THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK at Jason Reitman's Live Read

Contributor; Toronto
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THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK at Jason Reitman's Live Read
George Lucas' refusal to let sleeping dogs lie has confused the essence of Star Wars since the film's 20th anniversary in 1997, when Lucas re-released the trilogy with his first installment of effects revisionism. Now, one can't even watch the original films without seeing Lucas' 'improvements' via newly dated, 90s CGI, intended to bridge the generation gap between the original trilogy and the effects-centric post millennial prequels. Lucas may have succeeded in achieving the effects he'd always been after, but it came at the heavy cost of the original Star Wars' charm.

This is one of the many things that makes The Empire Strikes Back such a perfect fit for Jason Reitman's Live Read series in Los Angeles, where, every month, a beloved script is recast by modern actors and read cold before a live audience. The events are a fascinating window into the skeletons of favored films, baring them down to what usually matters most - the story.

Reitman likes to further shake things up with re-interpretative casting. For example, when Live Read threw Reservoir Dogs under the microscope, Reitman thought it would be interesting to see how the material would feel with an all black cast, including Terrence Howard, Laurence Fishburne, and Cuba Gooding Jr. as the original gangsters. When Glengarry Glen Ross was the selection of the month, Reitman cast an entirely female firm.

Then, just last Thursday, Reitman exercised a bit of genius recasting with The Empire Strikes Back. First there was 21st century boy, Aaron Paul, as Luke, the young would-be Jedi knight. Playing Luke's father (spoiler alert) Papa Darth, was 2014's most intimidating villain, JK Simmons. Jessica Alba, a modern princess in her own right, was fittingly cast as Leia.

Reitman was at his most deconstructive in modernizing the Princess Leia and Han Solo sexual tension by giving the role of Han to, Juno alumni and LGBT activist, Ellen Page. The cast was rounded out by Dennis Haysbert as Lando Calrissian, Stephen Merchant as C-3PO, the brilliant Kevin Pollak as Yoda, and a hysterical portrayal of Chewbacca by Rainn Wilson.

Perhaps the most inspired casting choice of all was Star Wars godfather, Mark Hamill, taking the helm as the distinguished old-school Jedi, Obi Wan Kenobi. Though Obi Wan's lines were few, Hamill's presence offered the event a sort of official blessing, as well as a sense of generational lineage; enough to make imaginative fans wonder what a bona fide Star Wars VII might look like. Hopefully it wouldn't be to the tune of, "may the force be with you, bitch!!".

Highlights of the night included Merchant's organically British interpretation of C-3PO, which saw some mild dialogue revisions, offering a brilliant fusion of Merchant and the android's personalities, Pollak's expert approach to every minor character, Page's machismo, Simmons' terrifyingly baritone Vader, and perhaps most crowd-pleasing of all, every time Rainn Wilson opened his mouth to deliver Chewbacca's 'lines'. Also, let's not forget the live audience's grossed-out response to the moment when Leia gives her brother, Luke, a wet smackeroo. Lastly, to further spice up the extremely well known film, the audience was treated to a not quite final draft of the Empire script.

But more than any one highlight, the charm of the night was driven by the interplay of the ensemble and the general collective basking in Star Wars fandom. Reitman's live read may thrive on dialogue heavy films like Boogie Nights or Diner, but as Thursday night demonstrated, there's plenty of room for beloved blockbusters as well. For, as Reitman knows all too well, these films are cherished just as much for their bare imagination as their actualization. If only Lucas was able to keep that in mind.
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Aaron PaulEllen PageJ.K. SimmonsJason ReitmanJessica AlbaKevin PollakLive ReadMark HamillRainn WilsonStar WarsStephen MerchantThe Empire Strikes Back

Around the Internet

BongBongDecember 21, 2014 8:30 PM

Where can we listen to or watch these events?

Chris EatonDecember 21, 2014 8:55 PM

You can't, they don't allow recordings, which makes covering them pointless. I love Jason Reitman and his work, but these live reads are the most aggravating thing he does. "Special Event' for a few hundred people that's Hyped beyond remorse online. In this day and age, if you're not going to record it, why bother hyping it. I say these live reads sell themselves, don't announce any of the cast any more and just let the folks who CAN get in enjoy them.

This is why I don't care for live theater..

BongBongDecember 21, 2014 9:42 PM

On the other hand, they charge $25 per person for attendees, so they aren't exactly losing money on these reads.

EnforcerDecember 22, 2014 12:21 AM

It was 25 for the nosebleed (members) and 50,75,100 closer to the stage. Jessica Alba was weak in her ability to speak into the mic. Was tough to hear or understand her. I wasn't too pleased with Aaron Paul's Luke. Pollack was on fire. Page was good once she warmed up. Simmons has done the reads previously (shampoo, iirc)
Merchant was great. Reitman had the most lines, unusual but without visual effects he had to give a lot of detail. Hamil was great as his vo experience showed. Haysbert was so so. Never really got into the part.
The venue was ok, the Ace is a hipster place in LA. There were bars open and popcorn. Some people got a little too partied up. When it is at LACMA the drinks come after the event and no one leaves their seats. Lots of young impatient guests coming and going.
Since these events are one night only and not recorded, it is a treat. Hardest ticket to get in LA. They presold over half the seats before the season and another 20 pct is for tape and seal (VIP) so when the seats go on sale it is already sold out.
Hopefully they can find a better way to manage distribution.
A reason they don't record .. Royalties. Can you imagine getting clearances for that? And who would have to be paid?

BongBongDecember 22, 2014 4:05 PM

Well, I'm not actually 100% sure there would be a royalty to be paid. This was a public performance of a screenplay. If it was even mildly satirical, it would be protected from copyright infringement issues.