Kasdan at the 2015 San Diego Comic-Con International.
Lawrence Edward Kasdan
January 14, 1949
|Alma mater||University of Michigan|
(m. after 1971)
|Relatives||Mark Kasdan (brother)|
Lawrence Edward Kasdan (born January 14, 1949) is an American director, screenwriter, and producer. He is the co-writer of The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Return of the Jedi (1983), and the writer-director of Body Heat (1981), The Big Chill (1983), and The Accidental Tourist (1988). He is known for updating old Hollywood genres—film noir, science-fiction, westerns—in a classical dramatic style with quick-witted dialogue, but dealing with contemporary social themes. As a director, Kasdan has made various personal films that examine characters and generations.
He has been nominated for four Academy Awards: as a producer for Best Picture nominee The Accidental Tourist, for which he was also nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, and for Best Original Screenplay for both The Big Chill and Grand Canyon (1991). He has often collaborated with his wife, Meg Kasdan, his brother, Mark Kasdan, and his two sons: Jonathan Kasdan and Jake Kasdan. He frequently casts Kevin Kline and William Hurt in his films.
Kasdan was born in Miami Beach, Florida, the son of Jewish parents Sylvia Sarah (née Landau), an employment counselor, and Clarence Norman Kasdan, who worked in his brother-in-law's electronics store. His older brother is Mark Kasdan, who co-wrote Silverado (1985) and produced Dreamcatcher (2003), and he has two sisters. Kasdan grew up in Morgantown, West Virginia. "I felt very fortunate to have had a regular American childhood in the fifties," he said. "It was a safe place, where you owned the town if you had a bicycle."
His parents were both "thwarted writers." His father, who died when Kasdan was 14, had wanted to be a playwright, and his mother claimed to have studied with novelist and playwright Sinclair Lewis while she was at the University of Wisconsin. She sold a few stories to "confessional magazines" in the 1950s, and later would buy self-help books and type up their contents with the dream of writing her own book one day. She would also strike up conversations with strangers on the bus, saying it was all "grist for the mill" for some future writing. "Looking back on it now," Kasdan wrote, "I wonder if maybe I owe her everything. Whether by nature or nurture, I became a writer."
Many of Kasdan's movies were inspired by his "difficult childhood and home life," he wrote. "So in my work I've looked for something more stable or explored why growing up in my home was so upsetting."
"We didn't have a lot of money and neither did anyone around us, and going to the movies was the happiest thing about my childhood," he said. "Movies weren't very big in Wheeling in those days. We used to call up the theater to ask what time the show began, and they'd say, 'What time can you get here?'" He particularly loved The Great Escape (1963) and The Magnificent Seven (1960), both directed by John Sturges—movies that shaped his ideas of manhood and heroism. "Film made its values tangible for me in the ways that parents, school, Sunday School had not. I wanted to live in the world I found in the movies."
In 1963, his brother Mark took him to see David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia. They arrived a few minutes late, and Mark insisted that they kill six hours until the next showing. "I thought my brother was crazy. But when the show was over, I knew I had done the right thing. As I stumbled from the theater, having seen the whole movie, I had a new hero. It was not T.E. Lawrence, but David Lean."
He graduated from Morgantown High School in 1966. To earn money for college, he worked various jobs at a glass factory and the night shift at a supermarket in Wheeling, scraping meat from butcher machines. He applied to the University of Michigan because he was told they had the best-paying college writing contest in the country (the Hopwood Award), and that the playwright Arthur Miller had paid for his studies by winning the award. Miller's teacher, Kenneth Thorpe Rowe, was still a professor at the university, and Kasdan studied drama writing with Rowe.
He won the Hopwood Award four times between 1968 and 1970, winning a total of $2,000. "When I received the letter telling me that I had won Hopwood Awards in both fiction and drama, my life changed forever," Kasdan said. "It was the first sign the real world, the outside world, the big-time world, had given me that this was not just a hopeless dream. ... Even though I had many discouraging years after that, there was never a day after I received that letter that I doubted I would be able to make my way as a writer."
While in college, Kasdan marched on Washington to protest the Vietnam War. He also made one short film. "Technically, it was very crude," he said. "It was a wry look at a professor I knew who was very interested in all the young female students—sort of a rough, humorous film about his fascination with one particular girl. It was shot on 16mm. I cut it and did the sound, but I was never a technically proficient student filmmaker."
He was determined to become a director, and decided the best path was by writing screenplays. He got into the writing program at UCLA and briefly moved to Los Angeles, but found the experience frustrating and moved back to Ann Arbor, where he worked in a record store and continued writing screenplays.
He pursued a master's degree in education at the University of Michigan and graduated in 1971, with plans to support himself as a high school English teacher until he broke into Hollywood. But he soon discovered that there were no high school English teaching jobs. "It was almost as hard to get that kind of work as being a movie director," he said. The experience he did have as a student teacher later proved useful on film sets: "You can control an unruly class at almost any level, but the more you yell, the less effective yelling becomes," he said. "That has influenced my approach to directing; for me, being hard is giving someone a look where another director might scream at them."
Unable to find a teaching position, Kasdan took a job as an advertising copywriter at the W.B. Doner agency in Detroit—a profession he didn't enjoy but found success in, earning a Clio Award for his first TV commercial, as well as an award from The One Show. His supervisor, Jim Dale, remembered Kasdan "always said he was better at writing for TV than for print, and that was certainly prophetic." Kasdan described his five years in advertising as "hellacious," and he persisted in writing screenplays at night.
Kasdan's sixth finished screenplay was about a female singer who falls in love with her bodyguard, which he wrote in 1975. With The Bodyguard he was able to get an agent, Norman Kurland, and he took an advertising job in Los Angeles to further justify a move to California. Kurland sent the script around town for two years, and it was rejected 67 times. "We couldn’t even get him a job writing Starsky and Hutch," Kurland said, although Kasdan had no desire to write for television. He was hired to write a treatment for a low-budget feature for Paramount, but the film was never made. He continued to write screenplays, including what he's called an "un-producible historical" movie.
The Bodyguard was finally optioned by Warner Bros. in 1977 for $20,000. It was rewritten many times over the years, and attached to different actresses (including Diana Ross and Whoopi Goldberg) whose characters were in various occupations. Kasdan wrote it with Steve McQueen in mind as Frank the bodyguard; in the original draft, the U.S. president Frank failed to save was John F. Kennedy. Kevin Costner read the screenplay when Kasdan directed him in Silverado, the role that made him a star. In 1991 he asked Kasdan to make The Bodyguard with Costner in the title role. Kasdan had "messed around" with it so many times that he felt too burned out, and he was also preparing to direct Grand Canyon—so instead he chose to produce it with Costner, and they hired Mick Jackson, who had just made L.A. Story (1991) with Steve Martin, to direct. Whitney Houston was cast as superstar singer Rachel Marron.
Kasdan wasn't happy with the way the film turned out, "but I think it had nothing to do with Mick Jackson," he later said. "I think it had to do with the fact that I'm not a good person for having other people direct my screenplays ... and so I was very unhappy with The Bodyguard. Kevin and I got very involved in the editing, which is not something I would normally do with any other director. I don't want people messing with my movie. But we were the producers and we had serious problems with it."
