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Thursday, 11 July 2013

CLASSIC REVIEW: 'THE MAKING OF 'THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK' BOOK


THE MAKING OF “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK”

Written by J.W. Rinzler

Published in the UK by AURUM PRESS

Reviewed by Scott Weller

Anybody who thinks that the film industry is a place full of glamour, good living and excitement is going to get a shock when they get to read about the behind the scenes events, lasting over three years, that would lead to the creation of the first STAR WARS sequel, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. Now, acclaimed author J.W. Rinzler takes us back to a time when no one knew if a sequel to the 1977 mega-smash would strike gold a second time, in which, in an even more risky gamble, its creator/film-maker George Lucas, operating in his own unique version of Russian Roulette, was joined to it at the hip by investing his own money into the do or die project. 

The Making of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back - Book Trailer 2010 - YouTube
The gang's all here! George Lucas with the trio he made superstars.

Alan Arnold, the films original and distinguished Unit Publicist back in the day, had already told as much of the behind the scenes story that he could- and doing so in a very pleasing old world movie-dom scribing- in his one-off book, ONCE UPON A GALAXY: THE MAKING OF THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. From it, many of the stories and information that Arnold would reveal have since become classic with STAR WARS fans and movie fans in general, but there was still so much more to the difficult, ever evolving birth of this important first sequel, especially in the periods of pre-and post production, that hadn’t been told and needed to be told, locked away in written, tape, or visual form in the huge archives at LUCASFILM (Unlike STAR WARS, which still has a lot of material behind the scenes-wise that’s either missing or in private hands (including props and various other iconic items), LUCASFILM kept intensive records of everything ever seen, prepared, utilized or deleted for EMPIRE). This material, the stuff of fans dreams of opening, lay undiscovered until now, as writer and LUCASFILM historian J.W. Rinzler continues his marvelous work, previously initiated with the excellent THE MAKING OF STAR WARS, in telling the life and release of George Lucas’s pivotal, all-important successor, and, once again, makes the project a compulsive and absolute page turner.
Filming the Wampa scene in Finse, Norway.

Any previous worries Rinzler had on the books release (as to the how the information he’s gathered and presented flows structurally) soon prove unfounded, as viewers are given the most unprecedented access possible into the deepest areas of the archives for all things EMPIRE related, and fans will be blown away by some of the incredible newly seen material within its 372 pages. From early pre-production to the nightmare shooting of Norway, to a fire at ELSTREE that plagued the future scheduling of the films principal photography (a problem so severe to the production team and the disruption of set building, that the film never truly recovered from it, leading it to go 40 days plus over schedule), to the endurances of the cast and crew in both the sweltering heat of sets like the carbon freezing chamber of Bespin’s Cloud City to the dense, murky and dirty world of the Dagobah swamp, situated by all manner of weird and wonderful real life creepy crawlies, and, more importantly, an animatronic puppet-one of the first of its kind- that proved to be a nightmare to realize but a joy to see on screen. Princess Leia herself, Carrie Fisher, has compared reading the book to being on an acid trip remembrance but without having to use the actual substance itself. THE MAKING OF THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK is a far more worthy endeavour to absorb into your system than any drug, and certainly a reading fully deserving of your time.
Harrison Ford and producer Gary Kurtz wait for the next set-up.

Like the Charles Lippincott material unearthed for THE MAKING OF STAR WARS, Arnold's material is obviously the key to the books overall conception, but this time its presented in a new fashion with a brilliant overall arc around it from Rinzler as he brings the film's making to very discernable and evocative life. Now, those old interview tapes with key cast and crew have been re-transcribed and are largely presented in an unedited state, with far more candor and information to them than before – audio material that was not previously allowed to be published in 1981 (either due to plot spoilers or was just unacceptable for presentation at that time). 

New director Irvin Kershner has fun on set!

The difficulties of making a sequel that has to be as good, if not better, than the original movie, are apparent straight away, as well as the problems with the films seemingly runaway budget (of which un-credited producer Howard Kazanjian really blasts Producer colleague Gary Kurtz for letting go of the money belt), whilst the strained relationship between new director Irvin Kershner and star Mark Hamill towards the end of the shoot, the actor soon isolated for months on the bog planet stage, proves much stronger, and even more difficult, as time wears on. Though, of the main three cast, Kershner finds creative allies, not just with Producer Kurtz (who, from the way this books describes things, lost creative control over the director though pleased with what was being achieved by him footage-wise), but also with Harrison Ford with regards to the continuing character development of Han Solo, whilst Carrie Fisher’s drug problems, previously alluded to in very subtle way by Arnold with his book, are properly confirmed. The many lavish stills of the new tome may show her kooky, fun side during the filming but the dam barriers within the actress’s personal life, both physically and mentally, were starting to collapse from all the substance abuse and party-animal lifestyle.
In at the deep end. Mark Hamill in the Dagobah swamp.

