Star Wars’ Greatest Screenwriter Wrote All Your Other Favorite Movies Too
Lawrence Kasdan’s keen ear for dialogue defined the movies of the 1980s and 1990s. From Raiders of the Lost Ark to The Big Chill, from Silverado to Body Heat, the writer-director’s ideas for how stories should be told and how heroes and villains should talk were the de facto standard. And maybe with the exception of George Lucas himself, Kasdan is the person who most established what Star Wars is. He wrote The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, and he co-wrote the screenplays for the upcoming The Force Awakens and the as-yet-untitled movie about Han Solo when he was a kid. “I love you/I know?” That was him. “Fly casual?” Him. “Do or do not; there is no try?” Yup.
So when I the chance to talk to Kasdan as part of my reporting on the new Star Wars movie, I grabbed it—not so much because I thought he’d have anything to tell me about how Star Wars movies get made (though of course he did), but because words he wrote helped make me into the person I am now. And as I show his movies to my kids (slowly—they’re not ready for Raiders yet, much less Body Heat) I realize he’s building their characters as well. It turns out that’s all on purpose. Kasdan is as thoughtful about writing and meaning as he is clever with an Indiana Jones quip. So while I don’t usually do notebook dumps like this, I think this interview is worth diving into. Kasdan was candid about working with Lucas and J.J. Abrams, smart about the strength of genre fiction, and even settled a nerdy question I’ve had since Jedi came out in 1983. The idea that Kasdan’s words are going to be coming out of Han Solo’s mouth again nearly 35 years later…well, I love it. And I think Kasdan knows.
WIRED: How did you get involved with Star Wars?
Kasdan: My initial engagement with it was kind of a surprise. I had just taken six months to write Raiders of the Lost Ark from scratch. I handed it in, and George said, “do you want to write Empire Strikes Back?” Literally, he threw it on the desk and asked me to write Empire. He said, “we’re in big trouble. Leigh Brackett [who wrote the first draft] has passed away. They’re building sets in England. And I don’t have a script.”
I said, “maybe you ought to read Raiders first.”
He said, “I’m going to read it tonight, and if I don’t like it I’ll call you back tomorrow and take back this offer.”
This was a complete detour for me, to now find myself working with George on Star Wars. It was very exciting, and since it was so fast, the pressure was so great, there’s nothing more exhilarating. He used his own money to make Empire. That’s unheard of, and it added an enormous amount of pressure to the enterprise. Now the way he tells it you would think he’d thought of it all along, and maybe he had, but there was no reality to Empire when he was making A New Hope. Now the whole world opens up to him and he can tell the big story, and he enlisted me to help tell it. He had the story. I went off with [director Irvin] Kershner and wrote it in six weeks.
How much of the story did Lucas already have?
George said to me, “Darth Vader is Luke’s father.” And I said, “no shit?” I just thought that was the greatest thing I’d ever heard, but that was all George. I thought, oh my God, this story is so much more interesting than I thought it was. When you bring in the father and the son, you’re bringing in things that resonate from real life. He had a broad outline of where he wanted to go, and what was clear from the get-go was that it was the second act of a three-act drama.
At the end of the second act of a classical drama, everything has gone to shit and you don’t know how they’re going to get out of it. That’s why the second act is always the best act, because there’s a huge question at the end. Empire is a perfect demonstration of that. When you go onto Jedi, everything has to work out fine at the end, and that’s never as interesting.
But why did he give the job to you, specifically?
Because I wrote a certain kind of thing. I’d written The Bodyguard and Continental Divide. When they hired me for Raiders they wanted a more adult sense of humor, they wanted banter between Indy and Marion. There was no Marion when I came on, but that’s what I wrote. Steven Spielberg really brought me to George. When he bought Continental Divide, he brought me to George and said, “This is who we should get to write Raiders.”
Instead of writing Empire himself, George was bringing me in, and I thought the implication and license he was giving me was, let’s make this interesting in ways the first one wasn’t, maybe. Nothing could be more fun than A New Hope, but in Empire the characters could be more interesting, more complex. They could have more shape to them. I thought that was inherent in him offering me the job.
We got close over the course of writing it. The George who I worked with on Empire and Jedi was one of the funniest, fun, light-hearted—he used to do all the voices. He had a great cartoon voice, and would do all the characters. He was feeling pretty good, as you would imagine, about what had happened with his idea. Everyone had said Star Wars was a terrible idea when he proposed it, and then he was completely vindicated. Later he helped me get Body Heat made, the first movie I directed.
And then they brought you back for the new round.
