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Making Raiders of the Lost Ark
September 23, 2003

[ Making Raiders of the Lost Ark ]Like so many great stories, the Indiana Jones saga has a quiet beginning.

In May 1977, just after the premiere of George Lucas' Star Wars on a handful of screens around the country, the writer-director felt the need to take a break from Los Angeles and his intense work on the film. He journeyed to Hawaii for a vacation and met up with his longtime friend, director Steven Spielberg, who recalled: "George thought Star Wars would be a monumental disaster."

A week later, as Lucas learned more about the phenomenal success of his film, "George was suddenly laughing again," Spielberg said. And he was ready to begin thinking about new film projects.

As they sat on the beach one day, "Steven was telling me how he really wanted to do a James Bond film, and that he actually went to the people who owned James Bond and asked them if he could direct one ... and they turned him down," Lucas recalled.

"So I said, 'Well, look, Steven, I've got a James Bond film. It's great – it's just like James Bond but even better,'" Lucas said. "I told him the story about this archaeologist and said it was like a Saturday-matinee serial, that he just got into one mess after another. And Steven said, 'Fantastic, let's do this!'"

There was only one hitch: Lucas had named his character after his dog, Indiana. Indiana Smith. Spielberg hated the name, thinking it sounded too hokey. So, Lucas said, "Name him Indiana Jones or whatever you want – it's your movie now."

Just six months after their trip to Hawaii, Lucas and Spielberg officially agreed to collaborate on Raiders of the Lost Ark. Lucas drafted the story of a rogue archaeologist who finds himself up against no less a force than Nazi soldiers in a quest for a sacred artifact. Filmmaker Philip Kaufman, who received a story credit along with Lucas, suggested that the goal of Indy's quest be the legendary lost Ark of the Covenant. Lucas signed on as executive producer, while Spielberg committed to direct the throwback to movie serials of the '30s and '40s. The reason behind their enthusiasm for the film was simple, Lucas said. "We're making it because Steven and I love movies, and this is exactly the kind of movie we'd like to see."

[ Making Raiders of the Lost Ark ] The hero of Raiders was a unique creation – a mild-mannered university professor who becomes a daring hero when he dons a leather jacket and fedora – and demanded a similarly unique actor. After an intensive search for just the right fit, Lucas and Spielberg decided upon relative unknown Tom Selleck.

Shortly after casting, though, Selleck had to drop out of the role due to his commitment to play playboy detective Thomas Magnum in the CBS series "Magnum, P.I." Lucas turned instead to Harrison Ford, who had become a household name when he starred as Han Solo in Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back.

Filming on Raiders began in June 1980 – one year before the film's anticipated release date. A breakneck production schedule took the filmmakers, cast and crew to six locations in four countries on three continents and principal photography wrapped in a speedy 73 days.

To film Raiders, Spielberg and Lucas had a budget of million and used 7,000 live snakes, 500 Arab extras, and 300,000 feet of film – resulting in 11,000 individual shots that were augmented by visual effects work from Industrial Light & Magic. Joining Ford in the cast were consummate actors whose experience on Raiders would be their first foray into blockbuster territory.

[ Making Raiders of the Lost Ark ] As Marion Ravenwood, Indiana Jones's long-lost love interest, Karen Allen took on a type of acting entirely different from anything she had experienced in films like Animal House, Cruising and A Small Circle of Friends or her stage work with the Washington, D.C., Polish Theatre Laboratory. But Spielberg felt her earthy good looks and irrepressible charm were perfect for the role. "When she came on the set, she thought it was going to be acting for 10 weeks and discovered it was a combination of acting and enormous physical prowess," Spielberg remembered. "I said to Karen, 'We're moving you out of the Al Pacino school of drama into the Sam Peckinpah school of action.'"

Welsh actor John Rhys-Davies (The Lord of the Rings) was also in for a surprise. As originally described in the screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan, the character Sallah was "a small, cheerful, energetic fellow in his forties." But Rhys-Davies made the role his own, to immense critical acclaim. Likewise, stage and television actor Paul Freeman went from relative obscurity to overnight fame in just his third movie role, as the nemesis of Indiana Jones, French archaeologist René Belloq.

[ Making Raiders of the Lost Ark ]The first-ever partnership between Spielberg and Lucas went well, thanks in part to Lucas's finely honed instincts as a film editor, which augmented the Oscar™-winning work of the film's editor, Michael Kahn. "George never re-cut the film," Spielberg said. "But he made trims here and there and jumped action. George is brilliant at that. The biggest cutting he did was when the Ark is opened and all the spirits and the fire come out of it. George said to me: 'Steven, you know what you've tried to do? You've tried to top the ending of Close Encounters. As long as you live, you will never top that, so don't try to top it with this one. Just get the story told and get out of the movie and finish the picture already.'" Working with Kahn, Lucas "went in there and trimmed six minutes off just like that – and it was great!"

When it opened in the U.S. on June 12, 1981, Raiders was an immediate cinematic sensation, meriting cover stories in Time, Newsweek and Rolling Stone and rapturous critical acclaim. "It was the movie Hollywood was born to make," wrote David Ansen in Newsweek. In the Los Angeles Times, Sheila Benson wrote, "Hurrah and hallelujah! It's hats-in-the-air, heart-in-the-mouth time at the movies again."

With long lines of repeat viewers throughout the summer, Raiders went on to earn million at the U.S. box office and another million at international cinemas. Nominated for eight Academy Awards™, including Best Picture and Best Director, Raiders received four Oscars and a special-achievement award for Best Sound Editing.