find out.
And we did get the job.
And so I went off for six months and wrote that.
And when I went to hand it in, he took it,
he threw it on the desk
and he said, "Let's go out to lunch."
And I said, "Okay," we sit down.
And he says, "I'm in big trouble with the second Star Wars.
We've got all these people working in England
and I don't have a script."
And he said, "I'm really in a hole here.
Will you write this movie?"
And I said,
"Don't you want to read Raiders of the Lost Ark ?"
He said, "Well, I'm going to read it tonight.
"And if I don't like it, I'm going to call you up tomorrow,
take back this offer."
But he did like it.
And we started work on that and it went very quickly
because they were so far behind.
But the first thing, when I went to see George,
after I got that job, he said,
Darth Vader is Luke's father."
And I said, "No [bleep]."
I was shocked,
but right away,
it was like more interesting to me.
The whole thing had become more interesting to me
that this was his father.
- Luke, you do not yet realize your importance.
You have only begun to discover your power.
Join me and I will complete your training.
With our combined strength,
we can end this destructive conflict
and bring order to the galaxy.
- I'll never join you.
- If you only knew the power of the Dark Side.
Obi-Wan never told you what happened to your father.
He told me enough.
He told me you killed him.
I am your father.
That's not true.
- I was up in your office once and you had a wall of rejection.
- That's right.
- And I thought that was such a interesting thing to put up
because at that point, obviously the film had been made.
- I had written Bodyguard , it was turned down 57 times.
And my agent sent me, he had little cards so it didn't
take much, but there was a frame thing that had
all 57 rejections, and a comment about,
do this, not that, so on.
But I just kept writing.
Then I wrote Continental Divide ,
then somebody optioned The Bodyguard after all that time.
So if you get 57 rejections,
you're on your way to something good.
- The Bodyguard , how close was it to the script?
- This is a little delicate, because
it was the first thing I sold.
I wanted to direct it for years before I was a director.
And then when I became a director,
I got off on other things.
And when Kevin said, "Okay, let's do it," Meg and I had just
finished writing Grand Canyon and I wanted to do that.
And so I produced it with Kevin, The Bodyguard ,
and we hired someone
and it wasn't at all what I had in mind.
The shock of that movie for me, because we were all
disappointed in what it was,
but it was something in it that was so universally
interesting to people.
The fact that this action hero
is willing to sacrifice his life for her.
That she's very difficult, and yet they fall in love.
Those things are, it just turned out to be--
work all over the world.
But the story, I wrote for Steve McQueen
because he was my obsession and Kevin did that perfectly.
So I think it was a combination of those things.
You know, we don't know,
we do not know--
we can have a lot of opinions and judgments,
but you're so affected by what the world says.
And part of the biggest challenge being in this business
is to not ignore when you get slammed,
but how fast do you come back from it.
And I don't think I've been great about that all the time.
Sometimes yes, sometimes no.
But not because they're wrong and you're right,
because this is the nature of the game,
and you got to expect
that you're going to have ups and downs.
- That takes me into Body Heat .
This was such a great noir-ish kind of story where these
two people were entrancing, they're charming.
They're incredibly charming characters
and they're not particularly good people,
either of them really.
So, so talk about that one as the one--
that's your first one that you directed, right?
- When I wrote Raiders and Empire back to back,
people started offering me all these writing jobs,
which I had not really been offered before that.
I said, "No, I'm not going to write anything."
They said, "Well, what do you want to do?"
I said, "I came out here to direct."
And Alan Ladd, Jr. who was releasing Empire
and ran 20th Century Fox said,
"What do you want to direct?"
And I told him the story of Body Heat , he said,
"Well, I'll pay for you to write that script;
I can't tell you that you're going to direct it."
And I wrote it, he really liked it.
He changed studios in the meantime.
Alan Ladd said to George-
Alan Ladd moved his company to Warner Brothers-
he said, "Will you be his sponsor?"
That was very popular back then,
some big movie maker would sponsor a new person.
And George said, "I'll do it,
"but I can't put my name on it or Lucasfilm name
"because I'm just starting this company, it's for children.
And this movie is dirty."
And this is to George's credit, he said,
"Look, I'll be the executive producer
"and I'll take this fee.
"But if Larry goes over budget,
you can use my fee."
So you really can't ask for anything more than that.
- You have a lot of pressure on you to make this one right,
to make it good, especially because you're
working with somebody who's now involved with all these other
things you're doing.
