An Interview with Irvin Kershner, Director of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK
By DAVID HOUSTON
Samuel Goldwyn Studios, Hollywood, Calif., February 21, 1980. “Why are you so irritable?”
The voice is Carrie Fisher’s; it rings from the closed doors of Looping Room D, where director Irvin Kershner is supervising the laying-in of the last layers—sound effects and dialogue corrections—of the new Star Wars movie, The Empire Strikes Back.
Harrison Ford’s voice answers Fisher’s irritably, and then there is what sounds like a volley of laser fire.
After the unmistakable gibberish of a soundtrack being rewound, the whole sequence starts again at the top. “Why are you so irritable?...”
A messenger arrives to say that Kershner will meet us in a nearby office; the doors of Looping Room D never open.
The secrecy surrounding The Empire Strikes Back is even more stringent than that which hid Star Wars from view until opening night. What will Irvin (“Kersh”) Kershner find to tell us about? Quite a lot, as it turns out—without giving away even a hint of plot!
The borrowed office is small and sparcely furnished; Kershner is tall and trim and friendly.
Photo: Imperial Snowtroopers invade the ice cave serving as the Rebel base on the planet Hoth
Empire is “right on schedule,” the director affirms. “And that’s a credit to Gary Kurtz and to George Lucas. Gary’s a hell of a producer.”
Irvin Kershner is a new name to many science-fiction enthusiasts, but his credentials are solid and impressive. His first feature film was Stake Out on Dope Street, one of those shadowy, tense social dramas of the late 1950s. Small, low-budget, intimate. His other credits in movies and television also reflect a predilection for close and careful drama, rather than spectacle. He began to break into the wider screen with The Flim Flam Man (1967), The Luck of Ginger Coffey (1964) and the giant TV movie, Raid on Entebbe (1977) with Peter Finch and Charles Bronson. If after seeing Entebbe one still had doubts about Kershner’s ability to blend deep characterization with violent action, doubts should have been allayed by The Return of a Man Called Horse (1976)—one of the few film sequels to contribute rather that detract from the power of its predecessor—and the gripping and eerie Eyes of Laura Mars (1978).
Kirshner—who has been reading science fiction since his childhood and who names Forbidden Planet and The Day the Earth Stood Still among his favorite SF movies— has very definite ideas about how to make science-fiction films:
“It is 10 times more difficult to make science-fiction drama than to make science-fiction melodrama. The difference, after all, is that in drama, the plot comes from the characters; in melodrama, it’s the other way around. And in Star Wars—in Empire too— the characters are in the forefront. It’s the characters you remember—not so much the plot, or the look or the hardware.”
There is a significant difference, Kershner believes, between written and filmed science fiction. “All of the best science-fiction novels are philosophical in nature—unfilmable, really. I think that’s one reason the recent Martian Chronicles on television was so unsatisfying; so much of Ray Bradbury’s accomplishment with that book was in the writing.”
In filming science fiction, “one mustn’t fall into the trap of being too obscure or philosophical,” Kershner says. “What film can do that a book can’t has to do with visual and emotional impact. Ideally, a film is a construct of the emotion and the intellect. Emotions are not, after all, less important than intelligence.”
Viewed on its own terms, Kershner believes “Empire is a profound picture; a very deep picture." And he feels that the same is true of the original Star Wars.
“The characters of Star Wars are dream images, mystic images, wishful thinking. What makes them believable is motivation, not what they look like!”
Consider the “non-human” Chewbacca. “I extended the range of Chewbacca,” Kershner reveals. “He has a much larger role in Empire. I made him more vulnerable; we show him frustrated, exasperated, angry. These things make him human.”
Star Wars had an unusual number of characters who either did not speak or who spoke nothing intelligible, including Chewbacca. This “muteness” is to Kershner’s liking:
“There is a problem with film; it happens when the characters begin to talk. From that point on, you judge them doubly—according to their actions and according to their words." The experience for the audience is no longer simple or straightforward. Kershner describes the essence of the film experience as “looking through a keyhole, or through a one-way mirror.”
