Interviewing Kershner: A Conversation with the Director of The Empire Strikes Back

Darth Vader and Irvin Kershnet

The Sith lord and his director.

In March 2007 I had the great fortune to interview the producer of the Star Wars prequel trilogy, Rick McCallum, for my website Lightsabre (which merged with Jedi News back in 2010). After the conclusion of a fascinating interview I mentioned to Rick that I had been attempting to contact director Irvin Kershner, but to little success. Very kindly, Rick offered to put me and Kershner in touch, and so a month later I found myself talking to the director of what is — in my opinion — the greatest movie ever made, Star Wars: Episode V The Empire Strikes Back.

Looking back seven years I’m well aware of how lucky I was to interview “Kersh,” who passed away aged 87 back on November 27, 2010. During our interview we discussed a number of subjects, including his thoughts on the digital revolution, his (then) current projects, which included more films, and of course, the making of Empire.

Irvin Kershner rides the tauntaun.

Kershner rides the tauntaun.

Mark Newbold: Do you wish you had digital back then back in 1980?

Irvin Kershner: Of course, of course. In my photography I’m doing only digital and the next film I’ll do, which I’m planning will be all digital. In fact, a few weeks ago I saw Francis Coppola’s new film which was shot in Romania and it was shot digital. And it was projected in George Lucas’ new projection room — digital! And I couldn’t believe that was digital projection, it was just the most beautiful images I’ve ever seen on the screen. How do you like that?

Mark Newbold: That is impressive.

Irvin Kershner: Yeah it’s impressive.

Darth Vader, IG-88, Irvin Kershner, and Boba Fett.

Vader, IG-88, Kershner, and Boba Fett.

As a young Star Wars fan back in the early ’80s I was fascinated by the behind-the-scenes stories of the making of the film. Like many others I bought Alan Arnold’s book Once Upon A Galaxy: The Making of The Empire Strikes Back. The book gives an in-depth look into the film’s production and as a kid I was drawn to a large section that focused on the filming of the carbon freeze chamber scenes. With the great man on the other end of the line I couldn’t resist asking about the challenges he faced on that hot and infamous day:

“That was a hell of a day. We were all about 30 feet off the stage floor and it was a black set. Black. We were shooting reflections off the black lacquer, can you imagine that? It was a perfectly round set, but we couldn’t fit the round set on the stage so we built half a set, and I reversed. I’d shoot one direction and then I would change everybody around and put the people the opposite side in the same place and shoot them for the reaction, you see? But I only had to build half a set. And I had to keep it in mind, what the hell was happening on the side that you didn’t see, because I had to keep going back and forth.

Also that was the day that I had sent Harrison down to the special effects shop to make the mold for the slab that he was gonna be encased in. Okay, they finished it and he came back to me and it was ridiculous. He was lying there like a corpse, absolutely dead. And I said, ‘No, it’s out of character.’ I was trying to train them all that everything has to be true to character, including when Harrison is in the slab. So I told him, ‘Try to fight your way out of the slab.’ And so he went back and they made a new one where he’s pushing out with his hands, and that was the right one. You see, character again. He would never give up.”

Irvin Kershner on the carbon freezing chamber set.

Kershner on the carbon freezing chamber set.

In typical Kershner style, he explained the origins that led to the classic Han and Leia “I love you, I know” exchange.

“That’s the day I got stuck on a line. [Laughs] When the Princess says to Harrison, ‘I love you.’ And the line written in the script was, ‘I love you too.’ Well, we shot that, it was very hot that day, we had steam shooting in our faces, the dwarves were falling apart, many were fainting from the heat and I said, ‘No, it’s not right.’ And everybody wanted to go to lunch, it was the last shot. And I said, ‘No, I tell ya, we got that on film. Let’s try to get a better line.’ ‘Well, what do you want?’ ‘I don’t know, try this,’ so I kept giving Harrison lines so we kept shooting.

Princess Leia kisses Han Solo

“I love you!” “I know”

“Finally David Tomblin, the first AD [assistant director], a wonderful man, came over to me and said ‘Do you have it?’ And then he [Harrison] said, ‘I know,’ and at that point I said ‘Cut, okay lunch everyone,’ and David Tomblin runs over to me and says, ‘No, keep shooting until you get the right line you want.’ ‘David, we just got it.’ ‘What do you mean, I know? Is that all we worked for, I know?’ I said, ‘Yeah, that’s it.’ And he was very upset at that [Laughs]. Well, when I showed the first cut to George, George returned to that spot and said ‘Wait a minute, wait a minute, is that the line in the script?’ and I said, ‘No, he says ‘I love you, too,’ but you know what? This guy wouldn’t give the woman the advantage. I love you, I love you too, she’s got the advantage, you see? So I said, ‘That’s not his character.’ ‘Well no, the audience is going to laugh,’ he said. ‘Great, then we’ll rebuild the tension.’ That was the only problem we had on the whole film. And of course, when we showed it the first time we were going to show it twice, two days in a row, one day with the line from the script, one day with ‘I know.’ And we showed it first ‘I know.’ And the audience broke up. And so we were sitting next to each other and he turned to me and he said ‘Well, yeah, you know, but they’re gonna laugh…yeah, ok, ok, we’ll use it.’ It’s rather scary to shoot the line ‘I know’ and think you’re gonna get away with it, but I knew I had the other line in the can.

“Yeah, it’s about character. Things should be about character, and that was what I was thinking as I was shooting. And Mark [Hamill] understood it perfectly. He was in character all the time. No, I thought the cast was wonderful, wonderful.”

While I was never fortunate enough to meet Kershner in the flesh and shake his hand, I’ll be forever grateful to Rick McCallum and Lucasfilm’s publicity department for giving me the opportunity to pick his brain about his stellar work on Empire. To listen to our conversation in full, tune in to the latest episodes of RADIO 1138.

Mark is a long-time contributor to Star Wars Insider, the co-owner of Jedi News, is a regular contributor to the UK’s biggest free newspaper The Metro, and the co-host of RebelForce Radio’s UK-centric RADIO 1138 podcast. When he’s not talking or writing about Star Wars, he can usually be found sleeping, where he’ll most likely be dreaming about Star Wars.