by Seth Kubersky on April 16, 2013
It's no secret that legendary film director Steven Spielberg is a life-long theme park afficiando. As a long-time consultant to Universal Studios, rides based on movies he has created or produced (including classics like ET, Back to the Future, Jaws, Men in Black, and Jurassic Park) have been hits in Orlando, California, and Japan. Spielberg is also known to be a fan of classic Disney films; he had composer John Williams include the melody “When You Wish Upon a Star” in his Close Encounters of the Third Kind score, and his film A.I. is essentially an explicit update of Pinnoccio.
But few fans realize how far back Spielberg's fascination with theme park rides — specifically Disneyland dark rides and E-tickets — goes. Thanks to a fascinating 35-year-old story conference transcript, we have a first-hand account of the lauded filmmaker's pro-Disney fanaticism.
The minutes of this momentous meeting, recorded over a week in late January 1978, document the moment when Spielberg, together with pal George Lucas and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, brainstormed the basic backstory of Indiana Jones, and solidified the script outline that would eventually become 1981's Raiders of the Lost Ark. Originally leaked on an Internet film site in 2009 as scan of a grainy photocopy, the document has recently resurfaced as a searchable PDF. These newly accessible transcripts reveal the creative energy that birthed this iconic screen hero, and give insight into these award-winning artists' working methods.
Lucas demonstrates the unparalleled storytelling instincts of his early years, absorbing suggestions from others and then spitting back fully fleshed-out scene descriptions, many described almost shot-for-shot as they appear in the finished film. Spielberg is adorably enthusiastic, spilling forth a flood of incidental ideas — some brilliant (the evil monkey saluting “Heil Hitler”, filling the Well of Souls with snakes), some awful (Indy as a gambling addict?), and some so absurd they worked (at Steven's suggestion that Jones jump out of an airplane without a parachute, later recycled in Temple of Doom, Lucas retorts “That's sort of unbelievable.”). Finally, Lawrence Kasdan (who co-wrote The Empire Strikes Back and is working on the new Star Wars sequels) is largely silent but occasionally offers an excellent idea, like Indy's mentor being Marion's father, and the Nazi monkey giving away Marion's basket hiding place.
But the real goldmine in these transcripts for theme park fans are Spielberg's repeated direct references to Disneyland. The discussion comes in two parts; first, as the team is inventing the famous opening sequence in which Indy navigates a trap-filled native temple, Spielberg says the following:
When the spikes come out and go like that, there should be remains, skeletal remains skewered on some of them, of victims that have been there before. It's kind of like one of those rides at Disneyland.
I would just love to see the guys walking in and there's a whole pile of skeletons, but they're like cardboard, completely flattened, really completely flat. They know that something around here is going to squish them. They don't know what's causing it, but something if they walk the wrong way is going to come out and make them pancakes. The piece should be like a real, horror ride, like a Disneyland ride. Once you're committed to going into that cave, there's seismic rumblings all the time and there's stalagmites and things going drip, drip. It's going to really be a sound experience going through that cave. There's nothing more terrifying than skeletons.
What we're just doing here, really, is designing a ride at Disneyland.
Ironically, that exact sequence later served as inspiration for an actual Disneyland ride, but Spielberg didn't get to help design it. Since Spielberg has been a paid consultant to Universal since the 1980s, it was left to Lucas to help create 1995's Indiana Jones Adventure.
Finally, near the end of the story sessions, the team spitballs a mine train escape planned for the film's finale. The idea was later used for the sequel, but Spielberg's initial idea to film the high-speed sequence inside a classic Disneyland attraction is certainly amusing:
This mine cart thing, we should shoot it at the Disneyland Matterhorn. They go on it at the end, so the final run is an up and a huge down, and the out is over the ocean… Just the last part of the run. It's tracks and a very small closure. It's like where they have the cable to pull the thing up, except this time it's coming down. It's weightless.It's not being run by a machine. The wheels are locked on the track, but there's no machine grinding it forward. It has no brakes. They've gotten onto the tail end. It drops down to the loading zone.
These tidbits barely scratch the surface of the gems to be mined from this treasure trove of a transcript. Read it for yourself, and I guarantee you'll never look at the world's greatest archeologist, or the happiest place on Earth, in quite the same way again!