As any student of popular American cinema knows, the name Lawrence Kasdan is synonymous with some defining movie experiences among audiences of a certain age. One of Hollywood’s hot young screenwriters in the ’70s, Kasdan was enlisted by George Lucas to help pen The Empire Strikes Back, the film that — along with the Kasdan co-written Return of the Jedi — helped transform Star Wars from blockbuster movie into cultural myth. Soon after, Kasdan’s second film as director, The Big Chill, effectively captured — for better or worse — the feelings (and musical tastes) of a generation of Baby Boomers entering thirtysomething adult life. And between those films, Kasdan’s screenplay for Raiders of the Lost Ark was turned into another massive hit — and enduring piece of movie iconography — by Steven Spielberg.
As a director, Kasdan has moved from thrillers (Body Heat) to Westerns (Silverado, Wyatt Earp) to drama (Grand Canyon) and comedy (The Accidental Tourist), picking up four Oscar nominations along the way. He returns after a lengthy hiatus with this week’s Darling Companion, a comedy starring Kevin Kline and Diane Keaton about the search for a lost dog that brings on some typically Kasdan-esque moments of life assessment.
We sat down for a chat with Kasdan earlier this week, in which he talked about his new film, his long collaboration with Kline, and his favorite memory writing on Empire. Read on for that, but first, he talks about his five favorite movies.
Shampoo (Hal Ashby, 1975; 61% Tomatometer)
I have a 1000… I have a top 100. I can tell you five movies that are important to me, but as I say, I could go on and on. Shampoo is important to me. Hal Ashby, one of the great directors of our time, died very young, and is sometimes overlooked; but he did The Last Detail, and Being There, and he is a great director. And Robert Towne wrote the script with Warren Beatty. It’s a brilliant script, a portrait of LA at a certain time and the United States when we were going through a spasm of political activity that was very discouraging — it ends with the election of Nixon and Agnew. It’s hilarious, it’s sexy; it deals with all the variety of complications of people’s behavior. Jack Warden is brilliant in it; hilarious in one of the greatest scenes ever shot: At the end of the movie when Beatty comes back to his house and he thinks that Jack Warden’s gonna have him killed ’cause he’s slept with both Warden’s wife and his daughter, Carrie Fisher. It’s a great, great film, but Warden is brilliant in that scene. The movie is full of great writing; it’s almost like a French farce, but very modern. Beatty is at his absolute best. Everybody in it is great. Julie Christie’s a knockout. So that’s an important movie that not enough people have seen.
Yojimbo is the most entertaining movie ever made. Kurosawa’s flat-out entertaining. He said “I wanna make a movie that’s delicious enough to eat,” and that’s the way it is — it’s the most entertaining movie you can possibly think of. It’s been redone, as you know, as Fistful of Dollars, and it owes a lot to Red Harvest: It’s about any stranger that comes in to a corrupt town, and there are a lot forces at work. It’s very much like Red Harvest, Dashiell Hammett’s novel, in which he puts all the bad forces at work against each other. Yojimbo is hilarious. Toshirô Mifune in as great a role as he ever played, and he’s great in about 20 Kurosawa films. It’s just delightful from first shot, which is him walking along the road and then deciding where to go by throwing a stick up in the air and following the direction the stick lands, and he immediately comes upon a peasant boy who’s leaving home and wants a more exciting life, and that boy is seen throughout the film as he becomes involved in the criminal element in town; and at the end Mifune spares his life and tells him to go back to eating rice or whatever he’s complained about at the very beginning. The photography is phenomenal. Kurosawa’s the greatest filmmaker of all time. The use of lenses, the mise en scène — absolutely spectacular.
Did you ever have the chance to meet him?
I met him once. It wasn’t like a long meeting. [Laughs] It was [in Los Angeles], he was being honored. The DGA gave him an award when he was 80 years old, and he said “I’m just beginning to understand what film is about.” I met John Huston that same night. It was quite a night.
Out of the Past is my favorite film noir. I ripped it off viciously and completely — that and Double Indemnity — for Body Heat. [Laughs]
Well, it’s a good one to rip off.
