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Lawrence Kasdan’s Grand Balancing Act

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Director Lawrence Kasdan is holed up in his office on the 20th Century Fox lot awaiting the release of “Grand Canyon” which opens in Los Angeles Wednesday. Alternately anxious and philosophical, practical and idealistic, he’s a walking billboard for a central theme of the film: the difficulty of pursuing a life of honor and principle in a world which works against it.

“Working in Hollywood is a constant battle with yourself,” Kasdan says, “because the criteria for success are very confusing. The message put out is that it’s power, fame and money that count, and it’s very strong and persuasive. I’m worried about ‘Grand Canyon’ finding an audience, acceptance in the community, when what should matter is that I feel OK about the work. In the end, it’s a balancing act. I’ve enjoyed almost total freedom and autonomy for the past 10 years, but I can’t maintain it without an occasional success.”

Not to worry. For Kasdan--an English literature major at the University of Michigan who wrote or co-wrote the screenplays for such blockbusters as “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “The Empire Strikes Back” and “The Return of the Jedi"--has a pretty impressive track record as a director as well.

“Body Heat” (1981), his film noir -ish debut featuring two little-known actors named Kathleen Turner and William Hurt, drew a significant dose of critical acclaim. “The Big Chill” (1983), a tale of ‘60s chums coming to terms with ‘80s values, grossed $60 million in the U.S. and Canada and was up for three Oscars, including best film. “Silverado” (1985), an offbeat Western that languished in the theaters, went on to become a cult favorite on video and cable; and “The Accidental Tourist,” the director’s 1988 adaptation of Anne Tyler’s novel, snagged four Academy Award nominations after walking off with the New York Film Critics’ Best Picture Award.

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Of all Kasdan’s releases, only 1990’s “I Love You to Death"--the story of a woman’s botched attempts to kill her philandering husband--qualifies as a flop. “That surprised me,” says the director, wearing a stylish black shirt and beige suede boots to spiff up his trademark blue jeans. “I don’t know to this day why it was so roundly rejected. Something about that story apparently people didn’t want to see.”

“Grand Canyon,” which Kasdan co-wrote with his wife Meg, focuses on six Angelenos of varying socioeconomic strata whose lives are intertwined through, and transformed by, a series of random events. What started out as an exploration of marriage ballooned into ruminations on parenthood, the fragility of life, the woes of our cities in particular and the decline of the nation, in general.

“Cities are supposed to be hubs of civilization, not war zones,” the director notes in his flat, slightly nasal West Virginia twang. “In Los Angeles, we had the fantasy that we could run to our neighborhoods and hide, but that illusion has been dispelled. One wrong turn plants you in enemy territory. There is no safe place anymore, no sense of security. ‘Grand Canyon’ is about the fact that we’re all interconnected. If people at the bottom suffer, we all do. The world becomes an unlivable place.”

The advent of middle age and the prospect of his older son going off to college, says the 42-year-old Kasdan, brought such realizations into sharper focus.

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“Seeing your children grow throws your own life into relief,” he says. “They’re a daily reminder that you’re moving on because they’re so clearly coming up from behind. That driving lesson (in ‘Grand Canyon’) is about more than the difficulty of making left turns in Los Angeles. Giving your son the wheel is about letting go . . . and the threat of disaster in the most mundane actions.”

Making movies, Kasdan acknowledges, is his way of fending off mortality, bottling the moments so he and others can look back on them later.

“That’s why it’s so important to have movies recording the culture we live in,” he says. “Look what happened to England. After a surge of films dealing with English life in ‘50s and ‘60s--'Darling,’ ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning,’ ‘Look Back in Anger,'--there was a decade of nothing, no record of what was going on. The same thing could happen here if we spend all our filmmaking energies on escapism and fantasy.”

The bottom-line mentality that pervades Hollywood is nothing new, he says. “In the old days, studios were also about making money,” Kasdan says. “But they contented themselves with modest profits instead of expecting every movie to transform their balance sheets. Given how much it takes to make and sell a movie, each project is seen as a big roll of the dice. Studios are looking for movies that send people whistling out of the theaters, stories that go down easily and offend the fewest people.

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“ ‘The Big Chill’ opened OK, not great in 1983,” he says. “It played for six months and made a lot of money. These days, you have to have a hit on the first weekend or you’re out of the theater. Every movie has to be sold as an ‘event,’ which puts tremendous pressure on films about interesting things. The role of the audience has also changed. Great movies always invited people to participate in them instead of pandering to them the way we do now. When people are handed everything, told how to feel, there’s no need to fill in the blanks.”

Kasdan, who decided to make films after watching David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia” at age 13, says he’s been influenced by a number of filmmakers along the way. Among them: Howard Hawks, John Huston, John Ford, John Sturges, Billy Wilder and Jean Renoir.

