Father figure

Director Irvin Kershner, the unknown wizard behind "The Empire Strikes Back," talks about being Darth Vader, working with George Lucas and making the best "Star Wars" film.


Michael Sragow
May 13, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

"I am your father," said Darth Vader to Luke Skywalker in "The
Empire Strikes Back" -- a soul-quaking revelation that set the stage not just
for "Return of the Jedi" but also for the new "Star Wars" prequel trilogy that
begins May 19 with "The Phantom Menace." The man who first gave life to those
words wasn't David Prowse, the bodybuilder inside Vader's armor, or James
Earl Jones, the actor who lent the character his voice. It was the director
of the film, Irvin Kershner, who recorded a temporary vocal track that Jones
says catalyzed his performance in "Empire." Kershner's passionate approach to
the acting and framing of the "Star Wars" characters made his entry unique.

When I interviewed him last week in his airy, modest canyon home --
"a treehouse," he calls it -- on the fringe of Beverly Hills, he was
surprised that anyone would find this anecdote noteworthy. For on "The Empire
Strikes Back," Kershner simply did what he'd done before, on "The Hoodlum
Priest" (1961), "The Luck of Ginger Coffey" (1964), "Loving" (1970), "Up the
Sandbox" (1972), "The Return of a Man Called Horse" (1976), TV's "Raid on
Entebbe" (1977) and "The Eyes of Laura Mars" (1978) -- toss his characters
into risky dilemmas and use all the tools at his disposal to explore and
dramatize them. A juicy thespian himself (check out his cameo in "The Last
Temptation of Christ" as Zebedee, a saturnine comic foil to the Messiah), he
takes a moment to savor his impersonation of Vader. "You have learned much,
young one! Your destiny lies with me, Skywalker," he exclaims in a breathy
sort of bellow. The lines fit his own theatrical presence. At age 76, he's
tall, bald and goateed, with the glinting eyes of a benign Mephistopheles.

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But then he immediately segues into the directorial challenges of
the climactic scene. With "Star Wars" scuttlebutt at a premium in pre-Internet
1979, Kershner was under orders to keep Vader's paternity from everyone
except Mark Hamill's Skywalker. Not even David Prowse knew about the secret;
Kershner had to guide his movements to fit the underlying action. When Prowse
discovered at the premiere that Vader was Skywalker's father, he nudged the
director and joked, "If you'd have told me, I would have played it different!"

"The Empire Strikes Back" had a tough shoot. A fire at the Elstree
Studios in England and catastrophic weather in Norway prompted last-minute
rescheduling; the fluctuating value of the pound caused the budget to
balloon. The Directors Guild and the Writers Guild fined Lucas for placing
Kershner's and the writers' credits at the end of the movie while keeping the
Lucasfilm Ltd. logo up front. (Lucas resigned from the Directors Guild,
making it impossible for him to hire an American director for "Jedi.")
Producer Gary Kurtz ended his association with Lucas shortly afterward. And
though some reviewers dubbed the film a masterpiece of fantasy, others waxed
nostalgic for the lighter tone and toy-land cornucopia of Lucas' own "Star
Wars." But "Empire" is now accepted as the richest, eeriest and most daring
episode in the series. And when the director of "Return of the Jedi," Briton Richard
Marquand, died in 1987, Kershner became the only living
director besides Lucas to know the pressure and ecstasy of directing a "Star
Wars" movie.

"George said, 'Don't worry about the fact that you don't know
special effects. What I want you to do is think up the shots ... Then we'll let the boys figure out a way to do it. That way it's a
challenge for them, and we'll do stuff that hasn't been seen.' So I didn't
censor myself -- I didn't stop to consider, 'How are we going to get 50
men racing across snow with monsters chasing them and things blowing up?'"
Kershner spent several hours a day for a year storyboarding the action
himself, getting his perspective on each scene and delineating its motion. At
the same time, artists at Lucasfilm and the Industrial Light and Magic effects shop,
notably Ralph McQuarrie ("a genius!" says Kershner), were making beautiful,
detailed renderings of sets, costumes and effects. Kershner tried to key his
drawings to their work, then handed over his sketches to Lucas' storyboard
artist for a brilliant polish. It's the Lucasfilm and ILM sketches and paintings that
survive in volumes like "The Art of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back,"
leading casual readers to believe that Kershner merely followed tracks laid
out for him. No wonder Kershner says, "According to the books, I didn't even
exist. Of course, I couldn't have made the movie without George and ILM; on
the other hand, they couldn't have made that movie without me."