With Empire, much of the scene on the other side of that keyhole is the result of a complex collaboration, one that often involved the pre-production paintings of Ralph McQuarrie—who performed the same service that he did for Star Wars. “Ralph is incredible,” Kershner states. “He’s not just a great technician; he has a very lucid mind. There’s simply no waste there. He thinks on two levels at once: the dramatic and the specific.
“Ralph never really designed the film; his paintings were suggestions. Some of the time they were dead on; some of the time they simply led us in one direction or another. He continued to do paintings all the way through production. In fact, he’s still doing them. He’s at Industrial Light and Magic now working with the special-effects people on the final work.”
How thorough was the Empire storyboard? (A storyboard is a cartoon strip, a sequential layout of sketches of camera set-ups and angles.)
“Very thorough,” says Kershner. “It had to be for us to integrate all the technological elements. You know, I worked here [in Los Angeles] on pre-production for a full year before going to London to begin work on the film. And it would have been nice to have had two years. There was no time to do it all... but somehow we’re getting it all done.
“Pre-production is very important. The more of it you do, the more specific you can be, the more you can get for your dollars. I would hate to see anyone try to make a film like this without elaborate pre-production work.”
There were 64 sets built for Empire, Kershner candidly reveals, and this presented an unusual problem of its own.
“We sometimes had to begin shooting on one of the big sets even before the construction crews were finished building it,” Kershner states. “We’d be off shooting in one corner of it, and they’d be hammering away somewhere else.
“Whenever I could, I would go to the set the night before we were to begin using it. I’d take a camera with me—and have the film quickly developed that night—and I’d make drawings.
“Our object, though, was not to show how wonderful our sets were; it was to tell a story. I used very low-key lighting. It’s a lovely, esthetically satisfying effect.”
Photo: Above: Kirshner directs a scene in the ice cave on Hoth. Opposite: Darth Vader and compatriot in crime, Bobba Fett, face the test of the Carbon Freezing Chamber.
What were some of the largest or most interesting sets? “The subterranean ice caves. I got lost in them, literally, for the first few weeks. They were a hell of a problem to build. They had to look like they had been chipped out of solid ice with lasers, when actually they are all made of plastic and salt and wax. We built all the corridors fully enclosed until we were ready to shoot in them; then we could move some walls. The set looked so good, looked so cold, that it didn’t seem right that you could be working up a sweat. But it sometimes reached 100 degrees in there.”
- Kershner lets his mind drift back; he mentions other settings, other set-ups for scenes of action:
“Let’s see, the first scene we shot in London after we returned from Norway [where Ice-Planet exteriors were shot], was the hold of Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon. That’s a new set—something you didn’t see in Star Wars. We see the hold and the engine room." But this is not the first scene in the movie.
“One of the really challenging scenes took place in the Cloud City. We have all of the principles together there in one scene. That set was suspended about 25 feet in the air. We had so much steam and so many lights! The steam really stayed with us. It took about two weeks to shoot that six-minute scene. And there were no serious delays. We had to rush, rush, rush to film for nine and a half hours straight... to get six seconds of film. Many of the shots that look the easiest on the screen took the longest to film; days of work for a few seconds. And I mean a few seconds!”
Certain facts and photographs have been released, or ferreted out, concerning the Ice Planet, Hoth, the new Millennium Falcon settings and the Cloud City, Bespin—which floats within the chemical-rich atmosphere of a gaseous planet; and now Kershner sheds a ray of light on another of the major settings —a planet of swamps and towering trees.
The Art of Fakery
“We had to build 50-foot trees. They had to be constructed because they had to look like no trees on Earth. They’re entirely artificial—including every leaf.
“They’re constructed of steel tubing, covered with fiberglass, and often plaster for texture, and painted extensively. They weigh tons—and some of them had to be moved for camera angles. They were suspended from the ceiling beams and they rested on the false floor of the stage.
“Some of the trees were just huge chunks of styrofoam which were carefully etched and textured. I thought they’d be light as a feather —but they’re so big that they weighed tons.
