Freezing Tauntauns, raging snowstorms, fires and financial disasters almost sank The Empire Strikes Back. The movie’s production is a story to rival Luke Skywalker’s troubled tale. All the drama, plus much more can be found in an old and wonderful book. Rebel Briefing blows the dust off this rare and forgotten gem.
A long time ago – 41 years to be exact – The Empire Strikes Back was deep in post-production. At the time Lucasfilm was a hive of activity as it raced to finish the movie before its May 17, 1980 release date.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock on Dagobah all this time, you’ll know that Empire was a huge hit. Unlike the fun and fireworks of A New Hope, the sequel was a dark and moody affair. Vader’s shocking revelation, plus that bummer ending, made it a fan favourite – people left the cinema desperate to know more.
But did you know that Empire’s production history was a story just as rich and complex?
For starters, the movie went way over budget and schedule. And this was just the tip of the Hoth iceberg. Episode 5 was a huge gamble that nearly failed to pay off for George Lucas. Having financed the film from his own pocket, the production almost ran out of cash several times.
These dramas and much more can be found in a rare and wonderful little-known book called ‘Once Upon a Galaxy: A Journal of the Making of ‘The Empire Strikes Back.’ Like Yoda, it’s rather rare and old, and it can cost a Hutt’s bounty to buy. But don’t let that put you off; it’s worth the time and effort.
Published in 1980 and written by veteran film publicist Alan Arnold, it’s an authorised and spellbinding day-to-day journal of his frontline adventures on Hoth, Dagobah and Cloud City. It’s a must-read for people interested in the creative process.
As a unit publicist for Empire, Arnold was armed with a backstage pass to the greatest gig in the galaxy. He was present when filming began on the frozen glaciers of Norway where snow blizzards and the coldest winter in decades brought production to a freezing, grinding halt. He was also on the scene when a fire destroyed Stage 3 at Elstree Studios to delay production further.
These setbacks including the sad death of second unit director John Barry, plus the agonising financial wrangling’s with banks, made Empire a horror show for Lucasfilm. On a lighter note, the production wasn’t completely under the influence of the Dark Side. Arnold describes fun and folly, including sipping tea with Miss Piggy. You’ll also find a story about Boba Fett needing to pee! In a moment of pure levity, David Prowse interrupts Irvin Kershner at the worst moment (see below) to offer him a signed copy of his new fitness book.
Feeling the Pressure
Where Arnold couldn’t go his microphone went instead. One of the book’s best passages describes the filming of the carbonite freezing chamber scene on Cloud City. Having wired director Kershner to a tape recorder, the transcribed pages show the sheer complexity of making a Star Wars movie. It shows Kershner and the actors – Harrison Ford in particular – agonising over the emotional truth of the scene.
Contending with bickering actors, impromptu book signings, troublesome SFX and tricky lighting effects, the under-pressure director tries to keep order on set. At one point the exasperated Kershner groans “Oh, boy, I’m getting out of here. This is too much.” It’s gripping stuff.
Arnold’s work also included in-depth taped interviews with key players such as Gary Kurtz, Irvin Kershner, Ralph McQuarrie and the principal actors. His talk with George Lucas about his vision for a nine-part saga is a gem. These recordings would have great historical importance for Star Wars fans and film historians. More so years later when Jonathan Rinzler began researching and writing ‘The Making of The Empire Strikes Back – The Definitive Story’ (2010).
Rinzler’s comprehensive book, the second of his trilogy about the production of the original Star Wars movies, is indebted to Arnold’s treasure trove of ancient recordings and first-hand accounts. Some of Arnold’s best interviews did not make it into his original 1980 book.
Fortunately, Rinzler found a place for them in his own comprehensive publication, giving Arnold’s forgotten tapes a well-deserved new lease of life. Remarkably the tapes were almost lost to the trash compactor when the plastic cases containing the originals were tossed away. Lucasfilm archivist Don Bies, recognising the value of the recordings, rescued them from the bin.
In the end, Lucasfilm’s hard work paid off. On the eve of its 41st birthday, The Empire Strikes Back is still considered a beloved and brilliant addition to the Star Wars saga. As we’ve seen, the making of the movie was just as spellbinding. Thank The Maker that Alan Arnold was on hand to witness and record the magic.