Between 1999 and 2009 Lightsabre.co.uk brought news, fanfic, podcasts and much, much more to the masses. Our eighty-fourth guest was the director of The Empire Strikes Back – Irvin Kershner.
IK – Hello?
Lightsabre – Hello, Mister Kershner?
IK – Who’s this?
Lightsabre – It’s Mark from Lightsabre in the UK.
IK – Yes.
Lightsabre – How you doing, you alright?
IK – Ok, it’s just twelve o’clock, my god you’re good.
Lightsabre – (Laughs) I’m glad I got something right today then!?
IK – You’re five minutes late.
Lightsabre – Well, I can’t be perfect.
IK – Yeah, good for you.
Lightsabre – Are you keeping well?
IK – How am I?
Lightsabre – Yeah.
IK – Well, as far as health goes very well. Working on a new photographic show, I’m designing it. And I still have some films I’m working on. And, you know, things are going along.
Lightsabre – That’s excellent.
IK – Yeah, I’m not teaching this year because I found that it was getting in the way of doing my work, so I’ve stopped this year and I don’t know what’ll happen next year.
Lightsabre – But it’s good to be busy, you’re still pleased to be doing plenty of stuff?
IK – Yeah.
Lightsabre – That’s great.
IK – So, what can I do for you?
Lightsabre – Well, I run a site called Lightsabre, it’s a Star Wars fan site.
IK – Listen, listen, I’d like you to do something. My hearing is not great. Could you…speak…slower, then I can understand you better.
Lightsabre – Not a problem.
IK – Ok, go ahead.
Lightsabre – I run a Star Wars website.
IK – Yes.
Lightsabre – And we specialise in interviews with actors and authors and artists. We’ve been very lucky, we’ve got a good relationship with Lucasfilm and I interviewed Rick McCallum about two weeks ago and during the interview I mentioned that I’d like to interview yourself and he was kind enough to put me in touch with the publicity department and they organised it for me, so I’ve been very, very lucky.
IK – Yes, ok well here I am.
Lightsabre – Excellent, well I’ve got some questions for ya.
IK – Go ahead.
Lightsabre – You’ve directed numerous films, and yet to a very wide audience your best known for directing The Empire Strikes Back. As a director, how happy are you with that, does that make you happy to be remembered for that particular film?
IK – Well, I’ll tell you. It makes you happy, sometimes it makes you unhappy and I’ll tell you why. It was a great experience for me because George Lucas turned out to be the best producer I’ve ever worked with. The fact that he follows through on his word, he left me alone, he stayed in California and I went to Norway and England. He kept to his word. I had complete control. And he was supportive, all the way.
To be remembered for the film is often the problem that a lot of authors have. They write many books and they’re remembered for one. Well, I’ve done many films and television, and everywhere I go they first talk about Empire, they might mention some of the other films. So I’ve given up on that, you just have to accept it, it’s the same as what we have with stars, you know. Remember a star for one thing they’ve done, really outstanding. I mean Clark Gable did Gone with the Wind, Vivian Leigh did Gone with the Wind, they’d done hundreds of pictures. So I guess I just have to enjoy it.
I’ve been travelling a lot. In fact, this year I’ve been to the Amazon and France and Russia and all over the place and I get tremendous response. They want me to talk about the film and about Yoda and about the philosophy of the film and what kind of experience I had, you know I get all that stuff. And also every single week I’m getting huge amounts of mail with pictures of myself that they want me to sign. It’s really taking a hell of a lot of time. I realise how important it is to these people, there are fans all over the world, I get them from South Africa, from Germany, from Russia, I get them from everywhere. So it’s kind of an amazing phenomenon, and I guess you just have to ride the wind.
IK – Yes, at USC. And then we were sort of friends after that, and we even played tennis together many times.
Lightsabre – Oh right!
IK – Yeah, but I didn’t really get to know him until making the film. Because the pre-production, we had to get the script right. We wrote a brand new script, we threw out the old script when I came on and then in the editing process I could always count on him if there were problems. George is a very, very good editor. I pride myself on being a very good editor too, because I did all my own documentaries. It was a very, very good relationship. And yes, the fact that I had him in a couple of classes, I don’t consider that that important (Laughs) I don’t think he got very much out of school. I think he came equipped with his own vision.
Lightsabre – He was definitely his own man?
IK – Yeah.
Lightsabre – Making Empire took a long time and it was quite a long shoot, there were technical problems and such?
