KASDAN: HI-YO, 'SILVERADO'

"It's insane--it's repugnant to me! It's like putting ketchup on ice cream." Grimacing, Lawrence Kasdan shook his head, as if to empty it of the two words he'd just heard.

Yuppie Western.

The term cropped up last year, almost immediately after Columbia Pictures announced that Kasdan--the writer/director/co-producer of "Big Chill" fame--planned to re-cast three alumni from that film (Kevin Kline, Jeff Goldblum and Kevin Costner, whose part as Alex was cut from the film) as cowboys in his new project, "Silverado."

Silver-spurred Topsiders? Designer chaps? Racquetball at the OK Corral?

Hardly.

Kasdan had no intention of parodying the Old West. His honest-to-genre Western (which opens Wednesday and also stars Scott Glenn, Danny Glover, Rosanna Arquette, Linda Hunt, Brian Dennehy and John Cleese) is a story of four unlikely heros and their adventures in and around the 1880s frontier town of Silverado.

Kasdan's project is the last (and most expensive, at $23 million) of three Westerns to be released recently. "Rustler's Rhapsody," a parody of "B" Westerns, went thataway almost immediately. Clint Eastwood's "Pale Rider" looks promising after grossing $9 million on its opening weekend.

Ironically, "Silverado" opens shortly before the publication of "Final Cut," the blow-by-blow account of the making of the last big-budget Western, "Heaven's Gate," by former United Artists executive Steven Bach. Michael Cimino's $40-million-plus movie was a financial disaster that led to UA's absorption by MGM in 1981.

Even before "Heaven's Gate," Westerns were unpopular undertakings at movie studios. Should this year's offerings fail to make dents at the box office, the genre could be retired . . . permanently.

It's High Noon for Westerns in Hollywood--and nobody is more keenly aware of that fact than Larry Kasdan.

"I don't know whether audiences are really resistant to Westerns--that's the inherent question 'Silverado' will test. It's obviously what has scared Hollywood all these years."

Kasdan's smile was a tolerant one; it certainly wasn't the first time he'd responded to the question. However, Kasdan seemed itchy for the answer during an interview in his cozy Studio City office, simply decorated with foreign language posters and assorted memorabilia from his other films.

The bearded, jeans-clad director also gave the good-natured but candid impression that he was dying for another opportunity to beat Hollywood at its own game--predicting what audiences want to see.

"When they made 'Star Wars,' science fiction was considered dead. They quit making sports films--until 'Rocky' came out. You wonder how long it takes the studios to realize that people will go to the movie that's offbeat and interesting."

Kasdan shook his head, bemused. The pleasant surprise about Larry Kasdan is that he's kept a well-developed sense of humor--and irony--about a business that has buffeted him about considerably. Ever since the screenwriter ("Continental Divide," "The Empire Strikes Back," "Raiders of the Lost Ark") made his directorial debut with "Body Heat" (the steamy 1981 film noir starring William Hurt and Kathleen Turner), he's clashed repeatedly with studio executives over the commerciality of his projects.

Sherry Lansing put "Body Heat" into turnaround during her Fox tenure (it was picked up by the Ladd Co.) and every studio in town passed on "The Big Chill" (it was produced by Johnny Carson's film company and released by Columbia).

When Kasdan and his brother Mark turned in "Silverado" script, with a projected budget of $25 million, to Columbia Pictures, the studio's reaction was predictable.

"It was a combination of two things they don't like--a high budget and a Western," Kasdan explained. "Columbia had been supportive about the script, but they were very nervous about the genre."

Most studios are. Given the failure of most Westerns at the box office over the last 15 years, the theory prevailed that space adventures such as "Star Wars" had become the Westerns of a new generation, which had no interest in horses and sagebrush. Kasdan disagreed.

"My theory was that we weren't doing it quite right. The Westerns which have come out of Hollywood in the last 15 years have mainly been about the end of an era--the closing down of the frontier. All these movies had the first car, the first airplane, and that drove me crazy."

