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The Indiana Jones Brainstorms: The Insane True Story

Recently, the internet was blessed with a wonderful gift. A few decades ago, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan had 5, 9-hour-long chat sessions where they discussed plot ideas for a story about an archaeologist/adventurer who was handy with a bullwhip. The three spoke, sometimes in short, garbled sentences, and sometimes in wild, minute-long monologues that were positively dense with ideas. The conversations were recorded, transcripts were made and, based on those transcripts, Raiders of the Lost Ark was written.

Let me say right off the bat, (stripped of internet-mandated cynicism), that this story conference is one of the most interesting things I've ever read. You've got hours upon hours of these three guys just relentlessly spit-balling and the sheer amount of ideas that get thrown around in that room is incredible. Over the course of these 125 pages, you really see Raiders taking shape, and you also see bits and pieces of Temple of Doom and The Last Crusade popping up. They're just sitting around brainstorming, probably with no inclination that they're about to create a wildly successful and popular film franchise.

It's interesting to see everyone's creative process. George Lucas rambles on, he speaks without commas or periods, he repeats himself, he talks in circles but, occasionally, will miraculously stumble onto something so sharp and brilliant that eventually becomes essential and iconic, ("Oh and by the way, let's have him be really good with a bullwhip"), that you can almost forgive him for all of his crimes against Star Wars. (Almost.) The transcript is available for download here, and I recommend it for both diehard Indiana Jones fans and casual movie enthusiasts who might be curious about the creative processes of two Hollywood giants. (Also, the download is worth it just to check out the three or four straight pages that Lucas and Spielberg dedicate to figuring out how to make the audience hate a monkey spy. "The monkey should be dressed up as a little Arab." "And there's this sleeping cat that this monkey knocks in the face." Spielberg garbles "something about the monkey going 'Heil Hitler.'" I'm not paraphrasing. All of those things actually happened in this meeting.)

As interesting as the transcript is, there are also some pretty strange moments. I'll say that there's more subtle racism than I think I was expecting. There's nothing really too overt, but enough that it shows that Spielberg and Lucas have a lack of both respect and understanding for other cultures. They start out small, with bits that might not technically be racist. Like, on page 10, Lucas considers a scene with a lot of non-Americans in a foreign country running around, and he's worried about how expensive the project will be. He quickly puts his fears to rest, however...

From page 10.

Seven thousand dollars? That sounds kind of rough but, hey, maybe I just don't know how things work in New Dehli, or maybe the dollar is worth a whole lot more over there. Maybe seven thousand dollars, to be spread evenly among eight thousand extras and 15 cars is completely reasonable. Still, let's take a look a little bit farther down the page where Lucas and Spielberg talk about casting the locals:

I don't even know what ethnic stereotype Spielberg is referencing when he suggests that certain races routinely jump off cliffs, or if maybe he's just confusing Mexicans with lemmings, but I do know that someone, maybe even everyone, should be offended.

It's even more interesting to watch them brainstorm about a villain for Indiana. They know they want a non-white villain, they know the villain needs to be sleazy, and they know they don't personally care about ideas that are potentially racially insensitive. They season the entire conversation with the word "Orientals" pretty liberally, they talk about how Chinese ("or whatever") villains are good choices because "you can never tell what they're thinking," Lucas refers to a Chinese warlord as "General Fu Man Chu," and they write off having a Middle Eastern villain because Spielberg "Can't think of many Arabs who are actors." Still, this particularly damning bit might be my favorite:

From page 20.

"Italians are too crazy?" What does that even mean? I can't tell if Lucas thinks Italian characters are too crazy or Italian actors are. Like, is he worried that the audience won't believe an Italian dude would be interested in something banal, like the Ark of the Covenant? Or is he's suggesting that Italian actors are, by nature too crazy to be captured on film? Does Lucas think Italian people are so clouded by their own madness that they wouldn't be able act? Too crazy to travel all over the world looking for the Ark of the Covenant? Too crazy to fight Indiana Jones in the fictional universe you're creating? What the hell rules are you operating under, Lucas?