IK – Yes, it took me almost three years. Two years and nine months, it’s the longest I’ve ever worked on a film. The shooting was six months long. It was long because we had sixty-four sets, unheard of, and they were huge, they took up whole stages. We only had seven stages. The eighth stage, which we were counting on, was burnt down by (Stanley) Kubrick before we started shooting (The set was destroyed while Kubrick was shooting The Shining). And so I had to finish the days work and finish a sequence so they could take down the set that night, around the clock. And as I came in the morning it was an empty stage and they were putting up another set. (Laughs) And I did many, many scenes with one take. And this really scared the hell out of a lot of the crew, but I explained to them if we had to do cover takes, what they call protection takes, a two and a three, that to set up many of the shots took hours. Well, it would have doubled the shooting time, at least.
So I made a decision, right early on to scare the hell out of the crew. First time we got on the set and we did a take and I said ‘Ok, let’s move on’ they said ‘Wait a minute, don’t you want to protect that take?’ and I said no, because I know the piece I want is in there, because I was pre-editing in my mind. And so they got used to it and it saved me a lot of time.
Lightsabre – There must have been a lot of pressure on set, making that film, with the original Star Wars being such a big hit.
IK – Yeah, well you know, everyone thinks that when we started Empire that it was absolutely known that it was going to be a big hit. This is not true. We didn’t know whether Star Wars was a one-time phenomenon, and whether they would not accept a second one as being of any importance. It was not new, it had already been done. That’s the feeling people would have, so I adjusted it to make it the second act of a three act play. And the second act has to do with character, and I wanted to build the characters and I wanted to keep suspense, and I was depending on Yoda to be a very important, motivating force – the centre of the whole thing. And so I concentrated on that.
I knew technically that no matter what I did in the storyboards could be done by ILM, if I hadn’t have been backed up by ILM the film might have gone for two years or three years or four years in the making, you know, but ILM were so good. And George told me before I left for England and Norway he said ‘Listen,’ because I said I was going to do all my own storyboards, it took me almost a year, he said ‘Don’t be limited by what everyone around tells you can’t be done.’ Because we didn’t have digital you know. He said ‘Don’t be limited. You dream up what you want and ILM will do it.’ You got it?
Lightsabre – Yeah.
IK – It’s the opposite of the way it usually works, he said ‘You dream it up and they’ll do it.’ And he made sure they would.
Lightsabre – That must have been great for you as a director, to have that freedom?
IK – You see, a lot of special effects it’s trial and error. You do it, you throw it away and you do it again, do it again. With digital it cuts the time way down, but we had to do it the long way. The camera had to travel on the rail a couple of centimetres at a time, it kept going all night and a day later we would take the film out and process it and look at it. If it didn’t work you had to start the machinery all over again, crawling along. It was, whoa, you waited! Did the shot work, did the shot work? And so you waited and suddenly after two days you know it worked.
Lightsabre – Do you wish you had digital back then back in 1980?
IK – 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?
IK – Yeah it’s impressive.
Lightsabre – Spielberg has been very much against digital film hasn’t he?
IK – Well he’s been shooting on film but I really don’t understand why.
Lightsabre – So you’d be much happier to embrace the new technology?
IK – It could be because his editor Michael Kahn, who used to be my editor.
Lightsabre – Oh yeah?
IK – Yeah, he took him from me, stole him from me! (Laughs). Michael is maybe the best editor in the world in my opinion. He seems to be very old-fashioned; he loves to work on a movieola still! (Laughs). I mean he’s amazing. It’s possible that part of Spielberg’s decision, in fact I’ve got to talk to Michael about it. It’s possible that he’s choosing film because of Michael. I’ve gotta call Michael, you now make me interested to find out.
Lightsabre – Oh, there you go! (Laughs)? I just wondered with George and Steven making the new Indiana Jones film, and George being digital and Steven being film, I just wondered how they were going to make it work?
IK – They’ll resolve the difference by doing what Spielberg wants.
Lightsabre – Do you think so?
IK – Absolutely. George is very smart about the creative process. And he knows that Spielberg will have to be happy with what he’s doing, and if he’s forced to do something he doesn’t wanna do, I mean I know Steven very well, but if he’s forced to do something he doesn’t want to do it won’t be very good for anybody. So, I think that whatever Spielberg decides, that’ll be it.
Lightsabre – There’s a perception of Lucas as being very much in charge of his own films. Do you find him to be more collaborative than that?
IK – I think he’s very collaborative. I think he exerts pressure, but he does it the way you get co-operation. Which is important, he doesn’t jam it down your throat. I mean he really left me alone. I did the storyboard and sent him all the pictures back in California and he had a record of everything I intended to do, and when I changed the storyboard when I was shooting I would let him know. I never, never got any notes saying you mustn’t do that, you gotta do this. Never once.