Despite receiving "probably the worst reviews I've ever had," Kasdan said, the film was a huge box office success when it came out on November 25, 1992—earning more than $411 million worldwide. "If I had directed that film it probably wouldn't have done anything like that business," Kasdan wrote:
I have a feeling that by nature I will never make a film that popular because there's something about popular films and the simplicity to them that I may not be able to achieve. I wish I could. All of my objections were personal. The movie did work on some level that I did not anticipate. I have a good friend who called me up after seeing The Bodyguard and said, 'You know, I think that's my favorite one of your movies.' Well, I was terribly insulted because I didn't like the movie and I didn't like him saying, by implication, that all my other movies were crap. I said, 'What is it you liked so much?' He said, 'There's something heartbreaking to me about their relationship and this love that can never be satisfied. He's willing to do anything for her but they can never be together.' And I thought, 'Well, you're giving it a lot more weight and feeling than I think the movie deserves,' but in retrospect, there was something about that relationship that spoke to people, mainly to women, but to people all over the world, everywhere it went. It was a huge success. The critics said it was a piece of crap.
While The Bodyguard was being passed around town, Kasdan wrote Continental Divide—a script about a brash Chicago journalist who falls in love with a woman living in the mountains studying eagles, in the vein of an old Spencer Tracy / Katherine Hepburn comedy. He came up with the outline while eating lunch on the lawn of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Kurland shopped it around, and took it to Steven Spielberg, who was on the dubbing stage for Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). Spielberg had Universal buy the script for $150,000 in October 1977, with a desire to serve as executive producer. "I was looking for a love story to do," Spielberg said. "Actually, it was a very intense bidding situation. There were four studios bidding for it and Universal made the highest bid. The script was wonderful. Larry is an excellent writer. He writes the sort of material we haven't seen around here for a long time. He writes about the '30s and '40s in a fascinating, exciting way. He loves old movies and draws on them for his work. He's exploring new territory based on old ground."
The movie was eventually made several years later, starring John Belushi and Blair Brown and directed by Michael Apted. It came out on September 18, 1981, three weeks after the release of Kasdan's directorial debut, Body Heat.
Richard Corliss wrote:
Kasdan proposes a return to basics in screenplays: clean narrative lines, understandable characters, tantalizing plot precipices. His scripts live comfortably within the conventions of their genres. ... Continental Divide may be the most reductive of his screenplays, but in reviving the romantic-comedy format of the '30s, it offers lessons to the student of the structure—and pleasure to any moviegoer out for a good time.
According to Kasdan, the original script was "very different from the film which resulted. The script had a kind of [Howard] Hawksian speed, momentum, hopefully wit about it. I don't think the film turned out that way, which was one of those painful experiences I had early on."
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Spielberg's enthusiasm for Continental Divide led him to hire Kasdan to write Raiders of the Lost Ark, which he was developing with George Lucas. "I think that what they were looking for was someone who could write Raiders in the same way that Hawks would have someone write a movie for him—a strong woman character, a certain kind of hero," Kasdan said. In a now-famous meeting (with producer Frank Marshall also in the room), "George, Steven, and I talked for about 20 minutes. Then we stood up and shook hands, and George said, 'Let's make this movie.' I had just met the guy, and a few minutes later I'm in business with him."
"George said, 'We're going to do a movie that's like the old serials,'" Kasdan recalled. "'I don't know too much about it, but the hero is named after my dog, Indiana. I know the hero wears a fedora and a leather jacket and carries a whip.'" Having the "MacGuffin" be the Biblical Ark of the Covenant came from writer-director Philip Kaufman, who got the idea from his orthodontist when he was 11-years-old. (At one point, Kaufman was going to be involved with Raiders. He ended up with a "story by" credit.)
The rest of the plot was hashed out in an epic brainstorm session with Lucas, Spielberg, and Kasdan:
We had a tape recorder going, and George essentially guided the story process and the three of us pitched the entire movie in about five days. And that's where the fantasy of all our pent-up, wet-movie dreams coalesced. Most of the time we were on our feet, trying to out-shout each other with ideas.
They wound up with a hundred-page transcript, and Kasdan wrote the screenplay in Spielberg's office while the director was making 1941. It took him six months.
Writing Raiders was a big job. Our outlining was immense, but not detailed. We knew who the three main characters would be, but there wasn't a word in anybody's mouth. ... I also had to do a good bit of research. My first draft of Raiders had a lot of information about the Ark of the Covenant, most of which has survived into the final film. It's been simplified and might sound like a lot of hocus pocus, but the majority of the superstitions and history that the picture attributes to the Ark are beliefs that have been held by people for years. Additionally, I did a lot of reading about archeology, the attitudes and lifestyles of 1930s America, and that time's international alliances.
For the character of Indiana Jones, Kasdan said he wanted to capture the essence of old Hollywood stars like Errol Flynn, Burt Lancaster, and Clark Gable. "One of my favorite actors is Steve McQueen," he said. "I loved the poetry in the way he moved—his stylized movement. I wanted Raiders to have that heightened reality. That's where I came together with George's love of serials and Steven's fascination with kinetic thrust."
Lucas wanted the character to be more like James Bond, so Kasdan had to write a different version of the scene where Brody goes to his house, he said. "George wanted Indy to be a playboy, so Jones was going to answer the door wearing a tuxedo. Then, when Brody went into the house, he would see a beautiful, Harlow-type blonde sipping champagne in Indy's living room. My feeling was that Indiana Jones' two sides (professor and adventurer) made him complicated enough without adding the playboy element."
Originally the Staff of Ra headpiece was divided into two pieces; Marion Ravenwood had one, and the other was stored in the museum of a Chinese warlord. After leaving America, Indy went directly to Shanghai, and Kasdan wrote an entire sequence with a gong rolling along a floor and Indy running behind it to avoid gunfire—which was later repurposed in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. "That scene would have been great," said Kasdan, "but we cut it before shooting because it would have broken up the film's pace and it also probably would have been too costly to shoot."
Following that scene Indy was going to be on a plane, and while he's asleep all of the other passengers parachute off. Just before the plane crashes in the Himalayas, Indy uses an inflatable raft and rides down the slopes to Marion's bar. "We took that scene out because we thought it would be too unbelievable," Kasdan said. It, too, was recycled in Temple of Doom.
Spielberg shot a long dialogue sequence when Indy and Marion first reunite, but dropped it in the editing room. "There was an enormous amount of exposition we all agreed was terribly important, and then there was their relationship to be established for the whole picture," Kasdan said:
I must have written the scene ten times, slowly, painfully, when all of a sudden it clicked in. It all just started flowing. It was funny, and real, and romantic, and yet hard-edged. And, maybe a little long. At any rate, everybody loved it. In fact, Steven used it to test the actors. Steven shot the scene in London. And soon after—in Steven's cut or George's cut of Steven's second cut—it came out. George and Steven decided it wasn't necessary. It slowed the movie down. There were a couple fragments of exposition that had to be saved. And they did have to meet. So the beginning and the end of the scene were saved and cut together.
