Posts Tagged ‘Lawrence Kasden’

“The Indiana Jones story started before I started working on the screenplay for Star Wars. When I was thinking of doing a sort of modern fairy tale couched in sort of a Saturday matinée serial vernacular I was thinking about all of the great things I can do. And obviously one of the subjects that came up was to do it in outer space, and do it sort of like Flash Gordon. And the other idea I had at the same time was really to do it about an archeologist who goes around finding ancient artifacts that have sort of a supernatural flavor to them. And both of them would be kind of a serial not-stop action kind of adventure. I decided to really go with the space idea and I put the archeologist on the shelf to gather dust. Then I connected with Phil Kaufman, who’s another filmmaker up here in San Francisco, and he got very excited about it and we started working on it for about three or four weeks. He had the idea of making the sort of supernatural sacred object that we were looking for the ark of the covenant.”
George Lucas

P.S. A must read for any screenwriter and filmmaker is the transcripts of the Raiders of the Lost Ark story conference between George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Lawrence Kasden. (I think it was why the Internet was invented.)

Movie Cloning (“Raiders”)
Raiders Revisited (part 1)
Raiders Revisited (part 2)
Raiders Revisited (part 3)
Raiders Revisited (part 4)
Scriptnotes’ 100th Podcast (Touches on episode 73 that was on Raiders of the Lost Ark)

Scott W. Smith

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“If there’s one thing I learned in prison it’s that money is not the prime commodity in our lives…time is.”
Gordon Gekko
2009 script Money Never Sleeps written by Alan Loeb

On this repost Saturday I’m going back to a 2008 post I wrote after a tornado hit Iowa. When a tragedy hits somewhere in the world or someone famous dies I think of this post. This week actor James Gandolfini (The Sopranos) died at age 51. My thought and prayers go out to the Gandolfini family. If there is a face to the positive change that hit television in the late 90s it is of Tony Soprano played by Gandolfini.

But Dang, 51 isn’t that old. Though that’s how old screenwriter/blogger Blake Snyder (Save the Cat) was when he died. Shane Black who I’ve been quoting all week is still very much alive at age 51. I happen to be 51. So that number did jump out at me when I heard the news.

Death is no respecter of age—or of persons. So this is just a reminder to have a life beyond your work and creative endeavors.

“Screenwriting is a huge part of my life. It’s my profession, it is my vocation. It has been so for nearly two decades now and hopefully for another decade still. It’s not the most important thing in my life by far. By far! You know, my wife, my kids, it’s not the be all, end all.”
Screenwriter Craig Mazin (Identity Thief)
Scriptnotes Ep. 87

Here’s the post that originally ran on May 31, 2008:

“When you drink from the well, remember the well-digger.”
Chinese proverb

Parkersburg, Iowa
©2008 Scott W. Smith

Last Sunday one of my partners at River Run Productions had 15 seconds to make it into his basement with his wife and dog before an EF 5 rated tornado ripped through his Parkersburg, Iowa home.

In less than a minute his house was gone and both cars totaled. But he, his wife and dog were safe. The storm killed seven people, destroyed over 200 homes, and damaged another 400.

Iowa is no stranger to tornadoes, but this one was the most powerful to hit the state in over 30 years. It’s one more reminder that things can change in a New York minute—or even an Iowa minute.

Friday I went to Parkersburg to shoot footage of the destruction and interviews for an insurance company.  I have been through a hurricane in Florida and a major earthquake in California and I have never personally seen the devastation that I saw as the result of that tornado.

From where I took the above photo, every direction I looked basically looked the same. It’s amazing that more people weren’t killed. Human beings tend to have short memories so this is one more thing to help remind us how fragile life is.

I’ve written a lot about writing on this blog but not much about keeping life in perspective with a creative career. The fact is most of us have difficulty balancing our lives.

I’ve collected some of my favorite quotes over the years that are a little random, but I hope there’s something in here that you can hang your hat on—or at least cause you to smile or reflect on your life and dreams. But mainly I want you to understand that whatever creative dreams you have there’s more to life than chasing that rainbow.