Kershner's respect for Lucas has never wavered; it dates back to his
boy wonder days. When Kershner was giving seminars at USC, what impressed him
was a short picture Lucas made called "6.18.67," about the filming of an
expensive Hollywood western, "MacKenna's Gold." "George's film was different
from what anybody else had done," Kershner says. "First of all, he shot these extreme long
shots of the little tiny group of filmmakers with their umbrellas way in the
distance against the mountains -- nobody does that. He really shot a picture
that was his vision. And boy you look for it, especially in Americans. I see
it much more with Europeans and Japanese and Chinese -- a vision. Not just
a bunch of pictures all put together with people talking, but a way of
seeing. My theory is that the artist is primarily an observer, and one of
the problems with modern art is that there's no observation -- the artists
observe each other, they observe each other's paintings. Perception has to be
developed, that's where depth comes in. I don't see it much with American
directors. The reason is we don't reward it -- it's as simple as that. You do
something highly personal, really different, it will either not be understood
by the executives it has to go through, or will be considered noncommercial,
which is to bring hell down upon you."

In the early '70s, Warner Brothers production chief John Calley
asked Kershner to screen Lucas' Orwellian debut feature, "THX 1138" (an
expansion of his student film, "THX 1138:4EB"), which others had deemed
unreleasable. "I knew that George had been making the picture, and had his
cast cut off their hair, what sounded like ridiculous stuff going on. But now
I'm looking at it and I see really a different kind of picture, with terrific
performances and a look that's haunting. I told John, 'I think you have to
release it. It's unusual, it's got action in it, at least it's an original!
You've got to release this picture.' It's what science fiction should be, a
tale that's pertinent to our times; it's like what Kurosawa told us when we
asked him why he made so many historical films -- 'It's because I can make
statements about society that I can't do if I set them in the present, where
they would become lectures.' And he was right. In 'THX 1138,' George used
science fiction to comment on the technological revolution that we've all
become subservient to."

But Kershner didn't view "Star Wars" as science fiction: "It was fairy
tale, myth, that's where I did my research. It had to do with empowerment, and
with loyalty, which is a wonderful thing in legend, and with the fact that
fathers want to destroy their sons or to use their sons' powers as their
powers decline." Although "The Empire Strikes Back" was instantly (and
justly) labeled the "darkest" of the "Star Wars" films, part of its darkness
came from its maturity. Kershner recalls that even though he was in his
50s, executives at Twentieth Century Fox considered him too old for the
job. But Lucas stuck by his light-sabres, telling Kershner that he wanted him
"because you know all the things a Hollywood director should know, without
being Hollywood," and promising, "It's going to be your picture." And Lucas
kept his word. Even when the film went over budget and Kershner offered to
cut a couple of sequences, Lucas said, "Don't change a thing! Keep going as
you're going."

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Kershner cooked up classic moments with his actors, whether it was
Chewbacca howling like a grieving wolf for his lost friends, or R2D2 standing on robotic tiptoe, or Han Solo banging at the controls of
the Millennium Falcon like Bogart kicking at the engine of the African Queen.
Through it all, Lucas "only encouraged; he never discouraged." And
Kershner's insistence on maintaining dramatic values electrified the movie.
When the effects artists showed him their concept of Han Solo in
carbon-freeze, they made it look as if Harrison Ford were hibernating; it was
Kershner's idea that Solo's face and form ripple with desperation, as if he were
trying to push out. And Kershner insisted on demonstrating that Luke
Skywalker has feeling in his artificial hand: "We were starting to make him a
mechanical man, and he's not; I wanted to show that in the future when he
makes love to a woman he'll have some feeling there -- that's what I was
thinking!"

In his youth, Kershner studied viola, violin and composition, then
painting and sculpture; he worked as a photographer, made State
Department-sponsored informational films in the Middle East and did a
documentary TV show before he put together a low-budget feature (in 1958)
called "Stakeout on Dope Street." (He also served on B-24 bombers during World
War II.) The director drew on all this knowledge for "The Empire Strikes
Back." In many fantasy films the cameras rarely move, because they must be
locked in position for the special effects. Kershner plotted subtle camera
adjustments to provide an illusion of fluidity and sweep. His mastery of
rhythm extended to the place of "Empire" in the trilogy as well as to its
internal structure. He deemed the trilogy a three-part symphony, with the
opening movement vivace, the second lento and the third allegro. It
was his job to get the audience to care more deeply about the characters
after the furious activity of the first film. His splashiest sequence came at
the beginning, with the battle on the ice; his challenge was to deliver an
emotional build as potent as any galactic dogfight.