“The set was enormous, and there were a number of scenes in it. Overnight, the crew would move the trees, move the water and set up for the next day’s shooting. It was so complicated that nothing whatsoever was shot in proper sequence.”
What did they call that set—the forest? The swamp?
“The bog. It looks like a rotting jungle...with fog. We found that we had to let the whole stage fill up with dry-ice fog to get the right effect. After it rose ‘so high,’ it would stratify and look extremely realistic. Then after we’d done a shot or two we’d have to clear the stage, get out the big fans to blow away the fog and start all over—until it stratified again. That could take hours.” With all of this work, you would expect the bog scene to be a significant chunk of the film. But Kershner explains with a smile that the on-screen time will be “around 15 to 18 minutes.”
But there were several pleasant surprises along the way—things that made all the complexities worthwhile.
“There was one love scene,” remembers Kershner, “that really tickled, me—how warm and good it was; but I won’t tell you who plays it. There’s a scene near the end in which Mark [Hamill] goes all out and uses every bit of his energy, both physical and spiritual energy; he’s a surprisingly talented and versatile actor. There’s a rich moment when Harrison [Ford] confronts the enemy; his reactions were so true they really startled me. All of the actors surprised me; they were far more interesting than I expected them to be. The actors, you see, already know who their characters are and we tried to use that to our full advantage and find new facets that hadn’t been revealed before.”
Nonetheless, the director also recalls some of the problems with props and hardware.
“The problem with gadgets is that they never quite work. They’re all prototypes— not the assembly-line models they seem to be. It takes a lot of fiddling and playing and getting to know them. Above all, one mustn’t lose sight of the dramatic intent of the scene, just because a gadget is ornery.” One reason for Star Wars’ great financial success was the repeat business at the box-office, some fans seeing the film 10 times or more. Kershner feels that he has a handle on that—Empire will be far from a simple adventure film.
“I love to work on multi-level stories,” he says. “I try to build a scene so that there is a center of focus, but the rest of the picture is loaded with goodies. I suspect that for many viewers it’ll be at least by the third time around that you start to see what you’ve missed!”
Kershner’s practical and esthetic motive behind that practice is to insure that “the eye and the emotions stay so occupied that you become unaware of cuts and other photographic devices. In that way, your theater seat dissolves away, the screen dissolves away and you get lost in the picture.
“When you are really successful, the movie goes directly to the subconscious—to become a dreamlike state. When that happens, the whole audience is suddenly unified with a common frame of reference.”
What, in the final analysis, is the chief value of The Empire Strikes Back—and Star Wars, too, for that matter?
“Entertainment. Not thoughtless sensory stimulation, though. Entertainment at its best stimulates the senses, the emotions, the intellect; and it reveals something of the world that has heretofore been closed to you. Doors are opened to new esthetic forms. Every illusion in a film is an organization of space and objects. If the result has form, that tends to educate the audience, to give them that sense of form. And that is illuminating."
Kershner is asked to define his film work in terms of both art and craft. He pauses, searching for the right words:
“At some point—toward the beginning —you think of yourself as a creative artist. ...” The intercom phone on Kershner’s desk rings; he answers it. “They’re ready for me again down in the looping room. Where was I? Oh—and then, on the set, your job is to deal with the actors, involving yourself in their creative artistry. And finally, like now, you’re a pure technician—like a plumber fitting pipes together. And I love all those jobs.”
Does Kershner like the way the “pipes” are fitting together?
“At this point there are still a lot of unknowns, but the pieces are working.”
Photo: Director Kirshner is intent on visualizing a scene as it will look to the camera
At the door, he shares one final glimpse of his project—still carefully withholding the specifics:
“One of my biggest moments was when I was recently at San Anselmo [in northern California, where artisans at Industrial Light and Magic are completing the visual effects]. They were working on what I thought was probably the worst shot in the movie. I saw it ‘married’ to its matte painting and other elements; and suddenly the worst shot became the best.
[Source: Starlog Magazine #34, May 1980 P.25-28]