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Sunday, July 25, 2021

The struggle to make Raiders of the Lost Ark: Why every studio rejected George Lucas’ film

Before Raiders of the Lost Ark was shown to the world, and became a huge critical and commercial success, there was also a small matter of making the thing. The film turned out to be a singularly difficult production.

Written by Kshitij Rawat | New Delhi |
Updated: June 13, 2021 8:33:16 am
Raiders of the Lost ArkRaiders of the Lost Ark was the beginning of what became a global franchise with three blockbuster sequels. (Photo: Paramount Pictures)

Forty years ago, Raiders of the Lost Ark released and introduced the world to what many would argue is the greatest movie character ever: Indiana Jones, played by Harrison Ford. Conceived by Star Wars creator George Lucas and realised by Steven Spielberg, the film had a compelling hero who was the archetypical adventurer, and lived a life many just dreamt of. There was nothing remotely dull in his life as he raided tombs, fought the Nazis and all manner of scum of society but always came out of it alive and pining for yet more adventure.

Raiders of the Lost Ark was the beginning of what became a global franchise with three blockbuster sequels (not including the one in development), animated TV series, novels and even video games.

It was a rip-roaring experience with a rough-around-the-edges rascal of a central protagonist, magnificently mounted set pieces, visual effects, cliff-hangers, cheesy humour and one-liners that have somehow stood the test of time.

But before it was shown to the world, and became a huge critical and commercial success, there was also a small matter of making the thing. The film turned out to be a singularly difficult production and a lot of it was a pain for everyone involved.

The collection of ideas that eventually coalesced into Indiana Jones originated in Lucas’ incredibly fecund brain. He first thought of something resembling Indy in 1973, inspired by heroes of 1930s and 1940s’ adventure TV serials. At that time, he was also in the process of developing a certain space opera film so he shelved it.

In 1975, Lucas met with peer and friend Philip Kaufman and they discussed among themselves the outline of a character that they referred to as Indiana Smith. They came up with the bare bones of the character, a dashing, daring professor of archaeology with a fondness for adventure. Kaufman suggested what became the film’s MacGuffin, Ark of the Covenant, that the Nazis in the film want to possess and that Indy does not allow them to.

After the release of Star Wars in 1977, Lucas retreated to a vacation in Hawaii to avoid any potential negative reception. There, he invited Spielberg, whose Close Encounters Of The Third Kind had also released the same year, and asked him to direct the film. Spielberg was enchanted by the concept and readily agreed. By 1979, Lawrence Kasdan, who was also working with Lucas on Empire Strikes Back, had submitted the finished script.

It is not known for certain if Harrison Ford was the makers’ first choice (accounts vary), but he bagged the role in the end.

Lucas shopped the film to all the major studios, but his pitch said the film will be made on a hefty budget of 20 million dollars and he will retain the licensing and sequels. Due to this and also because of Spielberg, whose recent films’ budgets had shot up considerably with not much in the way of returns, nearly every studio rejected Lucas’ deal.

Lucas told Empire Magazine, “Raiders was turned down by practically every studio in town. They thought it would be a successful movie but didn’t trust the budget: $20 million. Second, I was asking for a very tough deal, it broke a lot of precedents that no-one wanted to break. Its definition of profits upset their apple cart. The other part was I would develop it and turn it over to them, which gave them little control. They didn’t like that. I had licensing. I controlled sequel rights. Things that fed off what I did with Star Wars.”

Finally, Paramount and Lucas made a deal in which the studio had rights to the sequels and also could penalise in case the budget got past the 20 million dollar mark.

To avoid the budget from escalating, Spielberg and team hurried through the filming, which was possible because 80 per cent of the script had already been visualised by storyboard artists. This saved time in setting up the shots.

“I just got it right down to the bone, right down to what I absolutely needed to tell the story I wanted to tell. On Raiders I learned to like instead of love. If I liked a scene after I shot it, I minted it. I didn’t shoot it again seventeen times until I got one I loved,” said Spielberg.

In the famous Well of Souls scene, in which the floor was to be covered with live snakes, the number of reptiles fell short, despite the fact that thousands of snakes were already available. Even more snakes were brought in from Denmark, and even then small sections of garden hose were chopped off to supplement the number.

Karen Allen, the film’s leading lady, talked to Total Film about the scene and the ensuing ordeal. She said, “Although I was never bitten, our First AD (assistant director) was, and there were moments when I came very close to being bitten and just had to literally walk off the set in the middle of the shot.”

The contentious and rapid nature of the production meant that even Spielberg and Lucas, normally fast friends, had a bone of contention. It was regarding the late actor Ronald Lacey’s Nazi officer Major Arnold Toht. Spielberg wanted him to have a prosthetic hand which was either a machine gun or a flamethrower. As he himself put it while speaking to Empire, “He was like The Terminator before The Terminator.”

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Lucas flat out refused and said, “Steven, you’re crossing out of one genre and into another.” Spielberg agreed.

The heavy-metal nature of Toth was not the only thing Lucas found not suitable to the tone of the movie. In the Well of Souls scene, the original scene had a man fainting after he sees Indy and Sallah coming out of the tomb. Lucas was of the opinion that that joke would not fit with the rest of the movie and the scene was removed.

One scene in the film had Indy fighting a muscular German near a warplane that is just about to take off. While it was being shot, Ford slipped and seconds before his knee was flattened, brakes were successfully applied.

Ford told Total Film, “The crew’s reaction was the normal one associated with having a film’s star run over by an aeroplane when the movie is only half completed. I was a lot more careful after that.”

Raiders of the Lost Ark grossed 389.9 million dollars and managed to win five Oscars. More importantly, every single aspect of it, be it technical or creative, has influenced an entire generation of filmmakers. It remains, even after four decades, a damn good time.

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