The Bigger Chill
By Mike Russell
(Read the longer "Director's Cut" here)
So get this: Lawrence Kasdan — the writer-director
behind “The Big Chill,” “Grand Canyon,” and “The
Accidental Tourist” — always wanted to helm
an action movie.
You know, with special effects. And helicopters.
“I love the hardware,” he says. “I
like action movies like that, and I haven’t gotten
to do it.”
That is, until now.
Yes, the man who conceived “Wyatt Earp” as
a three-hour, character-driven epic just wrapped up his
adaptation of Stephen King’s “Dreamcatcher.” The
movie (which Kasdan co-scripted with King-adapter par
excellence William Goldman) marks the director’s first stab
at fantasy filmmaking since helping write “Raiders
of the Lost Ark,” “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return
of the Jedi.”
“I’d written movies like this and not gotten to direct
them, you know?” he says. “This one has elements
that are familiar to me from my other movies” — most
notably, that it stars four character actors (Jason Lee,
Thomas Jane, Damian Lewis and Timothy Olyphant) as angst-driven
pals — “but then that story runs head-on into
this alien invasion.” It also runs head-on into
a crazed military officer (Morgan Freeman) who will go
insane lengths to stop the body-snatching spacemen.
In Focus snatched
an hour of Kasdan’s time as he
put the finishing touches on “Dreamcatcher,” which
opens March 28; here’s what the director had to
say about monster moviemaking, Morgan Freeman’s
gravitas, William Goldman’s “ruthless clarity,” Stephen
King’s “retirement,” and Hollywood’s
• • •
On your earlier
fantasy films, you were answering to Lucas and Spielberg.
How are you approaching the material differently
now that you have a little more control over how it’s
feel that when you write for somebody else — no matter how good
they are— it’s
always different in tone than what you would do.
Tone is everything. You know, you could
give the same script to five different directors and you’d end up with
five very different movies, and it always has to do with
tone — with what they think is funny, with what they
think is realistic, with what they consider to be important
human behavior, with what they consider to be irrelevant.
And when you’re the writer/director, you get to make
all those decisions. It’s what I always wanted to
On the "Dreamcatcher" Web site, there’s
a clip where Timothy Olyphant’s trapped in the snow….
Yeah — he’s sitting out in the snowstorm all
alone, and this creature has escaped from the body of the
woman they saved, and is making its way toward him, but
he doesn’t know it because it’s under the snow.
It looks like it hearkens back to the
days of "Jaws," when
you didn't see the monster until the payoff.
You know, there are people who think
you should never see anything — it’s
all implication. And I suppose that has its virtues — but
not what I go to a horror film for. I want to see something,
you know? [laughs] And this
is more “Creature
Feature” — you
do get to see the creatures. But in that sequence,
you know it’s there, and it’s gonna jump out
at any moment — but you don’t know when.
My favorite horror films are “Alien” and “Exorcist.” Even “Silence
of the Lambs,” which is a human story. But I like
seeing this stuff. Psychological
suspense is great, and it should be mixed in there all
the time — but I
sometimes feel a little cheated when I come out and I haven’t
Well, you must love having the new digital toys to play
One of the advantages of waiting so
long to do an effects movie is that the tools are SO great now, and you can do
things that you couldn’t have done three years ago.
It just changes every day.
I’ve been working with ILM, and it’s
fascinating. With other movies, you finish production and
cutting the movie. With an effects movie, you’re
making a second movie after
finished the shooting, because so much is being added to
what you’ve shot.
We’re dealing right now with effects that will have
a huge impact on the movie — and we’ve been
done shooting for six months.
Barry Sonnenfeld said directing special effects was kind
of like trying to teach acting to a bunch of guys who are
good at math.
a good friend of mine. I’ve
never been technical; I’m sort of in awe of people
who can do this stuff at all. And there is a
good bit of explaining — sort of right-brain meeting
left-brain all the time — but I’m always amazed
at what they eventually come up with if you keep pushing
pushing and they will do something that you could
never do on your own in a million years.
Like many of your films, “Dreamcatcher” has
a large, ensemble cast with a lot of character actors.
Is that just something you’re attracted to in the
You know, I think it was coincidence
in this case. Who knows why this
particular Stephen King novel appealed to
me so much? There’s no question that I must have
felt some familiar resonance by seeing a story about four
friends who aren’t particularly happy with their
lives. That’s just sort of subject matter that I’ve
been dealing with for 20 years. But the fact that it then
turns into this sort of horror film — that’s
what made it for me.
But you’re sort of “smuggling” pet
themes into the material.
