The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hey, this is John. So, today’s episode was recorded live on April 16, 2016. This was an all-day event for the Writers Guild Foundation, and The Academy, Craft Day 2016. Craig and I got to sit down with screenwriting legend Lawrence Kasdan and talk to him about Star Wars, Han Solo, Light and Dark, all sorts of wonderful things. It was a fantastic day and we’re happy to share this interview with you today on the show.
A warning that there’s a few bad words in here. It’s not especially bad, but we didn’t want to cut around any of the great four-letter words that Lawrence Kasdan does drop in at times. So, enjoy the episode. We will back next week with a normal one. Thanks.
[live show starts]
Hello and welcome.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: My name is John August. And we host a podcast called Scriptnotes. It’s a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
So, the backstory, so this is the slow crawl over the star field. Two years ago we had a discussion about Raiders of the Lost Ark. And it was a full sort of script breakdown of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Craig: And I’m lucky enough to have known Larry for some years. So I was very excited, but also a little nervous because, well, you’ll see. He’s incredibly grouchy. I said, “Would you listen to this?” That was already — that was an argument. But then he did. And he loved it. He said it was the best.
So, then I said, well, we should have you on to talk about Raiders. And he said, “No.”
John: Yes. But then, we said we were going to do a live show. And it was like, you know what, maybe we could get Kasdan to come for a live show. And we could talk about other things. He had this movie Star Wars come out, and we could talk about that. And so we scheduled him to come to our live show, which was going to be in Downtown Los Angeles, and we were so, so excited. And then on Saturday night I was over at Rawson Thurber’s house. This is —
Craig: Name drop!
John: Name drop. And I get this text from Craig. Or, actually, it was on my Apple Watch.
Craig: Tech drop!
John: And, Craig, what did you text me?
Craig: That Larry unfortunately was not feeling well. And so he wasn’t going to be able to make it. So, we freaked out. Because, you know, the way nerds are. And we are nerds, but if they want Larry Kasdan, you can’t give them like a guy, right? They’ll kill you.
So we got David Benioff and Dan Weiss from Game of Thrones. That was — thank god.
John: Thank god. Thank god.
Craig: Otherwise, we would have been dead. But, at last, today, we have the man.
John: So let’s introduce Lawrence Kasdan, everyone. Come on up.
Craig: While Larry gets himself situated, I’m just going to read this very brief thing here because you all know it, but I like saying it out loud because it’s kind of impossible. These are the movies that Larry has written.
The Empire Strikes Back.
Don’t do that — because it’s going to take forever. The Empire Strikes Back. Raiders of the Lost Ark. Body Heat. Return of the Jedi. The Big Chill. Silverado. The Accidental Tourist. I Love You to Death. Grand Canyon. The Bodyguard. Wyatt Earp. French Kiss. Oh, and then he just did this other one called The Force Awakens. That’s not possible.
Lawrence Kasdan: Thank you. French Kiss was written by Adam Brooks.
Craig: Okay, whatever.
Lawrence: I Love You to Death was written by John Kostmayer.
Craig: Doesn’t really matter.
Lawrence: And they’re both great writers. And they were on the set every day and it was wonderful.
Craig: But you — all right. Never mind.
John: All right. This is why Craig doesn’t usually do the research for episodes. Just so we’re clear on this.
Craig: Wikipedia, you guys.
John: Anyone can edit Wikipedia.
Craig: Literally anyone can do it.
John: Anyone can do your job right now. So sorry.
Craig: I know.
John: But, Craig is going to step it up, because Craig has good questions.
Craig: I do.
John: Thank you so much for being here. So this morning I was on a panel where we talked about character introductions. I was wondering if you could talk about story and putting together a story. Because all these are such different universes of narrative, and yet each of them we think of them for their plot, for their story, for sort of how well they piece together.
Can you talk to us about when do you know you have enough information about this story to start writing? Probably most of us have seen the Raiders story conference, where you guys are all talking through the plot of Raiders, but what has that process been like for some of the other movies? When do you know that you have enough to start writing a movie?
Lawrence: First of all, I want to say I listened to that Benioff and Weiss thing, and as you know I have only admiration for those guys. But you said when Larry hears this, he’s going to cry. That they were so good that I would never recover from being replaced. I did hear that.
Craig: Did you cry? A little bit?
Lawrence: I got a tear. I don’t know that I ever feel I have enough, John. You know, in Raiders, there’s a moment when Indy has to go after the Ark. You know, it’s been put in a truck. And Sallah says to him, “What are you going to do?” And he says, “I don’t know. I’m making this up as I go.”
And that was my favorite line I ever got to write. Because it described my life’s work. It described my life, because it’s exactly the same with my life as it is with my life’s work, which is you’re improvising all the time. You don’t know what you’re going to do next. You’re hoping it fits into some grand scheme you’ve got in the back of your head. And it usually doesn’t fit the way you thought it did. Hopefully it’s as good or better than your previous idea.
You know, I usually start with characters that I’m interested in and hope that they develop a field of force. It starts to be a story. And you bring in another character, and that character causes a spark and friction and conflict with the one you started with. And you’re on your way.
But, of course, you’re not really on your way. You’re on your way to the first dead end and roadblock and despair.
John: I mean, we’re so familiar with the Star Wars movies, which are so complicated, and there’s all this going back and forth. But let’s take a simpler story like The Bodyguard. You have these two characters in conflict. Was that just the central idea? You had these two characters and the situation and the story flows through that? Or was — ?
Lawrence: Yeah, that was. And I had been screenplays for a long time with no success. And I’d give them to my brother, who was also trying to get into the movies at that time, and he’d say, “Oh, they’re great.” He was so supportive that I always had the illusion that something was going to happen with these scripts, but nothing ever happened.
But I did get this idea — I’m a huge Steve McQueen freak. He was a great, great movie star. I worshipped him. And I wanted to write something that he could be in. You know, it was a Steve McQueen part. I didn’t imagine in my wildest dreams that he would be in it. But I wanted something that — so I wanted to write that part because I was so drawn to that kind of character. And I find that I still am drawn to that kind of character, even though I haven’t written it for a while.
It’s very interesting to me. I was very interested in bodyguards and their willingness to sacrifice their life for someone they might not even like. For a salary, you’re supposed to throw yourself in front of the bullet. And it’s not just you may not like them. You may hate them. But that’s the commitment you make. For this salary, I will do that.
And I thought, well, what kind of person does that? And what’s that like? And then what would happen if he took a job like that. He didn’t like the woman he was protecting. And then, of course, they fell in love. And I thought, that’s really a good story.
Craig: It is a good story.
Craig: And I saw it. It was great.
Lawrence: I haven’t come up with many where you feel that way. And I don’t know about you guys. Maybe you have them all the time. I always feel, you know, people like our friend Scott Frank is always making you miserable because he’s like, “Oh, I’m doing ten things and I turned down four others. And it’s so great, and I’m doing this, and doing that.” And you’re like, fuck you.
Craig: Yeah. Yeah. We all feel that way about Scott. That’s about right.
Lawrence: They don’t come often. But that was clearly a good story.
Craig: Well, there’s something about that story that I think is common to a lot of the stories you tell, and that’s a certain kind of character. Whether you’re looking at Han Solo, and you’re currently writing a Han Solo movie with your son. Or Indiana Jones. Or if you’re looking at The Bodyguard. A number of these, there’s this lovable jerk quality. And that is an interesting tight rope to walk. And you do it better than anyone, I think, because your lovable jerks are definitely jerks. But they are really lovable. Usually they’re lovable and almost jerky, but not really. Or they’re just jerks and we don’t love them. How do you — first of all, is this something that you realize that you do?
