Interview: Jason Reitman on the Empire Strikes Back Live Read

The Academy Award-nominated director talks about an evening that will be long remembered!

The Empire Strikes Back is widely hailed as the best of the Star Wars films — the most humorous, the most romantic, and the most emotionally complex. On December 18 of last year, Film Independent (a non-profit organization that helps filmmakers and triumphs independent movies) paid tribute, holding a live table reading of Empire as part of its Live Read series for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

The brainchild of Jason Reitman — director of modern classics like Juno and Up in the Air, and altogether one of today’s finest young filmmakers — Live Read features all-star casts performing table reads of classic screenplays, and is a celebration of the world’s favorite films, no matter the genre, setting, or era. The reads are not recorded, not streamed, and not downloadable, making them true you-had-to-be-there events. (So, consider joining.) For Empire, Reitman assembled a powerhouse group, including Aaron Paul as Luke Skywalker, J.K. Simmons as Darth Vader, and Ellen Page as, yes, Han Solo. Oh, and in a surprise appearance, Mark Hamill as the Emperor, Boba Fett, and Obi-Wan Kenobi. recently spoke with Reitman about the unusual structure of Empire, how he convinced Hamill to join in, and what would happen if two of his characters wandered into a galaxy far, far away. To start, where did the idea for Live Read come from?

Jason Reitman: It came out of a conversation I had with Russ Smith and Lianne Halfon, these producers I work with on movies, about how much we enjoy doing table reads of our films, and how much fun it would be to do a table read for one of the great scripts. See what the writer wrote in the description, hear the dialogue in a different cadence. When Elvis Mitchell took over programming film over at LACMA [Los Angeles County Museum of Art], he asked me if I had any ideas for screenings. I said, “Well, what if we did some readings of classic screenplays and got great actors?” And he really liked the idea, and I started approaching actors about doing the first one. We started with Breakfast Club.

I didn’t really know if it would work. I thought, “Well, maybe people will get bored 10 minutes in.” Instead, by virtue of how great these scripts are, there’s about 10 minutes of just joy of watching new actors read classic dialogue. Then you fall into these stories. That’s the kind of great moment of each one of these reads: you stop watching the actors and you really start listening, and you fall into these great scripts by great screenwriters.

The Empire Strikes Back Live Read poster So, why Empire Strikes Back now?

Jason Reitman: Well, a variety of reasons. Certainly, I don’t know a human being that’s not excited about [Star Wars: The Force Awakens] coming out. We’re always trying to balance the lineup of live reads between traditional, Oscar-nominated screenplays and the benchmark screenplays of our youth. Star Wars, for me, kind of falls into that category with Princess Bride and Ghostbusters. Movies that we just know inside and out and take us back to what it feels like to be 12 years old. The great compliment that I keep hearing and feeling about the Force Awakens teaser is that in less than a second, you are 12 years old again. And for me, Empire is the most profound of the Star Wars screenplays. Outside of the fact that they did not put this on paper [in the script], so to not create a spoiler, Empire is the movie that contains “Luke, I am your father,” and it contains, even though this is an on-set created moment, “I love you. I know.” Despite the fact that, “I love you. I know,” was scripted on-set, the idea is inherent. Those are two really powerful ideas. They raised the stakes emotionally, I think, in Empire.

Jason Reitman: I guess that’s what’s amazing about Empire. You’re not thinking about the Death Star in Empire. You’re thinking about humanity. Empire is about Luke searching himself, learning about where he comes from. It’s about the unthinkable love triangle between Luke, Leia, and Han. [Laughs] These are the powerful dramatic concepts that move that story forward. Even though we have these images burned in — AT-ATs and tauntauns and things like that — at the end of the day, I think the reason Empire is so powerful is because it has the most complex human narrative. Right. There’s a lot of heart in that movie.