Exactly. You know, I think all horror
movies are about metaphors. That’s the main thing
me: How do you find a dramatic metaphor for the issues
that concern you? Whether it’s raising children or
dealing with life choices, you want to find something that
dramatizes it. And horror films are the most explicit,
in a way, because they find a metaphor for our deepest
You know, “Accidental Tourist” — which
couldn’t be any more different, and is the other
book I adapted — is about similar things: the fear
of chaos that is in the universe. We’re trying to
control our universe, and everything around us shows us
we have no control. “Accidental Tourist” dealt
with that in an emotional, literary way — and “Dreamcatcher” deals
with it in a very visceral way.
Which leads nicely into my next question,
which is about Morgan Freeman’s character. He’s playing this
kind of complex, Col. Kurtz-ish lunatic, right? He’s
someone who tries to aggressively control his environment.
Yes. He’s not even evil; it’s
that he’s gone ’round the bend, really. He’s
very good at his job, but he’s been doing it too
long, and he’s lost perspective. He’s a black-and-white
strategist: “You have to wipe out the whole thing — there’s
no middle ground.” That doesn’t leave much
room for human consideration, you know?
How do you make that black-and-white, messianic
Well, it helps if you get one of the greatest actors in
That would help
quite a bit.
It goes a long way. I love actors — I think it’s
a miracle what they do. I went to Morgan right away for
this part, even though he’s generally played more
benevolent characters. I thought he would be fascinating
as a slightly crazed guy.
I would imagine he gets sick of playing “dignity” all
the time. People forget that the role that broke him out
as an actor was “Street Smart.”
In which he’s
really scary. You know, when we were in rehearsal — I
guess he would be all right with me telling this — he
I’ve got gravitas out
the ass.” [laughs]
very funny. He’s as great
a guy as I’ve ever
worked with. During the rehearsal process, he was a model
for a lot of these younger actors, who have barely ever
seen rehearsal, because movies
don’t rehearse much
any more. Morgan loves rehearsal himself; he’s a
You’ve always been pretty adamant about writing
your own screenplays — but now you're adapting (with
William Goldman's help) best-selling material.
Well, I’d adapted “Accidental
and I found it very satisfying.Bill Goldman and I have
known each other a long time; we were both in the Soviet
10 years ago on
a Writer’s Guild trip, before the whole thing fell
apart. Bill had been an idol of mine: When I was in college
trying to become a movie director, and thinking that I
would become a screenwriter to make that happen, Bill was
selling “Butch Cassidy,” he was writing “All
the President’s Men” — he was the greatest
screenwriter, the most famous screenwriter, in the world.
He’s an amazing character and a great thinker about
story structure. This is a 600-page novel, and he did a
lot of the work of breaking it down before I came on and
What is it Goldman understands about Stephen King, anyway?
I think Bill has a ruthless clarity
about what can be in a movie and what can’t…. Sometimes you can
underestimate what can be in a movie. There were things
in the book that I wanted in the movie that Bill felt maybe
couldn’t be in — and I sort of added them back.
But he’s wonderful in terms of breaking it down to
the simplest elements.
I think Stephen is interested in
human frailty: In what ways are we vulnerable? We can be
forces — from mysterious sources, from monsters.
We can be vulnerable from inside — from disease and
addiction. A lot of his stories are about those issues.
There are a lot of fever dreams in the novel.
That was part of the difficulty of the adaptation: A lot
take place in people’s heads.
There’s a big subplot in the film where “Mr.
Grey,” the alien, is trying to take over the mind
of one of the main characters.
Damian Lewis plays that character.
The alien has entered his body, but hasn’t consumed him — so the
entire movie is a kind of battle of dialogue between the
human, Jonesy, and Mr. Grey, who’s using his body
to get around.
How do you depict that onscreen?
You get a great actor. [laughs]
Have you ever seen Damian? He’s in “Band of
a wonderful British actor, and he does a wonderful American
accent — but when he’s Mr. Grey, he speaks
with a British accent.
Part of the drama
of the movie is: Can Jonesy be saved, or does he have to
be destroyed because Mr. Grey is in him?
Actually, Stephen King — who’s
been fantastic about this whole process, and really loves
the movie — told
me the one thing he missed was that, in the book, Mr. Grey
gets a craving for bacon. But Mr. Grey doesn’t understand
that you have to cook it, and
he eventually eats a whole package of uncooked bacon, which
makes him sick. And none
of that is in the movie [laughs] — I
fit it in.
How do you tackle the sort of well-worn
trope about an angelic, retarded man-child and make it
interesting and fresh?