The film came out on June 12, 1981, and made more than $390 million internationally, winning five Academy Awards out of nine nominations. Kasdan eventually warmed to the finished film. "I look at Raiders now and I'm very proud of it," he wrote in 1999. "I think it's a terrific movie and I think Steven did a magnificent job with it."
Star Wars: Episode V — The Empire Strikes Back
George Lucas initially hired Leigh Brackett, the sci-fi novelist who also wrote screenplays for Howard Hawks—including The Big Sleep (1946)—to write the sequel to Star Wars (1977). Brackett died in March 1978 while the film was still in pre-production, though, and Lucas wasn’t satisfied with her script. When Kasdan delivered his script for Raiders, Lucas asked him to rewrite The Empire Strikes Back. Kasdan suggested he read Raiders first, but Lucas reportedly said: "If I hate Raiders, I'll call you up tomorrow and cancel this offer, but basically I get a feeling about people."
Most of the plot elements and characters were already in place, but Kasdan made it darker than the first Star Wars. "George was open to it and ready to have it happen," he said. "Over the three Star Wars films, he saw a trajectory. The Empire Strikes Back was the second act, and traditionally, the second act is when things start to go bad. George had made his [most important] decision when he hired Irvin Kershner to direct, even though Kershner and I were acting as his tools."
Once involved in the saga I related to it strongly because it's elemental stuff. But I sometimes kid around and say it's about Hollywood. It's about imposing your fantasies upon others. A Jedi knight has the ability to take a weaker mind and control it, and that's what Hollywood's about. If the studio says to you, 'We're not going to make this movie,' you, as a Jedi knight, say, 'We are going to make it.' And then the studio agrees. That's what the Star Wars saga is about—it's about following those things which are strongest in you and imposing them on the world. Making a career in Hollywood is like that if you want to do your own work. If you want to do what they want you to do, it's easy. You just say yes. But if you want to do what you want to do, you're constantly manipulating the chaos of the system.
When The Empires Strikes Back came out on May 21, 1980, it was the first time Kasdan's name appeared in the credits of a movie. He felt his major contribution to Lucas' series was developing character. "George is one of the good guys," Kasdan said in 1981. "But he and I have some disagreements, too. George thinks if you play the commercial movie game, a very expensive game, you have to play for big stakes."
Star Wars: Episode VI — Return of the Jedi
Kasdan launched his directing career after writing The Empire Strikes Back, and he wasn't interested in writing another Star Wars movie. But Lucas had supported him on Body Heat as an uncredited producer, so when Lucas asked him to write the screenplay for the third chapter (then titled Revenge of the Jedi), Kasdan felt obliged to repay the favor.
He spent the summer of 1981 writing the shooting script, based on a story by Lucas. "In both the Star Wars movies it's really George's story," Kasdan said. "I came into Empire after there was already a draft. On Jedi, George had done a draft, which we changed radically. Then he and I really collaborated on the script."
The Star Wars audience is huge and rabidly devoted, almost fanatical, so at this point, there’s an emotional responsibility involved in writing them. Jedi will be a mix of Empire and Star Wars. All the humanistic, positive values put forth by Yoda, he'll continue to teach those things. They may not be new and they're not especially deep, but I think they're good for people to hear. I'd also like this movie to be funny, as funny as the first film.
Return of the Jedi came out on May 25, 1983, and made $475 million. Lucas had already publicly spoken about making both a prequel and sequel trilogy; the prequels he would go on to write and direct himself 20 years later, and episodes 7 through 9 were made by the Walt Disney Company after the studio purchased Lucasfilm in 2012. Back in 1981, Kasdan surmised that "they'll probably shoot the before-Luke trilogy next, about young Darth and young Ben. But with George, you can't be sure. For myself, I can only say this will be my last Star Wars movie. On the other hand, you never know. I didn't think I'd be working on this one."
Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens
When Disney bought Lucasfilm with plans to make more Star Wars films, Kathleen Kennedy, the new president of Lucasfilm, asked Kasdan to be involved. "I said, 'I don't really want to ... I just feel like I've done this,'" he recalled. "They said, 'We want to do a movie about Han.' That got me. That was the only one that could possibly have gotten me."
Kennedy had hired Michael Arndt to write Episode VII, and she asked Kasdan if he would consult on that script as well. He always felt that "Han Solo is really the character that people find irresistible, not Luke," he said. "Luke is too good for people to invest in. Han is right out of the classic mold. He's William Holden. He's Jimmy Cagney. He's Humphrey Bogart. Han is the one who is compromised and reluctantly forced to be altruistic and heroic." He had been in favor of killing Han off in Return of the Jedi. "We're closing off the trilogy," he said. "And we want to lose somebody important. It would give some stakes to this thing. And George did not like it." In The Force Awakens, both he and actor Harrison Ford finally got their wish.
It had been 30 years since we saw Han. We'd all gone through 30 years of life, and what it tells you is, you make the same mistakes again and again. I'd gotten older. But my personality hadn't changed, and I didn't think Han's would change. But what do you learn, one way or another? What does life teach you? How does your experience make you a more interesting person? And all the regrets you have, and all the disappointments? That was the basis of Han.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens came out on December 18, 2015. It made more than $2 billion internationally, breaking the North American record for top-grossing film of all time. In his review for The Hollywood Reporter, Todd McCarthy wrote: "One notably feels the hand of Lawrence Kasdan, who ... co-wrote The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi and, perhaps more significantly, authored Raiders of the Lost Ark, the film this new one most resembles in terms of its incident and exuberance."
Solo: A Star Wars Story
Kasdan wrote the screenplay for a Han Solo origin story—the one assignment with Disney and Lucasfilm he initially signed on for—along with his son, Jonathan Kasdan, a writer and director. The younger Kasdan had small roles in his father's movies since as early as The Big Chill, but they had never written a script together.
Solo: A Star Wars Story details the character's backstory: how he got his name, how he met Chewbacca and Lando Calrissian, and the beginnings of his internal battle between self-interested scoundrel and hero. Alden Ehrenreich was cast in the role originated by Harrison Ford. The production was plagued with drama; most notably, the original directors—Phil Lord and Christopher Miller—were fired during the shoot and replaced by Ron Howard. The film opened on May 25, 2018, and made just under $393 million worldwide (the lowest box office results for any live action Star Wars movie to date).
Body Heat (1980)
After writing Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Empire Strikes Back, Kasdan had the cachet to direct his own film.
Alan Ladd Jr., the head of Twentieth Century Fox and a key player on Star Wars, gave Kasdan the deal—but by the time the script was finished Ladd was no longer at Fox. The new president, Sherry Lansing, put many of the existing deals in turnaround, including Kasdan's. Ladd started The Ladd Company in 1979, and he offered to produce Body Heat on one condition: that an established director would "sponsor" the untested Kasdan. So Kasdan reached out to George Lucas:
George said to me, 'Look, I just started Lucasfilm. It's about family films, and Body Heat’s a very provocative, sexual movie. I don't think it's a good idea for me to put my name on it. But what I will do is sponsor you without any credit.' What I did not know is that he went to Laddy, and said, 'I will sponsor Larry, and I will back him up, and if there's a problem, I'll be helpful. I will take a fee for doing that, but I will not take any credit. But if Larry should go over budget, you can use my fee for any overages.' It was an extraordinarily generous thing to do. He did it in the best possible way, which is he told me nothing about it.