Kershner exploited improvisation, both with the actors and the props;
often, this rescued the schedule and improved the picture. For example, when
he shot the funny-touching shtick of Chewbacca carrying a battered C3PO, the
robot ended up with his head hooked to a rig composed of wood planks and
wire, and his arms tied to a fishing rod -- the only way to get the android
to flop around in the correct helter-skelter fashion. The director says his
one extended disagreement with Lucas came over the film's biggest laugh
line. Just before he's put into carbon freeze, Princess Leia tells Han Solo,
"I love you," and Lucas wanted Han to say, "I love you, too." But at
Kershner's prodding, Ford came up with just the right piece of macho wit:
instead of "I love you, too," a sardonic "I know." Lucas relented after a
preview audience went crazy for it. Screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan liked it so
much he reprised it in "Jedi."

At one point, Lucas made a pass through the editing and inadvertently
diminished the power of the movie -- he tried to hurtle it along. Kershner
helped him realize that for the second movement of the "Star Wars" symphony,
you needed time to study the actors and look into their eyes. Kershner still
feels that portions of "Empire" go by too quickly. But he says "Lucas'
filmmaking instincts are remarkable," and Kershner is thrilled with the
recent digital embellishments to his movie (including a vista Kershner had
urged on Lucas 19 years ago for the Cloud City).

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The director scoffs at the highbrow notion that the success of "Star
Wars" ruined American film. "George made a movie he wanted to make and it
turned out to be a success; you can't blame him for the people who imitate
him, who start with the success and work in reverse. And I don't know anyone
else who takes his profits and plows them back into his companies." He
admires Lucas for staying true to his vision, no matter how much it differs
from his own, and looks forward to "The Phantom Menace": "George has never
been happier -- I think he's happy with the movie. A year and a half ago,
when I asked why he wanted to direct again, he said he couldn't resist toying
with all these new techniques. Who wouldn't? They let you play with the
material, not just in your mind, but on the screen."

After seeing "The Phantom Menace" myself (several days after talking to Kershner), I wonder if the integration of effects and live
action comes too easy to Lucas, leading him to devalue the human elements
that provide comic and dramatic traction. Yet even in the first "Star Wars" movie, Lucas was primarily a creator of unexpected gadgets and gewgaws. Decades ago, when George Cukor told Lucas that he would rather be called a
director than a filmmaker -- because "filmmaker" sounded like "toy maker" --
Lucas replied, "A director sounds like somebody who runs a business. I'd
rather be a toy maker." When you see a ticklish new creature in "Phantom Menace," like junk dealer Watto, described in the script as "a pudgy blue
alien who flies on short little wings like a hummingbird," you realize Lucas
hasn't lost his touch -- just his sense of proportion. In a way, the early reactions to "The Phantom Menace" prove Kershner's belief that even in a brave new digital world, there will continue to be an enormous psychic burden
on directors who care -- because, as Kershner says, "You never know what's going to work."

"My career," he snorts, "is a disaster. After 'The Empire Strikes
Back' I got to make big films that I didn't care about, 'Never Say Never
Again' and 'RoboCop 2,' but not my films, and then I got too old."
Nonetheless, for a decade and a half he's been preparing a film about Puccini
and the last love of his life, a young diva named Cecilia. "What better
love stories are there than 'Madame Butterfly' and 'La Boheme' and 'Manon
Lescaut'? I've integrated arias from them to move my story forward. I think
I've brought it a real drive and dramatic punch. But you tell one of these
30-something executives that you want to make a movie about Puccini, and
they ask, 'Does he design men's clothes or women's clothes?'"

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If Kershner's film on Puccini does get made -- and it's close -- he
vows that it will be a big-audience movie, with an operatic form as far as
"The Empire Strikes Back" was from the naturalism of "The Hoodlum Priest." "I
love my early movies," he says, "but naturalism is an artist's early style.
Now I want to deal with feelings, dreams, an acceptance of irrationality. I
want films to haunt an audience, to give them something to remember and be
able to talk about -- not the totally forgettable images of 'Twister' or
'Armageddon' or 'Independence Day,' which just take up space on your hard
drive and threaten to crash the whole system."


Michael Sragow

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

MORE FROM Michael Sragow

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