I hate snakes, Jock. I hate ‘em.
Raiders of the Lost Ark
How did Indiana Jones come to hate snakes? Well, thanks to the discovery of the Indiana Jones Story Conference we now know. Here is the evolution of an idea as transcribed in 1978 in an exchange between Steven Speilberg, George Lucas, and Lawrence Kasden. Leading up to this exchange they have decided to shut Jones inside the “Well of Souls” with a couple torches and think of ways to terrorize him.
G — … The idea of the Nazis putting tigers in there…You know what it’s like to fly in a tiger from South Africa.
S — It would have to be a neighborhood tiger.
G — There aren’t any tigers out there.
S — I’m not in love with the idea.
G — You could have bats and stuff, make it slightly spooky.
S — I like the idea of, while the water’s rising, he climbs up onto the rocks, he sees a column which is weak, he finds a rock and pulls it out of the wall. He begins pounding away at the column as the water is rising. His hands are all bloody. He’s able to loosen the column so that it falls through a wall or through the door.
G — And then all the water rushes though?
S — And he swims with the water. It’s a waterfall.
G — The only problem with the water is it’s going to be hard to do, and it’s going to be hard to rationalize it. We can’t. We can call it the temple of life and establish that it has a lot of water in it. But, at the same time, it’s like the sand. Plus it’s such a classic thing.
S — What about snakes? All these snakes come out.
G — People hate snakes. Possibly when he gets down there in the first place.
S — It’s like hundred of thousands of snakes.
(They continue to develop the idea and then work their way backwards to make sure the snake scene is properly foreshadowed by letting the audience know early on that Jones hates snakes. That allows for maximum impact during the “Well of Souls” scene.)
G –It should be slightly amusing that he hates snakes, and then he opens this up, “I can’t go down there. Why did there have to be snakes, Anything but snakes.” You can play it for comedy. The one thing that could happen is he gets trapped with all these snakes.
S –Another thing that would be interesting for complete abject terror, as you see these thousands of snakes, you cut to macro insert shots, snakes laying eggs, little snakes hatching, two snakes eating each other. All this propagation is going on inside this huge tomb.
In the screenplay the set up that Indy hates snakes is on page 11 and the payoff happens on page 63. And they save the pay off when it will have the maximum impact—as Indy is close to the very thing he is after the Ark of the Covenant. This is how the script describes the scene:
The Ark must be in that stone case. What’s that gray
stuff all over the floor –
He breaks off realizing exactly what that carpet is. He blanches. Indiana Jones blanches.
Indy drops his torch on the floor of the Well. This is answered by the most horrific HISSING imaginable.
WHAT HE SEES. That thick carpet of moving. It’s alive. It’s thousands and thousands of deadly poisonous snakes—Egyptian asps. And the only thing that seems capable of avoiding this venomous groundcover is the alter. The snakes ebb and flow near it, but never encroach on it, as though repelled by some invisible force.
Indy shakes his head and talks to himself.
Why snakes? Why did it have to be snakes.
Though I first saw that movie when it was released almost 30 years ago I remember the creepy (yet humorous) impact that scene had on me. (Though I’m not sure why the screenwriter used the word “blanches” at that moment other than I think he used to teach high school English. I would prefer “His face instantly goes pale.”)
It was a great movie moment and now you know there is no mystical place screenwriters go to for great ideas. They simple kick ideas around using their back ground and knowledge until they land on what they think will work best. The results aren’t usually as good as Raiders of the Lost Ark, but the process is the same.