If Lawrence Kasdan had a coat of arms, it might well show a man having his cake and eating it, too. His Grand Canyon is one of the unlikeliest of big Hollywood movies. On one hand, slickly directed, superbly acted, beautifully photographed and edited, it seems worth every nickel of the $20 million it cost. On the other, it is a totally non-formula, free-form meditation on the meaning of contemporary life and mortality; lacking a conventional plot and defying categories, Grand Canyon has dark things to say about the state of the union and of Hollywood.
Who but Kasdan could have gotten such a film made — and made it a hit? His previous zeitgeist picture, The Big Chill, touched a baby-boom generation coming into a difficult adulthood; Grand Canyon picks up on a similar group entering middle age in an America gone awry. And it appears to be reaching the same audience: Grand Canyon cut deep in its limited release over Christmas; now, after three weeks in wide release, it’s shaping up as one of the most successful pictures of the new year.
”I’ve been amazed by the response,” Kasdan says. He and his cowriter — his life partner of 23 years, Meg Kasdan, who with him coproduced two sons, Jacob, 17, and Jonathan, 12 — are in the movie’s production offices on the lot at Twentieth Century Fox. He is a compact, roundish, bearded man of 43 with a nasal voice and a direct, inquisitive, confident manner. She is 43 also, and short, dark, quiet, watchful. ”The reviews have been the best I’ve ever gotten,” he says. ”I feel the media is so cynical, so desperate not to be unhip. I thought there would be more resistance to this movie. Maybe there is something in the country that’s greater than I thought — a desire to look at these things.”
What he means by these things takes in a lot of territory, and it requires some charting for those who haven’t seen his movie. There’s the growing physical danger of our seething society. There are ever more tenuous connections between people — connections the movie harps on, yearningly, through its lost-and-found central character, Mack (Kevin Kline), a white, 40ish immigration lawyer. When Mack is saved from a gang of murderous toughs by Simon (Danny Glover), a black tow-truck driver, life’s preciousness comes home to him. Other transformations happen to his wife, Claire (Mary McDonnell), and his improbable friend Davis (Steve Martin), a cynical producer of schlock-shock films: Claire finds and falls for an abandoned baby; Davis suffers a shooting, which changes his life. But every peril is balanced by a bond.
Unlike the warm, earth-toned The Big Chill, the movie is all vivid colors and strong sensations, and Kasdan pulls out all the stops. People dream; they fly. A helicopter swoops and chugs over the city like a guardian or menacing angel. Where Chill had a hip, blackout-comedy pace and a danceable soundtrack of ’60s hits (put together by Meg Kasdan), Canyon is andante — James Newton Howard’s ominous score lends a Book of Revelations portentousness. The canyon of the title — which stands both for the place itself and the chasm in this country between the haves and have-nots — could just as well refer to the abyss of sentimental pretentiousness over which Kasdan walks a tightrope. Occasionally he wobbles, but who else could stay up so long? Kasdan learned early how to win and hold an audience. As the screenwriter of Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi, he honed his talent for well-crafted pop fantasies. He cashed in on those megasuccesses by directing his own screenplay for Body Heat in 1981 before lending an entire generation the ”Big Chill” label in 1983.
”When I came in,” Kasdan says, ”it seemed to me that movies had become terribly sloppy. The movies I liked from the ’30s, the ’40s, the ’50s even, were carefully structured — the narrative made sense, there was a cohesion in it. People say, ‘Why don’t they make movies like they used to?’ It’s all in the writing. There are 50 directors in Hollywood who can make a beautiful- looking movie. But there is a handful of writers who have the interest, the desire, the encouragement, and the endurance to write really good stuff.”
