Study Guide

Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back Behind the Scenes

  • Director

    Irvin Kershner

    Irvin Kershner is the last guy you would've expected to direct a science-fiction epic like The Empire Strikes Back. Still, we wouldn't have had it any other way.

    Old School

    Born in 1923, Kershner directed his first film in 1958—a full twenty-two years before the release of Empire. What's more, Kershner's bread-and-butter was hard-boiled crime dramas and quirky comedies, neither of which has much in common with the space opera stylings of Star Wars. In recent years, however, his work had taken on a grander scale, like the TV movie Raid on Entebbe which depicted a real-life hostage situation in Uganda

    When he wasn't directing, Kershner was teaching at the film program at USC, where he just so happened to teach a goofy kid named George Lucas in the 60's. Lucas had impressed Kershner greatly with his student film Electronic Labyrinth: THX-1138 4EB—Kershner was even part of the judging panel that awarded it the first prize in the dramatic category at the National Student Film Festival.

    The Student Becomes the Master

    By the late '70s, however, Lucas was all grown up and Star Wars was a huge success, launching him to the stratosphere and allowing him to invest heavily in his production company, Lucasfilm. This required Lucas to focus on his management duties, however, which is why he turned to his former professor to helm the most anticipated sequel of all-time.

    Kershner was so flabbergasted by this offer that he rejected it at first, but a verbal smackdown courtesy of his agent led him to call Lucas back and accept the job. Although Kershner didn't realize it yet, his ability to focus on characters was Lucas' main motivation for offering him the gig.

    On the Set

    Kershner approached The Empire Strikes Back with two goals: (a) creating a more complex, adult film and (b) tackling heavy themes while still presenting subtle humor. In more recent interviews, for example, Kershner has talked about his approach to the Han/Leia romance, in which he favored subtlety over overt sentimentality—something that the Lucas-directed prequel trilogy failed to achieve with the Padme/Anakin relationship. This focus on relatable characters and authentic emotional journeys amidst all of that sci-fi mayhem resulted in perhaps the most human film in the Star Wars series.

  • Screenwriter

    George Lucas, Leigh Brackett, Lawrence Kasdan

    So many different hands touched the screenplay for The Empire Strikes Back that it can be downright confusing at times. Luckily for us, Star Wars fans have taken care of a lot of legwork and we can now actually read the early drafts of this iconic film.

    First Steps

    The script starts, as with most things in the Star Wars universe, with George Lucas. He started writing the sequel to A New Hope soon after its release in 1977, coming up with a basic outline of the story by the end of the year. Although this treatment resembles the final movie in many ways, there are some key differences, most notably that Darth Vader is explicitly not Luke's father, as his read dad appears as a ghost in one scene.

    From there, Lucas turned his outline over to famed sci-fi author and screenwriter Leigh Brackett. This was a fanboy's dream come true for Lucas: Brackett was such a prolific sci-fi writer in the 40's that she was known as the "Queen of the Space Opera." As you can see from unearthed copies of her draft, Leigh took the film in a very different direction from the final product: Lando is a radically different character and Yoda is known by the drastically inferior name "Minch."

    By all accounts, Lucas was greatly disappointed by this draft, but before he could discuss revisions with Brackett, she passed away from cancer. This sad event forced Lucas to go back to drawing board and rework his story from the ground-up.

    A New Beginning

    Lucas did exactly that. Although major story beats remained the same, Lucas simplified some confusing sub-plots and—most notably—added the twist that Vader is Luke's father. By all indications, this was never the original plan. Still, this decision is a pivotal moment in Star Wars history: It transforms our understanding of A New Hope, sets up the conflict for Return of the Jedi, and establishes the story arc for a prequel trilogy that wouldn't see the light of day for another twenty years.

    After Lucas brought the story in line with his vision, he turned it over to screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan. Kasdan had worked with Lucas before, having just written the script for the Lucasfilm-produced Raiders of the Lost Ark. Boy do we mean that he had just written it: He was offered the Star Wars gig before Lucas had even read through his Raiders script. Kasdan would go on to co-write Return of the Jedi before taking a break from the series until 2015's The Force Awakens.

    There are some notable subplots cut from the shooting script (a Wampa assault on the Rebel's Hoth HQ among them).

    Also, some of the film's most famous dialogue, like Han's legendary "I know," was improvised. Still, after passing through the hands of three very talented, very distinct writers, The Empire Strikes Back was finally ready to make its way to the silver screen.

  • Production Studio


    Although George Lucas' independent production company Lucasfilm had been around since 1971, The Empire Strikes Back represented a bold leap forward for this iconic company.

    This wouldn't have been possible without the huge success of the company's first two films, American Graffiti and the first Star Wars. The resulting financial windfall allowed Lucas to do something unheard of in the film industry—bypass the traditional Hollywood system and fund his movies himself. Although production difficulties forced him to take some funding from 20th Century Fox near the end of development, Lucas retained full control and continued to build up Lucasfilm's coffers.