Lawrence: No, I’ve never thought about that. But it explains why I’ve kept up my relationship with you. Why I like to — you have to go back to the well.
Craig: Yes. Yes, of course. [laughs]
Lawrence: Here’s an example. The character that William Hurt plays in Body Heat, I wouldn’t call him a jerk. See, I’d never use that word. He’s not smart. He has things he’s hoping for in his life, and they haven’t really come true. But up to that point, even though he’s not smart, or canny, or anything, he has gotten by very well sort of on charm. He’s a bit of a screw up as a lawyer. He’s a small town guy.
But he has great hopes for himself. And he doesn’t know it, but someone has spotted him as a talent that will be usable. So he thinks he’s meeting a woman, but she’s actually pre-scoped him. And she knows that these very things that are his weaknesses and his greatest desires can be put to her use. And we don’t find out that she know all about it before for quite a while in the story.
But I don’t think of him as a jerk. I think of him as a guy. A guy. He’s not so different from me, because he wants things, he doesn’t want to work that hard to get them. He’s hoping for the best. And not surprised by the worst.
Craig: The lovable part is the explanation and the humanity behind the failures. I mean, you do that really well, I think. That when you create flawed characters, the flaws don’t feel like they’re floating on top of somebody. They feel like they’re on the other side of the things we like. They are sort of integral to why we like those characters.
Lawrence: Well, that’s high praise, isn’t it? I do think all things are like that. There’s a great line that I will screw up now, but where he says, “You know, every pleasure — with every pleasure is a hint of pain.” Pay for your ticket and don’t complain. Everything is a duality.
There’s us here, sitting here. You guys are loved. Your podcast is loved.
Craig: Oh geez, here we go. Here we go.
Lawrence: I am thrilled to be the subject of your podcast and this gathering. There is behind us —
Craig: This is what it’s like all the time, by the way.
Lawrence: There’s a secret life going on with everybody all the time. And it’s the one that feels like, oh, I’m a fake. I’m a sham. How am I going to get through this? Can I get through it with people thinking I know what I’m talking about? Will you guys ask questions — you’re wondering, can you ask a question he hasn’t been asked a hundred times?
Craig: I know. We’ve really tried hard. How are we doing so far?
Lawrence: So far so good.
Lawrence: The thing that got me about that Raiders episode, which I do recommend. These guys know Raiders much better than I do. Last night I was listening to a little bit of it, and I thought, “Really?” That’s great. And they keep saying during the podcast, “This is masterful. And that’s masterful.” And I’m thinking like, masterful, me? Is that? Wow, great. Because you don’t feel masterful. You don’t.
And you don’t feel it when you’re doing it. And you hope for it to be considered that way later on. When it holds up, when you guys can deconstruct it for an hour and a half, and it not just fall apart in your hands like dust —
Craig: It holds up.
Lawrence: It’s very nice.
John: Well, what you’ve described is like we say it’s masterful and you had no idea that it was masterful at the time. We’ve talked about imposter syndrome where you feel like, you know, people are going to figure out that I really don’t know what I’m doing.
John: And these lovable jerk characters, Indiana Jones, the Han Solo, I think there’s a quality of that where like they’re acting with sort of a bravado so that no one will pay attention to the fact that they really don’t know what they’re doing. And there’s an inner doubt there that’s coming off through some of their dialogue, some of their lines.
It strikes me that like you can’t have those characters unless there’s someone to play opposite that character. So, if you don’t have a Marion, if you don’t have a Leia, if you don’t have a Luke, someone who is not that person. If you try to stick two of those characters together, it’s going to be chaos.
Lawrence: Well, the whole thing that interests me about writing movies, aside from the images and the power of the images and the way you can do that has nothing to do with dialogue, but I’m always interested in you have a character but he doesn’t have any shape. There’s no molding. There’s no contrast until there’s the light of another character shown on him.
And what’s wonderful is a movie where you say, “Oh my god, that character is so right about the other one. And I hadn’t thought of that.” And the protagonist, who you started with, is thinking, “Damn, she’s right about me,” but he can’t let that out. If it’s in his eyes. And then maybe later in the story he proves himself not to be exactly what she thought. What a great surprise that is. That’s the delight of a good movie.
Craig: We talk about this a lot, but I think we see it in your work throughout, that your characters really are defined by the relationships that they’re having. It’s very difficult to — I think sometimes new writers think that they have to write a character. You know, you’re going to write Indiana Jones. But Indiana Jones is defined from the start, even from the very start, by the fact that he’s not the guy that he’s with. You know? I just think that you do that really well. That you understand that — you know, Lindsay Doran, I don’t know if any of you have seen the talk that she does.
There you go. I don’t know when — she does it fairly frequently at the Guild, but she’s wonderful and you should see it when you can. And what she talks about ultimately is she talks about the last scene of movies. And that we think in our minds, we remember, like what’s the last scene of the movie? It’s when the thing blows up. It’s when the plot is resolved. But that’s never the last scene. The last scene is always Luke, and Leia, and Han standing on a ridiculous platform with stupid medals, but they’re smiling at each other. It’s the relationships.
Lawrence: Yes. Well, all of film, and the way this thing works, whether it’s film or digital, is there’s nothing until there’s a contrast between one pixel and another, between one grain of film and another. So, right at the essence of film, it only starts to become defined when there’s light and dark.
And that same thing follows right through the story, through all the characters, and everything is illuminated by the contrast.
John: So, you had a unique opportunity to go back and take a look at Han Solo, a character that you worked with before, in The Force Awakens. And a number of years have passed between them. What were those conversations like as you started looking at that character and where he’d be at now, what his relationships were like, what his relationship was like with his son, with Leia? What were those discussions and how did you figure out who he was then?
Lawrence: You know, Harrison is a little older than me, but our careers have been oddly entwined. We’ve never been close, but he’s a lovely guy. And he’s turned into a great, great man. And something happened where, you know, he’s relaxed into —
Craig: I think it’s pot, from what I’ve heard. He’s high all the time. I don’t know. I’ve never seen it, but that’s what I’ve heard.
Lawrence: He is a prince. A god. A king. And I could see that as soon as we came into the process and J.J. and I started talking to Harrison in some way early on. And after we had a draft, we had a really funny, wonderful meeting with him. And we did a lot of the writing in various cities, because J.J. — he had to be in London. He had to be out of London for tax reasons. And we were in Paris. And London.
Craig: That dodge has been canceled.
John: High class problems?
Lawrence: But we did most of it walking around Santa Monica and Manhattan, a freezing day. It was total fun. Most fun ever, really. But when we got to this stage where Harrison came, we had done a lot of work at the various Soho Houses. Now, I got to tell you, I’m sure there are wonderful people that go to the Soho House. In London, there are like five or six of them. And J.J. is a member. I’m not a member. I think I heard you guys talking about it.
John: Yeah, Dana Fox talks about it. And Aline goes to the Soho House. I’m not a member. I tried.
Craig: I’m not a member.
Lawrence: You’re not a member. But you’ve been taken there by wonderful patrons.
Craig: Douchebags usually.
Lawrence: But Harrison came, and so did Carrie. We had these meetings, a series of meetings at one of the Soho Houses. And it was great to — Harrison first of all was totally, he was so positive about the whole thing. And he didn’t ask for much. And you really wanted to do anything that — any problem he had, you either wanted to fix it, or you wanted to bring him over to your side.
You know, very early on in the shooting he got hurt. The door to the Falcon came down. It was a big — could have been a disastrous mistake. It was an understandable mistake, but a bad one on the part of the guy in charge of the door.
Craig: Where is that guy now, by the way?
Lawrence: Yeah. Well.
John: He had to leave for tax reasons.
Lawrence: [laughs] He is in Paris, I’m sure.
