How to make an Indiana Jones movie

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A couple of months ago a fascinating document appeared on the internet: the transcript of a story conference between George Lucas (producer), Steven Spielberg (director) and Lawrence Kasdan (screenwriter), during the development of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Normally I’m pretty dubious about these things, but once people who had worked closely with Spielberg, like John August, said that it felt accurate I thought it would be worth a look. And it is. It’s a fascinating insight into the relationship between different talents on a movie, into the development of Indiana Jones across what is now four pictures, and into the curious balancing act between inspiration, pragmatism and craft that helps an idea become a film.

The concept of the series was clear from the start: as Lucas says in the transcript, it would be based on the Republic serials of the Thirties, set in period, with a cliffhanger every twenty minutes. Its hero would be a rogue archaeologist — half grave robber, half professor; half Clint Eastwood, half James Bond — and the first actor that they talk about is Harrison Ford. Although, to be fair, they also mention, bizarrely, Mikhail Baryshnikov.

Reading the three men working together, Lucas brings an absolute structural discipline: “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 … assuming that what we really want at the end of this is a hundred and twenty page script” (i.e. two hours on screen). He has also mapped out the basics of the story, in this case with an earlier writer, Philip Kaufman (director of The Right Stuff, Quills and Rising Sun). Spielberg brings a vivid sense of how this will translate on screen: “They’re walking and our hero goes into a shadow. When he comes out of the shadow there’s two tarantulas on him. He doesn’t notice right away. He goes into another shadow, and he comes out with four tarantulas on him”. He’s also the audience’s proxy in the room. Kasdan, as the screenwriter, is there to marshall the various ideas, force the other two to make decisions (should the temple fill with sand or water?) and figure out the practicalities (what are the different physics of each?).

The debates that they have will strike a chord with anyone who’s worked on a screenplay’s development. How dubious should our hero’s morality be? How cartoonish can we make the villains? What’s the real bond between Indiana and Marion? With Spielberg coming off the disastrous, expensive 1941 they are also keenly aware of budget issues, constantly trying to figure out how to do things cheaply, and to minimise expensive sets. Whole sequences are suggested then discarded, saved for later movies in the series: the mine shaft chase from Temple of Doom, the motorbike sequence from Last Crusade. You also get an uncomfortably insightful picture of the dubious moralities of screenwriting: how much violence is exciting, but how much would be a step too far? Should Marion be raped or merely tortured? And which characters should be expediently killed?

The whole document is a dense 126 pages, so here are Ten key principles to making an Indiana Jones movie. Or indeed, improving any other: what movie wouldn’t be better with some strategically placed mummies?

1. “What’s he afraid of? He’s got to be afraid of something?” (Spielberg)

2. “He should have a mentor.” (Spielberg)

3. “Try to keep it on a very modest scale. A la the first James Bond.” (Lucas)

4. “This scene should at least four major screams.” (Spielberg)

5. “It’s in Cairo but it doesn’t have to be … I only use that because it’s one of those Thirties cities.” (Lucas)

6. “How does he get to her?” “Some local picturesque travel mode.” (Lucas)

7. “She should have hair like Veronica Lake. You only see one eye at a time” (Spielberg)

8. “With Nazis you have to you use your fists, because they’re despicable people” (Spielberg)

9. “I like hearing English with a German accent” (Spielberg)

10. “It’s better if there are some mummies around” (Spielberg)

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2 thoughts on “How to make an Indiana Jones movie

  1. glad you liked it — and which is why, of course, I was thinking about mummies and how every great movie needed some … !

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