After the massive success of the 1977 original, and the downer ending of The Empire Strikes Back in 1980, space opera mastermind George Lucas returned in 1983 to produce what everyone thought would be the final installment of Star Wars. Boy, were they wrong. In honor of the film’s 35th anniversary, here are some things you might not know about the making of Return of the Jedi.
1. CONTRARY TO LEGEND, RETURN OF THE JEDI WAS THE MOVIE’S ORIGINAL TITLE.
When it came time to decide on the title of the third entry in the Star Wars saga, creator George Lucas settled on Return of the Jedi. But co-screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan and film studio 20th Century Fox thought it was too bland, so the collaborators decide to change the title to Revenge of the Jedi.
The title stuck all the way through production up to the early marketing of the movie, with a teaser trailer and posters sporting the “Revenge” moniker. But Lucas realized a Jedi technically doesn’t seek revenge in the mythology he created, so the title was changed back to Return of the Jedi before the movie opened on May 25, 1983.
Lucas eventually used the “Revenge of” naming convention on the third prequel in the saga, 2005’s Revenge of the Sith.
2. RETURN OF THE JEDI WAS CALLED SOMETHING DIFFERENT ON PURPOSE.
The fandom frenzy surrounding the third—and supposedly final—installment of the saga was at such a fever pitch, with cast, crew members, and the public willing to leak any new information about the storyline they could, Lucas intentionally named the movie something completely different during filming.
He chose the fake title “Blue Harvest”—a play on the 1929 Dashiell Hammett novel, Red Harvest—and even featured the fake tagline (“Horror Beyond Imagination”) to throw fans off the trail, as well as to help keep production costs down on the blockbuster so location scouts wouldn’t be price gouged if certain locations were chosen for the production.
The title eventually found its way back into official Star Wars lore as the episode title of the twelfth episode of the first season of the Ewoks animated series in 1985.
3. GEORGE LUCAS WANTED TO GO TO WHERE THE EMPIRE BEGAN.
The movie was supposed to give audiences their first look at the Empire's home world of Had Abbadon. This city-planet—an idea that would later be extrapolated into Coruscant in the Prequel Trilogy—was supposed to be ground zero for much of the film's climax, including the lightsaber battle between Luke and Vader in the Emperor's throne room.
Unfortunately, early 1980s logistics got in the way, and despite all the ILM wizardry up until that point, they couldn’t come up with a proper way to make a feasible effect look good. Plus, sets, models, or matte paintings would cost too much.
“We worked on this Imperial City [for] a long time,” conceptual artist Ralph McQuarrie said in the book, The Making of Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. “It’s elaborate and quite pretty. But you can only do a little bit of this or that."
4. SOME BIG NAMES WERE ON THE SHORTLIST TO DIRECT RETURN OF THE JEDI.
Lucas originally wanted his friend Steven Spielberg to direct Jedi, but because Lucas decided to make his films outside the purview of the Directors Guild of America during the making of The Empire Strikes Back, prominent DGA member Spielberg had to turn it down.
Lucas’s next choice was David Lynch, who was fresh off a Best Director Oscar nomination for The Elephant Man. Lynch took a meeting at Lucasfilm about the job, where he saw concept art and “other creatures.” Lucas then took Lynch for a joyride in his Ferrari to a vegetarian restaurant “that only served salads.” According to Lynch, “That’s when I got almost a migraine headache, and I could hardly wait to get home.” One year after Return of the Jedi hit theaters, Lynch’s big-screen adaptation of another sci-fi epic, Frank Herbert’s Dune, was released.
Next on the list was body horror maestro David Cronenberg, who had just come off of the splatter classic Scanners, but he also turned Lucas down to write and direct Videodrome.
Lucas eventually picked Welsh director Richard Marquand because of his work on the 1981 WWII spy thriller Eye of the Needle.
5. RETURN OF THE JEDI INSPIRED THE PREQUELS.
An early story meeting between Lucas, Kasdan, and producer Howard Kazanjian essentially mapped out the Prequel Trilogy. “Anakin Skywalker starting hanging out with the Emperor, who at this point nobody knew was that bad, because he was an elected official,” said Lucas, to which Kasdan responded, “Was he a Jedi?”
“No, he was a politician. Richard M. Nixon was his name,” Lucas said. “He subverted the senate and finally took over and became an imperial guy and he was really evil. But he pretended to be a really nice guy. He sucked Luke’s father into the dark side."
6. FAN SPECULATION WAS AS INSANE BACK THEN AS IT IS NOW.
While fan speculation is nothing more than a click away now, it’s nothing new. The official Star Wars Fan Club was in full swing in 1983, and the Lucasfilm staff received tons of letters from fans speculating on any number of out-there rumors about what they thought would happen.
Rumors around the release of the film included how Boba Fett was a beautiful woman assassin in disguise who turned out to be Luke’s mother or that the Emperor was a clone of Obi-Wan. “I love the list of rumors,” Mark Hamill told JW Rinzler in his book, The Making of Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. “One of my favorites is that Solo and Vader are somehow fused, so I can’t kill one without killing the other.”
7. IT CHANGED THE WAY WE HEAR MOVIES.
The blockbuster credit featuring a slowly building deafening sound punctuated by the letters “T-H-X” is near-ubiquitous these days, but Return of the Jedi was the first film to use the cutting-edge movie sound certification.
This was born when Lucas, after months of sound mixing and putting finishing touches on special effects, wanted to screen the third Star Wars movie at the Marina Theater, his favorite cinema in San Francisco, to get a full cinema experience. But during the screening, the sound mix was off, and dialogue and sound effects weren’t correct. When he and his team got back to Lucasfilm they realized it wasn’t a problem with the print—the problem was with the theater’s faulty audio standards. So they devised a set of audio criteria for theaters to be able to show certain blockbuster films that they dubbed “THX Certification,” inspired by Lucas’s debut film, THX 1138.