[Laughs] I just saw a thing with Springsteen from South by Southwest — did you see his speech? Fabulous. He talks about the Animals song, “We Gotta Get out of This Place,” and he says “That’s every song I’ve ever written.” And there’s no shame in that, when you’ve been inspired by… when someone’s spoken to all your issues and all your aesthetic. Out of the Past, directed by Jacques Tourneur and written by Daniel Mainwaring, based on a novel with a great title — Build My Gallows High. Mitchum is spectacular. Jane Greer, who was 21 years old or something, and seems like she’s 35, she’s a great femme fatale. Kirk Douglas is in the third lead, as the villain, and he’s beautiful — you can see why he’s gonna be a star in a matter of years; a couple of years later he was a big star, and he’s hilarious. The talk is some of the best dialogue ever written. There’s a moment when Jane Greer, who’s already betrayed Mitchum twice in the movie, comes in to once again try to work her spell on him, and she says “I’ve thought about you, I prayed for you” and he says, “You prayed, Kathie?” — and he says it with the greatest line reading of all time — “Get out of here, I’ve gotta sleep in this room.” So Out of the Past — see it.
Strangelove — you can watch it again and again. Brilliant. To me, maybe the funniest movie ever made. Huge variety in the styles of the movie. Some of it’s shot like cinéma vérité documentary. Some of it’s very stylized. The mise en scène changes radically. When you’re in the bomber it’s hand-held — it might as well be Richie Leacock, or one of the Pennebakers making a movie; that’s how free-form it is. Totally realistic, even though you have Slim Pickens as the pilot of the jet that’s taking the atomic bomb to Russia. He’s hilarious, and yet you have a sense of this is really what it looks like — what their equipment looks like, what the gauges and the codes look like. They do a really funny sequence where they open up their survival box and there’s a condom, and there’s a 45, and it’s totally believable. And of course it ends with Slim Pickens riding the atomic bomb down like a wild horse toward Russia, and the world ending. And Sterling Hayden, absolutely hilarious throughout the movie, and Sellers playing five parts, I think. The scenes between him and Sterling Hayden, where he’s the British officer who’s been assigned to this airbase and Sterling Hayden is completely wacko and is convinced that they’re stealing his precious bodily fluids, because when he had sex he felt depleted. [Laughs].
One more. I’d have to say Red River. Great Western. John Wayne, Monty Clift — Monty Clift couldn’t be more wrong for a Western, and yet it totally works. When they finally have their fist fight at the end, they’ve taken and shot Wayne to even out the fight, because Wayne was about six inches taller than Clift, and 80 pounds heavier, and the fight works fine. The spirit of the cattle drive is extraordinary, the amount of drama that happens; the father and son struggle — in essence the Oedipal struggle, even though he’s not actually his son — between Clift and John Wayne, is magnificent. It’s pure Hawks: Men on the trail doing something dangerous, and doing it well. You can’t ask for a better Western. It talks about the whole opening of Texas, and it talks about the relationship between men. It talks about the dynamics of leadership, talks about betrayal. It’s Shakespearian, really, without any pretention. Pure Hawks.
Next, Kasdan chats about his new movie Darling Companion and reflects upon his favorite parts of writing The Empire Strikes Back.
Darling Companion revolves around the frantic search for a lost dog. The story is that you were inspired by you and your wife finding and losing your own dog, Mac?
Lawrence Kasdan: Yes, Mac. We rescued him and then we had him for a couple of years and then we lost him, in the mountains. We had gone away for a wedding with a friend and he got scared and he ran away. And we searched and searched and did all the things that are in the movie: We put it on the radio, we put signs everywhere, and we almost gave up, and then a woman we knew said, “Don’t give up — he’s out there.”
Was she similar to Ayelet Zurer’s psychic character in the film?
She is similar. She felt that she had an affinity for animals that was beyond the normal thing. She felt that she could tell that he was alive. But what she did that was most valuable for us, was she said, “You must not give up on this.” That really was the difference, I think.
And he’s still with you?
Yes. He’s at home, a few miles from here. He’s 14 years of age.
Some are calling this movie a part of a trilogy, along with The Big Chill (1983) and Grand Canyon (1991). Is there something in your mind that circles around every decade or so that makes you take stock of where you are in life?
