When Lawrence Kasdan was just shy of 30 years old, George Lucas asked the novice screenwriter to put words into the mouth of a whip-wielding adventurer named Indiana Jones. Half a beat later, Kasdan was penning, among others, the four immortal words that Darth Vader would use to shatter the heart of the young warrior Luke Skywalker: "I am your father."
Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Empire Strikes Back thrilled audiences and Hollywood moguls alike, and in a flash, Kasdan was writing and directing first Body Heat (1981) and then The Big Chill (1983), two character-rich dramas in which newcomers such as William Hurt, Kathleen Turner, Glenn Close, Jeff Goldblum and Kevin Kline parried words as deftly as Indy had unfurled his whip.
The heady high of those first years has ebbed and flowed in the three decades since. Kasdan, now 64, has had his share of triumphs, particularly The Accidental Tourist, which was up for Best Picture and which brought Geena Davis the Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Silverado, Grand Canyon and Mumford didn't rock the box office but are highly regarded, and they get better with time. Each film played to his strengths — a quirky but optimistic view of humanity and a gift for guiding large acting ensembles.
If his troubled films — I Love You to Death, French Kiss and Dreamcatcher, all bombs — have anything in common, it's that they sprang from the imagination of other writers, which suggests that Kasdan the director very much needs Kasdan the screenwriter. The two halves make the whole.
Kasdan's new film, Darling Companion — his first in nine years — is homegrown in the purest sense. Co-written with his wife, Meg, with whom he also co-wrote Grand Canyon, the film was inspired by the three-week disappearance, seven years ago, of their dog Mac.
Big, floppy and adorable, Mac enters the living room of the Kasdans' Beverly Hills home in full bark, a faithful sentry ready for battle.
"He's 14," Kasdan says as Mac settles down at Meg's feet. "A cattle dog, I think. A very sweet boy. He was 7 when we adopted him and he'd been abused, or something. He's afraid of big men, afraid of suitcases, afraid of people in hats."
The perfect dog, in other words, for a filmmaker who specializes in oddball humans with neuroses that need soothing.
The Kasdans had owned Mac for just a few months when they took him to their vacation home in Telluride, Colo. While they were hiking with a family friend, Mac got spooked by a biker on a high mountain trail and took off. "We went to every shelter," Meg recalls. "We did fliers, we organized search parties, we even ran an ad on the local radio station, but we just couldn't find him."
After three weeks, and with the help of a friend who may or may not be psychic (the jury is still out), Mac was found, pounds lighter but no worse for wear.
For the film version of the Great Mac Search, the Kasdans upped the emotional ante by having the dog, now known as Freeway, get lost while being walked by a heart surgeon (Kevin Kline) who's paying more attention to his cellphone than to the dog. His wife (Diane Keaton), who is devoted to the dog (perhaps overly so), is furious, and as the days pass, the couple must come to terms with the ragged state of their long marriage. Dianne Wiest, Richard Jenkins, Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass co-star as family and friends with relationship issues of their own to work out, even as they trudge through the woods on the dog hunt.
The film is being positioned in its publicity as the third film in a trilogy that includes The Big Chill and Grand Canyon, but Kasdan looks a bit dubious at the idea of an official "trilogy."
"We never thought of it that way," he says, "but it is true that The Big Chill people were in their 30s when we were, and Grand Canyon's were in their 40s, and so were we. It's an instinct, to look around and see what's happening — what aches and pains you're feeling, physically, spiritually, emotionally. Darling Companion is meant to be light, but there's no question that there's a tinge of mortality throughout, one that comes more naturally into your conversation as your friends get older and you get older, too."
Nine years is a long time between films for a man as prolific as Kasdan, who made nine films in the '90s. His last release, Dreamcatcher (2003), was a big-budget, effects-laden adaptation of a mammoth Stephen King novel. The legendary William Goldman (Misery, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) had written the script, with Kasdan later adding his own touches. The reviews were savage and the box office dismal for the heavily promoted movie.
Kasdan hesitates now, when I wonder aloud if the long stretch between movies was because he felt "wounded" by the response to Dreamcatcher.
"Wounded," he says slowly, as if testing the word. "Wounded careerwise," he continues. "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 Tom Hanks. 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.
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"I still believe I can do this work. That has not changed. But it is discouraging to go nine years without a movie when all you want to do is make movies."
Wary or wise, or both, the Kasdans didn't shop the modestly scaled Darling Companion to the studios. Instead, they went indie, an experience Kasdan found exhilarating and freeing.
"This is a different world," the director says. "Meg and I don't even know what other movies are coming out on our opening date because it doesn't matter. We're going to be in three, maybe five theaters, and if we can't get people there, maybe we'll get them in San Francisco or Philadelphia. That's kind of great.
"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."