Han and Leia say farewell in ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ (Lucasfilm)
Every serious Star Wars fan knows the story: When Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) finally professes her love for Han Solo (Harrison Ford) in The Empire Strikes Back, his scripted reply was “I love you, too.” Instead, Harrison Ford says, “I know.” It’s a beautiful moment, often cited as one of the best actor-improvised lines in film history. But is the legend true? On the 35th anniversary of The Empire Strikes Back, let’s take a look at how Han and Leia’s memorable exchange came to be.
The conversation in the film takes place just before Han Solo is frozen alive in carbonite by Darth Vader. Not knowing if he’ll survive, he kisses Leia, only to be torn away from her by Stormtroopers. She blurts out “I love you,” and as he descends into chamber, Han replies, “I know.” It’s the last line he speaks in the movie.
In the scene from the shooting script, reprinted in J.W. Rinzler’s The Making of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, the moment does read differently. After Han kisses Leia, she says, “I love you. I couldn’t tell you before, but it’s true.” But he doesn’t say, “I love you” — his line is “Just remember that, ‘cause I’ll be back.”
On the day he shot the carbonite scene in June 1979, director Irvin Kershner was actively making changes to screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan’s script. Amazingly, there’s a complete record of when and how these changes occurred, because unit publicist Alan Arnold was recording everything on audio cassette. In a conversation between Ford and Kershner transcribed in Rinzler’s book, the director and star agree that the love scene needs to be less florid.
Watch the scene:
“I think she ought to just say, ‘I love you,’ as I’m passing by her,” Ford suggests to Kershner. Later in the conversation, he makes the change to his own line, saying, “If she says, ‘I love you,’ and I say, ‘I know,’ it’s beautiful and it’s acceptable and it’s funny.”
So it’s true that the iconic line was penned by Ford, but it wasn’t improvised on the spot: It was hashed out with Kershner before the shoot. Ford also wanted to add a line of reassurance to Leia —something like “Don’t worry about this” — which eventually became his saying to Chewbacca, “You have to take care of her.” Han Solo’s final scripted line, “I’ll be back,” ended up on the cutting room floor, because Kershner wanted to make it clear that Han Solo might not survive the carbon freeze. “You can’t [reassure her] because you don’t know whether this is the end or not,” the director said to Ford.
Ironically, that tender moment resulted in a fight between Ford and Carrie Fisher, who was annoyed that her co-star made changes to their scene without her input. When it came time for Han and Leia to profess their love, the two actors still weren’t speaking. “Harrison is a very fine actor. I regarded that scene as entirely his, which is why I gave him so much opportunity to tell me how he thought we should treat it,” Kerschner explains in Rinzler’s book. “That led to a little tension with Carrie.”
When Kershner put his first cut of The Empire Strikes Back together, executive producer George Lucas pushed back against the new dialogue, fearing that the audience would laugh at Han’s line. In a 2010 Vanity Fair interview, Kershner said that Lucas insisted on doing two preview screenings, one with Han Solo’s scripted line (which Kershner had also shot) and another with Ford’s version. “At the first preview in San Francisco, the house broke up after Han Solo said ‘I know,’” Kershner recalls. “When the film was over, people came up and said that is the most wonderful line and it worked. So George decided not to have the second screening.”
Leia and Han earlier in Cloud City (Lucasfilm)
The line is funny, but as Carrie Fisher has said, that’s exactly why it works. “When they first showed the dailies to the cast and crew, they used the live sound and so when I say, ‘I love you,’ I was body-miked and it was at the right level,” Fisher tells Rinzler. “But when Harrison replied, it came out a loud echo: ‘I KNOW!’ Well, the cast and crew laughed for about 15 minutes.… But it works because they actually can make the transition from that laugh into the fact that is something very sad.”
Lawrence Kasdan, on the other hand, was displeased that his original Han and Leia scenes were rewritten. “I could be the only person who feels this way, but I thought their romance had a touch of falseness about it,” he told Starlog Magazine in 1981. “Han and Leia’s scenes were among what I was proudest of in my script, but they hardly remained.”
Thirty-five years after Empire was released, the “I love you/I know” scene is considered one of the most genuine and touching moments in all of the Star Wars movies. Said Ford about the scene in a 2010 interview: “Film is a collaborative process. I’m happy that I was able to make a small contribution.”