I don’t think it’s a conscious thing, but obviously there is some sort of rhythm going on, because when I was in my ’30s I did make The Big Chill and in the ’40s I made Grand Canyon. And it’s not about generation. It’s about people that I knew, and concerns that we had, and raising two children in Los Angeles, and what’s it like to have your children move out — and that’s in Darling Companion.
It’s about How do you find that companion that’s gonna last you a lifetime? What makes someone special to you that you can trust them, that they’re gonna be there forever? They may not look right — like Richard Jenkins doesn’t look right to other people, but he’s the perfect man for the Dianne Wiest character. It’s about young love and it’s about old love. It’s about all the varieties of companionship.
Will you and Kevin Kline reunite in another 20 years for your Cocoon or On Golden Pond?
[Laughs] I don’t know — we may be ready for that sooner. [Laughs] The one thing I’ve realized is that you don’t know what’s gonna happen, and every time you get to make a movie, and every time you get to work with people you like, you’re really lucky. And that’s happened six times with Kevin. It’s been a real delight. I think he’s wonderful, and he’s really fun to work with. He can do anything. He was a great cowboy, he was a great rider, in Silverado (1985); he handled the guns really well. And then he was a Frenchman, and an Italian, and an American for me — he’s done everything. He’s the funniest guy I know.
The scene I liked best in the film is when Diane Keaton is trying to pop his dislocated shoulder back in, because it shows how good he is — how good both of them are — at simultaneously playing comedy and drama in the same moment.
I’m so glad you said that; that’s my favorite scene in the movie.
What is it about you and Kevin two that works as a collaboration?
I think it’s the trust: I trust his instincts, he trusts mine. If I say “Give me a little less, do a little less, do a little more,” he will do it. He’s all about the work. No ego. He’s all, “What’s the best way to do it?”, “What about this, what about that.” He gives you a million choices. You’re happy to see him when you get there in the morning.
How did you guys meet, originally?
I was casting Body Heat (1981) and there was an amazing explosion of talent in new York theater. I had seen a lot of people out in LA; I went to New York and I met Bill Hurt and Kevin Kline and John Heard and Chris Walken, they were all that age, they were all emerging at that moment. Quite a line up — and there were more. It was incredible period of acting in this country. I hired Bill Hurt for Body Heat, but I remembered Kline and said, “I gotta work with this guy.” He’d already won two TONYs at that point, I think. He could do anything: He’s an athlete, a dancer, a singer; everything. When I put together The Big Chill I wanted him at the center of it.
There’s an unmistakable line in Darling Companion, I think it’s spoken by Dianne Wiest’s character: “The dark side is strong…”
You’d have to be one of the few writers to reference your own work like that and get away with it, because it’s now part of the popular lexicon. When you include a line like that, does it feel like you’re just pulling something out of the cultural ether or do you consciously remember, “I worked on that script”?
[Laughs] Oh, I remember it very well. That’s a very vivid time for me. I had just written Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) for those guys, and I went to give it to George [Lucas] and he said, “Do you wanna write Empire?” And I said, “Don’t you wanna read Raiders first?” He literally offered it to me as I handed it to him, and he said, “I’m gonna read it tonight, and if I don’t like it I’m gonna take back this offer for Empire.” But he liked it. [Laughs]
Lucky he liked it.
Yes. [Laughs] I remember working on it. We did it really fast. [Director Irvin] Kershner was involved. He was a fascinating guy. An odd choice for Empire, but he wound up making the best Star Wars movie, I think — even though the first one is really the breakthrough. That’s astounding, the first movie, ’cause no-one had thought like that before; but Empire, I think, is maybe the best one.
I’m not gonna argue with you.
Do you have a favorite line that you wrote for that film?
Well there were a lot of things, you know. We invented the way Yoda would talk. When I started talking to George about it, he said, “We’ve got this character and I don’t know how he should talk. Should he talk backwards? How should he talk?” And I wrote all that stuff, and Frank Oz did that voice and he was spectacular. It’s amazing, to create something like that, and then have the whole world sort of embrace it.
Darling Companion opens in New York and LA this week, with more locations to follow.