Friday, 25 January 2013

Chapter 4, Part 2 - Harrison Ford: Return of the Hero

On the set Irvin Kershner, the director of The Empire Strikes Back, would find that scenes didn’t work and would have to alter carefully storyboarded sequences at the last minute. And because of these alterations he was forced to give precious shooting days over to rehearsals of the new sequences and relighting of the sets.

The animatronic puppet that played the character of Yoda also proved to be one almighty headache. ‘Actually there’s very little of Yoda in the picture,’ Kershner told Starburst’s John Brosnan, ‘and his scenes only took about ten days of filming, but they were very long days. He was monstrously difficult to work with and, on average, it took us three-and-a-half hours to shoot just two lines of his dialogue. The rehearsals took a lot of time too because we had a bank of tv monitors and three, sometimes four, technicians to manipulate Yoda. Frank Oz was coordinating it with me and we were both wearing earphones and mikes. The set was built four or five feet above the floor so we could have all kinds of mechanisms underneath Yoda ... and it took endless rehearsals because you’d start and one of Yoda’s eyes would go in the wrong direction or one ear would suddenly fall down, and I’d have to say, “Up with the left ear,” or “Now take the left eye and move it around to the right ... that’s right, now focus it a little closer.”

"Who's scruffy-looking?"

‘Frank Oz would be watching the tv screens and I’d be watching the screens and the creature but we were the only ones who could hear what Yoda was saying. The crew and Mark Hamill heard nothing – they didn’t know what was happening. Finally, we had to put a tiny earphone on Mark – a tiny miniature earphone with a very fine wire going back behind his ear so he could hear what Yoda was saying.’

Nevertheless the results were worth the bother. Yoda is a very convincing creation on the screen and the character won over the hordes of Star Wars fans instantly.

In the meantime, the problems that Kershner was experiencing were costing the production money. The ‘standing still’ budget (the money it cost to keep the production in business without shooting a single foot of film) was a staggering $100,000 a day. It was left to George Lucas to try to find the extra money from somewhere to ensure completion of the picture. Eventually he was forced to turn to 20th Century-Fox for help, something he wanted to avoid at all costs. And with the mounting financial pressures on The Empire Strikes Back, relationships between Irvin Kershner, George Lucas and Gary Kurtz became strained.


Yet through all this, Harrison Ford had only good things to say about Irvin Kershner. ‘He was wonderful,’ Ford enthused. ‘He’s a different kind of director. But we also had a very close relationship on the level of freedom to contribute.’ Kershner, a director sensitive to the needs and talents of his actors, encouraged every contribution Ford was willing to make. ‘Occasionally, I feel very sure about the changes,’ says Ford, ‘like the “I love you”, “I know” scene. I knew that my last speech had to be a strong character line. I convinced Kersh to give me the “I know” decision and I’m grateful he did. When George finally saw the sequence cut together, he said, “It’s a laugh line. I’m not sure it belongs there. This is a serious, dramatic moment.”

‘I said, “I think it really works.” and Kershner agreed with me. So George said, “Okay, go with it.”

‘From what I’ve seen and heard, the “I know” line really does work. It relieves a grim situation without generating laughs or diverting the drama. It also serves to make Solo’s plight more poignant and memorable.’

The Ford/Fisher chemistry was the chief reason
that Ford's dialogue changes worked.

Harrison Ford has no qualms about altering a line of dialogue that a writer might have spent months on if he feels it will improve the end result.

‘Writers sometimes have to live with a script so long,’ he says firmly, ‘that it begins to suit them too well – they can’t see the validity of changes.’

Lawrence Kasdan wasn’t too happy with some of the changes that had been made to his script – sometimes on the very day of shooting. ‘Han and Leia’s relationship is not at all what I had envisaged,’ Kasdan told the American magazine Starlog. ‘I could be the only person who feels this way, but I thought their romance had a touch of falseness about it. Han and Leia’s scenes were among what I was proudest of in my script, but they hardly remained. Their being changed had a lot to do with the circumstances of filming, Kershner and the actors’ feelings about doing their roles again. I was one of the people who wasn’t crazy about Harrison Ford in Empire.’

When The Empire Strikes Back opened in America on May 21st, 1980, Star Wars fans across the country had been queuing for three days. The film recovered its cost three months after that and eventually went on to pull in nearly as much in ticket sales as the original Star Wars movie. Not bad for a film that caused just about everybody connected with it so many sleepless nights.


The critics’ reception of The Empire Strikes Back was only a little short of a standing ovation.

Variety wrote, ‘Having already introduced their principal players, the filmmakers now have a chance to round them out, assisted again by good performances from Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher. And even the ominous Darth Vader is fleshed with new – and surprising – motivations.’

The Washington Post thought, ‘the total effect is fast and attractive and occasionally amusing. Like a good hot dog, that’s something of an achievement in a field where unpalatable junk is the rule.’

The San Francisco Chronicle said, ‘The emotional landscape of The Empire Strikes Back is the richest in the Star Wars trilogy. Every character is more developed, more familiar, more quirky in this movie. Han, the smart-aleck, now is in a full-court press to woo Princess Leia, and his repeated mocking of her “royal highnessness” goads her into a classic mating ritual of teases and glances – and wet kisses.’ 

Ford and "Her Royal Highnessness" Carrie Fisher
horse around on the Millennium Falcon set.

Yet some did point out that the ending of the film was no ending at all and smacked of the same kind of thinking behind the cliff-hanging endings of the old Saturday morning serials – a cheap shot to get the audiences back for the third part of the trilogy. Harrison Ford backed the filmmakers’ decision in the face of such comments and answered them smoothly.

‘I have no real defence for that argument,’ he admitted, ‘but what obligation is there to tie up every question with an equal answer? The cliff-hanger is because the trilogy was really constructed in the classic form of a three-act play. Naturally, there are going to be questions in the second act which have to be resolved in the third. I guess it really depends on what you go to a movie for. I figure there was at least eleven dollars worth of entertainment in Empire. So if you paid four bucks and didn’t get an ending, you’re still seven dollars ahead of the game.’

Audiences agreed and voted with their cash. Empire was safely the biggest earner of 1980 and its worldwide box-office of almost $534 million means that it’s the 39th highest grossing movie of all time.

The Academy nominated the movie in the categories for Best Art Direction and Best Score and awarded The Empire Strikes Back the Oscar for Best Sound, as well as a Special Achievement Oscar for the Special Effects.

The accusations that Empire was too serial-like could have been an omen of Ford’s next project. Though he didn’t know it at the time, Harrison Ford would go on to star in George Lucas’s homage to those same Saturday morning serials in the brilliant 1930s-style adventure movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark.

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