Craig: Won’t see that guy no more.
Lawrence: Meg was visiting that day and she and I went out to get something to eat. And we came back and everything had locked down. So, it happened like — I probably should never have left the set.
John: Lessons learned. So, in going back to revisit Han Solo, you were presenting him with a whole set of challenges which the old Han Solo would never have to face. So, what is it like to — ?
Lawrence: What do you mean?
Craig: Reduced urine flow.
John: No, no, no.
Craig: Stuff like that.
John: You’re giving him responsibilities that are sort of un-Han Solo like. So, like having a relationship with —
Lawrence: Well, this is what I started out to say. Even though Harrison is a little older than me, but we knew each other 40 years ago practically now when I did Empire is when I met Harrison. And then we did — Actually I wrote Raiders. I didn’t meet Harrison. He didn’t know who was going to play it. That could have been Tom Selleck. Could have been anyone.
Then I did Empire. And then we got back to Raiders and that’s when I got to know Harrison. He is now — so that was around 1980. And what’s this, 1956, 1987, where are we now?
Craig: Right now?
Craig: This is 2016.
Lawrence: Oh damn.
Craig: I’ve told you that. I said that before. Do you not remember?
Lawrence: So 36 years ago.
Craig: Right. That’s a long time.
Lawrence: It’s a long time. And he’s had a lot of life in between. I’ve had a lot of life in between. It’s very easy to relate to this character who has been out there doing stuff for 36 years. And that’s how we treated. And J.J. and I never had the slightest doubt that that’s what it was about. You know, it’s about what have you learned, what haven’t you learned, what mistakes will you make forever until you drop, you know, and what mistakes can you learn from. And that’s very easy to write.
Craig: And that span of time for you as a filmmaker gives you a certain perspective that I think is interesting to all of us. And the list of questions you’re asked a million times, how have the movies changed I’m sure is one of them.
But there’s a flip to that question that I’m really interested in, because you’ve always written movies for audiences. And that sounds like a strange thing — aren’t they all for audiences? But I feel like sometimes there are filmmakers who are writing it for, I don’t know — you’re writing them for audiences.
How have the audiences changed in the time since you started?
Lawrence: I’m glad you think I’m writing for audiences, because very often the audience has not shown up.
Craig: This occasionally happens.
Lawrence: Yeah. They haven’t done their part. I did my part. You know, I honestly believe that I’m not writing for audiences. I’m writing for myself. And when J.J. and I sat down to do this one, we sort of came into it under a lot of time pressure and everything, and we were sort of clearing the decks. There had been some false starts. And I said to him, “We have only one job. The job is to delight. This movie doesn’t matter in the big scheme of things. It’s only entertainment.” And that’s not usual for me, because usually I want to make it as hard as possible for people to sit there.
But this clearly was going to be satisfying a lot of long-suffering fans. And I said we just want to delight. You know, Akira Kurosawa, who is my greatest hero, and is I think the greatest director that ever lived, and one of the greatest writers that ever lived, his greatest film is Seven Samurai, if you haven’t seen it, go home and see it. It’s everything.
He is the Shakespeare of movies. He does everything. He does comedy. He does drama. Historical drama. Intimate, tiny personal dramas. And swashbuckling action. He’s the greatest director that ever lived. At one point, he decided to make Yojimbo, which you can watch as an appetizer for Seven Samurai. And it is, I think, maybe the most entertaining movie ever made. Just frame-by-frame, most entertaining.
But what he said to his writers, his co-writers, as he sat down was he said, “I want to make a movie that’s so delicious you want to eat it.” That’s Akira Kurosawa. And Yojimbo is that movie. And incident to incident you say, oh my god, that’s so great. What would be the best thing that could happen next?
Well, I said that to J.J. I told him that story. And I said let’s just write what we want to see, that would delight us, and then the next thing is what’s the next great thing that could happen. And that’s not I approach everything. It’s not how I approached The Big Chill, or Accidental Tourist.
But this was clearly meant to delight. So that’s a great sort of flag to be operating in.
Craig: And you did. I mean, that’s the thing. What’s so fascinating is that 36 years go by, or 35 years, and whatever happened with the audience over that amount of time, the one thing that didn’t change was you wrote the Empire Strikes Back, and they were delighted. You wrote The Force Awakens, and they were delighted again. It’s a remarkable thing.
Lawrence: How rarely everything happens the way you want it to. In fact, that release — it was an amazingly fun time. It was really three years of my life, because I was on it before I officially came on writing it. And then the last two years were just intensely with J.J. and then on the set and production. And when you have a really great experience like that, you’re thinking — if you’re Jewish — you know, you’re thinking, okay, where’s the kick in the ass?
Craig: That is what I think. Yeah.
John: So, at our live show, we had — at the very back of the house we had paper where people could write down their questions, because they came there, they showed up that night thinking you were going to be there. And so we only had the Game of Thrones guys, so I said write your question down and we’ll ask some of your questions to Lawrence Kasdan when we see him next.
And so some of these are questions that these people wrote. So, Greg Macklin wrote, “What’s your advice to learning to enjoy writing for the sake of writing when things get demoralizing, such as your new movie gets terrible reviews, your pilot gets canceled, life goes south?”
Craig: Oh, I want to know the answer to this one.
John: Yeah. And also I think Greg is presupposing that you enjoy writing. So, do you enjoy writing?
Lawrence: You know, the great quote about that, and it’s been true for me my whole life, is do you enjoy writing? No. What do you like? I like having written. Well, everybody likes having written. And you say, oh, well, here — I’ll give you another copy. Want another copy?
But, writing it is rarely fun. And for me it’s a struggle every single day to start. Now, in the best cases, you get caught up in it and it’s suddenly six hours later and you say, “Shit, we didn’t get anything done, but this is kind of good.” And very often you think the next day, I do, I put it away and then I come back the next day and I’m expecting to think it’s terrible. And it often isn’t, or at least I’ve convinced myself. And that’s fun.
Lawrence: But then even if I do that, even if I read yesterday’s stuff and I say, “That’s pretty good,” then I have to turn to this day’s stuff and it’s a drag.
Craig: And now you’re thinking how am I going to do as good of a job as yesterday guy did. Yeah. No, it never ends.
Lawrence: So it’s never easy.
Craig: Never ends.
Lawrence: Never ends.
Craig: Here’s a question from Cody in Pasadena. “Is there any movie you’ve written that has not been produced that you would still love to make someday?”
Lawrence: Oh, yes, not a lot, because when you go through the whole process and it doesn’t work out and you have the whole experience of defeat, very often you get alienated from that.
Craig: Stank on that one, yes.
Lawrence: But I adapted a Richard Russo book called The Risk Pool. And there was no reason in the world we shouldn’t have made it. Tom Hanks was going to do it, and then he changed his mind. And Richard Russo is a great writer. And someone had sent the book to Meg just to read it, and she said, “You’ve got to read this. I think there’s a movie here.” And I don’t even that excuse.
But what got me was it was about a character who was so much like my father. And he’s got a lot of problems and he’s scuffling through life, but there are things about him that were enormously attractive, which is how I felt about my father who I lost when I was 14. And I thought, this is amazing. Richard must have had a similar kind of experience. And if you read Richard Russo’s stuff, this father figure recurs again and again in Empire Falls and all his work.
And because that’s such an important fact of our lives, and if you lose them suddenly and abruptly, that becomes another thing to deal with for the rest of your life. I really wanted to make that movie. And when Tom decided he didn’t want to do it, it just cut all the steam out of it. And it was very hard to get it back.
And I would still like to make that movie. And I was working with a wonderful independent producer, Anthony Bregman, on something else, and I said, well you know what I really want — he asked me the same question. And I said — and I gave it to him. And he said, “Eh…who? What?” He just didn’t get it. It didn’t excite him.
