Howard Kazanjian

Howard Kazanjian (Producer)

Howard Kazanjian
Producer (Return of the Jedi)
Interview: January 2010

How did you get in the movie business and how did you meet George Lucas? I understand the two of you are still good friends?

We met each other at USC Cinema, now School of Cinematic Arts. George was a year behind me, but back in the sixties there were fewer than seventy-five full time Cinema majors. We knew everyone, had classes together, and did things together. I graduated and went into the very first Assistant Directors Training Program. Eighteen months later George and I met at Warner Brothers Studio where he had won the USC/WB six month scholarship. I was an Assistant Director on Finian’s Rainbow. George called me on the set and asked if he could visit and naturally I invited him down. I introduced him to Francis Coppola and the rest is history.

You were the assistant director for Alfred Hitchcock’s Family Plot. How was it to work with such a legend and what words of advice did he gave you?

I have had some great moments in my career working with some wonderful, talented, successful and great people. Hitchcock as did Billy Wilder stood out. They were the old school of story and filmmaking. I learned a great deal from both, but Hitchcock gave me the opportunity to sit with him for hours as he told me much of his life story and how he made many of his pictures and why. We spoke about camera angles, casting, lighting, really every aspect of filmmaking. To this day I use some of the tricks and suggestions he impelled upon me. I only wish I had worked with him earlier when he made North By Northwest, Vertigo, The Birds, The Man Who Knew Too Much, etc. But then I would be too old for this interview.

You have worked with both George Lucas and Harrison Ford on both Star Wars and Indiana Jones. How are both men to work with?

I also worked briefly with Harrison on the sequel to American Graffiti. Simply put, one is a very talented filmmaker and the other an actor. Harrison was a gem, great fun, and certainly a professional. I admire him. George is a friend who gave me some wonderful memories. I learned much from George as well and I am grateful he took me under his wing.

You have worked for LucasFilm quite some time. How was the atmosphere there back then?

Back in the Star Wars trilogy and Raiders of the Lost Ark days the company was quite small but growing. We knew everyone by name. It was a close family. When we finally settled up north in Marine it began to grow. ILM had about 110 employees. Ten years ago I understand ILM had as many as 1000 during peak production. I knew nearly everyone by name and job title. It was also fun to be involved watching George build Skywalker Ranch. I could speak or have lunch with George every day, or whenever we wished. Today it is much different. George is stretched quite a bit running all his divisions, even though he has people reporting to him.

One of the things that had to be done before Return of the Jedi was shot was bringing Harrison Ford (who had just a contract for two movies) back. Did you play a part in getting him back? And how was it achieved since Ford once stated that he was ‘the expendable one’.

I played a very important part in bringing Harrison back for Return of the Jedi. Harrison, unlike Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill signed only a two picture contract. That is why he was frozen in carbonite in The Empire Strikes Back. When I suggested to George we should bring him back, I distinctly remember him saying that Harrison would never return. I said what if I convinced him to return. George simply replied that we would then write him in to Jedi. I had just recently negotiated his deal for Raiders of the Lost Ark with Phil Gersh of the Gersh Agency. I called Phil who said he would speak with Harrison. When I called back again, Phil was on vacation. David, his son, took the call and we negotiated Harrison’s deal. When Phil returned to the office several weeks later he called me back and said I had taken advantage of his son in the negotiations. I had not. But agents are agents.

One of the biggest scenes in Return of the Jedi was the Sail Barge/Sarlacc it scene (it is in fact my all time favorite scene). Can you share some memories regarding shooting those scenes in Yuma, Arizona?

I sent Louis Friedman nine months ahead of shooting to begin supervising the construction of the Barge. A year before shooting the Ewok Forest scenes, we sent a crew to lay out the pathways for the Ewoks removing all stones, roots, and any obstacle. We remove and replanted sixteen thousand ferns. We let the rains come restoring the forest making it perfect when the crew arrived a year later. The barge was a very expensive and complex undertaking. We hired a new Art Department under the direction of our Production Designer, Norman Reynolds who made several trips from the UK to California during the construction. The interior of the Jabba’s Barge was shot in London. I can tell you now, that there is only one shot in the picture of the full (Buttercup Valley) barge. All other full shots of the barge were created by ILM. Our first day on the location met us with a terrible sand storm. I think you’ve seen behind the scene pictures of that event. Fortunately the balance of our shoot had great weather. However, at night, winds did blow all the sand off of the table top. Early each morning a crew put the sand back up on the platform.

