Ford, Spielberg, Lucas and Marshall Back in Action with Indiana

Fifteen days before he became eligible for Social Security, Harrison Ford suited up for some muscular derring-do and swaggered into his fourth film outing as Indiana Jones, the dashing—if scholarly—archaeologist-with-a-whip-and-a-pistol.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull arrives May 22—in a massive worldwide posting—19 years after his third screen installment for Paramount Pictures. Quite a generational jump, that—and the same number of years has elapsed in the character’s timeline as well. It is now 1957, and we’re deep in the deep freeze of the Cold War. Instead of Nazis scheming for world conquest, we have Russkies with similar dire dreams, here curvaceously embodied by Cate Blanchett’s Irina Spalko, a villainous Russian agent.

“I call it American Graffiti Meets Indiana Jones,” the film’s producer, Frank Marshall, glibly quips. He’s only five years off the mark chronologically, but he’s right on the button, pedigree-wise: The directors of those two films, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, are the brains behind the Indiana Jones franchise, both dipping into that vast vat of far-out, fanciful thrills from the film serials of their respective boyhoods.

“The basis for this movie—for all the Indys—has been the serials of the ’30s and the ’40s, and now we’ve sort of followed those serials into the Atomic Age—the ’50s.”
Chapter Four’s storyline upgrades the action from Republic cliffhangers to B-grade sci-fi (including Lucas’ pet “B” of the period, Forbidden Planet). Fifties flicks translated the Red menace as the Red Planet menace, and flying saucers swept the screen.

“If you recall those movies,” Marshall notes, “you’ll remember that mankind was not being attacked by itself. Mankind was being attacked by creatures from outer space. We have a bit of that. We go into the things that were influencing culture in the ’50s: the otherworldly elements, the rapidly changing technology, all those sci-fi movies.

“There was so much to work with—hot-rods, the Cold War, girls in letterman jackets and ponytails. And the music—it was the beginning of rock ’n’ roll. Steven is a great collector of Norman Rockwell, as is George—and I think they felt they were going right back into that Norman Rockwell period. I know they both looked at a lot of movies from that era. Old movies and old serials were very much an inspiration for the look and style of the Indiana Jones movies, and we’ve tried very hard to maintain that. In this one, there’s classic Indiana Jones storytelling and tone that Steven [as series helmsman] created in the first three, and all of that is totally present here.”

It has been said that the rumpled leather jacket and the brown fedora which have become Indy’s trademark attire were first donned by Ronald Reagan in two forgettable flicks of the early ’50s—Hong Kong and Tropic Zone. (It has been further said that this was Lucas’ way of getting even with Reagan for naming his Presidential war toys “Star Wars.”) Either way, both sides let the legend be printed.

To get The Star back into this get-up (and adventurous stride) did not require strenuous arm-twisting, according to Marshall. “Harrison was gung-ho for this and very excited to do it, and we all had a really fantastic time making the movie.”

The rub, he hastens to add, was coming up with a storyline that Ford, Spielberg and Lucas mutually felt was exciting and acceptable. “You sort of had three 800-pound gorillas in the same room, and they all had to agree. This took about seven years.

“We really starting focusing on this in the year 2000, when we were all at the American Film Institute salute to Harrison. He was up on the stage, and everybody was telling stories and watching clips. Afterwards, we got together backstage, and we said, ‘This was a lot of fun. Maybe we ought to really concentrate on trying to come up with a story,’ and that was what actually launched us into a serious look at what kind of story it could be. Obviously, we didn’t want to do it unless it was a great story. It was too important we come up with some kind of classic story to tell.”

The immediate “insurmountable,” of course, was topping their three previous acts, which collectively accumulated a worldwide gross of $1.191 billion. Raiders of the Lost Ark amassed $384 million in 1981; Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom raked in $333 million in 1984, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade topped them both with $474 million in 1989—pretty dizzy and daunting figures to follow.

The existing concept of the crystal skull—quartz crystal in the shape of a human skull which supposedly has radiant psychic energy as well as healing and supernatural powers—entered the picture more or less through the back door and stayed there, for years, till it was finally tapped to be the “MacGuffin” for Movie Four.
Lucas initially encountered the crystal skull in an unused teleplay for “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles,” which he produced during the 1992-93 season. Ford and Spielberg were less intrigued, and then Lucas’ three Star Wars prequels pushed the idea farther on the back-burner. Meanwhile, Max McCoy incorporated the crystal skull mythology as a recurring theme in four of his Indiana Jones novels (Indiana Jones and the Philosopher’s Stone, Indiana Jones and the Dinosaur Eggs, Indiana Jones and the Hollow Earth and Indiana Jones and the Secret of the Sphinx). In addition, a crystal skull is one of the possible random quest objectives in Indiana Jones and His Desktop Adventures, and it was also featured in the 2001 Tokyo Disney theme-park attraction, Indiana Jones Adventure: Temple of the Crystal Skull.

