Book Review: ‘The Making of The Empire Strikes Back’

(C) 2010 Del Rey Books and Lucasfilm Ltd. (LFL)

On October 12, 2010, Del Rey, the science fiction/fantasy imprint of Random House, published J.W. Rinzler’s The Making of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Backthe second volume in a three-book cycle about the creation of the original Star Wars trilogy.

Rinzler, an editor at Lucasfilm and co-author (with George Lucas) of 2005’s The Art of Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, had unprecedented access to the vast Lucasfilm Archives and the treasure trove of primary sources – interviews, story treatments, the various screenplay drafts, production stills and video footage, and art by Ralph McQuarrie, Joe Johnston, and costume designer John Mollo – stored within.

In addition, the author also had access to the original tapes used by Alan Arnold, Lucasfilm’s publicist for The Empire Strikes Back, to interview the cast and crew for the official behind-the-scenes book Once Upon a Galaxy: A Journal of the Making of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.

Harrison Ford takes a breather on the Elstree sound stage with the Echo Base hangar. Note the X-Wing fighter behind Ford. Photo Credit: Lucasfilm Ltd. (LFL)

Though Arnold’s book – which has been out-of-print for decades and is extremely hard to find – chronicled most of the pre-production and principal photography phases of the Empire production process, it was written when Irvin Kershner and executive producer Lucas were in the critical post-production stage. In addition, the material Arnold used in Once Upon a Galaxy amounted to the tip of the iceberg; there was no way that all of the information in the interviews could fit in the space that most mass trade paperback “Making of…” books are limited to. 

Just as Charles Lippincott’s interviews are the backbone for Rinzler’s 2007 The Making of Star Wars: The Definitive Story, Arnold’s taped interviews – saved from a trash bin by Lucasfilm archivist Don Bies – make up the spine of Rinzler’s second book about how the classic Original Trilogy was made. (There are, of course, more interviews about topics not covered in Once Upon a Galaxy; those are listed in the book’s bibliography.)

The Making of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back begins where The Making of Star Wars: The Definitive Story ends – in May of 1977, shortly after the release of the space-fantasy adventure written and directed by a 33-year-old filmmaker named George Lucas.

20th Century Fox, the studio that financed Lucas’s “space movie,” was caught off guard by the film’s unprecedented success. At the request of the young director that few of Fox’s executives believed in, Star Wars was released on Wednesday, May 25, 1977, shortly before the Memorial Day weekend. This choice for a premiere date was unorthodox; Memorial Day weekend was not one of the favored periods for big movie releases in the U.S. cinema market – Christmas and were. But Lucas insisted on a mid-week release in late May.

When someone said, “But George, aren’t most kids still in school in late May?” Lucas simply shrugged and replied, “That’s the whole point.” He pointed out that kids who saw Star Wars on Opening Day and the Memorial Day weekend would then tell their friends about the movie. Lucas, who had once wanted to study anthropology and was in touch with his inner teen, intuited that his film would fly – or crash – based on word-of-mouth reaction from his intended audience – kids, teens, and young adults.

The first chapter of The Making of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back is appropriately titled The Summer of Star Wars: May to December 1977. Here, Rinzler not only chronicles how – in the 21st Century parlance – Star Wars “went viral” and became not only an American cultural phenomenon, but a global one as well.

“When it became a phenomenal success, it was amazing,” says Bunny Alsup, assistant to the producer of Star Wars. “I don’t think anybody in the world expected it and it was astonishing. Back in the preview days, I remember we were trying to fill a theater with all age groups, so I was personally calling college campuses and asking, ‘Would anyone like to go see this movie?’”

(C) 2010 Del Rey Books and Lucasfilm Ltd. (LFL)

The Making of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back then follows the saga of how the follow-up to the biggest box office hit of the era was made. From the difficult negotiations with 20th Century Fox to Lucas’s struggles to expand Lucasfilm and its subsidiaries into a successful production enterprise and – more important – self-finance the film that began life as Star Wars Episode II and evolved over time into Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back.

In this lavish thirtieth-anniversary tribute to the blockbuster film Star Wars: Episode V The Empire Strikes Back, New York Times bestselling author J. W. Rinzler draws back the curtain to reveal the intense drama and magnificent wizardry behind the hit movie—arguably the fan favorite of the Star Wars Saga.

