The days of having a journalist on a film set, detailing every bit of minutia of a hectic set, are long over. Sure, there are planned set visits, where the media visits for a couple of days and everyone is on their best behavior – as the filmmakers and actors sit there, with huge smiles on their faces, and tell you that when their film is finished it just might be the greatest film ever made. Then the press leaves and everyone goes back to bickering. But, before, there used to be, sometimes, all access books in which a journalist is on set every day, until Julie Salamon’s The Devil’s Candy pretty much ended all that. (If you haven’t read The Devil’s Candy, a salacious read about the filming of Brian De Palma’s Bonfire of the Vanities, well right now seems like an opportune time.)
Now, here’s the crazy thing: A book like this exists for the filming of The Empire Strikes Back titled Once Upon a Galaxy, yet no one seems to realize it exists. And, yes, it’s a warts-and-all book. And it’s incredible. But I get the sense the current iteration of Lucasfilm owned by Disney either doesn’t really want you to know about it or, more likely, doesn’t know it exists. (Though, every now and then, someone will tweet about it.) I spoke to someone at Lucasfilm who says that ten years ago, when J.W. Rinzler’s terrific The Making of The Empire Strikes Back came out (which sourced this book heavily) at least that iteration of Lucasfilm seemed to have no problem with Once Upon a Galaxy being used as source material. But that person also said the new Disney Lucasfilm high ups most likely don’t know this book exists. The book is long since out of print and so the price fluctuates on Amazon. But, I promise, it’s worth every penny. It’s the best Star Wars book I’ve ever read.
Once Upon a Galaxy is written by Alan Arnold, who was a working author and journalist at the time and was hired by Lucasfilm as a public relations representative during the filming of The Empire Strikes Back. And in 1979, one of his duties was to keep a daily diary of filming that eventually became Once Upon a Galaxy.
The thing that makes this book really unique is the prose. It’s filled with on-set interview with everyone in the cast – Ford, Hamill, Fisher, Williams, Guinness, Kershner, Lucas, and more – and littered with so much first-person narrative and speculative opinion that it’s shocking to read in relation to an official book released by Lucasfilm about the making of their second Star Wars movie. (There’s also a book like this about Return of the Jedi by a different author. I have not read it but I’ve been told it’s way toned down from the Empire version and more something you’d expect for this sort of thing.) Early in the book, Arnold interviews Kershner after the first day of filming in Norway. Arnold is surprised Kershner agreed so soon and under harsh conditions, so Arnold adds the line, “confirmation that no matter where we are, in no matter what conditions, movie people like to talk about themselves.” At this point, I knew I was in for a treat.
The thing is, The Empire Strikes Back is now the consensus best Star Wars movie, though that wasn’t always the case (it’s an opinion that manifested itself over the last 20-some years or so). But it was a fraught shoot. First, George Lucas invested his own money to produce the film, almost bankrupting his company in the process. Director Irvin Kershner had never worked on this type of movie before — he cared more about characters than effects. (For Empire’s 30th anniversary, I interviewed Kershner about the film’s legacy, which wound up being his last interview.) It was behind schedule and over budget, which made Lucas antsy. Mark Hamill and Kershner didn’t always see eye to eye and Hamill was pretty miserable filming the Dagobah scenes. Also, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher were prone to a lot of arguing. And, crazily, ALL of this is captured in this book.
So, my first piece of advice to you is to just read this book. Yes, I know it can be a little pricy (I’ve seen it get down to $25 or so, but also be as high as $70), but if you are a fan of The Empire Strikes Back, this book is its ancient Jedi texts. There’s no substitute. But the idea to write about it in full came from this passage:
Friday, May 4
Margaret Thatcher has won the election and become Britain’s first woman prime minister. To celebrate their victory her party took a half page of advertising space in London Evening News. The message, referring to the day of victory, was “May the Fourth Be With You, Maggie. Congratulations,” further proof of the extent to which Star Wars has influenced us all.
So, yes, maybe the first mass media usage of the “May the Fourth be with you,” was to celebrate Margaret Thatcher, of all things. Anyway, below, I listed out the things I found most interesting from the book. Some of these things I knew before, but the way they were presented added new light to it, so I included that stuff, too. But, honestly, every page of this book is interesting, so what I find interesting and what you find interesting might not coincide, which is why you should just get the book. It’s incredible.
While filming, Carrie Fisher got tricked into talking to a gossip writer. Later, there was a plot to kidnap her.
At the time, there was a lot of gossip about Carrie Fisher and her, let’s say, nightlife that she’d talk about at length over the years to come. (In the book there is more than one reference to Fisher “not sleeping” the night before.) Apparently a gossip columnist, pretending she was a more hard news reporter, talked her way onto the set of Empire and got access to Fisher. Arnold describes this person as “a cannibal.”
Later into filming, Carrie Fisher’s mother, Debbie Reynolds, calls the set saying she received a tip that there was a plot to kidnap Fisher, which resulted in Fisher having security guards with her at all times.
