Hollywood's man with the golden pen

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

When it comes to first screen credits, Larry Kasdan has most people in Hollywood beat, hands down. The first film that flashed his name was seen by more people than just about any other movie, ever.

As the credits scroll by at the end of "The Empire Strikes Back," Larry (Lawrence) Kasdan's name glides past under the heading of "screenwriter." And that is a big deal, at least in these parts. Out in the American heartland, no doubt most people could care less. By that time in the screening, audiences are shuffling towards the theater's glowing red EXIT signs, wondering about the special effects and asking each other, "How did they make that little green fella so real?" To those who watch such things, though, the name was noticed, and the general reaction was "Who's Larry Kasdan?"

Only a handful of people had ever heard of him -- understandably, since "Empire" was, and is, his only billing to date. Kasdan is a writer: a very good one, judging by his credit on so prestigious a film as "Empire" and by several other screenplay sales that followed quickly on its heels.

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In the motion picture business, a good writer is important, because no matter how powerful a studio boss or matinee idol might be, few films succeed" unless it's in the script to begin with," as one production executive puts it.

So when a perpetually talent-starved Hollywood found Larry Kasdan it promoted him in the time it takes to park his new, shiny Mercedes 300SD in his parking space at the studio where he is directing his first film.

Although this sort of success story is probably unique tom Hollywood, it is by no means unique inm Hollywood, and there will always be others -- writers, directors, actors -- whose stars rise as rapidly. Nonetheless, "Kasdan" is a name to watch here, and it will probably be making several appearances in the near future.

He is, as they say, hot. He has four screenplays, not counting "Empire," either sold to major studios or on the negotiating block, and he is in the process of directing one of them.

Kasdan has some peculiar -- to Hollywood -- ideas about moviemaking. He talked about them during an interview in a handy office at Zoetrope Studios, an aging but cozy studio lot now owned by Francis Ford coppola but formerly known as Hollywood General.

For openers, he is not too crazy about movie stars. Not that he has anything against them personally, but like a number of people in the business he doesn't see any connection between a big name on the marquee and success, creative or commercial, inside the theater.

"I guess I really feel that a star is irrelevant to whether a movie is successful or makes money, and the negative effects of a star are enormous," he said, his feet in well-used sneakers propped up on a battered wooden desk.

"What a star wants to do with a movie is very often at odds with what is good for the movie. They distort a movie in various ways. What usually happens is that the star has forces working on him or her that have nothing to do with the material.

"Maybe they're played another part that they think is close, or they feel their career is in a certain place and has to be changed, and they plan to make that career change with someone else's movie. The first thing they do is fall in love with a script, then start telling you how it should be changed. . . .

"Occasionally, you get lucky, and the star adds that something that makes a piece work. That's the rare exception, I think.

"I think the huge majority of people -- writers, directors, producers, everybody -- in the industry agree [that stars are not necessary]. They'll say they think it's ridiculous the way big stars are miscast, the way stories are perverted by their heavy presence, not to mention the huge cost of stars. . . . But the studios will tell you that they want stars because the exhibitors want stars, and they can't get theaters unless they have stars.

"What the star system neglects [is] all of these wonderful, wonderful actors out there who never get a chance for a big role. So you have no new stars, and this is self- perpetuating. . . ."

Five years ago, such talk could have landed Kasdan a job -- scouting for a beach scene location in Death Valley in August. But 1980 was a sour one for the motion picture industry, and traditional ways of looking at picturemaking have, in some instances, fallen flat. Some new faces and ideas are working their way up through ranks of the big studios.

Among the faces are George Lucas of Lucasfilm and "Star Wars" fame, Francis Ford Coppola of "The Godfather" and "apocalypse Now" fame, and Alan Ladd Jr., former president of 20th Century-Fox and co-founder of the Ladd Company, an independent production company.

It has been Kasdan's good fortune to hook up, in one way or another, with all three.

In fact, he sold a script called "Body Heat" to Fox when Ladd was president there, and had a tentative deal to direct the picture. When Ladd left, however, Fox shelved the project, and the new management balked at Kasdan's ambition to make it without stars. The studio let it go; the Ladd Company picked it up, and Kasdan is now directing "Body Heat" -- minus stars.

"There is a small group of men and women in the industry now who are going strictly on their own taste," Kasdan said. "That puts them in a very good position. That was Laddie's [Alan Ladd Jr.] success at Fox. He had faith in filmmakers, and he stuck with them.

"His theory was that if they're talented people, eventually they're going to make a successful film, and it paid off. Lucas was the recipient of Laddie's trust and faith. It made everybody rich." Ladd was the studio executive who finally agreed to finance Lucas's "Star Wars."

"The enormous success of 'Star Wars' is the one thing everyone in Hollywood understands -- money. That's good in Hollywood. That's the equation. If you make a lot of money, you must be good."

The corollary of that equation is that if you've never made money, and nobody's heard of you, how can you be any good? That's the attitude that Kasdan , like most others who come here, ran into when he first came to Los Angeles.

He had been living in the Midwest and during college decided to start writing screenplays.

"I would go to the movies and see stuff that I thought was just awful. So I thought that I could do better than that."

After he got out of college in 1970 he plugged away for five years, writing ad copy by day and screenplays by night. Nothing happened.

"I couldn't understand it. I would go to my local theater, and my stuff certainly didn't seem any worse."