It was completely out of the blue. I was really surprised. I hadn’t had anything to do with it since Jedi. George and I had stayed in touch, and I would see him occasionally, but we weren’t close. And then Kathy Kennedy called. This is before Disney was in the picture at all. She said, “we’re going to make more Star Wars movies. Will you come up and talk to George and me?”
I had a lot of hesitation. I went up to the ranch not at all convinced I would do it. I was happy to see George again, and Kathy and I have never been out of touch, because we have a lot of connections. And they said, “look, we have hired Michael Arndt to write the next one, but there are these other ideas, and you can take your pick.” I said, “the only one I really want to do here is Han Solo, because Han is my favorite character.” And they said OK. That got me over my hesitation. We made a deal for me to write Han, and a deal to come on and help Michael and with some other people develop what would be the next Star Wars. I did that as a kind of consultant at the same time I was starting to write Han. It went on for months, and it was quite a large brain trust.
Weeks after that meeting, Disney bought the company, and I was involved in trying to get J.J. Abrams to direct what would become Force Awakens. When he agreed to do the movie it got very exciting. He and George are so different, but they’re the same in that they’re both very funny and both brilliant. He and I hit it off right away, even before we were officially writing the script, when we were just helping Michael. We all worked on the story for a long time, and it was a struggle. Then they decided the script wasn’t coming along fast enough. There were people being hired and money being spent, and Michael stepped away.
What was it like working with Abrams on the script?
What we wanted from the movie was exactly the same, to return it to a kind of physicality—tangible, real sets, real features, kind of lightly funky even though it’s incredibly sophisticated. The feeling we wanted was from the first trilogy, which was, it’s fun, it’s delightful, it moves like a son of a bitch, and you don’t question too much.
But the pressure on you to produce now comes with a lot more history.
Empire, there just wasn’t the universe of nerds at that point. There were just Star Wars fans, and that’s a very different thing than 40 years of canon and history and gospel. That’s a very different atmosphere we were working in on Force Awakens.
By the time J.J. and I came on to write the script, again, just like Empire, there was enormous time pressure, and there were people on payroll in England. It was very intense. But our reaction to it was to be very free. We felt liberated. We had only one goal, which was to delight, to have as much delight in the movie as possible
We started walking around recording into an iPhone breaking the story, and we walked for miles through Santa Monica and Manhattan and eventually Paris and London. It was the most fun experience I’ve ever had in terms of breaking a story and shaping it up, walking through some of the most amazing cities in the world and talking to a guy who loves it and is gonna direct it, and you know he’s gonna direct it great. You’re elated by the whole thing. We had a first draft in about six weeks, and then we continued to write it for another two years. We were shooting it and cutting it and there were still little changes being made
I’ll be honest with you. On Force Awakens, we purposely said to each other, just J.J. and I, we don’t have to do much of anything. We know that we’re gonna have Harrison and Carrie and Mark back. We know we have Chewie. But everything else is up for grabs. Maybe J.J. felt different, but I didn’t feel any parameters were imposed on us. On the first day, I said, “look, delight, that’s the word. In every scene, that should be the criteria we’re using. Does it delight? Is it fun?” I look at the movie now, and I’m feeling very good about that. What J.J. did with it is so great. You take all of J.J.’s gifts, the dynamism of his camera and his sense of humor and feeling of momentum, his ideas of story, and I feel like we were able to achieve that delight. It’s an unusual feeling even for me. When I look at the movie, I can’t resist it. It just tickles me.
Your Western Silverado was super-important for me. I just showed it to my kids. And you’ve done such great work in other genres—noir, sci-fi, adventure. What attracts you to genre?
I’ve always thought that genre is a vessel into which you put your own story, you know? If you want to make a western, you can tell any story in the world in a western, you know? It can be about family, betrayal, revenge, the opening up of the country—which to some extent Silverado is about. Then you make a movie like Wyatt Earp, about things closing down and turning dark, figures who are considered heroic. What’s the reality of people doing what they did?
Silverado is relatively funny and Wyatt Earp is relatively dark. The same thing is true of noir, because noir is really about trust and sex. Is the person you’re in bed with reliable, or are they just exciting? Those stories never get old, because they are issues everybody faces every day. Who do you trust? What are the temptations in your life? What is the diff between how you should act and fulfilling the desires you have? That tension is always going to create story and always be relevant.