You know, he thought, well how are you going to get people — and he knows, because he’s so prolific. He’s knowing that he’s going to be in a meeting with Weinstein or Sony Classics or something, and they’re going to say, “How do we sell this?”
Lawrence: And it’s not obvious from The Risk Pool.
John: Great. Derek T. writes, “What was the favorite script you’ve ever written?” Do you have a favorite script you’ve written?
Lawrence: No, absolutely, honestly no. It’s corny. It’s true. No movie is your favorite, for me. You know, I have two sons, three grandchildren. Can’t pick favorites. Don’t want to pick favorites.
Craig: I do have a question here. It is from John Kasdan.
Craig: “Ask him which of his sons he prefers. I have my suspicions.” You’re still sticking with…
Lawrence: Talk to John. He’s moved to New York. And I don’t think it’s related. But we talked to him this morning, and he was feeling good about me. So I thought he was a wonderful son.
Craig: So the answer is you prefer him today.
Lawrence: But he and I went through the crucible. It’s never easy to — I’ve collaborated with a lot of different people. My brother, my wife, friends, people who I’ve just gotten to know, like J.J., and became friends. When you start to collaborate with your son, everyone says, “Whoa.”
Craig: And was it whoa? Did you have those moments?
Lawrence: It was a challenge. And we had great moments. And we had difficult moments. And it’s not over. We’re going to go back and do a little work probably. Chris Miller and Phil Lord are directing the movie. We’re very excited about that. And they’ve been great. They’re hilarious.
Craig: They’re the best.
Lawrence: They came to my place in Colorado and worked with us for a week. And they’re just fun to hang out with out. And they’re brilliant. You know, imaginative guys.
The whole reason that I tried to get them onto it, because it was a difficult process. Not because everybody didn’t want them, but money always, and Disney is difficult. But we did get it. But I said to Kathy Kennedy when it was just about to fall apart, I said, “Look, John and I are going to run out of ideas, probably very soon. And these guys are great writers. So, you’re getting the directors, but you’re also getting these amazing writers. And you should do everything in the world to make it happen.”
Craig: Yeah, but on the other side, these movies don’t make a lot of money, so they have to really be careful about what they spend on the writers.
Lawrence: There’s that.
John: Larry, could you tell us about the process of collaborating? Because most of your credits, you are the sole screenwriter. But some of these other ones, you’ve had to work with other folks. What is the process when you are coming in on a project that’s already moving? How are you getting up to speed? How are you finding common ground?
Lawrence: That hasn’t happened much. When I got involved with The Force Awakens, I was not going to write it, but I was going to do the Han movie. But they said to me, “We’ll make a separate deal for you where you will consult. We’re going to have a story group to talk about The Force,” we didn’t know what it was called, but the next Star Wars.
And I said, okay. But that involvement I thought would be very casual and intermittent, became very intense as it just didn’t come together. And it was only after nine months of that that they decided to change directions. And I was hesitant. Michael Arndt, an incredibly talented writer, and a great guy —
Craig: Yeah, great guy.
Lawrence: Loved working with him. And he said, you know, “I can’t do this in the amount of time.” They were under an enormous time pressure. He said, “I can’t do this.” And he stepped away. And J.J. and I took it over. And that was the first time there’s ever been anything really there, you know. I’ve had books, two books, but basically I’ve been there at the inception.
John: And we think of you as doing features. Are there any TV things that I’m not aware of that you’ve done? Is television interesting to you at all?
Lawrence: It’s very interesting to me. And I have a great agent over here and he would like me to be successful in television. Don’t know if it’s possible. It’s so different.
But, it is where all the quality stuff is happening. You know, the chances of making a really good, intelligent, adult movie — you can still do it — but the odds are a million to one. You don’t even blame them, because there’s no one going to those movies. You know, you can’t get your money back.
But there is now, Eden has opened up, which is there’s all this money to do very adult, very complicated stuff, and since The Sopranos there’s been a revolution. And it just continues. In fact, now, people are competing like crazy. Say, Craig Mazin, can we get Craig Mazin? John? What if they do it together? We’ll give them the entire network.
John: Never. Never.
Craig: Oh. So —
Craig: Well, one thing that’s interesting about television, you I think are exceptionally good at what I call closed ended narrative, and that’s what movies are. They begin, they proceed, they end.
Craig: And your endings are always great. In television, at least historically, the whole point of television was never end. But now there is this middle ground.
Lawrence: There is.
Craig: It’s interesting. People are making either short term miniseries or movies for television. I could certainly see like — I would imagine once this goes out that people are going to be calling about the movie that you were just talking about. There’s a demand for content, and specifically the kind of content that, yeah, they don’t put in theaters right now.
Lawrence: Yeah, which is amazing. And it’s great news for everybody here. Because five years ago you would have said, “Oh, it’s the end of the world.” Because studios are not interested in anything that isn’t slam-dunk branded. And that doesn’t mean it’s going to work, but it’s branded. And so they’re making a tiny number with big movie stars that will do some other kind of things. And then there’s independent film, which is very much alive and thriving, but you’re headed toward Netflix and Amazon and Apple anyway. I mean, that’s really where people are going to see it. They’re not going to see it in a theater.
So, the fantasy of the kind of movies that I made for 30 years, that’s sort of over. You know.
Craig: Even a movie like The Bodyguard.
Lawrence: Very hard.
Craig: Like The Big Chill, I could see, you know, well, that was a specific movie of its time, but you could look at it now and go, “Oh, they don’t make adult dramas like that.” But even Bodyguard —
John: Body Heat, they would never make as a feature now.
Craig: Never. Never.
John: Body Heat is a Netflix series, a 13-episode series.
Craig: Right. But it would have been a good one on Netflix.
John: So good. Slow burn.
Lawrence: But I’ve been intimidated by the length of time. And I have a couple projects that I’m working on now that would be eight hours. And that seems possible to me. I haven’t quite worked them out. But as long as someone else is writing those eight hours. I don’t want to.
Craig: You don’t want to write them. Of course not.
John: So, are both your sons involved in the film industry?
Lawrence: Yes. They both write and direct movies.
Craig: Yeah. Jake is a big comedy movie director.
Lawrence: Yes he is. And in TV, he’s got all these TV series.
Craig: You were giving me a look behind me earlier.
Lawrence: I didn’t know what you said.
Craig: Okay. It’s paranoia.
Lawrence: Craig didn’t used to have a beard, but part of his comic stylings is to murmur or something that you can’t quite hear. He can score on you without you ever hearing it. So everybody — is that right?
John: It’s absolutely true.
Craig: Kind of a weird defense for hearing loss, but okay.
Lawrence: Somehow I think the beard has made that even more effective. Maybe — you can’t really see your lips moving.
Craig: He’s the dad I always wanted.
John: I can tell, yeah. So, both of your sons are writing and directing. What advice do you give them? Is it things have changed obviously since when you started. What do you talk to them about if they come to you for career advice?
Lawrence: Well, they used to, but they don’t anymore. When they were younger, and they did care what I thought. And there was a period when I became very discouraged about movies, you know, because they just stopped making the kind of movies that I had thrived on. And I said to them, “You know, movies have gone to hell. The end of the world has arrived. It’s all crap.”
And they both said sort of, “Dad, you know, you’ve been saying the same thing for 25 years.” And I was thinking we had reached some —
Craig: But apparently your whole life is that?
Lawrence: Yes, my life is down in the valley. And the truth is it has always been hard — always. When we were moving recently and I came across the panel or discussion that I did with Marty Ritt, you know, who made Hud. A great director. And George Miller. A young George Miller. And Peter Bogdanovich. And we’re all saying — this is 30 years ago.
