Following the recent passing of director Irvin Kershner, Trevor Hogg explores the development of Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back…
“For many fans and cinephiles, Empire is the best of the Star Wars movies, dark and enigmatic – the film noir of the saga,” writes author J.W. Rinzler in the introduction of his latest effort The Making of The Empire Strikes Back – a detailed exploration into the production of the science fiction-fantasy film; together with The Godfather: Part II it is considered to be the gold standard for movie sequels. However, the critical and box office success of the acclaimed second installment, which established American filmmaker George Lucas as an independent studio mogul and caused him to rebuild his special effects company Industrial Light & Magic, was far from being a forgone conclusion. “Many ILM veterans cite it as the toughest film of their careers,” observed Rinzler of the landmark project which debuted on the big screen thirty years ago. “It was also a production whose protagonists – Lucas, Kershner, Hamill, Ford, Fisher, Oz, Watts, Kurtz – had to surmount many more obstacles than one might imagine: avalanches, snowstorms, death, desperate disputes, a devastating fire, and financial crisis – all of which added up to internal-organ-killing stress.”
“George knew at the onset that there was going to be a snow battle and he knew we were going to have armored speeders,” stated Joe Johnston who made a name for himself as an art director before becoming a Hollywood blockbuster filmmaker. “But he hadn’t really decided what kind of vehicles the Empire would have or how they were going to film it. At first they considered using existing military tanks, dressing them to look alien. I did a bunch of sketches using these tanks as a basis.” Johnson made a fortuitous discovery. “I ran across a Xerox that a friend of mine had. It was a promotional brochure put out by US Steel in the early 1960s and contained a whole slew of full-colour paintings indicating, ‘What steel will be used for in the future.’ The paintings were done by Syd Mead. Interestingly enough, one of the paintings showed a four-legged walking truck! That’s where the initial walker idea came from. It wasn’t a military vehicle, it was just a transportation thing, but I thought it would make a great fighting vehicle if you took off the truck bed and put an armored body and head on it.”
The biggest special effects challenge for the production was the portrayal of the miniature Jedi master who mentors the main character Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). “I don’t really remember how we ended up with that particular design except we sort of combined a leprechaun, a troll and a gnome,” stated Joe Johnston in regards to the origins of Yoda. “We experimented with the idea of a monkey dressed in a costume,” said producer Gary Kurtz, “which didn’t work because most animals don’t like things blocking their vision, over their heads.” An alternative method was explored. “We thought about doing it with stop-motion,” revealed George Lucas. “But to do a stop-motion character like that and have it act, and not look like a cartoon – I just didn’t think it was going to work.” A more practical solution presented itself to Lucas. “In England, while we were making the first film, we’d worked across the street from ITV, which is where Jim Henson’s group was, and I got to know him. We were very much alike: independent, out of the spotlight, obsessed with our own films. And I really admired the Muppets. I thought he was the very best puppeteer, so I asked him if he thought we could get together and create a very realistic-looking puppet. But he was extremely busy working on another project, so he recommended the co-puppeteer/significant player in his organization, Frank Oz.”
“We needed a full-scale [Millennium] Falcon,” remarked Gary Kurtz of the signature smuggler’s spaceship piloted by Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and his furry towering companion Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew). “We never had one in the first film. That one was a half-size prop built into a wall and supported by hidden wires and things, but we needed more activity around the Falcon this time. So Norman Reynolds designed a way to build a full-sized Falcon, which was about sixty-five feet in diameter and eighty feet long when you count the mandible.” Kurtz added, “They fabricated the steel into sixteen sections, very much like a pie, which would be bolted together so that when the picture was over, we could take it apart and store it. The five feet that touch the ground had built-in compressed-air hoverpad units so that we could move it even though it weighed twenty-three tons. We would move it around by pumping enough compressed air into it and pulling it with a forklift.” Complications for the picture occurred when Stanley Kubrick’s production of The Shining limited the number of available stages at Elstree Studios; as well a crippling fire erupted at the facility as principle photography was about to commence. “We knew the day it happened that it was going to screw up our schedule,” recalled George Lucas who ran into further conflict with the legendary director. “We also knew that Stanley would use that as a way of further delaying things so he could think about his film.”
