Monday 10 March 2014

The Making of The Empire Strikes Back, by J. W. Rinzler

As regular readers of this blog will know, I'm not only a big fan of the original "Star Wars" trilogy but also of behind-the-scenes books.  Having read J. W. Rinzler’s excellent “The Making of Return Of The Jedi” earlier this year (you can read the blog here) , I decided I wanted to go back into the wonderfully informative environment he created and asked for this for my birthday.  Luckily for me, since I’m so difficult to buy for (apparently), it was gratefully bought.

Using mainly contemporary interviews (from late 1977 through to 1980), with a few conducted in the 90s and 00s, this covers the whole of the production from the opening of “Star Wars” (which took everyone by complete surprise) to the opening of “Empire Strikes Back” and touches on pretty much every aspect of the production in between.  As with the Jedi book, the research is thorough and extensive, which even extends to captioning pictures and identifying people way in the background.  The success of “Star Wars” does help the cause a bit here, since “Empire” benefited from an accomplished unit publicist in Alan Arnold, who later published “Once Upon A Galaxy: A Journal of the making of The Empire Strikes Back”, which I read a couple of years ago.  A thick paperback, it was the official making of (there was also a magazine too) and Rinzler quotes from it extensively, whilst also drawing on other interviews Mr Arnold made at the time but which have previously been unpublished.  At first I thought this overlap of information might be too repetitive but it isn’t at all, with the longest lift (where Irvin Kershner was miked up on the Carbon Freezing set) being interspersed with later comments made by the principals concerned.

By the end of 1977, George Lucas was already at work on the sequel and brought in Leigh Brackett to shape the screenplay.  The script conference transcripts published here only have his contributions (no explanation is made as to why) but they’re very interesting, with the bare bones of the film clearly already in place in his mind (though he gets as stuck here with Vader living in a castle as he did the Empire planet during the Jedi conferences).  As it was, Brackett died before she could work on the second draft and virtually none of what she wrote was used, though Lucas ensured she retained a screen credit.  Instead, Lawrence Kasdan was drafted in - he’d just written the “Raiders Of The Lost Ark” script - and his approach is clearly like a breath of fresh air, as he questions ideas and motives and suggests (on occasion and usually unsuccessfully) that Lucas might not be right.

Irvin Kershner talking with Marcia Lucas, George's then wife.
Adamant that he wouldn’t direct, Lucas suggested his old USC film tutor Irvin Kershner for the role with the latter agreeing after several conversations (I imagine the fact that his son was ten-years-old also played a part).  Kersh, as he’s affectionately called by everyone, was clearly a different director, keen to take his time on composition and although Lucas had concerns about producer Gary Kurtz’s ability to rein him in, he chose not to air them - a decision he would later come to regret.

As well as the pre-production of the film, the book also follows the formation of several Lucasfilm entities, including Black Falcon (the licensing arm, which I only discovered the existence of in the Jedi book), how the various divisions were structured and the plans for Skywalker ranch.  Having read “Skywalking” (which is not listed in the bibliography at the back of this), I love that whole late seventies period, as the company sets up and operates out of The Egg Company in LA and ILM hides in plain sight as The Kerner Company in San Anselmo and Rinzler is thorough in his exploration of this period.  It’s also interesting to see how the merchandising helped the entire operation, with Black Falcon lending money to both Lucasfilm and ILM to get things moving.  Best of all though is the information about the ranch - the plans, the daytrips, the fourth of July picnics - and Rinzler paints a wonderful picture of the era, the atmosphere remembered fondly by all those involved in it, a tight and small close-knit group that felt like a family.  But even as the production wore on and the dealings with the banks got more intense and Lucas was pushed into an executive role with his companies (Lucasfilm funded the whole project), things were changing.  Lucy Wilson - Kurtz’s assistant and one of the original employees - comments that where once she and Lucas could say hi and chat, she soon had to book appointments to see him.  As it is, this seems as troubling to Lucas as anyone else.

On location in Finse, Mark Hamill is filmed on one of the Tauntauns
Production began with the main unit at Finse in Norway and it seems to have been a disaster from the beginning.  Weather delayed shooting, Kershner took his time and things got away from Kurtz, leading to his eventual estrangement from the Lucasfilm group, with Howard Kazanjian (who would go on to produce Jedi) getting more involved.

Things were more settled at Elstree Studios in London, though Kershner, working with his DoP Peter Suschitzky to produce the best work possible, played havoc with Lucas’ plans.  As his pace upset the schedule and pushed the film over budget, issues with cashflow and the banks kicked in, adding further to the stresses that Lucas was trying to hide from his director.

Rinzler covers every aspect of the production in equal detail (I loved the discovery that the filming was juggled to fit the sets - since the Falcon was built full-size, it pretty much stayed where it was and new sets were built around it) and doesn’t shy away from some of the more candid conversations.  Lucas was a large presence on set (but not to the extent that he would be on “Jedi”) and although he takes every opportunity to point out he’s not the director (he didn’t do any of the publicity tours), the very thought of it clearly annoys Kershner, who bristles with journalists who suggest it.  For his part, Kershner comes across well, imbuing the material with depth and emotion and working hard with his cast and crew to make things are good as they possibly can be.  Working in the moment, having already planned thoroughly, he liked to leave enough room for conversations and discussions with his actors (the Carbon freezing sequence, as mentioned above, shows this brilliantly) that clearly benefit the film.