The film is about a lawyer, Ned Racine, who gets sexually entangled with a married woman, Matty Walker, and the two plot to kill her husband and collect the insurance. The producers wanted Kasdan to cast a star, but he insisted on William Hurt, a stage actor who had just made his film debut in Altered States (1980). Kasdan cast another unknown, Kathleen Turner, as Matty, and Ted Danson as one of Ned’s colleagues. (Danson was offered the part of Sam Malone on Cheers while filming Body Heat.) The heat-centric story was originally set in New Jersey, but an actor's strike delayed production until December, so the location was moved to Miami.
Body Heat opened on August 28, 1981. It made more than $24 million domestically, on a budget of $7 million, and was praised by the majority of critics. The Variety review called it "an engrossing, mightily stylish meller [melodrama] in which sex and crime walk hand in hand down the path to tragedy, just like in the old days. Working in the imposing shadow of the late James M. Cain, screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan makes an impressively confident directorial debut with a vehicle which could clinch star status for William Hurt."
Turner received a Golden Globe nomination and a BAFTA nomination for her role. Kasdan was nominated for Best Director by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards, and his screenplay was nominated for a WGA Award by the Writers Guild of America.
The Big Chill (1983)
While editing Body Heat Kasdan had the idea for a large ensemble film, partly in reaction to the "claustrophobic" experience of working with just two actors in intimate settings. He had removed most of the overt generational commentary from Body Heat, and he wanted to make a movie that would address that head-on.
We were the children of the sixties. The Big Chill is about ten years after the fact and what happens when they get together and are reminded of what they thought ten years earlier and what their hopes were and what they had thought their lives would be like. ... The origin of the picture was the thought of telling the story and ending it with a flashback that showed us what they were really like in 1970, after having watched them for an hour and a half in 1980.
His lawyer's wife, Barbara Benedek, had begun writing screenplays (and was a story editor on two comedy TV series for ABC), and Kasdan proposed co-writing with her. She was "enormously influential on the tone" of the script, he said, and they wrote characters that were composites of real people they each knew—as well as "a little bit of ourselves."
During the course of a weekend, a group of close college friends reunite for the funeral of their friend, who died by suicide. Kasdan had trouble finding a buyer, because "no one believed that an ensemble film could be commercially successful. Hollywood always wanted you to have a protagonist, hopefully a white male who the audience could invest in, and possibly a sidekick or possibly a woman that he was involved with. When I presented them with a movie that had eight protagonists, they were only confused." He pitched it to "around seventeen different places," but they all passed. Johnny Carson had a deal to make movies at Columbia, and producer Marcia Nasatir convinced Carson to make The Big Chill.
The ensemble cast included Hurt and Kevin Kline, both of whom became regulars in Kasdan's directing career, as well as Glenn Close, Jeff Goldblum, Mary Kay Place, Tom Berenger, and JoBeth Williams. (Kevin Costner, another Kasdan regular, played the deceased friend Alex, but his scenes were cut along with the other flashbacks.) After four weeks of rehearsal, the film was shot in a real house in South Carolina, which was later used in Forrest Gump. John Bailey, husband of editor Carol Littleton, was the cinematographer. The '60s pop soundtrack, which plays an outsized role in the movie, was curated by Kasdan's wife, Meg. The album sold more than six million copies and is one of the best-selling soundtracks of all time.
The Big Chill came out on September 30, 1983. It ran in theaters for six months, making more than $56 million (on a budget of $8 million), and received mostly praise. In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote:
It represents the best of mainstream American filmmaking. Among other things, it's a reminder that the same people who turn out our megabuck fantasies are often capable of working even more effectively on the small, intimate scale ... Mr. Kasdan is one of the finest of Hollywood's new young writers but The Big Chill, like Body Heat, demonstrates that he is a writer who works as much through images as through words. ... The performances represent ensemble playing of an order Hollywood films seldom have time for.
Roger Ebert's review was more conflicted:
The Big Chill is a splendid technical exercise. It has all the right moves. It knows all the right words. Its characters have all the right clothes, expressions, fears, lusts and ambitions. But there's no payoff and it doesn't lead anywhere. I thought at first that was a weakness of the movie. There also is the possibility that it's the movie's message.
The film was nominated for three Academy Awards: for best original screenplay, best supporting actress (Glenn Close), and best picture. The screenplay was nominated for a BAFTA Award and a Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award, and it won the WGA Award. Kasdan earned a DGA Award nomination by the Directors Guild of America. He later said:
It was a kind of a lightning rod to controversy. I think I was surprised by everything that happened to The Big Chill because it was so personal. It was so much about my life, Barbara's life, and my wife's life that when it became very popular I was surprised.
Commenting on its appeal, Kasdan said:
It's about a cocoon of people who come together for a weekend and care about each other in a scary world. The music was like a drug pumped into the theater, putting everyone in a great mood. People my age at that time had not yet been conveyed in the movies. And it was not just the film's music that resonated with audiences, but also the music of the dialogue. The characters talked the way real people talk to their friends, a voice not heard in the movies to that time. ... The Big Chill is really about ... finding a new family. One's own family is often difficult and unsatisfying or has left you damaged in some way. So we constantly go out to find new connections. The Big Chill is very explicitly about that search, and very powerful.
Film writer F.X. Feeney argued that "Kasdan fashioned a national conversation piece. People spoke thereafter of ‘The Big Chill Generation.' Films made by later generations, about those generations ... would have to endure being dubbed 'The Little Chill' by critics. (So, in a sense, Kasdan founded a new genre.)"
Kasdan was a lifelong fan of westerns, and in particular The Magnificent Seven (1960).
I loved the way it looked, I loved the way the guys related to each other, I loved the clothes they wore, and I loved the horses and the landscape and the music. I was totally enamored of what westerns could be and the freedom you had to tell any kind of story within that context. I wanted to go out to that land, which I had had only limited experience with, and choose among all the beautiful settings and places that are out there to make my movie.
He co-wrote the screenplay for Silverado with his older brother, Mark Kasdan. The story, set in 1880, is about a motley crew of cowboys who team up and set aside self-interest in order to protect a small town from a corrupt sheriff. Kasdan said:
My brother and I wrote a kind of post-modern western. We didn't call it that at the time. I don't know that that's what we intended but we knew always that it had a modern viewpoint on several sorts of classic situations. That we would assemble a group of heroes and they would go on a certain kind of journey and would encounter many of the basic themes and issues that all the westerns we liked involved. It meant that the movie would not be as serious as some westerns I admired, but it would have all the kind of exuberance and fun that many of my favorite westerns had.
He cast Kevin Kline for the second time, as lead cowboy Paden, along with Scott Glenn, Danny Glover (who reunited with Kasdan in Grand Canyon), and Kevin Costner (who re-teamed with Kasdan for another western, Wyatt Earp). Brian Dennehy was cast as the wicked sheriff, and Kasdan's son Jonathan and wife Meg both had bit parts. The film shot in New Mexico during the winter of 1984, and an entire town set was built near Sante Fe that was later reused in several pictures, including Wyatt Earp. During production some of the cast developed hypothermia, and Kasdan had to contend with both blizzards and flash floods.
