Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Making of The Empire Strikes Back

Well, that took me a while to get.

After reading and loving JW Rinzler's The Making of Star Wars: The Definitive Story Behind the Original Film, I was excited to start the second book right away. Turns out my library somehow lost their copy of the book. I was going to get it through inter-library loan, but then they decided to completely change the card catalog program, so I was stuck waiting until that was ready. So now, finally, I was able to sit down and read this book.

I loved it just as much as the first. Again, Rinzler manages to create suspense where, based on what we know historically, none should really exist. I know that The Empire Strikes Back was made and released and was a gigantic success. But Rinzler is a talented writer and there are times in the book when I wonder, jeez, what's going to happen? Is everyone going to get out of this okay? I realized while reading it that, unlike Star Wars, I haven't really read that much in my life about the making of the second film. This one presents a definitive story. And like the film whose making it chronicles, it's both a wonderful book on its own and a nice return to a world that the author has already made us comfortable spending time in.

Some things that struck me about the production of the film:

:: George Lucas had in mind both a lava planet and a city planet, both of which would finally appear in the prequels. He also had, for some time in the story, "tall, thin, white, ethereal aliens" which seem to have become the Kaminoans of Attack of the Clones.

:: The original title Lucas had for a while was Star Wars Chapter II: The Empire Strikes Back. Again, the question remains of how big this saga was meant to be. Early on in the development of the sequel, Lucas is outlining a prologue film, three episodes, and calling Star Wars episode 5 and The Empire Strikes Back episode 6, with one other film and an epilogue to follow. By the end, after the movie's released, he's talking about 9 or 10 movies. And somewhere in the middle, he talks about the entire saga as though it were to be a continuous, ongoing series of films, with himself directing one "in about 20 years."

Sometimes I wonder if there's more we'll never see because he's tired of the way people bitch about everything he does "wrong."

:: Some of the plot elements that are left behind are kind of interesting. There's a whole development about Han Solo's stepfather being a guild master who would be the key to a massive assault if he joined the Rebel Alliance. That would've been a more interesting way to play it out for the third movie, but it kind of cuts the drama in the third act of Empire. Maybe they could have made it work; for most of the third movie, Han Solo doesn't seem to really have a story arc.

I also find it interesting that George Lucas had meant from the beginning for Leia to really love Han and for Luke to move into the more monastic life of a Jedi Knight. One of the major criticisms I hear from the internet "fans" is that the trilogy resolves a complex love triangle with the cliche of Luke and Leia being siblings, but I never felt there was an ounce of complexity in the love triangle or that one even existed. I find it interesting here that in his notes Lucas is already envisioning the possibility of a long-lost sister for Luke who is also learning about the Force. I wonder how long that's been in his back pocket. In the book, they talk about Mark Hamill's car accident and Lucas says if Mark had died he'd have found another Skywalker relative to go with instead of recasting Luke. Was that the inspiration? (Somewhat-related: I always thought it was fairly clever to have Luke get swiped in the face by the Wampa at the beginning of the film to explain why he looks so different, if that's a concern for anyone.)

There are notes, too, about Ben Kenobi and whether he'll appear as a ghost of the Force or Luke will only hear his voice. The original treatment and Leigh Brackett's first draft feature Luke's father as a Force ghost, too, so he's not Vader yet.

:: Speaking of Leigh Brackett, I thought it was pretty classy for George to give her a screen credit, even though he didn't like or use her draft. (I've read it; it's not bad, it's just not in the tone of Star Wars.)

:: And speaking of Luke's father, it was smart of George to not tell anyone about that development until they shot the scene. I was amused a bit by how he had David Prowse say different lines on the set because Prowse had rather loose lips when it came to plot leaks. (Prowse, for his part, was annoyed because he'd have played the scene differently had he known.)

:: It's interesting to see, too, how the story was more or less there right away; the drafts of Star Wars were all wildly different from one another, but The Empire Strikes Back stayed more or less constant.

:: The book does gloss over the horrible Star Wars Holiday Special. Let's have a book about the making of that awful thing. I'm just fascinated by what kind of thinking went into such a miscalculation. (Though I'm sure it was mostly along the lines of "Need money to finish movie.")

