RIP Irvin Kershner (1923–2010)

The director of one of my favorite films, The Empire Strikes Back, has passed away at 87.

My love affair with films and filmmaking began with a little film called Star Wars that debuted in May of 1977. I was seven and nothing could touch Star Wars. It was like nothing I had ever seen, although I’m sure many adults saw the various sources of inspiration. Being seven and inexperienced at this thing we call life, it was all new to me and it was spectacular.

Three years later another Star Wars film came out called The Empire Strikes Back. This one (to me, at least) was even better than the original. It took the characters we loved and put them into more dangerous and human settings while introducing us to even more colorful characters.

As a kid, I knew who George Lucas was. I was in the Star Wars fan club, of course. I read all of the “making of” books. You could say I was on top of things. This new Star Wars film was not going to be directed by George Lucas, however. It was going to be directed by a guy I had never heard of (again, being an inexperienced 10 year old kid) named Irvin Kershner. Apparently, George was too stressed out with production duties to want to take on directing again. This was probably the smartest thing he has ever done, besides making sure he acquired sequel and merchandising rights when making the original deal for Star Wars. 🙂

As you know, The Empire Strikes Back was a phenomenal success but it didn’t always appear that way when it was being made. Lucas fussed over the budget (which was mostly coming out of his pocket) and bickered a lot with Kershner over this or that. Lucas was the creator but make no mistake, Empire will always be (in my mind) the grand result of what I call “The Three K’s: Kershner, Kurtz, and Kasdan”.

Kershner’s skillful vision and ideas combined with Gary Kurtz’s collaborative production powers and a dazzling script by Larry Kasdan set this film up with such a great foundation that it couldn’t fail. We can’t take anything away from Lucas, however, who dreamt up most of the story elements on his own but I think we all know that dialogue is not his strong point. Kasdan’s script (along with his script for Raiders of the Lost Ark) will always be two of my favorites. They have great lines, fantastic pacing, and are easy to visualize when reading them.

It was Irvin Kershner, however, who brought everyone’s visions to life through the camera. He took Lucas’ story ideas, Kurtz’s additional input, and Kasdan’s script, and created a Star Wars Universe very different from that of the first film, yet somehow strangely familiar. He was able, though visuals, to take characters through their arcs and get them from point A to point B in order to set up the finale in the next film.

He was an “on hands” guy who did not shy from taking input from his actors and implementing it. The famous example being Han Solo’s reply of “I know” to Leia at Harrison Ford’s suggestion. I give full credit to George Lucas, but I feel that without Kershner on board, Empire would be a completely different film.

I think that’s what makes films so special, really. Every director is different and unique in their own special way. Different choices are made and the end result will be affected because of those choices. He could have bowed to Lucas’ every request and been a “yes” man. Instead, Kershner stuck to his guns on Empire and will always be one of my filmmaking heroes because of it.

He didn’t go on to make many other films, oddly enough. However, if you have to make one, I’d say The Empire Strikes Back is a damn good choice.

RIP Irvin Kershner (1923–2010)


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