Irvin Kershner, director of ‘Empire Strikes Back,’ is one with the Force at age 87

11.29.10 7 years ago 6 Comments

Lucasfilm Ltd.

“My ally is the Force, and a powerful ally it is.  Life creates it, makes it grow.  Its energy surrounds us and binds us.  Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.  You must feel the Force around you; here, between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere, yes.”

Irvin Kershner, director of “The Empire Strikes Back,” has passed away at the age of 87.

I would be saddened to hear this at any point, but I just finished reading J.W. Rinzler’s remarkable The Making Of “The Empire Strikes Back” last night, a distressing coincidence.  I’ve always believed “Empire” to be the best film in the “Star Wars” series, and one of the finest examples of fantasy filmmaking of all time, but my regard for just what it was that Kershner brought to the table was increased exponentially by this read of the book.

Kershner had already been making films for 30 years by the time he crossed paths with Luke Skywaker, Darth Vader, and the rest, and he was a fascinating choice for Lucas.  I honestly believe that if Lucas had chosen anyone else for the job, things would have turned out very differently for Lucasfilm and fandom in general.  Understanding how he ended up in that director’s chair in the first place goes a long way towards appreciating just how important a part of that process he really was.

Like many filmmakers, Kershner got his big break with Roger Corman, who produced Kershner’s first feature “Stakeout On Dope Street,” and he worked in both features and TV for the late ’50s and early ’60s before making his breakout film, a Sean Connery comedy called “A Fine Madness.”  If you’ve never seen it, it’s a unique Connery performance, and an absolute product of its times.  Kershner may have been in his 40s already at that point, but he had a sensibility that felt very contemporary, a wry observational wit that unites many of the films he made in that era.  “Loving,” “Up The Sandbox,” the Donald Sutherland/Elliott Gould farce “S*P*Y*S”, and even “The Return of a Man Called Horse,” which made him a viable guy to turn to for sequels to big hits, all share a certain approach to the material, a personal touch even in studio fare, and as he was making the films, he was also teaching students at USC.  One of those students who worked under Kersh, as he was known, was George Lucas, who was obviously impressed by Kersh.

I’ve heard John Carpenter talk about the miserable process on “Eyes Of Laura Mars,” and it sounds like Kershner had just as many problems with the film as Carpenter did.  It was difficult enough that it soured Kershner on Hollywood, and when Lucas approached him about directing “The Empire Strikes Back,” it was precisely because Kershner did not like or trust the system, and because he had an independent spirit.
The subject of how much of “Empire” can be attributed to Lucas, how much to Kersh, how much to Kasdan, and how much to the performers has been debated by “Star Wars” fans since the film’s release in 1980, and one of the reasons you absolutely have to read Rinzler’s book is for the centerpiece of the book, a 20-plus page transcript of the entire on-set conversation for the days spent shooting the carbon-freezing sequence with Han, Leia, Lando, Chewie, Vader, and the droids.  It explodes the simplistic “Harrison Ford just made up that ‘I know’ on the spot” myth with an exhaustive and mesmerizing glimpse at the dynamic between actors and director, and you can watch how Kersh shaped that classic movie moment over the course of each successive conversation.  It is pure fly-on-the-wall voyeurism, and my respect for Kersh increased exponentially as I read it.

Overall, the book paints a picture of a man who cared deeply about every frame of his film, and who brought a joy to every part of the process that you can feel when you watch the film.  He worked a few more times after “Empire,” including a reunion with Connery on “Never Say Never Again,” but “Empire” remains the film he is most famous for, and justifiably so.

The most amazing part of the book is the way it’s built like a suspense novel, with Yoda being the big mystery that drives everything.  When they began production on “Empire,” Yoda was still a question mark, and no one was sure he would work.  All of the Yoda material was pushed to the end of the shoot, so the whole time they were making the film, that question mark was just hanging out there, a challenge they weren’t sure they could answer.  Reading about the way Kershner rose to that challenge, and looking at how beautiful the final performance is in the film, that’s what movie magic is all about to me.

Our thoughts are with all of Kershner’s friends, family, and colleagues as they mourn his passing, and we celebrate his unique spirit which was such a vital part of one the greatest movies ever made.

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