Rebecca Harrison is the author of the BFI Classics book The Empire Strikes Back. She answered a few questions via email for this interview.
What is your first memory of Star Wars?
My first memory of a Star Wars film is sitting on the floor in my dad’s flat playing with toys, and slowly becoming aware of something on the small TV set in the corner of the room. I had no real idea what was going on (I must have been four or five, maybe), but was entranced by Leia dashing through the trees on a speeder bike, and Artoo and Threepio being these strange, shiny figures, in Return of the Jedi. And then there were the Ewoks! I loved the Ewoks. They worked on me exactly as intended. I think the noise of the speeders is really evocative and attention-grabbing, too. What kid wouldn’t be intrigued? It was all so weird. And not being able to make sense of what I was seeing, what these odd characters were doing, was probably part of the attraction for me – even then I wanted explanations for everything, to understand how everything worked.
From that short encounter I was hooked, though, and wore out a lot of Ewoks cartoons taped off the TV on VHS (and driving my parents up the all in the process – I can still remember all the words to the two different theme tunes). I was probably about eight or nine when I watched all of the original trilogy through and remembered the stories well enough to ‘get’ what Star Wars was about.
Why do you think Star Wars has been so popular for so long?
I think because it is so many things to so many people. There are so many genres, tropes, conventions, and alternate readings available to viewers that you can find something of yourself and your values in there if you look closely enough. Meanings and tastes change over time, too, so there’s always the potential to revisit films that you loved and feel nostalgic for and find something new; a twist or a different perspective that you didn’t see before. On top of which, there’s so much Star Wars! Spanning over four decades… that’s quite a feat for any franchise. With that in mind, taking a more cynical view (but a realistic one) it remains popular because the studios keep updating it and adding to it and keeping it in the public eye. Whether you like the sequels and prequels or loathe them, you’ll be watching them in relation to something you loved, so they ensure the ongoing popularity of the franchise either way.
Who are some of your favorite characters and have those favorites changed over time?
Leia is a firm favourite, and I’ve always had a soft spot for lovable rogue Han, although my feelings about his relationship with and treatment of Leia have changed a lot as I’ve gotten older. I’ve remained steadfastly invested in Artoo, though. The way he observes and comprehends things and invariably saves the day with just a witty bleep here and there – never a complaint – is so wonderful. I’d be very upset if anything bad happened to Artoo, and I was a little sad at him being side-lined in the sequel films.
More recently, I loved Finn and Poe in the sequels, their energy together was great. I felt an affinity with Jyn in Rogue One, too, as someone who spends a lot of time looking for information in archives and is often in trouble for speaking her mind. Her character really resonated with me. I’m trying to think back to the prequels and which characters I enjoyed from those films… that’s much harder! My sisters and I did really invest in young Anakin and Jar Jar Binks, I think. It’s hard to imagine now seeing the characters through the lenses of toxic masculinity and racism, but we were kids and they were a funny duo in a film ostensibly about trade and taxes. Perhaps it’s not that strange after all.
Can you tell me a bit about your background and how you became the author of the new BFI Empire Strikes Back book?
My background is as an academic and film journalist, and my career doesn’t immediately scream ‘Star Wars!’ I started out doing a PhD that explored the relationship between early cinema and railways in British culture, thinking about how media and technologies intersect and overlap and change how we experience the world around us – this became the topic of my first book. After that I was planning a project on how the UK and US relied on colonial exploitation to produce film technologies like cameras and projectors.
But I wanted a break from talking about early cinema, and, inspired by Rogue One, had this idea to write about archives in the Star Wars franchise. I thought perhaps it would be a short article or a one-off piece, maybe for a general audience rather than for academics. So, I started re-watching all the films and began noticing patterns and themes around coding and computers – and before I knew it, I had a whole book planned out investigating digital media, labour practices and representations of machines across the franchise. There’s actually loads of continuity with my earlier projects (it’s about tech; it considers how gender, race, sexuality and class shape our lives and media; it asks questions about the working conditions of people in the film industries). Though when you say, ‘early film’ and then ‘Star Wars’ I appreciate it seems like a jump!
Anyway, alongside planning this new book, I was writing about Star Wars for various outlets, and sharing some research on the franchise I’d been doing around gender representation and screen time for women in each of the films. Around this time Bloomsbury (the publisher who looks after the BFI Film Classics series) were looking for someone to write about The Empire Strikes Back, and they approached me to see if I’d be interested. Obviously, I jumped at the chance – I was so, so excited to be asked. It’s been a dream of a project and I feel very privileged to have had the opportunity to do the work.
Were you given any guidelines about what you could or couldn’t cover topic wise? Why should people be excited to read this book if they have read a lot of other books about Star Wars and ESB?