On top of all this comes further financial difficulties, tragedy, injuries (Mark Hamill really suffers for his art on this film!), and the aforementioned scheduling problems getting ever worse - all incidents minutely accounted for by Rinzler. Linked to the birth and reality of EMPIRE there’s also the genesis of the LUCASFILM empire, SKYWALKER RANCH and the family atmosphere within Lucas’s companies, all of which started to gain business power momentum in 1977 and 1978 (and prove to function in an almost family-like way- an intriguing opposite to the way the Hollywood film system operates) in varying sections of the book that are additionally nicely documented and fun to read.
A precarious time for Luke, and a precarious time behind the scenes!

We previously found about EMPIRE’s almost production stopping financial crisis mid-way through its shooting during the excellent EMPIRE OF DREAMS DVD documentary in 2004, but reading this book I didn’t realize there were more problems for LUCASFILM after they secured the second loan from another bank. That this film was in a precarious state would be an understatement! Reading between the lines, it seems to me that, despite his clearly seen skills as a director, STAR WARS newcomer Kershner (taking on the position after the previously offered Alan Parker and John Badham had passed the sequel up), having thrown himself into the project happily and intellectually for two years, was obviously a bit of a rogue element during the Sequel’s overall making, self-admitting in an interview in 1980 that he’s a clever manipulator of people in order to get the best on-screen results possible. The kind of balance between art and budget is always a difficult one in this medium, especially in the case to the sequel to the world's then most successful movie ever. Ultimately, Kershner’s talent and ability worked in the best interests of the film (the many dramatic improvements he initiated to/with the characters and the way they were brought to life by the actors are clear to see), and Rinzler clearly shows that a lot of his improvisation and ideas created on the spot of the day of filming did make a great film even greater, though the directors quest for perfection, to truly make EMPIRE the best it could be in its storytelling, would almost cripple it. At one point in the book, the filming is over 24.5 days, which is frightening, and especially with so much of Lucas’s own personal money at stake, so when it all reaches crunch-time, and the films payroll was threatened, you can see why Executive Producer Lucas climbed on board a plane the next day to sort out what was going on, and both rein Kershner in and speed his producer and director up at all costs to complete the movie.
Bringing the Imperial Walkers to formidable life.

Its also amazing to re-discover just how close to the wire things were for ILM in adding effects shots to the final movie. Again, more so than I'd imagined. However, despite all the ongoing concerns, problems and occasional sparky tensions of the cast and crew in London from March to September 1979, it’s the effects company, working in their new San Francisco base, who prove to be amongst the shiniest of stars within the book, as their vital work continues to complete the necessary effects, twice as much in nature story-wise, and even more ambitious than what was seen on-screen in STAR WARS- for the loomingly large release date. Yes, there’s the need to get the work done, but unlike the live-action work being undertaken, it seems that there are no major egos at play here, no confrontations, just a core group of innovative, equally artistic people who get on with each other and actually like the jobs they’re doing, making amazing dreams become reality, and critically succeeding in making EMPIRE the best it could be with the technology stretching techniques available to them at the time. These same effects that, even now thirty years on, still look magnificent. These ILM guys and gals, with the double nightmare of getting the effects done whilst building an entire new organization from scratch, may well be the true heroes of EMPIRE in bringing such epic fantasy into being as a unique cinematic art form in its own right.
Ready for hugs- Princess Leia with her hero, Chewbacca!

As the wealth of behind the scenes information continues its journey, the books visual content continues to impress. Right from its early genesis,its interesting to see the incredible ideas and concepts from Lucas for EMPIRE linked to those early story conferences initiated with the late Leigh Brackett (then via Lawrence Kasdan and Kershner), and the amazing artwork, conceptual materials and storyboards which followed, from the likes of Ralph McQuarie and Joe Johnston. This book more than amply gives us what we want to see artistically, with some incredibly rare, and re-discovered, imagery. There’s also some nice shots of deleted ideas and concepts, and things that were created that either never made it into the final film (like a tree creature within Dagobah’s strange Dark Side cave) or we didn’t see properly (like a full exterior image of the pod-like vehicle holding the Imperial Probe Droid that crashes on Hoth)- notable pluses. Other storyboarded treats include one of Luke’s fall, in front of Vader, from the antenna inside Cloud City, of which an air pocket briefly sends him upwards in front of the Dark Lord before he finally falls down through one of the shafts (of which a production still of Vader shows the at least partially completed scene of him looking upwards as it happens). It’s a scene I doubt would have worked in the context of Vader’s earlier serious reveal, but its fun to know of its existence.
Early test ideas for Yoda involved using a monkey.

