George Lucas looks back on Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back for its 40th anniversary
“There is a note of hope in George Lucas’s voice as he considers whether or not Darth Vader’s surprising reveal in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back could have been kept under wraps in the age of the internet.
“I think it might have!” he says. “Because the thing about it is I didn’t tell anybody — anybody — about it. 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.”
As Hamill tells it, the actor who played Luke Skywalker was only the third person to carry the secret, after director Irvin Kershner pulled him aside and said: “’I know it. George knows it. And when I tell you, you’ll know it.,’” Hamill recalls. “’But that means, that’s only three people. So if it leaks, we’ll know it’s you.’”
Weeks later, as Lucas sat outside a recording booth with James Earl Jones reciting the line, “No, I am your father,” the circle widened to include sound designer Ben Burtt and the sound mixers. “The mixers, those guys were all dedicated to being quiet. …They weren’t going to tell anybody,” Lucas says confidently. “But there were very, very few people who knew about it until it was shown for the first time….By the end, with the actors, about 12 people knew what that line was.” Then Lucas reconsiders his initial optimism. Even with just a dozen people, it would be hard to keep such a thing contained in today’s world, he says. “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.”
To celebrate the 40th anniversary of The Empire Strikes Back, which made its debut on May 21, 1980, Lucas recently sat down for an exclusive interview with StarWars.com to reflect on the financial and creative gamble that he made all those years ago to bring the second part of his original trilogy to the screen.
“Something my father told me never to do”
In the early 1970s, Lucas was a rebel in the film industry; he moved to Northern California in 1969 and made two low-budget films, THX 1138 and American Graffiti. To ensure he would get the chance to make the follow-ups to the breakout sensation of Star Wars on his own terms, he took on the burden of financing the production himself. At the same time, he was building a legacy in the form of his company, Lucasfilm in Marin County, and making a permanent home just north of San Francisco for the special effects team at Industrial Light & Magic.
Part of his decision to approach The Empire Strikes Back in this way stemmed from his experience working with a big studio, 20th Century Fox, on the first film in the saga. “The studio on A New Hope, they just cut us off,” he says. “There was a lot of stuff that we didn’t do that I wanted to do. But we just didn’t get to finish the film….We were going a week over or two weeks over and they said, ‘Well, we’re just going to cut you off.’” At the time, the movie was still missing its opening scene. “I said, ‘Well, I haven’t shot the beginning of the movie.’ You know, where Darth Vader comes in and there’s that battle and Princess Leia has a conversation with him. None of that had been shot. And they said, ‘Well, we don’t care. Try to make the movie without it.’” Ultimately, Lucas and the crew worked long hours on A New Hope to capture what they could in the final push to their deadline.
As he sat down to plan the production for Empire, Lucas knew he would need more creative control than he’d been granted previously. “I had taken precautions earlier on to control the sequels so that I could continue to make the movies,” Lucas says. “I took control of the movie so I could make all three of them because I knew, unless you have a really big hit with a movie it’s impossible to really get another one made. Especially in those days. And I had no idea [the original Star Wars] would be a hit movie so I was working from the assumption that it wasn’t going to make money and that it was going to be really hard to finish all three of them. And I was dedicated to do that.”
That also meant financing it, no small feat even after the success of Star Wars. “Well, to be very honest, the most challenging aspect was paying for it,” he says now. “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.”
Just getting the script ready for shooting was its own ordeal. “I was learning…I don’t like writing,” Lucas says. “In this case, Leigh Brackett died literally the day she turned the first draft of the script in and it wasn’t really much like I had expected or wanted and so I was stuck. I had been working with [screenwriter] Larry Kasdan on Raiders [of the Lost Ark] but he wasn’t finished yet.” Lucas asked Kasdan if he would work on a third draft of Empire with Lucas tackling major plot points in the second draft. “And he said, ‘How do you know I’m a good writer?’” Lucas recalls. “And I said, ‘Well, when you turn in the script, if it’s no good then the deal’s off.” Lucas worked on the second draft “and then while I was reading Raiders, he was writing Empire.” […]”
Read more at StarWars.com.