    Because of this growth, Lucas was forced to focus on the business end of The Empire Strikes Back rather than the creative end. In particular, Lucas focused his effort on International Light & Magic (ILM), the company's special effects wing. The Empire Strikes Back continued Star Wars' streak of creating innovative special effects, and its release would further ILM's reputation as the most prodigious special effects studio of all-time. You know Pixar? They were originally a part of ILM.

    Needless to say, this is hardly a typical set-up. Thanks to the success of his early films, Lucas wasn't merely poised to reap the massive financial benefits of The Empire Strikes Back, but also execute his vision with full creative control. You know, we might even say that it helped him build an empire.

  • Production Design

    Special Effects-Driven Epic

    Before we delve into analysis hyperdrive on this one, it has to be noted that The Empire Strikes Back presents some interesting challenges in this arena. George Lucas is infamous for releasing updated versions of his former films—not merely making tiny adjustments but adding scenes, redoing special effects, and even altering plot points.

    While The Empire Strikes Back has far fewer of these controversial changes than the other films in the original trilogy, there are some notable differences between the various versions of the film—you'll have a slightly different experience watching the original 1980 version than the 1997 version, or the 2004 version, or the... well, you get the point.

    Still, it can be jarring to see blatant C.G.I. jammed alongside the practical effects and sets of the 1970's. This is amplified by the fact that The Empire Strikes Back was shot on film, which doesn't always blend well with the modern, digital graphics that were added after the fact.

    Of course, we'd be remiss if we didn't mention The Empire Strikes Back's top-notch production design. The film continues many trademarks set by the first film, from the swiping screen wipes to the off-kilter camera angles. These techniques not only increase the uber-dramatic nature of the plot, but also further amplify Star Wars' stylistic traits.

    All in all, these unique stylistic choices helped establish the trademark Star Wars style, a style that has been ripped off and imitated but never quite duplicated. Not even by Space Balls.

  • Music (Score)

    Wait—you don't know who John Williams is? Holy smokes! Even though you might not know him by name, you definitely know Mr. Williams by his work.

    Ever seen Jaws? Jurassic Park? Harry Potter? Indiana Jones?

    If you have, then you've heard some of Williams' music, which means that you've almost definitely absent-mindedly hummed a few tunes while in the shower.

    Basically, Williams is one of the most well-known film composers of all-time. His music is deeply melodic and emotional, which makes it the perfect pepper for the steak of a good movie. What's more, he ends up defining the films he works on through his scores.

    This is achieved primarily through his use of the "leitmotif" technique, which was made famous by composer Richard Wagner. Basically, a "leitmotif" is a musical phrase that is used when a specific characters enters the scene in a film or play, which, over time, associates that specific musical phrase with that specific character. The opening scene is a great example of this: Both Han and Luke's entrances are signaled by their respective themes. These "leitmotifs" can change and blend over time, which can be used to illustrate changes to characters.

    For example, The Empire Strikes Back marks the first appearance of perhaps the most famous leitmotif in the series: Darth Vader's Imperial March. This theme gets played at full-blast the moment that Darth Vader appears, signaling that the threat that had only been a whisper at the beginning of the film has now grown into a roar.

    Just contrast that with Yoda's theme, or with Han and Leia's love theme, for that matter. It's pretty easy to tell the good guys from the bad. By creating a dense system of interlocking musical compositions, Williams doesn't just create cool tunes to play in the background of battle scenes—he ends up defining the Star Wars series as much as any actor, director, or writer who played a part in its creation. Yeah, we're talking to you too, Lucas.

  • Fandoms

    Ah yes, Star Wars fans—known as Trekkies. They know everything there is to know about the many characters from the series, from the Cylon warrior Chewbacca, to the great bounty hunter Boba Worf, to the estimable hero Captain James T. Skywalker, a.k.a. "Doctor Who."

    Okay, okay, calm down—we're just kidding. We know better than to tease Star Wars fans (and not just because that would mean teasing ourselves). After all, this is one of the most dedicated fanbases on the planet, and they pretty much set the mold for all of those that followed.

    The Empire Strikes Back came at a pivotal moment for the Star Wars fandom. The first film had been a massive, game-changing success, earning a (then) record-breaking $775 million at the box office. That's a lot of $$$. Over the next few years, Star Wars fanatics began gathering together and creating a community for themselves, writing fanzines, meeting at conventions, and, in general, talking mad trash about those chumps still obsessed with Star Trek.

    The sequel was met with a positive response from fans (despite an initially negative critical consensus) and The Empire Strikes Back is now regarded as one of, if not the best film in the series.

    With a mature, adult take on the Star Wars universe, an increasing sophistication with special effects, and one of the greatest twists in movie history, the sequel took everything they loved about Star Wars and turned it up to eleven. In fact, Empire's release might even represent the peak of Star Wars fandom, as 1983 Return of the Jedi was blasted by the fan community for its cheesiness and sentimentality.