And we mustn’t forget other great early drawings such as the ones for the Tauntaun by Phil Tippett, or UK artist Ivor Beddoes spectacular Snowspeeder/Walker ground battle-I particularly loved the troop carriers discharging Imperial Snowtroopers onto the surface of Hoth and in to battle- unfortunately, a scene like that would have been just too tricky to bring to reality in the final film, what with all the difficulties of the background Walkers and their optical compositing on white backgrounds.
With further delves deep into the book's massive 372 pages, beyond the listed filming dates and call sheet info, its nice to see that some of the behind the scenes things we previously revealed in AFICIONADO (in our two EMPIRE special issues), which we could sometimes only speculate on as to whether they were actually filmed or not, did actually happen - like the use of both carbon rods and light reflected lightsabers by Hamill and stuntman Bob Anderson for the films climactic duel. From the original information on the character front, its also intriguing to see how keen Lucas was in 1978 to remove Harrison Ford’s Han Solo by the end of EMPIRE, and possibly the saga (due to Ford’s reluctance to sign for several movies), though the book doesn’t say that this was also because Ford had been difficult in his prior pay negotiations on STAR WARS. And, in those early days, before Ewoks and second Death Star’s, they had also planned to kill Solo off in the next one if he had returned. The same fate with Vader, too, though I recall Kurtz telling me at a convention several years back that, at one point in the plotlines ever evolving process, the Dark Lord was to have survived beyond VI to appear in parts VII-IX, with the final battle against the Emperor.
The costume testing for Boba Fett at ILM.

Further nice bits and pieces linked to STAR WARS include the first slice of Expanded Universe history: the novel SPLINTER OF THE MIND’S EYE, where Lucas refers to it in story meetings- though I would have liked to have known more about the books actual conception and original release above all else- as well as interesting early but abandoned plans to set part of EMPIRE on the Wookiee planet, though Lucas would save the ideas, if making them a bit too small scale, for the then upcoming STAR WARS HOLIDAY SPECIAL. Sadly, the book disappointingly skips out on a lot of aspects of the making of the HOLIDAY SPECIAL, where it annoyingly takes up just a few scant pages in the book with no large size uses of rare images apart from McQuarrie’s lovely artistic contributions and a couple of live action and animation stills. Despite the programme’s reputation, the lack properly exploration into this STAR WARS rarity proves to be a great missed opportunity, with Lucas’s involvement in it now completely played down.
Despite the pluses of creating the book directly from the archives, there are still gaps in the films making which could have been filled in had the author have contacted more people from outside the company that originally worked on the film. For example, Yoda technician Nick Maley is still with us, as is Make-up supreme Stuart Freeborn and UK effects man Brian Johnson. Rinzler could also have identified a few more of the unknown behind the scenes people that appear in certain photos within the book with their help. Other reputable STAR WARS websites, with links and friendships to certain cast and crew, should also have been utilized to add additional material that fans would have liked to have known. I’m sure many of these super-fans would have been more than happy to help for nothing on the book.
One of the few things on the Yoda-related front that isn’t in the book, but is at least mentioned by Rinzler, are Frank Oz’s own personal notes which he wrote and compiled as he was preparing to take on the role at ELSTREE. Whether they still exist is unknown? And if they did, would Lucas want them published? The STAR WARS creator currently wants Yoda and his race to maintain an air of mystery.
After some doubts behind the scenes, Alec Guinness returns as Obi-Wan.

There are further crucial omissions info-wise especially related to the films producer, Gary Kurtz- who, as previously mentioned, gets a bit of a bad rap at times in this book, some of it undeserved, I feel- that are either not listed or clash with what has previously been considered fact by both STAR WARS fans and historians. For starters, there’s no mention that Lucas and Kurtz had to get EMPIRE rolling before a certain date otherwise the sequel rights apparently reverted back to FOX. Not being included in the book, is this info just a modern myth? There’s also no mention of the classic moment when Kurtz came up with the title to THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, apparently randomly, at a European press conference, of which, from then on in, the name stuck as its eventual title (the book implies a different history, that it (the title) was pretty much set in stone from the off), nor the fact that Kurtz was the one who picked cinematographer Peter Suschitsky and lots of other key new or returning crew for the sequel. And mentioned, but not really expanded on, is the difficult first cut editing of the movie, with Lucas’s then strained relationships with his key team (Kershner, Kurtz and Hirsch), their tensions once again played down, with no mention of his legendary dressing down of his associates, telling them: “You’re ruining my movie!”
Finally, there’s that thorny subject of Marcia Lucas. With such a heavy involvement in the ultimate genesis of the first STAR WARS, she had to be involved and mentioned in the prior MAKING OF book. This time, though, she’s not so lucky, and receives scant mention of her involvement in TESB at all, especially in its early genesis, which is disappointing. Despite the divorce, her contributions to the classic films cannot and should not be overlooked.
Ken Ralton makes an adjustment to a damaged TIE fighter.

