How the sci-fi epic was made
It was a typical day on the set of The Empire Strikes Back. Tensions were rising. At Elstree Studios, just outside London, the carbon chamber scene was being filmed. The set had been painted black, with bright orange lighting and steam shooting out of the floors – it was incredibly hot. “Some of the actors and crew fainted if they got close to the steam,” director Irvin Kershner later admitted in interviews.
The cast, already uncomfortable, were losing patience. Stood on platforms 10m above the ground, they had to take extra care, and Harrison Ford had just asked to do another take, wanting to improvise a little differently.
Carrie Fisher was the first to snap – an argument breaking out between her and Ford, and Kershner trying to intervene. Suddenly, through the thick smoke, David Prowse emerged in full Darth Vader costume, striding over to Kershner to hand him a signed copy of his new book, Fitness is Fun. The director is heard cursing, telling Prowse to go away.
Jonathan Rinzler laughs as he recounts the anecdote, one of many featured in his book, The Making of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, published in 2010 for the film’s 30th anniversary. Released in May 1980, this year the movie turns 40. Having worked in-house at Lucasfilm for 15 years, from 2001 until 2016, Rinzler also wrote books on Star Wars and Return of the Jedi, but his research on Empire unearthed audio recordings taken from the set, allowing him to listen to actual conversations.
But the pressure was on, and everybody felt it. The original Star Wars, released in 1977, had been an unprecedented critical and commercial success, and the appetite for a sequel was huge. For George Lucas, it was a chance to go bigger and better – an opportunity to really showcase his special effects company, Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), and to earn enough money for his studio, Lucasfilm, to become entirely independent. “It was a lot more ambitious than the first one,” Rinzler confirms. “George wanted a cloud city, an ice planet, a chase sequence in an asteroid belt… He was very demanding.”
Lucas secured a bank loan on the back of the earlier film to raise US$33 million for the sequel. While he had worked with 20th Century Fox on the first instalment, nobody had expected it to be such a hit, so Lucas owned the sequel rights and could do as he pleased, with Fox only handling the distribution. For Lucas, a sequel that was a box office hit would mean incredible financial gains – and if it failed, he would be bankrupt.
With growing pressure, Lucas decided not to direct. He had not enjoyed making the original Star Wars anyway. “I hate directing,” he told Rolling Stone magazine at the time. “It’s like fighting a 15-round heavyweight bout with a different opponent every day.”
Instead, Lucas looked to the late Irvin Kershner – known more for his independent, character-driven films than big-budget blockbusters, although on the back of Empire he would go on to direct a Bond film, Never Say Never Again, and Robocop 2. At first, Kershner declined, but was eventually convinced, with Lucas wanting the director for his independent background, which resonated with his own ideas for Lucasfilm.
For the script, a few of the story points came in response to circumstances taking place behind the scenes. The movie opens with Luke Skywalker being attacked by a snow monster, filmed on location in Norway, to explain the facial injuries sustained by Mark Hamill in a real-life car accident, where cartilage from his ear was used to rebuild his nose, making his appearance slightly different than in the original movie.
Then ending with Han Solo frozen in carbonite was partially a result of Harrison Ford’s contract negotiations. “Everyone else had a contract that included sequels, but not Harrison,” says Rinzler. “So each time they had to negotiate, and actors and agents can be stubborn. Freezing him in carbonite was George’s way of saying, well, if you don’t want to come back for a third one, no sweat, I’ve already written you out.”
The ending is also famous for the plot-twist revelation that Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker are father and son. By adding this, Lucas realised there was a back story to tell, and that his current movies were set later. He decided to introduce the ‘Episode V’ tag to the Empire title, and renamed the previous Star Wars movie ‘Episode IV’ for any future re-release.
The other issue with the reveal was secrecy. David Prowse was apparently notorious for leaking information to the press, and shot the ending unaware of what was actually happening. In the script he was given, Vader tells Luke, “Obi-Wan Kenobi killed your father,” to which Luke responds, “No! That’s not true.” At the premiere, after James Earl Jones’s voice as Darth Vader was added, he tells Luke, “I am your father.” Prowse was as shocked to hear this as everyone else.
For a large portion of the movie, Luke is alone, training with Yoda to become a Jedi. “They thought about using a monkey for Yoda, and even dressed one up for a screentest,” says Rinzler. “But George was friends with Jim Henson, who made The Muppet Show, so Yoda became a puppet, operated and eventually voiced by Frank Oz, who was known for Fozzie Bear and Miss Piggy.”
The set for Dagobah, Yoda’s home, was built on a raised platform, allowing Oz to slide in underneath and work the puppet from below. Hamill would then say his lines, with the responses from Yoda added later on. “Mark had a lonely time of it,” confirms Rinzler. “He missed the camaraderie of the first movie, being on the set with the others. But he deserves a great amount of credit – nobody would believe Yoda was real unless Mark made us think that he was.”
But Hamill perhaps benefitted from being away from his peers. In her autobiography, The Princess Diarist, Carrie Fisher revealed that to break the tension onset one day, she and Harrison Ford hit the town in London, and ended up partying with members of Monty Python and The Rolling Stones. The next day, filming their arrival on Bespin, the cloud city, Fisher explains that they are clearly still reeling from the effects of the night before.
But while Ford’s improvisations may have frustrated many, one in particular has impressed fans for decades. As he is lowered into the carbon chamber, Leia shouts to Han, “I love you,” and he responds, “I know.” In the original script, Han is meant to say, “I love you too,” but Kershner and Ford both felt the reply was off.
As Kershner once told Vanity Fair, “The original line wasn’t right for Han Solo. I told Harrison to try whatever comes to mind, and he just said, ‘I know.’ I thought yes, that’s the perfect Han Solo remark. But George was furious when he saw the first cut, and it was the only time we disagreed. I tried to explain, Han Solo was a rebel, but George felt the audience would laugh. So we agreed to do two preview screenings, one with that line, the other with his. After the first screening, people told us the line had made the entire film for them. George said, ‘Okay, you win,’ and we never did the screening with his line.”
Lucas was particularly tough with those working on the special effects. There are rumours that disgruntled ILM employees even snuck in a potato and a shoe into the asteroid scene as a way of venting their grievances. “I defy anybody to actually watch the movie and spot those,” laughs Rinzler, although the story is that they were edited out for the 1997 remastered edition. “But it was tough. A few people I spoke to told me that Empire was the hardest thing they’ve ever worked on.”
Not that audiences were aware. They were busy taking in the story and seeing all of the new characters, like fan-favourite Boba Fett – a role that actor Jeremy Bulloch landed by accident. “I just happened to fit into the outfit they had made,” he says. “My half-brother was an associate producer, Robert Watts, and he told me to come down, try it on. So there’s the scene in Bespin, I’m playing Boba Fett with the helmet on and shooting at Luke Skywalker, but I’m also playing an Imperial officer. The actor booked that day called in sick, and I was the right size for that outfit too.”
So there was a lot of luck that helped the project pay off – The Empire Strikes Back was the highest-grossing movie of 1980, and Lucas made back the money he had borrowed in just three months, later giving his staff huge bonuses to show his appreciation. And audiences were grateful too. With its darker tone, the unresolved ending and its character-driven storytelling, for many this is the best Star Wars movie, and for other aspiring filmmakers a template for what a sequel should be.