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Irvin Kershner: Sometimes You Only Need One Film

Posted on Monday November 29, 2010, 15:38 by Helen O'Hara in Empire States
Irvin Kershner: Sometimes You Only Need One Film

It's fair to say that the thousand of movie fans paying tribute to Irvin Kershner today are, for the most part, doing it because of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. Generally accepted to be the best of the series, Empire Strikes Back is a near-perfect film, setting a high bar for sequels that most of them fail to reach, let alone jump. And while many of Kershner's other films as director look set for obscurity (or already well down that road) this one alone will ensure him some sort of enduring fame. Sometimes all you need is one film. The catch is that you need one bloody brilliant film.

It's a matter of public record that Kershner was originally reluctant to accept the directing job on Empire; after all, whoever took that chair would have the massive pressure of trying to live up to the biggest movie of all time (never mind surpassing it; that wasn't even an option he seems to have considered. Kershner later recalled asking Lucas why he'd invite a relatively obscure director to tackle such a job.  "I remember [George Lucas] said to me, 'Well, because you know everything a Hollywood director is supposed to know but you're not Hollywood.' I liked that." The fact that Kershner had taught at USC School of Cinema when Lucas attended it, and had championed THX-1138 to help get it a cinema release may have helped. Still, George Lucas is too smart an operator to put his baby franchise in hands that he didn't trust to do a good job, so it wasn't mere friendship that made his decision. After all, he was hoping that this sequel would turn Star Wars from one-off phenomenon into a franchise, which in turn would finance his planned headquarters outside San Francisco (Skywalker Ranch, you may have heard of it).

So Kershner came aboard, and spent nearly three years working on the resulting film. He, Lucas and writer Lawrence Kasdan went back and forth on the script, hammering it into shape (and delivering the franchise's best dialogue, incidentally). A few lines didn't quite come together until later on. Of Han Solo's famous "I know" response to Leia's declaration of love, Kershner explained, "We kept trying different things and couldn’t get the right line. We were into the lunch break and I said to Harrison try it again and just do whatever comes to mind. That is when Harrison said the line, 'I know'."

After three months of scripting and a full year just working on storyboards, filming finally began with the Hoth scenes, on location on a glacier in Norway ("It was very cold in Norway. You know what the biggest problem was in working there? Going to the bathroom! We had on seven layers of clothes. We were up on a glacier and nobody could go to the bathroom! We were dying! It was one of the most difficult things!") and then back in England, where the pressures of constructing 64 sets on 7 stages (it was due to be 8, but Stanley Kubrick apparently burned one down during filming of The Shining) meant that Kershner had up to 400 crew working at some times. And a puppet, whose smoky environment required Kershner to direct through a gas mask.

That said, he was pleased with the result - as well he might be, given that it's generally accepted as a classic. "RoboCop 2 was pretty difficult but nothing like Empire. It was just full of challenges every day. It was very rough. But I like it, I enjoy watching it. I really put my heart and soul into it. I did not withhold any energy whatsoever. I gave it everything and I like doing that. That's when life is full. I never had such anticipation. I couldn't wait to get in there the next day and do what I had been planning.

"When the film was released in 1997 and later put into DVD, I was very gratified that it was almost unchanged, except the sound was much improved, whereas Star Wars and Jedi had big changes."

He did a great job. Robocop 2 has its fans, Never Say Never Again is a lot of fun and heck, even SeaQuest DSV has its defenders, but it's Empire Strikes Back that everyone loves. RIP, Kersh.

By the way, for all you fans out there, there's more on the story behind Empire Strikes Back here and a great and lengthy interview with Kershner over at Star Wars.com.


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Comments

1 Darth Smiffy
Posted on Tuesday November 30, 2010, 17:39
A true work of genius & the film that made Lucas's empire(pun intended) possible

2 Sickbob
Posted on Sunday December 5, 2010, 09:22
Love the film definitely my favourite of the series Irvin Kershner did a fantastic job.

Just have to mention though that the "I know" response that Hann Solo uses to Princess Leia's proclamation of "I love you", was originally used by Richard Roundtree in Shaft.

3 Rickie.Littlewood
Posted on Friday December 10, 2010, 17:14
The only reason I like Star Wars is because of this film, maybe an unpopular opinion and I'm not trying to offend any fans but I hope that goes some way as to saying how good i think Empire strikes back is.

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5 Mr Gittes
Posted on Wednesday March 6, 2013, 20:57
Totally agree with you there, Helen. When it's this good, sometimes one movie is indeed all that's needed. It's just too genius to be a flash in the pan; it's more than just a classic. Hell, it's more than just a masterpiece. It's what movies were made for. Needless to say, it's one of my all-time favourites. Rest in peace, Irvin Kershner.

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