Lawrence Kasdan on the “Darling Companions” Set
Photo by Wilson Webb, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
Over the course of thirty-plus years, the career of Lawrence Kasdan has included co-writing some of the highest-grossing movies of all time (The Empire Strikes Back, The Return of the Jedi, Raiders of the Lost Ark), co-writing and directing the Oscar-nominated classics The Big Chill, The Accidental Tourist, and Grand Canyon, writing and producing the cultural sensation The Bodyguard and writing and directing an acclaimed list of films including Body Heat and Silverado. Kasdan’s latest film Darling Companion opens Friday, April 20th in New York and Los Angeles. Darling Companion, is the story of an extended family’s weekend in the High Rockies, and the comedy/drama of manners that ensues after their beloved rescue dog, Freeway, goes missing. Kasdan has once again assembled a stellar cast including Diane Keaton (Annie Hall), Kevin Kline (A Fish Called Wanda), Dianne Wiest (Bullets Over Broadway), Richard Jenkins (The Visitor), Elisabeth Moss (TV’s “Mad Men”), Mark Duplass (Humpday), Ayalet Zurer (Munich), and Sam Shepard (The Right Stuff). (Check out the LiC review here). I recently sat down for an exciting chat with Kasdan, in which he shared with me some incredible insights into his screenwriting process, making his first independent film after years in the studio system, and crafting Darling Companion.
Jackson Truax: As a writer and director, you’ve written some incredible blockbusters and explored a number of different genres. When you sit down to write and then direct a deeply personal film, like Darling Companion, is it the same experience as writing a sweeping romance or adventure? Or is it a different experience creatively?
Lawrence Kasdan: It’s pretty much the same thing. I have to be honest. It’s not so different to write Darling Companion or The Big Chill or The Accidental Tourist or Raiders of the Lost Ark. The problems are the same… The problem is, “Is the first scene good enough so that people want to see the second scene? Are they in a hurry to see the third scene? Are they wondering what’s going to happen next? Do they care about the people? Do they care about the story?” Those problems are the same no matter what kind of movie you’re making.
JT: You said on the DVD of The Big Chill that the film captures “the best possible instincts in my filmmaking life, which was, it was purely personal. I wanted to tell a very specific story about people of my generation.” Darling Companion is obviously a very personal story for you. Do you feel the movie as strongly captures the story of what your generation is currently experiencing?
LK: I don’t think it can possibly encompass everything that people my age are experiencing. But it does put people my age, which is sixty, forefront, which most Hollywood movies do not. In fact, not even many indie movies do that. And yet, sixty-year-olds make up a big part of our life. They’re vital. They’re full of life. They’re not as portrayed in Hollywood movies. They’re not doddering and demented. They are vital people. This movie tries to talk about life. Not just about sixty-year-olds, but there’s a twenty-year-old romance. There’s a thirty year-old romance. It’s about finding a companion who really is special. Who is able to give you comfort. Who is loyal to you, and trustworthy. That can happen at any age. But it certainly does talk about the issue of getting older.
JT: In addition to Darling Companion coming out this weekend, Grand Canyon has very recently been released on Blu-ray, both as a cause and effect of it finding new audiences over the years and aging really well. Grand Canyon was made before it was en vogue to make web-of-life dramas about race and class relations in LA. You succeeded where others failed, in that none of your characters feel like mouthpieces for ideas, but fully-formed characters with a lot of subtext. How did you accomplish that in the writing, and make sure they weren’t just one-dimensional entities placed in scenes to project certain viewpoints?
LK: What you’re saying, is what you hope when you write these things… Everybody sees the movies differently. You’re hoping that some of the people see the work you did the way you intended it to be seen. Hopefully, through action rather than speeches, it tells you something about that moment in time in our city and our country. That’s why my wife [Meg Kasdan] and I wrote it. We were interested and mystified by what was going on. We had raised two sons in Los Angeles. We were concerned about what was happening to the city. We tried to show a bunch of different kinds of lives that were going on.
JT: When you’re writing a large ensemble piece filled with characters that are very different from you in a number of ways, is the writing process and the final product still as deeply personal?