Craig: Same thing?
Lawrence: We’re all saying, “Oh, they just want to make comic books now. It’s all branding and super heroes. There won’t be another good movie made.” This is 30 years ago. So, somehow the movies get made. But it is a struggle. Always.
Craig: Should we?
John: Open it up for questions.
Craig: Yeah. And we’ll start with you, sir.
Male Audience Member: Okay, for Mr. Kasdan, how did you learn your craft? And I want to preface that by saying it sounds like you just started writing screenplays. But did you study acting? It seems from your work that you did. Or Shakespeare? Or write plays? Or any of that?
Lawrence: I did all those things. And I did want to be an actor. And people kept saying, “You’re terrible. You’re terrible.” And I actually think that’s very important, because no one — these are all good jobs if you’re working in the movies or television or everything. And people will discourage you. And if you can be discouraged, you should be discouraged. And I was discouraged about acting and I gave it up.
But when they said, when I wanted to be a writer-director, they said, “What are you thinking? You’re crazy.” And that didn’t mean anything to me. And I think that’s the natural selection process that happens.
How did I learn it? I watched movies and movies. I was studying literature in college and was knocked out by the writing that I was exposed to. I came out of West Virginia, but we had a pretty decent English program at my high school in West Virginia. But in 1961, I saw Lawrence of Arabia. And it changed my life. I knew that’s all I wanted to do. And this is before high school or anything. I thought, “I want to direct movies.”
And my brother had gone to Harvard and he came back from Boston and he said, “You know, people make movies. They don’t just happen. The actors don’t just make it up.” We didn’t know that in West Virginia. In West Virginia it was like you’d call the theater and you’d say, “What time is the showing?” And they’d say, “Well, when can you get here?”
We had no real connection. But my brother said there’s a whole job you can have doing this. And that was terribly important to me. And from the time I was 14 on, all I wanted to do was direct movies.
John: Larry, when did you first read a screenplay? When did you first start working on a screenplay versus writing other stuff?
Lawrence: Well, what year was Butch Cassidy? Butch Cassidy changed the world, because there had never been a screenplay —
Craig: ’73? ’69.
Lawrence: ’69. I had been watching movies, but I don’t know that I had seen a screenplay and what it looked like. But when Butch Cassidy came out, it changed the whole world for people who wanted to write movies. And it was published in book form as a screenplay, which almost no one out in the world had seen before.
I mean, by ’69 I had seen a lot of screenplays because I had gone to Michigan to try to become this thing. But that was a big moment where you read it and you said, “Well, why was this the highest priced screenplay of all time? And why do I love it moment to moment? And what freedom Bill has,” William Goldman. I didn’t know him as Bill then. “He seems to have such freedom about how to do this.”
And that was very liberating. I had read Lawrence by then. And it’s a very different style. And it’s I think the greatest screenplay ever written. And you should get a hold of it. Robert Bolt. And it’s just one amazing thing after another. And lucky for him, David Lean was there mentoring him and telling him what he wanted, and then going off and doing — you know, making the greatest movies of all time.
But if you just study — if you stop wasting your time on Raiders of the Lost Ark and just talk Lawrence of Arabia and look at it page by page, and then read it, and then read it again. That’s an education in screenwriting.
Craig: And you showed up one movie after Alec Guinness on Star Wars. He was right there. You had him —
Lawrence: Oh, how I wish I’d met him.
Male Audience Member: Hi. A quick three-part question.
Craig: No, no, no. A one-part question.
Lawrence: One-part question.
Male Audience Member: Okay then.
Lawrence: What’s your favorite part?
Male Audience Member: About being pigeon-holed as a writer. You talked about genres as vessels and then usually you’re telling the same stories essentially, just finding a different vessel to put it in.
Male Audience Member: How do you experience with being pigeon-holed, or being forced to pigeon-holed. And how as new writers, you know, you’re constantly being pushed into that fear.
Lawrence: That’s the kind of problem you want to have, where anyone’s even thinking about you. And they say, “Oh, you know, he’s written only this kind of movie.” I’m not putting that down at all. But it is really a high class problem you have.
What you want is you want how can you be considered a writer that they will give money to. That’s the first step. That you’re doing work that they want to pay you for. And pigeon-holing comes with great success and it’s not to worry. Don’t worry about it.
Female Audience Member: Or one thing I’ve always heard about in development is the point of view of the story. When it comes to film, is this different from having a narrator?
John: Oh, talk to us about point of view. What does point of view mean to you?
Lawrence: Point of view. Yes. You know, the point of view can change 50 times during the movie. Development is a word that generally is accompanied with locusts and drought. Development is a horrible thing. Once I hear the word development, I’m already gone. You have to bring me back.
Things that people say in development. These are very smart people, because those jobs are hard to get, too, you know. So, there’s a lot of competition and you practically have to go to Harvard. You meet an unbelievable number of Harvard people out here. You say, why? There’s no connection.
Craig: They’re dicks.
Lawrence: No connection. But, some went to Princeton. But, development is not a place to be edified or to have your life get good. So, the thing is what you really want is that when you’re doing your work alone you say, “Well, what is the point of view of this story? Who is experiencing the things I want the audience to experience? How am I going to convey that as a writer so that they know?” And as I said, it can change from one moment to the next.
But, I’m working on a project and the woman who is the protagonist is thrown into a situation that she’s excited about being in, but has never been in before, and everything is coming at her. And she’s trying to figure it out on the fly. And that’s perfect for movies. You know, it’s her point of view. And then when that scene is over, we get the point of view of someone who was watching her and evaluating her and comes up to give her his praise or comments, you know.
So, I think it’s very fluid. Fluid is actually not a bad word to keep in mind all the time.
John: So talk about point of view. Some movies, like Body Heat, are going to have a clearly limited point of view because we don’t want the audience to have more information than our protagonist does. But you look at The Force Awakens, it seems like, oh, this is from Rey’s point of view, but then you realize there’s many characters who have sort of storytelling power. And as long as we’re with one of those characters, you can have a seen driven by one of those characters.
Lawrence: Because if it were just Rey, you would be very limited. You know, you would not know all of these things that are going on with Kylo Ren and you wouldn’t — but it happens that Han comes to Rey and Chewie comes to Rey. And Boyega comes to Rey. The secret sauce of that movie is Daisy Ridley. She’s wonderful.
You know, we got lucky. What was good was we all agreed right from the start this was going to be a young woman who was going to be the protagonist. But we got really lucky when we got Daisy, because she’s more than that. And every frame she’s in glows. And her presence in the movie, you know, ripples out from every scene. So even if she’s not in, you’re sort of feeling Rey.
John: And point of view also can be affected by when you’re introducing characters to an audience. And so I think in an earlier version didn’t we meet Leia earlier on in the story and then you ended up sliding that back —
Lawrence: Yes, but how do you know that? Have you been in my house?
John: Sorry. But it’s a lovely house. I know you were doing construction. It was fine. Good choices you made. I like the paint colors.
Craig: This is what — I have this all the time.
John: All the time. But that was an example of you probably made one choice originally, and then you saw how the audience is experiencing the movie.
Lawrence: J.J. shot it that way. And Leia came into the movie much earlier. And we discussed it at the time. When is the right time for her to come in? And I always think put off everybody — you know, anything you can put off, you should put off. And then maybe it will fall out of the end of the movie and never have in the movie. Because the fewer things that are in the movie, the better, almost always.
So, you’re trying to cut, cut, cut, cut, cut, cut. But, no, we didn’t know exactly the right place. And we weren’t set when J.J. shot it that way, and he started cutting it that way. And then one day he called me and he said, “We’ve taken her out. And she comes in at the scene that you’ve always said is a great scene for her to see Han for the first time. That’s her entrance in the movie. Isn’t that when you want to see her come into the movie, when she and Han lay eyes on each other for the first time?”
