Indiana Jones and the creative process

fedora and bullwhipIf you’ve ever watched the 1981 film Raiders of the Lost Ark, it’s likely you’ll also be interested to read Patrick Radden Keefe’s recent article in the New Yorker ‘Spitballing Indy’.

Back in 1978, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan met over several days to throw around ideas for an adventure film that would recall the movie serials from the 1930s and 40s.

As fortune would have it, they recorded these brainstorming sessions (known in the industry as ‘spitballing’) and the entire transcript (PDF file) is now available online. As you might expect, it provides a fascinating insight into the artistic process that led to one of the highest grossing movies of all time.

As Keefe notes, often what is of most interest is seeing those ideas that never made it into the final cut (or even the initial script). As they discuss the possible attributes of the title character there is talk of making him a kung-fu or karate expert, or an avid gambler in the style of James Bond. It’s also clear that Lucas already has a very strong image of his lead character in mind, even at this early stage, right down to the fedora hat, leather jacket and bullwhip.

It’s also revealing to see how much of the process involves problem solving. As they develop the storyline to explain the discovery of the location of the Ark of the Covenant, the three collaborators work through different ideas that will bring together Indiana Jones and Marion Ravenwood, the film’s ‘romantic interest’. They also have to find a way to have the Nazi antagonists chasing a false lead while our heroes find the real location.

In the final film the solution seems simple enough. The clue to the location of the Ark is provided by an ancient headpiece given to Marion by her archaeologist father. When first Indy and then the Nazi agent Toht arrive at her Nepalese tavern to try and obtain it, a fight ensues. The tavern burns down (placing Indy in Marion’s debt and giving her a reason to join him in his quest) and Toht tries to grab the headpiece out of the flames, searing an impression into his hand.

Indy and Marion escape to Egypt with the headpiece and use its inscription to locate the Ark. The Nazis only have one side of the headpiece from Toht’s scar and, missing crucial information, they begin looking in the wrong place.

Reading how Lucas, Spielberg and Kasdan evolved their plot, trying different ideas in the process (at first the vital clue is in the form of a map, at one stage Marion is a Nazi sympathiser, and another suggestion has Indy trying to steal the headpiece from her) makes you realise just how complex the creative process can be, and how many ideas must be discarded or edited out along the way.

As Nathaniel Hawthorne said (if in a slightly different context) ‘easy reading is damn hard writing.’

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photo credit: Gary Stewart via Wikimedia Commons cc