“My biggest disappointment so far is that having a career has not made me happy.”
Shane Black
(Quote after being paid $1.75 million for writing The Last Boy Scout and $4M for The Long Kiss Goodnight)

“It’s an accepted fact that all writers are crazy, even the normal ones are weird.”
William Goldman
Adventures in the Screen Trade                                                                  

 “I don’t dress until 5 p.m. I have a bathrobe that can stand…Yes, I am divorced. One writes because one literally couldn’t get another job or has no choice.”
Akiva Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind)

“I got into screenwriting for the best of all reasons: I got into it for self-therapy.”
Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver)

“For the first couple of years that I wrote screenplays, I was so nervous about what I was doing that I threw up before I began writing each morning. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s much better than reading what you’ve written at the end of the day and throwing up.”
Joe Eszterhas (Basic Instinct)

“I’m not very good at writing. If I succeed, it’s by fluke.”
Shane Black (Lethal Weapon)

“If you get rejected, you have to persist. Don’t give up. It was the best advice I ever got.”
Anna Hamilton Phelan (Mask)

“The myth about me is that I sold my first screenplay and it’s true. But I had also worked very hard as a fiction writer for ten years and that’s how I learned the craft of telling stories.”
Akiva Goldman (A Beautiful Mind)
He also has a masters in fiction from NYU

“I spent 18 years doing stand up comedy. Ten years learning, four years refining, and four years of wild success.” (It’s worth noting that Martin was on top when he walked away from stand up comedy and never performed as a comedian again.)
Steve Martin
Born Standing Up

“Starting in 2002, I knew for a fact that I had to get out of this business. It was too hard. It wasn’t that I wasn’t good enough, it was that it was too hard. What kept me in it was laziness and fear. It would be nice to say it was passion and I’m a struggling artist who didn’t give up on his craft. All of that sounds good, but the truth is it was laziness and fear.” 
Alan Loeb (Things We Lost in the Fire)

“Like the career of any athlete, an artist’s life will have its injuries. These go with the game. The trick is to survive them, to learn how to let yourself heal.”
 Julia Cameron
The Artist’s Way

Dee: “Jane, do you ever feel like you’re just this far from being completely hysterical 24 hours a day?”
Jane: “Half the people I know feel that way. The lucky ones feel that way. The rest of the people are hysterical 24 hours a day.”
Exchange from Lawrence Kasden’s Grand Canyon

“We’re constantly buying crap we don’t need and devoting ourselves to endeavors which, perhaps on reflection, with a little bit of distance, would reveal themselves to be contrary to our own best interest.”
David Mamet      

Everything in this town (L.A.) plays into the easy buttons that get pushed and take people off their path; greed, power, glamour, sex, fame.”
Ed Solomon (Men in Black)

“Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who read your work, and enriching your own life, as well.
Stephen King

So life in general is hard, and being a writer or in the creative arts is a double helping of difficulty.

Several years ago Stephen King was hit by a van when he was on a walk. One leg was broken in nine places and his knee was reduced to “so many marbles in a sock,” his spine was chipped in eight places, four ribs were broken, and a laceration to his scalp required 30 stitches. It was as if his characters Annie Wilkes (Misery) and Cujo had ganged up on him.

But he had learned a thing or two about adversity after an earlier bout with drugs and alcohol that he eventually won. One of thing things he learned was to not to get a massive desk and put it in the center of the room like he did early in his career. That is, writing shouldn’t be the most important thing in your life.

“Put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room.  Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.”
Stephen King
On Writing 

Two years ago I produced a DVD based on the book Don’t Waste Your Life by John Piper. The concept was to shoot a Koyaanisqatsi-style video that that showed the arc of life from birth to death. I shot footage from New York City to Denver. I shot footage of a one day old baby in a hospital, people walking into an office building in Cleveland, snow failing in a cemetery and the like.  One of the shots for that video was in Parkersburg, Iowa.

It was a traditional Friday night high school football game at Aplington-Parkersburg High School. (What makes this school unique is though the town only has a population of 2,000 it currently has 4 active graduates playing in the NFL.)  That high school building is a total loss because of the tornado. Here’s a photo of the scoreboard sign that was blown down during the storm.

There will always be the storms of life. And as I’ve written before, movies can help us endure those storms and even inspire us. (“Throughout most of the Depression, Americans went assiduously, devotedly, almost compulsively, to the movies.”-Carlos Stevens) So work on your craft because we need great stories that give us a sense of direction, but don’t waste your life just writing screenplays.

Related Posts:

Don’t Waste Your Life (Part 2)

words & photos copyright ©2008  Scott W. Smith

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Now that it’s almost been three years since I started the Screenwriting from Iowa blog and have written over 700 posts, I thought October 10, 2010 (10/10/10) was a fitting day to pick a mix of ten of my favorite, most viewed, and  most helpful posts that you may have missed depending when you started reading this blog or how often you check your RSS feed.

