HOLLYWOOD – In the latest of our ‘Making of…’ series, we look at Irvin Kershner’s Science Fiction epic The Empire Strikes Back.
In 1970 George Lucas wrote a short science fiction novella entitled ‘The Empire Strikes Back’. He gave it to his old film teacher Irvin Kershner to read. The older man was very impressed. He wrote this note to the film school graduate:
Just read your short novel and I have to say it bowled me over. I love the characters and the universe you have created. Princess Leia and Han Solo are particular favorites. And the two robots R2P0 and C3D2, hilarious! I tihnk it works well both as a work of fiction and as a possible treatment for a motion picture. My only worry is that these characters are thrown together in a very random way. I didn’t feel there was much of a build up to the revelation that Luke Skywalker is Darth Vader’s son, and why are such unlikely people like Han and Leia in each other’s company in the first place? I figure you need some more backstory on screen.
Lucas took the admonition so much to heart that he wrote the screenplay of Star Wars as a prequel to his original novel. He found out to his dismay that the studios preferred the prequel to his original darker vision. He wrote to fellow film maker John Milius:
I wanted to make a real adult piece of Science Fiction with real characters who we can understand and feel for but they want the more simplistic gee-whizz stuff so I guess that is the price I’ll have to pay. They even want me to change the names of the robots. Isn’t that stupid?
Milius advised him to shelve his novel and make the film that the studios wanted, but once it was made and was a spectacular success, Lucas returned to his original plan and his original reader as director.
Filming took place in 1979 and included location shooting in Norway and studio work in England, UK. Norway proved as problematic as Tunisia had for the first film and there was a terrible snow storm that made filming almost impossible. Kershner wrote in his autobiography, Kershner Writes Backs:
We were trying to grab shots here and there. We filmed a scene of Harrison Ford from the safety of the hotel with poor Harrison stumbling about in the snow outside. He froze solid and we were worried he might be dead, but eventually he thawed out. However, once George heard about this he started scribbling and changed the script to include the carbonite freezing scene.
The Dagobah set was particularly unpleasant with Mark Hamill complaining that the British crew would often take shits in the swamp ‘as a joke. It was disgusting. The British sense of humor left a lot to be desired, but once I came back from lunch and there was Carrie Fisher dropping heat herself.’
Hamill also found the actor playing Yoda difficult to work with.
‘He was very resentful and would take offence at even the slightest reference to size, or ears, or the color green. People think of him as this wizened old guru, but in reality he was a twisted alcoholic asshole who would reduce the script girl to tears just for kicks.
Upon its release, The Empire Strikes Back was hailed as a masterpiece. It won a bucket of Oscars as well as critical recognition from all the international film festivals including Locarno, Berlin, Venice and Cannes. Spurred by the success, Lucas went on to write Return of the Jedi. However, his creative powers were in sad declined due to his addiction to bubbly gum which he had succumbed to while filming in England. ‘He was getting through twenty packets a day,’ says Carrie Fisher. ‘At one point he couldn’t talk because he would just keep blowing bubbles. It was around this time he told me that he had actually written some other prequels for Star Wars, but he said they were horrendous and he would only ever contemplate doing them if he became a venal hack with no sense of artistic quality.’
The Empire Strikes Back was released in 1980.
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