Three years ago, he finished a script called "The Bodyguard," came to Hollywood, and got an agent -- a feat in itself, since agents don't like working for unknowns any more than studio heads like giving them appointments.

For two years, his agent shuttled "The Bodyguard" around Hollywood. On the 67th try, Warner Bros. bought the script.

During those two years Kasdan had written two more scripts -- one that he considers an "unproducible" historical movie, the other a romantic comedy, "Continental Divide," about two people in love and their efforts to bring their very different worlds together.

A number of people showed interest in the latter script.One of them was Steven Spielberg, a man best known for making people nervous in the water with "Jaws" and more than a trifle curious about lights in the sky with "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."

"I was looking for a love story to do, and I saw a script of Larry's called 'Continental Divide,'" says Spielberg. "I loved it and took it to Universal and said I wanted to produce it. Universal bought it. Actually, it was a very intense bidding situation. There were four studios bidding for it and Universal made the highest bid.

"The script was wonderful. Larry is an excellent writer. He writes the sort of material we haven't seen around here for a long time. He writes about the ' 30s and '40s in a fascinating, exciting way. He loves old movies and draws on them for his work. He's exploring new territory based on old ground."

Spielberg liked the script enough to steer Kasdan toward George Lucas. At that time Spielberg was planning to direct a film for George Lucas called "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (now nearing completion). Lucas read the script and hired Kasdan that day to write the script for "Raiders of the Lost Ark."

Meanwhile, the screenwriter Lucas had originally hired for "empire," Leigh Brackett, passed on, and Lucas gave young Kasdan the task of writing the follow-up to the biggest- selling movie of all time, "Star Wars."

Kasdan hit the typewriter and pushed, pulled, squeezed, and cajoled Lucas's story of "The Empire Strikes Back" into script form -- sifting story lines into scenes, breaking scenes down into dialogue.

By the time 1979 rolled up, he had written and sold "Continental Divide," "The Empire Strikes Back," "Raiders of the Lost Ark," and "The Bodyguard" (not to be confused with "My Bodyguard," released in 1980 by Melvin Simon Productions). That's four scripts in four years.

After he finished "the stuff for Lucas," Kasdan sat down and pounded out still another script, "Body Heat."

The man is prolific. He seems to have a golden touch, and even if all of his movies are flops he will find work in Hollywood just on the basis of his one success with George Lucas and "empire."

People have heard of him -- so he must be good.

He is, in fact, good, at least according to Paula Weinstein, a member of the crack production team under Ladd at Fox and now his vice-president of production at the Ladd Company. She is widely regarded as one of the sharpest production executives in the industry, and is given to pointed pessimism about the movie business and the scripts circulating in it.

About Kasdan and "Body Heat," she gushes.

"I thought the script was wonderful, great movie material. It's mysterious, it's exciting, it's passionate. . . . Larry is a wonderful writer. His script had the kind of use of language that we haven't seen for a long time in the industry. . . . It is rare to have dialogue that is powerful like that, that produces the kind of electricity he does [in 'Body Heat.']. . . . Laddie was excited about the script, so he decided to take a risk and let Larry direct it."

The story is a '40s-style melodrama about two people who fall in love and "do something they shouldn't do, and get in a lot of trouble," says Kasdan.

Although the picture's budget ($6 million) is small by today's standards, Ladd is taking a considerable risk making a film with an inexperienced director, and no stars. He undertook the project entirely on the strength of Kasdan's script.

"I wrote 'Body Heat' for Fox, but when the new regime came in they didn't want to do it. They had a problem with this particular script, and the way I wanted to do it. . . . I didn't want any stars, and they wanted stars. But they offered me continuing deals," he says. In fact, Fox eventually bought "The Bodyguard" from Warner Bros. when the script (in that mysterious Hollywood way) came back on the market.

As for "Continental Divide," it is owned and being produced by Universal.

Kasdan's professional story is the feast-or-famine stuff for which Hollywood is famous. His ideas -- shared by others outside the big studio mainstream -- may find increasing acceptance in the industry. If, that is, he and the Ladds and Coppolas and Lucases succeed with them. The industry is in a dismal state, most observers would agree, and Kasdan's notions about the use of stars carry over to other ways the industry works -- or doesn't.

"The only way you have a hope for a successful movie is to have faith in the material and in the filmmaker," Kasdan says. "The most dangerous trap of all in Hollywood is when you start to think that big success is what it's all about. It isn't.

"The idea that you've got to have a huge hit . . . comes from the media and it comes from megahits. Look at Woody Allen. His movies have all made money. They haven't made enormous money, but he works on material that interests him, so he winds up making interesting movies, and the thing is, he doesn't use stars. An interesting movie will draw an audience big enough to pay for itself.

"But since the conglomerates took over the movie business [all five major studios are owned by conglomerates], they don't understand about small profits. They understand, but it doesn't interest them. The reason they got into the movie business, one of the reasons, was that they saw these enormous payoffs on a small investment. That looked like a dream business to them.

"Well, it hasn't worked out that way, and when you look at movies from a business point of view you're dissatisfied all the time. You have to make the distinction between getting the cover of People magazine and getting the right person for the role.

What [studio executives] don't realize is that the really big hits always come . . . from somebody else's crazed vision. . . . What I think it will eventually get back to is this basic reliance on some kind of personal affection for the material. . . . When [the executives] begin to rely on their own instincts -- maybe we'll get better movies."

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