One word of warning is the first year of posts were generally longer than they are today. It was not uncommon that they weighed in between 1,000 & 2,000 words. I’ve added a quote to give you a feel of each post and hope you can take the time to read one or two links. Thanks to everyone for frequenting this blog. Watching the numbers increase really does help keep me plugging away daily. (Hope to get it in book ready shape by the end of the year.)

1) Where Do Ideas Come From? (A+B=C)
“The way to have a great idea is to have lots of ideas.”
Linus Pauling

2) Can Screenwriting Be Taught?
“I wrote screenplays as a way to get into production. I wrote six or seven before I sold one.”
Lawrence Kasden
screenwriter, Raiders of the Lost Ark

3) Everything I Learned in Film School (tip #1)
“If real estate’s mantra is location, location, location, then for screenwriters it’s conflict, conflict, conflict.”

4) Starting Your Screenplay (tip #6)
“Who is your hero, what does he want, and what stands in his way?”
Paddy Chayefsky, Three-time Oscar-winning screenwriter

5) Screenwriting & Structure (tip #5)
“Structure is the most important element in the screenplay. It is the force that holds everything together.”
Syd Field

6) Screenwriting & the Little Fat Girl in Ohio

“One day some little fat girl in Ohio is going to be the new Mozart.”
Francis Ford Coppola

7) Rod Serling’s Ohio Epiphany
“I don’t think that calling something commercial makes it stink.”
Rod Serling

8) The Serious Side of “Gilligan’s Island”
“(Gilligan’s Island) is about, people learning to live together.”

9) Re-Writing Screenwriter John August
If you write a script anywhere and send it to an agent in Chicago or Detroit or Cleveland or wherever…and if that agent sends it to an agent in Hollywood who loves it…you can sell your script.”
Screenwriter Joe Eszterhas

10) How Much Do Screenwriters Make?
“Most screenwriters are unemployed, chronically unemployed.”
Screenwriter Tom Lazarus (Stigmata)

10a—bonus) Juno Has Another Baby (Emmy)
Don’t ever agonize about the hordes of other writers who are ostensibly your competition.  No one else is capable of doing what you do.”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody (Juno)

Scott W. Smith

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Screenwriter William C. Martell in his book The Secrets of Action Screenwriting talks about the villain’s plan before he talks about the hero and how he plans on stopping the villain. Martell points out that there are two kinds of heroes in films which he calls “Superman Type”(Superman) and “Everyman Type” (Indiana Jones). Martell also points out that an important lesson is that the villain must be stronger than the hero.He also points out there is often a mirror image or the flip side connection between the hero in the villain.

“Heroes and villains are frequently linked. Belloq tell Indiana Jones: ‘You and I are very much alike….I am a shadowy reflection of you. It would only take a nudge to make you like me; to push you out of the light.’ and in The Empire Strikes Back (also written by Lawrence Kasden) Darth gives a similar speech to Luke.”
                                                 William C. Martell 

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When you break down the core aspects of a screenplay you have scene headings (INT. HOSPITAL ROOM – DAY), dialogue (“I’m walking here!”) and what is called scene description, action or narrative. It’s the little blurb that sets up the scene and explains what’s going on in between the dialogue.  Today we’ll look at examples of descriptive writing as it applies to introducing a character in a screenplay. Notice the economy of the writing.

ERIN BROCKOVICH. How to describe her? A beauty queen would come to mind — which, in fact, she was. Tall in a mini skirt, legs crossed, tight top, beautiful – but clearly from a social class and geographical orientation whose standards for displaying beauty are not based on subtlety.
Erin Brockovich
Susannah Grant

Jack is American, a lanky drifter with his hair a little long for the standards of the times. He is also unshaven, and his clothes are rumpled from sleeping in them. He is an artist, and has adopted the bohemian style of the art scene in Paris. He is also very self-possessed and sure-footed for 20, having lived on his own since 15.
James Cameron

At the head of the party is an American, INDIANA JONES. He wears a short leather jacket, a flapped holster, and a brimmed felt hat with a weird feather stuck in the band.
Indiana Jones
Lawrence Kasden

Driving the car is SALLY ALBRIGHT. She’s 21 years old. She’s very pretty although not necessarily in an obvious way.
When Harry Met Sally
Nora Ephron

JUNO MacGUFF stands on a placid street in a nondescript subdivision, facing the curb. It’s FALL. Juno is sixteen years old, an artfully bedraggled burnout kid.
Diablo Cody

Flip through any produced screenplay and notice that  character introductions are  usually just one to three sentences in length.(Something novels sometimes take pages to do.) Screenwriting is simple and complex all at the same time.