Following his The Making of Star Wars, the author has once again made use of his unlimited access to the Lucasfilm Archives and its hidden treasures of previously unpublished interviews, photos, artwork, and production mementos. The result is a comprehensive behind-the-scenes, up-close-and-personal look at the trials and triumphs, risks and close calls, inspiration, perspiration, and imagination that went into every facet of this cinematic masterpiece. Here’s the inside scoop on:

• the evolution of the script, from story conference and treatment to fifth draft, as conceived, written, and rewritten by George Lucas, famed science-fiction author Leigh Brackett, and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan

• the development of new key characters, including roguish hero Lando Calrissian, sinister bounty hunter Boba Fett, and iconic Jedi Master Yoda

• the challenges of shooting the epic ice planet battle in the frozen reaches of Norway and of conjuring up convincing creatures and craft—from tauntauns and snowspeeders to Imperial walkers

• the construction of a life-sized Millennium Falcon and the swamp planet Dagobah inside a specially built soundstage in Elstree Studios

• the technique behind master Muppeteer Frank Oz’s breathing life into the breakthrough character Yoda

• the creation of the new, improved Industrial Light & Magic visual effects facility and the founding of the now-legendary Skywalker Ranch

In addition, of course, are rare on-the-scene interviews with all the major players: actors Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, and David Prowse; director Irvin Kershner; producer Gary Kurtz; effects specialists Richard Edlund, Dennis Muren, Ken Ralston, and Phil Tippett; composer John Williams; and many others. Punctuating the epic account is a bounty of drawings, storyboards, and paintings by Ralph McQuarrie, Joe Johnston, and Ivor Beddoes, along with classic and rare production photos. 
– from the publisher’s dust jacket blurb, The Making of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back: The Definitive Story

My Take

The making of the Star Wars Saga – including the Prequels, several animated series, the new Sequel Trilogy, and standalone “anthology” films such as Rogue One and Solo – has been covered extensively in various media since 1977’s one-hour TV documentary The Making of Star Wars aired on ABC. Many books, including the Art of Star Wars series, have delighted fans and film scholars alike with their stunning visual record of how artists, set designers, and costume designers conceive and execute the classic Star Wars “look” to make the visions of filmmakers such as George Lucas and Irvin Kershner come alive on screen.  

Likewise, many documentaries and promotional featurettes have been produced in-house or commissioned by Lucasfilm Limited for television and “extra features” on videocassettes, DVDs, Blu-rays, and even digital streaming services since the 1980s. As a result, many Star Wars devotees know a great deal about how The Empire Strikes Back was made.

Still, most of these sources, such as The Art of Star Wars…series are limited in scope, either because they focus on one topic or due to time constraints and other issues related to the publishing business, as was the case with Alan Arnold’s Once Upon a Galaxy: The Making of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.

Published on October 12, 2010 – a few months after The Empire Strikes Back’s 30th Anniversary – J.W. Rinzler’s The Making of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back: The Definitive Story is perhaps the best book on the topic out there. It is, as the author says in his introduction, first and foremost an oral history that is mostly based on interviews that were conducted between 1977 and 1980.

The individuals whose words come to life in the 372-page volume range from The Maker himself – George Lucas – to artist Roger Kastel, the paperback cover illustrator who is best known for his Gone with the Wind-like poster for The Empire Strikes Back. And supplemented by contemporary reviews of both Star Wars and Empire, Lucasfilm internal memos and hand-written script notes by Lucas, Leigh Brackett, Lawrence Kasdan, and director Irvin Kershner, and other documents, their comments and insights give readers of The Making of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back an in-depth look at the creation of what many consider to be the best of the Star Wars movies yet made.

Perhaps no one expressed a better review of The Making of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back than the late Carrie Fisher. In her “back of the book blurb,” the actress who played Princess Leia Organa in five Saga films wrote, “These books are the acid flashback they’ve been promising us without the mess and fuss of dropping acid . . . again. A trip worth taking.”

Published by Alex Diaz-Granados

Alex Diaz-Granados (1963- ) began writing movie reviews as a staff writer and Entertainment Editor for his high school newspaper in the early 1980s and was the Diversions editor for Miami-Dade Community College, South Campus' student newspaper for one semester. Using his experiences in those publications, Alex has been raving and ranting about the movies online since 2003 at various web sites, including Amazon, Ciao and Epinions. In addition to writing reviews, Alex has written or co-written three films ("A Simple Ad," "Clown 345," and "Ronnie and the Pursuit of the Elusive Bliss") for actor-director Juan Carlos Hernandez. You can find his reviews and essays on his blogs, A Certain Point of View and A Certain Point of View, Too.

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