“ ‘The Rules of the Game’ is an important movie,” says Kasdan of Renoir. “Lots of characters each leading real lives and coming together in an explosive way. That’s what I want my movies to do. I love working with groups of good actors. I’m excited by the electricity that occurs between them. Casting a movie is like assembling a great basketball team.”

The starting lineup for the $20 million “Grand Canyon” is a star-studded one, primarily because the actors worked for a lot less than their usual fees in return for receiving a cut of the profits.

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There’s Kevin Kline, who, having appeared in “The Big Chill,” “Silverado” and “I Love You to Death,” is becoming a Kasdan staple.

“Among leading men, it’s hard to find one who can believably convey introspection,” the director says. “Though Kevin is very physical, you believe his inner life.”

The director also explains his other choices:

* Steve Martin: “Steve is an extravagant, entertaining personality who is a little larger than life.” Perfect for the part of a “bombastic but self-aware, crude but perceptive” producer in the film.

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* Alfre Woodard: “So many good black actresses and almost no chance to work. Alfre is extraordinary, magnetic. There’s a light glowing in there.”

* Mary Louise Parker: “She was the first actress I read with . . . and, for me, a perfect expression for the loneliness and anxiety floating around the city. People are trying to control a scary universe in various ways. Working too hard, substance abuse, eating, working out two hours a day.”

Kasdan cast Mary McDonnell after seeing her in “Matewan” and “Dances With Wolves.” “Mary’s face is a map of emotion in a mature woman. The rawness and passion live on her skin, her face, her eyes. Though her character lives in comfortable circumstances, she’s experiencing some pain. What seems petty to others is very real to her because we’re all at the center of our own movie. One of the points of the movie is that pain comes in all kinds of packages.”

As for Danny Glover, a veteran of “Silverado,” for whom Kasdan wrote the part, he’s “a big, vital, energetic guy. There’s an openness to the world there, but a sadness in him, too--as there is in most feeling people who are aware of suffering. He plays a lonely person trying to do the right thing . . . as a friend, a parent, a man. It’s hard.”

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The image of the Grand Canyon has a duel resonance in the movie, says the director, representing both the grim reality and the guarded hopefulness with which he wraps up his film.

“One character sees the canyon as the abyss between people who are comfortable and those who are living in desperate circumstances,” Kasdan says. “What fills it is rage--from which we’re all getting the fallout. Another sees it as a symbol of the timelessness, the beauty, of the planet. Instead of coming away feeling small, he looks to his own life in an effort to make it meaningful. That’s the challenge: to accept the reality of change, but to act as though you’re going to live forever. To live in the moment, but make long-term commitments to people.”

Such as his nearly 20-year marriage to Meg? Kasdan nods. “To some extent, the film is about the difficulty of maintaining relationships in the midst of all the stresses and temptations,” he says. “I don’t know why we’ve been able to make it. Meg and I have always approached our marriage as a day-to-day enterprise that has been working for a long time. Generally, we approach life that way. You can’t assume anything about tomorrow.”

With “Grand Canyon” behind him--or at least out of his hands--Kasdan is focusing his sights elsewhere. His company is producing “The Bodyguard,” the first screenplay he ever sold which, after 16 years, is finally making it to the big screen. The story of a bodyguard hired to protect an entertainer, it will be directed by Mick Jackson (“L.A. Story”) and star Kevin Costner (in a role originally written for Steve McQueen) and Whitney Houston.

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In August, Kasdan will plunge into a comedy about the difficulty of finding someone with whom to spend your life, another project he’ll be writing with Meg--generally a pretty smooth proposition, he says. Then, in late 1993, another Costner project--a sexy melodrama titled “Pair-A-Dice” to be written by David Peoples (“Blade Runner”) which Kasdan has been developing for four years.

Though a script is written and the actors interested, Kasdan says, prospects for a “Silverado” sequel are still iffy. “I love making Westerns,” he says, “but when you don’t get to make many pictures, maybe each one should be different. I wish the time investment on a film weren’t so enormous. Guys like Howard Hawks and John Ford who usually weren’t involved in the editing or the writing or the selling of the film sometimes turned out movies three times a year. I’m jealous of that.”

Filmmaking, Kasdan says, has taken the place of therapy in his life. Putting his thoughts up there on the screen has helped him stay “balanced and whole.” Still, he acknowledges, it exacts a toll.

“I realized last year that I may not want to make movies forever,” he says. “Directing is the greatest job in the world, but the process is so hard. Each picture is like a child, a huge investment of heart and work. I decided that I want to work a lot while I have the interest in and the energy for it. Then if the time comes when I’m not having fun, I can walk away.”

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Until that time, his primary concern is growing as a director, ensuring that his appetite for material doesn’t flag.

“I want each movie to be an ambitious bite,” Kasdan says with a smile. "(Akira) Kurosawa, the greatest director who ever lived, said that villains have arrived at what they’re going to be . . . that’s their flaw, but that heroes evolve--they’re open to change and growth. I want to be evolving. When you’re set, you might as well it give it all up.”


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