Throngs of Star Wars fans were treated to the release of The Empire Strikes Back in theaters 35 years ago today. The film’s mythos created an enduring legacy that nearly rivals the entire franchise. As critic Leonard Maltin describes Empire, it’s “a totally successful film in its own right, as well as one of the most popular sequels ever made.”
The original version — along with A New Hope and Return of the Jedi — were forever changed on the 20th anniversary of the first film’s debut when all three were re-released in theaters as the “Special Editions” in 1997. I was in middle school then, and like any adolescent male, I was excited to watch them on the big screen for the first time. (Yes, I know this pales in comparison to our own Mike Ryan’s fandom, but it still means something to me.) Sure, I enjoyed them, but I knew these films pretty well, and what I saw was not what my family had on VHS.
Released in 1995, the Star Wars Trilogy Box Set included three video tapes, each housing one of the films and part of a three-part interview with George Lucas. Conducted by the aforementioned Maltin, this fascinating conversation exists on YouTube, courtesy of the official Star Wars channel. If you’ve never watched it, do so right now.
“It changed the way movies were made, perceived, and marketed.”
Honestly, this interview doesn’t really reveal anything new to the already massive canon of Star Wars trivia. Yet listening to Lucas talk about A New Hope when it was only 18 years old is staggering. For starters, the film’s age has since doubled. (We’re only two years away from the 40th anniversary, by the way.)
Another point to keep in mind is — this being a condensed interview — how much Lucas simplifies everything. The story behind the filmmaker’s writing process is much, much larger than he indicates, but Lucas had handled questions like Maltin’s for 18 years. So, of course he’d be summarizing it all.
But it’s when Lucas talks about what would become the prequel trilogy that your ears ought to perk up:
In order to write that first script, I had to write a back story about where Darth Vader came from, how the kids evolved, [Vader’s] wife, how Ben related to all that, how the Emperor came to power. That ended up being the basis for the projects that I’m working on now.
“Well that’s a tough act to follow.”
The second entry details Empire, both as a sequel to Star Wars and a film in its own right. Much like the first clip, Maltin’s second round with Lucas doesn’t really provide any “new” information for trivia hounds today. In fact, it didn’t really say anything new back in 1995.
But like any one-on-one with a person like Lucas, it remains a fascinating look inside the mind of a creator. It’s especially interesting to listen to his then 15-year-old take on the revelation of Luke’s parentage, and the audience’s reaction to the plot twist in 1980.
I was nervous about it, but in the end, I didn’t get much of a reaction out of it. I mean, people were curious about whether it was true or not. I purposely left it so that it would be ambiguous. So that you wouldn’t really know, and people would debate for the next two more years. I wanted people to debate whether it’s true or not true.
Yes, Lucas intentionally trolled Star Wars fans long before “trolling” gained the internet forum-based meaning it holds today. And despite actor David Prowse’s (Darth Vader) famous 1978 spoiler, it worked.
“Why is it taking so long? Why does it take so long?”
Having grown up with the original trilogy VHS box set, and the “Special Editions” and prequel trilogy in theaters, I find the third part of this interview to be the most revealing. Mainly due to two topics: Jabba’s inclusion in the 1997 re-release of A New Hope, and Maltin’s above question about the prequel trilogy.
Regarding the former, Lucas says:
I needed a gangster. He was in the first film. In the “Special Edition,” we’re putting back a lot of material with Jabba the Hutt in the first film. He was in that. He’s the big gangster. Because we couldn’t do that sequence, we didn’t have the time. When we got the third one, and Jabba appeared, then we did this whole thing of designing [him].
Whether or not Lucas should have added Jabba back into the film — let alone made the “Special Editions” at all — is an already-exhausted topic of discussion. The internet is rife with essays, forum posts, and documentaries kicking this very, very dead horse still.
But the real meat of the interview comes at the 3:58 mark, when Maltin asks Lucas point blank about the prequel trilogy. Specifically, why it was taking so long to develop and make them at the time. His response?
I’m working on the next three films. I’m in the process of writing the three screenplays now. It takes awhile to write the screenplays. To write the first Star Wars, it took me about two years. So I’m writing three scripts at once. It won’t take that long, but it takes a long time to prep them. Hopefully we’ll have one finished for ’98. If not, it’ll be ’99.
Deadlines being what they are, The Phantom Menace hit theaters on May 19, 1999. But Lucas continues:
The first three are based on the back story that relates to where everybody came from, how they got there, what their relationships are….The whole arc of the story in the three that are out there now is really the redemption of Anakin Skywalker. So the first three are really, that I’m writing now, are about Anakin Skywalker. So now you have a redemption of somebody you don’t really even know, he’s just always in a black suit. But you don’t know how he fell from grace, the trauma he went through to get him there. His son brings him back. But the real story hasn’t even been told yet.
Listening to Lucas revel in his passion for all things Star Wars (in 1995, mind you) is both wonderful and terrible. Wonderful because, as a franchise fan from birth, these interviews always excited me because they prefaced the very films I was about to watch. My father would never allow me to fast forward through them, which I in turn enforced on my younger brothers.
And terrible because, well, the “Special Editions” happened and the prequel trilogy ended up the way it did. Yes, it’s all canon, and one can still enjoy these versions and new films just as much as the original trilogy. After all, I biked in the Texas heat for miles to see The Phantom Menace on opening day, and I loved it.
So, let’s cast all this aside today on Empire‘s 35th anniversary. Instead of listing your personal grievances with a man you’ve never met, enjoy these interviews and watch The Empire Strikes Back* whenever you have a few free hours.
*Preferably the original, if you can find it.