That concerned me a lot.
There’s one element that sort of saves
it, I think — which is that he’s not what he
appears to be. Some of the fun of the story is that you
see that he’s the most powerful figure in the movie.
I absolutely fell in love with the Donnie
Wahlberg take on Dudditz. He has a very kind of open, sweet
face. When he finally comes into the movie — which
is really at the end — it’s not like a retarded
person; it’s something much more ambiguous — and
it turns out to be something truly strange.
Do you believe King when he says
he's going to retire from writing?
I think he may take a pause.
I mean, his idea of “quitting” is, “After
the next four books, I’ll quit.” For most people,
it’s, “I don’t think I can write another
word.” [laughs] I don’t
know what he’d
do if he didn't write.
any near-death experience has you evaluating your priorities.
He wrote a wonderful
thing about the accident that’s
in his book On Writing. That
may be one of the scariest things he’s written.
• • •
II.ON OTHER MATTERS
Our magazine did a survey last
year asking readers to name the best films of all time,
and both "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "Empire
Strikes Back," unsurprisingly, made the top 10. Is
it wrong of us to wonder why your talents weren't utilized
on more "Indiana Jones" and "Star Wars" movies?
No. It couldn’t be simpler. [laughs]
George and Steven asked me to do the second one; I didn’t
want to do it. I was directing movies at that point; I
was really proud of “Raiders” — it was
an incredible movie — and I really didn’t want
to go back there.
I had done the sequels to the “Star
Wars” movies because George had asked me to do it.
You know, I had finished “Raiders,” and he
asked to come in and help him out with “Empire” — he
was in a spot. And it was great fun, and it was over relatively
quickly. Then I went off and I made “Body Heat” — partially
with the support of George — and I had a directing
career that was going pretty good. He asked me to come
back and just write “Jedi” because he was really
desperate at that point. We did it together, and we did
it really fast; I felt like it was a job of work. But I’m
not a huge sequel fan, and I didn’t see any reason
for me to be working on the “Indiana Jones” series.
You know, when I was hired to do “Raiders,” I’d
only been in the business a couple of weeks. Steven had
actually bought “Continental Divide” to produce,
and what he really wanted was
for me to write “Raiders.” And he introduced
me to George, and in 10 minutes George gave me the job — and
I found myself working with the two hottest people of my
generation. A few weeks later, we were outlining the story,
and then I went away for six months and wrote it. It couldn’t
have been much more satisfying. But to me, that’s
never an excuse to do another one — you put it in
the bank and you do something else.
Now, you told Starlog in 1981 about
your “Raiders” script rewrite: “A little
bit of my script's logic and character development fell
out along the way.” What was missing? And will it
show up on the Indiana Jones DVDs?
I don’t think so. [laughs]
Actually, I ran into Frank Marshall over the holidays,
and he’s working on that [DVD] collection. I don’t
think there’s going to be a lot of…. I don’t
know what they have planned. They obviously made a lot
of smart decisions about what should be in the movie and
When you’re a beginning writer, you
know, you hurt for everything that’s lost. After
you’ve directed 10 movies, you see that you cut stuff
for a reason.
a pretty good second audience on video, didn’t it?
“Silverado” is a gigantic video — I
know, because I get the accounting.
“Silverado” would have been a gigantic hit if it had
been released a little better. It tested through the roof — better
than anything Columbia had ever tested at that point, which
included “Ghostbusters.” The Coca-Cola Company
had taken over Columbia at that time and didn’t know
what they were doing, and when they saw these huge test
scores, they rushed the release — and it opened on
the weekend of “Live Aid.”
But I’ve sort of gotten over all that disappointment,
because the movie has such a huge following around the
world. It plays constantly on television around the world
and on cable. It’s on HBO about once a month.
You’re not afraid to be blunt about what you perceive
as flaws or things you wish hadn’t been cut in your “classic” films.
Has time tempered this instinct, or made it stronger?
No, it’s tempered it — no question. You know,
Akira Kurosawa, I think, is the greatest director that
ever lived — he’s the most important influence
on me. And I saw him at the Directors Guild when he was
80 years old; they were giving him a life-achievement award.
And he said, “I’m just beginning to understand
what movies are.” And it wasn’t false modesty;
it wasn’t blowing smoke. He really meant it.
And I believe that all the filmmakers in
the audience understood. Because movies are mysterious;
you never really master
them, you know? It’s a surprise every time you put
two pieces of film together. Something happens that’s
a third thing. It’s not the shot that’s coming
in, it’s not the shot that’s going out — it’s
what happens when you put them together.
