Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Alternative Draft Week - Original "The Empire Strikes Back" draft


It's Day 4 of Alternative Draft Week, where we look at alternative drafts from the movies you loved (or hated). In some cases, these drafts are said to be better, in others, worse, or in others still, just plain different. Either way, it's interesting to see what could've been. We started out with Roger's review of James Cameron's draft of "
First Blood 2". We followed that with my review of "The Last Action Hero." Then I reviewed the original Ron Bass draft of Entrapment. And today we have a biggie. A really big biggie. The very first drat of The Empire Strikes Back ever written.

Genre: Sci-Fi Fantasy
Premise: While Han Solo goes in search of his Father-In-Law, Ovan Marekal, who has political ties with Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker heads to the Bog Planet where he meets a frog-like Jedi named Minch, who teaches him the ways of the force.
About: This is not the widely circulated “4th Draft” which has Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasden’s name on it. This is Brackett’s original first draft of the movie, titled, “Star Wars Sequel.” Brackett was best known (outside of her contribution on “Empire”) for scripting the films, “The Big Sleep,” and “The Long Goodbye.” She was also a prolific science-fiction writer, writing over 200 stories of various lengths in the genre. As a novelist, she wrote crime stories and westerns as well. It was in 1978 that Lucas gave Brackett the first shot at his sequel to Star Wars, which at that time, he apparently didn’t have a title for yet. This was based off the success of Brackett’s space opera novels, though she had never written a science fiction screenplay at the time. Sadly, Brackett died of cancer soon after she turned in this draft.
Writer: Leigh Brackett
Details: 128 pages (2-17-78)

So you ever wanted to watch a lightsaber duel between Obi-Wan and Yoda? Well, if Leigh Brackett had her way, you would’ve gotten it.

Sort of.

Heh heh.

Read on.

First of all, I love Star Wars. It’s movie-perfection for me. I could go on about how much I love it but I’d just be rehashing what billions of people have already said billions of times. I’m also not going to give my opinion on the prequels as movies, as that too has been discussed to death. I will, however say something about the screenwriting side of the films. I simply don't believe Lucas wrote enough drafts of each script. I'm sure he did plenty of nipping and tucking, but every one of those films feels like the beginning of an idea as opposed to a finely tuned execution of an idea. While everyone has their opinions on why the films missed that spark, I simply wish he'd just put more time into the writing process. I honestly think Lucas could've figured it out if he'd given the scripts more time. But it looks like he was more interested in the filmmaking side of the prequels. And as a result, the movies are what they are.

Okay, let’s get to The Empire Strikes Back, a film many consider to be the best in the series. It’s a fascinating film to study in screenplay form because it's a bit of a structural black sheep. It starts out firing on all cylinders, and then descends slowly, over the course of two hours, into a dark almost trance-like meditation on humankind’s obsession with evil. It breaks a ton of rules, both universally and, one can argue, in the Star Wars universe, and still comes out a great film. It is also, commercially, the least successful film in the franchise, and that’s obviously because of a lot of those rules that it breaks.

There’s been a lot of speculation as to how the story for The Empire Strikes Back came about and I’m not sure this answers that speculation, but it’s a fascinating look at the early seeds of what would eventually become one of the most beloved movies of all time. It’s also a particularly great script to read for one’s screenwriting education. You have one of the most well-known stories in history, and you get to compare it to a similar version where hundreds of different choices were made. Since screenwriting is all about choices (Do I make my character do this or that?), we can see how easy it is to make the wrong one.

Now regardless of all that, just as a Star Wars geek, this is fun. I mean, there are some real gems in here. And as messy as this first draft is, we get a few shocking moments. In particular, there are a couple of entire cities that were axed from the film. Darth Vader has a damn castle. And Yoda has a different name! What the fuck?? Anyway, let’s get to it, shall we?

We start off, just like in the movie, in the ice base. But the planet they’re on isn’t called “Hoth.” “Hoth” actually ends up being the name of the planet that houses Cloud City, which is no longer called “Cloud City.” It’s called “Orbital City.” But I’ll get to that later.

A really nice touch I liked, and something that Lucas was accused of abandoning as the series went on, was that we meet Luke looking over this huge beautiful ice ridge. He’s transfixed by its beauty. And it’s a moment very reminiscent of his moment staring up at the two suns back on Tantooine. Just like in the finished film, Luke then gets cut down by a Wampa monster, and dragged back to its lair.