Presumably due to space reasons, some iconic scenes from the film also don’t get as much of a look that I’m sure fans hoped they would - like the snowspeeder pilot filming or the bounty hunters assembling with Vader. I’m assuming that Rinzler also didn’t dwell too much on them because a lot of information is already known to fans, but I would still have liked him to have been a bit more completist, with a full documentation of who played each bounty hunter, how they came to be, etc. Will we ever find out whether IG-88 was just a static prop, or if he had mechanisms? For such a popular scene, especially iconic in merchandising and the Expanded Universe, there are also few pics used of the baddies in that section, and no behind the scenes images of them without their masks on. Apart from one or two shots we’ve seen in other magazines, and OFFICIALPIX showing an unmasked Prowse as Vader with them, we must assume nothing exists photo-wise of those two days or so of filming. Additionally, Jeremy Bulloch has said that he is only aware of one or two images where he isn’t wearing his Fett mask on set in a stills pic, so this backs up our assumptions.
Further little niggles pop up. A few stills are wrongly captioned, and some are far too small in their page reproduction, like one of the original visual art inspirations for the Walkers, and, having had access to the original first cut of the film, it would have been nice if Rinzler had included some screen grabs of some of its deleted scenes which he mentions seeing in research. Instead, apart from an excellent photo spread section of the Wampa deleted scenes, he keeps us waiting hopefully for said footage to be included for all to see on the upcoming Blu-rays.
Harrison Ellenshaw at matte work on Slave One.

In balance to such occasional disappointments, the books overall information and lavish photo material (of which samples whetted our appetite in advance in magazines like the UK’s EMPIRE film magazine, and the US’s ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY) have much to compensate. We’ve all seen the classic images- dramatic situation stills and behind the scenes shots in books and merchandise that have become legendary over the years- but, even now, there are many thousands more images (stills and behind the scenes), being unearthed, scanned and published, in which Rinzler really has selected the absolute cream of the crop (so far) for what is surely a superior presentation visually to his earlier THE MAKING OF STAR WARS. Standouts include the monkey tests for Yoda (which, in hindsight, look a little cruel), Mardji the elephant as one the early Walker move testers, and such gems as seeing STAR WARS legendary Production Designer John Barry on the EMPIRE Rebel Hangar set as Second Unit director, before his sad death only a few days later.
So, overall, THE MAKING OF THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK is a fine testament to the film's sterling cast and crew, whose group effort eventually turned things around in its production and soon raised the quality bar ever higher for the sequels that followed it. From what had once been a troubled film to something that is now regarded as the most iconic and beloved STAR WARS sequel of all time, and one of the best ever motion pictures ever committed to either the celluloid or digital screen, EMPIRE’s success is well deserved. At the top of that creative tree, though, kudos must surely sit with Irvin Kershner as the thoughtful actor’s director, and George Lucas as the supreme visualist, the man who knew his STAR WARS universe inside out. Despite the stresses and money problems they had over three years, the duo, with meticulous if unsteady help from Gary Kurtz, proved a fine creative union, and that final result of their unique partnership will surely endure for a long time to come.
As precautions, fears and worries that STAR WARS II might flop quickly evaporated as the worldwide box office continued to soar, not only did the Empire strike back, but so too did George Lucas, as his sword of individuality and financial independence pierced ever further into the bitter heart of the Hollywood establishment and beat the odds yet again both personally and professionally with a rare genius. With the exception of film-makers to follow, like Christopher Nolan and James Cameron, few motion pictures, even now, have reached EMPIRE’s heights of critical and popular success.
The final scenes on the Medical Frigate.

Almost but still not quite the complete tome on the films creation that I wanted (that’s my own personal opinion, and, let’s face it, we all have our own expectations of what we want to see documented), THE MAKING OF THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK is, regardless, the ultimate behind the scenes book- warts and all, for the most part -  that you’re ever going to get from any official sources. Rinzler’s previous THE MAKING OF STAR WARS may still have the edge over it due to the unpublished 1975/6 Charles Lippincott interviews, but fans of great STAR WARS films, and all-time great film-making as well, will never tire of reading this new volume. Snap it up whilst you can.

AFICIONADO RATING: A more than worthy successor to THE MAKING OF STAR WARS. Here’s to the JEDI edition!  9 out of 10

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