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A son remembers Irvin Kershner, the director of 'Empire Strikes Back'

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Everett Collection

I was 10 years old when my father asked if I wanted to go with him to see a movie called Star Wars. I wasn’t sure. I didn’t like war and was not that interested in stars. But I went, and I was glad I did. I will never forget my feeling of elation when Luke Skywalker, after a harrowing battle with forces of the evil Empire, caused the Death Star to explode in a ball of fire. As the credits rolled, I wanted the saga to continue.

A year or so later, my father told me he had been asked to direct a second Star Wars film. I replied, “You have to do it, Dad!” Next thing I knew, he was working with George Lucas and Lawrence Kasdan on a new draft of the screenplay for The Empire Strikes Back. Shortly after that, he asked if I wanted to go to Norway to watch him shoot on a glacier. I foolishly said no, too young to fully appreciate what I would be missing.

I did spend about three weeks of summer 1979 in England watching the filming at Elstree Studios. I must have been pretty wide-eyed. The sets were huge and things went wrong almost daily: crew members getting hit on the head by pieces of falling metal; an actor (Peter Mayhew) who was overheating inside his costume; a radio-controlled R2-D2 that would not emit a smoke screen on cue.

Through it all, my father remained focused on the story he wanted to tell and excited about the creative process. He seemed always to believe that the problems could be solved either by him or by one of the hundreds of people working with him. I wondered how he got that way. Was he trained by a Jedi Master?

Lucasfilm

I think the answer is Zen. By studying Zen Buddhism, my father learned to live in the present and not to dwell on what went wrong yesterday or fear what might go wrong tomorrow. He learned the power of concentration. He learned to “do” rather than ”try.” Did he have a bit of Yoda in him? I think so. He was philosophical yet practical, demanding but generous, and had a sense of humor. He was, at his core, a teacher.

The first time I saw The Empire Strikes Back was at a sneak preview in San Francisco. I can remember the gasps when Darth Vader reveals that he is Luke’s father, and the howls of laughter when Leia says, “I love you” to Han and he responds in his incorrigible way, “I know.” At the end of the film, the audience burst into applause. I felt like my father had just come through an asteroid belt in the Millennium Falcon and was safely on the other side.

What did I learn during the making of The Empire Strikes Back? That the creative process, as my father once said, “is going out into the unknown.” That filmmaking is a team effort: Everyone plays an important role, whether they are on screen or off. And, as Yoda wisely said to Luke, “Do or do not. There is no try.”

EW

In celebration of the highly anticipated Star Wars: The Force Awakens, EW is giving fans an inside look at the franchise in The Ultimate Guide to Star Wars. A celebration of the entire beloved franchise, this compendium features rarely seen production and cast photos from all the movies in the series; essays on Ralph McQuarrie, the founding of George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic, director Irvin Kershner, and more; as well as exclusive art and surprising reveals from The Force Awakens. The piece above is an excerpt from the heavily illustrated collector’s edition. EW’s The Ultimate Guide to Star Wars is in stores and newsstands Friday, Dec. 18, or an ebook edition is available for order online on iTunes and Amazon

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