MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: Harrison Ford’s famous “I know” line in “Empire Strikes Back” was improvised.
When it comes time to actually translate movie screenplays into finished films, there are always going to be situations where things change base on circumstances. Sometimes problems that are beyond anyone’s control. There’s a famous scene in the screenplay for “Fast Times in Ridgement High” where two characters listen to a song from Led Zeppelin’s fourth album. Well, what do you do when Led Zeppelin won’t let you use any songs from their fourth album? These sorts of issues came up frequently in the filming of the first few “Star Wars” films, as George Lucas and company would often find themselves debating between multiple options with where to go with the screenplay. Kill off Obi-Wan Kenobi or let him live? Have Han shoot Greedo first or have Greedo take the first shot?
A similar debate came up during the filming of “Empire Strikes Back” in the scene where Han Solo and Leia say heartfelt goodbyes to each other before Han is encased in Carbonite. Leia professes her love and Han, in response, tells her, “I know.”
It’s a great line, and legend has it that Han’s portrayer, Harrison Ford, improvised the line on the spot and the film’s director, Irving Kershner, kept it in the film.
It’s a very popular legend. But is it true?
No, it is not.
The scene in question was a very difficult one, because, obviously, two of the major characters in the film are basically professing their love for each other, so that’s something that is rather important to get right. Similarly, though, there is a balance to be maintained over whether the scene is treated like a death sequence or not.
Han is obviously not being killed in the scene, but at the same time, if he remains encased in Carbonite forever, that’s basically death, so one of the major things that Kershner had to deal with was determining just how hopeful the scene should be. For instance, the original lines were Han and Leia kiss and Leia says, “I love you. I couldn’t tell you before, but it’s true.” And Han replies, “Just remember that, ‘cause I’ll be back.” Kershner originally felt that the “I’ll be back” part was integral to the scene, because he felt that it was necessary to set the fans up for the next film. He joked that it was almost “contractual” to include the “I’ll be back” part. But the problem is that Han doesn’t know that he will ever be back.
The fascinating thing about this scene is that journalist Alan Arnold was on set to work on a behind-the-scenes book about the film (“Once Upon a Galaxy: A Journal of the Making of The Empire
Strikes Back”), and on the specific day that they worked out the lines for the scene, Kershner was wearing a wireless microphone so Arnold could transcribe some of his conversations. He sure picked a heck of a day to have Kershner wear the mic!
Here is Ford and Kershner discussing the scene as Han goes into the Carbonite chamber…
Ford: I think I should be manacled. It won’t stop the love scene. I mean I don’t have to put my arms around Leia to kiss her. I can’t see how they would indulge in more than a straight kiss in such circumstances. It has to be rough and brisk and over with.
Kershner: Absolutely. I don’t intend to mess around…”What’s up, buddy boy?”… in the love scene.
Ford: As I pass by her, I think Leia ought to say very simply, “I love you.”
Kershner: (Tries it out) “I love you.” And you say, “Just remember that, Leia, because I’ll be back.” You’ve got to say, “I’ll be back.” You must. It’s almost contractual!
Ford: If she says “I love you,” and I say “I know,” that’s beautiful and acceptable and funny.
Kershner: Right, right.
So Ford DID come up with the phrase, which is obviously the origin for why people believe that he improvised the line to this day, because he DID come up with it. It just was during a case of brainstorming lines and not improvised.
What’s amusing is that Carrie Fisher, who played Leia in the film, was none too pleased with Kershner and Ford changing lines at the last minute (this is doubly amusing considering Fisher would go on to become one of the top script doctors in Hollywood)
Fisher: You talk to Harrison about the changes, but I always feel that you do it behind my back.
Kershner: No, no, no, we haven’t rehearsed it yet.
Fisher: But I didn’t know until now.
Kershner: I couldn’t tell you before.
Fisher: I would just like to be there when you decide to change things.
Kershner: (Getting angry) You weren’t here to be there.
Fisher: (Shouts) I was in the studio!
Kershner: Okay. Okay.
Fisher: I yelled at Harrison about the changes.
Kershner: Don’t yell at Harrison. Yell at me.
Fisher: There’s no reason for me to be mad at Harrison.
Kershner: All right, all right. Okay!
Fisher: But when he came to me with the changes, I got mad at him and it screws us up.
Fisher: He is very angry with me. And he has a total right to be. I should not speak to him in that way…
Kershner: Okay, okay.
Fisher: Harrison shouldn’t have to come to me with the changes. You should.
Kershner: He was eager to.
Fisher: I know he was. And now I have to perform at half an hour’s notice scenes that have been all changed.
Kershner: Your performance is not changed.
Fisher: All I’m asking is to be invited to watch you guys get a scene together. It may not center around me, like this one doesn’t, but I’m involved in it.
Kershner: Okay. Are you clear about it now?
Fisher: Yes, the only thing I’m not clear about is…
Kershner: (To himself) Jesus, what a day! I’ve got problems with the actors. Everybody’s furious with everybody else…
So anyhow, yes, the line was not improvised.
The legend is…
Thanks to Alan Arnold for the recordings, The Secret History of Star Wars for the transcription and a special thanks to reader Andrea F. for suggesting this one!
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.