One of the most powerful moments in the entire trilogy, and certainly all of Star Wars, is Han Solo’s final scene taking place in the Carbon Freeze Chamber. When re-watching the scene for this strip both Leanne and myself found ourselves tearing up. Carrie Fisher’s wavering, tearful eyes are what did it. Even without the immediate context of the preceding scenes, the moment itself remains so powerful. John Williams is at his best here, heightening everything that Ford and Fisher are portraying. It’s interesting to note all the behind the scenes drama that led to it!
The Carbon Freezing Chamber was a complicated set, built 12 feet off the stage floor. A number of problems with the heat from the arc lights and the jets of steam were compounded by rubber gaskets burning up, causing everyone to get sick and having to be evacuated. Director Irvin Kershner spent an enormous amount of time reworking the script for this tricky scene, worrying over how to make the drama and the logic work. The other problem was Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford being on a rocky road toward their best performance in the film. At the time, Kershner admitted to Carrie it was the most difficult scene to film and he felt he was going crazy.
The “estrangement” seems to have stemmed from Carrie’s feeling she was not able to contribute as much as she liked coupled with Harrison’s dismissive attitude towards this concern. Though there quite possibly was a lot more to it. I do remember in her Bring Back Star Wars interview, an older and wiser Carrie Fisher recalled how she had a crush on Harrison Ford while working with him and joked she went on the set to have an affair. Of her two leading men, she notes there was no contest between them for her affection as it was clear who her favorite was. The dynamic between Ford and Fisher may have played into the decision to pair Han Solo and Princess Leia up as a romantic couple. The two are good friends these days, but they were close back in the day as well, at least, for a while.
“He did something funny,” Carrie bashfully, and reluctantly, admitted when interviewed by Justin Lee Collins, “I went out of the room. I came back in. He was in the closet hanging by his tie, not wearing a lot of clothes.”
Regardless of what did, or didn’t, happen, Carrie was attracted to Harrison. No surprise there. What girl wasn’t? That makes the fact their personal and professional relationships conflicted, during their most important scene, somewhat understandable.
By this time, Harrison was a huge star thanks to his charismatic scene stealing in Star Wars and iconic role as Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark. He was now, possibly, the hottest commodity in Hollywood. Harrison Ford had serious clout. In addition to this, Kershner wanted the joint leading man’s input into Han Solo’s big scene. Justifiable. However, they did overlook Carrie in the process. It was also an important scene for Princess Leia, a stubborn and feisty character who FINALLY bares her feelings to a scoundrel that has no doubt broken many a girl’s heart. She also confirms to the viewer, unequivocally, that she loves Han Solo, not Luke. Arguably, Carrie did have a right to want to be involved in the rewrites process and discussions.
She was in her early twenties at the time of production on The Empire Strikes Back. Though Star Wars had given her cameos in various shows and productions, her youth may have been a factor in what Kershner later saw as healthy professional jealousy. Carrie had many distractions in her life from acting, but she certainly cared about protecting the integrity of Princess Leia. Billy Dee Williams remarked at the time “Carrie’s fine to work with. She’s adorable, you know; she’s not quite a disciplined performer yet, but she could be, I think, in the future.”
Carrie’s health was a problem during production, on at least two occasions she was excused early, as well as missing several days filming. Although said to be taken ill with influenza and bronchitis, years later Carrie revealed the real problem was that she had persisted in taking “hallucinogens and painkillers.” She talks about her life in candid detail in her book Wishful Drinking. The the crew “drew their own conclusions: Carrie had been up all night.” But Carrie was not the only guilty party when it came to a blip in professionalism during the BIG scene.
The book The Making of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back by J.W. Rinzler, includes a transcript of Kershner’s tape recording on the day of filming the Carbon Freeze scene. After spending time with Ford in the star’s trailer, Kershner had happily made rewrites and additions to the dramatic scene. Ford told Fisher that changes had been made to the script and when Kershner talked to her she was frustrated she had not been involved or present. She yelled at Harrison, causing “a couple of days of extreme tension” between them. Carrie offered an olive branch to Harrison, but he was in no mood to talk to her, further exacerbating the dysfunction between them. She warned Kershner that it could affect the kiss scene.
It must have been difficult for Carrie, concerned about the impending kiss and upset at herself as much as at Harrison for the anger between them. In the middle of blocking a scene and answering a million questions, Kershner noticed Carrie was still reeling over Harrison’s refusal to talk to her. Poor Kershner hastily consoled Carrie: “He’ll calm down, don’t worry, he’ll calm down.” Just then David Prowse walked up to him to pimp his new fitness book to the director! I laughed out loud when I first heard this, and again when I read it in the book.
Somehow Kershner kept his cool and did his best to accommodate everyone in the confusion of the steam-blasted stage. Eventually, the scene was completed. All the hair pulling and craziness on set paid off. While Star Wars had the pulse pounding trench run and Return of the Jedi had the temptation of Luke in the Emperor’s throne room, Empire has… well Empire has a lot of “best” scenes! But I think the Carbon Freeze is the most moving. We’ll be on this scene for a few strips over the next couple of weeks. I hope you will enjoy the skewering!
The transcript of Kershner and the cast and crew on the day of shooting this scene is one of the gems in the The Making of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back book. If you don’t already own it, then I urge you to spend the money. If not for the behind the scenes, then for the newly published photos from on and off the set.
If you’re on Twitter, chances are you are already following Carrie Fisher, but if not, check her out. Her stand up gig is awesome and her Twitter posts are typically candid and entertaining.
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