How was your relation with the cast like Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Anthony Daniels and Billy Dee Williams?

My relationship was very good. I’ve always had great success working with actors over my long career. I still keep in contact with some of them. I can say on the Jedi set, Billy Dee Williams was the most relaxed and fun to be around.

For Return of the Jedi there were several scenes shot that didn’t make the movie and aren’t featured on the DVDs or in any documentary. A few examples: the sandstorm, Luke constructing his lightsaber on Tatooine with C-3PO looking.

This day is something I want to forget. We had sand and wind blowing everywhere. Sand was not only in and on the Millennium Falcon, but in our (the crews) protective clothing. And the cast didn’t like it much either. You can see in the behind the scene photos our white jump suits. It didn’t help much. The sand got in our eyes and hair. We shot the scene as quickly as possible. After we finished, the Falcon and stage had to be cleaned. The sound proof walls of the stage needed vacuuming as did the rafters in the ceiling. In editing, this was one of the first scenes to be eliminated, again, because of the length of the picture. And I also don’t think it moved the story along. And if a scene becomes fill, then you don’t need it.

As for Luke constructing his lightsaber, George felt we needed to explain how he got his replacement that he had lost. This was an afterthought shot at Death Valley. The interior of the cave was shot at ILM on their stage. While we were at Death Valley, we also shot the long shot of C-3PO and R2D2 walking towards Jabba’s Palace. The Palace was a matt shot on glass.

Can you tell something about these scenes and is there any chance the public will ever see them?

I believe in some documentary, or perhaps a book we’ve seen a shot or two of the lightsaber scene. It was cut from the picture to keep the running time of Jedi around 2 hours 15 minutes. If the picture were just a few minutes longer, we would have lost one showing each day at every theater.

Are there more deleted scenes that the public doesn’t know of?

No, not really. There were major trims on the Endor planet, interior of the bunker, corridor chases, the Sarlacc, things like that. But separate and whole scenes deleted, no.

It was you that came up with the title Revenge of the Jedi, which was dropped for Return of the Jedi. What is the real story behind this? It is often said that it was changed because according to George a Jedi doesn’t take revenge, but I read that it was always his plan to use Return of the Jedi as a title.
22 years later, George used ‘Revenge’ for Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. How did you feel about the fact that your idea was finally used?

No, I did not come up with the name exactly. George told me the title would be Return of the Jedi. We discussed this at length and I felt it was too common. There were recent releases of several “return” pictures. I told him it fell into the category of Return of the Panther, and others. Our picture was RETURN, not a “return” sequel. We discussed a few titles. A few days later George told me the title would be Revenge of the Jedi. We didn’t release that title until several months later. And even later, after the “coming to a theater” one sheets appeared with Revenge of the Jedi, did George come to me and say he was changing it back to Return, because Jedi’s don’t take revenge. It is true Jedi’s don’t take revenge. George did once tell say he didn’t release the true title Return because he didn’t want people to know the Jedi were returning.

Are there things (like lines for instance) in Return of the Jedi and/or Raiders of the Lost Ark that were your idea?

Yes, many. For five days George, Larry Kasdan and myself set in story conference meeting where George laid out the plot. Larry asked most of the questions. We all made suggestions. There were several drafts delivered both by Larry and George and George and I, and one time Marcia Lucas, discussed what worked and what did not. I will tell you now that Darth Vader never was to appear at the end in ghost appearance with Yoda and Ben. Two days before we shot that scene I suggested that Vader be there as well. George didn’t answer, but just looked at me. The next day George told me to prepare to shoot Vader with Yoda and Ben. Later that the day I had second thoughts about what I had suggested. After all, two good guys were standing next to a very bad guy. But in the end, there was redemption on Vader’s part, and forgiveness on Luke’s. It worked, and I am still very pleased with my suggestion.

