Raiders of The Lost Ark Story Conference Transcript

Earlier this month, rumors began circulating of a pdf transcription of story conferences held January 23 - 27, 1978 between Lawrence Kasdan, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg to discuss a project named "Indiana Smith." The pdf is now available in html. I can't find any way of authenticating this document, except to say that at 125 pages it would be pretty elaborate for a hoax, and also to say that folks who've worked with Spielberg think this document rings true. So film professors around the country can now drool all over their lecture notes citing Lucas and Spielberg's specific references to Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune while crafting the character of Indiana Smith. statue-grab

And what we the movie-loving audience are left with is a document full of moments like this:

Spielberg: "You know what it could be. I have a great idea. [omitted][*] 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 entance of the cave. Nobody will ever come in again. This boulder is the size of a house."

Indy Bolder Chase

It is wonderful to be a fly on the wall witnessing a brainstorming session between Spielberg and Lucas. There is so much enthusiasm and agreement when they build their ideas. While Lucas appears to have brought an outline of the story to the meeting, he is amazingly open to Spielberg and Kasdan's contributions. He constantly spurs the meeting's momentum, refusing to get hung up on minutia so as to keep the ideas flowing. Repeatedly, Lucas basically says "we can figure out a way to explain that later," and as they work through their five days of meetings, sure enough, the problems get solved. Meanwhile, Lucas and Spielberg generate so many ideas they basically draft Raiders of the Lost Ark and the first half of Temple of Doom in one week.

Lawrence Kasdan, who was a brand new writer with no screen credits in 1978, contributes mainly on details and clarifications.  You can practically feel his writer's cramp as Lucas and Spielberg fire away ideas. Based on his first draft of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Lucas hired Kasdan to write The Empire Strikes Back. And the rest, as they say...

He's Got To Be Afraid Of Something...

How do you make your hero relatable?  Here's Lucas and Spielberg early on in the first meeting:

Lucas: That was what I thought. That's why I was sort of iffy about throwing it in. If we don't make him vulnerable…

Spielberg: What's he afraid of? He's got to be afraid of something.

Lucas: If we don't make him vulnerable, he's got no problems.

Then, three tapes later, while sorting out the scene where Indiana discovers the Ark, a solution presents itself.

Spielberg: What about snakes? All these snakes come out.

Lucas: People hate snakes. Possibly when he gets down there in the first place.

Kasdan: Asps? They're too small.

Spielberg: It's like hundreds of thousands of snakes.

Lucas: When he first jumps down in the hole, it's a giant snake pit. [Omitted] This is interesting. It is going to detract from the discovery of the Ark, but that's all right. We can't make a big deal out of the Ark. He opens the thing, and he starts to jump down, and it's full of snakes, thousands of them. He looks down there and sees them. What if they scurry out of the light. Then when he says they're afraid of light, they throw down torches. You have a whole bunch of torches that keep the snakes back. [Omitted] It's the idea of being in a room, in a black room with a lot of snakes. That will really be scary.

Spielberg: The snakes are waiting, looking at him. Thousands. And the torches are burning down. He's trying to keep it going. The torch goes out. The whole screen goes black. The sound of the snakes gets more intense. You hear him backing up.


Spielberg: It would be funny if, somewhere early in the movie he somehow implied that he was not afraid of snakes. Later you realize that that is one of his big fears.

Lucas: Maybe it's better if you see early, maybe in the beginning that he's afraid, "Oh God, I hate those snakes." It should be slightly amusing that he hates snakes, and then he opens this up, "I can't go down in there. Why did there have to be snakes. Anything but snakes." You can play it for comedy. The one thing that could happen is that he gets trapped with all these snakes.


"Bad Dates"

It's so much fun watching the Raiders of the Lost Ark ideas take shape, especially with the 20/20 hindsight of what worked so well in the movie. Reading the transcript, you almost want to shout at Spielberg and Lucas when they veer off track, and cheer when they hit on something great.

Here's another exchange I found particularly fun:

Spielberg: I think it would be funny if, as they're talking about this and the olives are between them, you see a hairy little paw is pulling olives off the plate, coming in and out of frame. Finally the paw comes up to grab an olive and begins slipping, like palsy. You use a little mechanical paw. And then you hear a thump.

Lucas: The monkey eats the olives during the exposition. It would be great if the monkey keeled over with the olive in his hand. "I wouldn't eat those olives."

Spielberg: As our hero looks over and sees this dead monkey with pits all around him, his friend is tossing one up, and he finally catches one in his mouth. "Hey, I got one." Our guy hits him on the back and makes him spit it out, saves him at the last minute.

Lucas: Either one can save the other. He flips it up, and as it's going into his mouth, the other guy grabs it. The guy asks him why in the hell he did that. He points to the monkey sprawled out with pits all over him. "Bad olives."

Kasdan: One thing that bothered me, the monkey eats just the olives? He can eat other stuff, too.

Lucas: Rather than olives, it could be dates. They would stick to his head instead of bounce off. It's better with olives, an olive would bounce around the room. The good thing about dates is that's something monkeys would be crazy about.

And of course, we end up with, in Lawrence Kasdan's revised third draft of August 1979:

Indy is in a happy world of his own. He throws his date high in the air. He positions himself under it and waits for it to drop in. Here it comes. Right on target. As it's about to disappear into Indy's mouth, Sallah's hand flashes in and grabs it. Indy looks mystified and disap- pointed. Sallah motions toward the dead Monkey.

SALLAH Bad dates.

One of the clear lessons these tapes provide is how exhaustively this trio drew the character of "Indiana Smith" before they ever discussed plot or set pieces. Too often, it feels as if action movies start with set pieces, and a character is only wedged in as an after thought.  In this case, Indiana Smith is a great example of a character who is larger than his set pieces.  Throughout the story meetings, Lucas takes great care to keep Indy believable, relatable, and human - rejecting ideas that seem over-the-top.

Lucas: ...James Bond tends to get a little outrageous at times. We're going to take the unrealistic side of it off, and make it more like the Clint Eastwood westerns. The thing with this is, we want to make a very believable character.

A writing teacher once pointed out to me that Indiana Jones is constantly experiencing "spectacular failures." He never gets the treasure in the end. He's usually abused by the love interest throughout the movie. He obliterates every archaeological site he comes in contact with. And when he actually survives an ordeal - even he can't believe it. Indiana Jones never really wins anything, he just gets pulled into adventures against his wishes and survives from one spectacular failure to another. This is how most of us live. And this is, I think, the key to the audience's enduring love of Indiana Jones.

*[Back to post] [Omitted] means omitted by yours truly to trim things up for this post. The original document contains everything except a few spots where the tape was unintelligible.