Jason Reitman: A lot of heart, and a lot of confusion. You know, Luke and Leia have an affection for each other, and they don’t know exactly what it is. They’re confused by it. And Han and Leia have an affection for each other that they can’t quite put into words, and they’re not sure if they’re bonded by their work or an actual love for each other. Darth Vader has one of the great moments of all time, where he’s slowly mutilating and killing his son. He’s chopping his son’s hand off with one hand, and reaching out with the other to save him, saying, “Let’s rule the universe together.” And then Luke makes this harrowing decision to plunge to his death. It’s so emotional. As a director, compared to what it meant to you as a kid, what do you appreciate most about Empire?

Jason Reitman: Probably everything that I’m talking about. All these things that I felt as a kid and didn’t know why. As a kid I watched this movie, and the emotionality was profound, but I didn’t understand why. Now I know what it’s like to fall in love. Now I know what it’s like to be a father. So, all these decisions and this heartache that the characters are feeling is way more complex for me. I find that when I watch Empire, and my heart is 12 and my brain is 37. And Empire attacks both.

It’s so unusually built, too. That’s the weirdest thing about reading that script. My memory of that movie is, “The first act is on Hoth, then they leave…” Like, the first 60 pages are on Hoth! [Laughs] It’s just an insane amount of page count for what I always thought of as not dissimilar to the opening of a James Bond movie. I always thought of Hoth as the cold open — not to make a horrible pun — and it’s not. It’s half the movie, and then you have, like, a quarter in the asteroid field and Dagobah, and a quarter in Cloud City. That’s the script, which is so bizarre! So bizarre. No screenwriting book would ever say, “This is how you structure a film.” But it works. It totally works.

Jason Reitman: It works beautifully, and not that much happens.

Photo by Araya Diaz/WireImage.

Jason Reitman during the live read. (Photo by Araya Diaz/WireImage. Courtesy of WireImage and Film Independent.) In preparation for the live read, did you do any kind of research or rewatch the movie?

Jason Reitman: I did. I rewatched the film. Readying a script for the live read is very hard, and Empire was one of the hardest because we had the original script, and so much was different. The tauntauns are called lizards, and so much of the dialogue is gone, and there’s a lot more on Hoth. What I find is, the best experience for a live read is when you feel like you’re getting some stuff that was never in the finished movie, so you get this kind of behind-the-scenes peek. And then you need to add stuff that is in the movie. You cannot read Empire and not have “I am your father,” and you can’t not have “I love you. I know,” [which were not in the shooting script]. So, all those little moments had to be added. When I heard that you did this, I first thought, “Awesome,” and then I thought, “How did I now know about this? I wish I was there!”

Jason Reitman: [Laughs] Yeah. Have you gotten that response from people?

Jason Reitman: The big question on Live Read is always, “Why do you not record it? Why do you not stream it?” The answer is two-fold. One, there would be no way to secure the rights to these screenings. I can’t get into the business of trying to secure the rights to have a version of these out there. It would be expensive, and we’re raising money for Film Independent and LACMA, and that’s just not how we do it.

As soon as I realized that, a more profound thing hit me, which is that everything is available, everything is streamable, and I enjoy the fact that this is not. I enjoy that this is something special for the people in the room, and we’re doing something unique. We’re taking a group of actors that have never performed together, never even rehearsed together, and we’re putting them in a safe environment where they can try things and make mistakes, and attempt a screenplay for an audience who are going to have to carry it in their hearts and not their iPads. There’s something about being in the room. There’s something about talking to people who were at the concert that there is no footage of. It’s a live read. If you hear about it and you love it, find a way to come to one, and be part of that shared experience.

Aaron Paul, Jessica Alba, Stephen Merchant, Dennis Haysbert, Rainn Wilson, Mark Hamill, J.K. Simmons, Ellen Page and Kevin Pollack.(Photo by Araya Diaz/WireImage.)

Aaron Paul, Jessica Alba, Stephen Merchant, Dennis Haysbert, Rainn Wilson, Mark Hamill, J.K. Simmons, Ellen Page, and Kevin Pollack. (Photo by Araya Diaz/WireImage. Courtesy of WireImage and Film Independent.) Can you talk about the casting? You made some really fun, interesting choices.

