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.
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.