And I said, “I’m so happy.”
Female Audience Member: Thank you.
Female Audience Member: This question is for my 15-year-old son and his buddies that are haunting my house today. Did you play, Mr. Kasdan, did you play Dungeons & Dragons or chess when you were a kid. If not, how did you learn to move the characters around so cool?
Craig: That is a good question.
Lawrence: Great question.
John: Great question.
Lawrence: Great question.
John: Also a very good mom there. So thank you for that.
Craig: And a good mom.
Lawrence: You know, I didn’t play Dungeons & Dragons and I wasn’t smart enough to play chess. But you don’t have to tell them that. But what you should do is show them the great movies that have stirred you and stirred your parents. And live without any explanation. You know, you don’t have to explain these great movies. You can sit any —
A few years ago we were at a vacation home and there were a bunch of kids, like from 10 to 18. And I said, “Oh, let’s watch Casablanca.” And everybody is like, “What?” And it was a Blu-ray. A B&W Blu-ray, because it’s a B&W movie, which is gorgeous. I recommend getting it. And they didn’t fuss that much to start.
And then it started and they didn’t say anything. They were silent for the entire length of the movie. They were riveted. Because once the lights go down and that title is — the title of one of Pauline Kael’s books that my brother actually gave her, When the Lights Go Down — but it’s the key moment in all of this kind of entertainment. Which is the lights go down and everybody focuses on that frame. And all bets are off. All the prejudices are off. If the movie works, they’re in. They can be five years old. They can be 85 years old. If it works, they’re in.
And that’s a beautiful thing to know. That if you’re doing your job, and you haven’t let them go, which we sometimes drive them out. We tell them shit they don’t need to know. We make it longer than — I’ve done this — make it way longer than it has to be. And you’re driving out. But the instinct is to stay in. And it doesn’t matter how old they are. Show them the best movie you think, and they will learn all these things about, “Gee, that character did that. And that character did that.” It’s almost as good as Dungeons & Dragons.
Craig: But not quite. Ma’am?
Female Audience Member: My question is about writing credible characters of the opposite gender. So when I think about Marion in Raiders of if I’m thinking about Rachel, I see strong, beautiful women who are in peril and need to be saved. And yet even though they’re being commoditized, they know that they still have dignity and they move through that story with a sense of themselves. And sometimes even save the man that came to save them. Was that a natural tendency of yours? Did you have to work harder at writing credibly authentic women? And can you tell other men writers how to do the same thing, please? Thank you.
Lawrence: I think I — what saved me is I didn’t make that distinction much in mind. I thought every character had to be interesting. Every character had to be as complicated as the people I knew. And the women I knew were even more mysterious to me, so they were very complicated.
And if you are making a person, you know, they’ll probably be interesting. If it’s true.
The great safety net under everything you ever do is ask yourself as things are bouncing around down there, is it true? Does this feel true? And it doesn’t mean that it had to happen. And it doesn’t mean that it ever will happen. It means that in the world we’ve created, does this seem real? Does it honor the reality you’ve created up till then? If it’s true, you’re half the way there. So, that would be man, woman, child, whatever.
John: Larry, that seems to go back to your acting. You said you weren’t a good actor, but that’s very much an acting kind of question. Does this moment ring true? Could I play this? Could I actually believe that I’m in this moment as it’s happening.
Lawrence: Yes. And you know, I like to think of myself as a director. I’ve spent years of my life directing actors. I love actors. And when they have a problem, it’s sometimes about the script. But sometimes it’s about the wardrobe. Sometimes it’s about the other actor is doing something that’s driving them crazy. And you have to suss out without making villains anywhere and not alienating anybody else, you have to say how can I make them more comfortable. How can we get through this?
And I sometimes use the example that if they say, “These lines. I just can’t say these lines.” I say, okay, well, it’s possible they’re no good. First of all, would you like to write some new ones? That usually slows the process down. But, I say, what if you pick up the glass in the middle of the scene and then don’t drink from it. You put it down. And that says something about where your state of mind is. And they go, “Mm.” And you have a conversation started.
And maybe the thing is there are lines that shouldn’t be in there. That’s usually what it is. There’s too many lines. And you say, “Well what if you don’t say it at all, and you never have to say it, you’ll never say it in this movie, and you’ll never have to say it in your life.” And they say, “Okay, I like that.” That’s very possible.
So, you’re looking for a strategy that gets people who are stuck over the part they’re stuck about. That’s true of cameramen, and production designers, and costume designers. If they have a problem, you’ve got to say, “What is the real problem,” and not let your own sense of pressure or being a fake overcome your ability to open up that conversation.
John: Do you think it’s easier being the writer-director to tell them like, “Oh, just do whatever you want,” because you’re the writer and you know how it’s all going to fit together? Have you directed things that you’ve not written?
Lawrence: Just a couple.
John: And so is it a different experience to tell an actor to go off and do their own thing when you’re not the writer there as well?
Lawrence: Being a writer-director is a place of enormous power. Everybody wants to please the director, but the security — if you’ve written it, too, there’s enormous credibility you have. And you can sometimes get things that a director could not get.
And they’ll ask you, “Well, why is this like this?” And you say, well, you know, it’s not about this. It’s about 40 pages later this has to happen. And sometimes they have not made that connection. And no matter how committed they are, no matter how great they are as actors, they just don’t think the way you do. And sometimes if you say, “Well, you know, 40 pages later when he does this, that’s because he said that earlier.” And they go, “Oh my god, that’s great.”
And it helps everything for the next 40 pages.
Craig: That’s our frustration sometimes as writers. We go into meetings. The studio executives or the producers have missed things that we don’t understand they’ve missed. Actors miss things we don’t understand they miss. But the truth is, their minds don’t work like ours, and thank god.
Craig: Because, A, that means we have something worthy and not replicable. And also I don’t want my actors to be screenwriters. I’ve seen screenwriters act. I want actors to be actors. And it’s a different way of approaching material. I completely understand that point of view.
Male Audience Member: Craig and John, thanks for doing this. You’re doing a great job. Do you need a water or anything? Mr. Kasdan, my name is Nathan Scoggins, and I’ve been fortunate to get a few things made. And I remember when I was 11 and my parents asked me what I wanted to do, and I talked about movies, and they went out and rented two movies on VHS back in those days. One was The Accidental Tourist and the other was Grand Canyon.
Lawrence: Great parents.
Male Audience Member: They had good taste. They had good taste. And Grand Canyon is one of those movies that —
Craig: There’s a question coming, right?
Male Audience Member: There is.
Male Audience Member: And it feels like one of those movies that is kind of a forgotten film of the early ’90s, and yet it feels as current now in terms of the themes that it deals with as it did then. And I’m curious, because it feels kind of like a movie out of time, could you talk a little bit about what went into crafting that film?
Lawrence: Absolutely. I wrote Grand Canyon with my wife, Meg, who is here. And we had raised two jobs in Los Angeles. And things were happening in the city and I found we were both trying to figure it out. You know, we weren’t in despair, but we wanted to figure out why is there all this energy that’s so negative, so dangerous, and there’s also all this thriving, throbbing life in the city.
And we were just trying to figure out if we could make some sense of it. And public discourse has become so politically charged, and Grand Canyon may have difficulties in this time because it dares to talk about some things that you’re not supposed to talk about anymore. You’re not allowed to.
And I liked the movie a lot and in the privacy of my home I can look at it and say I know why I did — that was a great experience by the way. It was total, total great experience. And I wish that there were more freedom now to talk about these kind of things, but they’re really hot button issues. Every single one of them.