- I had been thinking about almost nothing else for
about 11 years until when you're thinking about it
and you're seeing movies and when you're writing screenplays,
and I had written quite a few by then,
I was directing those in my head.
And so when it came time to actually direct somebody,
it didn't seem that terrible.
We tested four couples for that part.
And the great thing about that was not the testing,
It was that for the first time in my life,
I was on the set.
I was in control.
I said action.
I said cut.
And it took all that surface anxiety away.
And we picked someone, we started the movie.
And that first day, I felt like,
"Oh, this is what I've been trying to do my whole life."
And Bill was just exploding at the moment
I was casting Body Heat .
And Kathleen was a number.
We met dozens of women for that part
and she just jumped out.
- To me, the dialogue in Body Heat was,
just the banter was really incredible.
It felt like one of those Cornell Woolrich books
you would read and you just feel it happening.
It just felt-- it also felt hot and steamy.
I mean, that was really amazing how you pulled that off.
- You have a house.
- How'd you know that?
- You look like Pinehaven.
- How does Pinehaven look?
- Well tended.
- I'm well tended, all right.
What about you?
I need tending.
I need someone to take care of me,
someone to rub my tired muscles,
smooth out my sheets.
- Get married.
- I just need it for tonight.
[spits out drink laughing]
Oh, nice move, Matty.
I like it.
It's right over your heart.
- At least it's cool.
I was burning up.
- I asked you not to talk about the heat.
- Would you get me a paper towel or something?
Dip it in some cold water.
- Right away, I'll even wipe it off for you.
- You don't want to lick it?
- So then you go on to The Big Chill from there
and completely kind of opposite film,
you have all these characters now,
you've got many characters now.
- Well that was absolutely the reaction to Body Heat .
Body Heat was very well received and people were saying,
"Oh, come make a movie with us."
And so I wrote with Barbara Benedek,
The Big Chill .
All these people love me so much,
and they all turned it down.
They said, "How can you have a movie with seven leads?
You know, seven stars?"
And I said, "No, this is about a group of friends,
it's an ensemble piece."
And everybody turned it down.
In fact, it would just barely got made.
[Harold] Alex drew us together from the beginning.
Now he brings us together again.
I don't know why this happened.
But I do know that there was always something about Alex...
that was too good for this world.
- In the midst of doing these yourself,
you're still also doing other projects.
- When I was done with Body Heat , George came to me,
he said, "Look, you got to help me out.
"I'm doing the third in the trilogy.
Just come in and work on it for a little while."
And I said okay.
And then we wrote Jedi very quickly.
but that was only after I started.
I didn't do much of that for quite a while.
[Barbara] So then you're continuing to write,
you do Grand Canyon , and then French Kiss .
Again, they're all very character driven
and very people-driven stories.
Is that all coming out of this theater background?
Because you're really more of a people person's storyteller.
- I am, but everything--
When I was growing up in West Virginia,
I was in love with movies.
My brother had been interested in movies and he's the one
that told me, in West Virginia
we didn't know that people made it a living doing this.
We just thought you went into the theater
and the actors made it up.
He went to Harvard and he had heard that they actually
And I started watching movies, every American movie.
That's all I could get in West Virginia.
And you know, it's hard to see them then, because you know,
no DVD, no VHS, you had to catch it and then it was gone,
but I watched everything.
And then when I got to Michigan, everything was open to me
because I was going to about 10 movies a week
because they had all these film series.
So I got to see Kurosawa, my favorite director,
I saw Bergman and Truffaut, Antonioni.
It was just amazing period.
That was what I wanted to do.
I wanted to do human stories
that were entertaining,
but they were like auteurs.
When I wrote Raiders, that was completely off to the side.
Now, it's true that I loved Howard Hawks' movies,
I loved the big adventure movies.
I was always interested in that.
And in fact, my third movie was Silverado
and that was just an action Western,
but also character driven.
That's what I thought I was going to do.
And the other thing is really a sidebar.
- Well, Silverado was the next one I was going to bring up.
I read something on the internet, so this could
be total [bleep] but that you said you can tell any story
in a Western.
- Oh, I believe that.
I mean, it's just a great vessel for any kind of story.
You just pour whatever you want to talk about into that vessel.
And there are very little rules.
It feels like they're ritualized, but they're not.
Any story can be told on that canvas,
which is basically a blank canvas
where people are making up their lives.
