Birthing RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK

When you watch a film that you absolutely fall in love with five minutes in, and you know it’s going to change the way you appreciate “movies” from then on out, when you sense in your gut that “movies” will become “cinema”, and you are destined to become a “cinephile” and to sacrifice a typical existence for one that is constantly seeking the brass ring of cultural immortality through cinema… you probably, at some point, ask yourself — many times over and over — how did those guys create that piece of entertainment?

For us, it was RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK.

Indiana Jones and his swashbuckling tale of derring-do exploded upon the cultural landscape in the summer of 1981 and irrevocably changed everyone’s expectations and appreciations for the action-adventure film. It gave George Lucas his second extra-lucrative franchise… and gave us the man in the hat with the whip.

raidersofthelostarkThe thing is, we are by no means unique in regards to our love and appreciation for this movie. RAIDERS’  impact can’t be overstated, and not just with us.

“Throw me the whip and I’ll throw you the idol”

That’s a maxim we repeat among ourselves CONSTANTLY when navigating the frustrating vagaries, chicanery, and mendacity that constitute the ether of working in Hollywood.

RAIDERS embodies so many fantastic storytelling elements – visually, characters, narrative, musical, and mythological – it’s the veritable lightning in a bottle film that kicked the 1980s cinematic landscape into high gear. And is still the high-water mark for films of this nature.

How did they do it?

You can ask yourself this question hundreds of times and not really know the answer.

pondering the story conference
Like Jones inspecting the statue, one asks, “how did this perfect movie come into existence?”

The next three films had a lot more of the “wow”, and we know that more “wow” — the intangible moments of what we love — doesn’t give us more to love… it gives us less; the law of diminishing returns is the hallmark of wonderment. This is a law, a lesson, a maxim that Hollywood continually violates, and 90% of the time they get caught for their transgression.

So back to asking yourself, how did those guys do it? Where did Jones, Marion, Sallah, and Belloq come from? What drove them? Where those marvelous, jaw-dropping set pieces come from? Set pieces that still quicken one’s blood nearly 40 years later. Has Spielberg ever topped this film for sheer delight? Probably not. It’s the moonshot film (to borrow an overused phrase; we’ll try to keep those to a minimum).

Spielberg,  Kasdan, and Harrison Ford get so much dap for this film, it’s hard to calculate what their careers would have been without this amalgam of A-picture film technique with the gusto and charm of B picture heroics and narrative drives.

One of the delights of the digital age is scanning… it enables us to review primary source information — if it still exists — without damaging it; to get a look inside the genesis of just about anything (if the material exists and the owners don’t view it as precious at this point) is  gold. Process and the dissection of process is sort of a passion of a lot of people in the filmmaking community, because, as Godard said, it’s not where you take it from, but where you take it to.

SECRET SAUCE REVEALED

So the story conference that Lucas, Spielberg, and Kasdan had as they hatched what became RAIDERS OF THE LOS ARK has been made available to us (we’re not the first to declare this, so you might have already read these). The hand-written transcripts have been transcribed and anyone with more than a passing interest can imbibe the Raiders of the Lost Ark story conference transcripts, and revel in its awesomeness.

Hand-written story conference transcripts
Hand-written Raiders of the Lost Ark story conference transcripts

You can’t hope to replicate the success of RAIDERS; many of the greatest storytelling minds of the past 40 years have tried — even the original crafters — and have failed. Yet the insight on how it all came together can, hopefully, spur you into conducting story conferences in a similar manner. To mine your individual passions such that you, too, can create something that delights YOU. Because the number one thing that RAIDERS does is delight the original audience… the filmmakers who made it. From the opening frame to the closing image… all the little moments in between that are now cinematic touchstones, classic moments we can reference from here until we’re six feet underground.

LEARN FROM THESE LUMINARIES

Screenwriter and writing guru John August pointed on in his Scriptnotes Live Podcast with Lawrence Kasdan: “Looking at that discussion [the Raiders story conference], everyone is referencing the things that are so important … and the things they love. The serials are important to them. What if this character did this? I want a character who can do these kind of things…. forming the template … for what this whole thing was going to be. And it started with what do I love. What do I wish existed as a movie?”

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That’s what we don’t get any more… especially now that movies have become these extraordinary risky bets that can tank a media conglomerate’s profit/loss statement for the quarter or even the year. Films can’t be fun that way anymore; if they’re are fun it is despite the efforts of everyone involved on the business end; if they are fun, it’s an accidental byproduct of the corporate aim — make money with this story. Instead of going in with this mantra: this fun story will make money.

The world, and Hollywood in particular, is exponentially more cynical than the era in which Indiana Jones was first given life, and that probably has a lot to do with the decided lack of fun in the movies these days (especially in TV; TV is not “fun”. TV is an emotional gut-punch… and audience thrive on that, because everything else has been so numbed, so diluted due to the need to appeal to the Four Quadrants); RAIDERS, if it appeals to the Four Quadrants, was by luck, not by corporate mandated design, but its internal architecture. And today films must have the Four Quadrant appeal baked in from the initial conception… or be denied a respectable budget.

RAIDERS had a bizarre cast of creators, all these guys working at the top of the game, as creative collaborators WILLING TO SHARE THE FAME AND CREDIT… as friends. Where is that sense of cinematic fellowship these days?

Anyway, RAIDERS OF THE ARK will always be a stand-out film … even when they make two or three after Spielberg and Lucas die, attempting to recapture that wonderment.

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