And by the way, academic types would argue that Cameron shouldn’t write “his clothes are rumpled from sleeping in them” because that is cheating. You are not supposed to write what can’t be understood visually. (The viewer won’t really know why Jack’s clothes are rumpled unless he says, “Man, my clothes are so rumpled because I slept in them last night.”) But this rule is violated all the time. Successful writers often sneak in little things to help the reader out. Remember you’re trying to get a jaded reader excited about your script and sometimes they need a little help.

Scott W. Smith

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So where did the Ark idea come from for Raiders of the Lost Ark?

The credit apparently goes to Philip Kaufman who received a story credit on the script. (Kaufman is best known as the writer and director of The Right Stuff.) Kaufman was born and raised in Chicago and his grandparents were German-Jewish immigrants. He majored in history at the University of Chicago before spending time traveling in Europe.

In an interview with Alex Simon for Venice Magazine Kaufman said, “I didn’t actually write any drafts of that. George Lucas and I sat down to write a story. I had the idea of the lost ark. George had the idea of the Indiana Jones character. We talked for about six weeks and then I got an offer to do another movie. About four years later, I got a call from George saying that he and Spielberg talked about the project on a beach in Hawaii, and would I mind if Steven did it? I said fine, and that’s what happened.”

In the Raiders Story Conference Transcript Kaufman explains how long the Ark idea had been kicking around in his mind. (And keep in mind this is an unedited, free flowing brain storming meeting.) “A kind of Middle Eastern adventure based around a similar idea to something like that book The Spear of Destiny where the Nazis were into mystical cults and so forth, and they were looking for, in this case, it was a thing that I, you know, have been thinking about for maybe twenty years since a doctor — my mononucleosis doctor — when I was in college, a famous blood specalist –and he had written –with another doctor — an article on the Ark of the Covenant and how he felt it provided a means of communication with some other extra-terrestrial or Godlike whatever — it was in a sense an elaborate radio setup –it contained silk curtains and veils and others things –I’ve forgotten — it’s all in the Bible, Leviticus, Exodus, the second book of the Bible, or whatever …A good part of that chapter in the Bible is the detailing of the actual Ark of the Covenant itself….”

They kick around details about the Ark for a while and then Kaufman says,”I told George the other day that there was a thing on In Search Of the other night –The Dead Sea Scrolls – and there was, kind of the landscape similar to what – to where I’d imagine this would happen – the tents in the desert and coming upon – suddenly in the Middle East – all of these Nazis who were out there looking for –tracking down clues to find this thing if they could in fact find it, all power would be theirs –they would be invincible, and immune.”

(How many times does Leviticus and Exodus come up in Hollywood story meetings?)

So you take the Ark, some Nazis, a James Bond-like archeology professor with a bull whip, a tough girl, a bad guy, some spiders and snakes, a little Exodus,  and you let Lawrence Kasden sort it all out and have Spielberg add his visual style in exotic locations, add some special effects like that guy’s face melting at the end and out pops Raiders of the Lost Ark.

It all sounds kind of simple, doesn’t it?

And what were the results?

A total of eight Oscar nominations with four wins; art direction, effects, editing and sound. The $20 million film made a domestic gross of $200. million and when  you add the sequels, tape and DVDs sales, and merchandising that simple concept has made a gazillion dollars.

And it also faired well in AFI’s top 100 films resting now at #66 and #10 on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Thrills. And it all started with an idea the George Lucas had back in 1973 called The Adventures of Indiana Smith. 

Side note: My only very, very loose connection to Raiders is that a couple years after the movie’s release stuntman Terry Leonard came to my film school to give a workshop on stunts. He was the guy that performed the famous truck drag scene that some have rated as one of the all time great stunts. Leonard once said, “Most people treat their bodies like a temple, whether they do or not, I treated mine like a South Tuscon beer bar.”


Scott W. Smith

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 I hate snakes, Jock. I hate ’em. 
                                        Indiana Jones
                                       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.
                    Anything else.

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.

Scott W. Smith

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