And that's sort of how I saw the West,
and so they could be making up any life you want.
And there were no rules really.
And that's what Silverado is about.
It's about the connections you can still make in a place
that's completely wild.
- Pretty land, isn't it?
- And a pretty lady.
- A lot of men have told me that.
Maybe it's true.
I guess some women are slow to believe it.
- Believe it.
- They're drawn to me by that, but it never lasts.
- Because they don't like what I want.
- What's that?
- I want to build something, make things grow.
That takes hard work, a lifetime of it.
That's not why a man comes to a pretty woman.
After a while, I won't be so pretty,
but this land will be.
- I'd really like to hear about your thought in
telling your Western that way because it wasn't just about
the set pieces in it.
Your characters were such a strong piece of that story.
- I hope so, and that was really all I had been
thinking about since very young,
when I was thinking I wanted to make movies.
And for me, a very important movie is Magnificent Seven ,
which was remake of Seven Samurai
that John Sturgis did.
And then he did Great Escape ,
which blew my mind.
Everybody in it was great.
I loved that he could cast all these young guys
and they all became big stars,
James Coburn and Charles Bronson.
It was full.
And of course, McQueen who is my favorite actor in the world.
And the reason they're so cool,
both in Magnificent Seven and Great Escape
is because they're all characters.
They're very well written, sometimes very economically
because they don't have a lot of screen time,
but you get the whole thing.
And that to me was the essence of what I was trying to do.
How do you, in the most economical cinematic way,
how do you suggest someone's character,
even though you're not going to get to see them that much?
And that's what Silverado 's about.
That's really what Big Chill is about because they're
sharing the screen, studios were right about that.
There were seven leads, but I didn't think that was a problem.
- Still the best way to determine if it's ready.
- Meg, what's your shoe size?
- Who wants to know?
- What, about six and a half?
- Used to be, but now it's seven.
- Your feet grow as you get older.
- I wish everything did.
- Sam, how much longer?
Everything's going to be cold.
- You mean after 12 years, you haven't learned to make
- I've improved on it.
- Now it's edible?
- The meal is ready, let's go.
[Nick] J.T. Lancer !
Let's go watch this incredible show!
- Oh my god!
- Come on Sam.
- Look at that hunk of man, kids.
- Oh, he's so handsome.
Whoa, look out!
[Sarah] He's gorgeous.
[Meg] You forgot your Dramamine.
- Turn that off, come on.
- You did enjoy writing Solo , right?
With your son.
- That was really fun, and he is my favorite character
and we had fun doing it.
And what I loved about him, he was just like,
when I was watching movies, when I was in high school,
the characters that most attracted me
were the bogart characters
and the people wouldn't stick their neck out for anybody,
and then of course they do.
They have a very tough exterior,
but in fact, in the middle, they're squishy soft.
And that's what Han was based on before I came into it.
When George wrote the first Star Wars ,
that's strictly a bogart character
and he's the most fun character.
So when we had a chance to go back and do the origin story,
I wanted to see what makes someone like that.
Why are they so suspicious of other people?
Why are they so reluctant to commit to things?
And that's what we were exploring.
- There is where I sign up to be a pilot, right?
- If you apply for the Imperial Navy,
but most recruits go into the infantry.
- I'm going to be a pilot.
The best in the galaxy.
- You there, come with us.
We have a few questions to ask you.
- How long is that going to take?
- Depends how good you are at following orders.
Why, have you got somewhere to be?
- Yeah, back here as soon as I can.
- I don't hear that much.
What's your name, son?
- Han what?
Who are your people?
- I don't have people, I'm one.
Proceed to transport ID 83 for the Naval Academy at Carida.
Good luck, Han Solo.
- Are you writing all the time, even when you're
not necessarily working for a studio or whatever?
I mean, are you writing for you?
I often say, and it's misunderstood, I think,
but I, first of all,
I spent five years writing Force Awakens and Solo ,
and I was so sick of it
and I didn't want to--
you know, don't think for second I don't know how lucky I am
that they're sending a Star Wars script to my door
and I can say, "No, I won't accept it."
You have to be very privileged situation to do that
and I don't ever take that for granted,
but I find writing extremely hard.
I've written a lot of stuff
and it's the hardest work in movies to me.
And because everything else is like fun, you go out
and there's all these people,
you just hang with the best people.
That's the opposite of writing.
[Narrator] You've been watching a conversation with
Lawrence Kasdan on On Story.
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