The now iconic group shot - Hamill, George Lucas, Carrie Fisher and
Harrison Ford.  The lady shown standing behind and between Fisher
and Ford is Robert Shaw's daughter, who worked on the crew.
Of the actors, Mark Hamill comes across very well, though he does comment he and Carrie Fisher clashed a few times.  In fact, Fisher also clashes with Kershner and Harrison Ford (in the miked-up section) and Billy Dee Williams later tries to be diplomatic, in saying that her mind perhaps wasn’t on the job all the time.  In fact, with the production keen to film her scenes and release her, it appears her well-documented foray into addiction was already taking hold.  Ford, for his part, comes across as occasionally stroppy but always keen to do a good job.

Stuart Freeborn (make-up effects supervisor, on left)
 talks about the Yoda head with Frank Oz and Jim Henson
As production released cast members to move into the Dagobah set and the schedule goes ever further over, you can almost hear the rankling in Lucas’ comments as the pressure being put on him - as the financier - must have been incredible.  That’s not helped by the whole Yoda situation and it’s worth noting that whilst the world readily accepted the puppet as a living, breathing character, at the time it was an enormous risk.  We watch “Empire” now, we see Yoda everywhere and we take him as read but back in 1978/79, nobody had tried anything like it before.  I was surprised to read that Frank Oz only worked on the film for 12 days (he was lent out by Jim Henson’s company as they were gearing up for “The Dark Crystal”) and completely agree with Kershner’s observation that the Dagobah sequences are made by the sincerity of Mark Hamill’s acting.

Another thing I discovered is something I’ve long wondered, that the second and third films can’t have been as much fun for Hamill since Luke was often split up from the other characters.  He’s quoted as saying, “It was almost like two separate films were being made.  I got nostalgic for the grand old days on the Death Star, when Harrison, Carrie, Chewie and I were all together in the trash compactor.”  Hamill ended up working on the film for 103 days.

Effects Supervisor Richard Edlund, George Lucas and
modelshop supervisor Steve Gawley with the Medical Frigate model.
Production complete, the action moves back to California.  ILM was put together again in San Anselmo, moving away from LA and the original building and leaving John Dykstra and several colleagues there.  In between designing shots (far more than the original film) and creating new worlds and ships and creatures, the team also had to design and build new equipment and the schedule very quickly becomes constrictive.  Everyone keeps their sense of humour though - especially effects supervisor Ken Ralston - and by the end of the period, they’re even changing original shots (the Wampa monster) because they don’t want anything “crappy” popping up in ‘their film’.

(from left) Dennis Muren (effect Supervisor), Phil Tippett and Jon Berg
with the Tauntaun puppet
Rinzler, as with every other aspect of the production, is exhaustive in his approach to the ILM work, with shots often mapped out by the frame so that they fit into the already fine-edited final cut of the film (which Lucas would add a few shots to, between the initial limited-run 70mm release and the wide 35mm one).  Phil Tippett and Jon Berg quite rightly get a lot of attention for their stop-motion work with the AT-AT’s (another risky visual image) and Tauntauns, but it’s clear to see that ILM was a more harmonious place with everyone being given a chance to shine (Lucas later says he was very pleased with the work they did).  Hoth seems to have been the hardest work in terms of technical difficulties (not only colour matching snow and hiding matte lines, but also trying to comp stop-motion creatures into it), with a lot of effort put into them - Bruce Nicholson, head of the optical department, shrugs away his successes by saying he used a “Norway filter”.

from left - Irvin Kershner, Gary Kurtz, George Lucas, Lawrence Kasdan - on the Hoth set
Towards the end of post-production, Alan Ladd jr left Twentieth Century Fox, which didn’t help Lucas with the studio or the banks since Ladd was their key supporter.  Lawrence Kasdan was also caught out, since Fox was going to make his noir-thriller “Body Heat” and once Ladd left, the film was put into turnaround.  Ladd set the film up at his new Ladd Company and Lucas was sponsor on the film, with the proviso that if it went over budget, the funds should come from his fee.  As Kasdan says, “this was a generous, supportive thing to do”.

Rinzler examines contemporary interviews and one, from Time magazine in 1978, seems particularly pertinent.  When asked about his future directing ambitions, Lucas says “I will go back and direct another [“Star Wars”] film, but it will be toward the end of the cycle, about 20 years from now”.  The Phantom Menace was released in 1999.

Rinzler also details how perceptive Lucas was with future technology and how it would assist the film-making process, especially with digital images.  Sprocket Systems (later renamed Skywalker Sound) had a Computer Research and Development Division set up within it, headed by Ed Catmull, to develop computer aided visual and sounding editing equipment.  They also developed the Pixar system, which would later become the Pixar Division and be sold off to Steve Jobs.

The post-production part ends with a section on the matte paintings which Harrison Ellenshaw, Ralph McQuarrie and Michael Pangrazio created.  Showing them in progress and often against the final frames, these are gloriously reproduced and a real sight to behold.
Harrison Ellenshaw's matte painting of Slave 1 on the Cloud City landing pad.  The only live action in the shot was Boba Fett and the guards carrying the carbonite block.
As with Jedi, the final part of the book deals with the release and reception of the film, as Lucas’ risky venture proves a hit with the paying public (he made his money back in three months), if not all of the critics (though some would change their tune over the years) though it did win several awards in 1980 (including a special Academy Award for the visual effects).  Reading some of the reviews back - again with the benefit of hindsight, knowing that this sequel is generally considered the best film of the trilogy (I prefer “Star Wars”, as it happens) - it’s interesting to see how people’s perceptions changed.

Candid, thorough and superbly researched, this is painstakingly extensive and never less than readable and filled with beautifully reproduced photographs.  I thought the Jedi book would be the benchmark but I think Rinzler has excelled himself here.

I’m a huge fan of the original trilogy and Making Of Books and this is pretty much perfect, to the extent that I dragged out the last few pages because I didn’t want it to end.  Very highly recommended.

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