The script starts deviating from the film almost immediately after that however. Han’s Jabba The Hut sub-plot has been scratched. Instead, we learn that Han’s step-father is a man named Ovan Marekal, a huge political bigwig who’s carefully aligned himself with Darth Vader to protect the people of the galaxy. The Rebels believe that if Han can get to him, he may be able to convince him to fight against Vader, giving the otherwise helpless Rebel Army a fighting chance.

The Imperial Walker sequence is also not here. Instead, after they recover Luke and hear his story about the Wampa, they determine that these creatures are a huge threat to the base. And indeed, almost right away, they begin infiltrating and killing the Rebels group by group (kinda like Aliens). If you read the fourth draft, which is much closer to the finished film, you can see that this is actually carried over into that script. So that while the Rebels must deal with the approaching Imperial Walkers, they are also getting attacked from within by the Wampa creatures, who have breached their base. It’s a way cooler scenario, but obviously scratched for budgetary reasons.

Wampas attack base!

When we meet Darth Vader, we meet him in a castle on the planet of Ton Muund, a huge city planet, maybe an early version of Coruscant? The presentation of this city is much more sinister however, and was likely also scrapped for budget reasons. Interestingly enough, we meet the Emperor here for the first time, and he’s wearing a golden robe. The Emperor tells him to go find Luke Skywalker, the man who destroyed the Death Star, because he believes he possesses the force. This is a great screenplay lesson right here, as it’s a mistake a lot of screenwriters make. In the finished film, we see Darth Vader out on his ship, actively searching the universe for Skywalker. His storyline has already begun, the pursuit of his goal clearly in place. Whereas here, we meet Vader waiting around, hanging out, essentially doing nothing. In screenwiting, you want to come into each character’s storyline as late as possible. If Vader’s waiting around to begin with, then you have to waste all this time getting information to him, having him gear up, and finally see him go after his goal. In that case, he might not even get started with the pursuit until halfway through the screenplay. In the film, he’s already started, which is one of the reasons that the movie has one of the best opening acts in history. No doubt this slow start comes from Brackett’s background in novels, where you have a lot more time to explore each character’s storyline. In screenplays, that doesn’t work.

So Han, Leia, Threepio, and Chewie head off in search of Marekal, and Luke ends up flying to the “Bog Planet.” Since Ben doesn’t tell him to go here in this version, I’m confused as to how he knew to go. But he goes anyway. Once there, he immediately meets a frog-like creature named “Minch.” Lucas must have known fairly specifically what he wanted here because most of the Minch/Yoda training sessions are the same, but there are a few key differences. When Minch/Yoda is explaining the ways of jedi swordfighting, he calls on Obi-Wan, who appears, and then Obi-Wan and Minch/Yoda have a lightsaber battle. Not sure how a ghost can battle something real, but it was cool because it was Obi-Wan battling Yoda! Or Minch! Then later, when Luke takes on “Pretend Vader” as his final lesson, the swamp disappears, and the two find each other in the vastness of space. Vader, while explaining the dark side to Luke, even lifts his hand, grabs some stars, and lets them pour through his hand. It’s pretty trippy.


And then, before Luke is to leave, Ben’s ghost tells him he wants Luke to meet someone. A second later, a man appears next to Ben. It’s LUKE’S FATHER! Right. Not Vader! But his real father! Or at least, his real father in this version. Luke’s father tells him about his sister, warns him about the dark side, and then lets Luke go on his merry way. At this point I was so confused I didn’t know whether to have a seizure or pass out. But I loved it. It instantly grabbed me if only for the reason that I now had no idea how this original version of The Empire Strikes Back was going to end.

Back with Han, just like in the film, he’s looking for refuge from the Empire, who’s been chasing him, and remembers his old friend, the Baron Lando Kadar. Before I forget, one nice touch I thought Brackett added in this version, was that Chewbacca is jealous that Han and Leia are spending so much time together. He disgustedly growls whenever the two look all doe-eyed at each other, and Threepio even chimes in and makes fun of him for it. I actually think it could’ve worked in the film.

Anyway, before Han finds Cloud City, he first goes to the planet’s actual surface and finds an ancient ruined city run by Avatar like natives called the “Cloud People,” white skin white-haired aliens who ride on flying Manta-Rays. They’re the ones who tell him about “Cloud City,” which is actually called “Orbital City” here. So up Han goes, where he meets his old friend Lando Kadar, and from here on out, the plot is pretty much the same. Kadar (Lando) has made a deal with Vadar to use these guys as bait for Luke. But there are no bounty hunters here so Boba Fett does not make an appearance.

