20 Things You Didn’t Know About The Empire Strikes Back
Arguably the most famous film of the Star Wars saga is The Empire Strikes Back. The highest-grossing film of 1980, with box office takings of $547 million worldwide, the acclaimed movie went on to win two Academy Awards, a BAFTA and four Saturn Awards, and was ultimately hailed by some critics as one of the greatest films of all time. It’s also unusual in that it’s widely regarded as a sequel that is far superior to the original.
Though the film came out over 40 years ago now, there’s still much more to be learnt about The Empire Strikes Back, from the origins of Han Solo’s “I know” line to the surprise cameo in the movie by George Lucas’ swimming pool…
Here are 20 things you probably didn’t know about this iconic film.
20. Han Solo’s fate was left ambiguous at the end because Harrison Ford wasn’t contracted to do a sequel
At the end of The Empire Strikes Back, Han Solo ends up frozen in carbonite by Darth Vader, as a test for his plan to freeze Luke and take him to the Emperor.
Han, frozen, ends up being brought by bounty hunter Boba Fett to Jabba the Hutt’s grand palace.
Of course, Han is reanimated in Return of the Jedi, but his fate is left largely ambiguous at the end of Empire.
Lucas and director Irvin Kershner left the ending deliberately ambiguous for practical as well as dramatic reasons.
While Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher had signed on to do two Star Wars sequels, Harrison Ford was not contractually obliged to do the same.
As a result, the film’s screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett decided to keep the future filmmakers’ options open, via Solo’s cliff-hanger ending.
19. Lucas wanted Jim Henson to play Yoda
Frank Oz will go down in history for his iconic voicing and puppeteering of Jedi Master Yoda.
George Lucas was so impressed by his performance that he tried to secure an Oscar nomination for Oz.
Unfortunately, this never happened – probably because Oz was regarded as more of a puppeteer than an actor.
However, in a 2014 interview Lucas admitted that he had originally wanted Muppets creator Jim Henson to play Yoda.
“I went to Jim and said, ‘Do you want to do this?’,” Lucas recalled. “And he said, ‘Well, I’m busy, I’m doing this, and doing that, I’m making a movie and all that – I really can’t.”
“[But] how about Frank? You know, Frank’s the other half of me.’ And I said, ‘Well, that’d be fantastic,’” Lucas remembered.
18. Lucas was fined for not including any opening credits
Most 21st century films have end credits rather than opening credits – but back in the 80s, this wasn’t the way things were done.
At the time, it was common for the opening credits to list the actors, directors, producers and writers.
This meant that Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, with their ending credits, were quite unusual.
When The Empire Strikes Back was released, the Writers and Directors’ Guilds of America formally objected to featuring end credits only.
Lucas was unwilling to disturb the film’s dramatic opening sequence and so went ahead without opening credits.
Because of his break in convention, Lucas was fined over $250,000 by the two Guilds.
17. Nobody but Mark Hamill knew about the Darth Vader twist until the film’s premiere
The shock reveal of Darth Vader being Luke’s father is arguably one of the greatest plot twists of all time.
Lucas and Kershner knew the importance of keeping the reveal under wraps and took great pains to make sure virtually no one on set knew what they were planning.
Not even David Prowse, Darth Vader’s on-set actor, knew the twist – he was told the line was “No, Obi-Wan killed your father.”
So secret was the real line that it wasn’t even added during filming. Instead, it was dubbed in in post-production.
Only one actor was made privy to the twist: Mark Hamill. Lucas and Kershner told Hamill in secret so he could adjust his performance accordingly.
The majority of the cast remained ignorant of the real twist until the film’s premiere.
16. The original script revealed Luke had a sister called Nellith
In Leigh Brackett’s first draft of the screenplay for The Empire Strikes Back, the ghost of Luke’s father Anakin appears to his son and tells him that he has a long-lost sister called Nellith.
In this version, Anakin tells Luke that he split them up at birth to protect them from Darth Vader.
He further reveals that Nellith had undergone Jedi training to aid Luke in defeating the Sith.
The idea was eventually scrapped and the writers decided to make Anakin into Darth Vader instead.
However, the idea of Luke having a long lost sister was revisited in Return of the Jedi.
Ultimately, though, this sister turned out to be Princess Leia, rather than a new character called Nellith.
15. Dagobah’s ‘swamp’ was actually George Lucas’ new swimming pool
One scene early on in Empire sees R2-D2 and Luke landing on Dagobah, resulting in the former falling into some swampy water.
Artoo then gets dragged by a mysterious creature into the water’s murky depths, leaving Luke concerned for his safety.
Thankfully, the creature ends up spitting R2-D2 back on to dry land, reuniting him with Luke.
While it may look like Luke and R2-D2 are on a pretty convincing alien swamp, the spot was actually much closer to home for Star Wars’ creator.
This scene was predominantly filmed in George Lucas’ backyard, while the sets at Skywalker Ranch were still under construction.
Lucas was building a swimming pool in his garden at the time, and it turned out that the empty hole in the ground proved a useful place to shoot some of the movie’s swampy scenes.