I had made two films that were essentially room-bound. Talking heads. I like talk. I don't mind that. But I wanted to do something that would allow me to break out. To see a horse ride fast across the plain. To see men draw guns and fall down and jump and run and shoot.
The film was so popular at its test screening in Seattle that Columbia rushed its release by several months, without arranging the usual marketing and merchandising efforts in time. It came out on July 10, 1985 and did decent business—$32 million on a budget of $26 million—but Kasdan felt it would have done better with a more concerted release strategy. The reviews were largely positive. Roger Ebert wrote:
This movie is more sophisticated and complicated than the Westerns of my childhood, and it is certainly better looking and better acted. But it has the same spirit; it awards itself the carefree freedom of the Western myth itself ... Silverado is the work of Lawrence Kasdan, the man who wrote Raiders of the Lost Ark, and it has some of the same reckless brilliance about it.
The Accidental Tourist (1988)
Kasdan received the highest industry recognition of his career for The Accidental Tourist, with an Academy Award nomination for best picture. After making Silverado, he passed on The Untouchables (1987) because he didn't like the script; it was ultimately directed by Brian De Palma. He had also been developing Man Trouble (1992), but disagreed with the producers over Carole Eastman's screenplay. (Bob Rafelson ended up making the film.) Then he was offered The Accidental Tourist, a novel by Anne Tyler, and despite its surface similarities to Man Trouble—both stories are odd-couple romances with a character who trains dogs—he "fell in love with it."
In The Accidental Tourist, you have a man, Macon Leary, whose world has been shattered by the unexpected tragedy of the death of his son before the movie starts. The world cannot be controlled, and he sinks deeper and deeper into this hole. His wife rejects him for his lack of responsiveness to the tragedy, and he takes refuge in the tightness of his world as a travel writer. Then he meets someone who accepts chaos in the world and saves his life. Control and fear—those are very strong themes. Anne Tyler is an unbelievable writer ... She's a consummate stylist. When I read the book I felt not only that it should be a movie but also that it should be a movie that doesn't violate the book. ... There's not a lot of action in it, hardly anything, in fact, that Hollywood looks for. ... It's very slow. It's about tiny things. It's grim. The hero has a stick up his ass.
John Malkovich had been developing the project, and he hired theater director Frank Galati to write a script. When Kasdan took over, he wrote his own adaptation—ultimately sharing writing credit with Galati. Like many of Kasdan's own stories, this one was "about creating a new family to replace a dysfunctional one," he said. For the lead, he cast William Hurt for the third time. Kasdan said:
I have two sons of my own, and so the thought of Macon Leary's loss was so enormous to me that I understood his behavior completely. To me, it's not self-pity; it's devastation, and he's been incapacitated by it. Frankly, I don't know that I would react as well as he did. Making the film, I knew he was a difficult hero. That's why I love William Hurt's performance, because he doesn't pander for a second; he doesn't ask you to like him, and he is a hard guy to like.
Kasdan and Hurt reunited with Body Heat’s Kathleen Turner, playing Macon's estranged wife. For the eccentric dog trainer, Muriel, Kasdan screen-tested four women:
When I looked at the screen tests, it was clear to me that Geena [Davis] was the right person to play that part. All of her instincts were right. What little I had to tell her, she responded to very completely, fully, and quickly. That's what you're looking for in an actor. ... The better the actor, the better you are as a director.
The film was shot on location in Baltimore and Paris, and on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank. Anne Tyler drove Kasdan around Baltimore when he was scouting for locations. The Accidental Tourist was a surprise hit when it came out on December 23, 1988. It made more than $32 million, and rode a wave of critical praise through the awards season. It won the New York Film Critics Award despite sharp criticism from several critics—including Pauline Kael, who wrote:
The discreet, painstaking Lawrence Kasdan, who directed, and wrote the screenplay with Frank Galati, is so conscious of how he could go wrong by obtrusiveness that he hangs back. Temperamentally, he may have a real affinity with Tyler—they both like schematic whimsy. And Macon neatly packing his suitcase is almost uncannily like the dressing of the corpse in Kasdan's The Big Chill. But Tyler keeps perking along, while Kasdan is cautious—paralyzed. He doesn't risk dubbing in his own voice (which isn't a strong one anyway). This Accidental Tourist has no voice.
What the movie does capture from its literary source are the sudden spasms of remembered pain and loss, followed by emotional redemption and regeneration. They hardly even try to make movies like this anymore. ... [Macon] is also a cold fish, at least on the surface, and for this, many reviewers have reviled both the character and the actor (William Hurt) who plays him. It is said that he lacks 'passion,' whatever that means in this age of hyped-up hysteria. Anyway, that is the whole point of this archetypal plot of the Great Awakening of a laid-back Lazarus and a Scrooge for all seasons. ... That a movie could be made in these feel-good times that does not glorify one character at the expense of all the others, and provides a reasonable approximation of the ambiguities and ambivalences that bedevil us all, is enough cause for me to rejoice over The Accidental Tourist.
Roger Ebert praised the screenplay:
The textures are too specific and the humor is too quirky and well-timed to be borrowed. The filmmakers have reinvented the same story in their own terms. ... What Hurt achieves here seems almost impossible: He is depressed, low-key and intensely private through most of the movie, and yet somehow he wins our sympathy. What Kasdan achieves is just as tricky; I've never seen a movie so sad in which there was so much genuine laughter. The Accidental Tourist is one of the best films of the year.
The film earned two Golden Globe nominations (for Best Motion Picture - Drama and Best Score), a BAFTA nomination (Best Adapted Screenplay), and four Oscar nominations: Best Original Score (composed by John Williams), Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Picture. Davis won an Oscar for her supporting role.
"I have sometimes been frustrated by the size of my audience, but not on that movie," said Kasdan. "I'm amazed we got as many people in to see it as we did. It was one of the most satisfying experiences I've ever had. I'm as proud of The Accidental Tourist as anything I've done."
I Love You to Death (1990)
Kasdan wanted to do something "light and irreverent" after the grief-heavy The Accidental Tourist, and he was sent a script by John Kostmayer based on a true story out of Pennsylvania: a woman tried to kill her husband multiple times over his infidelity, he survived all attempts, she and her accomplices went to prison, and when she got out the husband forgave her and took her back. "I was fascinated by that story," Kasdan said. "I thought it would make a wonderful film."
It was the first film he directed from another writer's script, and a tonal departure for Kasdan: a black comedy with a broad performance by Kevin Kline, as pizzeria owner and serial cheater, Joey, and a straight performance by Tracy Ullman as his wife, Rosalie. The ensemble cast included River Phoenix, Joan Plowright, William Hurt, and Keanu Reeves. The film was shot in Tacoma, Washington.
In 1999, Kasdan wrote:
I have more regrets about I Love You to Death than anything I've done, because Kostmayer had written an odd and interesting script. It was very funny to me, but there were things in it that were ugly. In postproduction we started sneaking [test screening] it, and most of the sneak audiences hated the movie—despised it. They hated certain things, and I started taking those things out. We reshot the ending, added new scenes, and took out scenes that were difficult. I wanted to make the movie more popular, and that was weak, because it got worse and worse. As a result, I've never used those sneak preview cards since. It wasn't as if the studio was making me change things. I ruined the movie.
