The University Record, April 26, 1999

'High art starts in low places,' Kasdan says

By Theresa Maddix

"Never a day has passed after I received the [Hopwood] letter that I doubted I could make my way as a writer," Lawrence Kasdan told the Hopwood Awards ceremony audience in Rackham Auditorium April 20.

Kasdan presented a wide-ranging talk, beginning with his experience as a Hopwood winner and continuing with memories of growing up in a family that "considered writing a legitimate profession." Kasdan closed with an example of his craft as a screenwriter, turning "the last Hopwood Awards ceremony of the century" into a lively screenplay.

When Kasdan stepped out of the audience to give the lecture it was if he was going to receive a Hopwood award for creative writing, rather than embarking upon a speech. It is hard to picture the same unassuming Kasdan as the writer or co-writer of such movies as Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi and The Bodyguard. Or as the director of The Big Chill, The Accidental Tourist, Wyatt Earp and French Kiss.

Winning four Hopwood awards, he said, one in fiction and three in drama, was "confirmation, validation, encouragement and money." Receiving the awards in 1968-1970 "seemed enormous; was enormous."

While an honor, Kasdan said he dreaded giving the Hopwood lecture, even more than giving the University commencement address in 1991. At the graduation ceremony people were feeling good and not necessarily listening intently. In contrast, he knew people would be focusing on what he had to say at the Hopwood ceremony.

Kasdan spoke at length about his mother, whose activities he once regarded as irrational and unproductive. He now wonders if he owes her everything. With a father who died young, Kasdan's mother raised the family by her own wits. Riding around on Greyhound and city buses in West Virginia--she never learned to drive--his mom would talk to everyone. "It's grist for the mill" she would tell the young Kasdan, or, "I'll use it in a story some day."

She also would send away for mail-order self-help books, copy out whole sections on her typewriter, and then send the books back to the publisher--all in preparation for the "mother of self-help books" she aspired to write. As a child, Kasdan would watch these pages fly out of the typewriter "like the mops in Disney's Fantasia." He described his childhood home as full of "mountains of non-fileable, non-discardable materials."

Kasdan remembers vividly when he and his brother went to see Lawrence of Arabia. They arrived two minutes into the movie and rather than going in, Kasdan's brother persuaded him to wait six hours until the next showing, telling him it was too good to join in the middle. Afterward, Kasdan realized his brother was right. "The first scene was as important as the last." Kasdan knew then that he had to make movies.

When talking about screenwriting, Kasdan's love of the craft is apparent. "It's not prose or play-writing or structural engineering. At its best it can be mistaken for poetry."

Screenwriting, he said, is different from all other forms of writing. "When you're done, what you have created is the plan for a movie." It is closer to architecture, making plans and relying on someone else to build them into a movie. Yet, the experience of watching the movie come together is "exhilarating."

Working as a screenwriter reminds Kasdan of playing guard on his sixth grade-basketball team. "My accomplishments are limited by my abilities." A screenwriter, he said, must be a jack-of-all-trades, with an idea of structure and narrative, a visual sense of the world, the ability to create dialogue that sounds real, and the "imaginative generosity to create real, flawed characters."

And yet, with the abundance of people trying to write for the movies, "no one expects movies to be well written." Partly for that reason, Kasdan said that in his experience "high art starts in low places." The same could be said for great artists who begin with a hard West Virginian childhood, win Hopwood awards and go on to create high-impact movies.