Raiders of the Lost Ark, make no mistake, is a film that trades on nostalgia – mostly for the action sci-fi serials of the 30s, which in turn were escapist entertainments extolling herculean dashing do-gooders, loyal dames, a time when no matter what happened or obstacle faced, everything was going to be just fine. Times, people and places that never were. A nostalgia for nostalgia. What a strange and appropriate fate then that Raiders itself becomes a very token of the nostalgia it glorifies. How many times has one heard/said/thought ‘They just don’t make ‘em like Raiders anymore.’ Or ‘remember when action films were good – like Raiders.’ Or ‘I remember the first time I saw Raiders…’ A nostalgia for nostalgia for nostalgia.
Last evening at The LA Times Hero Complex 30th Anniversary Screening of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Spielberg spoke about many things. After the film he appeared for a Q&A session with a surprise mystery guest (Harrison Ford). They talked about making the film, will they do Indian Jones 5, “fixing” E.T. , and a lot more. Here are the bullet points from that session.
¨ Spielberg exclaims that the screening is the best he’s ever seen Raiders look. Talking about the restoration process, Spielberg states he worked from an original negative correcting the print without removing anything or adding any CGI. Raiders is exactly as it was when released in 1981.
¨ On the difference between his career pre Raiders vs. post Raiders, Spielberg jokes that he didn’t have much of career before having suffered from the colossal failure of 1941 “After 1941, I needed a job… and only my friend George was willing to hire me.”
¨ Spielberg speaks about the famous origin of his and Lucas’s partnership on Raiders: In Hawaii, Lucas went into hiding, afraid of what the public reaction to Star Wars might be. He asked Spielberg to accompany him and build “good luck sand castles”. Star Wars, of course, became a massive success. Lucas, relieved, pitched Spielberg a serialized adventure film starring an archeologist. Indiana Jones was born.
¨ On whether or not Spielberg now texts or emails Lucas, Spielberg offers that Lucas doesn’t text or email. All conversations between Lucas and Spielberg either occur by phone or in person. Conversations with Lucas, Spielberg confides, generally can take up an entire morning and/or afternoon. The only other person Spielberg has ever spent as much time talking to in a single conversation: Stanley Kubrick.
¨ The elephant in the room: Will there be a 5th Indiana Jones film? Spielberg gives a noncommittal committal – He is quote unquote ‘hopeful for a 5th film.’
“ On the origin of the famous ‘Just shoot the swordsman’ gag: Originally there was a three-page whip vs. sword battle, but the day of shooting – Ford, feeling ill from some food the night before, told Spielberg that he could only last about an hour or so on set and… —- Spielberg’s answer is cut off by a growl like whisper offstage. “That’s not what happened.” – the voice offers.
Enter surprise guest Harrison Ford to standing ovation
¨ Ford corrects that they had already shot a fight scene with Indy disarming a group of baddies with his whip. Lest the film get repetitive with all this whip fighting, Ford offered up ‘Why don’t we just shoot the son of a bitch.’
¨ But what of the swordsman? Ford reminisces that the poor guy had spent months training just for this fight scene only to be told on the day of that instead of a three page whip-sword battle to the death, he’s just gonna get shot. Spielberg adds that the swordsman– to make up for the lost screen time – staged the most elaborate death scene on the first take. After being shot, he backed up, then forwards, waving right to left, falling to his knees, then flopping down, crawling forward, finally still. On the second take, before Spielberg called action, Ford just fired the prop gun – startling the swordsman to such an extent he just fell straight down – the take which would be used for the final film.
¨Spielberg raves about the great cinematographer Douglas Slocambe: “[For Raiders} I was looking for something bright… but not to be flatly lit. The characters needed to stand out from the background… Dougie’s work already exemplified this. He’s the only cinematographer I ever used that didn’t work with a light meter. He would look at the shadow on the base palm of his hand and immediately know… he was always right.”
¨ Spielberg tells a story Dougie (as he affectionately calls him) told him once: Dougie, who had divorced his first wife two years prior, went to a pub and had a couple too many. Stumbling his way home, he couldn’t get the keys to work for his house. Going to a second set, he finally unlocks the door, goes up to his bedroom – only to find his first wife in bed with her new husband. He had returned to the wrong house, the wrong wife. This story, Spielberg stated, perfectly encapsulates the genius savant cinematographer.
¨ On casting Ford as Indy, Spielberg watched a rough cut of Empire Strikes Back and immediately told Lucas that Ford’s the guy. Lucas was skeptical stating that Ford was already so well known for the iconic Han Solo role and worried that Solo would cloud Indy’s aura. Spielberg offered back “But he’s an actor… he can play multiple roles.” And so Ford was cast.
¨ Elephant in the Room Part Two: Ford, on whether he would be interested in revisiting Indy again in the future, offered a noncommittal committal joking as long as it’s not set on Mars, he’d be up for it.
¨ The connection between Tintin and Indy: When Spielberg was reading French reviews of Raiders, he saw that a lot of them kept mentioning something called Tintin and the parallels between the two. Spielberg who had never read the comics, immediately sought out Remi’s work and after reading through, immediately wanted to adapt Tintin to the big screen. Tintin, he asserted has been “30 years in development.”
¨ Ford on what makes Indy an interesting character, even after all these years: “Let the hero be afraid” he remarks. By allowing Indy to show weakness, it immediately makes the character real and thus more relatable.
¨ Spielberg, to the relief of the audience, states he has no interest in going back and tinkering/changing his older films. He regrets going back and “fixing” E.T. Says he got a little sensitive about criticisms he had received from the parents’ councils upon E.T’sinitial release – so he excised the “penis breath line” and the g-men’s guns; but after doing so he realized that all he’d done was “rob the people who love E.T. of their memory of the film.” He is not keen on ever repeating this mistake.
¨ Spielberg on the lasting impression of Raiders reveals “that it’s the only film I’ve ever made that I can bear to watch all the way through and just get lost in, [as if] I’m only an audience member.”
There are no set dates for the inevitable Blu-ray release of the Jones series – but Spielberg offered that once Lucas is done with the Star Wars Blu-rays, Indy will soon be next.
Raiders of the Lost Ark was released June 12th, 1981 and it is STILL one of the most entertaining movies ever made.