Orbital City

The one difference, however, is that we get our first real glimpse into the specifics behind the clones (from the Clone Wars). And they are nothing like the clones from the prequels. Lando, it turns out, is a clone from the Clone Wars. Instead of procreating, he’s been using his blood to recreate himself over and over again over time. Whether Brackett came up with this idea on her own or Lucas still hadn’t figured out what the Clone Wars were is anyone’s guess.

Luke finally gets to Orbital City, using the Cloud People to help him sneak in, and the big lightsaber duel happens. The difference here is that Luke is a fucking badass, and HE is the one lifting pieces with the force and hurling them at Vader, beating the shit out of him in their duel in every way. But it’s all a ruse, and we realize the essence of this idea was moved into the final lightsaber duel in Jedi. Vader getting mauled is a trick. He’s allowing Luke to draw on his hatred so he’ll come closer to the Dark Side. All in all, the “dark side” plays a much bigger role in this version. It’s really hit on over and over again. And the film is almost exclusively a character study on Luke’s struggle to stave off that darkness.

Nobody’s hand gets cut off here. After Vader details his ruse, Luke escapes him, hops on the Falcon, and everyone flies away to some flower planet. And there you have it!

If you’re a Star Wars fan, this is a fun read, but as I mentioned before, it’s really a great screenwriting lesson as well. After reading this and watching the movie, you can see how dramatically the script was improved by adding a sense of immediacy and by raising the stakes at every corner. Vader isn’t hanging out back at his city. He’s out actively looking for Luke! The Rebel base isn’t being attacked by puny Wampa monsters. It’s being attacked by the Empire! Han isn’t just being followed by the Empire. He’s being followed by the Empire AND bounty hunters!

Kasdan also understands the conflict between Leia and Han much better. Brackett didn’t identify that their back and forth banter could’ve added a lot of fun to the script, so she only barely touches on it. Whereas Kasdan obviously goes to town with the two, creating one of the more fun romantic back and forth’s in history.

I’ve heard that Lucas laid out the key story points for Brackett and she was responsible for everything else. This is why most of these plot points are still in the finished film, because Lucas had those in place from the get-go. But authors have written that none of Brackett’s contributions were included in the finished movie. I would actually argue that a key element of her draft made it to the final film, and that is the tone. It feels like Brackett set the tone here, and she really does take Star Wars to a darker place than the original film, which was quite a risk when you think about it. It feels like Kasdan recognized and kept that tone, using his more extensive screenwriting knowledge to build a great story on top of it. But since “Empire” is celebrated so extensively for that brave darkness, I believe Brackett should get some credit (and maybe that’s why she does have credit on the final film).

A very fun read if you’re a Star Wars fan. A very educational read if you’re a screenwriter. But as a script, Brackett’s draft wasn’t ready for the spotlight. It’s too bad she died. I would’ve liked to see where she went from here.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read (cause, like, it's Star Wars!)
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Let’s say you have a scene with a bunch of characters. Make sure every single one of those characters has a goal in that scene. The worst thing you can do is have your characters waiting around for something to happen. That’s not what movie characters do! They DO things. They’re ACTIVE. Being active is what makes them interesting! And it doesn’t have to be something humongous. It can be as simple as trying to find the phone number of an old friend. As long as it’s SOMETHING. Comparing these two drafts, in the Brackett Draft, we meet Vader hanging out on his throne, waiting for information. Compare that to the film, where he’s in his Star Destroyer, gung-ho searching the galaxy to find Luke. Which is more interesting? Or let’s look at the rule on a much smaller scale. In Brackett’s draft, when we meet Han, he’s sort of rummaging around the base, running into people and occasionally talking to them. Compare that to the film, where he’s desperately trying to get his ship fixed so he can get the hell out of here! Which one is more interesting? At the beginning of every scene, take every character and ask yourself, “What are they doing right now? What is their goal in this scene?” You do that and you’ll have a bunch of interesting characters engaging in an interesting scene. You don’t, and you’ll have a bunch of characters standing around doing nothing, waiting for their turn to talk. Which one is more interesting?

Another thing that caught my interest - the fact that budgetary reasons may have led to the key creative choice that jumpstarted this story. I'm betting that Lucas wanted to show Vader in his castle on that city. But when he realized he didn't have the money, he had to put him somewhere else. Where? Well, on a Star Destroyer. But then he was forced to ask, if Vader is on a Star Destroyer, what is he doing? Where is he going? Obviously, he concluded that he'd have to be going after Luke, which informed his choice to have the Empire attack the base on Hoth. Don't know if that's the true genesis of the idea but I'm willing to bet on it after reading this draft. It makes perfect sense. And it may be why the Prequels were so boring in places. Lucas could put his characters anywhere, and by doing that, he didn't have to have them doing anything, much like Vader in this draft.