May the Force be with Irvin Kershner.
The director of 1980’s “Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back”, who died over the weekend at age 87 after a long illness, will be long remembered for helming what many consider to be the finest film in the “Star Wars” franchise. Beyond propelling George Lucas’ phenomenal space fantasy forward with darker edges and more complex shadings, Kershner elevated the artistry expected of blockbuster sequels. “Empire,” like “The Godfather 2” before it, proved that rather than existing as a mere money-making knock-off, a sequel could set the storytelling bar even higher than the original.
“He was a wonderful person to work with,” Harrison Ford said of Kershner earlier this year at a 30th anniversary screening of Kershner’s most memorable film. “He’s very sympathetic to actors, and really a generous man, a lovely man.”
When PopcornBiz asked Billy Dee Williams at the same event why he thought “Empire” endured as the finest “Star Wars” film in most fans’ estimations, he cited the filmmaker as one of the primary reasons. “Irv Kershner,” said Williams. “I think he was quite instrumental in the collaboration, between Kershner and George Lucas and Lawrence Kasdan. I think it was one of those perfect marriages.”
Ford recalled how, in one of the many small but indelible creative flourishes that distinguish “Empire,” he and Kershner cooked up one of the movie’s most iconic – but unscripted – moments: when Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) tells the about-to-be-carbon-frozen Han Solo (Ford) “I love you” and Solo responds “I know,” against the initial judgment of Lucas.
“It didn’t go down so well with George at the time,” recalled Ford. “He would’ve been a lot happier with the scripted line, which is ‘I love you, too.’ But I felt, and Kersh agreed, that it was the opportunity for a more character-smelling moment, so we shot that, among other versions. But when Kersh presented his cut, he used the line ‘I know,’ and George said ‘Well, that’s going to get a laugh. That’s not good.’ And Kersh and I both said ‘It could be a good laugh at that moment.’”
“I remember being at a test screening in San Francisco, sitting next to George, Kershner on the other side, and he went into the screening convinced this was going to be a bad laugh, but I think the audience convinced him it was not so bad. But I take no ownership: If Kersh hadn’t thought that it was a good idea, we wouldn’t have shot it.”