His initial screenwriter Leigh Brackett terminally ill with cancer, George Lucas gave the script revision duties to Lawrence Kasdan who had worked with him on Raiders of the Lost Ark. “The reason George wanted me to write it was because I’m really strong in people,” remarked Kasdan. “That’s what all my original screenplays are about. They tend to be much smaller stories about a smaller number of people, comedies and thrillers, but they’re still entertainment. George thought it was very important that Empire have that. If anything, we wanted Empire to have deeper characterizations… than the first Star Wars.” Inspiration came from the man who served as the design consultant and conceptual artist for the film. “At the point we were writing, we didn’t have sets or special effects to work from; it was sheer dreaming. We ran the risk of writing words and not really knowing what they meant physically. But one of [Ralph] McQuarrie’s paintings would inevitably show up at that point and give us something to hang on to.”
George Lucas decided not to step behind the camera again and so Gary Kurtz had to search for a suitable replacement. “The problem you encounter when you’re doing a follow-up to a very successful picture is that there are directors who shy away from the project for fear of being overshadowed by the reputation of the first film,” stated Kurtz. “The perceived wisdom is that if a sequel works, the original director gets the credit; if it doesn’t work, you get the blame.” Lucas and Kurtz focused their attention on a filmmaker who taught at their alma matter USC, Irvin Kershner. Recalling his time spent shooting the ice planet Hoth scenes in Norway, Kershner said, “The eyepiece would cloud over. The cameraman would look through it and then, about a third through the take, it just became white. He couldn’t see anything, couldn’t tell whether it was in focus, whether he was following the action. And if you touched the camera without gloves on, your skin immediately glued to the metal; it freezes. You had to take a razor blade and slice away the skin to get it off.” Despite the frigid conditions, the director immersed himself in the task at hand. “The intensity of the work takes away self-concern and to get a shot, you work at it and you realize that you’ve stood in one place for about two hours.” However, life in the controlled environment of a studio soundstage was not easy for the filmmaker and his crew. “We were living for days in these man-made caverns that were covered with salt for a glistening effect. There was so much salt that it got into our lungs, our pores. We could taste the salt all day and all night. And for scenes with fog or mist, we had to keep shooting heated mineral oil into the air because the effects folks claimed it was healthier than the vegetable oil used in America. After a while, we couldn’t’ breathe, let alone smell anything.”
Some clever innovation was employed during the filming. “We had to shoot these asteroids shooting everywhere,” explained effects cameraman Ken Ralston, “so just for laughs, we went out and bought a bunch of potatoes at the local store. We stuck those on rods and we started shooting potatoes, but not telling anybody. No one ever knew, but if you know where to look, they’re hilarious. They look pretty much like rocks; they’re just smoother and go flying by the cockpit.” Mark Hamill was not too sure about the visual effects shooting techniques. “I have this theory that the bluescreen gives off rays that penetrate the brain and make you go crazy,” said Hamill. “Harrison really flipped out once, picked up a saw and started sawing through the console of his spaceship, which looks like metal but was made of wood. Everyone was saying, ‘You stop him,’ ‘No, you stop him.’ I sure wasn’t going to volunteer – I had no desire to wind up on the floor.”
“I had basically put everything I had into Empire,” stated George Lucas. “I took the money, everything I had from the first movie, and rolled it over into the second movie. The first one was budgeted for $13 million and then Fox said, ‘Make it for 7,’ but it came out at 11. The second one was budgeted at $20 million, but, about halfway through, it became very apparent that it wasn’t going to be 20. It was way over schedule, and it had not been thought through carefully on the economic side. So we had to go back to the bank and get more money.” It was calculated that after including the costs of marketing and distribution The Empire Strikes Back would have to make at least a profit of $50 million – a feat achieved by only 10 out of nearly of 100 films released in 1979. The financial gamble paid off when the movie grossed over $538 million worldwide and at the Academy Awards was presented with the Oscar for Best Sound and a Special Achievement Award. Reflecting upon his affinity for myths and fairy tales, George Lucas stated, “If I wasn’t a filmmaker, I think I might be a toymaker. I love making kids happy. Giving them something, especially a fantasy life, is an important thing. If we don’t take care of our kids, if we just ignore them and let them suffer through, we’re not going to be much of a civilization.”
If you want to learn more, read The Making of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back by J.W. Rinzler for it is a treasure trove of previously unpublished interviews, photos, art work, and production mementos.
Images courtesy of Lucasfilm Ltd.
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Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.