I Love You to Death came out April 6, 1990. It made $16 million, and reviews were largely negative—although Roger Ebert's appraisal was more mixed:
It is the first time Kasdan has directed from a screenplay he didn't write, and I assume he was attracted to it for the obvious reason—because it seemed all but impossible to do. I am not sure if the film is a success because I am not sure what it is trying to do. It founders in embarrassment, but not boringly.
Kasdan later reflected on I Love you to Death and its poor reception:
For the first time I was directing a film I had not written. I discovered what it must be like for an actor to try to understand the screenplay. I had never had that. The movies had always come from out of my head. But when I was directing someone else's screenplay, I found I had to work harder to understand each day what should this scene be? What should it sound like? What is the tone? In addition, it was not a straight movie in any way. It's a black comedy and probably the least popular American form. One of my favorite movies of all time is Doctor Strangelove, one of the greatest movies ever made. When it came out, it did no business. Couldn't find an audience. That's typical. There have been maybe two, three, or four black comedies that have ever been successful. It's a form that makes Americans very uneasy. This was a movie about a wife trying to kill her husband.
Grand Canyon (1991)
Now in his 40s, with his oldest son leaving for college, Kasdan began writing a screenplay about marriage and parenting. He said:
Seeing your children grow throws your own life into relief. They're a daily reminder that you're moving on because they're so clearly coming up from behind. That driving lesson [in Grand Canyon] is about more than the difficulty of making left turns in Los Angeles. Giving your son the wheel is about letting go ... and the threat of disaster in the most mundane actions.
The screenplay, which he wrote with his wife Meg Kasdan, swelled into a larger canvas that dealt with race relations in Los Angeles and the existential crises of the era. On a budget of $20 million, Kasdan cast two of his regular actors—Kline and Glover—along with Steve Martin, Mary McDonnell, Mary-Louise Parker, and Alfre Woodard. (The actors took smaller salaries in exchange for profit participation.) The film follows separate but intersecting stories of multiple characters across the social and racial divides of Los Angeles, and deals with themes of fate, death, relationships, the ethics of violence in moviemaking, and more. The score was composed by James Newton Howard, who has worked with Kasdan on every film since. Kasdan said:
To tell that story we could draw to us all the people we most valued in our creative life. We could do the kind of thing I had done in The Big Chill. We wrote that story very much out of our own lives and our feelings about the city and the country and race relations, about the haves and have-nots, about the possibility of joy and of pain no matter what economic situation you're in. We were trying to deal with all these things that you wake up with every day in Los Angeles or America. How do you have positive, hopeful, what I call humanist contact with the other people in your world, whether you know them or not?
Grand Canyon came out on December 25, 1991. The ensemble cast and social/generational commentary immediately drew comparisons to The Big Chill, and reviews were mostly positive. Roger Ebert wrote:
It is uncanny, the way the movie tunes into the kinds of fears that are all around us in the cities—even those we're not always aware of. In a film that vibrates with an impending sense of danger, the single most terrifying scene is a driving lesson. ... By the end of it Kline is explaining to his son that you only have a split second to act, or you'll get creamed. How many of those split-second choices do we make every day without even thinking about them? Various kinds of romance act as counterpoint to the dangers in this film.
The screenplay was nominated for an Academy Award, as well as a Golden Globe and a WGA Award. Some critics found the finale, which has the ensemble staring in awe at the actual Grand Canyon, as a cop-out happy ending. The film "eventually pulls its punches," Janet Maslin wrote in the New York Times, "taking an unconvincingly beatific look at the problems and dangers that have been so persuasively outlined in what has come before." But Kasdan's intentions were more ambiguous, he said:
One character sees the canyon as the abyss between people who are comfortable and those who are living in desperate circumstances. What fills it is rage—from which we're all getting the fallout. Another sees it as a symbol of the timelessness, the beauty, of the planet. Instead of coming away feeling small, he looks to his own life in an effort to make it meaningful. That's the challenge: to accept the reality of change, but to act as though you're going to live forever. To live in the moment, but make long-term commitments to people.
Within months of the film's release, the 1992 Los Angeles riots occurred. "There was an enormous amount of press about the fact that Grand Canyon had predicted the explosion of rage and violence," Kasdan said. "Anyone walking around L.A. at that time could feel it. The riots were a natural kind of explosion that anyone could have predicted."
Wyatt Earp (1994)
One of Kasdan's abandoned projects over the years was "a sexy melodrama" titled Pair-A-Dice, written by Blade Runner (1982) screenwriter David Webb Peoples, which he developed for four years with Kevin Costner set to star. In 1992, Costner approached him with the script for a six-hour miniseries about the life of Wyatt Earp. "I told him that I was about to commit to another picture," Kasdan said. "[Costner] said, 'Why are you doing that? Why don't you do Wyatt Earp? I said, 'I don't like the screenplay.' And he said, 'Well, then, write a new screenplay.'" Kasdan agreed on the condition that they shoot the following summer, which Costner accepted. Kasdan wrote a screenplay in three months.
I had always been drawn to the story of Wyatt Earp and the gunfight at the OK Corral. I don't know that I should have made the movie Wyatt Earp. We knew that there were inherent problems in it commercially, in that Wyatt Earp is not a particularly appealing or sympathetic character.
Kasdan was pleased with his screenplay—but less so Costner, who was still attached to the original miniseries concept. "Kevin and I were visualizing a 'Western Godfather,'" said Dan Gordon, who wrote the miniseries script. "It was to be two movies, in fact, centering on three families: the Earps and two organized crime families. Mike Gray, a bizarro mirror image of Earp, managed to get Tombstone, the richest town west of the Mississippi, deeded to his private company. It was a land grab worth $10 million to $20 million in 1880 dollars—and the only thing between him and that money was Wyatt Earp." Kasdan said:
At that point we probably should have called the whole thing off, but we didn't. Instead, we reached a kind of compromise script. I had never had that experience before, because everything that I had ever written I had just gone out and shot as is. Here I had this kind of hybrid. It was my script plus elements from his previous script.
Kasdan ultimately shared writing credit with Gordon, who also served as an executive producer on the film.
I think it confused the whole situation, and if I had my wits about me I probably would have said, 'Kevin, look, because we're very good friends let's preserve our friendship and not do this movie.' Well, we preserved our friendship, but unfortunately we did do the movie.
Surrounding Costner as Earp were Joanna Going, Catherine O'Hara, Tom Sizemore, JoBeth Williams, Mark Harmon, and Gene Hackman. Dennis Quaid lost 43 pounds on a supervised diet to play Doc Holliday, a performance that Kasdan felt was "the most satisfying part of the movie."
Wyatt Earp was a far more ambitious production than Kasdan's previous western, Silverado. It was shot in the summer of 1993 over the course of 19 weeks (with an entire week of rehearsals), on location in and around Santa Fe, New Mexico, with two massive sets used to portray eight different Western towns, and employing a cast of more than a hundred speaking roles and thousands of extras. It was shot on film in anamorphic format by Owen Roizman, the cinematographer on The French Connection (1971).
