The Power of Teamwork

In late May of 1977, George Lucas was on vacation in Hawaii, partly resting after the grueling production of Star Wars, and partly hiding from the media after its unprecedented and largely unexpected success. There he met Steven Spielberg, who was taking a short break from shooting Close Encounters and had just hit box-office gold with Jaws two years before. It was the beginning of a beautifully profitable friendship.

Between them they claim 8 of the 20 top-grossing movies of all time, including their closest collaboration, a story that they discussed there on the Maui beach. Lucas had an idea to revisit the old film serials, which appealed to Spielberg’s taste for classic adventure. Together, they worked out the rough idea for Raiders of the Lost Ark, and a few months later, they chose Lawrence Kasdan as the screenwriter for the project.

The interesting part is that they recorded their discussions as they worked over the story ideas and had them transcribed for reference. A few days ago, 126 pages of these transcribed conversations appeared on the web. You can read them here or download a pdf file here.

(For those who don’t know, Lawrence Kasdan went on to write The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, being given the contract before Lucas had even read his first Raiders draft, and from there began directing his own films, such as the excellent western Silverado and the somewhat less inspiring Wyatt Earp.)

The first part of the story conference is Lucas explaining all the ideas that he, Spielberg and Phil Kaufman had come up with so far. He does most of the talking, with Spielberg occasionally chiming in to correct or clarify certain points. Kasdan doesn’t say much until all the existing material has been covered, and then the brainstorming starts.

For the record, I’m not really a George Lucas fan. I don’t like anything he’s made since about 1981. In fact, my opinion is that from then on, the quality of his work and the clarity of his judgment has steadily declined. More on this later.

So, that being said, one of the things that surprised me is how so many of my favorite Raiders moments came from George Lucas. For example, the red-hot headpiece branding a German so the Nazis get the inscription (although the trick of double-sided instructions came later) is all his – one of the all-time greatest setups in movie history.

The genius of Lucas is evident in the conversations, but not all of his ideas are winners. He continually pours out content as thoughts come to him, and the rest of the group embellishes on the good stuff and moves past the awkward material. In many ways it’s the perfect team – a wild-eyed visionary producer with big ideas, a well-grounded director with a knack for the human touch, and a writer with an unerring sense of structure and simplicity.

Together, they fleshed out the story and characters in an impressively short amount of time. They also came up with a great bit involving Indy retrieving an artifact from a Chinese gangster in Shanghai, an escape from an abandoned plane involving a life raft and a snow-topped mountain, a thrilling mine-car chase, and an annoying child sidekick. These ideas didn’t quite fit, and so of course popped up in Temple of Doom.

It’s fun reading, especially when you see the personalities of the men appear between the lines. For example, when Lucas introduces the concept of the iconic whip, he spends several paragraphs extolling it as a mythological weapon, a parallel to a Samurai sword, a representation of the coiled snake, a deadly force, a hidden power, etc, etc… and all the while Kasdan and Spielberg are tossing out gags where Indy could use it to reel Marion back after she leaves in a huff, or to snag himself beers without getting up. Later, Spielberg points out, “With Nazis you have to use your fists, because they’re despicable people.”

And while Lucas is very verbose, thinking as he talks, often repeating himself, using lots of circular sentences and pontification on multiple possibilities, Spielberg is very precise and an extremely effective communicator. Kasdan’s greatest skill is the ability to quickly grasp nub of an idea and hone it into an effective scene, condensing other ideas and solving problems with elegant simplicity.

When Marion started to get the way, he suggested faking her death, giving Indy further motivation and several scenes where he and Sallah can work alone. When some explanation is needed for why the Nazis take her on the U-boat, he made Belloq interested in her, solving a number of problems relating to the plot and characters.

But the most interesting aspect to me is how they treat the main McGuffin, the Ark of the Covenant. Spielberg sees it as a genuine Hebrew artifact, with Belloq expiring after looking on the face of God. Lucas had a more pragmatic vision, drawing directly from Von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods, which suggests that the Ark is a transmitter; a radio for speaking to our extra-terrestrial forebears.

The idea that the Ark is merely an electric box is not new, but Kasdan and Spielberg’s choice to go with a supernatural reality that audiences would be familiar with adds depth to the plot, menace to the enemy, and a solid arc to Indiana’s character. The latest Indy adventure, which abandons Biblical artifacts for Von Däniken’s “ancient astronauts” hooey, has none of these things.

Which brings me back to the decline and fall of George Lucas. The man is clearly a creative giant, but his best work is from the beginning of his career, when he was surrounded by peers and even superiors who could filter out his sillier ideas and make him focus his efforts on the solid content. As his fame grew, his peers either moved on or became yes-men, and his financial and technical resources grew large enough to remove even his practical limitations.

The result is enough power (and a sufficient lack of judgment) to push a film like Attack of the Clones through production apparently without even a cursory dialog pass. What he needs is what he had in 1978 when he was hashing out Raiders; guys whose strengths correspond to his weaknesses, who can inspire him with ideas that are as good as his, and who have the objectivity to keep only the good material.

Unfortunately, after 30 years of fame and fortune, Lucas believes all his own PR, so I doubt he sees this need. But we can learn from it.

  1. Forgot to mention this, but it’s interesting to compare the notes from the story meeting to this early script draft and the final result.

  2. I was looking at that transcript the other day – very interesting stuff.

    There was a post on 37signals a while back that talked about how the lack of constraints killed the newest star wars movies – here. It’s interesting how publicity and money, the things film makers are generally dying to get, can actually inhibit quality. I think there must be a sweet spot in there somewhere…

  3. Having some constraints and pressures causes us to be more creative and dynamic. Saw this often in domestic architecture- where there was a flat, blank site it was hard to come up with a good house design, but with close neighbours, council restrictions, all the annoying restrictions etc, the designs were much more inspired :)

    Must say something for how we think ;)

    - Jenny
  4. It’s sad actually… The latest Indie movie… Where were the booby traps? (My friend posed this question to me. I couldn’t answer.)

  5. I couldn’t agree more about the “yes” men. I want someone who will tell me “that’s terrible, fix it,” or “change this,” and “get over yourself, it’s not that great of a scene.” Having those around you who will be honest is something I crave and make sure I seek out to find. Great article.

  6. It’s so true about Lucas. Some of the elements of the earlier Star Wars movies are a bit silly, but mostly, they are brilliant films. Unfortunatley, when you get to the likes of Star Wars :The Phantom Menace, things just get rediculous. The story of that film was confusing at best, it had some truly atrocious acting from Natalie Portman, and it included the worst character film has ever had, in Jar-Jar Binks. Yet, Lucas got away with it because he was successful and so nobody could say no to him. Very sad.

    - Neil R. Hackon

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