Potential racism aside, the transcript is also interesting because we get to see what George Lucas is like when he's speaking extemporaneously. On page 16, for example, he's just riffing, but take a look at the dialogue Lucas conjures up for the character who I think would eventually become Marcus Brody:

From page 16.

Sure, Lucas is just sort of going off the top of his head here, but, if you look at some of the clumsy, thoughtless lines that actually make it in to a lot of Lucas's scripts, you'll notice that there's not that much of an improvement. There are lines that are worse than the line above that made it into the final draft of the Star Wars films. We learn, I suppose, that when George Lucas makes dialogue up in the spur of the moment, it's just as shitty as when he actually sits down to really write it. Which is remarkable.

Actual line from the movie.

There are also just some flat out terrible ideas. In the story as Lucas dictated it, Jones is stuck on a plane as it's crashing, and he and the screenwriter decided...

From page 31.

Yes. There was almost a scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indiana Jones took a bunch of life preservers, curled up into a ball, and leapt out of plane. Thankfully, Lucas and company had the good sense to really look at that scene and objectively say "Hey, this is pretty retarded." This happens a few times, in fact. In addition to the sphere of life-preservers, there's a bumbling child sidekick character and a toboggan ride down a snowy mountain (???), all of which Lucas and Spielberg recognized as shitty. By leaving these cheesy, lame moments out, they saved Raiders. (Though, by Temple of Doom, Lucas will exorcise some of his Bad Ideas Demons by creating Short Round, a character who is both aggressively Asian and a bumbling child sidekick, which for him must have been a total twofer. If Short Round was sassy and CGI, he would be the perfect storm of shitty Lucas ideas.)

Oh, also of noteworthy importance is how weird Spielberg is. Check out page 32, where he's talking about a chase scene through a village:

From page 32.

It's just sort of interesting to me to see what exactly Steven Spielberg thinks is important in a brainstorming session. In five days, they never decide a name for Marion Ravenwood, they don't quite settle on too many geographic locations and they still don't know exactly what Indiana's last name should be, but if there's one thing Steven Spielberg can concretely say, it's that Indiana Jones should knock a llama over. "Guys, I don't give a shit about what else happens in this movie, but if the credits roll and there's so much as one fucking llama standing I swear to God I am going to lose it."

Still, despite all this, just about every cool scene that ended up in Raiders starts as a seed and takes root in these spontaneous conversations. The snake pit, the face-melting finale, the giant boulder- they all just suddenly came to the creative forces in unpredictable flashes of genius. That's cool.

Hey, you know what's even stranger than the fact that these early spit-balling sessions made it to the intern? The fact that Lucas and Spielberg continued these kinds of spit-balling sessions later on in their careers. In fact, when they decided they were going to bring back Indiana for a fourth installment, they got together with screenwriter David Koepp, though only for, like, a half an hour this time, and it was at an Arby's, not someone's house. They bounced ideas around, recorded their conversations and wrote out those conversations, same as before.

Wanna know what's even MORE remarkable? Well, instead of making these transcripts available for download, they just emailed them directly to me. Weird, right? Pretty unbelievable, I know.

Anyway, here are some excerpts from the Lucas, Spielberg, David Koepp spit-balling session for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

The first thing you'll notice is that the racism is still very much a part of their creative process.

From page 22.

You should also note that there's less of a focus on tying up loose ends. In the original transcript, every plot point was analyzed from several different angles until they settled on something they liked. Here, they're just sort of tossed around.

From page 10.

From page 113.

And, of course, their hearts just aren't quite in it as much anymore, and it's a little depressing to look at the evolution here. If you look at the old transcript, it's clear that they had ideas, (the shittiness of which admirably rivaled the shittiness of Crystal Skull), the difference being that they had the good sense to cut those ideas back in the eighties. If something as awful as fridge-nuking had come up in the spit-ball session for Raiders, it never would've made it to the screen, (where "never" can also mean "until Temple of Doom"). The old Lucas and Spielberg could look at a scene where Jones forms a ball of life preservers and wisely cut it, but the new Lucas and Spielberg can see a scene where a greasy teenager swings through the jungle with a bunch of CGI monkeys and all they can say is "More monkeys." Something was lost along the way, folks. Something profound.

From page 90.




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