Los Angeles -- The holiday season is traditionally a time when studios release their fluff offerings: fantasy and adventure films, action-oriented extravaganzas, wholesome family entertainment and feel-good love stories.
Maybe that's why director Lawrence Kasdan delayed the release of "Grand Canyon," a film about real life and what ultimately gives it meaning and value.
In this highly anticipated new ensemble piece -- which opens nationally on Friday -- Mr. Kasdan takes an intimate look at the harsh realities of contemporary urban society. Described as "The Big Chill" of the '90s, it addresses these issues through the experiences of six people whose lives intertwine as they attempt to cope with and make sense of an increasingly violent world.
"It's a sort of examination of what our lives are like right now in this environment," says Mr. Kasdan, who turns 43 this month.
"The world is chaotic and people are frightened by it, and so in various ways they try to control their environment," Mr. Kasdan says about the $20 million film, which he wrote with his wife, Meg.
"To some extent this movie is about . . . trying to create some order in a chaotic universe, and how people struggle to do that. It's just too scary to not have some sort of order. . . . There's some confusion about why are we here, why is [life] so short, why do people act badly toward each other? Is there any hope?"
Mr. Kasdan says the film naturally evolved from conversations he and Meg have had during their 20-year marriage about values, raising their two sons (now ages 12 and 17), the quality of life in the big city -- Los Angeles is the Kasdans' adopted home -- and the need to make connections with society as a whole.
Because he had more experience writing scripts, Mr. Kasdan took the role of mentor during the couple's collaboration. But, he says, "Meg is very much in the movie. The movie is suffused with a strong feminine point of view. . . . At least half is very much about nurturing issues that I don't know that I would have been as in touch with as my wife."
Filmed in Los Angeles except for a few days in Arizona, "Grand Canyon" stars Kevin Kline as Mack, an immigration lawyer grappling with the fragility of life; Mary McDonnell ("Dances With Wolves") as his wife, Claire, who is feeling at a loss now that the couple's teen-age son is on the brink of adulthood; Danny Glover as Simon, a tow-truck driver who bravely helps Mack; and Steve Martin as Mack's friend Davis, a successful producer of ultraviolent movies.
Completing the ensemble are Mary-Louise Parker (Broadway's "Prelude to a Kiss") as Mack's secretary and Alfre Woodard ("Mandela," "St. Elsewhere") as her friend; both are single women struggling with a lonely existence in the urban jungle.
Perhaps another star is Los Angeles itself, with its ethnic neighborhoods, exclusive residential sections and diverse surroundings. The film, which was shot in four months, goes past the picturesque scenes of palm trees and ocean sunsets to show the reality of the ghettos, the nightmarish traffic jams and ,, police helicopters hovering over inner-city areas.
Although the film holds a mirror to the dark side of Los Angeles, Mr. Kasdan says, "It's not just about that. It's about the fact that we're all in this together, and your circumstances may be a little more comfortable than someone else's, but if people are suffering or in despair in this society, it will ultimately affect you, too. You can't insulate yourself."
He adds that the film is "not about Los Angeles, it's about America. What happens in the movie could happen in any big city in America."
An ordinary appearance
In person Mr. Kasdan is both intense and easygoing. He speaks in a droll way and his laughter is infectious. Dressed in a plain white shirt, jeans, sports coat and sneakers, he doesn't look like a high-powered director, writer and producer. With his tortoise-shell glasses and salt-and-pepper beard, he could easily pass for an English teacher, a job he once sought. That's not surprising for someone who comes from a literary family: His mother wrote fiction, and his Ivy League father gave up a career in literature to join a family retail-electronics business.
Born in Miami Beach, Fla., and raised in West Virginia, Mr. Kasdan earned a master's degree in education at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, where he and Meg met as students. Unable to land a teaching job, he worked for five years as an advertising copywriter -- a job he hated -- in Detroit and Los Angeles while trying to sell his screenplays. After 67 rejections he finally sold his first script -- the sixth he had written, "The Bodyguard" -- in 1977. (It is set to be made into a movie starring Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston.)
His big break came when his screenplay "Continental Divide" caught the attention of Steven Spielberg, who in turn introduced him to George Lucas. Mr. Lucas was then working on "The Empire Strikes Back," the second installment of the "Star Wars" trilogy.
Mr. Kasdan was involved in three of the 10 top-grossing films in history (he wrote "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and co-wrote "The Empire Strikes Back" and "Return of the Jedi") and has written and directed four highly acclaimed films ("Body Heat," "The Big Chill," "Silverado" and "The Accidental Tourist."
Despite his success, Mr. Kasdan admits to being shy and nervous during interviews, and indeed at one point he fidgeted with a paper clip he had spotted on the floor. But the nervousness quickly disappears when he expresses his impassioned views, which is often.
'An honorable life'
If there is a recurring theme in his movies, says Mr. Kasdan, it is the "quest to live an honorable life in circumstances which don't reward that or reinforce that or encourage that. The environment we live in is very hostile, brutal, without any kind of strong value system."
For Mr. Kasdan, honorable means acting with honesty, decency, loyalty and compassion.
"Those are the highest values," he says. "But I didn't even think there was debate about that in the old days. I thought everyone thought that," he adds.
In some ways Mr. Kasdan -- who subscribes to the Socratic dictum, "The life which is unexamined is not worth living" -- comes across like Atlas carrying the weight of the universe on his shoulders.
He is concerned about the steady diet of violence in American movies and the lack of vision and innovation among studio executives who embrace only concept movies.
"The most interesting stories in life are not concept stories. They can't be summarized in two sentences. They're about things that are complicated, ambiguous, feelings that are ambivalent," says Kasdan, who considers Akira Kurosawa "the greatest director that ever lived."
He worries about the decline of values in society, the random and senseless violence that is becoming commonplace and accepted, and the economic hardships that tear families apart.
"The losers are the children," he says. "I don't believe that's a small thing. I think that's a big thing. The kids who are running around unsupervised and with no parental figure to support and advise them, this is the next generation of lost people."
The filmmaker decries U.S. government spending on defense and foreign aid at the expense of domestic needs. "We're dying from within," Mr. Kasdan says. Asked what he would do if he had the power to make changes, he says: "I would reorder priorities," and focus on health care, education and job training.