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.


  • Scraps says:

    Is it wrong that I found out about this from Darth Vader's fake Twitter account? 2010! Where a man making Darth Vader jokes is a credible news source!!

  • The Winchester says:

    Bravo, sir. A lovely tribute to one of the greats.

  • Mike Ryan says:

    That's very kind. Thank you.

  • Emotionally Retarded says:

    I love "A Fine Madness" with Sean Connery. I need to watch it again to commemoriate Mr. Kershner's career.

  • Alan says:

    My memory of this is vague, but I think around the time "Phantom Menace" was released Kershner in an interview described his career as something of a failure. That made me terribly sad. I know some of his movies were taken out of his hands and recut, and some others were, I suppose, gun-for-hire jobs, but the man did some terrific work -- "A Fine Madness," "Loving," not least his gun-for-hire job on "Empire."
    Great piece, Mr. Ryan. (It's nice to know he liked "Ratatouille" as much as I did.)

  • jaesonk says:

    Kershner would have done a great job with the Star Wars sequels & prequels. Lucas has a great imagination but should not have taken over directing of his prequels.

  • daveed says:

    Let's clean our fanboy glasses for second here. Yes, Kershner was instrumental in making Empire so emotionally and dramatically impactful by working with his actors and keeping the focus on the story.
    But this wasn't an auteur-type film; there were many other talents involved, from Ford (who ad-libbed the "I know" line, with encouragement from Kershner), to producer Gary Kurtz, who also fought many a creative battle with Lucas. This was the last time Kurtz would work with Lucas, and I believe it shows. Kurtz is owed as much credit as Kershner for making Empire what it is.
    And let's be honest: Kershner's filmography doesn't really rank him among such greats as Lean or Spielberg or Coppola. His best work probably was for Lucas, and yeah I'm grateful as hell for it.

  • The Cantankerist says:

    I guess we're all kinda on the outside of the fence guessin', but, while Kershner did a sterling job with ESB, I suspect the real important name for that film is the one you mention in just one line up there: Kasdan. IK could have helmed all three prequels and it wouldn't have made that much difference, because direction is not the problem with 1, 2 or 3; it's that characters we haven't been given a chance or reason to care about do things that don't make sense in an attempt to reach goals we have no interest in. Script. Script. Script.
    I'm not saying it woulda made NO difference, mind; well-directed actors can add depth of feeling and layers of motivation. But you can build the prettiest house on the block and it'll still fall over without foundations.
    (The Greedo brouhaha of the late '90s told you all you needed to know. "We can't have Han Solo shoot first - he's a good guy!" That's the action of somebody who has totally - and quite literally - lost the plot.)

  • SunnydaZe says:

    Yeah, Kasdan and Kershner; that was the magic combo. Depth of performance and script, something most action movies (not just the other Star Wars) lack.

  • Dave Stuart says:

    My heart sank when I read this headline. Empire is my favorite movie ever and this is due in no small part to this fine director. I recall that Irvin was George's teacher at USC. It's too bad George didn't retain Irvin's lesson to him in how to make a good Star Wars movie. It was a joy to read this article and celebrate this wonderful man's life and career.

  • Kristen says:

    This is a great piece that pays a wonderful homage to a director that will be missed.

  • Name: Mark says:

    I know you guys fancy yourselves the intellectuals of internet comments, but sometimes you're just as bad as the morons on youtube.

  • SunnydaZe says:

    Hear that everybody?! We are the "intellectuals of internet comments"!! I would like to thank this random f*ck for giving us such a noble title.

  • You have an excellent site, thoroughly enjoying your articles but also think the structure of your site very intuitive!! Excited to see what you post on next.

  • Bob Andelman says:

    You can listen to audio outtakes from the late Irvin Kershner's interview in the documentary "The Nature of Existence" only on Mr Media Radio: http://www.mrmedia.com/2011/01/exclusive-empire-strikes-back-director.html

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