Lightsabre – So he really left you to it?
IK – Yeah, and I think, I’m sure that Steven gets the same treatment. Steven is one of the most important directors in the world today. I don’t think George is going to monkey with him.
Lightsabre – (Laughs) I doubt it. A long time ago I read the making of Empire by Alan Arnold, which was a fantastic book, and the scene which sits in my mind the most is the day that you did the carbon freezing chamber sequence. Could you tell us a bit about that day, because it sounded fascinating.
IK – That was a hell of a day. We were all about thirty 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 mould for the slab that he was gonna be encased in. Ok, 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.
IK – 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. Finally David, the first AD (Assistant Director), Tomblin, 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.
Lightsabre – But that line says so much about Han Solo, like you say. It says it all about the character.
IK – 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.
Lightsabre – You had the chance to direct Return of the Jedi, but you turned it down. Was that because you’d been working so long on Empire?
IK – A little overture while I was shooting. But I saw that I was going to be years on this project, and I didn’t want to become just simply another Lucas employee. I love Lucas, but I wanted to go my own way.
Lightsabre – How do you feel now, nearly thirty years on knowing that Empire is regarded as the most popular of the six films? Does that please you?
IK – Well, if you could travel with me you would say this is a ridiculous phenomenon. Nobody, no film, ever gets this kind of attention thirty years later. And if you saw the mail I get. I mean I’ve got a whole table full of mail now, ‘You changed my life’, ‘Yoda gave me a way to understand how I live’ – ridiculous. ‘The film made me go into film, and the university because of your film.’ This goes on and on and on. So, it is a phenomenon, it is.
And you know what, I give George credit for having come up with the concept of Star Wars. He really came up with a phenomenon. And he didn’t know it! When he did the first one, Star Wars, he told me he would have been happy to make back the money that the studio spent. That was his objective, not to lose money. And of course it went beyond all expectations.
Lightsabre – If you could change anything about your Star Wars experience over the years, what would you change, if anything?
IK – What would I change? I’d change a lot. Boy, first of all I would have continued making documentaries and being a director and living near Hollywood takes all your time. You’re always working on getting the next film. And getting the next film takes years. I’ve gone two or three years to get the next film. So I never could go back to doing what was my first love, which was the documentary. The social documentary. And I did make may, many before I went into film. So that’s about the only thing, other than that…look, I’ve made mistakes on every film that I’ve made, but I think everybody does. If I said ‘What would I change?’ I’d say I would make documentaries while making the features.
Lightsabre – Do you still feel, even today, that you’re still learning about film-making and the trade?
IK – Well I’ll tell you what’s been the greatest learning experience and that’s teaching at USC. I have been teaching a master writing class, been working on a masters degree and they’re all professional writers. And I have to keep up with them! (Laughs) So I have to sort of define what it was that defined me and my film-making role. And this takes a lot of thought. I started doing a lot of reading about film and about film makers, but I came to a conclusion, and I told this to every class when I started, I said ‘Please, this term do not read any how to do it books on making film.’ I begged them, I said ‘It won’t teach you how to make a film. What we’re gonna do in class, me give you some keys to making a good film. But the how to do it books won’t do it.’ Many of them came up afterwards and said you know, you were absolutely right. I read every damn book there was on how to make a film, how to write a film, how to direct a film. I don’t remember a damn thing. What we did in class, the little workshops, the advice, the tests that you gave us, this is what counts. You know, one of the things I did, I said ‘From now on, every time you see a film you must go home and keep a copy book and write down everything you can remember, and your analysis of the film, and what struck you, and what worked and what didn’t work, every idea’. I said at first you’ll hardly fill up a page. If you continue doing it you will need ten books by the end of the term. It’s the same as an artist. When you start to learn to draw, you draw a model and in five minutes you’re finished. In fact, in three minutes you’re finished, and then if you continue you see more and as you see more you understand more. Then you can keep drawing for an hour on one drawing. You can continue forever on one drawing, because the one drawing becomes two drawings, becomes three drawings, you see so much that you never saw before. The same way with keeping a journal, and I think the most important thing I gave these kids was the journal. If you do it, you’re gonna learn, if you don’t do it you’ll be back where you started from at the beginning of the term.
Lightsabre – That’s fantastic, thank you so much for your time, really, really enjoyed that. Many thanks, keep well.
IK – Bye.
Interview originally published on Lightsabre.co.uk on 4th November and 2nd December 2007.