Interview: Robert Watts, Producer of Star WARS & INDIANA JONES!

It’s 30 years since Steven Spielberg and George Lucas’ extraordinary archaeologist creation Indiana Jones first cracked his whip and swung...

Stuart Cummins

Contributor

It’s 30 years since Steven Spielberg and George Lucas’ extraordinary archaeologist creation Indiana Jones first cracked his whip and swung on to the screen in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). The character and the series of films that followed created a cinematic hero that virtually everybody loves: a character and a franchise that remain as popular today as they did upon release.

At a recent special screening that filled the small Picture House cinema that housed the event to celebrate the 30th anniversary, I had the pleasure of meeting the producer behind the series, Robert Watts. Watts is a prolific British producer who has been involved in everything from the Star Wars franchise, to the James Bond films and other notable productions such as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988).

Follow the jump to read the full interview, where we talk all things Indy and Star Wars, plus clear up some rumours surrounding the production of Raiders!

OWF: Hi Robert, thanks for taking the time to answer our questions. Firstly, it has been 30 years since Raiders of the Lost Ark was released; did you have any idea at that time that the Indiana Jones franchise would become as successful as it has?

RW: None of us knew that our earlier collaboration, Star Wars, would be what it became, but I thought that Raiders of the Lost Ark would be a hit. To predict how big though, is an art that all Studio Executives would love to possess! There is a difference between a film that is just successful and a film that becomes iconic. I knew it would make money but had no idea it would become iconic.

OWF: What is your fondest memory from working on Raiders, and throughout the original trilogy of Indy films?

RW: I suppose my fondest memory must be, on a very complex film, finishing two weeks ahead of schedule. I’d never done it before and I have never done it since! I think the energy achieving this is reflected in the energy of the film.

OWF: That’s an impressive feat in the industry! What was the biggest challenge you faced whilst working on Raiders?

RW: I guess sorting out how to shoot the movie set in so many places on a logical schedule that was doable financially. We shot in five countries, France, England, Tunisia, Hawaii (really the US but a long way away) and mainland USA.

OWF: Do you have a favourite sequence/scene from Raiders? How about Temple of Doom and Last Crusade?

RW: In Raiders, the Flying Wing fight; Temple of Doom, the cutting of the rope bridge sequence and; Last Crusade, Hitler signing Indy’s father’s book!

OWF: Those are all fantastic scenes! The opening sequence in Raiders, with the giant boulder, has become embedded in popular culture – how was such an impressive stunt achieved and did it prove a producer’s nightmare at all?

RW: The ball was running on scaffold poles sticking out each side, down a rail type slope. The first time Steven Spielberg saw it in motion the set was not yet finished. He asked me to run in front of it, so I did. As I reached the end of the run there was a wooden barrier that I just managed to get under.

I asked Norman Reynolds, the designer, if he could have stopped it and he said, “No”! That was nearly an ‘oops’ moment, as it was made of fibreglass and would have crushed me! There were other shots in a narrower tunnel, this was easier as the ball that filled the tunnel was made of foam rubber and was pushed from behind by two prop men.

OWF: Wow! That must have been a pretty terrifying experience… Can you shed some light on the myths that have become associated with the production of Raiders? Are any of the following true: the entire crew fell ill whilst working in Turkey, except for Steven Spielberg who only eat tins of Spaghetti-O’s that he’d brought with him? During the flying wing scene, Harrison Ford’s knee was run over by the plane, but being a trooper he had it wrapped in ice and carried on shooting? The character’s name was originally Indiana Smith, but this was changed on the first day of shooting?

RW: No, Spielberg didn’t live on Spaghetti-O’s, but the crew did fall ill at one point. Although we were in Tunisia, not Turkey. I have no memory of Harrison hurting himself like that. I was sick for a couple of days, so may have missed out on this one. The character was originally called Indiana Smith. The name was changed way before shooting though, as he was called Jones in the first script I read. By the way, I am sure that you all know that the name Indiana was in fact the name of his father George’s dog!

OWF: Thanks for clearing those rumours up! Raiders shot around the world, in locations including Hawaii, Turkey and the UK. Were you involved in location scouting and was there any place in particular that stands out as the most memorable?

RW: The most beautiful place, for me, was the Island of Kauai where we shot the opening sequences of the film. The toughest was shooting in Tunisia in August, as it was hot as hell!

OWF: Temple of Doom famously brought the US PG-13 rating into cinemas. What caused this and what were your thoughts during production on the much darker content incorporated into this instalment?

RW: The US PG-13 rating was caused when the High Priest, Mola Ram, pulls the heart from the sacrificial person and holds it aloft, beating in his hand. This close up was cut from the UK version by the censors. The darker nature of this one was to make another story, not just a sequel to Raiders.

OWF: Speaking of Temple, it’s one of my all time favourite films and I remember forcing my Grandparents to rent it from the video shop every time I stayed with them as a child! However, many people consider it weaker than Raiders and Last Crusade – what is your opinion on this?

RW: I can’t judge this, my personal favourite is Raiders!

OWF: You also produced the original Star Wars trilogy – between that franchise and the Indiana Jones one, which proved the most challenging to work on and why?

RW: The challenges on Star Wars and Indy were completely different. One is set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, whilst the other is set on Earth in the late 1930s. For Star Wars we had to create everything, for Indy we could hire most of it, so it’s incredibly hard to compare them.

Robert Watts in his Star Wars cameo as pilot Lt. Watts

OWF: Star Wars is another franchise that has gone on to become extremely successful, with legions of dedicated fans. Did you anticipate the success and longevity of it at the time of production?

RW: This one could never have been predicted, as it had never happened before. I am amazed at the longevity of its high profile.

OWF: Do you have a favourite film that you have worked on?

RW: I’ll give you three, excluding Star Wars and Indy. The Julie Christie and Dirk Bogarde starring British classic, Darling (1965), the epic 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and the classic Bond romp You Only Live Twice (1967).

OWF: Seeing that both the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises have had recent additions added to them, what are your thoughts on these modern interpretations and the wider Hollywood trend of remakes and sequels years after the original film?

RW: If it still works why not use it?

OWF: A very diplomatic answer! You also produced the fantastic Who Framed Roger Rabbit? in 1988. Have you had any involvement with Robert Zemeckis over his proposed sequel?

RW: No, I have not been in touch with him for quite a while. He predominantly works with his own producer now, who is an old friend of mine.

OWF: Thank you for your time, but in closing, I have one final question – can you resolve this age-old debate for us please: Which are cooler – archaeologists or Jedi’s!?

RW: Archaeologists if they are digging for ancient finds under the South Pole. Jedi’s if caught out far from home on Hoth when your Taun-Taun drops dead!