Saturday, 9 February 2013

Chapter 5, Part 1 - Harrison Ford: Matinee Idol

From the Stars to Star

‘Harrison Ford is more than just an actor playing a role in Raiders of the Lost Ark. He was involved in a lot of the decision-making about the movie as we went along. And this wasn’t by contract, it was because I sensed an exceptional story mind and a very smart person and called on him time and time again.’ Steven Spielberg, director of Raiders of the Lost Ark

‘The little film that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg decided to make together is growing by the minute. Shooting begins of Raiders of the Lost Ark on May 15th, 1980 at George’s happy hunting ground of Elstree Studios – and already, before a single shot is completed, they have four sequels in the planning stages,’ was how British fantasy film magazine Starburst announced the start of work Lucas’ follow-up to the Star Wars saga in February, 1980. The report gave Lawrence Kasdan as the script writer, Frank Marshall as producer, but no hint as to the cast.

Before long, rumours were circulating that Raiders of the Lost Ark was not a new project at all, but the third part of the Star Wars saga. Said Empire Strikes Back producer Gary Kurtz of that idea, ‘I can categorically deny that. It’s not science fiction at all. It’s a Thirties action adventure type story about a search for a lost treasure. A typical Clark Gable, soldier-of-fortune kind of movie.’

No more news issued from the Elstree set of Raiders until the movie opened in America on May 25th and at London’s Empire cinema on July 30th, 1981.

The tale of Raiders’ genesis was reported both in Dale Pollock’s Skywalking (the George Lucas biography) and in Tony Crawley’s The Steven Spielberg Story. Both books told of Lucas’s retreat to the Hawaian beaches to forget the horrors of making Star Wars, and of Spielberg’s joining him there with the news that Star Wars had been a monumental hit. Over a sandcastle, the world’s two most successful filmmakers hatched a plot to make a movie that would mix the mythic qualities of the occult and the derring-do of the Saturday matinee serials and out-Bond Bond in the process. The co-author of the original story of Raiders, Philip Kaufman, was originally slated to direct, but when he dropped out of the project, Spielberg stepped in.

At this stage, the project still had no writer. Until Spielberg introduced a young Chicago advertising copywriter, Lawrence Kasdan to Lucas. Spielberg had read a screenplay by Kasdan called Continental Divide and was trying to acquire it to produce for himself.

Behind the scenes on location in Tunisia, with Karen Allen,
Spielberg, Ford and Rhys-Davies.

‘When Spielberg first read it,’ said Kasdan, ‘he told my agent, “I’m doing a movie with George Lucas and I think this guy would be great to write it. Would it be all right if I showed George Continental Divide?” And we, of course, agreed. Then I came in and met George – he had read the script and liked it – and at that first meeting, George hired me to write Raiders.’

Lucas, Spielberg and Kasdan spent a week thrashing out the basic plot of Raiders. These sessions were preserved for posterity on tape and at the end of the week Kasdan went off to write the first draft script.

‘I left those meetings feeling I was in pretty good shape and then sat down and realised, Uh-oh, this is going to be hard!’ said Kasdan. And hard it was, at least hard enough to keep the young writer occupied for a full six months.

Finally, Kasdan took the finished script in to show Lucas. What happened next came as something of a shock. The scriptwriter working on Empire, Leigh Brackett, had died suddenly. Lucas desperately needed a writer to take over. Could Kasdan handle it? ‘But you haven’t even read Raiders, yet,’ protested Kasdan. Lucas only smiled. He was following his instincts – which were rarely wrong.

Meanwhile Spielberg had read Kasdan’s Raiders script and was delighted. ‘Larry didn’t stick with our story outline one hundred percent,’ commented Spielberg, ‘A lot of the movie is Larry’s own original ideas, his characters. George provided the initial vision, the story and the structure of the movie. Then George and I together provided key scenes throughout the film. And Larry essentially did all the characters and tied the story together, made the story work from just a bare outline, and gave it colour and some direction.’

With the script in the safe hands of Lawrence Kasdan, Lucas and Spielberg could turn their attention to who was to play the key role of Indiana Jones.

The auditions for the movie were to be held at Lucasfilm’s West Coast offices. ‘We wanted an unknown, originally – a total unknown. Conceitedly, George and I wanted to make a star out of Johnny the Construction Worker from Malibu. We couldn’t find a construction worker in Malibu, so we began looking at more substantial people in the film industry.’

Both Lucas and Spielberg had a picture in their mind’s eye as to the kind of hero they were looking for. Lucas saw Jones as a scruffy playboy, the kind of adventurer who, on duty, dressed like Humphrey Bogart in Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Spielberg’s Jones was more of a grizzled alcoholic, gruffly romantic and ruggedly handsome.

Steranko's visualisation of Indiana Jones made it into the
film pretty much intact.

Lucas and Spielberg then approached well-known Marvel Comics artist Jim Steranko to produce some concept paintings to nail down a visual appearance of the character of Indiana Jones and his world. Steranko came back with four paintings, which defined the appearance of Indy, from the fedora hat, which Steranko had added unbidden, to the leather jacket which Lucas had asked for and the Sam Brown webbing, again Steranko’s addition. Lucas and Spielberg were so impressed with the artist’s work that they asked him to produce a further fifty paintings, one for each major scene in the movie. But the catch was that the artist would only have fifty days, a deadline that would be gruelling, to say the least. Steranko, not wanting to turn in sub-standard, rushed work, declined the assignment.

The filmmakers’ first choice for the role was TV actor Tom Selleck. Selleck was enthusiastic but aware that the new pilot he was working on, Magnum P.I., might turn into a full series for CBS television. CBS didn’t seem to be in much of a hurry to take up the option for the first series of the show. ‘The show had sat there and nobody wanted it. And the option was about to lapse,’ recalled Lucas. Itching to get on with Raiders, Lucas contacted Magnum production company Universal with a request that Selleck be released from his contract. But while Universal were agreeable, CBS were suddenly alerted that the two biggest names in Hollywood were interested in ‘their’ star for a movie and instantly picked up Selleck’s contract for Magnum P.I. So Lucas and Spielberg still had no lead actor for Raiders.

‘We were stuck,’ said Spielberg. ‘We had three weeks left to cast the part of Indiana Jones, and there was nobody close. Then I saw The Empire Strikes Back and I realised Harrison Ford is Indiana Jones. I called George Lucas and said, “He’s right under our noses!” George said, “I know who you’re going to say!” I said, “Who?” and he said, “Harrison Ford! Let’s get him.” And we did!’

Harrison Ford was able to play the many sides of Indiana
Jones' character with ease - he was at the same time
brawler, scholar and sophisticate

According to Skywalking, Harrison Ford had read the script for Raiders shortly after Kasdan had finished it but had remained cool towards the project. ‘They could find me if they wanted to,’ Ford is quoted as saying. Nevertheless Ford must have known that the part was perfect for him. ‘It was clearly the most dominant single character in any of George’s films,’ said Ford, ‘quite in variance with his theories about movie stars and what they mean.’

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