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Lawrence Kasdan's youthful love affair with film becomes a venerated career 

Dreams come true

click to enlarge 30-SOMETHINGS A group of former college friends—(left to right) Sam (Tom Berenger), Michael (Jeff Goldblum), Harold (Kevin Kline), and Nick (William Hurt)—gather after a funeral of another friend in the wonderful ensemble dramedy The Big Chill.

PHOTO COURTESY OF COLUMBIA PICTURES

30-SOMETHINGS A group of former college friends—(left to right) Sam (Tom Berenger), Michael (Jeff Goldblum), Harold (Kevin Kline), and Nick (William Hurt)—gather after a funeral of another friend in the wonderful ensemble dramedy The Big Chill.

click to enlarge TRIPLE THREAT Writer-director-producer Lawrence Kasdan received the King Vidor Award, the SLO International Film Festival’s 26th annual Career Achievement Award. - PHOTO COURTESY OF LAWRENCE KASDAN
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF LAWRENCE KASDAN
  • TRIPLE THREAT Writer-director-producer Lawrence Kasdan received the King Vidor Award, the SLO International Film Festival’s 26th annual Career Achievement Award.

Editor's Note: Due to concerns about the coronavirus, SLO International Film Festival organizers announced March 12 that the event will be cancelled this year.

Lawrence Kasdan is a "call me Larry" kind of guy—unassuming, down-to-earth, and wholly unpretentious. It definitely doesn't feel like you're talking to a titan of Hollywood when you speak with him, and when he begins to explain in childlike wonder the effect film had on him as a kid, it quickly becomes clear why he's the talent behind some of Hollywood's most entertaining films. He wants his films to have the same effect on you that his favorite films had on him.

"I love all kinds of movies," he said during a recent phone call. "When I fell in love with the movies, it was everything. It was foreign films, The Great Escape, The Magnificent Seven, it was [Japanese director Akira] Kurosawa—who is the greatest director who ever lived—it was Lawrence of Arabia. I just wanted to try everything. If [I'm writing or directing] a genre picture then, yes, I try to put my kind of story within that vessel."

click to enlarge 30-SOMETHINGS A group of former college friends—(left to right) Sam (Tom Berenger), Michael (Jeff Goldblum), Harold (Kevin Kline), and Nick (William Hurt)—gather after a funeral of another friend in the wonderful ensemble dramedy The Big Chill. - PHOTO COURTESY OF COLUMBIA PICTURES
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF COLUMBIA PICTURES
  • 30-SOMETHINGS A group of former college friends—(left to right) Sam (Tom Berenger), Michael (Jeff Goldblum), Harold (Kevin Kline), and Nick (William Hurt)—gather after a funeral of another friend in the wonderful ensemble dramedy The Big Chill.

He's certainly tried his hand at a lot of genre pictures. From the sci-fi of Star Wars to the Westerns of Silverado and Wyatt Earp, from the action of Raiders of the Lost Ark to the poignancy of Mumford, from the film noir of Body Heat to the drama of The Big Chill and Grand Canyon, from the comedy of Continental Divide to the horror of Dreamcatcher—he's tried it all.

Most recently, he wrote Star Wars: Episode VII—The Force Awakens and Solo—A Star Wars Story. He's the perfect candidate for the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival's most coveted prize, The King Vidor Award.

•••

Like any writer, he has to deal with some of his work falling unceremoniously to the cutting room floor. How does he deal with it?

"That's the heart of movie making, and I didn't at first know that, but the trick is that movies are remade in the editing room," he explained. "You fall in love with what you've written, then if you're lucky you get to go out and shoot it the way you wrote it, and then sometimes when you're putting the movie together you think, 'I don't need that scene. It's redundant because the actor just covered all that material with one look.' The thing you're trying to do in a movie, for me, is don't do anything twice. The audience is so smart and so much ahead of you, and if you hit something twice just to, you know, make something clear, you're telling them something they already know.

"I've probably cut more scenes for that reason than any other," he continued. "I've overwritten it or we've shot it and we didn't need it, or sometimes the scene didn't work out right, but it's less that than the other thing, which is, 'How can you make the movie move as fast as possible or the way it should move.' That sometimes means, as they say, 'killing your babies.'"

A couple of scenes written for Raiders of the Lost Ark were cut but ended up in a subsequent Indiana Jones film.

