Monday, May 17, 2010

The Empire Strikes Back: Happy Anniversary!

This is it!  This is the day I finally talk about my favorite Star Wars movie.  (You all knew it was coming.  Come on, admit it.)  And why did I finally choose today, of all days?  Because this upcoming Friday is the 30th anniversary of it's release.  That's right.  On May 21, 1980, the world was finally allowed to see the greatest of the Star Wars films - "The Empire Strikes Back."

"The Empire Strikes Back" stars, as you probably all know already, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford, all reprising their roles from the first "Star Wars" film.  We pick up with the band of rebels as they continue their fight against the evil Empire.  Only thing is this time, things don't go quite as well as before.  Alec Guinness also returns for this sequel, as well as James Earl Jones as the voice of Darth Vader.  And we get the new (and wonderfully funny) addition of two characters, Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) and Yoda (voiced and puppeteer-ed by the great Frank Oz).

"Empire" was the first sequel to "Star Wars." ("Star Wars Episode IV - A New Hope" is the official new title for that, but I refuse to say that.  It's true and correct title will always be simply "Star Wars.")  "Star Wars" had been such a sleeper hit that no one thought George Lucas could match the first.  Because of the huge success of "Star Wars" though, Lucas was able to finance "Empire" all by himself, through profits from the first film and loans.  That way he would have completely control over the production.

For "Empire Strike Back," Lucas decided to hire a director and screenwriters, instead of doing it all himself this time.  (Something he should have done for the prequels too, but they don't exist for this discussion, so we'll overlook that for now.)  For director, he hired his old USC professor Irvin Kershner.  Originally, Kershner said no, thinking there was no way the sequel could match the original in quality.  However, after he told his agent about this, his agent insisted he take the job.  For screenwriters, Lucas first hired Leigh Brackett to write the script.  She completed her first draft in February 1978, but sadly died of cancer the next month.  Lucas then hired Lawrence Kasdan, whom Lucas liked from his draft of "Raiders of the Lost Ark," to finish the script.

Lucas used his time to focus mainly on the finances and the special effects with his growing company Industrial Light & Magic (ILM).  He wanted to make sure the effects surpassed those of "Star Wars" so he insisted on a battle scene on Hoth, stating that with a white background (versus the black background of space), it would be more difficult to hide mistakes.  Thus, the stop-motion animation of the AT-ATs was created, using painted backgrounds instead of bluescreens, and imitation of elephants to get the walk more realistic.  Lucas also wanted to put the credits at the end of the film again, so it wouldn't take away from the opening action.  Unlike its wide use today, this was a huge no-no in the eyes of the Writer's Guild and Director's Guild back then.  They had agreed to Lucas' request to put the credits at the end of "Star Wars" only because they thought it would be a flop.  However, the guilds fined Lucas this time, and director Kershner.  So Lucas paid all the fines out of his own pocket, including Kershner's, then cancelled his membership in both guilds and the Motion Picture Association.

Principle photography for "Empire" took place in England and Norway (for the Hoth scenes).  While in Norway, one of the worst blizzards in fifty years hit the town of Finse, where the production was staying.  Unable to leave the hotel, Kershner decided he could still take advantage of the weather conditions.  So, he pushed Mark Hamill out into the cold by himself as the crew stayed warm inside and shot the scene of Luke running away from the Wampa cave.  Hamill had a bad car accident between "Star Wars" and "Empire," which caused some damage to his face.  Contrary to popular belief, though, the Wampa sequence was not created to explain his scars. It had always been part of the original script, but Lucas did say that it did help with a satisfactory explanation.

While filming in England, Carrie Fisher rented Eric Idle's house.  (The Python boys were off shooting "Life of Brian" at the time.)  However, while he was there, Idle did through a party, attended by Harrison Ford as well.  They had such a good time drinking an alcohol Idle called "Tunisian table cleaner" into the middle of the night that during the next day's shooting scenes (their arrival at Cloud City), they could not help looking relaxed and happy.  And Idle evidently was very pleased to hear he had a little impact on "Empire."

**SPOILER ALERT for next paragraph only**

Now, one of the reasons Han Solo was frozen in carbonite was the fact that Lucas wasn't sure if Harrison Ford would return for "Return of the Jedi."  Even though Lucas assured him that his character still had a heroic part to play in final film, Ford could only see his character as intricate to "Star Wars."  He, therefore, was the only one of the three leads to not sign a contract for three films at the beginning.  Luckily, he did come back (even if his "heroic" part is a bit weak in "Jedi").  Another interesting turn about the filming of "Empire" was that Lucas kept hearing rumors of leaks to the story.  So determined to keep the final big surprise of the film a secret, Lucas gave David Prowse, the actor who played the physical presence of Vader, false lines for the scene, saying "Obi-Wan killed your father" instead.  Only Hamill, Kershner, Lucas and Kasdan knew the truth while filming that scene.  Only one other person would learn the truth before the film was released - James Earl Jones.  However, his initial reaction was "He's lying."

**END of Spoiler Alert**

I could talk about "The Empire Strikes Back" forever.  Not only is it truly one of my all-time favorite films (I'm a sci-fi nerd, what can I say).  But I also love learning about the making of the "Star Wars" films because it took place during a time in Hollywood that will never come again.  Nothing like "Star Wars" had ever happened before, so even the sequels were a first-time, learn-as-you-go experience.  Everyone was new to creating this kind of mega-pop culture phenomenon.  To have been a fly on those walls, what an experience to remember for the rest of your life.  These are the things about movie history that really make me love this business.  So, get out those VHS tapes or DVDs, jump back to a time long gone, and rewatch "The Empire Strikes Back."  Have a wonderful week, everyone.  See you Friday.

(Post-tidbit: "Family Guy" will finally be airing their parody of "Empire" this Sunday (5/23).  It's called "Something, Something, Something Dark Side" and is the long-awaited follow-up to their "Star Wars" parody "Blue Harvest."  Even though it was already released on DVD last December, this will be the first airing of it on television, just in time for the anniversary.)


  1. Great post! I didn't know Lucas got fined for moving the credits to the end; I wonder if this happened again with Jedi. Another thought I had was how could filmmakers keep any plot "secrets" nowadays in this "Twitter" age?

  2. Thanks!

    And, no, because Lucas was no longer a member of the guilds, he did not have to follow their rules; thus no fine. However, because he was no longer part of the Director's Guild, he was not allowed to hire Spielberg to direct "Jedi" either.

  3. Interesting! When was the first time you saw Empire? Also did you see the 1997 "special edition" re-release when it came out? I remember seeing it then, but I couldn't figure out what had been added.

  4. I believe the first time I saw "Empire" I was 10 and I watched it with either my brother or dad. (I was a little too young to see it in the theaters when it came out.) But I did see the re-release in 97, and remember one thing they added - Luke's scream as he fell. As a huge fan, I was so angry with that, as where many fans. So they took that out for the "Special special edition" in 2004. They also took out one of my favorite lines: "It's lucky you don't taste very good." That stayed out.

  5. Thanks! This is my favorite episode too