Vanity Fair has a new article on Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, with photos and interviews and a video of Annie Leibovitz taking her on-the-set pictures of Cate Blanchett, Shia LaBeouf, Karen Allen and, of course, Harrison Ford.
An extensive section of the article deals with “the MacGuffin” and the central role it plays in the Indiana Jones films — as opposed to, say, the films of Alfred Hitchcock, where the MacGuffin is just a gimmick to keep the story going but doesn’t have much of a presence in its own right. And apparently George Lucas wasn’t all that satisfied with the MacGuffins in the last two films:
He feels he had an excellent one in Raiders of the Lost Ark. The much-sought-after Ark of the Covenant not only held the Ten Commandments but also functioned as “a radio to God” and possessed enough Old Testament power to smite those who looked on its treasures. If the Nazis were to gain control of it, instead of good old Indy, well, you can imagine the consequences. But a first-rate MacGuffin is hard to find, and Lucas says he was not completely satisfied with those he had for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (the sacred Shankara Stones, which, for reasons no audience can keep straight, must be retrieved in order to save kidnapped village children from an Indian death cult) and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (the life-giving Holy Grail, which comes in handy when Indy’s dad is dying).
“I’m the one that has to come up with the story, and the MacGuffin, the supernatural object that everyone’s going after … ” Lucas’s voice trails off. He is seated in a favorite chair, its cushions lumpy and dented. “The Ark of the Covenant was perfect. The Shankara Stones were way too esoteric. The Holy Grail was sort of feeble—but, at the same time, we put the father in there to cover for it. I mean, the whole reason it became a dad movie was because I was scared to hell that there wasn’t enough power behind the Holy Grail to carry a movie. So we kept pushing to have it function on some level—and to make it function for a father and a son. To make it that kind of a movie was the big risk and the big challenge, but also the thing that pulled it out of the fire. So, at the end of it, I was like, No more of these, baby. We’re done. I can’t think of anything else. We barely got by on the last one!
“At that point I had kind of retired,” he continues. “I was raising my kids, I was running my companies. The last thing I wanted to do was go off and do another one of these things. And it stayed there for quite a while, until I was doing Young Indiana Jones, and I was actually with Harrison, shooting a little piece for it, and I was up in Wyoming, where he lives, and I came up with this MacGuffin, which was sitting there right in front of me, and I said, ‘Well, why didn’t I ever see this before?’ ”
When Ford and Spielberg both rejected the idea, Lucas dug in. He hired screenwriter after screenwriter to make his MacGuffin the linchpin of a new Indy story. “So this went on for 15 years,” he says. “And finally we got to a point where everybody said, ‘Look, we’re not doing that movie.’ And I said, ‘Well, look, I can’t think of another MacGuffin. This is it. This works. I know this works.’ And then we stopped. I just said, ‘O.K.,’ and that’s about the time I started Star Wars again. But then Harrison was kind of interested. And I said, ‘I won’t do it unless we can have that MacGuffin. Without the MacGuffin, I will not go near this thing.’ ”
And then (spoiler warning) Lucas gets a little more (spoiler alert) specific: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull will apparently nudge our hero away from his usual milieu of spooky archaeology and into the realm of (spoiler Code Red) science fiction. “What it is that made it perfect was the fact that the MacGuffin I wanted to use and the idea that Harrison would be 20 years older would fit,” Lucas says. “So that put it in the mid-50s, and the MacGuffin I was looking at was perfect for the mid-50s. I looked around and I said, ‘Well, maybe we shouldn’t do a 30s serial, because now we’re in the 50s. What is the same kind of cheesy-entertainment action movie, what was the secret B movie, of the 50s?’ So instead of doing a 30s Republic serial, we’re doing a B science-fiction movie from the 50s. The ones I’m talking about are, like, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Blob, The Thing. So by putting it in that context, it gave me a way of approaching the whole thing.”
Come to think of it, that last bit kind of answers a question I raised here almost one year ago:
Needless to say, the world was a very different place in the 1960s than it was in the 1930s; the Nazis were gone, and so was the British Empire (seen in Temple of Doom). So in what context could this new film take place? The original movies were nostalgia trips to the days of Saturday-matinee serials — but could that template work for a movie set two or three decades later? How could this new movie possibly be “of a piece” with the other films?
Whether Lucas has given a satisfactory answer to that question is, of course, another matter. And remember how Lucas said the new Indiana Jones film would annoy the critics and the fans alike because “We’re basically going to do The Phantom Menace“? He can’t resist taking a shot at them in the new article, either:
Whatever, Lucas is convinced he won’t please everyone. “I know the critics are going to hate it,” he says. “They already hate it. So there’s nothing we can do about that. They hate the idea that we’re making another one. They’ve already made up their minds.”
At least the legions of Indy geeks will be pleased, right?
“The fans are all upset,” Lucas says. “They’re always going to be upset. ‘Why did he do it like this? And why didn’t he do it like this?’ They write their own movie, and then, if you don’t do their movie, they get upset about it. So you just have to stand by for the bricks and the custard pies, because they’re going to come flying your way.”
Finally, here is a picture of Cate Blanchett in Communist mode:
(Hat tip to Chris at Movie Marketing Madness.)