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Raiders of the Lost Ark - Or how two cinema giants turned their love of Saturday morning serials into the greatest summer movie ever made...

Ian Freer, September 2000, Empire magazine 135

When future archaeologists attempt to evaluate our civilisation, one film will stand tall. A film featuring 7,000 snakes, two bearded godheads and a hero named after a mutt. As this year's blockbuster season enters full swing, Empire uncovers the full story behind 1981's Raiders of the Lost Ark.

The origins
George Lucas (executive producer): "This whole project started when I had an idea to do an action- adventure kind of serial film. It was actually about the same time that I came up with the idea for Star Wars (1977). But I got more interested in that, so I put this one on the shelf. Figured I'd get back to it some day."

Steven Spielberg (director): "George told me the story in Hawaii in May 1977, a week before Star Wars opened. He'd gone to Hawaii to get away from what he thought would be a monumental disaster, and he and Marcia (Lucas' now ex-wife) were there with their heads in the sand when I showed up. At dinner one night, George got the news that the film was a hit the first week, and he told me the story of this movie."

The deal
Spielberg: "I hate to talk like a mercenary, but George came over to my house when we decided to make the picture and he said 'Let's make the best deal they've made in Hollywood. And let's do it without agents … just you and me.' We wrote it out and shook hands. Then we presented it to our agencies and said 'This is the deal we want.'"

Michael Eisner (Ex-Paramount president): "It was an un-makable deal. You (Paramount) put in all the dollars and he (Lucas) gets all the profits."

Charles Weber (Ex-Lucasfilm president): "We wanted the studio to put up all the money, take all the risk and give up the best terms anyone ever got. Everyone called up within an hour and said, 'We wanna talk with you.'"

Eisner: "We built in tremendous penalties if they went over budget and they agreed without hesitation. I figured, 'Either they don't care or they've got this figured out.'"

The screenplay
Lawrence Kasdan (screenwriter): "George and Steven and I sat down for a week of meetings a bout the story, really outlined the thing into a tape recorder. We wound up with about a hundred-page transcript of the story outline. I left those meetings feeling I was in pretty good shape, then sat down and realised, 'Uh-oh, this is gonna be hard.'"

Spielberg: "Larry didn't stick with our story outline a hundred per cent. A lot of this movie is Larry's own original ideas. George provided the initial vision, the story and the structure of the movie. Then George and I provided key scenes throughout the film. Larry essentially did all the characters and tied the story together - made it work from just a bare outline and gave it colour and direction."

Kasdan: "I made up all the names except Indiana - he's named after George's dog."

Finding Indiana
Spielberg: "We were looking for a leading man for over six months. We wanted an unknown, originally - a total unknown. Conceitedly, George and I wanted to make a star of Johnny, the construction worker in Malibu. But we couldn't find a construction worker in Malibu, so we began looking at more substantial people in the film industry."

Tom Selleck as MagnumTom Selleck (lost the part due to TV's Magnum PI): "When I lost Raiders through no fault of my own, I thought, 'Well, that was my shot. From now I'm a TV actor.' I felt entitled to get something out of it and kept telling people, 'That was my part, you know.' Now I've seen the film it's hard to imagine anyone better than Harrison Ford. He was quite… wonderful!"

Spielberg: "We were stuck; we had three weeks left to cast the part of Indiana and there was nobody close. Then I saw The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and I said, "Harrison Ford is Indiana Jones.' I called George and said, 'He's right under our noses.' George said, 'I know who you're going to say.' I said, 'Who?' and he said 'Harrison Ford.' 'Right.' So we got him."

Harrison Ford as Han SoloHarrison Ford (Indiana Jones): "After reading the script I had a meeting with Steven. The only question I had in my mind was that, because both Empire and Raiders were written by Larry Kasdan, there was some similarity in the characters. Or rather, in the dialogue. Steven agreed we should make a definition between the two and not give Indiana Jones the kinda snappy dialogue which in places was a little Han Solo."

Kasdan: "The original idea was to have Indy be a little more tortured about what he does, about having fallen from the pure faith of archaeology into this graverobber status. It was George's idea - George said the guy who is going after the Ark is 'sort of a dark figure' - and it was in the first draft even more. Steven liked it too, but, as we did more drafts, that sort of fell away and he became more a standard action type of guy."

The shoot
Paul Freeman (Rene Belloq): "I've never seen a camera crew so flat out. You'd see them asleep with their faces in their lunch. Spielberg was running between shots and shooting it like a TV film - 30 set-ups a day sometimes. The crew couldn't keep up."

Spielberg: "It was like a silent film - shoot only what you need. No waste. Had I had more time and money, it would have been a pretentious movie."

Howard G. Kazanjian (executive producer): "Part of my job was to say no to Steven and I never said it. There are ways - and you have to work at it - for Steven to say no to himself. You present the two sides, especially if it's money, and let him say no."

Lucas: "Steve wasn't always going for 100 per cent, sometimes he was going for 50. But my theory is that a director as talented as Steve going at it 50 per cent is better than most people giving it their all. When he goes at 100 per cent it can get out of hand."

