A man with curly hair sits in a forest clearing next to Yoda, a green elf like creature with pointy ears

Q&A with the author of ReFocus: The Films of Lawrence Kasdan

by Brett Davies

The author of ReFocus: The Films of Lawrence Kasdan chats about the writing process behind the book, what inspired him to explore the films of Lawrence Kasdan and what surprised him most during his research.

Tell us a bit about your book.

Lawrence Kasdan’s career has always fascinated me. He wrote the screenplays for some of Hollywood’s biggest hits, including four Star Wars films, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and The Bodyguard. Concurrently, he gained critical acclaim as a writer-director of films such as The Big Chill and Grand Canyon, pictures that came to define America’s largest ever generation. Despite such success, his work has never received deep academic investigation. In order to remedy this, ReFocus: The Films of Lawrence Kasdan takes an interdisciplinary approach, analyzing Kasdan’s output both in terms of its cinematic style and the socio-historical contexts.

What inspired you to research this area?

First and foremost, Kasdan wrote many of my favourite films! When I was a kid, I owned the book, Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Illustrated Screenplay, with Kasdan’s name on the cover, so I became aware from a young age that he wrote a lot of the movies that I loved. Then, as I got older, I discovered his more personal works as writer-director, like Body Heat, The Big Chill, The Accidental Tourist, Grand Canyon, and Mumford, as well as his Westerns, Silverado and Wyatt Earp, and it seemed hard to believe that the same person could flit so effortlessly between these different styles. I was intrigued why his work hadn’t been investigated more fully by critics, so, when I embarked on a Ph.D., I knew that I wanted to focus on Kasdan. As the project progressed, my supervisor, James Russell, encouraged me to develop my work for publication, and it snowballed from there.

Taken from a still from the movie The Big Chill. A group of people sit around a breakfast table.  A woman in a red top sips orange juice. Three people are sitting beside her. Three more people are standing behind her around the kitchen sink.
The ensemble of The Big Chill (1983) Carson Productions; Columbia

What was the most exciting thing about this project for you?

When I began, I hoped to write something that would be of interest to readers like me, who enjoy Kasdan’s films. But as I delved deeper, I came to understand just how central a figure Kasdan has been in “New New Hollywood.” He essentially invented a mini-genre of adult-focused ensemble films that inflected American cinema and TV throughout the 1980s and ’90s. At the same time, his scripts for Lucasfilm helped to shape the action-adventure genre in ways that still resonate today – even if he calls Hollywood’s sequel culture “discouraging”!

Did you discover anything particularly strange or surprising?

Living in Japan, I was intrigued to learn just how much Kasdan is inspired by the films of Akira Kurosawa. He told me that Kurosawa is “Shakespearean; nothing daunted him in terms of subject matter … Genius, genius, genius.” With this in mind, it was interesting to see the ways that Kurosawa’s themes reverberate through Kasdan’s pictures. I discovered, too, that a lot of aspects of the Star Wars saga that were attributed to George Lucas actually stemmed from Lawrence Kasdan, and I learned just how much Kasdan wanted to kill off some of the main characters!

A still taken from the movie Body Heat. An audience are facing a stage watching a group of musicians. One woman walks down the centre aisle, dressed in a white dress. A man stands before her watching her.
The neo-noir Body Heat (1981) The Ladd Company/Warner Bros.

Did you get exclusive access to any new or hard-to-find sources?

I managed to track down various drafts of Kasdan’s screenplays, and these really demonstrated his writing process, from starting out to the finished product. Most memorably, though, I had the opportunity to interview Lawrence Kasdan himself. We were scheduled to talk for one hour, but it ended up being nearly three, and – coming toward the end of my research – he could answer all those questions I had stored up over the years. Not only did Kasdan’s insights help to illuminate my existing chapters, but they encouraged me to add an extra section at the end of the book devoted exclusively to our interview, which includes so many of the surprising and funny stories that he told me.

Did your research take you to any unexpected places or unusual situations?

The opening chapter discusses the meeting that took place at the planning stage of Raiders of the Lost Ark. This is the very first academic analysis of the legendary story conference, when Kasdan – a complete novice with no credits to his name – found himself in the room with George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, just months after the releases of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I was struggling to find the best approach and avoid it becoming just a “he said” summary of the transcript. In the end, I drew upon my background in linguistics – which I thought I’d left behind! – in order to establish the quantity and quality of the three participants’ contributions. It was an unusual method, but I think it sheds new light on the creation of the classic film.

A still from the movie The Empire Strikes Back. A man sits in a clearing in the woods talking to Yoda, a short green creature.
Yoda and Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back (1980) Lucasfilm; 20th Century Fox

What’s next for you?

I’m contributing a chapter on Kasdan for the upcoming Bloomsbury Handbook of Global Screenplay Theory; then I will embark on a brand new project. I’ll continue to examine popular cinema, as I believe there’s real value in better understanding movies that are seen by wide audiences – the films that, like The Empire Strikes Back or Raiders of the Lost Ark did for me, make people fall in love with cinema in the first place.

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About the book

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Critically examines the work of American filmmaker and screenwriter, Lawrence Kasdan

About the author

Brett Davies is Associate Professor of English at Meiji University, Tokyo

Edinburgh University Press
Edinburgh University Press
Articles: 92

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