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Keys to the Kingdom

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Keys to the Kingdom

Between them, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg have made 13 of the 100 top-grossing movies of all time. Yet they struggled for more than a decade with the upcoming fourth installment of their billion-dollar Indiana Jones franchise, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Annie Leibovitz gets exclusive access to the set, while Lucas, Spielberg, and their star, Harrison Ford, tell Jim Windolf about the long standoff over the plot, why critics and fans will be upset, and how they’ve updated Indy. 

Cate Blanchett on the set of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

When we last saw him, nearly 19 years ago, everybody’s favorite archaeologist was literally riding off into the sunset after having found the Holy Grail. This seemed as though it had to be the end of the adventure series that had gotten its start with Raiders of the Lost Ark, the big summertime blockbuster of 1981. But then, on the morning of June 18, 2007, Steven Spielberg, the director of the Indiana Jones movies, and George Lucas, who came up with the idea for the franchise, found themselves facing cast and crew on an empty piece of land in Deming, New Mexico. “How time flies,” Spielberg said, raising a flute of champagne, in a moment captured on video, which ended up on YouTube. “No one’s changed, we all look the same. I just want to say: Break a leg, have a good shoot, do your best work, and here’s looking at you, kids.”

Before the day was out, the temperature had reached 97 degrees. Probably no one felt the heat more than the star, Harrison Ford, who, at age 65, was back in his distinctive costume. “It’s a very bizarre costume, when you think about it,” Ford says. “It’s this guy sporting a whip, who’s off usually for someplace really hot in his leather jacket.” He says he got right back into the role once he suited up. “There’s something about the character that I guess is a good fit for me, because the minute I put the costume on, I recognize the tone that we need, and I feel confident and clear about the character.”

After 79 first-unit filming days, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was a wrap. Like the earlier movies, it is a Lucasfilm Ltd. production distributed by Paramount Pictures. Aside from the New Mexico location, the film was shot in New Haven, Connecticut; Fresno, California; and Hawaii, with significant work taking place on lots built at Downey Studios, in southeast Los Angeles.

On May 22, the movie will hit approximately 4,000 U.S. theaters. The story is set in 1957, and this time Dr. Jones goes up against cold-blooded, Cold War Russkies—led by Cate Blanchett in dominatrix mode—instead of the Nazis he squashed like bugs in previous installments. Making a return alongside Ford is Karen Allen, as Marion Ravenwood, Indy’s pugnacious true love, last seen in the first film (since retitled, rather inelegantly, Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark). Rising star Shia LaBeouf joins the cast in a role that no one connected with the film will confirm is the love child of Indy and Marion.

Once the final cut is locked, it will be dubbed into some 25 languages for an ambitious international release. The masses—lately thrilling to the lethally blank Jason Bourne, the totally out-to-lunch Jack Sparrow, and that earnest wand waver Harry Potter—will be asked once more to embrace a fedora-wearing hero of the 1980s with roots in the jungle serials of the 1930s.

It’s not a bad bet. Lucas, 63, and Spielberg, 61, have made 13 of the all-time 100 highest-grossing movies, in terms of worldwide box office, either separately or as a producer-director duo. They are big-time spellbinders in a league with P. T. Barnum, Walt Disney, and the Wizard of Oz. The Indiana Jones series alone has grossed more than $1.18 billion worldwide—and that’s before you add in the comic books, young-adult novels, and figurines.

But once upon a time, in the faraway 1960s, Lucas and Spielberg were upstarts banging at the palace doors. Hollywood was run by men who were the age they are now, tough guys who weren’t going to give way without a fight. At age 18, Spielberg sneaked away from the tram route of the Universal Pictures tour and stepped onto a soundstage. He was a movie-crazed kid who had already made a full-length feature, Firelight, an 8-mm. sci-fi extravaganza starring his sisters, and he wanted in.

The next day he showed up on the lot wearing a suit, his dad’s briefcase in hand. It was a disguise good enough to get him past the guards. He settled into an empty office and “worked” at Universal all through that summer of 1965, making himself known to the cinematographers and directors, creating for himself an unofficial, on-the-fly internship. While attending California State University, Long Beach, Spielberg continued to visit the lot. On weekends he shot a 23-minute 35-mm. movie about two young hitchhikers, called Amblin’. He won a real job on the strength of it, as a director in Universal’s television wing. So there he was, a boy wonder among grizzled veterans, turning out episodes of Night Gallery, Columbo, and Marcus Welby, M.D., honing the craft he would put to use in a career spanning everything from The Sugarland Express (1974) to Munich (2005).