Jason Reitman: The first person that came to mind was Aaron Paul, who did our first live read with Breakfast Club. I just thought, “What do we do with Luke? You know, he’s such an innocent. Wouldn’t it be interesting if we had this actor, who’s kind of most known for playing this petulant young man on Breaking Bad, and just take [Luke] in a new direction?”

I started talking to some of my friends. Stephen Merchant — perfect C-3PO. There just isn’t a better person. I thought Kevin Pollak could do a dead-on Yoda.

Then I was like, “I wonder if Ellen Page could play Princess Leia — wait, I wonder if Ellen Page could play Han Solo!” [Laughs] And it just clicked. At that point I was like, “Okay. I think we have something special here.” When I saw that, I was like, “Huh. There’s something that strangely works about that.” I could totally see it.

Jason Reitman: Yeah! Han Solo is such a unique character, right? I mean, particularly in a strangely kind of religious universe, where people believe in a concept called the Force, and the people you meet in the first film are sweet farm people, and really earnest. Then you meet this guy who doesn’t care. He’s very unique to the Star Wars universe in that he is the single ironic character. No one else has irony in that film, and Ellen has tons of irony. That’s kind of what makes her perfect. Personality-wise, she is Han Solo. I knew that would be fun.

Then it built from there. I asked Jessica Alba. I asked Rainn Wilson if he would come and play Chewbacca, and I knew that would be a fun surprise for the audience. I asked J.K. Simmons, who I see all the time right now because of all the success he’s having with Whiplash.

And then two days before [the show], I was talking with my buddy Anthony Breznican, who writes over at EW. He talked about doing this Return of the Jedi screening at the Egyptian [Theatre] in L.A., and how Mark Hamill came. It just kind of hit me, and I said, “Do you think you could put me in touch?” It was like the longest of longshots.

It was [Mark] and his wife’s anniversary. This is kind of a real tribute to his character: he just said, “Is this for charity?” I said, “Yeah,” and he goes, “All right, I’m in.” It was awesome. He was so sweet, and totally understood why it needed to be a surprise until the last second.

Look, he is Luke. To watch someone else be Luke must be mind-blowing. And to play Obi-Wan and the Emperor! So, he is being his own mentor and his own enemy. [Laughs] Did you assign those roles to him?

Jason Reitman: Oh, yeah. I said, “Would you play Obi-Wan and the Emperor?” And he loved it. There’s the irony factor of Mark playing these other roles, but also — and this is not hyperbole — he’s probably one of the best voice actors of all time. So, it’s exciting in that regard.

Jason Reitman: No, you’re right. In voicing the Joker and voicing villains, it’s kind of interesting that you would use his voice today for the Emperor.

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 18:  Jason Reitman, Stephen Merchant, Dennis Haysbert, Ellen Page, Jessica Alba, Aaron Paul, J.K. Simmons, Kevin Pollack, Rainn Wilson and Mark Hamill perform a live reading at the Film Independent Live Read: "The Empire Strikes Back" at Ace Hotel on December 18, 2014 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Araya Diaz/WireImage)

Mark Hamill is introduced. (Photo by Araya Diaz/WireImage. Courtesy of WireImage and Film Independent.) Did you give any kind of direction beforehand? What’s the process?

Jason Reitman: The process is this. We get backstage, they’re all a little nervous because, remember, we don’t rehearse these. We go onstage, no one knows what each other is going to do. That sounds like a small thing, but imagine going to do a four-part a cappella group, and you don’t know if the other person is gonna go soft, or loud, or fast, or anything. All you know is, you’re singing the same song. So, everyone’s a little nervous.

I generally say two things: keep it fast, and don’t do impersonations. Imagine you got cast in Empire Strikes Back. What would you do? They didn’t show up here to hear you do impersonations. They showed up to hear the dialogue through a new voice. Now, every once in awhile, you get someone like Kevin Pollak, and what’s the point? Just do Yoda. Well, it’s like, everybody has a Yoda. So, to get a chance to do it in a kind of official way is a special thing.

