Wednesday, April 25, 2012

After 9 years, Lawrence Kasdan strikes back

Darling Companion is Lawrence Kasdan's first film in nine years. It's not that the guy who helped write blockbusters such as The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark and who also wrote and directed such iconic movies as Body Heat and The Big Chill has been idle. At 63, Kasdan been trying to survive in a business that he sees as increasingly uninterested in what most fascinates him; i.e., character-driven movies with carefully developed narratives.

Darling Companion -- which Kasdan co-wrote with his wife, Meg -- tells the story of a Denver-based husband and wife (Diane Keaton and Kevin Kline) who are going through a rough patch. During a stay at their mountain cabin -- with his sister (Diane Wiest) and her new boyfriend (Richard Jenkins) in tow -- the family dog is lost. This sets off a chain of events that brings the characters into sharper focus.

The Kasdans, who recently visited Denver, say the story was prompted by an event that took place in Telluride, Colo. years ago. Their dog Mac went missing for three weeks. Eventually, that dog-related trauma -- and another in which Meg's sister found a dog on the side of a road -- triggered the screenplay for Darling Companion, a movie in which a long marriage figures prominently.

Have the Kasdans, who've been married for 40 years, discovered a formula for sustaining a marriage? He replies by quoting Olivia Harrison, the widow of the late George Harrison, who once offered some deceptively simple advice about keeping a marriage afloat: Don't get divorced.

"It has a lot to do with sticking in there,'' he says.

Working together could be a source of marital stress, but it sounds as if the Kasdans, who also wrote Grand Canyon together, have that figured out, as well.

"I sit in a very comfortable chair. We talk. We go through all the ideas. We both write each scene together. We try out lines on each other. We edit together," says Meg.

"If one of us feels strongly that tends to carry the day,'' he adds.

"We try to make each other laugh. That's a big part of it because we wanted there to be humor in this movie," she continues.

Darling Companion qualifies as Kasdan's first independent movie, which means it wasn't financed within a studio context.

"The studios where I worked for a long time aren’t making the kind of movies I’m interested in that much," Kasdan says.

No stranger to major successes, Kasdan cautions against viewing the blockbusters of the 1980s as equivalents of today's mega-hits.

"They (movies such as Raiders and Empire) aren't really like the big movies we're getting now. Raiders and Empire were affected by the history of American adventure films and escapist entertainment that included narrative and characters. There’s been a drift. It’s not necessarily bad. The audience doesn’t expect those things from a gigantic movie. They’re looking for spectacle, for a thrill ride. If you run Raiders and Empire side by side with a big blockbuster today, they’re barely recognizable as the same thing. Raiders and Empire seem slow. At the time Raiders came out, people said, ‘Oh, it never stops. It flies by.’''

Raiders, slow? Empire, dawdling? I promise myself to take another look to see if Kasdan's right. Meanwhile, I use Kasdan's remarks as an opportunity to share one of my peeves, the way contemporary action scenes are edited. Half the time, you can't tell what's happening. Quick cuts tend to obliterate coherence.

"The reason I think (Akira) Kurosawa is the greatest director of all time -- and he made every kind of movie -- is he always had a sense of place,'' says Kasdan, who points out that Kurosawa made sure that viewers knew where characters were and what they were doing, even when the action became frenetic. He cites Kurosawa's Seven Samurai as a prime example.

"By the time the movie's over, you know that village as well as the samurai."

Kasdan talks about Kevin Kline's athleticism and humor (Kline evidently cracked up his fellow actors on Darling Companion by providing running commentary.) Kasdan asks if I've read Diane Keaton's autobiography, Then Again. I haven't. ("It's really good. She's a person of enormous depth and sensitivity.") He talks about the fun he had writing a draft of Paradise Lost, an action picture based on the John Milton poem. He says he thinks the picture has since been scrapped. ("You're writing for Lucifer. He's a great character.")

The Kasdans say it has taken time for them to adjust to the new realities of Hollywood. During the past nine years, they've tried to get several movies made. One of them was an adaptation of Richard Russo's novel, Risk Pool, which was to star Tom Hanks. ("It feel apart," he says.)

I stop him right there. Wait a minute. You're telling me that Lawrence Kasdan, who has an impressive track record, and Tom Hanks, who has won two Oscars, can't get a movie made? What the hell does that say about the movie industry?

"It means it’s become more difficult to do character work," says Kasdan.
If it's difficult to do character work, it must be even more difficult to make movies about older characters, folks in their '60s, say. It doesn't sound as if Kasdan wants to put the characters in Darling Companion, who mostly fall into that category, into an age-determined box.

"We’ve discovered that when you get older, you don’t feel any different," he says. "Your mind is the same -- at least for a while. People over 60 feel like they did when they were 35. They have the same drives and bad behavior and good qualities as they always did.”

As a person who resides within this graying demographic, I can't say I totally share Kasdan's view, but we'll leave that discussion for another day.

1 comment:

ultramanj said...

I would see this film just for the cast; everything else just sounds like a bonus. Pretty amazing point there that Kasdan and Hanks can't secure a film; you would think those guys could gather a few players and start releasing their own films independently. Thanks for the article.