The Story Behind The Empire Strikes Back

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It's universally acknowledged as one of the best sequels ever made, an effort that expanded the world of its predecessor and left us gagging to see its sequel - while at the same time being a classic in its own right. To mark the release of The Making Of The Empire Strikes Back book this week, Empire picks the six most important decisions made during the creation of this game-changing follow-up, with commentary and analysis by the book’s author J.W. Rinzler...

Back in the dog days of the ‘70s, even the most successful sequel – say The Godfather Part II — would be expected to make around half its original. “I was particularly surprised to find a scrap of paper that someone had saved from Variety, just two sentences leaking the title of the film. And nobody cared! Today, that would be across the world in about three seconds. They just didn’t care.” Which makes Lucas’ decision to not resolve Empire’s narrative until the third film all the more ballsy. “In fact Mark and Carrie were signed up for not just two sequels but three sequels. That was an interesting thing I found in their contract. It wasn’t just up to Episode VI, it was up to Episode VII — just in case.”

If there is one golden rule in Hollywood, it is never use your own money. But stung by studio interference on all his three previous movies, Lucas paid for Empire himself, and kept on financing it as the budget just kept heading North. "The money was not pouring in at that time,” says Rinzler. “When he made that decision, licensing really didn’t exist. People forget that George only owned 50% of it. He made a bigger, better deal for Empire and Jedi, but it was a progressive deal. It was still such a huge gamble to finance himself and I think it’s a measure of how much he dislikes being told what to do.”

The writing of The Empire Strikes Back is usually parlayed as the story of two writers. There was original writer Leigh Brackett, who sadly passed away during the first draft. “She was literally dying when she wrote the script,” says Rinzler. “I think you’ve got to give her due. It’s amazing she finished it at all. Leigh was coming from a different mindset and didn’t understand what [Lucas] was getting at. Nobody did back then.” Raiders writer Lawrence Kasdan came in and picked up the baton, but there is an important overlooked figure in the process. "What often gets glossed over is that George did write the second draft. Particularly keeping in mind the prequels, people tend to say Lawrence Kasdan wrote the best film. Now Kasdan made it great — George is the first to say that the Yoda dialogue he wrote is not half as good as the Yoda dialogue that Lawrence Kasdan wrote. But the structure, the story, the plot — all that comes from George. That can’t be belittled.”

With hindsight, it now seems like the most obvious thing in the world to have Luke be schooled in the Force by a diminutive 800 year-old green wizard. Yoda went through numerous iterations, from a miniature Santa Claus to a Big Bird style creature to a leprechaun-troll-gnome hybrid that formed the basis of the finished creation. The production briefly considered a monkey in a suit — "He was the right height,” says Rinzler. “But monkeys don’t like wearing costumes and it wasn’t going to work.” — as well as stop motion and a marionette. Yet it was Lucas’ conversation with muppet master Jim Henson that led to the magic interface of a Stuart Freeborn hand puppet and Frank Oz’s performance. “Big films today are usually based on tried and true technology,” says Rinzler. “There was no technology that existed for Yoda. It was pretty nuts to let this little puppet be the spiritual centre of your film. Nobody makes those decisions anymore.”

“Everyone at ILM said that Empire was the hardest film they ever worked on", says Rinzler. “These are people who have worked on 20, 30 years worth of films.” Part of the biggest headache caused by Empire was Lucas’ idea to make Hoth an ice planet because, in the pre digital age, the matte lines — the fat black lines seen around a model against a bluescreen background —which would normally be hidden against a star field were clear for all to see. “When you see the snow speeder flying against a snow background, nobody would do that. George told me he still has nightmares where he is sitting in dailies and people are shouting out matte lines.”

It was in Lucas’ handwritten second draft of the Empire screenplay that the Vader is Luke’s father revelation makes its first appearance. Lucas felt the importance of keeping the twist secret so keenly that he left it out of the typed up version, the draft that got sent to Fox head honcho Alan Ladd Jr. “They knew that was one thing that, if it got out, would ruin the theatre going experience for most people,” says Rinzler. “He was also worried about Luke having his hand cut off. He consulted psychologists. He was taking a big risk because he knew it would take 3 years for people to find out if Darth Vader was lying.” It was also equally brave to have Han Solo frozen in carbonite at the end - but this decision had more pragmatic origins. “I think that does have something to do with Harrison Ford not committing to two more films. George is not going to let himself get negotiated into a corner. And Mark Hamill was pretty aware of that as well.”