The Empire Strikes Back director Irvin Kershner was a true-life Obi-Wan Kenobi
Irvin Kershner didn’t live to see the new generation of Star Wars films, so he missed out on watching each of them be measured against his own — The Empire Strikes Back.
Its status as the “best” of the series bemused and bewildered the filmmaker, who died in 2010 at the age of 87. He was happy fans liked it but remembered the making of the 1980 sequel as an epic comedy of errors and chaos.
This Saturday, April 29, marks what would have been Kershner’s 94th birthday. With the Force awakening anew each year now, it seemed like a good a time to venture into the archive and revisit a conversation I had with him a long time ago, in the far, far away time of 2004.
He still couldn’t believe what they’d pulled off…
A MESSAGE FROM HAN SOLO …
The invitation came via action figure – a Han Solo toy with a sticker on the back of the packaging beckoning reporters to L.A.’s Silent Movie Theater on Sept. 8, 2004. The announcement: the first-ever DVD release of the Star Wars trilogy.
Mark Hamill was there, holding court and cracking wise about the absurdity of the series that changed pop culture forever. “How can you be so serious on a film where you are dodging explosions and running away with Sir Alec Guinness on this side and an eight-foot monkey on that side – and the eight-foot monkey is the one flying the spaceship?” he told the crowd.
There were marketing directors and film restoration experts on the panel, but the figure who loomed largest, whether he realized it or not, was Kershner. With his bald head, white goatee, St. Louis Arch eyebrows and tweed jacket, the then-81-year-old looked like central casting for a college professor – which he actually was.
Kershner, whose previous films included the 1978 thriller The Eyes of Laura Mars, and the 1976 Western sequel The Return of a Man Called Horse, had become a mentor to George Lucas while teaching at the University of Southern California back in the 1960s.
The man they called “Kersh” had a big laugh and an even bigger voice – disconcertingly so. That was the result of severe hearing loss that started when he was a young man. Kershner had been a B-24 flight engineer during World War II, coordinating bombing runs over Germany. The roar of the engines and blast of the bombardier machinery – not to mention enemy anti-aircraft flak – forever lowered the volume of the world and gave him a perpetual megaphone voice.
A wise old man. A faithful teacher. A veteran of a long ago war. It was easy to see why Lucas trusted him to make the 1980 sequel to Star Wars. Irvin Kershner was the real life Obi-Wan Kenobi.
He even had a spiritual, mystic side. He was a student of Buddhism, and the teachings of Yoda no longer sat easily with him. “Yoda’s philosophy was quite simplistic,” Kershner told the crowd that day, describing the little, green Jedi’s teachings as “very charming. Not very profound, although young people consider it profound.”
The filmmaker paused, considering his words: “I wish they would read more.”
I was covering the event as a reporter for the Associated Press, and when I got a chance to talk to the filmmaker one-on-one, he was eager to share stories about all the other things on Empire that didn’t work for him.
DO, OR DO NOT. THERE IS NO TRY
“Every day there were terrible problems that had to be solved,” Kershner boomed as we sat in the back row of the theater after the event. “Before I went off to do the film, I had a talk with George. And he said, ‘I want you to know something. They’re going to prepare all these special devices for you but nothing is going to work.’ I thought he was kidding. From the third shot on, it was true! We had to improvise constantly.”
Offender No. 1 was R2-D2, a lovable droid who in those days of early robotics was a non-stop headache. Kershner estimated there were eight versions of the droid, each built for a different behavior.
“They never did what you needed them to do. So we ended up pulling them with nylon cords instead of using the electronics,” Kershner said. “It would get stuck and go in little circles instead of going straight. The only thing that worked was when we would put a little dwarf inside one and he’d shake him to show that R2-D2 was nervous. That worked – the human factor!”
In addition to that love for R2 actor Kenny Baker, who died this past August, Kershner also felt Hamill was the lynchpin to making another Yoda function, especially since Hamill often couldn’t hear puppeteer Frank Oz reciting his lines below the Dagobah swamp set. “He was acting to a mute puppet — pretty hard to do!” Kershner said.
Before that, figuring out what Yoda should look like tested the ingenuity of the crew. At one point they considered making him “9-feet tall with a huge mosaic beard,” Kershner said, describing that version as “Michelangelo’s Moses.”
“Imposing,” was the initial idea for the Jedi Master “After all, he’s 800-years-old and he knows everything and he has great powers,” Kershner said before scrunching his face and waiving the memory back to the Bad Ideas bin. “It seemed like a cliché.”
Lucas decided to go the opposite way: tiny. But that would be even harder to render as a practical effect. “I asked that it could look like it ate, that it could climb,” Kershner said. A puppet, let alone a Muppet, didn’t even cross their minds.
They went for an even wilder idea. “We thought, ‘Maybe if we trained a monkey, put him in an outfit, and then animated the lips …'” Kershner wiggled his fingers in front of his mouth. His expression said: I can’t believe it either.
In my old story for the AP, I describe the pitch of his voice rising in frustration. “You go crazy, and you try anything!”
But Kershner made everything work. Where he saw flaws and headaches, audience still see the greatest Star Wars movie of all time.
Consider it a Jedi mind trick.
Star Wars: Episode V — The Empire Strikes Back