Kasdan obviously isn’t shy about including himself in that small group, but he’s got the track record to prove it. He can start projects others could never get off the ground, tweak Hollywood (Steve Martin’s Davis is thought to be a composite of thriller producers Joel Silver and Larry Gordon), and get rich doing it. Meg Kasdan is no small part of this track record. ”I’ve been around his movies a lot, and I’ve always put my 2 cents in,” she says, rather modestly. ”I’m his biggest fan, but I’ve always been very free with what I’ve said to him about the writing.” On Grand Canyon, they decided to make her role official with credits as coscreenwriter and associate producer.
”Meg and I are in the habit of taking walks and talking about what’s going on in our lives, in the society,” Lawrence says. ”You talk and talk — it’s like making a recipe. You keep stirring it and stirring it till something starts to happen.” At first they wanted to deal with marriage, ”but it became clear that it wasn’t as narrowly focused as that,” he says. ”You could do 20 movies about marriage. Very few people were doing any movies about what’s going on in the world. You see this incredible technical facility, and you say, ‘What if they applied that same awesome ability to more interesting subjects? Why should that be European?’ I don’t believe that we should dictate, but I think that it’s worth having a moral content to art.”
Grand Canyon‘s unconventional structure was intended from the start, and it was both appealing and worrisome. ”What concerned me about this movie was, how were we gonna make it all weave together?” he says. ”Meg said something —”
”We had this notion of a chain-link fence,” she interrupts on cue. ”Where things would be attached to each other by something but not necessarily by what you would think. Even now, when we watch the movie, we’re not always sure what scene is coming next.”
”There’s something that Larry does…” says Kevin Kline, who has starred in four Kasdan movies. ”I remember saying to him on Big Chill — ‘This is like Chekhov.’ His work magnifies people. It’s only small moments, but lives are won and lost in those moments. Take the scene in Grand Canyon when our son is going to summer camp. You might look at it on paper and think, ‘Oh, that’ll be heartbreaking.’ But it is. It’s the same when I teach him to drive. That’s not just about a father teaching his son to drive. That’s about mortality.
”When I read the script, I was on the edge of my seat. I said, ‘This is literature — is it a movie?’ There was only one way to find out.”
Danny Glover’s philosophical, searching tow-truck driver is the moral center of Grand Canyon. Did Glover, who is no less thoughtful than his character, worry whether the racially burdened friendship of Mack and Simon had some patronizing elements? ”It’s the kind of friendship that has an incredible potential behind it,” Glover says. ”And that potential inevitably will be determined by each other’s vulnerability and openness. It’s the kind of friendship that I often have with white people in this industry, particularly with guys my own age — like Larry, or my agent.”
The diciness of the Mack-Simon friendship makes Kasdan giggle. It’s the next morning, and he’s talking over pancakes and waffles in a Beverly Hills coffee shop. ”In the last election,” he says, ”what was most disturbing was Dukakis’ refusal to say, ‘I am a liberal.’ The real traditions of liberalism are worth standing for. I associate liberalism with this sort of humanist approach. Which is what I really think the movie is — it’s humanist. And it can’t be right for everybody.”
But is Kasdan truly taking a stand here? One of Grand Canyon‘s most curious moments comes when Steve Martin’s Davis blithely defends his decision to keep making blood-and-guts flicks. ”My movies reflect what’s going on, they don’t make what’s going on,” he says. It’s a line Kasdan might almost say himself, one that, perhaps, mirrors the ambiguity of his own successful position in Hollywood.
One of writer-director Preston Sturges’ greatest films was a biting, 1941 study of a successful Hollywood writer-director who loses his soul and goes out into America to find it. Near the end of Grand Canyon, Martin’s Davis refers to it: ”Mack, did you ever see a movie called Sullivan’s Travels?” Mack shakes his head. ”That’s a part of your problem,” Davis says. ”You haven’t seen enough movies. All of life’s riddles are answered in the movies. It’s a story about a man who loses his way. He forgets for a moment just what he was set on earth to do.” In Sturges’ classic, the director, played by Joel McCrae, is fed up with the light, popular entertainments that have made him successful and wants to take on important topics instead. One senses Lawrence Kasdan believes he knows exactly why he was set on earth: to do both.