6 Filmmaking Tips From Lawrence Kasdan

By  · Published on February 6th, 2013

A lot of people who comb through movie news will recognize Lawrence Kasdan’s name next to all the Star Wars developments that have been pouring out in the past two weeks. Some will know the franchise (as well as Indiana Jones) as his legacy while others would point to his intimate portrayals of life’s difficulties in movies like Grand Canyon and The Big Chill.

He’s gone through eras of great prolificness and droughts where work seemed impossible to find, and after four decades, he’s amassed a great amount of wisdom and expertise. He’s also in the unique position of abandoning (and being all but abandoned by) the studio system years after having been a mid-wife to massive franchises.

So here’s a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from the man who told us who Luke’s father was.

Don’t Forget Humor

“I want everything I do to have humor in it, because it seems to me that all of life has that. Even the most dire situation – sometimes those are the most close to hysteria …”

Surely there’s a limit to this, and there are some phenomenal, bleak movies, but there are far more movies where a distressing scenario turns everyone into stone statues instead of human beings. Sometimes a bit of humor within the framework of a hopeless situation is exactly what we need as an audience to remember why the heroes go on fighting the good fight. Brooding can be tiresome, and forgetting about comic moments also cuts out a huge element of the human experience. It can also make depressing parts more powerful by contrast, so try to remember that there’s humor to be found in just about everything.

Comfort is the Death of Artistic Freedom

“You see, that’s the trap, becoming a slave to your lifestyle. Then you’ve given up the power. You can’t fight the power if you’ve given them the power. If that becomes your priority, which is understandable when people reach middle age, they become used to a very comfortable lifestyle that is enviable because you get to do work you like and then you’re well-remunerated for it. But when that becomes the priority, you’re dead meat as an artist, because you no longer control your destiny. The only way to control your destiny is to not need things…I’ve got as many weaknesses as anybody, but what I can’t buy is people complaining that they have to do this kind of work. Why do they have to? In Hollywood, I think you can make almost any kind of movie if you’re passionate about it.”

Emerging from the late 1970s, an era that Kasdan clearly sees (as do many) as the golden age of storytelling in Hollywood, he has a lot to say about how the situation has devolved into a corporate trap where box office is what determines the worth of a film instead of how challenging or well-executed it is. Ironically, Kasdan was involved in the very films – Empire Strikes Back and the Indiana Jones franchise – whose financial returns urged studios to go down the path that he now despises. His early success is exactly what eventually kept him from taking his later, more personal films to the studio system.

Be Prepared to Serve a Larger Vision

If you’re not planning on being an isolated auteur with 100% control:

It Doesn’t End After Graduation

“Being a writer is like having homework every night for the rest of your life.

You’ll Probably Have to Choose Between Personal Statements and Popularity

“Truffaut said that when what you’re interested in matches up with the public, it’s an accident. It’s so true. It’s all timing and gestalt. If you’ve had the luxury of expressing something personal, and no one goes, that’s not a shock. If it’s personal, and people go, that’s the shock.”

Very, very few filmmakers have been able to make movies that are close to the heart and the cash register. Kasdan has arguably made both kinds of movies, but not at the same time. No doubt that’s where he’s coming from here, but the division between personal and professional can also be a strength. After critics and audiences panned Dreamcatcher, Kasdan was asked in the above-linked interview if he was wounded. He responded, “Wounded career-wise, but not so much personally. I’ve been personally wounded by other movies, where I’d written it, and thought, ‘Oh, God, the world’s not interested in what I’m interested in.’ With Dreamcatcher, the career was hurt. I was planning to do The Risk Pool with TomHanks. I had written the script from a great book by Richard Russo (Nobody’s Fool). And it didn’t happen. Then another one didn’t happen. Meanwhile, two years have passed here, two have passed there. That’s how you’re wounded.”

The other lesson there is that you might find great success, but it too can disappear.

If Hollywood isn’t Speaking Your Language, Search Somewhere Else

What Have We Learned

Maybe for this entry, this segment should be called “What We Should Remember.” Kasdan has played the long game, but even though he’s made some incredible films, he’s just now coming off of 9-year stint where he couldn’t find a way to direct, and that most-recent movie (Darling Companion) has only found modest respect. He’s a filmmaking rarity, and his career intelligence emerges from experiencing every side of success.

His work is also a testament to the lesson that all commercial situations shift. The film industry of today won’t be the film industry of 2030, just as the industry of 1980 didn’t survive to see today. Make your choices, never get comfortable and only take it personally when the art is personal.

And maybe impressing George Lucas isn’t a bad idea either.

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Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.