Grab a seat at the table with George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Lawrence Kasdan during their 1978 story development conference sessions for “Raiders of the Lost Ark“ and the memorable characters who help and hinder Indiana Jones. As Lucas initially describes Indy: “He is an archeologist and an anthropologist. A Ph.D. He’s a doctor, he’s a college professor. What happened is, he’s also a sort of rough and tumble guy. But he got involved in going in and getting antiquities. Sort of searching out antiquities. And it became a very lucrative profession so he, rather than be an archeologist, he became sort of an outlaw archeologist.”
What I particularly enjoy about the Raiders of the Lost Ark story development transcript is it’s a great reminder of how important it is to write down — or record in some way — every idea that pops into your head, because brainstorming eventually leads you down the proper paths that best fit your story and characters.
Here’s Lucas discussing Indy’s key relevant skill, his whip:
The other thing we’ve added to him, which may be fun, is a bull whip. That’s really his trade mark. That’s really what he’s good at. He has a pistol, and he’s probably very good at that, but at the same time he happens to be very good with a bull whip. It’s really more of a hobby than anything else. Maybe he came from Montana, someplace, and he… There are freaks who love bull whips. They just do it all the time. It’s a device that hasn’t been used in a long time.
And check out this banter between Lucas, Spielberg and Kasdan on deepening Indy’s character:
Kasdan: It seems like it would be nice if, once stripped of his bullwhip, left him weak, if we had to worry. Just a little worried about him being too…
Lucas: That was what I thought. That’s why I was sort of iffy about throwing it in. If we don’t make him vulnerable…
Spielberg: What’s he afraid of? He’s got to be afraid of something.
Lucas: If we don’t make him vulnerable, he’s got no problems.
And here’s Lucas talking about the female lead, Marion, and the importance for finding a good reason for her to team up with Indy:
Again, she doesn’t have to be German, she could be American, she could be French or whatever. But I don think that we should come up with some reason to keep her from being just a tagalong. The only thing I can come up with is that she’s sort of a mercenary, and she’ somehow involved. Like she has a piece of the puzzle, rather than being forced into the situation. Because if she’s forced into it, you’re constantly fighting to try and keep her there. Every scene you’re going to have to explain why she’s there and why she doesn’t leave. Half of her dialogue is going to end up being “Smokey and the Bandit” dialogue.
Kasdan later adds:
Let’s say her father is there. Her father may have been his mentor. He has been working on some unrelated project. But it was her father who discovered the first fragment of the map. She has it. Her father dies. That’s why he’s going to Nepal, to get it from her. That’s why they know each other. That’s why she’s reluctant to part with it.
And here’s Lucas on what would become the climactic set piece at the end of the film:
Throughout the script we’re establishing the mystery of this Ark and what it can do. So at the end, when they finally open it, it’s a big surprise. The idea is, when they open it up there should be something really neat inside.
And this reminds me of one of my favorite screenwriting books: Bill Martell’s The Secrets of Action Screenwriting:
Martell’s book is a must-read for any screenwriter, really, because he shares his proven development techniques that you can apply to stories beyond the action genre.