I think as you get older, you realize movies
are not simple in any way, shape or form — and the
decisions that are made are made for what seems like a
good idea at the
time. I sort of think that’s what life is about:
You don’t make the right decision, necessarily — you
make the decision that you made at that time because it
You always stress the importance
of story and character. Do you feel those two elements
being forgotten in today’s
I think this turned out to be a really
good year in movies, surprisingly. They’re always
back-loaded toward the Academy Awards, so you can get
very discouraged about movies
during the summer, and then in December everything perks
There’s a certain kind of Hollywood movie that’s
obviously not very good any more. What used to be the staple
of “popcorn movies” has been denigrated into
just effects and cutting and noise. But there have always
been good movies in the midst of that, you know? There
are people who really love what movies can be, and they’re
still making good movies.
Your parents were reportedly very supportive of your writing
efforts. How much of a priority has it been to you return
that favor to your own children?
I think that’s a great gift that you can give your
children. I think that what my parents did was not so much
specifically encourage me to write, but just that they
treated it like it was a legitimate thing. I think that
that’s half of what we need — for someone to
validate what you’re doing, so you know you’re
When you’re doing creative work, it can get very
lonely, and you can think, “This is all fantasy.” There’s
not much validation from the outside world for a long time.
But if you’re in an environment where people say, “No — keep
at it. Keep writing. You don’t have to show anything — just
keep at it until you’re ready to show it. And once
you show it, don’t give up because someone doesn’t
like it.” Those are the things that you’re
hoping to give to your child.
Do you think you’d be writing
today if your folks
hadn't been that
I don’t know if I would have. Because
I was growing up in West Virginia, and no one there thought
that movies were made — they
just sort of happened: The
actors sort of made up the dialogue, and it was mysterious.
But I was in an environment in which it was said, “Things
are created out of nothing.” That’s very encouraging.
You started out as an advertising copywriter.
Mm. I did that out of desperation.
I’d gone to UCLA
in the film school, but I couldn’t get in the Directing
program. I was accepted in the Writing program. I’d
been going to school at the University of Michigan, and
when I got to L.A., I was very lonely and I had no money — and
I didn’t understand why I was in a writing program
when I could write on my own.
So I went back to Ann Arbor, and I worked
in a record store and continued to write screenplays. And
then I decided
to get a Master’s degree in education, thinking that
I could be a high-school English teacher and write, you
know, in my free time — I’d have all the summers
off and everything. But in the early ’70s, there
were no high-school English-teaching jobs — it was
just as hard to become a high-school English teacher as
it was to become a screenwriter. And so I got offered a
job from someone I met in an advertising agency — and
so I ended up working in advertising for about five years,
but I only enjoyed it for about six months. I had about
four-and-a-half years of really being unhappy — writing
all day in advertising and writing all night in movies.
it true that you vowed not to have a second child until
you escaped the industry?
true. I was so miserable.
How do you interface with the advertising
people in the movie business — from a position
of sympathy or rebellion?
Sympathy. You know, advertising and
promotion and money and hype, they’ve all become
more and more important. You can sell almost anything
if the concept is not deeply
flawed. Enough money and promotion can get anything opened.
You can’t necessarily get a second weekend out of
it, but if you start big enough on your first weekend,
you’re going to do all right.
When I made “The Big Chill,” it didn’t
open to that much money, and we weren’t in that many
theaters. But it played for six months. And you can’t
do that now.
The general public now watches opening-weekend box-office
statistics like it was a sporting event.
It’s awful, really — because that becomes
the only standard by which people decide what they’re
going to do. They want to see what everybody at the office
is seeing. It’s unfortunate, because it narrows the
kinds of movies that can be widely seen.
There was this brief period in the
late-‘80s/early-‘90s — specifically,
with “The Big Chill” and “Grand Canyon” — where
you sort of became regarded in the media as the director
laureate of boomer angst.
I always thought it was a bit of a
misidentification. In the last 20 years, there’s been a slight prejudice
against the middle class in Hollywood movies. And those
movies were not really about boomers — they happened
to be about middle-class people of a certain age. “Grand
Canyon” is actually full of all kinds of characters — some
of them are “baby boomers” and some of them
It didn’t bother me that much, because when “The
Big Chill” was such an enormous success, it was validation
to me of the idea that you could write a personal story
and have it be entertaining enough to play all over the
world. Young kids identified with it and people who’d
been in college in the ’50s identified with it. And
that’s all you really want to do as an artist — just
speak to people in a relevant way.