Even then, they knew Empire would look drastically different than the original Star Wars
In an interview with editor Paul Hirsch, Hirsch can already tell Kershner’s shooting style would make Empire look and feel different than the first film. (And different than most of the other films to come. I also did a reported piece for Wired magazine about this a few years back.) Hirsch says, “Yes, he’s moving the camera quite a lot. In Star Wars the camera hardly ever moved, therefore much of the film’s energy was generated from the editing. In this film there are more camera movements and energy is generated without the need for such rapid cutting.”
Anthony Daniels loved playing C-3PO, but was pretty pissed off at George Lucas for a time
Around the time of Star Wars, publicists had told the press that C-3PO was “entirely mechanical.” Daniels, who takes a lot of pride in what he did with Threepio, confronted Lucas and said, “You opened a door for me, but you didn’t tell me that beyond it was another door that you’d slam in my face!” (I assume now, that we all know that Anthony Daniels is C-3PO, this has been resolved.)
Second unit director John Barry died during the filming on Empire
The second unit director on The Empire Strikes Back was John Barry, who won an Oscar for art direction for Star Wars. Barry left Empire to film Saturn 3, but was replaced as director on that film. Then, after returning to Empire to direct the second unit, he felt ill on set, was hospitalized, then died. So in the middle of filming The Empire Strikes Back, the cast and crew had to pause to mourn the loss of their second unit director.
Harrison Ford was conflicted about still playing Han Solo, but was also really protective of Han Solo. And Ford already had it in his head that, at the end of the day, Han Solo should die.
During the filming of Empire it’s announced there will be a Star Wars radio series. When Ford hears the news, he says, “Until something like this happens you don’t realize how possessive you’ve become about the character you’re playing.” (On the radio series, Perry King would voice Han Solo.) Later, Arnold made the mistake of calling Han Solo “one-dimensional,” which Ford didn’t really like. Ford replies, “Han is full-blooded. More than any of the characters he’s identifiable. You can see him on the streets of the cities, an urban cowboy looking for love and a meaning to things. He’s wise in the ways of men but a sucker for a sacrificial end.”
Mark Hamill became a father, but didn’t want anyone to know it
Apparently, Mark Hamill and the people at Lucasfilm thought if word got out that the man who plays Luke Skywalker was now a father, it would hurt his image. Arnold seems aghast by this and goes on to compare this to (at the time) Elton John revealing he’s bisexual and how Elton’s fans didn’t leave him. Arnold writes, “Mark believes that the single image is precious for his career right now. He may be right; I hope he’s wrong.”
As stated earlier, one of the most fascinating aspects of this book is that Alan Arnold got Irvin Kershner to agree to wear a mic and record every conversation he had while filming the carbon freezing sequence. Everything we need to know about how Harrison Ford, famously, changed the line to “I know” is right here. But it’s not just that, it seems most of that scene was conjured up on the fly because Kershner couldn’t figure out why Vader would bother bringing Chewbacca and Leia to witness Han being frozen. This led to a long and spirited conversation between Kershner and Ford trying to figure this all out. Then, later, Fisher and Billy Dee Williams join the discussions and neither of them seem very happy, especially Fisher. What’s most interesting out of all this are the ideas not used.
Kershner and Ford’s conversation begins by Ford pointing out they have a big problem with his shirt.
HF: My shirt is wrong.
IK: That’s no problem. They’ll take that shirt off you when you go down into the carbon freeze.
HF: But this shirt has no sleeves.
Later, Kershner and Ford decide the reason Leia and Chewbacca are present is because it will make sure Han doesn’t try to fight, make a run for it, or take some people out with him. But the problem is how should that be presented in dialogue and that Han knows Leia will be okay after.
What they come up with at first is pretty menacing!
HF: And [Lando] says, She’s too beautiful to harm,” something on that level, you know what I mean?
IK: He could say, “I’ll see she’s all right.”
HF: How about, “She will be mine”?
Goodness, could you imagine right before Han is frozen, Lando saying to him, “She will be mine”? Okay, this next part just made me laugh. I present without commentary:
IK: You assume they’re going to do something to Leia, too, but you’re the one who’s going to be the guinea pig.
(Harrison rummages in Kersh’s fruit bowl.)
HF: Are there any more apples?
IK: Have this one. It’s been here a week but it’s still good. As I was saying…
And, yes, they get to the famous “I love you…I know” line. Here’s how that all went down. Which, in retrospect, almost sounds like Harrison Ford didn’t want to commit to another movie yet, so they changed the line.
HF: As I pass by her, I think Leia ought to say very simply, “I love you.”
IK: “I love you.” And you say, “Just remember that, Leia, because I’ll be back.” You’ve got to say, “I’ll be back.” You must. It’s almost contractual!
HF: If she says, “I love you,” and I say, “I know,” that’s beautiful and acceptable and funny.
IK: Right, right.
The two then argue over who should give the command to put Han into the pit. Kersh is not a fan of Harrison’s idea:
HF: I think he could walk out and Boba Fett be the one to say, “Put him in the…”
IK: No, no, no, no…. Boba can’t…. no, no, no, no.
