Indiana Jones And Me: Harrison Ford

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This article first appeared in issue 227 of Empire magazine. Subscribe to Empire today.


Harrison Ford

I first heard that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were doing a movie together around the time of The Empire Strikes Back. All I knew was that it was an adventure-type film and that Tom Selleck had been cast in it. When Selleck proved unavailable, George called me up and said, “I want you to read this script.” He sent it over and I was immediately struck by how good it was. I then went over to Steven’s house to discuss the script and character. We had not before but we got on really well, so much so that he offered me the part before I left the house.

Journalists often assume that I would feel slighted by not being the first choice for Indiana Jones. It would never had been my notion that it would be a good idea to cast the same actor you had recently done three different movies with. Even at this early stage, Indiana Jones was conceived as a franchise. With the Star Wars movies I didn’t sign a sequel deal, I just committed to them one at a time. But with Indiana Jones, I did sign a sequel deal because I felt there was real potential in the character. The thing I felt about Han Solo was that he was a very limiting character. It was a fairy tale with a callow youth, a princess and a wise, old warrior and they needed something in between - a rapscallion and a comic foil. He had a certain utility in those films that I understood. I enjoyed the whole thing but was looking for something different, and Raiders represented another wonderful opportunity.

The thing I found most interesting about the character was the way he served the story and the broad range of opportunities he presented. I was always thought of him as an academic first. I always thought when he found himself in these perilous situations, he should always be out of his depth. That idea was consistent with Han Solo so I wanted to characterize him in a different way, and the fact he was an academic gave me a real significant divide from the Solo character. He should pleasure in the thrill of the chase, even in spite of himself.

I like the physicality of the character. I loved the idea of getting out in the wide world, working in different exotic locales. I also loved the relationship between him and the leading lady, Marion Ravenwood, in the original. I just thought it was a great opportunity for more serious drama, even in the context of what is clearly an adventure fantasy film. I felt it was a little more grown up, just more invested in the reality of the wide world, not just in the wide world of special effects.

I was cast six weeks before the movie started shooting. As we were very close to the beginning, there was a lot I could do in terms of preparation. I did give myself the opportunity to freshen my knowledge of that period of time. I want to bring a contemporary feel to a period picture. I did some review of what the interests of archaeology were at that time, found out a little more about the Ark Of The Covenant.

I also spent time learning the whip, just lashing the shit out of myself for about two weeks until I learned the timing of it. The trick of it is to know when it is at its full extension before you bring it forward. I didn’t have any time to have any input in the costume. It’s a bizarre costume if you stop and consider it, a man wearing a leather jacket in generally hot locales. But I understood that if he’s carrying a whip, he might as well be wearing a leather jacket because it doesn’t make any fucking sense anyway.

I was never bothered or frightened about working with the animals. It was the presentation that made them look scary. A rat is a rat until you go down under a sewer in Venice and there are 6,000 rats. Then you’re dealing with a phobia. Filming with the animals, whether spiders, rats, snakes or bugs, was always a struggle but all in a day’s work.

Collaborating with Steven on these movies has been one of the greatest pleasures of my career. Raiders is a classic because of the style Steven gave it. In someone else’s hands the story could have been horrifying, but he made both a reflection on movies in general and an improvement on those movies he referenced. We had a really great time working together. It is always, “What about if we do this?” or, “Wouldn’t it be better if we started the line here instead of there?” It’s just two guys trying to figure out how to do stuff.

Harrison Ford "I spent time learning the whip, just lashing the shit out of myself for about two weeks until I learned the timing of it." Harrison Ford The most off-the-wall moment of course was the shooting of the Arab swordsman. I was suffering from dysentery (as was most the crew) and could be away from the toilet about ten minutes at a time. There was supposed to be a big whip vs. Sword fight. To my mind it was pretty conventional, I wasn’t in love with it and it was going to take three days. Terry Richards, the stuntman, had worked for months to become the greatest movie swordsman. We were all dying to get out of there and I could stay out of my trailer for as long as it took to expose 400 feet of film, which is about ten minutes, and then I was back in the trailer on the throne.It was our last sequence so Steven and I decided that, considering I have this gun at my side, why don’t I just use it and shoot him? The first time I shot him, Terry took a minute-and-a-half to die. Steven said, “Well this isn’t gonna work.” I said, “No.”, So the next time, as soon as the camera guys said, “Speed.” I just shot him. He was so surprised he just fell over. It was a great moment – especially the way Steven shot and cut it – but I just keep thinking about that poor soon-of-a-bitch because he was robbed. He worked so hard on that swordplay.