Lucas was more of an accidental filmmaker. As a skinny diabetic kid growing up in the dusty Northern California town of Modesto, he wanted to be a racecar driver—in those days driving fast and fixing cars were his chief talents—but his dream died soon before his high-school graduation, when he flipped over in his own Fiat Bianchina. The wreck almost killed him. After two years of community college, he applied to the University of Southern California’s film school. He moved downstate against the wishes of his strict father (who considered the film industry vile), and soon made a name for himself with a series of prizewinning experimental shorts. His U.S.C. films earned him a paid Warner Bros. internship that led him to the set of Finian’s Rainbow, a musical being shot by just about the only young director back then, 28-year-old Francis Ford Coppola, who pushed Lucas to learn how to write scripts and create accessible movies. Lucas went on to do just that on a grand scale, and he pulled it off largely outside the system. With his considerable winnings he built Lucasfilm, his very own, leaner version of Hollywood, now based in San Francisco’s Presidio and on a large property in rural Marin County.

In 1967, Spielberg had seen a Lucas short, Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB, at a student film festival held at U.C.L.A.’s Royce Hall. “I met George backstage,” Spielberg recalls. “I was blown away by his short film, and Francis Coppola introduced us.” They met again in the early 1970s, when Lucas was in L.A. to cast his second feature, American Graffiti. A gang of young cinéastes was gathering at a Benedict Canyon hovel that had been Lucas’s home in his U.S.C. days, and where he was staying again while in town. Among the group was Spielberg, who was working on his script for The Sugarland Express. “I’d come in at night after casting all day,” Lucas says, “and that’s when we became friends.” As the decade rolled along, blockbusters by Spielberg (Jaws) and Lucas (Star Wars—now called Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope) changed the industry.

Lucas left Los Angeles the day Star Wars opened in 1977 to hide out at Hawaii’s Mauna Kea resort, on the Big Island. Spielberg soon joined him, and they talked over their plans. “I told him that I wanted to, for the second time, approach [film producer] Cubby Broccoli, who had turned me down the first time, to see if he would change his mind and hire me to do a James Bond movie,” Spielberg says. “And George said, ‘I’ve got something better than that. It’s called Raiders of the Lost Ark.’ He pitched me the story, and I committed on the beach.”

Lucas had first conjured the bullwhip-happy archaeologist in the early 1970s, when he was living on almost nothing in Mill Valley, north of San Francisco. It was right around the time he dreamed up Star Wars and was honing the American Graffiti idea. “I have a tendency, when I’m working on one thing, to doodle around and work on other things, to avoid what I’m doing,” he says. Just prior to that, he had been working, with brawny writer-director John Milius, on a script for Apocalypse Now (which Lucas was going to direct, before the project wound up in Coppola’s hands). “We started to prepare it,” Lucas recalls, “and there was no studio that would go near it. The army wouldn’t cooperate at all. It was kind of a hopeless exercise.”

That’s when he had a vision of Indiana Smith (as he originally named him). Here was a film hero who might be able to bring back the cheesy excitement of the 1930s-vintage Republic Pictures serials Lucas had seen on TV as a kid. “Saturday matinee serial—that was the initial thought,” he says. With a little more care, better production values, and a dash of irony, this type of thing could be transformed into something of interest for a 1980s audience.

Loaded with comedy and hairsbreadth escapes, Raiders of the Lost Ark was the highest-grossing film of 1981. Ford, who had played the cocksure, cynical Han Solo in Star Wars, made a perfect professor of archaeology who’s not so mild-mannered when he goes off campus. The movie spawned two sequels: the dark, over-the-top Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), made while Lucas was going through a painful divorce, and the more tender and slapstick father-son picture, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), in which Indy wins the respect of his dad, a withholding grump played by Sean Connery.

But it wasn’t quite the last crusade. From 1992 to 1996, Lucas supervised The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, a TV series which ran first on ABC, then on the USA Network, and won 10 Emmys. While filming a 1993 episode in which Ford made a cameo appearance, Lucas happened on something that gave him the idea for a fourth movie installment. He mentioned it to the actor, who wasn’t too impressed. Lucas later told Spielberg about his new concept, only to find that the director wasn’t so hot on the idea, either, although generally warm to the notion of a fourth film.

But Lucas was adamant. It was this idea or nothing.

Tucked into a corner of the Universal Studios lot is a cluster of two-story, Southwestern-style buildings. This is the Amblin Entertainment production house, the place where Spielberg works when he’s not shooting a movie. The little campus is populated with union carpenters, development girls in funky hats, and nervous Hollywood courtiers who wait their turns in a clay-tiled foyer. When Spielberg meets you in his homey conference room, he looks you in the eye and asks interested questions. He’s affable, cheerful, engaged—“present,” in L.A. parlance. It’s easy to picture him running a sane, happy movie set. At the time of our interview, he’s between sessions of editing the new Indy.

“I’m in my second cut, which means I’ve put the movie together and I’ve seen it,” he says. “I usually do about five cuts as a director. The best news is that, when I saw the movie myself the first time, there was nothing I wanted to go back and shoot, nothing I wanted to reshoot, and nothing I wanted to add.”