:: I was fascinated by the discussion of the growth of Lucasfilm as a corporate entity because the business aspect of filmmaking is always kind of fascinating to me, but I thought it was sad watching the close-knit community atmosphere of this group of people slowly and inevitably turn into a corporate culture. One of the necessary evils of achieving filmmaking independence, I suppose.

:: Boy, George Lucas really put himself on the line with this one. How many filmmakers do you ever see who have such a belief in their vision that they put themselves on the hook for literally millions and millions of dollars? In the late 70s, sequels never did as well as their original counterparts--and Empire didn't; it was phenomenally successful, but still didn't equal the success of Star Wars--and if the movie had failed, he'd probably still be paying back the money he borrowed. He would have been financially ruined. Big risk, but what a reward.

His success allowed him to talk at the time about wanting to change the nature of the filmmaking process itself--he points out rightly that film photography is a 19th century technology and that he'd like to update it and make it more accessible. He was talking in 1980 about doing things that have only become possible in the last 15 or so years. That's a big part of the reason why these films are so important in the history of entertainment; they changed the way films are physically made. You can draw a line from Industrial Light & Magic to kids who can make and edit movies with a laptop, an internet connection, and a Flip camera.

:: The biggest triumph of The Empire Strikes Back is Yoda, and I was especially interested to see how that developed. I didn't realized they'd saved his scenes for the end, mainly because they couldn't figure out how to make him work for so long. (There are some amusing pictures of a monkey wearing a mask in the book, one of many failed attempts to find a way to realize Yoda.)

I also find it interesting that they tried to get Frank Oz an Oscar nomination. There was some talk from the time of whether or not Darth Vader or See Threepio could be nominated as actors. They don't mention it here, but I remember reading once where James Earl Jones had asked to be uncredited on Star Wars because of similar talk about who should have been nominated for playing Regan in The Exorcist.

:: I was so young in the interim between Empire and Return of the Jedi that I had forgotten that there was a debate over whether or not Darth Vader was lying when he claimed to be Luke's father.

:: For me, the heroes of the film's production are really Irvin Kershner and Mark Hamill.

Kershner comes across in a really fascinating way. I know he could be slow-paced (he needed a stronger producer than Gary Kurtz, I think), but his sort of holistic approach to filmmaking is utterly fascinating to me. The way he keeps talking about zen, for example, or the way he kept trying to direct Yoda as a person instead of directing Frank Oz... I just found it all really interesting. I think he's one of the major reasons that the film is so believable; he led that from the set. There's also a long sequence in the book where he, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Billy Dee Williams discuss the scene where Han and Leia say goodbye. It's transcribed from a behind-the-scenes recording, and it's completely fascinating. You can see the frayed nerves and bruised egos and frazzled tension that come with being on a project of this magnitude for so long, but the insight into the creative process and the amount of thought being given to each scene and each line are powerful to read.

Mark Hamill, for his part, was the real workhorse of the cast. No one worked as much or as long as he did, sometimes through injuries and sickness and his wife giving birth while they were shooting. The blizzard conditions in Norway alone would have tired me right out, but he really kept going, sometimes putting his life in danger on those sets. I always loved the guy, but I really have a new respect for him as a professional after reading this book.

Just as I felt after reading the first, I feel like the least I can do is watch the movie today. They went to a lot of effort for a film that I've enjoyed as often as possible ever since.

Man, I can't wait for the next book to come out.


Hobgoblin238 said...

Thanks so much for this review! If I am ever in the states I will pick it up as well.

Kelly Sedinger said...

Such a terrific book! I love the details about George Lucas's creation of the entire Star Wars saga, which tend to really deflate a lot of the complaints over the years that he was just making shit up as he went along, that he PROMISED US NINE MOVIES, and all the rest of it. It's especially fascinating to see ideas of his from the 1970s get put in storage, to turn up later in the Prequels.

If you can find a copy (eBay or a lot of used bookstore haunting will be your best bet), check out a book called "Once Upon a Galaxy", which came out when TESB came out. It's a production diary kept by the film's publicist, and contains a lot of fascinating material in itself that's reflected in the current book, including a long transcript of the recording of the carbon freezing scene. It's great when Harrison Ford says, "I could just say, 'I know'."