Force Awakens, New Hope, Empire-—these are movies about fulfilling what is inside you. That’s a story that everybody can relate to. Even when you get to be my age, you’re still trying to figure that out. It’s amazing but it’s true. What am I, what am I about, have a fulfilled my potential, and, if not, is there still time? That’s what the Star Wars saga is about
I’ve done movies that aren’t genre movies, and they’re very attractive too. Less of a vessel and more free-form. But I’m always drawn to the same kind of stories. You make a movie like The Big Chill and you’re dealing with the same issue you deal with in Empire, which is how you’re going to live your life. The attraction of Westerns is, it was a brand new land with no rules, so people had to decide how they were going to be in that landscape, and some people decided one way and some decided the other, and people like Wyatt Earp were caught in the middle. They’re questions of identity and morality, you know. What kind of person am I going to be?
To the extent that you can influence what your kids are like—and there’s a limit, I can tell you—you want to be some sort of example, like, this is how we behave. When there’s no one looking, how do we behave? When we have no reason to be nice to someone, are we nice anyway? Do we do the honorable thing in the shadows, when no one can see us? Those are the issues in Empire, in Body Heat. Something about genre, like all fairy tales, makes things very clear. There are archetypes that mean certain things in our collective consciousness. To me the most amazing thing about A New Hope is that—and this has a lot to with both George and [concept designer] Ralph McQuarrie—the second Darth Vader comes out of the smoke, there’s no question in anybody’s mind. including my five-year-old grandson’s, that this is the bad guy. And it has everything to do with the way he looks. He doesn’t have to say a word. It’s so fundamental, so Jungian. This is the image of danger and evil that has persisted since people started telling stories
Yeah, but now you’re also beholden to big corporations with their own stories to tell.
I’ve been lucky. On these series I worked with George, with Kersh, with [Jedi director] Richard Marquand, who was lovely. I worked with Kathy, and I worked with J.J. These are very strong people and they’re not gonna be swallowed by the corporate machines. I don’t think there’s a lot of difference between the way George and Kirsch approached it and the way J.J. approached it. It’s almost as though J.J. has been in training his entire life. If you look at everything J.J. has ever done, all those qualities add up to The Force Awakens.
That’s a very Jedi-like narrative. The making of the movie recapitulates its own narrative.
My favorite line that I ever wrote is in Raiders. Sallah says to Indy, “how are you going to get the box back?” And Indy says: “I don’t know. I’m making this up as I go.”
That is the story of everybody’s life. It happens to be very dramatic for Indiana Jones. Get on the truck, get on the horse. But for you and me, we’re making it up, too. Here’s how I’m going to behave. Here’s what I’m willing to do to make a living; here’s what I’m not willing to do. How we make up our lives as we go. That’s such a powerful idea, because it’s very exciting. It’s the biggest adventure you can have, making up your own life, and it’s true for everybody. It’s infinite possibility. It’s like, I don’t know what I’m going to do in the next five minutes, but I feel I can get through it. It’s an assertion of a life force.
Star Wars is its own genre. It’s not really science fiction. It’s really something on its own, fantasy and myth and science fiction and Flash Gordon and Akira Kurosawa all mixed up together. For that reason, like all genre it can hold a million different kinds of artists an stories. That’s why I think Rian Johnson’s movie [Episode VIII] is going to be amazing, and I think Chris Lord and Phil Miller’s movie [about young Han Solo] is going to be amazing. They say Buddha is what you do to it. And that’s Star Wars. It can be anything you want it to be
Can I have one total geek-out? Will you tell me what a Jedi really is? Are they emotionless? Do they trust their feelings? Are they samurai? Shao-lin warrior priests? Wizards?
Everybody has different answers to that.
Yeah, but you wrote the movies. You get to say.
George once said to me, “oh, Ben is not a Jedi master.” I said, “what?” And he said, “yeah, he’s not really a master. A master is this and this.” And I said, “you’re out of your mind.” To me, Ben Kenobi is the ultimate Jedi. When you see Alec Guinness play that part, everything that you would want from a Jedi is in that. There is nothing about Alec Guinness that is unemotional, that has given up everything material and is living in a spiritual world.
He has a strong relationship to Toshiro Mifune’s character in Yojimbo, and a strong relationship to the head man in Seven Samurai. Those guys are not in some spiritual world. They are in both worlds. They are dangerous and engaged and feeling and empathetic and generous and brave.
OK. That’s canon now. No arguments.
It’s for all the same reasons that you show your kids Silverado. You want to hand down certain kinds of stories to them and show them certain kinds of movies. I have three grandchildren, and as soon as you feel you have a legacy to hand down, something in the culture that’s worth handing down, you feel privileged to even be involved.
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