Five Favorite Films with Lawrence Kasdan
Plus, the writer-director reflects on Darling Companion, his long collaboration with Kevin Kline, and writing the screenplay for The Empire Strikes Back.
As any student of popular American cinema knows, the name Lawrence Kasdan is synonymous with some defining movie experiences among audiences of a certain age. One of Hollywood's hot young screenwriters in the '70s, Kasdan was enlisted by George Lucas to help pen The Empire Strikes Back, the film that -- along with the Kasdan co-written Return of the Jedi -- helped transform Star Wars from blockbuster movie into cultural myth. Soon after, Kasdan's second film as director, The Big Chill, effectively captured -- for better or worse -- the feelings (and musical tastes) of a generation of Baby Boomers entering thirtysomething adult life. And between those films, Kasdan's screenplay for Raiders of the Lost Ark was turned into another massive hit -- and enduring piece of movie iconography -- by Steven Spielberg.
As a director, Kasdan has moved from thrillers (Body Heat) to Westerns (Silverado, Wyatt Earp) to drama (Grand Canyon) and comedy (The Accidental Tourist), picking up four Oscar nominations along the way. He returns after a lengthy hiatus with this week's Darling Companion, a comedy starring Kevin Kline and Diane Keaton about the search for a lost dog that brings on some typically Kasdan-esque moments of life assessment.
We sat down for a chat with Kasdan earlier this week, in which he talked about his new film, his long collaboration with Kline, and his favorite memory writing on Empire. Read on for that, but first, he talks about his five favorite movies.
(Hal Ashby, 1975; 61% Tomatometer)
I have a 1000... I have a top 100. I can tell you five movies that are important to me, but as I say, I could go on and on. Shampoo is important to me. Hal Ashby, one of the great directors of our time, died very young, and is sometimes overlooked; but he did The Last Detail, and Being There, and he is a great director. And Robert Towne wrote the script with Warren Beatty. It's a brilliant script, a portrait of LA at a certain time and the United States when we were going through a spasm of political activity that was very discouraging -- it ends with the election of Nixon and Agnew. It's hilarious, it's sexy; it deals with all the variety of complications of people's behavior. Jack Warden is brilliant in it; hilarious in one of the greatest scenes ever shot: At the end of the movie when Beatty comes back to his house and he thinks that Jack Warden's gonna have him killed 'cause he's slept with both Warden's wife and his daughter, Carrie Fisher. It's a great, great film, but Warden is brilliant in that scene. The movie is full of great writing; it's almost like a French farce, but very modern. Beatty is at his absolute best. Everybody in it is great. Julie Christie's a knockout. So that's an important movie that not enough people have seen.
Yojimbo (Akira Kurosawa, 1961; 97% Tomatometer)
Yojimbo is the most entertaining movie ever made. Kurosawa's flat-out entertaining. He said "I wanna make a movie that's delicious enough to eat," and that's the way it is -- it's the most entertaining movie you can possibly think of. It's been redone, as you know, as Fistful of Dollars, and it owes a lot to Red Harvest: It's about any stranger that comes in to a corrupt town, and there are a lot forces at work. It's very much like Red Harvest, Dashiell Hammett's novel, in which he puts all the bad forces at work against each other. Yojimbo is hilarious. Toshirô Mifune in as great a role as he ever played, and he's great in about 20 Kurosawa films. It's just delightful from first shot, which is him walking along the road and then deciding where to go by throwing a stick up in the air and following the direction the stick lands, and he immediately comes upon a peasant boy who's leaving home and wants a more exciting life, and that boy is seen throughout the film as he becomes involved in the criminal element in town; and at the end Mifune spares his life and tells him to go back to eating rice or whatever he's complained about at the very beginning. The photography is phenomenal. Kurosawa's the greatest filmmaker of all time. The use of lenses, the mise en scène -- absolutely spectacular.
Did you ever have the chance to meet him?
I met him once. It wasn't like a long meeting. [Laughs] It was [in Los Angeles], he was being honored. The DGA gave him an award when he was 80 years old, and he said "I'm just beginning to understand what film is about." I met John Huston that same night. It was quite a night.
(Jacques Tourneur, 1947; 96% Tomatometer)
Out of the Past is my favorite film noir. I ripped it off viciously and completely -- that and Double Indemnity -- for Body Heat. [Laughs]
Well, it's a good one to rip off.
[Laughs] I just saw a thing with Springsteen from South by Southwest -- did you see his speech? Fabulous. He talks about the Animals song, "We Gotta Get out of This Place," and he says "That's every song I've ever written." And there's no shame in that, when you've been inspired by... when someone's spoken to all your issues and all your aesthetic. Out of the Past, directed by Jacques Tourneur and written by Daniel Mainwaring, based on a novel with a great title -- Build My Gallows High. Mitchum is spectacular. Jane Greer, who was 21 years old or something, and seems like she's 35, she's a great femme fatale. Kirk Douglas is in the third lead, as the villain, and he's beautiful -- you can see why he's gonna be a star in a matter of years; a couple of years later he was a big star, and he's hilarious. The talk is some of the best dialogue ever written. There's a moment when Jane Greer, who's already betrayed Mitchum twice in the movie, comes in to once again try to work her spell on him, and she says "I've thought about you, I prayed for you" and he says, "You prayed, Kathie?" -- and he says it with the greatest line reading of all time -- "Get out of here, I've gotta sleep in this room." So Out of the Past -- see it.
Strangelove -- you can watch it again and again. Brilliant. To me, maybe the funniest movie ever made. Huge variety in the styles of the movie. Some of it's shot like cinéma vérité documentary. Some of it's very stylized. The mise en scène changes radically. When you're in the bomber it's hand-held -- it might as well be Richie Leacock, or one of the Pennebakers making a movie; that's how free-form it is. Totally realistic, even though you have Slim Pickens as the pilot of the jet that's taking the atomic bomb to Russia. He's hilarious, and yet you have a sense of this is really what it looks like -- what their equipment looks like, what the gauges and the codes look like. They do a really funny sequence where they open up their survival box and there's a condom, and there's a 45, and it's totally believable. And of course it ends with Slim Pickens riding the atomic bomb down like a wild horse toward Russia, and the world ending. And Sterling Hayden, absolutely hilarious throughout the movie, and Sellers playing five parts, I think. The scenes between him and Sterling Hayden, where he's the British officer who's been assigned to this airbase and Sterling Hayden is completely wacko and is convinced that they're stealing his precious bodily fluids, because when he had sex he felt depleted. [Laughs].
(Howard Hawks, 1948; 100% Tomatometer)
Next, Kasdan chats about his new movie Darling Companion and reflects upon his favorite parts of writing The Empire Strikes Back.
One more. I'd have to say Red River. Great Western. John Wayne, Monty Clift -- Monty Clift couldn't be more wrong for a Western, and yet it totally works. When they finally have their fist fight at the end, they've taken and shot Wayne to even out the fight, because Wayne was about six inches taller than Clift, and 80 pounds heavier, and the fight works fine. The spirit of the cattle drive is extraordinary, the amount of drama that happens; the father and son struggle -- in essence the Oedipal struggle, even though he's not actually his son -- between Clift and John Wayne, is magnificent. It's pure Hawks: Men on the trail doing something dangerous, and doing it well. You can't ask for a better Western. It talks about the whole opening of Texas, and it talks about the relationship between men. It talks about the dynamics of leadership, talks about betrayal. It's Shakespearian, really, without any pretention. Pure Hawks.