Even though I’d done Star Wars, Force 10 From Navarone and Hanover Street, Raiders was my introduction to extensive stunt work. I had great coaching from Vic Armstrong and the guys, I saw the stunts as an exercise in physical storytelling. It was my ambition to have my face in the middle of the physical action. Often in movies, a stunt sequence is just a blur or action and you can’t recognise any human thought in it. I didn’t want to have everything played out on the back of a stuntman’s head as I thought it would limit the audience’s emotional identification with the character. I thought the fear was an important component, it humanized him. I wanted people to see the decisions at the moment they happened, to register the fear and triumph.

Temple Of Doom was the toughest movie physically. Strange as it may seem, I herniated a disc riding an elephant in Sri Lanka. You are sta over the major muscles of the elephant with your legs hyper extended and your knees bent. It just pulls you apart. I couldn’t find anyone to treat me in London because the Harley Street doctors were afraid of the liability issues, so I finally got the Manchester United soccer team doctor to treat me. I was doing everything I could to stay in the game and not shut them down. Each weekend I was getting an epidural that would get me through the first three days of the week. Finally I was living in Eric Idle’s house just off of Abbey Road. The bedroom was on the fourth floor. I responded to the alarm, jumped out of bed and was overcome by excruciating pain. It took me 45 minutes to get back into bed to wait for the ambulance. Then they had to strap me to a gurney with a bottle of nitrous oxide. I had to be carried feet first down the narrow, twisting stairs and was taken by ambulance to Manchester to see the doctor. From there I was put on a Warner Bros. Plan and flown home.

I was operated on using a papaya enzyme procedure that had only been done seven times by the doctor i had found. They stopped doing after a couple of years because less qualified surgeons were turning people into paraplegics. In my case, it was 100 per cent successful and I was very quickly back on my feet. It was a struggle to get in shape but i was back on the set in about a month, during which time they had shot the back of Vic Armstrong’s head for many of the stunt sequences. Then we came round and did the exact same sequences with me. I had a lot of actions scenes to do in a short space of time.

George wanted Doom to be darker, tougher film and he got it. His theory was there should be dark before the dawn. I still thought the movie worked well. Working with Ke Huy Quan (Short Round) was wonderful. The gambling round the campfire, all that stuff, was just delicious. I thought that kind of sidekick for Indiana Jones was a great idea.

By the time we came to Last Crusade, was all had the desire to deepen the character. I was very interested to bring him family and father into the story. I though Sean was an inspired choice. He was only 12 years older than me but I didn’t look my age and he played older. The character was originally conceived as a wise Yoda-type character and Sean had the notion to make him more of a curmudgeon. Sean’s a brilliant actor and was enormous fun to work with. It was almost like vaudeville at times. The stuff involving the father and son sleeping with the same woman was just wild shit. If you think about it in the context of that film, it was unbelievable we got away with that. Let’s face it, Sean’s just not that cute a guy...

I loved all the travelling we did on those movies. The more exotic, the better for me. To ride elephants and eat Sri Lankan curries, you can’t get better than that. We had a damn good crew. I wish my old friend, Jack Dearlove, my stand-in, was still around, but it is just a big period of time.

Returning to Indy all these years later, I found him in the clothes. You just put the clothes on and the character comes with it. There was no failure in the writing to capture the nature of the character as we had we had established him before but, to be honest, half your character is your director. I always say that you are playing your director to some extent – you want them to emotionally relate to the character you’re playing. So the fact i was working with Steven again made it straightforward. If I’d had a different director, I probably wouldn’t have found it so easy to find the character again. If there had been a different director, I wouldn’t have done it.

Indiana Jones has been my life’s work. This is what I’ve devoted myself to. I’m glad that it all works so well. Because of his popularity, he has given me so many opportunities because he gifted me an audience. People tell me the character has become part of the culture, an icon, but I don’t think about that too much. That’s the part George and Steven own. I just work here. And I’m just really delighted to have had the opportunity to work here.

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