Scene is Believing: The Empire Strikes Back


On June 21, 1979, on Stage 5 at Elstree Studios, one of the most iconic lines in cinema history was created. But it didn’t come from Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett’s original script. Instead it, and many more elements of this seemingly straightforward scene, came about from a great deal of rehearsal and script revision on the day.

Starting early that morning, Action! wasn’t called until after lunch. Before then, Director Irvin Kershner had to deal with actor egos, the danger of the multi-level set itself, the lighting, and steam threatening to choke and drown out actors and crew. He was also miked up by Alan Arnold, who was on set to research his upcoming book Once Upon A Galaxy: A Journal Of The Making Of The Empire Strikes Back. We have his record to thank for the insight into how cinema magic is created.

The physical aspect of the scene was daunting enough. The Carbon freezing chamber was like “a model for a stage set” according to Cinematographer Peter Suschitzky. “It looked unfinished…I was extremely concerned about that set, about how I was going to make it look believable and dramatic.” The solution was to light it from below, and have hints of light penetrate the black walls, with steam obscuring any gaps. The result looked impressive, but was a health and safety nightmare. Actors, especially masked performers like Jeremy Bulloch and David Prowse, had to navigate the raised walkways, which became slippy. Bulloch’s Boba Fett helmet visor kept misting up, and the little people who played the Ugnaut miners kept getting sick because they were closer to the steam source. The term “freezing chamber” was a misnomer. With the arc lights and steam, it was a very uncomfortable experience. The finished set on screen did however succeed in conveying a hellish, industrial atmosphere in the belly of the heavenly Cloud City.

Kershner was happy with Kasdan’s script, but there was always room for interpretation (Brackett’s original was already vastly re-written, but Lucas, partly due to her ill-health, generously gave her co-credit). Performer rehearsal went a great deal into what the heroes know as they are taken into the chamber. Kershner and Ford decided Han should be manacled, Leia and Chewbacca brought along so he would not cause any problems with Vaders plan. They added the line “What’s going on…buddy?” because at this stage he thinks Lando’s in cahoots with Vader. Of course, Lando’s hands are tied too, metaphorically.

The Director saw this as Han’s scene, because dramatically he’s beaten, but defiant. He can’t escape, but he wants Chewie to look after Leia. He’s not the sort to show weakness, so he and Kersher discussed at length an alternative to his scripted “I love you too“ line. Ford to Kersh: “If she (Leia) said “I love you” I could say “Yeah, I know. Don’t worry, I’ll be back.” This was eventually pared down to just “I know” with Han’s concern re-scripted into other dialogue with Chewbacca.

esb kasdan script page

Kasdan’s handwritten script page for this scene. Source:

There was also a need to show Calrissian (Billy Dee-Williams) as conflicted but powerless. Various extra lines were tried for the exchange between him and Han, before they settled on the simple “You’re being put into carbon freeze.” Close-ups helped sell the miserable situation he’d fallen into, leading his friend to his possible death.

With all this rehearsal going on between the guys, Carrie Fisher began to feel insecure. She was still very young, with not a great deal of experience, but Kershner valued her as a very intuitive actor. With hindsight, he claimed he could have given her more attention, but he had a hell of a job bringing all the elements of the scene together.

“Harrison is a very fine actor,” Kershner said. “I regarded that scene as entirely his, which is why I gave him so much opportunity to tell me how he thought we should treat it. That led to a little tension with Carrie…Professional jealousy is very healthy, incidentally, and natural. But it was his scene.”

Fisher yelled at Ford, who then ignored her when not performing the scene.

Fisher “Harrison and I will probably not be speaking with one another for another couple of hours. I tried to apologise and he just waved me away.”

Kershner “That’s why I love him, because he’s sensitive [laughs]“

Fisher “So am I”

Kershner “What are we gonna do? [laughs] Did I imply you’re not?”

Fisher [amused] “No.”

sw esb leia

Kershner eventually smoothed things over, and harmony was restored. Amusingly, in the middle of this highwire act, David Prowse chose to relieve the tension by telling Kershner about his new keep fit book he’d written, and how he wanted him to have a copy.

Eventually, the scene was completed. George Lucas and Irvin Kershner had a positive working relationship, disagreeing only on the change of Han’s line to “I know“. Depending on which account you read, the original line was also shot, or discarded altogether.

Lucas was worried audiences would not take Han’s response seriously. He asked Kershner if he’d shot the original line. Kershner said yes. They agreed, he said, to two preview screenings, with the new line in first, and then the original. At the first preview, the audience loved it, so Lucas was happy to keep it in.

Lucas left Kershner alone to do what he did best, creating a character driven, emotionally dark second act to his grand trilogy. What transpired on screen was the result of a wonderful collaboration, from the ground up.

The Empire Strikes Back is regularily hailed in polls as one of the greatest films of recent times, with this scene being a particular favourite. Han, you had me at “I know” [sniffs].

Below is a great edit by Vashi Nedomansky of a 1980 BBC documentary which detailed John William’s experience scoring The Empire Strikes Back, followed by the finished scene, accompanied by Williams conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. In this clip he, along with George Lucas, producer Gary Kurtz and director Irvin Kershner, watch the rough footage with no music, temp sound and on-set steam and jarring background noise. Listen out for David Prowse’s line readings of Darth Vader which would later be replaced by the menacing baritone of James Earl Jones.

Originally posted 2012-12-12 09:46:55. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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