Last week news broke of the Raiders of the Lost Ark story conference surfacing (download it here). I've made mention of this before in my article about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. It used to be legend but now it's substantiated with this 120+ page document transcribing a few tape cassettes worth of brainstorming from George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Lawrence Kasdan.
By the time they get together, they have the general idea of an adventure film based on the old Republic serials about an archaeologist pursuing the Ark of the Covenant. The idea of the Ark came from Philip Kaufman, who liked the idea of the Spear of Destiny from Trevor Ravenscroft's book (Ravenscroft loaned his name to Abner Ravenwood and maybe even Lara Croft). Ironically, Ravenscroft would later pursue the Holy Grail...
It's fascinating to read the transcripts and see how Lucas, Spielberg, and Kasdan thought and how their ideas evolved. They travel back and forth in the narrative, working through the major set pieces while touching upon the scenes in between as they go along. It isn't until page 45 that our protagonist has a name; Indiana Smith. This is changed to "Indiana Jones" within moments.
Lucas really runs the show in these meetings and it's remarkable to read just how fertile his imagination and understanding of filmmaking was. Spielberg works to keep Lucas on topic and steers Lucas away from some bad ideas including the one that has been burning up the internet:
Lucas: I was thinking that this old guy could have been his mentor. He could have known this little girl when she was just a kid. Had an affair with her when she was eleven.
Kasdan: And he was forty-two.
Lucas: He hasn't seen her in twelve years. Now she's twenty-two. It's a real strange relationship.
Spielberg: She had better be older than twenty-two.
Lucas: He's thirty-five, and he knew her ten years ago when he was twenty-five and she was only twelve. It would be amusing to make her slightly young at the time.
Spielberg: And promiscuous. She came onto him.
Lucas: Fifteen is right on the edge. I know it's an outrageous idea, but it is interesting. Once she's sixteen or seventeen it's not interesting anymore. But if she was fifteen and he was twenty-five and they actually had an affair the last time they met.
This really puts a point on Marion's line "I was a child!" and makes one wonder if the relationship between Paul Le Mat and Mackenzie Phillips in American Graffiti may have ever been different than the finished film.
Lucas, Spielberg, and Kasdan talk around and through ideas for scenes that have made indelible marks on the minds of millions. They hash out the headpiece for the Staff of Ra for quite a while with Lucas not buying the idea of the sun shining through the piece and giving the location for the Well of Souls due to the way that the Earth has shifted in space over three thousand years as well as how differently the sun shines from day to day.
They play with this idea for pages and pages getting closer and closer to the bullseye when Lucas finally plays upon the earlier idea of the headpiece falling into a fire and comes up with the idea of it being burned into an antagonist's hand. Sure, at this point that person is Chinese but it finally settles the storyline and allows them to move on to what happens in the Well of Souls. Will Indiana Jones drown from some kind of hidden water source? Will he be suffocated with sand? What about bats? Hey, wait... what about snakes?
This isn't to say that every idea that's bandied about is a good one. As mentioned above, the Chinese played a part in the original storyline with an extended stopover between the U.S. and Nepal in Shanghai that ended with Indiana Jones saving himself from a plane crash with a life raft. Then there was the long mine cart race from the submarine landing to the area where the Ark is opened. Of course, these and many other bad ideas were scrapped for Raiders of the Lost Ark but plunked down into the Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom script along with the chatty kid -- once the progeny of Sallah (changed from "Sabu").
The most difficult character for the guys to nail down is Belloq. He's several characters for a while and doesn't coalesce completely during the story sessions though Jones's rival finally becomes French before the ideation is finished.
What's most remarkable through all of this is how creative Lucas was back in the day. Perhaps it took hashing out ideas with his peers before his juices got flowing because there's just no way that the George Lucas of January 1978 could be the same hack that gave us Star Wars Episodes 1-3. I want that old George Lucas back!
There's a great look at what script writing lessons can be learned from these session over at Mystery Men on Film.