LK: It’s very personal, because you’re presenting your point of view. You’re trying to report on the world as you see it, in a way that is true for you, and you hope, other people. There’s nothing more personal than that. You’re laying yourself out there and saying, “I have looked at my world. I have looked at my city. [These are] some of the impressions that I’ve gotten. This is not the answer. This doesn’t sum up anything. [These are] some of the things that have struck me, some of the things that surprised me. I’m taken with the violence. I’m taken with the anger. I’m taken with the possibility of connection between people who would not normally meet. I’m interested in all those things.” There’s nothing more personal than talking about the things that interest you.
JT: When you’re writing an ensemble screenplay like The Bill Chill or Darling Companion about a group of friends and/or family, how do you make sure each character has a voice that’s completely distinct from the rest of the characters?
LK: It’s the same challenge…as writing The Empire Strikes Back or Raiders of the Lost Ark. Because you want each character who comes on the screen to be interesting. You want them to seem like a different character than the one standing next to them. You want to believe that they have a life apart from what you’re seeing on the screen. The movie presents you with little snippets of each of those character’s lives. But the bulk of their life is off-screen… You want to create a character where you believe there really is a life going on off-screen.
JT: Darling Companion was written by you and Meg as a response to real events. As you approached the story, how did you navigate how true-to-life the story should be, and where to make it a fictional story with fictional characters and situations?
LK: The inspiration was a true thing that happened to us. We had rescued a dog. And we had lost the dog for a while. We searched for the dog. And we found the dog. So that all was true. We were excited by it… Because it was an opportunity to explore a lot of other things. So you take what’s real, let it inspire you, and you make up all the rest. But you’re making it up out of what you take to be a true experience of life. Things that you’ve observed. People that you’ve met, friends, acquaintances. You say, “Are the actions that we see in the movie, as a journey that the characters go on, true to life?” If it is, then there’s a chance that someone out there will look at it and say, “I’m glad you made that movie.” That’s all you really want… You want them to say, “I’m glad you made that movie. Because it talked about things that interest me.”
JT: You and Kevin Kline have proven to be a great director-actor pairing. When you and Meg began writing Darling Companion, did you immediately know that Kevin would be in it and what role he would play?
LK: My wife and I did not think about any actors while we were writing. I know it’s hard to believe, but the truth is, I never do. I try to write the characters, have them be good, and have them be good enough so they’re going to attract the best actors. The second you’re done writing the script, which is the hard part, you immediately start the fun part, which is, “Who can play this? Who would be great?” In this movie it was extraordinary. Because we got everybody we wanted. So we sent it to Diane Keaton and Kevin Kline. They said they would play the couple. We sent it to Diane Wiest and Richard Jenkins. They said they would come into the movie. We sent it to Sam Shepard. He said he’d do it. It was down the line… The wonderful Elisabeth Moss, Ayelet Zurer, the wonderful Israeli actress, Mark Duplass, who’s not usually in these kinds of movies, but is wonderful in it.
JT: Speaking of Duplass, when you direct someone like him or like Kevin Costner (Wyatt Earp), is it a different dialogue, because they’re talented and established directors in their own right?
LK: I think it’s a different dialogue with every actor. Part of the challenge of directing, and also why it’s so fun, and such a stimulating thing to do, is that you have to find a language with everybody. It’s not just the cast. It’s the cinematographer, and production designer, and the sound man, where you can communicate what you want.
JT: Kevin Kline is such a remarkable actor, and he’s done a lot of his best work on your films. How has your creative partnership with him evolved over the years?
LK: We’re very comfortable with each other. We trust each other. I trust him completely. I think his taste his great. I think he’s one of the funniest people on earth. I think he’s a great actor. Hopefully he trusts me, so that when I say, “A little less, a little more, a little more of that. Have you thought about it this way?” He’s not threatened by that in any way, shape, or form. He just says, “Yes. No. No, I don’t want to think about it that way. Yes, that’s great.” It’s a dialogue. It’s a really comfortable dialogue.
JT: The Big Chill and Darling Companion are similar, in that you have a group of people in a place for a period of time, and for longer than they expected to be there. There’s obviously a lot of built-in drama there. Was that part of the initial idea for Darling Companion? Was it a gift or a challenge?
LK: It’s totally a trick of writing you’ve seen right through… It’s a built-in structure. Structure is the hardest part of any story. The idea of a country house story, which is what The Big Chill is and what Darling Companion is, and also The Rules of the Game, one of the greatest movies ever made by Jean Renoir. It’s a country house, and a bunch of people [go] to a country house. Something happens, and all the pairs of characters are thrown together, and they have different revelations about their lives as they go through together.
