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Why Empire Strikes Back was the most physically grueling Star Wars film ever

Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back recently turned 40 years old, but for its star, the intense nature of the shoot makes it seem like yesterday.

In honor of the anniversary, the official Star Wars website recently spoke with Luke Skywalker star Mark Hamill, who offered up plenty of memories about what it was like working on one of the biggest movies of all time. In fact, that was one of the actor's chief recollections. When he had been shooting Star Wars, the franchise had obviously yet to become a giant, international pop culture phenomenon. Working on Empire Strikes Back, the whole vibe was just a bit different.

"There was a marked difference in the attitudes," Hamill said. "On the first one, nobody knew about us or cared. I mean, I remember passing the script around to my friends saying, 'Hey, you gotta read this. It's the craziest thing I've ever been involved in.' There was no social media. There was no security. There wasn't any focus on this unknown science fantasy film, but everything changed after that. So on Empire, suddenly... we had to be really careful."

Most of Hamill's memories of making The Empire Strikes Back, though, have to do with palling around on the set with his buddies Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher... and with how difficult the entire shoot was from start to finish. Hamill described the film as the most physically taxing Star Wars movie ever. 

"I'll tell you something, in those days — it's changed as I've gotten older — but in those days I wanted to do every possible stunt I could," he explained, "[and Empire] was the most physically grueling of them all."

From the desert to the icy tundra

Much of Star Wars' filming took place in the deserts of Tunisia, standing in for Tattooine. The first act of Empire Strikes Back, though, takes place in a slightly different environment from that: the ice planet of Hoth. For these scenes, the cast and crew jetted off to Finse, Norway to shoot on location during one of the country's famously brutal winters. In fact, the conditions were so bad that one of the areas that the location scouts had pegged for filming ended up not being used... because they couldn't reach it.

"I was very excited to see it and then, as happens in filmmaking, it was one of the worst snowstorms in I don't know how many years," Hamill said. "We wound up filming right outside the lodge. I mean, if you turned the camera around you saw people on their balconies having their hot chocolate as Harrison [Ford] and I were acting next to a dead tauntaun."

Not that the proximity of the hotel made things any easier. "I would stay bundled up right until we had to shoot, then the protective gear would come off and obviously the wardrobe is designed to look good but not actually be practical in terms of keeping you warm in those conditions," Hamill remembered. "And they'd say, 'Get a little more snow on his face!' and [head makeup artist] Graham Freeborn would scoop up snow and pack it so it would be in my eyelashes and eyebrows. You'd go as long as you could, and then you'd try to get in a tent and get warm until they needed you again. Certainly a challenging environment."

Doing his own stunts... including the lightsaber battles

After that hellish Norway shoot, it was time to shoot the third act — which would require Hamill to take part in all that stunt work he was talking about. Those scenes were shot on a sound stage in England, and Hamill did so many of his own stunts that he was given membership in the British Stunt Union. Perhaps the most challenging aspect of this portion of the shoot was learning to properly wield a sword from someone who was very, very good at that.

"I worked with Peter Diamond who was the stunt coordinator, and Bob Anderson who doubled [as Darth Vader], who was an Olympic Fencing champion, so there was intensive training," Hamill said. "We had worked out a sequence we were all particularly proud of. And I'm talking weeks and weeks of this... and we said, 'Let's bring George [Lucas] in.'"

Star Wars fans can probably guess how that went. Hamill detailed, "[Lucas said], 'You can't take your hands off a lightsaber. You can't hold it in one hand.' And we said, 'What?' We had choreographed stuff where, you know, we did spins around and we did various things... He didn't want us to ever take both hands off the hilt. So we had to go back and re-choreograph that whole thing."

That mandate appeared to fall by the wayside in the Lucas-directed prequel films, but at that time, it just meant way more work for Hamill. "I was very lucky to have Peter who was so skilled as a stunt coordinator, and Bob," the actor said. "He was someone who... if I made a mistake, he could counter it and incorporate it into the routine and we could keep going. It takes an expert to make a novice look good, and that was certainly the case with him."

The training on Dagobah in The Empire Strikes Back was shot last

Some of the final scenes to be shot for Empire were certainly the most physically grueling for Hamill's character. The training sequence on Dagobah, in which Yoda put Luke through a gauntlet of impossibly demanding activities. Hamill remembered that the toughest part of that portion of the shoot — at least for him — was loneliness, as he only saw the puppeteers and Yoda voice actor Frank Oz between takes. To make matters worse, the earpiece he used to hear Oz's Yoda lines kept tuning to a local radio station, blaring disco in Hamill's ear.

"The first time it happened I sort of giggled and broke [character], and [director Irvin] Kershner said, 'Look, it's really important that you don't do that,' because Yoda — I mean, we keep calling him a puppet, but at the time he was a really sort of elaborate electronic prop that had never been tried before," Hamill explained. "[Kershner] said, 'If that happens again,' which it did, 'just keep a straight face so we can get usable footage.' It could be extensive. Sometimes you'd hear the radio for 30 seconds. And you know, from then on it was a real challenge, but we got it done."

The next time you're watching The Empire Strikes Back, it might be amusing to keep in mind the fact that as Luke is earnestly discussing his training with Yoda, he's listening not to the Jedi master's voice the entire time, but to the hottest disco hits of 1979 at certain points. No wonder he was in such a hurry to get the heck out of there.