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Rethinking Indiana Jones : George Lucas Picks Up Where Indy Began, Breaking TV’s Rules in the Process

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In case you haven’t heard by now, Indiana Jones is coming to television. For a month, ABC has been heavily promoting Wednesday’s premiere of “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles” with fast-cut, triumphantly scored spots featuring the youthful Indy thundering on horseback, fighting in the Mexican Revolution, bravely facing a firing squad and locked in hand-to-hand combat with a tomb robber.

Those rousing promos, however, are a matter of some concern for series producer George Lucas, the architect of the Indiana franchise on film and television. He worries that ABC is whipping up false viewer expectations, that people will be disappointed if they tune in expecting the big-budget, Saturday-matinee cliffhangers that are the hallmark of the “Indiana Jones” film trilogy.

“That’s the biggest danger we have on this, the biggest danger,” he emphasized.

What Lucas has in store for TV viewers instead is the gradual and sometimes tender unfurling of a remarkable child coming of age.

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“I told ABC we shouldn’t sell this as a big action thing because it’s not a big action thing,” Lucas said. “They are selling it as a big action thing. They cannot get it out of their mind.”

Viewers are advised by Lucas to set aside for now the image of Harrison Ford’s rogue archeology professor, whose sharp tongue, quick wits and handy bullwhip have helped him escape ancient booby traps, clammy snake pits and nasty Nazis in three blockbuster movies that accumulated $620 million in American box-office receipts.

“I’ve taken the Indiana Jones character and made him a liability, is what I’ve done,” Lucas said calmly, sitting on the couch in his office at Skywalker Ranch, the state-of-the-art production facility and 19th-Century estate he constructed in a serene, secluded valley in Marin County. Dressed in blue jeans, a sweater and worn Nikes, the bearded Lucas looked more like the writer and film editor--two grunt jobs in a fashion-conscious industry--he identifies himself as, rather than the imposing figure many in Hollywood perceive him to be.

“The name (Indiana Jones) allowed me to get the show on the air,” Lucas continued. “But the downside is I’ve created a huge liability, because the audience that would probably enjoy the show won’t watch it because it’s Indiana Jones, and the audience who likes the movies is going to say, ‘Well, where are the bad guys and the chases and the jeopardy?’ ”

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Upon description, it’s difficult to imagine that “Young Indiana,” from LucasFilm Ltd. and Paramount Television, could be anything but spectacular. The immensely ambitious series, utilizing an international cadre of film directors, has trotted the globe to film stories in Kenya on the Tana River, at the Great Wall of China, in the sacred city of Benares in India, at the pyramids in Egypt. The list stretches on to include 15 countries.

To keep in line the $1.6-million-per-episode budget, which is not much more than the average one-hour drama, Lucas is testing some unconventional production techniques and visual effects that may have a significant impact on television’s cost-cutting future (see story on page 82). “Young Indiana” has also been pre-sold in overseas markets to the reported tune of $800,000 an episode.

The TV series spans the period from 1908 to 1918. The young Indy, traveling on a worldwide lecture tour with his father, has a new adventure each week with turn-of-the-century historical figures. He excavates a mummy’s tomb with T.E. Lawrence, travels on safari with Teddy Roosevelt, sits down to dinner with Sigmund Freud, receives medical treatment from Albert Schweitzer, discovers sex with Mata Hari and falls in love with a suffragette.

The stories jump back and forth between Indy at age 10, played by Corey Carrier, and at age 17, played by Sean Patrick Flanery, both new faces. There’s also a crotchety 93-year-old version of Jones--Broadway actor George Hall--who introduces the episodes each week.

“The more I explore, the more the character evolves and the more interesting he becomes,” Lucas said, “because it all hearkens back to the Harrison Ford character.”

Lucas even hinted at the possibility of bringing in Ford as a guest star if the series finds life on television. While Lucas has said there will be no more feature films, he liked the idea of using Ford to explore other adult chapters in Indiana’s life, and possibly explain where the elderly Indy acquired his eye patch, full-grown daughter and grandson.

“The professionals look at this as marketing suicide because it’s not marketed for a specific demographic,” Lucas said. “It has aspects of an anthology and features the same character at different ages. The shows themselves go from wild crazy comedy to very serious tear-jerking dramas. So it’s all over the board.

“That drives everybody crazy. In the beginning (ABC) pleaded with me not to do it this way. And I just said, ‘Look, this is what I want to do. I’m only doing this series because I want to do it.’ It gives me a huge advantage, because I could care less if they don’t like it. I’ve given up my paying job as a movie producer to do this. So I’m doing it out of love.”