14. Ford came up with the “I know” line – and Lucas hated it
One of the most famous lines in the whole of Star Wars history has to be Han Solo’s “I know”.
Han says the line in response to Leia’s admission of love for him before he is frozen in carbonite.
Believe it or not, Ford actually came up with this line himself – and undeniably it fit his character perfectly.
Ford ended up locking horns with Lucas over the line, however, and had to fight to keep it in the final cut.
Lucas thought the response wasn’t right, while Ford was adamant that audiences would love it.
The matter was settled after a test screening for the movie essentially proved that audiences would love Han’s/Ford’s cheeky quip.
13. Lucas financed the whole thing himself
The Empire Strikes Back was a huge risk for Lucas, as he actually financed the whole thing out of his own pocket.
This had its benefits – Lucas had greater creative control, for example – and there was the potential for extremely lucrative profits.
However, throughout production, Lucas was in constant danger of bankrupting himself and leaving the film in ruins.
Fox had naively assumed that the first Star Wars film would flop, and so had granted Lucas all of the merchandising rights.
In turn, Lucas passed on the measly director’s fee that he would typically charge for a film.
Lucas used the money he’d made off the back of selling Star Wars merch to fund The Empire Strikes Back – a huge risk, but one that ultimately paid off.
12. Fisher and Ford partied with Eric Idle and the Rolling Stones the night before filming the Cloud City arrival scene
You wouldn’t know it, but Fisher and Ford were incredibly hungover when they filmed the Cloud City arrival scene.
The night before shooting the scene, the duo had been busy partying with Eric Idle and the Rolling Stones.
Carrie Fisher was renting a house in London at the time, and Idle has said Fisher and Ford seemed “very depressed” that evening.
Idle says he offered them a bottle of fig-based alcohol called Boukha, and soon a party started, with even the Rolling Stones showing up.
The motley crew drank until around 6 in the morning, with Fisher and Ford turning up to work without having gone to sleep.
It doesn’t seem as though this phased either of them, though, and their performances in the scene are as good as always.
11. Cameras and film were frozen solid during the shooting of Hoth scenes in Norway
The film’s opening sequence sees Luke attacked and pursued by a Wampa on the freezing cold planet Hoth.
In order to replicate the freezing, arctic conditions, the crew decided to shoot the sequence in Finse, Norway.
The area was previously used for training by adventurers such as Roald Amundsen, Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton.
As shooting commenced on 5 March 1979, temperatures plummeted to unusually cold levels, even for this frosty region.
Hamill was even forced to grapple with a real-life snowstorm while shooting one scene.
At one point the crew was working while the temperature was at -26 degrees. It was so freezing that several cameras stopped working and delicate rolls of film became frozen solid.
10. Yoda’s face was based on Albert Einstein’s
Yoda’s first ever movie appearance was in The Empire Strikes Back – and he’s featured in seven more Star Wars films since.
The Yoda puppet was designed by make-up artist Stuart Freeborn, who blended together his own features with those of Albert Einstein to create Yoda’s facial features.
The sets for Dagobah, the planet where Yoda lives, were all built on a platform raised by five feet, so the puppet could be operated from ‘underground’.
A younger version of Yoda, redesigned by Nick Dudman, features in The Phantom Menace.
More recently, Grogu (better known as Baby Yoda) of the Mandalorian TV series has become a fan favourite.
He’s clearly a member of Yoda’s unnamed species, but the show has not yet confirmed whether he’s any relation of Yoda’s.
9. Sir Alec Guinness filmed all his scenes in one six-hour stint
Sir Alec Guinness first joined the Star Wars cast for the very first movie, as Obi-Wan Kenobi.
In this sequel, though, Obi-Wan is only a minor supporting character, appearing in brief moments as a Force ghost.
In fact, it was unclear whether Guinness would return at all for this movie, as he was still recovering from an eye operation when The Empire Strikes Back entered production.
According to the BBC, even while Guinness was in hospital, medical staff kept asking him to sign autographs with the phrase “May the Force be with you.”
Guinness eventually joined the cast, but for one day only – September 5th, 1979. He filmed all of his scenes in six hours.
Nevertheless, Guinness ended up earning millions of dollars for these fleeting moments in the movie.
8. A fire on the neighbouring set of The Shining meant Stanley Kubrick had to take over some of the set meant for Empire
A large number of scenes from The Empire Strikes Back were filmed at Elstree Studios in Hertfordshire.
Their neighbours in these studios were creating another masterpiece-to-be: The Shining, directed by Stanley Kubrick.
However, disaster struck when a fire broke out, destroying several of The Shining’s sets and necessitating a repair job of around $2.5 million.
“It was a huge fire in there one night, massive fire, we never really discovered what caused that fire and it burned down two soundstages and threatened a third at Elstree Studios,” recalled set photographer Murray Close.
“It was an eleven alarm fire call, it was huge,” he added. The Shining had to take over some of Lucas’ filming space.
