Before Indiana Jones, There Was Indiana Smith

Brainstorming isn’t stupid, you just have to know how to be blockbuster good at it, as this pre-Indy spitballing session between George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg reveals. Bullwhips also help.

Before Indiana Jones, There Was Indiana Smith

Back before they were bywords for blockbusters, George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg were mere mortals. And as mortals do, they had to come up with ideas for their next hustle. The racket in question? Raiding arks, doomed temples, and a certain rough-spun archeologist:


Indiana Smith.

Really, that’s what they first called Indiana Jones–just look at the transcript that New Yorker writer Patrick Radden Keefe uncovered.

As Radden Keefe explains, Spielberg, Lucas, and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan assembled in Sherman Oaks, Calif., to flesh out the ideas for a movie Lucas was calling Raiders of the Lost Ark. Lucas had just blown up with Star Wars and Spielberg had just done Jaws, so they were looking for something that could possibly top that. And in a single ideation session, they assembled a ton of explosives.

Beyond the sheer awesomeness of their ideas–that they were building a film that was cliffhanger after cliffhanger, a “ride at Disneyland” with a “bounty hunter of antiquities” as the lead–it’s their ideation process that’s instructive for the innovation-obsessed.

Radden Keefe finds a “voyeuristic thrill” in seeing Spielberg and Lucas talking so unguardedly, particularly in how Spielberg throws out bad ideas and Lucas “gently shoots them down.” Like when Spielberg says the hero should be an avid gambler, Lucas turns that idea aside, saying that maybe they shouldn’t load him with an excess of attributes–(feature creep, anyone?)

As Radden Keefe notes, what made their spitballing so fertile was how they handled the social aspect of creativity:


There’s a good reason we seldom get to spy on these conversations: really good spitballing, like improv comedy, requires a high degree of social disinhibition. So the writers’ room, like a therapist’s office, must remain inviolable.

Not to belabor a point, but this is further evidence of why doing awesome work requires vulnerability and why having a bunch of blowhards together can suck the creative air out of a room. To make dangerous ideas, we need safe spaces.

And sometimes you get on a roll

Like Radden Keefe says, some of film’s most awesome sequences arrived like lightning.

“I have a great idea!” (Spielberg) exclaims. “There is a sixty-five-foot boulder, that’s form-fitted to only roll down the corridor, coming right at him. And it’s a race. He gets to outrun the boulder!”

Lucas eggs him on during these riffs, pushing him to wring the full potential from each sequence.

Wringing the full potential from each sequence? That’s New Yorker for maximizing value. And it’s something every meeting should have. And note how by recording the transcript, Spielberg and Lucas captured everything.

Spitballing Indy

Drake Baer covers leadership for Fast Company. You can follow him on Twitter.

[Image: Flickr user Davidd]


About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.