MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: Harrison Ford's famous "I know" line in "Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back" was improvised.
When it comes to translating a screenplay into a film, there are always going to be situations where elements are changed based on circumstances. Sometimes problems there are problems beyond the filmmakers’ control, such as in the scene from the screenplay for "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" in which two characters listen to a song from Led Zeppelin's fourth album. Well, what do you do when Led Zeppelin won't permit you to use any of the songs?
During the production of the original "Star Wars" films, George Lucas and company often debated where to go with the screenplays. Kill off Obi-Wan Kenobi or let him live? Have Han shoot Greedo first or have Greedo take the first shot? A similar debate arose during the filming of "The Empire Strikes Back" scene in which Han Solo and Leia exchange heartfelt goodbyes before he’s encased in carbonite. Leia professes her love, and Han responds, "I know." It's a great line, and legend has it that Harrison Ford improvised the line, and director Irvin Kershner kept it in the film.
It's a popular legend, but is it true?
No, it is not.
The scene in question was a difficult one, because, obviously, two of the major characters are professing their love for each other -- something rather important to get right. However, there was also the issue of balancing whether the scene is treated like a death sequence. Han obviously wasn’t being killed, but if he remained encased in carbonite forever, that's effectively death. Therefore, Kershner had to determine just how hopeful the scene should be.
For instance, the script originally called for Han and Leia to kiss, and Leia says, "I love you. I couldn’t tell you before, but it’s true.” Han replies, "Just remember that, ‘cause I’ll be back.” Kershner initially felt "I'll be back" was integral to the scene, as it was necessary to set 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 whether he will ever be back.
Journalist Alan Arnold was on set to compile a behind-the-scenes book, "Once Upon a Galaxy: A Journal of the Making of ‘The Empire Strikes Back,’” and on the day the lines were worked out for that scene, Kershner was wearing a wireless microphone so Arnold could transcribe some of his conversations. Here are 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 why people continue to believe he improvised the line. However, it was while brainstorming lines with Kershner, not when the scene was filmed.
What's amusing is that Carrie Fisher wasn't happy with Kershner and Ford for 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, no, the line was not improvised.
Amusingly enough, George Lucas thought the line was too funny and that it took the viewer out of the scene, so he had two versions of the film made, one with the new line and one with the scripted line. He wanted test audiences to see both. However, after the first one was shown (with “I know”), the reaction the line was so overwhelmingly positive that Lucas didn't even bother with the other test screening. Film history had been made!
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.