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Lucas, a single parent who limits his workday from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. to spend time with his two daughters, appears interested in creative projects today that move him personally, not financially. At this stage in his career, the 47-year-old producer sits comfortably atop the diversified LucasArts Entertainment Co., which has fingers in film post-production and visual effects, the THX theater sound systems, TV commercials, video game software and product licensing.

“The reality of it is this series is costing me a huge amount of money,” Lucas said in response to critics who suggested that he is exploiting the good name of Indiana Jones on TV for profits. In fact, if “Young Indiana” becomes a hit, Lucas does not intend to sell the reruns in the potentially lucrative syndication market. After their original network broadcast, the series will move straight to home video and laser disc.

“If I wanted to make money with Indiana Jones, I would make another feature,” Lucas said simply. “I would make literally 10 times more money than I could possibly ever make on this TV show just by doing one more Indiana Jones film.”

Lucas’ independent production company has produced half of the top 10 box-office hits of all time, including the “Star Wars” trilogy. During the Oscar ceremonies in April, Lucas will receive the honorary Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, named after the legendary MGM production chief, for his body of film work.

Because of his work on the TV series, Lucas has been absent from feature films since 1989’s “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” His only film project, about black airmen in World War II, has been stuck in the script development stage for three years. “Young Indiana” story ideas, meanwhile, just keep pouring out of him. “So far it’s taken two years of my life, and it may require a few more years of my life, to do this show,” Lucas said. “And it’s only because I really want to tell this story. It’s a great story and I want to tell it. That’s what has motivated me on all my films.”

The concept for “Young Indiana” was born from Lucas’ desire to liven up the educational system he abhorred as a child. Lucas’ entertainment empire includes an educational foundation, which has been working to develop a prototype for an interactive video textbook for classrooms. He saw the young Indy character as an entry point for children to introduce them to historical figures, famous battles and far-off lands.

Because he could never possibly hope to raise the money, however, to shoot the story strictly as an educational venture, he turned to television. Lucas’ only other network TV projects were a couple of TV movies and Saturday-morning cartoons.

“Young Indiana” still retains many of the educational aspects of Lucas’ initial inspiration. The stories take place in different countries, so much of the dialogue is subtitled. The people Indy runs into as a child, including Gen. George Patton, Norman Rockwell and Pablo Picasso, are designed to pique children’s interest and, Lucas hopes, send them scurrying off for more information. Lucas even had a companion book to the TV series written, but has so far been unable to find an interested publisher.

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Aided by Skywalker Ranch’s research library of 15,000 books and 200 periodicals dating back to the 19th Century, a bank of computer data bases and a research staff of seven at his disposal, Lucas has written all 17 historically rich stories on which the “Young Indiana” scripts are based, including two extra that ABC requested after seeing the two-hour pilot. In his fervor, Lucas has also completed stories for the next 22 episodes--which his staff of international film writers has already turned into scripts--and 15 more stories after that.

“I’m working on 55 hours of programming right now,” Lucas said with a vague, proud smile.

Because of the complexities in scripting and shooting “Young Indiana,” ABC reluctantly agreed to let Lucas know by April 15 whether the network would pick up the series for a second season, even though other new TV series won’t be notified until May.

“Well, they don’t have any choice,” Lucas said. “I mean, I can’t do it any other way. We went through a little dance. And I said, ‘Hey, if I could part the seas I would, but I can’t.’ These shows cannot be done any other way because we’re all over the globe. It’s a massive logistic nightmare. To get it done on schedule and budget you have to have the lead time.”

Location scouting and casting has already begun for the next 22 episodes. If Lucas gets a second-season commitment from ABC, shooting will commence “literally the next day.” Should ABC cancel “Young Indiana,” Lucas said he has been putting pressure on Paramount to proceed forward with the series in first-run syndication or on a different network.

For the moment, Lucas seems unconcerned about the fate of his series on ABC. He just keeps plowing ahead. Listening to him talk about “Young Indiana,” there’s almost a sense that this is one great big adventure for him.

“I’ve never had to do a movie because I needed the job,” Lucas said. “Fortunately all my life I have been in that position. I’ve always done it because I really care about something that in a lot of cases nobody else cares about. And I have to struggle to get it done, but I’ve always been successful that way.”

“The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles” premieres with a two-hour episode airing Wednesday at 8 p.m. and repeating Saturday at 8 p.m. on ABC.

The series will normally air Wednesdays at 9 p.m.


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