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.
Darling Companion revolves around the frantic search for a lost dog. The story is that you were inspired by you and your wife finding and losing your own dog, Mac?
Lawrence Kasdan: Yes, Mac. We rescued him and then we had him for a couple of years and then we lost him, in the mountains. We had gone away for a wedding with a friend and he got scared and he ran away. And we searched and searched and did all the things that are in the movie: We put it on the radio, we put signs everywhere, and we almost gave up, and then a woman we knew said, “Don’t give up — he’s out there.”
Was she similar to Ayelet Zurer’s psychic character in the film?
She is similar. She felt that she had an affinity for animals that was beyond the normal thing. She felt that she could tell that he was alive. But what she did that was most valuable for us, was she said, “You must not give up on this.” That really was the difference, I think.
And he’s still with you?
Yes. He’s at home, a few miles from here. He’s 14 years of age.
Some are calling this movie a part of a trilogy, along with The Big Chill (1983) and Grand Canyon (1991). Is there something in your mind that circles around every decade or so that makes you take stock of where you are in life?
I don’t think it’s a conscious thing, but obviously there is some sort of rhythm going on, because when I was in my ’30s I did make The Big Chill and in the ’40s I made Grand Canyon. And it’s not about generation. It’s about people that I knew, and concerns that we had, and raising two children in Los Angeles, and what’s it like to have your children move out — and that’s in Darling Companion.
It’s about How do you find that companion that’s gonna last you a lifetime? What makes someone special to you that you can trust them, that they’re gonna be there forever? They may not look right — like Richard Jenkins doesn’t look right to other people, but he’s the perfect man for the Dianne Wiest character. It’s about young love and it’s about old love. It’s about all the varieties of companionship.
Will you and Kevin Kline reunite in another 20 years for your Cocoon or On Golden Pond?
[Laughs] I don’t know — we may be ready for that sooner. [Laughs] The one thing I’ve realized is that you don’t know what’s gonna happen, and every time you get to make a movie, and every time you get to work with people you like, you’re really lucky. And that’s happened six times with Kevin. It’s been a real delight. I think he’s wonderful, and he’s really fun to work with. He can do anything. He was a great cowboy, he was a great rider, in Silverado (1985); he handled the guns really well. And then he was a Frenchman, and an Italian, and an American for me — he’s done everything. He’s the funniest guy I know.
The scene I liked best in the film is when Diane Keaton is trying to pop his dislocated shoulder back in, because it shows how good he is — how good both of them are — at simultaneously playing comedy and drama in the same moment.
I’m so glad you said that; that’s my favorite scene in the movie.
What is it about you and Kevin two that works as a collaboration?
I think it’s the trust: I trust his instincts, he trusts mine. If I say “Give me a little less, do a little less, do a little more,” he will do it. He’s all about the work. No ego. He’s all, “What’s the best way to do it?”, “What about this, what about that.” He gives you a million choices. You’re happy to see him when you get there in the morning.
How did you guys meet, originally?
I was casting Body Heat (1981) and there was an amazing explosion of talent in new York theater. I had seen a lot of people out in LA; I went to New York and I met Bill Hurt and Kevin Kline and John Heard and Chris Walken, they were all that age, they were all emerging at that moment. Quite a line up — and there were more. It was incredible period of acting in this country. I hired Bill Hurt for Body Heat, but I remembered Kline and said, “I gotta work with this guy.” He’d already won two TONYs at that point, I think. He could do anything: He’s an athlete, a dancer, a singer; everything. When I put together The Big Chill I wanted him at the center of it.
There’s an unmistakable line in Darling Companion, I think it’s spoken by Dianne Wiest’s character: “The dark side is strong…”
You’d have to be one of the few writers to reference your own work like that and get away with it, because it’s now part of the popular lexicon. When you include a line like that, does it feel like you’re just pulling something out of the cultural ether or do you consciously remember, “I worked on that script”?
[Laughs] Oh, I remember it very well. That’s a very vivid time for me. I had just written Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) for those guys, and I went to give it to George [Lucas] and he said, “Do you wanna write Empire?” And I said, “Don’t you wanna read Raiders first?” He literally offered it to me as I handed it to him, and he said, “I’m gonna read it tonight, and if I don’t like it I’m gonna take back this offer for Empire.” But he liked it. [Laughs]
Lucky he liked it.
Yes. [Laughs] I remember working on it. We did it really fast. [Director Irvin] Kershner was involved. He was a fascinating guy. An odd choice for Empire, but he wound up making the best Star Wars movie, I think — even though the first one is really the breakthrough. That’s astounding, the first movie, ’cause no-one had thought like that before; but Empire, I think, is maybe the best one.
I’m not gonna argue with you.
Do you have a favorite line that you wrote for that film?
Well there were a lot of things, you know. We invented the way Yoda would talk. When I started talking to George about it, he said, “We’ve got this character and I don’t know how he should talk. Should he talk backwards? How should he talk?” And I wrote all that stuff, and Frank Oz did that voice and he was spectacular. It’s amazing, to create something like that, and then have the whole world sort of embrace it.
Originally published at Rotten Tomatoes, April 2012