Craig: Well, there’s a certain expectation now that if you do talk about things, you have to talk about them perfectly. Because there are a million ways to go wrong. I would argue that it’s literally impossible for a film to not fall down some — because it isn’t real life. It’s some simulation of life.
Male Audience Member: Thank you.
Male Audience Member: Mr. Kasdan, you’re such an integral part to two of the biggest and most popular franchises of like movie history. I was wondering since franchise and universe building is such like key words in the industry today, what are some of the touchstones that keep rooted to a really good story even within a franchise? And what are some of the pitfalls that you can see writers falling into when they’re trying to create the perfect franchise movie?
Lawrence: Yeah. I don’t think you can create the perfect franchise movie. These guys did an interesting analysis of the top 100 movies, and there were 14 standalone movies of the top 100. The other 86 were all related to franchises. That was so discouraging.
Craig: Well, and you provided most of them, by the way. I’m not sure what the discouragement is about.
John: How’s that next Han Solo movie going? Yeah.
Craig: Yeah. As you remodel your 12th house. We could do this forever.
John: We could do this forever. And actually, that’s the thing, we may be making Star Wars movies forever. Star Wars may outlast us.
Craig: We’re going to. Yeah.
John: So it’s a different thing that’s happening.
Lawrence: That’s not the issue. That’s the outside looking in. What we’re talking about, what your challenge is — your challenge is to find — I don’t know, maybe you want to write the perfect franchise movie. That means you need a franchise to work on and you need to say, “I want to do a really good job on this.” Okay, this will be a nice entry in that.
But if you’re interested in other things, that is entirely on you. And you have the freedom of your computer. When we’re done here today, go home, sit at your computer, and say, “What is the story I most want to tell? And I know that it’s going to be really hard to get it made. And everyone is going to tell me I’m crazy because it’s not a franchise and it’s not a brand. But I really want to tell this story.”
And then work as hard as you can to tell that story. That’s actually how you do good work. And it’s also how if you are charged with creating a franchise movie, it’s the same process. What’s the best way we can do this? Without cynicism. Without presumption that people already like it when they don’t. How can I make this particular movie honorable? How can I make it true? How can I make it worth people’s time and money?
John: Going back to Raiders of the Lost Ark and the story conference, which people have seen the transcript of that, that was the first movie. That was the original template for this thing that’s going to keep going on. Looking at that discussion you had, everyone is referencing the things that are so important to that, and the things they love. The serials are important to them. What if this character did this? I want a character who can do these kind of things.
That was you guys forming the template in real time for what this whole thing was going to be. And it started with what do I love. What do I wish existed as a movie? And that’s, I think, what we are urging him to write is that thing that he wishes existed.
Lawrence: That’s exactly right. And George and Steven are very strong that way. And you can see it all through their work. And Steven continues to make movies at an unbelievable rate. And it’s always for that reason, because he always wanted to make a movie like this, or he always wanted to make a movie like that.
And just forward movement. And it’s from a love. A love of saying I want to do a scene like that. I want to direct a scene like that.
Craig: And that’s also how you end up getting to work on a franchise. You worked on that because of your work on Continental Divide, which is as far from a franchise film as it gets.
John: The second half of his question I thought was really fascinating, too. Let’s speculate. If one of these franchises goes south, what will have happened that caused it to go south? What will be the film or the series of choices — ?
Craig: Rian Johnson basically.
John: Well, Rian Johnson, obviously. Death and disaster.
Craig: Yeah. He blows it.
John: So, hiring the wrong director like Rian Johnson. [laughs] We love Rian.
Craig: We love Rian Johnson. He’s our guy.
John: He’s a good friend. He’s our guy.
Lawrence: He’s part of the inner circle.
John: But I would speculate that if these franchises go south, it’s because either we go back to the well too many times. We sort of keep making the same movie too many times, or we sort of make desperate choices to sort of — we sort of kowtow to sort of desperate choices for things.
Craig: Well, you see, sometimes as things start to fall apart, I remember watching the evolution of ’80s/’90s era Batman movies. It started with this fascinating Tim Burton take that was so wildly different than what we knew from the campy show on TV, although I love that show.
And what happened was each successive seemed to look backwards and say, “What was the stuff people liked about that? More of that.”
John: That’s Charlie’s Angels 2, by the way. I can tell you what a franchise looks like as it is falling apart.
Craig: I may be involved in one right now as we’re speaking. But they lose sight, I think, of what you were talking about. The essential nature of contrast. That the big and the loud needs the quiet and the soft. The thoughtful must be there for the explosions to be interesting. So by the time you get to Batman with a Nipple, it’s just noise. There’s no contrast at all. Sometimes I feel like that’s where — and I suspect that this iteration of Star Wars, that lesson seems to have been learned thoroughly, until you blow it with Han Solo.
Lawrence: What’s mystifying is that the people who are getting these jobs are really talented people. You’re knocked out by how sharp they are. And it’s not just technically. They love the form. They love the genre. And the weak link is — and you know, effects, you just can’t get any better. Effects are just getting better, and better, and better. But the weak link is always in the writing. And it’s always in what they leave in the movie. Which is the movies are always 20 minutes too long and they always have explosions you don’t have any emotional connection to.
And it’s mystifying, because these are not dumb people. But there’s some culture of making these movies that they just feel they have to be bigger and louder than the last one. And that’s never the answer to anything.
Craig: Agreed. Ma’am?
Female Audience Member: In the nature of contrast, across the span of your very impressive career, what do you think has been your greatest evolution as a writer and what has remained a core truth for you as a writer?
Lawrence: That’s a great question. I don’t think I’ve evolved at all. As you get older, and you can’t believe how old you are, you say, “Why am I not wise?” I’m not wise. I honestly believe. But it turns out that you don’t get wise. You get experienced. And you have more experiences to reference. And, of course, you start forgetting them, so —
But, it’s only experience. So that when a new problem arises, you say, “Wait, this is very familiar to me.” And I remember panicking and acting like an idiot back then. Is there another approach? And you know that you’re going to get through it. And the movie will come out and maybe forgotten. That’s what’s really incredible.
But, you know, about ten years ago there was an ad, it was for a telephone company or something. And a guy, maybe you remember this. A guy walks into a desert motel and there’s like a stoned young woman behind — punk woman behind the thing. And she says, you know, “$25.” And he says, “What movies do you have?” It’s in the Mohave.
And she says, “We have every movie ever made.” This was ten years ago. And he says, “What?” And that is the situation now. You can go home right now if you’ve paid your bill, and you can access almost any movie that’s ever been made.
Craig: I don’t think you even need to pay a bill anymore, frankly. There’s ways to just watch.
Lawrence: Oh, well I don’t encourage that.
John: You get a young person with the Internet, yeah.
Craig: Of course not, no.
Lawrence: But everything is available to you. It’s all there. And so you can access the great art. You can also get the great books, but that’s so much harder work. But that is only of so much use, because you don’t get that much brighter or anything. So you know — I was pretty sharp when I was younger. And so I dealt with problems the best way I could think at that moment.
If I had that same problem now, it will be maybe 5% better because I’ve had these experiences. You know, it’s a big surprise of age that you get there very quickly and the benefits aren’t that great. But you are very thankful every morning when you wake up. You say, “Oh, I get to have another day.”
Female Audience Member: Thank you.
Male Audience Member: First of all, of course, thank you very much. This has been very illuminating. A little left field question, Larry. What are your favorite TV shows and why?
Lawrence: Well, there’s so much great TV now that you can’t — actually, it’s become kind of a burden.
Male Audience Member: That’s why I asked. There’s so much.
