... and back again
‘I’m very cautious of the word “star”. I do my job. I have been very lucky. Now I have to figure out how to milk it without letting it dry up.’ Harrison Ford
On March 7th, 1979, the Unit Publicist of The Empire Strikes Back released the following bulletin to the world’s news agencies: ‘American actor Harrison Ford has reached the snow stricken pass at Finse, Norway, to start work in The Empire Strikes Back in a manner to justify the claim that the show must go on.
‘He arrived in the engine compartment of a snow-clearance vehicle, the only thing that could move along the Oslo-Bergen single track railroad which avalanches and collapsed snow tunnels have blocked.
‘Ford had flown from London to Oslo to catch the train which travels a circuitous route across some of the most hostile winter terrain in Europe. At Geilo, a sizeable ski resort 30 miles east of his destination, the train was stopped in blizzard conditions.
‘The railroad had decided to return its train to Oslo. But the filmmakers needed Harrison Ford for scenes in the morning. So they radioed the train to unload the actor who then, by two improbable taxi rides, reached Ustaoset, just 23 miles from Finse. That was where the snow plough found him, to bring him along the track between 50 foot high snow drifts to Finse, which he reached at midnight.’
In retrospect, the makers of The Empire Strikes Back should have taken Harrison
Ford’s hectic arrival at the first location of the film as an omen of things to come. ‘Empire went about $6 million over budget,’ star Mark Hamill later said, ‘and ten weeks over schedule, which drove George (Lucas) crazy because he doesn’t like to see waste.’ Lucas would have been particularly wary of waste on Empire, as it was financed with his own money, a fact he pointed out frequently to the cast and crew alike.
|The Empire principals horse around on a Norwegian glacier.|
The script for The Empire Strikes Back was written by Lawrence Kasdan after he’d done the screenplay for Raiders of the Lost Ark. Kasdan explained the beginning of his involvement with the Empire project in the American magazine Starlog.
‘I had absolutely no indication that my writing Empire was even being considered. Once I got the job I was excited because I liked Star Wars very much. I thought it was great art, in that Star Wars hooked into the archetypal images registered in our subconscious of how children perceive the world.’
Kasdan had been brought in after the death of respected science fiction and film writer Leigh Brackett, best known for her screenplays for The Big Sleep (1946) and Rio Bravo (1959). Before engaging Kasdan, George Lucas had completed a second draft, based on Brackett’s first draft version. Kasdan hadn’t read the complete Brackett script. ‘I only skimmed it. It was sort of old fashioned and didn’t really relate to Star Wars. George had the story very well outlined, but there were sections in his script which, when I read them, made me say to myself, “I can’t believe George wrote that scene. It’s terrible.” I later learned that George wrote stuff like that simply so that whoever wrote the next draft would know that a scene covering approximately the same kind of material that his sequence dealt with belonged at that point in the script. My job was to take George’s story and make it work through altering the dialogue and the structure. Naturally a movie is not a screenplay, but you can’t make a good movie without a good script.’
FILMING EMPIREAfter the nightmare George Lucas had gone through writing and directing Star Wars he decided that kind of involvement in so complicated a film project was simply more than he was willing to take on. His idea was to complete a rough draft of the script for Empire then turn it over to a professional writer for completion and polishing up. Then, with a professionally produced screenplay, he would turn his attentions to finding a director with the experience and the enthusiasm to helm the movie. He was looking for someone he knew and could trust to remain faithful to his original vision. He finally settled on Irvin Kershner, who had been one of his film teachers during his college days at USC in California.