"It's an epic film on an epic scale," Kasdan said. "It shows the building of the railroad and a span of Wyatt's life. So in many ways it presented the challenges I was looking for. It's a big bite of a movie and there are things in it that are as good as anything I've ever done."
The film suffered at the box office—only making $20 million, on a budget of $60 million—not least because of Tombstone, the concurrent film starring Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp and Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday. Tombstone's writer and original director, Kevin Jarre (who was eventually fired from the project), had actually planned to make a Wyatt Earp story with Costner, but the two men had different ideas about its tone and direction, and each went their own way. Tombstone was in production at the same time, but released on Christmas Eve, 1993—six months before Wyatt Earp.
"Tombstone hurt us," said editor Carol Littleton, "because it's a completely different kind of film, and it was a little more hip and it was not quite as serious."
The critical reception was chilly. Kasdan later said:
It was almost universally panned when the movie came out. But then there were these odd reviews that were wonderful. The fact that it wasn't popular was not a surprise to me.
French Kiss (1995)
Meg Ryan, who at the time was married to Wyatt Earp star Dennis Quaid, brought Kasdan a script she'd commissioned for herself. Written by Adam Brooks, it was about a woman who overcomes her fear of flying and goes to Paris to confront her cheating fiancé, and in the process falls for a French thief. Kasdan was drawn to the project, he said, because "I wouldn't have to write something new. I'd just done this really difficult movie and I thought, well, I'll go to France with my family for a while. I love France."
He cast Timothy Hutton as the cheating fiancé, Charlie, and Kevin Kline as Luc Teyssier the thief. About his go-to star, Kasdan said:
Kevin Kline is an amazing collaborator and as smart as anyone I've ever met. He's one of the funniest people on earth. ... We don't have to say all that much to each other. There are so many references about tone and about level of humor and about the size of the character and how can we fill in the details better. He comes from a musical background. He wanted to be a concert pianist and gave it up when he thought he wasn't good enough. He had won two Tony Awards by the time I met him. He was just a little over thirty. He's an astounding stage actor. He has had this wonderful film career that sometimes people underestimate, because he hasn't been the traditional kind of superstar.
French Kiss was released on May 5, 1995. It earned nearly $39 million in the U.S., and more than $101 million internationally.
After French Kiss, Kasdan wrote a spec script for Disney called Sojourner—a large-scale fantasy film set in the 1930s about a father and son. "I love effects," he said, "but they very rarely are married to a story that interests me. So I wrote one of my kind of stories, one involving effects. It made for a very expensive project, requiring not just one but two movie stars." He went into pre-production on the film with Mel Gibson attached to star—but then pulled the plug, and instead wrote the screenplay for Mumford.
The story is about a psychologist named Mumford with a secret past, who moves to a town called Mumford and starts treating its troubled citizens. Kasdan cast Loren Dean in the title role, alongside Hope Davis, Jason Lee, Mary McDonnell, Alfred Woodard, Martin Short, and Ted Danson.
It fared poorly at the box office when it came out on September 24, 1999, only making $4.5 million, and critics were divided. Roger Ebert wrote:
Mumford is so carefully visualized in Lawrence Kasdan's new film that you'd sort of like to live there. ... It's a feeling movie, a mood movie, an evocation of the kind of interaction we sometimes hunger for. ... There are no earth-shaking payoffs here. No dramatic astonishments, vile betrayals, or sexual surprises. Just the careful and loving creation of some characters it is mostly a pleasure to meet. And at its deepest level, profoundly down there below the surface, it is something more, I think: an expression of Kasdan's humanist longings, his wish that people would listen better and value one another more. It is the strangest thing, how this movie sneaks up and makes you feel a little better about yourself.
Arguably Kasdan's most hostilely received film was Dreamcatcher, an adaptation of the 2001 book by Stephen King. Written during King's recovery from getting hit by a van in 1999, the story is about four friends and a boy with special powers, involving aliens, telepathy, and extreme body horror. The author later said he wrote much of it while on Oxycontin.
Kasdan co-wrote the adaptation with William Goldman, screenwriter of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and The Princess Bride (1987). "If you read the book," Kasdan said, "the pain is all over the book."
There are all these fevered dreams ... and a lot of the action takes place in this sort of hospital of the brain, you know? ... He didn't spend a lot of time tying everything together. I think he wasn't in the mood for that. So, when we adapted the book, I simplified some things and I changed some things—which he's been great about. The great thing about Stephen is that he sees the movie as a separate thing, I think. He wants it to capture the essence of the book, and if he feels that's been done, then he's not too particular about the details. I think that's why he's happy.
Dreamcatcher was produced by Castle Rock Entertainment and shot in British Columbia. The cast included Morgan Freeman, Thomas Jane, Damian Lewis, Timothy Olyphant, and Donnie Wahlberg. It came out March 21, 2003, and made $82 million worldwide.
Darling Companion (2012)
Nine years elapsed between Dreamcatcher and Kasdan's next film, Darling Companion. During that time he adapted a script from Richard Russo's novel, The Risk Pool, which he was developing with Tom Hanks as the lead, as well as a few other aborted projects. He eventually decided to make an independent film, based on an incident from his and Meg's own life, when their dog got lost in the mountains of Colorado.
He co-wrote the screenplay for Darling Companion with Meg, as he'd done on Grand Canyon. The film is a synthesis, in many ways, of his body of work: an ensemble film touching on social and generational concerns, like The Big Chill and Grand Canyon; an aging mother finds a helpless creature, bathes it, and keeps it (here a dog, in Grand Canyon a baby); characters wander around in the mountain wilderness like in Continental Divide; and there is a central dog/human relationship like in The Accidental Tourist. There's even a direct quote about the "dark side" from The Empire Strikes Back.
Darling Companion was independently financed by his company, Kasdan Pictures, along with Werc Werk Works and Likely Story. Since it was made on a modest budget ($5 million), the ensemble cast—which included Kevin Kline, Diane Keaton, Richard Jenkins, Dianne Wiest, and Mark Duplass—worked for scale. Kasdan shot the film on digital for the first time, on location in Utah. It came out on April 27, 2012.
Projects in development
As of 2020, Kasdan is working on a documentary about record label executive Mo Ostin, and the adaptation of a novel called November Road.
"Directing is the greatest job in the world, but the process is so hard," he said in 1991. "Each picture is like a child, a huge investment of heart and work. I decided that I want to work a lot while I have the interest in and the energy for it. Then if the time comes when I’m not having fun, I can walk away."
Style and inspirations
As a screenwriter, Kasdan was influenced by classic English literature, plays, and the literary films of the 1940s, '50s, and '60s. He said:
If you're trained the way I was, it's classical dramatic training, in which you learn how plays have been constructed since they started writing plays. I think that has served me very well in Hollywood, because a lot of the people writing screenplays don't have a literary background. Many young screenwriters today come from television. It's not that they worked in television; it's that they grew up on television and they think the way narrative is presented on television is narrative, but it ain't. And so, if anything, I believe in classic dramatic construction, and I believe in the force and momentum that good narrative creates as it builds on itself.