The specifications included directions that theaters “must be acoustically neutral — non-reverberant — to prevent sonic reflections from muddying dialogue; and (their) sound systems must reproduce substantial deep bass throughout the hall.”
8. YODA WAS ORIGINALLY LEFT OUT.
Marquand requested Lucas and Kasdan include Yoda in Return of the Jedi, even though the co-screenwriters were going to leave the little green Jedi out altogether.
The original idea was to begin the film after Luke had completed his training with Yoda on Dagobah, but Marquand insisted they restructure the story so that audiences wouldn’t feel cheated for not seeing Luke’s Jedi training. Lucas also reportedly agreed to include Yoda because he needed an independent character to confirm Darth Vader's claim to audiences that he is, in fact, Luke Skywalker's father.
9. ADMIRAL ACKBAR WAS A FLUKE.
Marquand chose the squid-like design of Admiral Ackbar during a pre-production meeting. “George suddenly said to me, ‘Who’s going to play Admiral Ackbar? I just decided he should be a creature, so you can pick out Admiral Ackbar,’” Marquand said. “I said, ‘George, I think this should be your decision. He’s one of your new characters here.’ And he said, ‘No, you choose.’”
Marquand then selected a design by concept artist Nilo Rodis-Jamero, which was “the most delicious, wonderful creature out of the whole lot, this great big wonderful Calamari man with a red face and eyes on the side."
10. THERE WAS NO LOVE FOR THE EWOKS.
It seems everybody on the production except Lucas hated the Ewoks, the furry inhabitants of Endor. Cast and crew detested what they thought was a marketing cash grab, especially the final dance scene.
Ralph McQuarrie refused to work on designs for them once he realized what Lucas actually wanted. “They were starting to look teddy bear-like and I wasn’t for that. So I gave them three or four drawings that I thought were right on and said, ‘That’s it. Now if you don’t like those, I’m out of this competition.’”
The name “Ewoks” were inspired by the Miwoks (meaning “people,” a Native American tribe that lived in Marin and southern Sonoma County in Northern California).
11. THE FILMMAKERS WANTED A MOVIE STAR TO BE THE UNMASKED VADER.
By the time Return of the Jedi was released, fans had been waiting to catch a glimpse of the face of the evil Darth Vader. What they got when the dark lord of the Sith finally removed his mask was the face of 78-year-old British actor, director, novelist, playwright, and poet Sebastian Shaw. But the Royal Shakespeare Company performer and World War II vet wasn’t the filmmakers’ first choice.
Lucas and Marquand originally wanted to have a recognizable face staring back at audiences after the unmasking, and attempted to cast a well-known movie star like Laurence Olivier or John Gielgud to make a cameo as Vader. But after pre-production story sessions, they changed their minds and thought a nondescript person would make for a better impact in the moment.
12. FRANK OZ DIDN’T PLAY YODA ... KIND OF.
John Lithgow played Yoda in the radio adaptation of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.
13. OBI-WAN AND YODA WERE SUPPOSED TO COME BACK TO LIFE.
Lucas’s preferred ending would have included Obi-Wan and Yoda effectively being resurrected as Force ghosts from what the script calls the “netherworld” to celebrate the end of the Empire. In several script drafts, Obi-Wan and Yoda also coach Luke through his fight when he confronts Vader on the second Death Star.
In Lucas’s June 12, 1981 draft, Obi-Wan tells Luke, “I am here … to help you destroy the Emperor, and ... your father,” with Luke responding, “I can’t.” Later Yoda emerges and says, “You can and you will ... I in the netherworld and Obi-Wan at your side. Help you we will.”
These scenes were cut for various reasons, with one being that a then nearly 70-year-old Alec Guinness couldn’t effectively travel or partake in fight scenes. Upon being asked to do his single scene on Dagobah for Return of the Jedi, Guinness noted in his biography: “It’s a rotten, dull little bit, but it would have been mean of me to refuse."
14. THE SAGA COULD HAVE ENDED VERY DIFFERENTLY.
During an early story meeting with Kasdan, Lucas pitched an idea for Return of the Jedi that would have ended the saga on a very dark note.
In the scenario, Luke and Vader engage in a lightsaber battle only to have Vader sacrifice himself to save his son and kill the Emperor—much like in the final film. But then, as Luke watches Vader die, Lucas suggested that, "Luke takes his mask off. The mask is the very last thing—and then Luke puts it on and says, 'Now I am Vader,’” with Kasdan responding, “That’s what I think should happen.” But the pair decided to scrap a second downer ending after The Empire Strikes Back, and went with the happy ending after all.
15. BOUSHH IS JUST E.T.
The voice of Boushh, Princess Leia's bounty hunter disguise when she’s trying to free Han Solo from Jabba's Palace, is Pat Welsh, the same radio actress who was the voice of E.T. in 1982's E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.
16. LUCAS GOT RID OF A TON OF SPECIAL EFFECTS LATE IN THE GAME.
When Lucas and editors Sean Barton, Duwayne Dunham, and Marcia Lucas delivered a cut of the film in November 1982, it forced the special effects teams at ILM to restructure key sequences totaling up to 100 visual effects shots—especially in the end battle sequence. Lucas cut the shots and substituted others as a way to improve the climax of the film.
“A lot of the stuff cut was work that [visual effects artist] Ken Ralston had supervised, that they had worked months on producing,” ILM supervisor Bruce Nicholson told Rinzler. “It was called ‘Black Friday’ because it was the equivalent of the stock market crash.”
The Making of Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, by JW Rinzler