The Bourne movies, the last two of which were directed by United 93 virtuoso Paul Greengrass, have made an impression on Lucas also. The series seems to have become the new action-movie gold standard, or at least a widely admired point of reference in filmmaking circles. Lucas says he appreciates the Bourne movies for their relative believability. “The thing about Bourne,” Lucas says, “I would put that on the credible side, because he’s trained in martial arts and all that kind of stuff, and we know that people in martial arts, even little old ladies, can break somebody’s leg. So you kind of say, O.K., that’s possible. But when you get to the next level, whether it’s Tomb Raider or the Die Hard series, where you’ve got one guy with one pistol going up against 50 guys with machine guns, or he jumps in a jet and starts chasing a car down a freeway, you say, I’m not sure I can really buy this. Mission: Impossible’s like that. They do things where you could not survive in the real world. In Indiana Jones, we stay just this side of it.”
The first building block of any Indiana Jones movie, according to Lucas, is something called the MacGuffin. The term, popularized by Alfred Hitchcock, refers to an object or goal that kicks the story into action and drives it to the third act. Hitchcock held that the less specific the MacGuffin the better. In his 1959 suspense classic, North by Northwest, the men chasing Cary Grant are after microfilm containing “government secrets”—that’s all the audience learns about why the film’s villains cause the hero so much trouble—and Hitchcock considered that to be a perfect MacGuffin, because it was so wonderfully vague. While Lucas agrees with his predecessor on the importance of the MacGuffin, his conception of the device differs significantly from Hitchcock’s. Rather than seeing it as a gimmick with the function of getting things rolling, Lucas believes that the MacGuffin should be powerful and that the audience should care about it almost as much as the dueling heroes and villains on-screen.
He feels he had an excellent one in Raiders of the Lost Ark. The much-sought-after Ark of the Covenant not only held the Ten Commandments but also functioned as “a radio to God” and possessed enough Old Testament power to smite those who looked on its treasures. If the Nazis were to gain control of it, instead of good old Indy, well, you can imagine the consequences. But a first-rate MacGuffin is hard to find, and Lucas says he was not completely satisfied with those he had for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (the sacred Shankara Stones, which, for reasons no audience can keep straight, must be retrieved in order to save kidnapped village children from an Indian death cult) and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (the life-giving Holy Grail, which comes in handy when Indy’s dad is dying).
“I’m the one that has to come up with the story, and the MacGuffin, the supernatural object that everyone’s going after … ” Lucas’s voice trails off. He is seated in a favorite chair, its cushions lumpy and dented. “The Ark of the Covenant was perfect. The Shankara Stones were way too esoteric. The Holy Grail was sort of feeble—but, at the same time, we put the father in there to cover for it. I mean, the whole reason it became a dad movie was because I was scared to hell that there wasn’t enough power behind the Holy Grail to carry a movie. So we kept pushing to have it function on some level—and to make it function for a father and a son. To make it that kind of a movie was the big risk and the big challenge, but also the thing that pulled it out of the fire. So, at the end of it, I was like, No more of these, baby. We’re done. I can’t think of anything else. We barely got by on the last one!
“At that point I had kind of retired,” he continues. “I was raising my kids, I was running my companies. The last thing I wanted to do was go off and do another one of these things. And it stayed there for quite a while, until I was doing Young Indiana Jones, and I was actually with Harrison, shooting a little piece for it, and I was up in Wyoming, where he lives, and I came up with this MacGuffin, which was sitting there right in front of me, and I said, ‘Well, why didn’t I ever see this before?’ ”
When Ford and Spielberg both rejected the idea, Lucas dug in. He hired screenwriter after screenwriter to make his MacGuffin the linchpin of a new Indy story. “So this went on for 15 years,” he says. “And finally we got to a point where everybody said, ‘Look, we’re not doing that movie.’ And I said, ‘Well, look, I can’t think of another MacGuffin. This is it. This works. I know this works.’ And then we stopped. I just said, ‘O.K.,’ and that’s about the time I started Star Wars again. But then Harrison was kind of interested. And I said, ‘I won’t do it unless we can have that MacGuffin. Without the MacGuffin, I will not go near this thing.’ ”
Ford can laugh about Lucas’s obstinacy now. “He’s a stubborn sucker,” the actor says, “and he had an idea that he kept pushing into script form, and then they’d run it by me, and I’d usually rebel, and, finally, you know, one script came along that really struck me as being smart, not working too hard to give reference to the other films, but that carried on the stories we had told so far in a logical way. The character was allowed to age, and we found ourselves in a different period of time, and what I read was a great script, so I said, ‘Let’s go, let’s make this one.’ ”
The eventual shooting script bore the name David Koepp, a writer-director whose screenplay credits include War of the Worlds, Spider-Man, and the first two Jurassic Park movies, which were directed by Spielberg and leaned heavily on Lucas’s Industrial Light & Magic special-effects shop. An earlier pass, which Spielberg loved and Lucas didn’t, was written by Frank Darabont, the writer-director of The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, and The Mist. I ask Lucas if each version had made use of the prize MacGuffin.
“Mmm-hmmm,” he says. “They’re all the same.”