All arrows seemed to point to its inclusion in the film series. “Also, we like to base our scripts on actual mythology or tales like the Holy Grail or the Ark of the Covenant,” admits Marshall. “Certainly, if you look up the legend of the crystal skull, you’ll see it has been around a long time. There’s a great mythology to it. If you got all of the crystal skulls together that exist in the world—and I think there are 13 of them—you would have all power, and you would control all knowledge in the universe. The bad guys—in this case, the Russians—are looking in a military way of harnessing all knowledge”—clearly, a case, and a cause for action, for Indiana Jones.

In the almost two-decade interim that followed his so-billed Last Crusade, Indy has retreated into the halls of ivy as Prof. Henry Jones, Jr., teaching archaeology to ducktail types at a fictional Connecticut college. “Then,” says Marshall ominously, “an issue arises that calls him back into action to solve the legend of the crystal skull.”

The 61-year-old producer is a blur on the specifics that follow. “Obviously, that’s on purpose. We want audiences to discover the story for themselves—to go on this journey in the darkness of a movie theatre with a big box of popcorn in their laps.

“Nowadays—in the rush to get people’s attention—trailers and publicity give away the good stuff. We have one teaser out that’s only about a minute long—obviously, we need to remind people that the movie’s coming out—but we don’t give anything away. I think that, in general, the moviegoing public knows who Indiana Jones is.”

God knows, there are spoilers out there, and there has been some rattling of legal sabers to keep them in check. One movie extra violated his non-disclosure clause and blabbed plot particulars to his hometown newspaper, which was forced to print a retraction. Another man was arrested for stealing a computer containing various documents related to the production, and he now faces a two-year prison term.

Come May 22, pretty much all the known world (excepting Japan, which will get the news a month later) will be privy to the secrets of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Currently, it’s first on the list of summer movies for 82% of the moviegoing public. “The want-to-see is giant,” Marshall gleefully confesses. “The other three movies were all released on Memorial Day, so we’ll keep that intact—and we’re going to go out all over the world, except Japan, on the very same day. We’ll have 17 dubbed versions out there—that’s 10 more than I’ve ever done.”

The film will be released in approximately 4,000 theatres in the United States, and more than 12,000 release prints will be distributed, the most in Paramount history. If a picture has had a larger launch, Marshall (who should know) hasn’t heard of it.

Once the triumvirate-in-control agreed on the plot given, work on the script began. “One of the great things about this series of movies,” contends Marshall, “is that we have these great characters who are in the story with Indy, and they’re played by wonderful character actors. Cate Blanchett is our Russian villainess in this one, and we have Ray Winstone and John Hurt as fellow archaeologists. Jim Broadbent [replacing the late Denholm Elliott] is dean of the department where Indy teaches.”

Marion Ravenwood, Indy’s first onscreen love interest, makes her first series re-entry from Raiders, played as before by Karen Allen. “We thought it’s always great to have one of the old characters come back, and Karen was certainly one of the favorite characters in the series, so we’ve been able to work her back into the story.”

A cinematic call-to-arms went out to Sean Connery to reprise the role of Indy’s dad, which he originated in the third installment, but, alas, it fell on deaf ears. “Sean had secretly retired and was off playing golf somewhere in Scotland. We wouldn’t have gone to him if we’d known that, but he was very gracious about it and wished us—and the series—well. There’s a little tip of the hat to Dad in the film, however.”

Filling in for Connery in the sidekick slot is a rowdy young pup named Mutt Williams, played by up-and-coming boy-of-the-hour, Shia LaBeouf. “Mutt has that youthful exuberance, that know-it-all arrogance of youth which provides a great sounding board for Indiana Jones.” There is also a hint that he might be Indy’s illegitimate issue, but Marshall shrugs that off as “just a rumor.” From the ’50s look of this Mutt, he might just as well be the seed of Marlon Brando (in his Wild One mode).