Jason Reitman: Yeah, exactly. But even Chewie, that was like, Rainn Wilson’s Chewie. [Laughs] That wasn’t the original Chewie. Were there any performances that got a surprising reaction from the audience?

Jason Reitman: I think Stephen Merchant kind of stole the night. People laughed at every syllable, and he did that very unique thing of paying [homage] to the original performance and, simultaneously, completely made it his own. I think all the little Han Solo asides by Ellen Page — “C’mere, sweetheart” — were just kind of perfect. Dennis Haysbert, as Lando, made it really flirtatious. [Laughs] With J.K. Simmons, I picture J. Jonah Jameson meets Darth Vader.

Jason Reitman: It’s interesting. Again, I didn’t know what he would do. J.K. went with total gravitas. It wasn’t menacing at all. It was just low and powerful. It was pretty amazing. After the show, did Mark Hamill relay what his experience was like?

Jason Reitman: Mark Hamill was really emotional. In talking to him, it sounded as though he had a profound experience. That was what I noted after, and that was a great surprise for me. I just presumed, okay, here’s a guy who’s living in the Star Wars universe every day of his life. He can’t escape that. And yet, this was a seemingly very emotional and powerful experience for him. I’m not sure if it has to do with the timing of The Force Awakens only being a year away, and coming to really embrace what a special thing it is to be part of this universe, or the perspective of just watching all these other actors read this movie that you know so well.

I’ve had people come down before [for movies they were in]. Sam Elliott came down for Big Lebowski and read his role. Susan Sarandon took part in Bull Durham, and Cary Elwes and Rob Reiner came down for Princess Bride. So, I’ve had people there before [playing their roles], but never on a film — maybe Princess Bride withstanding — where the actor is so consumed in their life by the original film. It’s gotta be like being a Beatle.

Jason Reitman: Yeah, that’s an amazing comparison. And I think you’re totally right. The only question is, which Beatle? Well, Luke’s my favorite character and Paul’s my favorite Beatle. So, I’m going to say Paul.

Jason Reitman: There you go. I think that makes sense, too.

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 18:  Jason Reitman, Stephen Merchant, Dennis Haysbert, Ellen Page, Jessica Alba, Aaron Paul, J.K. Simmons, Kevin Pollack, Rainn Wilson and Mark Hamill perform a live reading at the Film Independent Live Read: "The Empire Strikes Back" at Ace Hotel on December 18, 2014 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Araya Diaz/WireImage)

The entire cast onstage, performing a Hoth sequence. (Photo by Araya Diaz/WireImage. Courtesy of WireImage and Film Independent.) Was there a highlight of the evening for you?

Jason Reitman: It was all really special. Introducing Mark was probably the highlight. Just saying there was one more [actor], feeling that anticipation, and knowing we’d kept that secret. Somehow, we held that secret — no one knew. Watching J.K. introduced as Darth Vader, flanked by stormtroopers, [was also a highlight].

Oh, and we had a couple of guys dressed as X-wing pilots. Ellen and Jessica had a couple of pronunciation questions right before we started, and it was really funny to watch them talking to actual X-wing pilots, about like,”How do you pronounce this system?” [Laughs] Last question: I was thinking, I would love to see Empire with Juno and Paulie Bleeker in the Leia and Han roles. How do you think that would go?

Jason Reitman: [Laughs] Well, you know, Juno and Leia are both tough women. So, I think there’s a really nice parallel. Bleeker and Han are very different characters. [Laughs] I don’t think Bleeker shoots first. Right. He probably wants to talk it over.

Jason Reitman: [Laughs] Yeah, exactly. Bleeker just wants to talk about it. He’s like, “Look, can’t you just tell Jabba that I’m like, really sorry?”

Jason Reitman and Aaron Paul signing Live Read posters. (Photo by Araya Diaz/WireImage. Courtesy of WireImage and Film Independent.)

Dan Brooks is Lucasfilm’s senior content writer, and spends his days writing stuff for and around He loves Star Wars, ELO, and the New York Rangers, Jets, and Yankees. Follow him on Twitter @dan_brooks where he rants about all these things.