Lawrence: Everybody says, “Have you seen this? Have you seen that?” And you’re 10, 12, 30 episodes behind. And you have to think am I going back to the beginning? But they’re just endless. It’s The Wire, and Sopranos, and Breaking Bad. And now it’s Better Call Saul, which is one of the weirdest wonderful shows ever made. And Silicon Valley. I mean, there’s just so many great things. You can’t watch them all. And you can’t say that about movies.
I mean, it used to be that in a year there would be five, or six, or seven movies that you’ve got to see that movie. That doesn’t happen anymore.
Craig: What are we down to?
Lawrence: I’d rather not say.
Male Audience Member: Well, first off, I wanted to thank you for ending the Star Wars drought. It had been a while since I’d been that entertained. But I wanted to ask, when I watched it it felt like I was reliving being ten again, right down to seeing a Death Star blow up again. Was there a conscious —
Lawrence: Everything in it you mean.
Craig: I think he’s getting to the question, isn’t he?
Lawrence: What you say?
Male Audience Member: Was that the plan when you — ?
Lawrence: No, in fact, I said to J.J. when we started, you know, let’s not have anything blow up at the end, you know.
Craig: Cut to.
Lawrence: But that’s a perfect example. My collaboration with J.J. which was pure — it was heavenly. He’s so funny. And so smart and good. And he’s a good writer. It was a manifestation of something that I have resisted for years accepting, which is sometimes your collaborator is better than you. Sometimes the thing you’re fighting with them about, they’re right. And sometimes you’re right. And if you have a good collaborator, they sometimes see that, too.
But you’re really lucky when you get to work with someone like that. So, now you say, “Did it need to end with something blowing up?” Well, no. But it seems to work for a lot of people. But that doesn’t mean that was the only ending. There was another way to go, and we discussed other ways to go. And there was a point at which we talked about it having a much quieter ending. And I think that would have been interesting, too.
You know, these things are not one way or the other. You know, what happens is, if a movie is successful and it’s good, the waters seal. And you never think about them any other way. That’s why if you ever get a DVD and it says “the deleted scenes, the director’s cut,” those scenes are always crap. Even Lawrence of Arabia, the second greatest movie ever made, when David Lean added back the scenes that had bothered him for 40 years, they’re not as good as the others.
Now, I don’t know if that’s truly the fact, or that when the waters closed, I fell in love with that movie. And when there was something added to it, it never seemed necessary or right or helpful.
Male Audience Member: Thank you.
Male Audience Member: Hi. Thank you. I can you pacing around the room before writing a big scene. And I was wondering, because I’m a fan, how was it on the day that you wrote Han Solo’s death?
Lawrence: He dies?
Craig: Spoiler! You haven’t seen it, yeah.
Lawrence: My five-year-old grandson learned Spoiler Alert last week.
Male Audience Member: Oh, I’m sorry.
Lawrence: And now he says it about everything. Dinner, Spoiler Alert! That was a very emotionally charged — we’re talking about Han Solo’s death. I didn’t get to finish because these guys interpreted me.
Craig: Here we go.
Lawrence: After Harrison was hurt, luckily not too bad, he went away and eventually they ran out of things to shoot and they closed down for a while. And during that time, there was some rewriting done. But none of that explains what happened which is that Harrison came back and there was a kind of golden glow about him. He was totally comfortable. It was the most positive thing I’ve ever seen in an actor. And he made every moment — we reshot most of what little had been done before that, and he made everything perfect. He was so great to the young actors. And he was so great to everyone on the crew.
It was magnificent. And so when we got to him dying, and this was true when we had written it, it was very emotional for everybody. Everybody. And it’s a big decision. And we talked about it a long time in the writing stages, you know.
I had wanted to kill somebody in Empire. And George didn’t want to do that. But I thought that would raise the stakes, and that we would know that you can’t get away with everything in this universe. But that didn’t happen.
And at the time of Jedi, Harrison was ready to get out. He had an incredible career going and he had had enough Star Wars. And he said, “Kill me.” But George didn’t want to do that. And I didn’t even want to do it then. I thought the time was in Empire.
And when we told Harrison about this, he was 100% cool. Now, after this charmed experience, I think he had some feeling of like this was kind of great.
Craig: Unkill me.
Lawrence: Yeah. [laughs] But he never protested and he did it with great grace. And it was emotional. I’m talking about for the prop guys, and for the grips, it was emotional. Because Harrison is a unique personality.
Craig: We have time for one more question. One more person. Perfect.
Male Audience Member: It’s a question for each of you. When you look back, especially at the early parts of your careers, and if we take your writing ability out of the equation, we ignore that.
Craig: Thank god.
Male Audience Member: What is it that you think set you apart from other writers that made you the types of people that studio execs wanted to work with, that directors wanted to work with, that actors wanted to work with?
John: I would say it was probably the therapist quality. The ability to really listen to what a person was saying, be able to echo back what they’re saying in different words that were constructive, and not seem like a — not seem like a difficult person. I can actually be a kind of difficult person as a writer, but I can seem really convivial in the room. And so to be able to make people feel confident, like okay, hiring you is a good choice because I think you can actually deliver. So, independent of my ability to actually put those words on the paper, I think that helped me get the jobs and helped me also be comfortable in rooms that would otherwise be very difficult.
So, a lot of my sort of my sort of early work was being thrust in rooms with really challenging people, or really fraught situations, and being able to diffuse those and get people moving forward in terms of making a movie.
Craig: Yeah. It’s not far off from — I guess I would say I’ve always been a puzzle solver. I like solving puzzles. I won’t leave a puzzle until it’s solved. When I started, I think a lot of what I was doing was being handed distressed properties that were puzzles and that other people couldn’t quite put together, and perhaps maybe shouldn’t have been put together. But I did.
You know, and I wouldn’t stop. And I was sort of relentless about it. There is something to that narrative puzzle-making that’s valuable, but you know, it’s interesting, over time the thing that I think — whatever my value was at the time, I think it has changed over time because I’m more and more trying to do and write things that I think should be written as opposed to writing something so that it is written. Those are very different things. But slowly but surely.
And now the real answer.
Lawrence: Can I give a two-part answer?
Craig: No. Yes.
Lawrence: The rules are tough here. I think that it’s a combination of what these guys have said. First of all, what John said to me, you can say it about all of life. That if you want to be appealing, if you want to be the person that people want to go to, it helps if you actually see people and hear people. That’s so rare in the world. You know, where a person feels seen and heard and understood. It’s kind of magical when it happens and people are drawn back to that all the time. And so I’m sure John did that for people and they thought not only do we have a problem, but this is the guy that’s going to solve it for us.
And Craig talks about relentlessness. Well, that happens to be the key to all careers in Hollywood which is you will not stop. You will not stop.
I never had any alternative plan. I had to become a movie director. And that crazy obsession, whether it’s to solve a problem in a script, or to run your career, it’s the only thing you’ve got really, because no one else has an interest in you succeeding. Only you do.
And so if you both are a person that people get in the room and they say, “My god, he sees, he hears, he understands. And he won’t stop until there’s an answer of some kind.” It’s pretty irresistible.
Craig: With that, Larry Kasdan.
John: Larry Kasdan everyone. Thank you very much.
- The Writers Guild Foundation
- Lawrence Kasdan on IMDb and Wikipedia
- Scriptnotes, 73: Raiders of the Lost Ark
- The Raiders story conference transcripts
- Scriptnotes, 235: The one with Jason Bateman and the Game of Thrones guys
- Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and Seven Samurai on Hulu
- William Goldman: Four Screenplays with Essays (including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) on Amazon
- Lawrence of Arabia by Robert Bolt
- Casablanca Blu-ray on Amazon
- Grand Canyon on Amazon
- Outro by Matthew Chilelli (send us yours!)