Star Wars‘ First Days of Shooting, Part 1: The Original Trilogy

Look back at the scenes -- and difficulties -- that kicked off the filming of A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi.

Earlier this year the cameras began to roll for Star Wars: The Force Awakens in Abu Dhabi and while only time will tell what exactly was filmed on May 16, we can take a look back in history and explore the first days of shooting for the first six films in the saga. We start this two part series with the original trilogy of A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi.

A New Hope

After a difficult pre-production phase of nearly three years, in which it was difficult to even find a studio willing to invest in the movie, the time had come to start shooting Star Wars (as it was originally called). Cast and crew left the UK with not all the preparations finished, there were still problems with some costumes like C-3PO and the stormtroopers, and back in the US, ILM was struggling with the technology required for the special effects. It seemed that the cast and crew were in for a difficult shoot. This proved true the moment they arrived in Djerba where they had a lay-over in a big hotel sprawling with German tourists who could not find their rooms, while production was to wake up at 6 a.m. for a long drive to Tozeur. The trip itself was also taxing for the drivers because it was difficult to see the dark-clothed native Berber people while driving in the night. In Tozeur they ran into their next problem: the big hotel of the city was closed for renovations and the cast and crew for the 12-hour long miniseries Jesus of Nazareth had booked the best alternative hotels, as well as most of the local technicians and rental cars. Cast and crew ended up in fourth-rate hotels, sometimes doubled or even tripled up in rooms. Producer Gary Kurtz would say later of this: “That was okay for two weeks. We could survive that. But if it had been two or three months, we would have had a riot on our hands.”

March 22, 1976

Shooting Star Wars on March 22, 1976.

March 22, 1976 – For this first day of shooting the following scenes where planned to be shot: parts from the scene where the droids Artoo and Threepio are being purchased, as well as parts for Luke watching the twin suns scene and the scene where Threepio and Luke rush out of the homestead to look for the escaped Artoo. The scenes were all shot around the set of the igloo and the treadmill wheels of the sandcrawler that was build earlier on the salt lake of Chott el Jerid, near Nefta. The call to begin was at 6:30 a.m., which was way too early for Anthony Daniels because he had slept terribly again after not getting much sleep in Djerba, and the two hours it took to put his costume on did not help with his mood, either. Still, like a professional, he soldiered on despite the costume being too much of a tight fit, hurting the actor whenever he had to move. Mark Hamill, on the other hand, quite enjoyed the first day as Luke Skywalker.

The rush to get started with shooting the movie proved to cause even more problems on this day, especially with the astromech droids. The production found out that the batteries they had put in them were too quick to deplete and not easy to replace, and that Artoo’s middle leg would not come out — whatever they tried. Another problem was that the droids would not always respond to their remote controls, causing them to go everywhere and not stop when they had to. A special problem case also was R5-D4, the red droid that Luke almost bought instead of Artoo. The crew had discovered that the exploding head was also where the parts were located to make him move, so they could not blow the head up. Still calm on the first day, Lucas and his team found creative ways around this, like pulling R5-D4’s backup droid on a rope so that they did not need him to move anymore, and Lucas knew that he would be able to use lots of smaller cuts in the movie to mask whenever a droid started to do something that it was not supposed to do.

They ended the day at 7:20 p.m., after shooting the night scene where Luke and Threepio are trying to find the escaped Artoo. Due to poor weather conditions the scene with Luke watching at the twin suns setting was scrapped and would eventually be filmed on March 29. The poor weather conditions on this first day would be a prelude to the big storm that would plague the production later, along with more accidents and problems that caused George Lucas to step down from directing for the next two movies.

The Empire Strikes Back

Just like with A New Hope it was decided to start shooting for The Empire Strikes Back on a location, this time it was the ice-planet Hoth, which was filmed in a small town called Finse in Norway. Most likely due to the newfound popularity for Star Wars and its upcoming sequel, a press conference was held in Oslo on February 29, 1979. There it was revealed that shooting would start  the next Monday (March 5, 1979), that Harrison Ford would fly over later because his scenes were scheduled for the second week of shooting and that Carrie Fisher wanted to come, despite not having any exterior scenes on Hoth, because she could not bear to miss the location atmosphere.

The next two days, cast and crew left Oslo in stages, but just like with Tunisia not everything went smoothly: there were not enough porters to carry all the luggage from hotel to bus to train, the luggage itself was way more than expected partially in thanks to Mark and Marilou Hamill, who were packing extra luggage with them just in case their son Nathan would be born prematurely in the remote shooting location. Also, the cast and crew stood waiting on the wrong track for the Oslo-Bergen express train, causing them to have to run quickly to the right track when they found out.

