Sad news, friends. Irvin Kershner passed away today at the age of 87. To most folks out there, I’m sure they hear the name and think, “Who?”… But Star Wars fans know the name and utter it with admiration.
I know I speak for a LOT of Star Wars fans in the world when I say that my favorite film of the six was 1980’s Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. It was the first sequel, and it was the first one to be directed by someone other than George Lucas… I refer of course to director Irvin Kershner.
Irvin Kershner got his directorial break from producer Roger Corman in 1958, and seems to have made a career out of directing sequels to other people’s original series. According to his imdb page, he remains the only American director to helm a James Bond picture, 1983’s Never Say Never Again, the film which brought his old friend Sean Connery back to the franchise– the two had first worked together in 1966 on the film A Fine Madness. His other sequels include Return of a Man Called Horse (1976) and Robocop 2 (1990).
I recall reading one of the things that interested George when trying to find someone for Empire was the fact that Kersh’s Return of a Man Called Horse had been “a better film” than Elliot Silverstein’s 1970 film, A Man Called Horse. Indeed, critics and fans have long opined that ESB is a better film than 1977’s Episode IV: A New Hope.
Kershner was one of George Lucas’ instructors at USC, and recalls asking GL: “Of all the younger guys around, all the hot shots, why me? I remember he said, ‘Well, because you know everything a Hollywood director is supposed to know, but you’re not Hollywood.’ I liked that.”
And here’s a little gem by Kershner, which I’ve often trotted out when people point out mistakes in the film (like the mysterious appearing/disappearing ladder on the X-wing on Dagobah): “I hate slick films, because to me slick means polished with all the bumps and seams taken out. I think Empire is not slick because it’s bumpy in places, and a little ragged, and terribly real… Those things lend a sense of something that has been handmade, not machine made. Empire is not a machine-made film. It’s a handmade film and it has all the imperfections of anything that’s handmade.” [The Empire Strikes Back Notebook, Ballantine press, p. 126.]
He expands further on this philosophy in a quote on his imdb page: “It’s a matter of pride to me to get the film done fast, to get it done well. I understand the need for compromise. There is no such thing as a perfect shot, a perfect film. The purpose of film is not to make a monument to oneself.”
And here’s perhaps my favorite quote by Irvin Kershner: “The thing that you learn in directing is that no matter how complex the shooting, you have to remain sensitive to the people around you or the machine will ultimately take over. If you don’t keep in mind the essential humanity of it all, technique will dominate.”
Irvin Kershner retired from directing in 1994.
Photo from irvinkershner.net