"That's a less typical situation for me because I wrote the sequences and when we went to make Raiders, they were too expensive for the first Raiders, which was a relatively cheap movie. Then when it was a big hit, and Steven [Spielberg] and George [Lucas] decided they'd take the two sequences from Raiders and put them in Temple of Doom."

click to enlarge END OF AN ERA Lawrence and Meg Kasdan’s 40-minute documentary, Last Week at Ed’s, pays tribute to the now-shuttered Ed’s Coffee Shop, a West Hollywood landmark that became a family to its customers, which included the Kasdans. - PHOTO COURTESY OF KASDAN FILMS
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF KASDAN FILMS
  • END OF AN ERA Lawrence and Meg Kasdan’s 40-minute documentary, Last Week at Ed’s, pays tribute to the now-shuttered Ed’s Coffee Shop, a West Hollywood landmark that became a family to its customers, which included the Kasdans.

After the success of Star Wars, Raiders, and the first film he directed—the steamy neo-noir thriller Body Heat—Kasdan followed up with The Big Chill, which was a huge hit and its soundtrack was a phenomenon. There were Big Chill dance nights at dance clubs nationwide. Did he see it coming or was he surprised by the film's success?

"First of all, you're always a little surprised, usually very surprised by a film's success," Kasdan said.

That success, however, led to another big hit—this one a Western. In Silverado, he seemed to reinvent the genre, to take it beyond its typical tropes.

"After The Big Chill was a success, I was able to pretty much make any movie I wanted, and I wanted to do a Western. I had grown up playing cowboys with my older brother, Mark, in West Virginia, and he was already writing screenplays, and I said, 'Let's do this together.' We had been so influenced by John Ford and Howard Hawks and Anthony Mann—I just loved those movies. I would watch Westerns over and over.

"So given carte blanche, I got together with my brother and we continued that play we started when we were kids, and it was really great fun." he continued. "We set out to do everything we would enjoy in a Western, and that's sort of how it came out. We had a great cast, and people really liked the movie. It just moves along, and it's really fun."

•••

After his two Star Wars movies, Kasdan made it pretty clear he was done with the franchise, and indeed, he had nothing to do with the prequel trilogy, episodes I, II, and III, but he did come back onboard for episode VII and the stand-alone Han Solo origin story. Did he have any theories on why the prequels seemed to rankle some viewers?

"I can't really," he said. "The feeling of the prequels is so different from IV, V, and VI. People fall on both sides of it. Maybe younger generations were easier with [the prequel trilogy] being all digital, but a lot of people felt like things had been lost. You know there are no sets, no locations really. That makes a huge difference. I don't really know what to say about it anymore because I used to have strong feelings and I don't anymore.

"Life is long, and George [Lucas] created this amazing thing, and it took him into many places, and then he gave it up and other people took it to places," he continued. "It's complicated and incredible how central those movies are, all of them, to a certain age of people and a certain number of people. When you make nine of them, some people are going to like some more than others."

click to enlarge HELP YOU, HE WILL Yoda (voiced by Frank Oz) shows Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) the ways of The Force to prepare him for his showdown with Darth Vader, in Star Wars: Episode V—The Empire Strikes Back. - PHOTO COURTESY OF LUCASFILM
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF LUCASFILM
  • HELP YOU, HE WILL Yoda (voiced by Frank Oz) shows Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) the ways of The Force to prepare him for his showdown with Darth Vader, in Star Wars: Episode V—The Empire Strikes Back.

While The Force Awakens did well at the box office, Kasdan's Solo—A Star Wars Story didn't gain the sort of box office traction normally associated with the popular franchise. Does he have any idea why?

"Yeah, I know exactly why," he asserted. "First of all, there was a lot of controversy about The Last Jedi. It was still in theaters, and [Walt Disney Company CEO] Bob Iger said this in public, he made a big mistake forcing Solo out in May. They thought they were like Marvel movies, but they're not, so you had a movie that was very controversial still in theaters and then here comes another Star Wars movie, and it opened two weeks after The Avengers: Infinity War and one week after Deadpool 2. It should never have been released then, and Bob Iger said as much.

"If it had come out at Christmas, it would have had an entirely different reception. I'm just as proud of that movie as any of mine and in some ways it's my favorite, and not just because I wrote it with my son [Jonathan Kasdan], but I love so many things in it," Kasdan said.

In addition to his brother Mark, both his sons, Jonathan and Jake, have gone into the movie business, and he frequently collaborates with his wife, Meg. Is this something he encouraged or did it just happen?

"I guess I've encouraged it in the sense that I've always depended on all those people for their opinions, and I like writing with other people, and these are my favorite people," he said. "I've never collaborated [writing] with Jake, though he's been in a couple of my movies, but I've been very supportive of his career, and I produced one of his movies, but it's been a very natural organic kind of thing to work with the people I love and to be able to.

"Not many people get that opportunity."

•••

Kasdan's directed 11 feature films and worked with some of Hollywood's biggest stars, from Kevin Costner to William Hurt to Geena Davis to Kevin Cline. Does he have any techniques for getting what he needs from them?