Later, after Fisher and Williams join the conversation. Carrie Fisher wants Leia to slap Lando, which would have led to a drastically different scene. Also, Fisher suggests Lando then strike Leia back, which, thankfully, Kershner nixes immediately. Williams doesn’t like the idea of Leia slapping Lando and explains why. But then Billy Dee Williams agrees to try it out, and Fisher strikes Williams in the face.
IK: Now you see what a problem it creates if you slap him.
BDW: Well, let’s just try it that way.
(Suddenly, Carrie gives Billy quite a powerful whack.)
BDW: Don’t hit me like that!
CF: Did it hurt?
BDW: Of course it hurt.
CF: I’m sorry. How do you hit someone?
IK: You telegraph it to him.
BDW: If you want to hit me, fake it.
After, Carrie then accuses Kershner and Ford of going behind her back to rework lines. It’s total chaos, then it’s this exact moment that Darth Vader actor David Prowse tells Kershner that he just wrote a book about working out, Fitness is Fun, and wants to give Kershner a copy — Kershner can barely conceal his ambivalence. Anyway, everything about this could be turned into a play.
Ford briefly opens up to Arnold about why he doesn’t open up, and Arnold guesses Ford will never play Solo again
Alan Arnold and Harrison Ford have lunch and, after asking some probing questions, Ford explains why he doesn’t like answering stuff like this. It’s a pretty telling response. Says Ford, “I don’t blame you for asking the questions – it’s part of what you have to do – but there are areas of my life which don’t belong to the movie business. If I were to start revealing them to you, the process would never stop. I’m reshaping my life. I am getting a divorce. There’s no continuity at the moment. My lifestyle isn’t trendy. I’m the kind of guy who thinks he’s rich if there’s a $5000 check in the mail. There’s so much I want to do, but first I want to return to California and become my own actor again. People know me as an actor. Right now that’s all I want them to know.”
After, Arnold reflected on Ford and wrote, “While he has always been courteous, at times I’ve felt that beyond his calm exterior a sort of rage is burning. For what reason, I can only guess. Perhaps he is tired of playing Solo. It’s not the only game in town. I may be wrong, but I don’t think he will play it again.”
Mark Hamill and Irvin Kershner would get into, let’s say, spats
Look, this was not a fun shoot, even though it produced a fantastic film. On the Dagobah set, which was particularly miserable, Kershner has to start wearing a gas mask because of the fumes and at one point a snake ran up Hamill’s pants. (A snake handler tried to calm Hamill down by telling him this particular snake makes a nice pet. Hamill responded, “I don’t keep pets there,” referring to the inside of his pants.)
So during the duel between Luke and Vader, things came to a head between the two. In an interview with Hamill in the book, he recounts what happened: “He made a face and said, ‘Don’t do that expression.’ … I said, ‘I didn’t do that, I just didn’t.’ He said, ‘Yes, you did.’ … He said, ‘You just go see the movie and you’ll know you did.’ And I said, ‘I don’t even want to see the movie.’ Then he said, ‘Really, so you’re not going to go see the movie. Cut the lights, cut the camera, cut everything. Why shoot it? Mark doesn’t even want to go and see it.’”
Hamill admits all of this was “childish.”
A woman asked Alec Guinness to move in with her and her husband in an effort to save her marriage
It seems there was some tension surrounding the question of Guinness would reprise his role as Ben Kenobi or if they would have to recast. Arnold would ask about this, noting that Guinness became a very rich man because of Star Wars (he got a percentage of the profits) so he’d ask if people on set felt it was a personal courtesy for Guinness to return, and no one would bite at that, instead just sticking to the talking points that they hope things work out. Obviously, Guinness did return, for one day of filming, but shared with Arnold that now he gets a lot more fan mail. He says some of it is nice, but some of it is weird. Says Guinness, “You’d be surprised how many people with problems think Ben Kenobi can solve them. For example, there’s a lady in L.A. whose marriage is in shreds who wants me to come and stay with them. The dotty ones who want a guru in the house are mainly in California.”
And, finally, Mark Hamill was convinced “the other” Yoda spoke of was a way to write Hamill out of the story
Hamill cites the fate of Han Solo as proof that anyone in this saga is replaceable. Harrison Ford had yet to commit to a third movie, so George Lucas gave himself a way out by having Han frozen at the end of the movie. Hamill thinks “the other” that Yoda speaks of is insurance in case Hamill’s services are no longer needed. Hamill is asked if he feels he could be written out. He replies, “It’s already been taken care of. Ben Kenobi says to Yoda, ‘Luke is our only hope.’ Yoda shakes his head, ‘No.’ He says, ‘No, there is another.’ So, you see, George could write me out.” Asked if that worries him, “Well, it shows they’re not going to let me become what Sean Connery was to the James Bond movies.”
Both Hamill and Ford would come back for more Star Wars movies.
You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.