‘I knew George and (Empire producer Gary) Kurtz at the University of Southern California,’ Kershner confirms, ‘where I took courses and also taught. Through the years I occasionally saw them, but we weren’t close friends.’
|Harrison Ford on the Hoth hangar set between takes.|
Irvin Kershner, or ‘Kersh’ as he was called by the Empire crew, had started his working life as a professional musician. ‘Before all this, I played violin and viola for chamber music and orchestras. I wanted to be a composer, originally, so I started with music. Then I went into art and photography. I travelled for the UN, UNESCO, for Syracuse University, for USC, for the State Department, and made hundreds of documentaries. I always did my own photography, until I began working in Hollywood.’ Kershner’s film debut was with the 1958 film, Stakeout on Dope Street. From there he went on to direct such varied movies as Loving (1970), Raid on Entebbe (1977) and the John Carpenter scripted horror thriller Eyes of Laura Mars (1978).
Kershner was brought in on the Empire project while Leigh Brackett was still working on her screenplay. ‘She was about halfway through the script when I became involved,’ said Kershner, ‘and we decided to let her finish the thing before getting into meetings with her about the re-write – because I knew I’d want a re-write. So while I waited, I had discussions with George and some of the art people who were starting on the initial drawings, just sort of slowly getting started. And when she handed me the first draft, she said she was going into hospital that weekend for a check-up – and she never came out.
‘So suddenly we had a first draft script on our hands and a definite start date for the picture on March 5th, 1979, which meant we’d have to get moving. So we took the script and started reading it and making a few changes – then George said, “You know, we’ve got to bring in a writer. Someone who is strong on dialogue and who can take on the burden of getting it whipped into shape.” So we brought in Larry Kasdan, and for months we would meet at my apartment in Los Angeles and go over it section by section. He would go off and re-write a section for a few days or a week, then he’d come back and we’d go over the pages he’d done, then he’d do another section. We did a very extensive re-write but it was still basically her script.
‘When we’d polished it to the point that I thought it was now workable I came over to London and began pre-production, which for the first few months consisted of making drawings. I visualised and drew up the whole film to create the flow of it, to get the feel of the sets and the actual staging of scenes and even the cutting. It had to be very precise – so precise that drawings were made before the art director began to make the sets. Then we began to incorporate how the special effects would be done and I had to keep altering the drawings accordingly.
‘It took about six months producing those drawings – we ended up with a book a foot thick. I sent copies to George and to all the technicians so everyone knew what they would be doing. With this book it was possible to get the flow of the picture established, which was the most important thing of all. Because as soon as you have a picture with a lot of gadgetry, blue screens, matte shots, super-impositions, etc, it tends to become very stiff if you’re not careful. The actors become as stiff as the gadgets themselves.
|Ford glowers at the camera for a publicity picture on the Hoth set.|
‘That was a major problem because the whole picture is special effects. People don’t realise that almost every shot has something in it that’s a special effect, and about half the effects were done completely on the set. Yoda, for instance was a total special effect and all done on the set. We added nothing to him later. Then there were the mechanical effects like the water effects and the fogs – there were so many things that we created right there ... but, of course, there were many shots where I could shoot live action and then send the scene back to the studio in San Francisco for the opticals to be added. It was really a locked down situation on many of those shots. I mean, there were shots where we had to use the VistaVision camera (a special camera in which the film runs through the gate horizontally instead of vertically, giving a clearer image definition), it had to be exactly four-and-a-half feet off the ground, it had to be pointed no more than fifteen degrees up, the light had to come from the right, it had to be orange – all because of the special effects that would be added later – and then I could be free as I wanted within that frame.
‘Then we reached the point where, in some shots, all I had was a completely black set and a few actors. It looked silly – nothing but a couple of lines drawn on the floor for the actors and that was it. I wouldn’t see the finished scene for maybe six months after I shot it, then I get back a piece of film that’s been married and the whole thing comes to life – it has a background and something flying around and other moving elements. It was a similar situation with some of the snow battle scenes – all I had were some men running towards me, smoke bombs, a few explosions and one man stumbling and falling in the foreground. And then the special effects team start working on it – they put in the three huge Walkers, which was a remarkable job, and then later they put in the laser blasts coming out of the Walkers, one of which hits the man I’d had fall over months before ... so it was all working backwards.’