Due to this reduction in sets, The Empire Strikes Back had to increase its budget by $4 million.
7. It was an incredibly expensive film for its era
Despite being funded by Lucas himself, The Empire Strikes Back was certainly not restricted to a shoestring budget.
Its original budget was $18 million, but the movie ended up costing a whopping $33 million.
To put this into perspective, the first Star Wars movie cost $11 million to make, or a third of Empire’s eventual budget.
The most expensive film of the 70s, meanwhile, was 1978’s Superman, which cost $55 million.
So The Empire Strikes Back set the bar pretty high in 1980 for movie budgets in the decade to come.
Harrison Ford definitely felt the effects of this budget change. He earned around $10,000 for the 1977 movie, whereas he took $100,000 for The Empire Strikes Back.
6. Empire used twice as many sets as the first movie
Over 60 sets were created for The Empire Strikes Back and its wide exploration of the Star Wars universe.
The largest set was Stage 6 at Elstree Studios, which was constructed specifically for this movie.
However, you cannot visit Studio 6, and it was never used in subsequent movies – because it was mostly demolished to later make way for a supermarket.
Norman Reynolds, the production designer, spoke to the BBC in 2016 about his anxiety over a certain set.
After Reynolds designed and created the carbon freezing chamber, he showed it to director Ivan Kershner, who rejected it and declared, “I can’t shoot in this.”
However, when the cast arrived to film in it, Kershner changed his tune and told Reynolds, “this is the best set in the film, thank you very much!”
5. Producer Gary Kurtz never worked with George Lucas again
Gary Kurtz was the producer for both Star Wars and The Empire Strikes back. However, after 1980, he and Lucas parted ways.
He went on to produce the critically acclaimed 80s movies The Dark Crystal and Return to Oz.
Kurtz has since spoken out about his displeasure at how the Star Wars franchise has developed without him.
Speaking to the LA Times in 2010, Kurtz commented, “The toy business began to drive the [Lucasfilm] empire. It’s a shame.”
“They make three times as much on toys as they do on films,” he added.
“It’s natural to make decisions that protect the toy business but that’s not the best thing for making quality films,” Kurtz concluded.
4. At first, Irvin Kershner refused to direct the film
George Lucas decided to take a less intense role in the creation of this sequel, as he was busy working on his visual effects company Industrial Light & Magic.
While seeking out a director, he turned to one of his most trusted advisors and teachers: Irvin Kershner.
Kershner was formerly Lucas’ professor at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, and he was better known for directing unusual independent movies.
At first, Kershner refused the job. Kershner has since recalled that he asked Lucas, “Of all the younger guys around, all the hot shots, why me?”
Lucas replied, “Well, because you know everything a Hollywood director is supposed to know, but you’re not Hollywood.”
This, and some persuasion from his agent, convinced Kershner to join the team. He went on to direct Never Say Never Again and RoboCop 2.
3. Lucas worked on the script with the writer of Raiders of the Lost Ark
George Lucas and screenwriter and director Lawrence Kasdan ended up collaborating on many Star Wars movies.
The duo co-wrote The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, while Kasdan would go on to co-write The Force Awakens and 2018’s Solo: A Star Wars Story without Lucas.
The first time Lucas worked with this Hollywood veteran was on Raiders of the Lost Ark, which would eventually be released in 1981.
The initial scriptwriter for The Empire Strikes Back was Leigh Brackett. However, she died before the film went into production.
Unhappy with Brackett’s script, Lucas offered the job to Kasdan before he’d even read Kasdan’s finished Raiders script.
Lucas apparently told Kasdan, “If I hate Raiders, I’ll call you up tomorrow and cancel this offer, but basically I get a feeling about people.”
2. Squeaky dumpster lids and racoons in a bathtub make up the film’s sound effects
Ben Burtt was Empire’s sound designer, and he used plenty of strange objects to create the perfect sound effects.
He created the sound of marching Imperial soldiers by recording the squeaky lid of a dumpster just outside his house.
He also recorded a lion crunching away at its prey’s skull and a bathtub full of raccoons for the wildlife ambience on Dagobah.
Another sound specialist for The Empire Strikes Back was John Roesch, who went on to work on Gremlins and The Breakfast Club.
In an interview with Wired, Roesch noted that his movie work has been fascinating but often difficult.
He also added that there are more astronauts than there are foley artists, showing how specialised this career field is.
1. The film’s TV debut included a special message from Darth Vader
When this movie was first broadcast on television, the filmmakers had some fun with its introduction.
It opened with a speech from Darth Vader, as if everyday programming had been interrupted by a Galactic Empire broadcast.
In this added moment, Vader booms: “Welcome. Through this intergalactic broadcast, your planet, and thousands like it, are witnessing the glorious victory of the Galactic Empire.”
“Tonight, we will finally crush Luke Skywalker and his Rebel Alliance,” he declares.
“This time, there will be no escape from the Dark Side of the Force when Empire strikes back,” Vader warns.
The film was released variously on CED, VHS and Laserdisc throughout the 80s and 90s.