When Bloomsbury approached me to write the book, I was invited to submit a proposal outlining what the book would cover and what perspective I’d offer. There are pretty strict rules about the different elements of the film’s lifecycle that authors have to stick to in the series, including the production, an analysis of the film itself, and its reception among audiences. But otherwise you have the freedom to take any approach or make whatever case you want for the film’s classic status. It’s quite daunting! Especially when you’re talking about a film like The Empire Strikes Back, which has been endlessly discussed and written about and dissected by fans. I was overwhelmed at the start of the process and worried that I wouldn’t have anything original to say.
But after I calmed down and started looking at what academic and trade books were already out there, I realised the best approach was to make the writing as personal as possible. So much film writing claims to be ‘objective,’ and there are so many ‘official’ accounts of the movie. However, there’s no such thing as ‘objective’! We all see films in different ways depending on our cultural backgrounds and our own experiences. It’s such a masculinised and patriarchal way of looking at the world to think your approach is ‘neutral,’ and even the official accounts tend to focus on men’s stories.
I was also reminded that there’s very little scholarly and critical writing on Star Wars in mainstream spaces by people with marginalised voices. There’s some fab stuff out there – including by critics of colour, queer writers, Black journalists – but the field is dominated by white men. This presented me with the opportunity to say okay, this is going to be a different kind of history. It’s a history and analysis of The Empire Strikes Back written with certain privileges (cisness, whiteness, education) but it’s also one written by a queer, left-wing woman. Inevitably, I look at the film from a point of view that’s been overlooked in previous writing – and I was fortunate to access a lot archive material and interview people involved with the movie. Hopefully there’s plenty in there that fans won’t have come across before, and they can see the film in a new way.
What were your favorite parts of the book to research and where did you go for research?
I love doing research almost as much as I enjoy writing, so the whole project was a pleasure from start to finish. As an academic and journalist, I was able to access some really incredible collections and materials, too, which was an enormous privilege (plus, as a historian, I like to be thorough!). I visited the British Film Institute’s archives in England, the Margaret Herrick Library in LA, and even had a tour of the Lucasfilm studios in San Francisco. Thanks to a contact at Lucasfilm, I ended up arranging interviews with some of the super fans from the 80s. And through fan spaces and networks (with massive thanks to Amy Richau) I ended up visiting the Norwegian location that became Hoth, where I interviewed a number of the crew – and, against my better judgement, skied up the side of a glacier.
Actually, I say things like this out loud and have to pinch myself that a working-class kid who had no film industry connections has had such amazing opportunities! I never expected to be in such close proximity to the people who made Star Wars. When I say it’s been a dream project I’m not exaggerating – I’m so lucky. My biggest hope is that these experiences make for a really rich narrative in the book and that it uncovers lots of material that people might not be familiar with. More than anything, I hope that people who are more marginalised than me get these opportunities going forward, and that universities, publishers and other industry gatekeepers give work to, for example, Black trans women. Because there are obvious limits to my point of view on Star Wars (or anything, for that matter), and we urgently need other perspectives in mainstream cultural conversations.
Did your opinion of the film change much as you were working on this book?
I don’t think my opinion changed much – I still think it’s a flawed but ultimately wonderful film – but how I understood its representation of different characters and its historical context developed pretty rapidly! That was in part owing to research and reading (for example, I read a lot of Black scholars who all interpreted Lando’s role differently) and in part because it forced me to look closer at elements that I’d become over-familiar with (such as reinterpreting Leia’s actions through the lens of second-wave feminism). One of the most thrilling things for me was bringing queer theory and history to The Empire Strikes Back.
What was the most challenging section of the book to write?
Probably the chapters on the film’s background and production. In the former, there’s so much to say! I had a couple of thousand words to cover the historical context of gender, race, national identity, trade unionism, two major elections, climate change, New Hollywood and the Cold War – plus narrative summaries of the first two Star Wars films. Looking at that list now I’m amazed that I got anywhere close to managing. That’s a book in itself.
In the latter, the production chapter, I was terrified by the amount of material and accounts already in circulation. What more can you say? In the end I went for a more meta reading of the Lucasfilm accounts and interviews with crew and so on, focusing on how they represented the production. There are some interview snippets in there, too, with second unit director Peter MacDonald, assistant cameraman Mike Brewster, and cameraman Madelyn Most, although most of that material will feature in my next Star Wars book. It was satisfying to talk about gender in that chapter, too, as so many of the women in production roles have been overlooked in other histories (which is why we need 365SWW so much!). Hopefully I’ll get to interview more of them in future, too.
Can you share anything that you found interesting during your research that you couldn’t find a proper place for in the book?