March 5, 1979

Irvin Kersher and Harrison Ford, March 5, 1979.

March 5, 1979 – Ever since arriving in Finse the weather had gotten even worse, reaching the point that over the previous weekend multiple avalanches had occurred causing train tunnels to be blocked completely by the snow, in a sense trapping the cast and crew from the outside world. At the location itself they found that the resulting whiteouts from the heavy snowfall also made it impossible to travel along the glacier to the two base camps where they had prepared to shoot scenes like the battlefield. Not that it mattered because the carefully excavated trenches had become completely filled again due to the heavy snowfall.

Despite his best preparations, Irvin Kershner, the new director taking over from Lucas, discovered that the extreme cold caused many more problems, from the difficulty in making notes by pen and paper with gloves because his tape recorder would freeze up immediately, to cameras that had lenses that would fog up or not work at all. It was clear that Lucas’ advice to not expect everything to work would become prophetic.

Determined not to let the production run over schedule, Kershner decided to start filming from the back of the hotel, calling up on Mark Hamill to be working this day for his scenes in which he escapes from the wampa and staggers on the plains of Hoth. Kershner also put Denis Lawson (Wedge Antilles), Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca), and Des Webb (Wampa) on the call list, but they end up not filming that day. Another important decision that Kershner took to not further delay shooting, was to call for Harrison Ford to come over so that they could film his scenes, starting the following day. After making some phone calls Ford was able to catch an afternoon flight from London to Oslo. However by the time he had arrived in Oslo, three avalanches had occurred, cutting Finse not only off by rail, but also by any other means of transport other than a big and slow-going snowplow. Ford managed to take the train to Geilo, a ski resort 30 miles from Finse, from where he took two cabs, bringing him another seven miles closer, to Ustaoset where production manager Bjorn Jacobsen found him with the snowplow, bringing a bottle of vodka with him that they shared on the drive back. It would be close to midnight when they arrived with the snowplow back in Finse, ready to start filming the next day.

Return of the Jedi

For Return of the Jedi, new director Richard Marquand, along with co-producer Robert Watts, decided to start in the EMI Elstree Studios, which in hindsight looks like a smart decision considering the previous movies and the problems that came with starting on location. After carefully looking at the schedule, Marquand had decided that the sandstorm scene on Stage 2 was the first scene he wanted to shoot. He reasoned that it may not have been the easiest one for the actors, but he could do the entire shoot for the scene in one day, freeing the stage quickly for the bigger, and more difficult to build, Dagobah set. With the shots carefully laid out in the way Marquand wanted to shoot them and with a press release ready to be released before dawn the next day, Marquand and the rest of the cast and crew settled in their London hotels, expecting finally a smooth start for a Star Wars film shoot.

January 11, 1982

George Lucas and Richard Marquand, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford, January 11, 1982.

January 11, 1982 – Sadly that was not meant to be and the first problems arose even before everyone was well inside the studio. Carrie Fisher found out that the heating system in her room was bellowing toxic fumes and the car that was supposed to take Mark Hamill to the studio was stolen overnight.

Despite this, spirits were high and while the cast was in makeup, the Ewok extras were exercising to get in shape for their roles. The life-size Millennium Falcon was brought out of storage, and stood ready alongside an X-wing and a lot of fans with a broken-cork substance to simulate the blowing sand. And as soon Marquand said “Action!” the problems with Artoo started again, with the droid veering off to every direction, except the one he was supposed to go. Another problem was that the fans with the cork substance were way too loud and obscured everything, causing one of the camera teams to miss the cue from Marquand so that nothing of it was shot. With the views already obscured and difficult to see for the human cast and crew, Anthony Daniels especially had it difficult with the tunnel vision that his Threepio mask gave him. Rehearsing the scene beforehand gave him some of the direction he had to walk in, but the moment he had to do it with the sand bellowing around him, he just kept walking until suddenly he saw crewmembers, and while he was contemplating on what they were doing in the middle of the scene, he hit a rock and fell over.

After the first completely successful take it was time for a quick celebration before finishing up the rest of the scene. Mark Hamill was the last of the cast to finish shooting the scene, and this made him the only person to have filmed on all three of the first days of shooting. With the cast back in their hotels, the day was not yet over for Marquand and some other key staff members, who went to Stage 6 to see the final costume test of Michael Carter as Bib Fortuna, followed by some more preparations for the next day.

Join us next month for part 2 in which we take a look at the first days of shooting for the prequel trilogy!

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