JT: You’ve talked about getting the actors on The Big Chill to that setting and in a secluded group for several weeks leading up to and then throughout shooting. Was that something you were able to do on Darling Companion?
LK: It’s odd. Because normally today you can’t do that, because actors cost so much and they have obligations and you’re not going to get them until this date. But Darling Companion was such a low-budget movie, and so concentrated, that we needed everybody practically everyday. So they were all around all the time. And that hasn’t happened to me since The Big Chill. And I’ve made eight movies in between… It’s great fun to have everybody there, and sort of living the experience.
JT: What did having this cast together in Utah for the entirety of the shoot add to the movie?
LK: Everyone was there. No one was making any money. So they only showed up because they really liked the movie. They really wanted to be part of it. And they wanted to work with the other people. And they liked the people that were involved in the project. That’s a great basis on which to do a difficult enterprise, which making a movie is.
JT: Darling Companion has some really good, really fun uses of music, but isn’t as layered with pop hits as some of your other films. Was that at all a function of budget? Or was it a creative decision based on the story and setting?
LK: It’s both. But there’s no question it’s budget. The title song “Darling Companion” is a John Sebastian song that the Lovin’ Spoonful, which was a great group in the sixties, recorded. Johnny Cash covered it with his wife, June. We have a bluegrass version of it, done by a local group in Utah. We could not afford the Lovin’ Spoonful or Johnny Cash. It makes perfect sense that this bluegrass band is playing at the wedding in the movie. By the same token, there’s a song at the end. I wanted to use another song we couldn’t afford. It meant that we had to write a song. It turned out to be fine. Then we have a Bonnie Raitt song that Bonnie Raitt was very generous with us and made it possible for us to have. We couldn’t really have afforded it if she charged us the regular rate. She liked the movie. She’d liked my movies. She was very sweet about it.
JT: In Darling Companion, you have a lot of wide outdoor shots and sweeping exteriors. What were the challenges of filming that with the limited budget and resources you had?
LK: It does add pressure when you have a very short schedule and not much money. There’s no going back. You’re not going to go back because it started to rain. You have to make do. And we were outside most of the time. We were lucky, to some extent, with the weather. And we made do when we weren’t lucky… We only had so much time to get all this work done. Everybody [pitched] in. It worked out okay.
JT: There were some scenes in the movie where rain makes for some great drama. Were those in the script, or were you dealing with the unforeseen circumstances of the weather?
LK: That was in the script. That’s where we wanted to add some adversity to the adventure… We had some rain machines. We didn’t have a lot of money. So we didn’t have the kind of extensive set-up that I’ve had on other movies. But it was perfectly good. That’s what you find out about these cheap movies. It’s good enough. You make it with what you got.
JT: Darling Companion is your first independent production. Throughout the process of making it, what were some of the freedoms you had or choices you made that you wouldn’t have had if this had been a studio movie?
LK: We never submitted it to a studio for exactly that reason, which is…we don’t think studios are making movies with sixty-year-old protagonists… And the kind of comedy that it is, we don’t think is the kind of broad comedy that is basically what studio comedies are now. I like comedies like Shampoo and Tootsie and Dr. Strangelove. There are funny comedies being made now. But the studios are not really amenable to the kind of comedy that I like, and that have been made since the days of Howard Hawkes and Preston Sturges, which is the comedy of everyday life, and the comedy of characters who are idiosyncratic.
JT: You said filming Darling Companion was “One of the most gratifying experiences” you’ve ever had. What was unique about making this film that made it so deeply gratifying to you?
LK: It’s that joining into an enterprise that’s very difficult. Where’s there’s a lot of adversity. Where no one is doing it for the money. And everybody makes do with what they’ve got. Where you don’t get to do a lot of takes, and the actors say, “That’s okay, let’s move forward.” All that feels great.
JT: In the current landscape of cinema distribution, personal stories with the kinds of characters seen in Darling Companion are often going straight to DVD or VOD or cable. Why is it important audiences seek out Darling Companion this weekend?
LK: Going to a movie theater to see a story, whether it’s a gigantic 3-D extravaganza, or a movie like this, is a great experience. It’s great when you sit in an audience and people are laughing, and they’re relating to it in a very strong way. You can’t really get that at home. You can see the movie. You can get full pleasure. I watch movies at home all the time. I watch all my old favorite movies. I don’t need an audience to enjoy them. But there’s something unique about going into a movie theater and sharing the experience with an audience.
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