This week marks the 40th anniversary of The Empire Strikes Back, and it has everyone thinking about the Star Wars of it all. Why exactly has this series endured for so long? What is it about this story that’s made it so beloved?
These probably aren’t questions anyone can answer definitively, but if anyone can, it’s the man who started it all: George Lucas. But even he doesn’t know for sure, although he has some ideas.
“Well I don’t know,” he told StarWars.com when asked about the franchise’s longevity. “Even though it’s an homage to ‘40s movies and a space opera — where the characters are pretty cardboard — I worked very hard to create the characters that would be iconic in their own way, and still be true to the classic adventure cinema…Their motives were driven based on psychological motifs that had been around for thousands of years in mythology”.
I mean it’s also from Episode IV, which is the first time you treated aliens as humans, as if there was nothing special about them, they just look funny. They were unique but they weren’t monsters. They weren’t crazy aliens. They were just characters. And I don’t think anybody had seen that before and I think they liked it.
It’s interesting to hear Lucas describe his characters as “cardboard.” Maybe a more flattering term would be “prototypical.” It’s true that the Star Wars gang is designed to embody archetypes, the better for viewers to see themselves in. And yes, all the fun alien characters help, too.
Talking about The Empire Strikes Back specifically, Lucas remembers the tough road he had to hoe. “Well, to be very honest, the most challenging aspect was paying for it,” he said. “In order to be able to take control of the movie, I had to pay for it myself. And in order to do that, I did something my father told me never to do, which was to borrow money. But there wasn’t much I could do because I only had maybe half of the money to make the movie so I had to borrow the other half, which put a lot of pressure on me.”
Lucas was eager to “take control of the movie” because 21st Century Fox had taken the lead on the first one, and he didn’t have the best time on it. Rather than writing and directing Empire himself, Lucas relied more on the talents of people like Leigh Brackett, Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett. He figured that would give him time to do things like move the Industrial Light & Company special effects company up to San Francisco, and to get his own production company Lucasfilm off the ground. But it didn’t make things any easier.
“They were supposed to shoot [the Hoth scenes in Finse] in two weeks and they shot it in months, so we were already way behind schedule,” Lucas remembered. “And so it created a lot of havoc. We were projected to go way over budget and I’d already borrowed all the money that I could. I went to the bank and they said ‘No, we’re not going to extend the loan.’ Which meant, basically, I’d lose the movie.”
Lucas got a second bank to loan him money, which only increased the pressure on him. “And then I realized that the movie was just going to keep going over budget and over budget and over budget unless I went over there and watched over it. So I spent the rest of the time in England working with Kersh and trying to get the movie done at a reasonable budget that we could afford.”
And then there was the matter of keeping the morale up on set. “On the first one, the production crew on the set, except for the art department, just thought it was a joke,” Lucas said. “And they were not that interested in the movie or helping or doing anything except getting their paycheck. ILMers were always enthusiastic because they were very young. And young people are enthusiastic. They knew we were doing something that had never been done before and so that excited them and that kept their morale up. And even though we went through some very hard setbacks, I had to go up and be a parent and say, ‘We can do this. We’re not going to give up. We have to keep going.’ You just have to say, even though everything looks like it’s falling apart, trust me, it’s actually not.”
And, you know, we did kind of the same thing we did with Episode IV. We did little animations of the battle sequence, little stick-figure animations..some of the very early forms of pre-viz. The only way we could do the movie and get it done for the price was to use as few frames as possible on each visual effect shot, which meant if I had a shot that ran 32 frames, they would give me 36 frames, a couple clean frames on either side. Each frame would cost like $20,000, so you just couldn’t make mistakes. You had to really get it down to the actual frame. And nobody had ever tried to do that. And that’s one of the ways we were able to make the film less expensive.
Lucas has a reputation for pushing technology forward on all of his films, and to do that while being mindful of a budget…it couldn’t have been easy. And so much could have gone so wrong. What if Yoda, a puppet we were supposed to take seriously as a wise old Jedi master, had come across as hokey and silly instead of wise and powerful? “A lot of those things, like Yoda, got finished like an hour before we shot it,” Lucas said. “Everything was always on the run. So I finally got to see the whole thing finished, put together, lit properly, and that’s when I knew it was going to work. Before that I had to rely on Frank Oz. Frank had performed great in rehearsals and Stuart Freeborn was working very diligently on trying to get the puppet to work, but it didn’t convince me until I saw the actual movie.”
And of course, there was the infamous “I am your father” reveal from Darth Vader, which Lucas went to great lengths to keep secret. “[T]he thing about it is I didn’t tell anybody — anybody — about it,” Lucas recalled. “And it wasn’t in any of the scripts. It wasn’t even in the story treatments. I kept that aspect of it secret and I was the only one that knew about it. And it really wasn’t until the day we shot that we told Mark [Hamill] so he could react appropriately.”
Between the actors, sound engineers, and director, about 12 people knew the secret before the movie went out to theaters. But in this day and age, with spoiler culture at its height, Lucas doubts even that small a circle could keep the secret safe. “I think, in this era now with the internet the way it is, it’s very hard to have surprises in a movie. And I don’t think you could do it today.”
“It wasn’t the most fun movie to make, but it was definitely a rewarding film,” Lucas concluded. “It turned out well. I learned some things. I thought I could let somebody else direct the movie and still run a company and I realized that wasn’t gonna be possible. So I put the company aside and stayed there with Kershner helping him.”
It may have been hard, but if you judge a movie’s success by how many people love it even years later, it was definitely worth it.