"I wanted to be a director starting when I was 14, and the only way I could see to get in was to write my way in," Kasdan recalled. "I came from a writing family, and I started writing when I was in high school. One of the things that attracted me to movies were actors. At one time I wanted to be an actor, and I tried doing it and I was just god-awful. Everybody said, 'Forget it,' and I did forget it but then I went on to what was probably my true correct work.

"I was attracted to every aspect of directing, much more than I was to writing. Going out there into the world and shooting things, and I loved writing characters that I thought were interesting, and I loved the idea that I could work with actors that I admired, who seemed to me like great athletes—you can meet them and you still don't understand: How do they do that?" he continued. "When you're the director, you get to use all that and it's truly like having enormous power, a very powerful machine or a great car that you get to drive. These actors, they do something that other people can't do, and it certainly was something I couldn't do.

"That was a big attraction for me about directing, which I was really focused on from the beginning."

Kasdan is also well known for his amazing dialogue. How does he do it? Is it wholly invented? Does he pick up things from listening to people? How does he find those naturalistic notes?

"It's a big mix," he admitted. "I love the way people talk and I love to laugh, and even in my most dramatic movies I try for there to be a strong strain of humor. That's one aspect of it that always came pretty easy to me. When I started writing at the University of Michigan, I was writing short stories and theater, and theater is all dialogue, and it just came to me.

"I went to Michigan to study with one particular teacher there who taught Arthur Miller," he continued. "Dialogue was part of it that came most fluidly for me. The construction of the story and everything was harder to work with."

Does Kasdan believe that films have an impact beyond entertainment, not necessarily changing the world, but changing a person?

"Absolutely 100 percent!" he gushed. "I can only go from my experience, but my life—and I don't mean having a career—but my life has been so influenced by these images and these stories that I've seen on screen.

"When I was 10 years old, I saw The Magnificent Seven. I didn't know it was based on one of the greatest films ever made [Akira Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai, 1954], I just knew it was a Western. I loved the heroism of those guys, I loved the camaraderie, I loved that fact that there were all kinds of mixed characters—they weren't just good guys; they were outlaws who came together to do something unexpectedly good," he continued. "That kind of thing influences me every day of my life. When I was able to see The Seven Samurai when I got to college, which is the greatest film ever made if it isn't [David Lean's] Lawrence of Arabia [1962], you think, 'Oh my God, what you can do in any form with character, and fun, and excitement, and dynamism.'

"Those things are all in movies and they influence you just like if you have a good meal or you worked out for a year. It changes your life," he said.

Kasdan took a long break between writing and directing the Stephen King story Dreamcatcher (2003) and his film Darling Companion (2012). Why the long break?

"Well, Dreamcatcher was a terrible flop, and there was a point at which I thought, 'This is really painful.' You know you work on these things for two years and they can be over. Nowadays they call you on Friday afternoon and say, 'Oh, the New York matinees aren't that good.' It's a rough kind of life, and I think I needed a break. It was very hard. You know, I had other failures, but I felt like I shouldn't have made that movie, and when it flops you think, 'Why did I do that?'

"I never felt that about another movie. Even movies that flopped, I always had an incredible time and I knew why I was doing them. With Dreamcatcher, it wasn't so clear."

According to IMDb, Kasdan's next film is November Road.

"I'm about to write the script," he explained. "It's based on a wonderful book by Lou Berney, and he's a very good writer, and it's two things at once: It takes place around the time of the Kennedy assassination, and it's really a very good thriller and an enormously romantic story. It's a love story."

Kasdan's also been nominated for four Academy Awards. Considering his accomplishments, it seems impossible he hasn't won one. Does that bother him?

"No, not at all," he said. "When you've wanted to do this your whole life and you wind up going to the Academy Awards repeatedly, you think, 'This is pretty good,' you know? You don't have to win it."

After the Force Awakens and Solo, Kasdan and his wife managed to fit in making a 40-minute documentary, Last Week at Ed's, which will screen three times during the film festival.

"Meg and I directed it together," he explained. "It's about a little restaurant we used to go to every week."

It's a terrific film but also a tragedy. Ed's Coffee Shop in West Hollywood was like a family, and the Kasdans' film chronicles its death. It's unexpectedly poignant and heartbreaking.

"I'm very delighted to come to this film festival," Kasdan said. "I had no idea I would be given this award. We just wanted to show our movie, you know? We've taken it to a few festivals. The first one we went to was in Austin, and it won the audience award. We were shocked because this was just a labor of love—a little movie about something we cared about."

How's that for a film love affair? Δ

Contact Senior Staff Writer Glen Starkey at gstarkey@newtimesslo.com.

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