“We’re not hiding the fact that everybody’s a bit older in this movie,” Marshall says. “In the teaser trailer, there’s a little moment where he’s being surrounded by some Russian soldiers. He’s standing there with Ray Winstone, and Winstone says, ‘Well, this’ll be easy to get out of.’ Indy says, ‘Not as easy as it used to be.’ That’s the tone.

“I think what George and Steven really wanted was to have this hero who was vulnerable and made mistakes and could get beat up, but also was able to take care of himself. Indy’s a scholar and a treasure hunter, and he respects the fact that these archaeological items are special and should be preserved. But he’s not a superhero. He’s just a regular hero. When Indiana Jones gets punched, it hurts. You feel it. There’s not a lot of flash and quick cutting. He’s sorta the opposite of Jason Bourne.”

Marshall has a legitimate point of comparison, being a well-documented believer in sequels. Among the films where he has gone back for seconds, thirds, et cetera: The Bourne Identity, Back to the Future, An American Tail, Gremlins and Jurassic Park.

But he’s not a blind believer in sequels: “I like to do sequels, but I like to make each one its own movie—and different. I’m not a fan of sequels that just do the same movie over again. When you look at the Bourne series, you see they’re different.”

Marshall and his wife, Kathleen Kennedy, have co-produced some of the biggest blockbusters in modern times and, with Spielberg, founded Amblin Entertainment—the better to make Poltergeist, Empire of the Sun, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Always.

Producing, as it has evolved for Marshall over the past four decades, turns out to be a glorified version of go-ferring, of abetting the big guys in achieving their goals. He started down this path quite by accident when he casually accepted a party invite.

On Dec. 16, 1966, the 20-year-old UCLA sophomore was urged by his father to attend a birthday party John Ford was throwing for his daughter, Barbara. “My dad was in the Army with her husband, an actor named Ken Curtis, and he said, ‘Why don’t you come with us? They’ll be really interesting people there—John Wayne and Joanne Dru and Harry Carey, Jr.—and you could meet Mr. Ford.’ So I said, ‘Okay.’ I had no idea. I was still trying to figure out what I was going to do with myself in life.’

Marshall found out soon enough—at that party. The person who impressed him the most was a film critic for Esquire magazine. “He was from New York, and he was spouting off in the corner. He was there doing a documentary on Ford, and I asked him what he was going to do next. He said he wanted to be a director and he’d just met this guy named Roger Corman, who was going to give him some money to make a movie. I said to him, ‘Well, that sounds like fun. Give me a call if you need some help.’”

Three months later, Peter Bogdanovich did call and ask for his help. “‘What do you want me to do?’ I asked him. He said, ‘I dunno. I never made a movie before.’ Peter knew everything about directing—actors and where to put the camera and how to write—but he’s from New York and he’s here in the Valley, and he didn’t know how to rent a car or make a sandwich or take care of himself. So I did all that. When I look back, I realize I was kinda producing for him. I was his assistant, and, as we went on, he just kept giving me more and more to do. I built the sets. I shot some of it. I did some of the props and helped edit.” (He even acts in the 1968 Targets by manning the ticket booth at the drive-in where Tim O’Kelly runs murderously amok.)

“Then I went back to school. It took three years for him to get The Last Picture Show, but, when he got it, he told Columbia he wanted me on board. I took the title of ‘location manager.’ They didn’t want me to be just his assistant and run around and do his laundry. They wanted me to work on the movie, so I started in the production department.” Marshall continued with Bogdanovich (Paper Moon, Daisy Miller, At Long Last Love, Nickelodeon) till he caught the Scorsese-Spielberg trapeze (The Last Waltz and Raiders of the Lost Ark). He has been in that rarefied stratosphere ever since.

“My first movie that I could call myself a producer on was Paper Moon,” says Marshall, “and, at the same time, I was working with Orson Welles on The Other Side of the Wind. That was 1972, and it kinda became a lifetime project. In fact, I’m still working on it. The folks at Showtime have stepped up in a great way to try and preserve what I consider cinema history. That was the last film he directed, and it’s the last film that John Huston was an actor in. Susan Strasberg, Norman Foster and Peter Bogdanovch are in it, too. I’ll be working with Peter to pick what we feel is the right take. I believe we’re going to get it finished. We’re getting closer and closer.”

But that’s a labor of love and can linger a little longer. Marshall’s labor of commerce—Indy Four—is of Paramount importance right now. “Audiences are ready for a good old-fashioned summer popcorn movie with lots of fun in it.” Spoken like a true producer.