A few weeks ago, we shared a great Austin Film Festival On Story podcast with Lawrence Kasdan, which gave us insights not just into Kasdan's views on screenwriting, but also little anecdotes about his screenwriting adventures on such classics as The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Listening to AFF's Kasdan podcast reminded me of the extensive transcripts of the story meetings that George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Kasdan had in 1978 to flesh out the character of Indiana Jones and beat out the story of Raiders. These transcripts provide fascinating and valuable lessons for screenwriters on how much time, thought and energy goes into creating characters and story before a single page of a screenplay is written.
Now, the availability of the transcripts from the Lucas, Spielberg and Kasdan Raiders story conferences is certainly not new. You may have caught the original wave of hysteria back in March 2009 when the transcripts first burned up the interwebs, but even if you did, the wealth of information in the transcripts merits repeat readings.
Before diving into the transcripts, let's set the stage. Lucas, Spielberg and Kasdan get together for several story meetings between January 23-27, 1978. Star Wars is still playing in theatres eight months after its debut, already the number one box office grossing movie of all time, having surpassed Jaws. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is just over a month into its successful run. Now, the filmmakers with the top two grossing movies ever decide to collaborate on an adventure story set in the 1930s.
Create a Compelling Character First
The conversation doesn't start with the story, however. Instead, Lucas focuses very heavily on describing the main character. The transcripts reveal how Lucas envisions his hero with very specific details: a very talented grave robber of antiquities, a Ph.D. in archaeology, a man well compensated for his archaeological finds, making the adventures worth the risk. Lucas also knew exactly what this character looked like, how he dressed, and what made him unique:
The image of him which is the strongest image is the "Treasure Of Sierra Madre" outfit, which is the khaki pants, he's got the leather jacket, that sort of felt hat, and the pistol and holster with a World War One sort of flap over it. He's going into the jungle carrying his gun. The other thing we've added to him, which may be fun, is a bullwhip. That's really his trademark. That's really what he's good at. He has a pistol, and he's probably very good at that, but at the same time he happens to be very good with a bullwhip. It's really more of a hobby than anything else. Maybe he came from Montana, someplace, and he... There are freaks who love bullwhips. They just do it all the time. It's a device that hasn't been used in a long time.
Thankfully, the character doesn't come from Montana because Monty doesn't quite have the same ring as Indy. The character's name doesn't emerge until much later in the story conferences, and someone doesn't really like it. Throughout the transcripts, L is Lawrence Kasdan, G is George Lucas, and S is Steven Spielberg:
L — Do you have a name for this person?
G — I do for our leader.
S — I hate this, but go ahead.
G — Indiana Smith. It has to be unique. It's a character. Very Americana square. He was born in Indiana.
L — What does she call him, Indy?
G — That's what I was thinking. Or Jones. Then people can call him Jones.
As their hero continues to develop, Kasdan picks up on a problem with the character that can be common when first creating a hero:
L — It seems like it would be nice if, once stripped of his bullwhip, left him weak, if we had to worry. Just a little worried about him being too…
G — That was what I thought. That's why I was sort of iffy about throwing it in. If we don't make him vulnerable…
S — What's he afraid of? He's got to be afraid of something.
G — If we don't make him vulnerable, he's got no problems. We'll shut that idea for now.
Heroes can't be infallible. They have to have weaknesses and make mistakes so the audience can relate to them. Only later when the trio spitball the discovery of the Ark and their hero getting trapped underground do they come up with Indy's fear of snakes.
Develop Engaging Story Sequences
As the collaborators move on to outlining the story, the transcripts show that Lucas has very specific ideas about the set pieces, specifically the opening sequence. Although Lucas does much of the talking, Spielberg chimes in every once in a while, and during their conversation about the final moments of Indy escaping the booby-trapped cave in the opening, he offers up this gem:
S — You know what it could be. I have a great idea. He hears the sand... When he goes into the cave, it's not straight. The whole thing is on an incline on the way in. He hears this, grabs the thing, comes to a corridor. There is a sixty-five foot boulder that's form-fitted to only roll down the corridor coming right at him. And it's a race. He gets to outrun the boulder. It then comes to rest and blocks the entrance of the cave. Nobody will ever come in again. This boulder is the size of a house.
The story conference transcripts also demonstrate how much work and effort goes into making the exposition scene at the university play in a way that doesn't feel like exposition at all:
L — What does he know about [the Ark of the Covenant] so far?
G — He doesn't know anything about it. He can know a little bit. "Yeah, I've heard of it." We make it so he's not completely ignorant of the situation. He knows more about the Ark than he does about the Hitler aspects of it. We can play that scene rather than one guy just explaining the situation. We can play it where he's sort of explaining some of it to the Army officer or something. Or maybe he knows more about it than the Army guy does. Maybe the Army officer is misinformed about some things. We can set it up so it works as a good scene. Because essentially the scene is "This is your mission."
L — Maybe the fact that he knows more about it than they do is the turning point of the scene. He sort of talks himself into the job.
What could be a boring scene of exposition instead continues to reveal facets of our hero - his knowledge, his motivation -- while also hooking the audience to go on what we believe must be a wild adventure with Indiana Jones, thanks to that amazing opening sequence.
Streamline the Story
In the transcripts, Lucas, Spielberg and Kasdan spend a great deal of time developing an action set piece in Shanghai, which is supposed to be the first action sequence after Indy leaves the university to track down the puzzle pieces that will lead him to the Ark. In fact, you can read this sequence in the Raiders of the Lost Ark screenplay marked as a revised third draft, dated August 1979.
During the story conference, Lucas and Spielberg are adamant about including this sequence, especially to expand Indy's global trek on his quest. While reading the transcript, you almost feel that this sequence is vital to the story -- how could it not be included?
And yet, we all know that Raiders does not include this Shanghai sequence. Instead, Indy starts his quest in Nepal, where he finds Marion Ravenwood, an old flame and daughter of his now deceased mentor. Arguably, Raiders is a more streamlined story as a result. For aspiring screenwriters, I think this is a valuable lesson to learn. Sometimes, we create entire sequences that we believe are essential to our stories, but in the end need actually need to be cut to service the story.
Go Beyond the Transcripts
The complete transcripts can be found online in HTML format or PDF format. You can also find a copy of the revised third draft of the Raiders screenplay dated August 1979 online. Together, along with the movie version of Raiders of the Lost Ark, we have several resources as screenwriters to discover how the story came to life.
For those of you looking for an analysis of Raiders by professional screenwriters, make sure to check out Episode 73 of Scriptnotes with John August and Craig Mazin. In one of their best episodes, they go through Raiders beat-by-beat, explaining why they think each of the story choices works so well.
Also, if you make your way through the entire transcripts, you will discover an additional transcript of a conversation with Kasdan, Philip Kaufman, who was originally going to write the screenplay, and Deborah (Debbie) Fine, the researcher who founded the Lucasfilm Research Library. This additional conversation shows how much energy was put into understanding the historical facts and myths surrounding the Ark of the Covenant to ground the adventure story with some plausible research.
What lessons do you find in the Raiders story conference transcripts? How do you approach the research and story development part of your screenwriting process? Share your thoughts with us in the comments.