He said his scripts all begin with their characters:
Characters present themselves, and the story follows. Alvin Sargent [screenwriter of Julia (1977) and Ordinary People (1980)] said a great thing to me. We were talking about how all of our inspiration always starts with character. Not plot. Not story. And that we wish it were otherwise; and that, in fact, the American movie tradition is about narrative. It's not about character. And he said, 'When I die, on my tombstone, it's going to say: 'Finally, a plot." I identified with that very strongly.
Regarding his directing style, Kasdan said:
I think that my personality is shy, reticent, in some ways; I'm conservative—I don't wear flashy clothes. I think that's true of my style, too, not that I don't like things that are startlingly innovative. ... For me, the idea is, is the camera where you want it to be, not are you showing it off? ... What I admire about Kurosawa is the Zen perfection of his camera placement, the rightness of it. That's the idea I'm striving for—but style is not something that drives my pictures.
On working with actors, he said:
I'm drawn to a very strong, non-fussy, hopefully a non-absorbed, kind of acting. I want great listeners. They aren't in competition with the other actors in the frame. They're there to support and to make the other actor better. I'm interested in people who are interested in submitting themselves to roles, to a story, to knowing that sometimes the grander action is the wrong action, the showier action is the wrong action. Sometimes repose is the most appropriate response to something. My movies are cut and acted on the reactions, not the actions. I think that's where the secrets of life are revealed. Not necessarily in what we say, but how we react to what we hear.
Producer and onscreen parts
Kasdan has produced several films beyond those he directed: Cross My Heart (1987), Immediate Family (1989)—which was written by his The Big Chill co-writer Barbara Benedek—Jumpin' at the Boneyard (1991), Home Fries (1998), The TV Set (2006)—written and directed by Jake Kasdan—and In the Land of Women (2007), which was written and directed by Jonathan Kasdan.
He has made several cameo appearances in his own films: as River Phoenix's lawyer in I Love You to Death, as a director in Grand Canyon, as a gambler in Wyatt Earp, and as a man walking a dog in Darling Companion. He played Jack Nicholson's psychiatrist in As Good as It Gets (1997), directed by James L. Brooks.
|Title||Year||Functioned as||Reception||Box office|
|The Empire Strikes Back||1980||No||Yes||No||95% (98 reviews)||82 (25 reviews)||N/A||$33 million||$538.4 million|
|Raiders of the Lost Ark||1981||No||Yes||No||95% (76 reviews)||85 (16 reviews)||N/A||$18 million||$389.9 million|
|Body Heat||1981||Yes||Yes||No||98% (40 reviews)||77 (11 reviews)||N/A||$9 million||$24 million|
|Continental Divide||1981||No||Yes||No||70% (10 reviews)||64 (7 review)||N/A||N/A||$15 million|
|Return of the Jedi||1983||No||Yes||No||81% (91 reviews)||58 (24 reviews)||N/A||$42.7 million||$572.1 million|
|The Big Chill||1983||Yes||Yes||Executive||67% (36 reviews)||61 (12 reviews)||N/A||$8 million||$56.4 million|
|Silverado||1985||Yes||Yes||Yes||76% (33 reviews)||64 (14 reviews)||N/A||$23 million||$32.1 million|
|Cross My Heart||1987||No||No||Yes||40% (10 reviews)||N/A||N/A||$7 million||$1 million|
|The Accidental Tourist||1988||Yes||Yes||Yes||81% (31 reviews)||53 (12 reviews)||N/A||N/A||$32.6 million|
|Immediate Family||1989||No||No||Executive||55% (11 reviews)||N/A||A-||$14 million||$5.9 million|
|I Love You to Death||1990||Yes||No||No||58% (24 reviews)||45 (13 reviews)||C||N/A||$16.2 million|
|Jumpin' at the Boneyard||1991||No||No||Executive||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||$15 706|
|Grand Canyon||1991||Yes||Yes||Yes||77% (35 reviews)||64 (15 reviews)||B+||N/A||$40.9 million|
|The Bodyguard||1992||No||Yes||Yes||34% (38 reviews)||39 (20 reviews)||N/A||$25 million||$411 million|
|Wyatt Earp||1994||Yes||Yes||Yes||44% (27 reviews)||47 (20 reviews)||B+||$63 million||$25.1 million|
|French Kiss||1995||Yes||No||No||48% (25 reviews)||50 (14 reviews)||B+||N/A||$102 million|
|Home Fries||1998||No||No||Yes||31% (36 reviews)||45 (17 reviews)||C-||$15 million||$10.4 million|
|Mumford||1999||Yes||Yes||Yes||57% (81 reviews)||62 (33 reviews)||C+||$28 million||$4.6 million|
|Dreamcatcher||2003||Yes||Yes||Yes||29% (180 reviews)||35 (38 reviews)||C+||$68 million||$75.7 million|
|The TV Set||2006||No||No||Executive||65% (77 reviews)||65 (26 reviews)||N/A||$2 million||$265 198|
|In the Land of Women||2007||No||No||Executive||44% (117 reviews)||47 (29 reviews)||B-||$10 million||$17.6 million|
|Darling Companion||2012||Yes||Yes||Yes||22% (88 reviews)||41 (38 reviews)||N/A||$12 million||$793 815|
|Star Wars: The Force Awakens||2015||No||Yes||Uncredited||93% (422 reviews)||81 (55 reviews)||A||$250 million||$2.068 billion|
|Solo: A Star Wars Story||2018||No||Yes||Executive||70% (460 reviews)||62 (54 reviews)||A−||$275 million||$392.7 million|
|Last Week at Ed's (documentary)||2019||Yes||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A|
|Into the Night||1985||Detective #2|
|I Love You to Death||1990||Devo's Lawyer||Uncredited|
|Grand Canyon||1991||Director in screening room||Uncredited|
|As Good as It Gets||1997||Dr. Green|
|Darling Companion||2012||Man on Street||Uncredited|
In 2012, Kasdan participated in the Sight & Sound film polls of that year. Held every ten years to select the greatest films of all time, contemporary directors were asked to select ten films of their choice. Kasdan picked the following in alphabetical order.
- Army of Shadows (1969)
- The Battle of Algiers (1966)
- Dr. Strangelove (1963)
- The Godfather (1972)
- The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
- Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
- Out of the Past (1947)
- The Rules of the Game (1939)
- Seven Samurai (1954)
- The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1947)
Awards and honors
In addition to his four Oscar nominations, Kasdan received the Austin Film Festival's Distinguished Screenwriter Award in 2001, and the Laurel Award for Screenwriting Achievement from the Writers Guild of America in 2006. He has three honorary doctorates: in Humane Letters from the University of Michigan (1983) and from West Virginia University (1999), and in Fine Arts from the American Film Institute (2015). On May 22, 2016, he was honored by the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival and ArtsATL.org as the inaugural recipient of their ICON Award for Contributions to the Cinematic Arts in a ceremony held at the Woodruff Arts Center.
Kasdan has been married to Meg Kasdan (née Mary Ellen Goldman) since November 28, 1971. They met at the University of Michigan, where they were both English majors. Their two sons, Jake and Jonathan Kasdan, are both involved in film as actors, writers, producers, and directors. He has three grandchildren.
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