Freeman: "Everyone on every film tells you that the rushes are great. Spielberg was the only director I ever heard say, 'That's no good. We'll have to do it again.'"

Karen Allen (Marion Ravenwood): "Spielberg storyboards everything. He knows in advance how a shot looks, although he is open to suggestions. Steven and I had our difficulties. I'm a real collaborator, most of my creative experiences are in that mode. I flourish best in a situation where I feel we are working together. At times on Raiders I felt stifled, and it was hard."

The snakes
Spielberg: "Of the crew, half of them were terrified of the tarantulas, and the other half were afraid of the snakes."

John Rhys-Davies as SallahJohn Rhys-Davies (Sallah): "When we turned up for the first take, there were 2,500 snakes and around 1,200 bits of wriggling rubber, but Steven Spielberg called it off. Next time we came back, there were 7,500 snakes. Harrison is big and butch and doesn't mind snakes - but me, I'm scared."

Spielberg: "I threw snakes at Karen's head because I didn't think she was screaming for real. I set her on fire. I tossed a tarantula on her leg. I kissed her gently after each take."

Allen: "The pythons were really vicious. They aren't poisonous, but they bite and hold on. I always kept a close watch on them and if any of them got near my bare feet, I just turned around and walked off the set."

Ford: "Dysentery, that'll do it every time! That does spoil a nation for you, to see it from a toilet seat. It was a very tough location… Hardest job I'll ever have."

Lucas and Spielberg on location in TunisiaSpielberg: "The least enjoyable location I've ever experienced. The temperature in the shade of an umbrella was 130 degrees in the Sahara. The only relief came when the wind picked up around 4pm and cooled the breeze to a mere 110 degrees. I'm very used to losing my head and watching everyone else follow, but I felt a little conspicuous jumping up and down, screaming, 'We're losing the light!' The British just sat there looking up at the sun and agreeing."

Frank Marshall (producer): "The Tunisian fire department's hoses not only pulled apart at the joints, the hose caught on fire and the fire department had to put out their own hose! It was like a slapstick comedy, with the fire department falling down and the hose breaking and running out of water. They'd say, 'Fire it up!' and this little dribble came out of the hose."

Spielberg: "Every German tourist we found we stuck in the movie."

The Arab swordsman
The Arab swordsmanFord: "I was in my fifth week of dysentery. I'm riding up to the set at 5.30am and can't wait to storm up to Steven with this idea. We could save four days on this lousy location this way! Besides which, it was right and important - what is more vital in the character's mind is finding Marion; he doesn't have the time for another five-minute fight. But as was very often the case when I suggested it to Steve - 'Let's just shoot the fucker' - he said he'd thought the same thing that morning."

Kasdan: "It's popular, but it disturbed me. I thought it was brutal in a way the rest of the movie wasn't. I'm never happy about making jokes out of killing people. Steven is more in touch with popular taste than I am."

The stunts
Kasdan: "One of the things I loved about Raiders is that its action is extravagant in the classic style of the old adventure films. It almost never moves over into the area - which I don't care for - of unbelievable action that the recent Bond dealt with. To me, that's a reality beyond interesting."

Spielberg: "Anything that simply promised serious injury or total disability, Harrison did; anything that promised death through fatal miscalculation, the other guys did. And everybody survived! That was the most amazing part of the Raiders saga."

Ford: "I looked a little scared in the rock scene, didn't I? I'd have been crazy not to be. Had I tripped, I could've been in trouble."

Raiders truck chaseSpielberg (on the truck chase): "According to my storyboards, Indiana was merely to slip and find himself in danger of being run over. Then, as in the Yakima Canutt stunt in Stagecoach (1939), in the last instant he was to grab hold of the tail-pipe with his whip and climb back on. But Glenn (Randall, the stunt co-ordinator) had a better idea: to let him crawl hand over hand underneath as the truck roared ahead at 45 mph. It's probably one of the show's best stoppers."

Ford (on a near accident involving the German Flying Wing): "Luckily, the brakes worked - inches before my knee was crushed. But I was pinned to the sand… I was a lot more careful about stunt work after that. 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."

The verdict
Lucas: "I had the most fun on that movie. I did nothing but hang out."

Spielberg: "I'll always consider Raiders to be my film as a director, but George's film as a creator."

Lucas (about Spielberg): "It deepened our commitment to a combined future."

Lawrence KasdanKasdan: "When I first saw Raiders, I had a big smile on my face. We were always worried that people might laugh at the picture, but I think we avoided that by never condescending to the material. We also knew that we couldn't hold back on the adventure; we had to go all out."

Ford: "Raiders is more about movies than anything else. It's intricately designed as a real tribute to the craft."

Spielberg: "The thing to keep in mind about Raiders is that it's only a movie - not a statement of the times, the way things were in 1936. It takes all the license of an exotic entertainment that aims to thrill and scare and strike with a sense of wonder - with the cleverness of the hero pitted against an enemy of despicable class and wit. A gravy train movie!"

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