There was so much! The main thing for me was the queer history and theory that ended up underpinning my whole analysis of the film. I became intrigued by this notion of ‘deviating’ from a straight line as being queer and subversive, because throughout the movie we see the ships and cast looping, twisting, turning. In short, being ‘not straight.’ And from there a friend point out the previous projects that the cast and crew had worked on – The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Lisztomania, Mahogany, The Eyes of Laura Mars, all these spectacularly queer and camp movies – and suddenly I was immersed in melodrama and fashion and films that seem on the surface a million miles away from Star Wars… and yet, really, they’re so very close. Sadly, not everything made it into the book because there wasn’t space, but I wrote a spin-off article about all of this for LA Review of Books. It really transformed my knowledge of Empire’s genesis and it was fun to position Star Wars in queer history. That was immensely enjoyable.
Tell me about your trip to Visit Hoth. Would you recommend it to other Star Wars fans?
It was so, so joyful and fun, and I would recommend it in a heartbeat. You take the train from Oslo to Finse (the views are breath-taking) and end up at a tiny hamlet surrounded by snow as far as the eye can see. There’s whiteness and stillness and unbroken snow for miles. The train only comes through a couple of times a day. When people tell you there’s only a train platform, a shop, and a hotel, they are not exaggerating. It’s incredibly remote (Harrison Ford famously got stuck en route to the location, and the cast and crew were routinely snowed in). The temperature went down to -19 degrees centigrade in the sun, but it was the lack of visibility that affected me the most.
I (perhaps unwisely, having no cross-country experience) joined a group skiing up the side of the glacier you see in the big battle between the Rebels and Empire, when the AT-ATs attack Echo Base on Hoth. It was freezing and really hard going, with big steep slopes. It was quite a distance! Up on the glacier it was very emotional, you can’t quite believe where you are! When we got to the top of our route, though, a huge cloud rolled in and a storm hit – on the way back to the hotel the shadows disappeared with the sun and we had a white out. From there I took a husky sleigh ride out to ‘Han’s Rock’ (literally a big rock that appears behind Han in one shot!) and hanging around there in minimal visibility with no energy left was… uncomfortable, shall we say.
It was also amazing getting to meet members of the crew and hear their brilliant first-hand stories. Everyone was very friendly and sociable and there was a generally lovely, community atmosphere. There was no competition, no gatekeeping, no meanness. It’s a model for Star Wars fan events.
What Star Wars content are you the most interested in that’s been announced? What projects are you hoping will be announced at some point (films, TV, books, comics, etc.)
I’m really into the second season of The Mandalorian at the moment and I’m very excited about Taika Watiti’s project. You just know that’s going to be so much fun, and isn’t that what we all need from Star Wars right now? That said, we all need BETTER REPRESENTATION. Like, come on already. Give us an Aphra series! Rae Sloane! And I would love some more Lando backstory. There are so many unanswered questions after that squandered scene in TRoS with Jannah, too, about them looking for the parents of children stolen by the First Order. That could be cool. I would happily take any of these stories on TV or as films. Oh, and (it’ll never happen, but we can dream) a Poe and Finn romcom. It’s the least we deserve.
If you could have a meeting with Kathleen Kennedy what would you want to ask her?
How is it 2020 and we still don’t have Black women in lead roles in Star Wars films, we still don’t have anything like decent LGBT representation, and we’re lacking marginalised voices in major production roles? And, what are you going to do about it?
Maybe that sounds quite aggressive, however, for all that I love Star Wars, I don’t have endless patience for stories by and about straight white cis non-disabled men. There are lots of questions I’d want to ask about her experiences in the job, which I bet are fascinating and are really important to film history. But something has to change in terms of representation, and soon, and I hope that Kathleen Kennedy is able and willing to take positive action.
Do you have any other projects you can talk about?
Yes! I set up a feminist arts festival in Glasgow a couple of years ago (GFAF) that celebrates the work of marginalised artists, musicians, and indie film productions. So, I’m hoping to run another edition of that next year. I also managed some creative writing during lockdown, too, so we’ll see where that goes… there’s plenty to keep me busy.
My main focus, though, is my big, full-length Star Wars book that should be out in a 2024, pandemic allowing. It explores the role of tech on and off screen in the Star Wars franchise, and looks at issues of gender, race, sexuality and class in determining the saga’s production, aesthetics and distribution. It’ll cover topics from the franchise’s real-life military connections to representations of empire, and more besides. Plus, there will be more interviews, more archive material and probably more weird rabbit-holes (sarlacc pits?) that I fall down that I haven’t discovered yet. Well, maybe not sarlacc pits, because no one gets out of those. Maybe exogorth holes would be more accurate. At any rate, its current title is Decoding Star Wars, which will be published by Bloomsbury.
Find out more about Harrison’s book here.