Kasdan wanted make a new version of the true Western. "When I was a kid, what excited me was that Westerns were about potential, about expansion, about a land that was completely unformed and which you could do anything with and be almost any kind of person."

Surprisingly, after a $2-million budget cut and a trip by several Columbia executives to New York to convince the studio's board of directors about the project, Kasdan was given the go-ahead.

"I don't have a history of great relations with studios," Kasdan reflected, "but Columbia has been absolutely faultless on this movie. They were absolutely supportive."

Kasdan wanted authenticity in all areas of his film--beginning with the surroundings.

He stubbornly held out against studio pressure that he film "Silverado" in Mexico or Spain to cut costs. "I felt very strongly that we should shoot it here. No other place looks like the American West," he maintained. "The landscape was a big important character in this movie and to say, 'Oh, why don't you just go to Spain' is like saying, 'Oh, why don't you just cast another actor.' "

As a result, "Silverado" was shot in various locations around Santa Fe, N.M., last winter. "It was a very, very tough show--the weather was terrible," Kasdan recalled, wincing at the memory. "Plus, the weather changes five times a day around Santa Fe, so you knew that if you started a scene one way, you were stuck when it clouded over."

When the weather wasn't a problem, Kasdan encountered others--especially during the filming of a cattle stampede involving approximately 600 head of cattle, some flown in from as far away as California.

Trouble was, Kasdan ruefully explained, "the cattle didn't want to stampede. They're lazy and had a tendency to run in the wrong direction. There's a way to do it with controlling fences, but if they weren't being prodded, they'd just stop. That's one of the reasons we went long. It took 11 days--twice as long as we had allotted."

Stories of cast and crew packing in supplies to the sometimes remote locations had been true, he said. "The spirit in the crew was great. They sort of all rose to the occasion. No one was shy about picking up a piece of equipment. I think how tough it was to make helped the spirit of the movie."

When Kasdan discussed his cast and crew, he revealed a philosophy of directing that is unique in a profession where the director is king.

"I try to create a situation in which everybody is always contributing," he explained, "The relationship I have with someone like John Bailey (director of photography) or Carol Littleton (film editor) is that they are absolutely my collaborators in the same way my brother was when we wrote the script. And the same way each of the actors is my collaborator.

"I try not to make any distinctions on the set. Everybody is really encouraged on the set to say what they think. It's not a director's picture--it's a group effort, that's also what's exciting about it."

For actors Kline, Glenn, Costner and Glover, "Silverado" began a month early. "They had gun and riding lessons every day," Kasdan explained. "A lot of Westerns have been made where they just throw the actors out there, and I think it really hurts. If a guy's uncomfortable on a horse, it shows in his performance."

Although Rosanna Arquette receives third billing in "Silverado," her part (Hannah, a strong young pioneer woman) seems rather small for the credit. Kasdan uncomfortably acknowledged that "we had to cut the movie severely. We found that there were so many characters, if you took out even a little bit of someone, it hurt them badly. Rosanna did a good job, she's wonderful, but there's no question that her story suffered in the cutting. I feel bad about it because that's not the kind of part I write."

Kasdan's next project may not be one he both writes and directs. "Directing is so much more pleasant for me that I think I'm gonna just lay off writing, at least for a while." Thinking his statement over, he went further, "Maybe I'll give it up."

Kasdan, like so many others, finds writing more pain than pleasure. "Writing is never a great time, it's like constant homework--and you're never done."

Instead, he may find himself doing the very thing he used to loathe--tinkering, as director, with other writer's scripts. "Well, I think I can put my fingers in a little bit in someone else's script," he surmised. "When I was just writing, I hated what would happen to my work, but actually the movies turned out all right, generally.

"Now, I'm gonna be the guy who ruins someone else's great screenplay."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
59°