My glance strays to a side table, where headshots of actors under consideration for his likely next directing project, Chicago 7—about the conspiracy trial that grew out of protests at the 1968 Democratic convention—lie on the surface. Among them I spy Will Smith, Taye Diggs, Adam Arkin, and Kevin Spacey; Sacha Baron Cohen (as Abbie Hoffman) and Philip Seymour Hoffman (as William Kunstler) are also linked to the project, which has a screenplay by Aaron Sorkin. (It should be noted here that Chicago 7 will be partly based on Chicago 10, a new documentary produced by Graydon Carter, Vanity Fair’s editor, and Brett Morgen, the film’s director.) After Chicago 7, Spielberg will probably go on to direct Lincoln, with Liam Neeson in the title role.

A lot has changed since the last Indiana Jones movie. For one thing, Spielberg, known in the 70s and early 80s as a director of hugely popular but lightweight pictures, brought his famously fluid camerawork to the darker Schindler’s List (1993), Amistad (1997), and Saving Private Ryan (1998). With Artificial Intelligence: A.I. (2001), Minority Report (2002), and War of the Worlds (2005), he made science fiction that hit harder than E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) or Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). At the same time, action movies went through a major evolution. A bald monk flew. So did Keanu. Jackie Chan chopped necks while moving like Astaire. Travolta wiped blood off a windshield. Spidey killed baddies between bouts of emo-boy angst. Batman got the Christian Bale treatment (thin, dark, intense), and a computer-generated Yoda battled Palpatine. Jason Bourne crunched the bones of his pursuers in films that came out great despite looking as if they had been edited in a Cuisinart. In this atmosphere, can Indy compete?

Rather than update the franchise to match current styles, Lucas and Spielberg decided to stay true to the prior films’ look, tone, and pace. During pre-production, Spielberg watched the first three Indiana Jones movies at an Amblin screening room with Janusz Kaminski, who has shot the director’s last 10 films. He replaces Douglas Slocombe, who shot the first three Indy movies (and is now retired at age 94), as the man mainly responsible for the film’s look. “I needed to show them to Janusz,” Spielberg says, “because I didn’t want Janusz to modernize and bring us into the 21st century. I still wanted the film to have a lighting style not dissimilar to the work Doug Slocombe had achieved, which meant that both Janusz and I had to swallow our pride. Janusz had to approximate another cinematographer’s look, and I had to approximate this younger director’s look that I thought I had moved away from after almost two decades.”

Spielberg promises no tricky editing for the new one, saying, “I go for geography. I want the audience to know not only which side the good guy’s on and the bad guy’s on, but which side of the screen they’re in, and I want the audience to be able to edit as quickly as they want in a shot that I am loath to cut away from. And that’s been my style with all four of these Indiana Jones pictures. Quick-cutting is very effective in some movies, like the Bourne pictures, but you sacrifice geography when you go for quick-cutting. Which is fine, because audiences get a huge adrenaline rush from a cut every second and a half on The Bourne Ultimatum, and there’s just enough geography for the audience never to be lost, especially in the last Bourne film, which I thought was the best of the three. But, by the same token, Indy is a little more old-fashioned than the modern-day action adventure.”

The script, Spielberg says, can provide the blockbuster pace. “Part of the speed is the story,” he says. “If you build a fast engine, you don’t need fast cutting, because the story’s being told fluidly, and the pages are just turning very quickly. You first of all need a script that’s written in the express lane, and if it’s not, there’s nothing you can do in the editing room to make it move faster. You need room for character, you need room for relationships, for personal conflict, you need room for comedy, but that all has to happen on a moving sidewalk.”

When it came to the actual shoot, Spielberg reports, he and his star were able to get their Indy legs back a day or two into filming. “I mean, we’re both older,” he says, “and we both look a bit older, I think, certainly, but at the same time Harrison needed to recapture the caustic, laconic spirit of Dr. Jones, and certainly he was going to have to manage the action, and he did both of those things amazingly well, certainly far beyond what I expected.”

In a separate interview, Ford says he was just glad to come through filming unscathed. “In the first one, I tore the A.C.L. in my left leg,” he says, “and then, in the second one, I ended up with a bad back injury and had to have surgery in the middle of filming. But in this one, I was pretty much uninjured.” That’s not an easy feat, especially since Ford was doing many of his own stunts, and part of Indy’s appeal is his tendency to get the crap beaten out of him. “I always wanted to make sure the audience understood the pain,” Ford says, “so that they could participate and enjoy the triumph. That was always a very big part of my ambition for the character, to allow the audience to see his fear, allow the audience to have a chance to see him work his way through the problem, not to be one of those characters that you know is going to succeed. I guess you know that Indiana Jones is finally going to succeed, but I think you don’t know how many bumps he’s going to take before it happens.”

While Spielberg feels at home in Hollywood, Lucas is more of a loner. Because of his distaste for L.A., his suspicion of its guilds and executives, he works 400 miles to the north, on his 4,000-acre Skywalker Ranch, where olive trees grow in neat lines atop a ridge and grapevines cover hillsides. The main house, an idealized version of an American family home circa 1930, stands off by itself. Lucas occupies an upstairs corner office, which has the feeling of a master bedroom but with a large desk taking the place of a bed.

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[User Picture]
On January 18th, 2008 10:01 pm (UTC), septascarabae commented:
I have high hopes for this movie.
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