In Raiders of the Lost Ark, the line: “I hate snakes”. Indy Jones was a smoker, and drinker. One by one I convinced Steven (and George) to take that out. I had traveled and scouted Egypt and saw at Abu Simbel, Ramsey’s Temple. This was a temple build in the 13th century with a long chamber with rooms to the left and right that were carved out of the side of a mountain. Usually temples are built stone by stone, or brick by brick. This one was different. Once a year, on a special holiday, the sun would rise over the Nile River and reflect in through the entrance, all the way back to four life size statues of Ramsey’s. In his day, the arms and legs of the statues were made of Gold. The sun would light up these statues for a few minutes. In a movie I saw when I was very young, an archeologist had to reach two small twin peaks at the top of a mountain cliff and watch the sun at just the right moment, on the right day, shine down a distance to a ruin pinpointing where a particular treasure was hidden in the walls. There is more of my contribution which I shall speak about in my book. But certainly George Lucas, Larry Kasdan and Steven Spielberg contributed the most to Raiders, while on Jedi, we were just continuing to enhance George’s preceding films. Raiders was a bit long. Certain scenes came out of the script during production and budget meetings. Steven had wanted the Germans to be building a prototype Jet in a cave. That went. The flying wing had four props, to save money we shortened the wings to two. How and why these things were done will be revealed at another time.

Did any funny or remarkable things happen on the set of Return of the Jedi and Raiders of the Lost Ark? Can you share these memories?

I will only say that it was one of the greatest experiences in my life. Every minute was remarkable with great (private) memories.
You worked with Steven Spielberg on Raiders of the Lost Ark. Is his approach to movies different than George Lucas’ approach and which differences are there between working on Raiders of the Lost Ark and Return of the Jedi?

Both Spielberg and Lucas are brilliant. I’ve said nothing new. In preproduction, George works more diligently. Steven prepares thoroughly, but he is the only director I’ve worked with that can walk on a new set that he has never seen before and immediately know how he is going to shoot it.

I read that you have a book being published with the truth about the casting of Harrison Ford for Raiders of the Lost Ark. I couldn’t find this book on the internet. Is it already out, and if not, when will it be released, what will the title be and what will be in the book?

I am still writing the book. I wish I could sit down and write every day for ten hours, but other work interrupts. A friend suggested Encounters with Hollywood Greats, The Film Career of Howard Kazanjian. I rather like Last Shot of the Day. I need to finish the book and then think about a title. It is not going to be a “tell all”, although I could do that and sell more books. The “tell all” part will only be kept with me. Yes, contrary to everything you may have heard, I pushed and pushed for Harrison Ford, nearly losing my job over it. Yes, the book will certainly cover the casting of Harrison Ford. That part has already been written.
It is often said that George Lucas ‘ghost directed’ Return of the Jedi. Being the producer of this movie, how do look at this?

Let’s not discuss this now. Read my book when it is published. It would take too many words to tell you the story.
You were involved in the production of The Empire Strikes Back, which was –just like A New Hope- produced by Gary Kurtz. I hope you can talk about this: why was Gary Kurtz replaced by you as the producer of Return of the Jedi?

I may write this in the book, I’m not sure. Let’s just say for now Gary moved on to other projects. If you can get George to tell the story, then print it.

It’s been 29 and 27 years since Raiders of the Lost Ark and Return of the Jedi. How do look back at both movies?

I am very proud. These are the films that changed the direction of 20th century films. And now the 21st. century films are on the same highway. They were significant pieces of art and magic with memorable characters and story lines. Yes, I am very proud of them.

You have your own successful production company Magic Lantern. What are your projects and plans now and for the future? Maybe a chance you’ll be involved in the Star Wars live-action TV series?

I plan to continue making films. I don’t know when your article will appear, but hopefully within the next two or three weeks I will be able to make a very exciting announcement.