And then (spoiler warning) Lucas gets a little more (spoiler alert) specific: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull will apparently nudge our hero away from his usual milieu of spooky archaeology and into the realm of (spoiler Code Red) science fiction. “What it is that made it perfect was the fact that the MacGuffin I wanted to use and the idea that Harrison would be 20 years older would fit,” Lucas says. “So that put it in the mid-50s, and the MacGuffin I was looking at was perfect for the mid-50s. I looked around and I said, ‘Well, maybe we shouldn’t do a 30s serial, because now we’re in the 50s. What is the same kind of cheesy-entertainment action movie, what was the secret B movie, of the 50s?’ So instead of doing a 30s Republic serial, we’re doing a B science-fiction movie from the 50s. The ones I’m talking about are, like, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Blob, The Thing. So by putting it in that context, it gave me a way of approaching the whole thing.”
As New Age devotees already know, fossilized skulls made of quartz crystal actually do exist. But are they truly, as those who believe in their powers claim, pre-Columbian objects of Mayan or Aztecan origin? And do they really harbor supernatural properties, like the “skull of doom,” supposedly dug up by early-20th-century archaeologist F. A. Mitchell-Hedges? This is a matter of some dispute, right up there with the existence of Big Foot or Atlantis. In the world of Indiana Jones, however, as with the Holy Grail and the Ark, one goes with the legend.
Crystal skulls have already appeared in four Indiana Jones young-adult novels and as part of an Indiana Jones ride at Tokyo’s DisneySea theme park. In an episode of the TV series Stargate SG-1, they had alien origin. In Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, it would seem, based on the above hints, that here, too, the crystal skulls are somehow tied into things, or beings, not of this world. What Lucas says—and he won’t say more—seems to support earlier Internet speculation that the scenes filmed in New Mexico may be set at Area 51, the Nevada military base which, according to conspiracy buffs and the creators of The X-Files, has been the site of U.F.O. and alien research.
No one outside of the filmmakers will know for sure until May 22, but it would be pretty cool if it turns out that Emperor Palpatine had dropped a crystal skull on Earth. Or maybe one was left behind by the skinny dudes from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Or maybe it’s, like, E.T.’s cell phone. :)
Whatever, Lucas is convinced he won’t please everyone. “I know the critics are going to hate it,” he says. “They already hate it. So there’s nothing we can do about that. They hate the idea that we’re making another one. They’ve already made up their minds.”
At least the legions of Indy geeks will be pleased, right?
“The fans are all upset,” Lucas says. “They’re always going to be upset. ‘Why did he do it like this? And why didn’t he do it like this?’ They write their own movie, and then, if you don’t do their movie, they get upset about it. So you just have to stand by for the bricks and the custard pies, because they’re going to come flying your way.”
Spielberg and Lucas both have Norman Rockwell originals hanging in their workplaces, among them The Peach Crop (Lucas) and a sketch of Triple Self-Portrait (Spielberg). That affinity makes sense. Rockwell, the popular American artist, was loved in his own time by millions of Saturday Evening Post readers and dismissed by serious critics. But in 1999, 21 years after the artist’s death, New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl was quoted thus in ArtNews: “Rockwell is terrific. It’s become too tedious to pretend he isn’t.” Collectors too are taking notice: a Rockwell canvas, Breaking Home Ties, sold for $15.4 million at a 2006 Sotheby’s auction.
Spielberg and Lucas, similarly, have been slammed. Like Rockwell, they take everyday moments and blow them up into the stuff of myth. Also, as with Rockwell, it looks like their reputations will only rise. If you check out the American Film Institute’s 2007 list of the all-time 100 greatest American movies, you’ll see Spielberg represented with Schindler’s List (No. 8), E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (No. 24), Jaws (No. 56), and Saving Private Ryan (No. 71), and Lucas making the grade with Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope (No. 13) and American Graffiti (No. 62). The first movie to combine their sensibilities, Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, checks in at No. 66. Movie-lovers can argue, but there it is: a reasonable take on the American films that will make posterity’s cut.
Although Lucas is sometimes accused of forcing actors to mouth wooden dialogue between the fantastic bouts of action that fill his movie’s frames, he certainly has a penchant for populating his huge stories with domineering fathers, virtuous mothers who die, the most villainous villains imaginable, and naïve heroes who are not quite equipped to win the day. Neither he nor Spielberg is sly or subtle, and neither one shies away from the big moment—a necessary quality in making blockbusters.
Ford, who has a closer working relationship with both men than probably any other actor, has special insight into how they do it: “First of all, they both have incredible chops as directors,” he says. “They both are wonderfully capable film directors, and I think they have an ambition to communicate their ideas. Strange as it seems, that’s not always the case with directors. I think it derives from a kind of empathy and an understanding of how the world works and how people behave. And I think they also understand the culture so well that they are able to satisfy their own ambitions for a film and at the same time include the audience in the process. Neither of them is ashamed of making audience films.”
The Indy series has succeeded, Lucas believes, largely because of its reliance on well-made stories. “There’s a difference between throwing a puppy on a freeway and watching what happens and constructing a story,” he says. “You don’t just put your main character in jeopardy and then that becomes entertainment. That’s why so many people have failed at this. Even though they may make some money, it doesn’t get to the level that the Indiana Jones films do. They’re a lot more complex than that. They’re like little watches that have a lot of pieces in them.” And if you don’t like the key piece at the center of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull—the MacGuffin—you’ll know who to blame.