An actor dressed as Indiana Jones presented Hollywood writer, producer and director Lawrence Kasdan the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival’s first Icon Award for Contributions to the Cinematic Arts on Sunday, May 22, at the Woodruff Arts Center.
Like the archaeologist/adventurer he helped create, a decades-long career in the film industry is one of his finest achievements, Kasdan said in an interview before the ceremony. “I sold my first script 39 years ago, and I can still make a living,” the 67-year-old said. “It’s hard to have a long career. It’s very competitive, there are ups and downs, but you keep doing it. That to me is the achievement.”
The award was presented to Kasdan after a lengthy career retrospective that included clips from many of his movies, among them “Body Heat,” “The Big Chill,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and three of the “Star Wars” films.
Having written the acclaimed fifth and sixth episodes of the “Star Wars” saga, “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi,” Kasdan was entrusted with penning last year’s “Episode VII — The Force Awakens” and is working on a Han Solo movie.
Asked whether he feels pressure writing something as culturally significant as a “Star Wars” movie, Kasdan said: “You know you have an audience, and you don’t want to disappoint people. That’s all. You’re hoping in the case of a series that it’s an installment people like because there are some that people don’t like. You want to rectify that.”
Kasdan spoke at length about the influence of Jewish lore in his work. “I’ve been influenced by some of the great folk tales of all cultures. When I got involved with Lucasfilm, first with ‘Star Wars’ and then ‘Raiders,’ you’re sort of steeped in it. … What are the recurring themes and tropes, and what are the satisfactions of epic storytelling? In my other work I’ve been driven by other things, but there’s no question being a secular Jew very much influences all my work. Hopefully without ever preaching about it, it’s there.”
Kasdan expanded on that theme during the award ceremony, moderated by Catherine Cox, co-founder of ArtsATL and a former art and architecture critic at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Cox, who attended the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor with Kasdan, is one of the students on whom he based characters in “The Big Chill.”
“There’s something so deeply encompassing about the ethos and sensibility of Jews, and I think it’s in everything I’ve ever worked on,” Kasdan said. “The movies have been very receptive to a Jewish temperament, and it has continued in these movies. It probably has to do with setting as the priority the relationships between people and how people are meant to interact and what is the priority in terms of kindness and generosity and imagination about other people’s plight.”
He said being Jewish comes through in a shared heritage, a sense of humor and morality despite the conflicts of daily life.
“Sometimes it’s even harder being a Jew. It’s a struggle every day to do that which you think is right and have that be an issue in your life, not something you just ignore, so it’s an examined life with a certain flavor to it. So in that way, I’m a big Jew,” he said with a smile.
In addition to the Han Solo script, Kasdan has a couple of premium cable projects in the works. The TV and film industry “is actually having a lovely kind of rebirth because of premium cable,” he said. “Studios gave up making the kind of movies I’ve been making for 30 years, and it looked like for a while no one would make them. Instead, there is all this money now for serious and complicated adult drama and comedy on premium cable. And that changes everything. We watch ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘Silicon Valley.’ You can’t get better than that.”