By Kevin Walsh
I was five when I fell in love with movies amidst a chorus of pew-pewing lasers and thrumming light sabers, but it wasn’t until four years later that I fell in love with moviemaking.
As a savvy nine-year-old, watching Indiana Jones brawl, banter and bullwhip his way through “Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark,” I had an epiphany that there were real people behind the scenes, getting paid to make things up. And so dreams of becoming Han or Luke were shelved. And as much fun as it was to follow characters Indy, Marion and Sallah on their quest to keep the Ark out of the hands of Belloq and his nefarious allies (even a Nazi Capuchin!), I didn’t aspire to be them, either. I wanted to be the people who “created” them.
So I embarked on my own quest, with “Raiders” as my guide. I didn’t just watch it, I studied it obsessively, trying to glean the secrets of the craft behind the illusion. It was with me in middle school when I got to blast John Williams’ iconic brass fanfare from the trombone section in the band. It was with me on my first day of film school at USC when they spooled up a classic sequence to illustrate the discipline of sound design and I got to watch Indy run a gauntlet of Peruvian booby traps. It was with me when I was handed my diploma from our commencement guests — the chief architects behind “Raiders,” Steven Spielberg and George Lucas themselves.
It has even served as a litmus test for friendships, as well. I’m not saying the best man at my wedding got the job solely because he owns a fedora and bullwhip, but it didn’t hurt. He’s the same friend who hooked me up with a transcript of the story meetings behind the film, which I pored over like the Dead Sea Scrolls, absorbing lessons that I’ve carried with me during my lengthy tenure in the story department of, fittingly enough, Amblin/Dreamworks.
I’ve found that “Raiders” is even more useful in identifying folks to avoid, by which I mean the certain stripe of smug screenplay guru who spouts the hot take that the film is somehow badly written because Indy, as a protagonist, is moot. Take him out of the movie, they sneer, and the result is the same: The Nazis acquire the Ark, Belloq opens it, and they are all “wiped clean by the wrath of God.” Whenever I hear this theory my first thought is: “Who hurt you to make you like this?” Followed by: “Have you ever even seen a movie?”
My recoil here is so sharp mainly because this skewed view hits close to home. When you spend your days elbow deep in the guts of evolving projects, trying to determine what’s working, what isn’t, and what needs to change, there’s a risk of becoming so obsessed with the minutiae of the “sacred” rules of story that you become a joyless technician. You can forget that the only real barometer of whether a story is working is the audience. If they’re enthralled enough to overlook a problem with the story, then it’s literally not a problem.
These days, with so much “creativity by committee” backed with bits and bytes and check lists and focus groups, there’s a risk of slipping into a cold place where we’re trying to quantify the ephemera of wonder — to measure it, bottle it, and inject it in precise, predictable, profitable doses.
If I ever feel like I’m sliding towards that darkness, if I get the sense that I’m hammering away at a project for violating this “rule” or that one, I’ll consciously take a step back and apply the “Raiders” test and ask myself: “But is it fun?” Because at the end of the day, you can argue that “Raiders” without Indy and Marion and Sallah may end precisely the same way, but you can’t tell me that it would be any good. It would be one hell of a dull, forgettable film. And it definitely would not remain enshrined as one of the quintessential adventure stories in the history of the medium.
Kevin Walsh is a story analyst and has written coverage for Amblin/Dreamworks as well as fiction for media ranging from screenplays to comic books. He also co-produced the documentary “Marwencol” and won (and lost) on “Jeopardy!” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.