Why Irvin Kershner Mattered
Irvin Kershner has died at the age of 87. He leaves behind some recognizable films (The Flim Flam Man with George C. Scott; Eyes of Laura Mars with Faye Dunaway) and several sequels of various prominence (The Return of a Man Called Horse, Robocop II and the renegade James Bond film Never Say Never Again), never afraid to explore and extend the story of someone else's work. So, really, it's not a huge surprise in hindsight that he accepted the challenge of The Empire Strikes Back, the 1980 effort continuing the story that George Lucas started three years earlier with Star Wars . But could anybody have expected Kershner to knock this particular sequel out of the f*cking park?
The magnitude of his achievement makes the news of Kershner's death all the more affecting, even shocking, despite his advanced age. Maybe it's just my relationship to the work: When people ask me to name my favorite movie of all time, I never hesitate: The Empire Strikes Back. Never just Star Wars. At least, not since I was a little kid. That's why the highlight of my career was having the opportunity to interview Kershner just last month for the 30th anniversary of Empire. Kershner's hearing wasn't the best in his later years, and with this in mind -- considering that I was in New York and he was in California -- all parties involved decided it would be best to correspond via e-mail.
Ultimately I was also impressed how the director had not lost any of his wit or his passion for film. Our correspondence lasted over a couple of weeks, and at one point there was some concern when Kershner had gone a surprisingly long time without responding. Lucasfilm informed me that he was under the weather, but, as most people that have worked under him would attest, this was not a man who was going to let being sick interfere with any job -- even if it's just an interview with someone who had no business having the honor to correspond with him (my feelings, not his). Irvin Kershner was still a man very much on top of his game.
Three decades after Empire, that game -- his style, his approach, his intelligence -- still wields profound influence. For those not fully entrenched in Star Wars knowledge, The Empire Strikes Back has a tone and appeal the other five films -- particularly the most recent prequels directed by Lucas himself -- are missing. The first film I ever saw in a theater, The Empire Strikes Back made me a movie fan: It made me care about characters who lived in such an outlandish setting that it couldn't possibly be true -- but I did care. For months I worried about the well being of Han Solo, frozen in carbonite near the end of the film. For all I (and millions of other devotees, for that matter) knew, he was dead, and this bothered me far more than it should have.
Of course that says something about Empire's script (credited to Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan, but really by Kasdan and Lucas), not to mention the emotional investment many fans had made since the first film. But it was more about the magic touch that Kershner had with Empire in particular: He took existing characters from a science fiction movie and made them better -- he made them human. That's why The Empire Strikes Back is, today, not just the greatest Star Wars movie, but also ranked as one of the greatest films of all time. It has little to do with the visual effects (which are admittedly excellent); it had everything to do with the story and the characters. Kershner got this; in later years, Lucas did not.
Unfortunately for Star Wars fans, Kershner turned down Empire's follow-up Return of the Jedi; reports were that he wasn't particularly thrilled with the script. Lucas brought in Richard Marquand to handle the 1983 film, and I recently asked Jeremy Bulloch -- who played the fearsome bounty hunter Boba Fett in both Empire and Jedi -- the difference between the filmmakers. "Irvin was wonderful," Bulloch replied, "because you knew, as an actor, exactly what he wanted ... [Marquand] said, 'Jeremy, you know, you were in the last one, you know what to do. Don't you?" When watching Jedi today, it's apparent that spirit ran rampant. Kersh wouldn't have stood for it. Long afterward, fans remained closer to another Kershner-directed Star Wars movie than anyone might have thought; when I asked him if he would have been interested in directing Episodes 1,2 or 3, Kershner responded, "Ten years later, I would have said yes to directing one of the prequels." Our loss.
Asked his own favorite movie of the last 10 years, perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised when Kershner replied with another technical marvel -- one rich with story and deep characters. "Ratatouille," he responded. "[It] has a fine mixture of a credible love story, a sense of family and the black sheep, and a mature satire. Its animation is extraordinary in its color, cinematic compositions, and well-rounded figures. Film is a window to the real world but a lie that makes you believe the unbelievable. Ratatouille is a story that keeps its tension intact throughout its telling. The film has inner rhythm, as a film should. It has a story full of suspense, humor, and believable characters. It works on many levels for adults as well as children." Does that description sound familiar?
It bears noting that Kershner fought with Lucas over the most iconic line in Empire: Facing death, Han Solo responds, "I know" to Princess Leia's proclamation of love for him. The original line was, "I love you, too." I'd like to write something cheesy here, expressing my love for a director that truly shaped my perception of movies to this day -- what he meant to all of us who cherish Empire. Alas, I'm pretty sure he already knew, too.