George Lucas is the boss
According to the official statement, Han Solo movie directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller parted ways with the Star Wars universe Tuesday over creative differences.
And that is true, in the sense that Robb Stark of Winterfell parted ways with a wedding feast over creative differences with the Lannisters.
Every inside source characterized Lord and Miller’s untimely departure, three weeks before the Solo film wraps, as a firing. They had butted heads with Lucasfilm president and producer Kathleen Kennedy once too often over their vision and approach to everyone’s favorite scoundrel.
Lawrence Kasdan, the Star Wars veteran who wrote the script with his son, fundamentally disagreed with Lord and Miller’s interpretation of Han Solo, and wouldn’t you know it, all of a sudden the cheeky, cheery Lego-loving directors were gone.
The Kasdans send their regards.
What should we make of this throne room intrigue? What should any outside director — such as Ron Howard, whose name was rumored to be on the replacement list — remember as they survey the scene of Lucasfilm hurriedly scrubbing the blood off the floor of Pinewood Studios?
Simply this: that it’s business as usual.
The Iron Throne of Star Wars has not ever, not once, been occupied by a director whose name was not Lucas. And even he, King George the Creator, was governed by his wife’s edits on the first movie. When he tried to rule alone, we got the prequels.
The realm of Star Wars is not a place where outside directors thrive unless they understand their place in the scheme of things. It is a strange land unlike Hollywood or the auteur power centers of Europe. Here, the state religion is “we’ll fix it in post.”
Here the producer, the screenwriter, the visual artist, the franchise-wide story group, the editor are ultimate kings. The director is more akin to an OB/GYN in the royal infirmary.
The one who came closest to ruling was Irvin Kershner the Wise, director of Empire Strikes Back. Lucas gave Kersh a lot of latitude — he was a respected old hand who’d once judged a student film contest Lucas won.
But the Creator also fumed over how slow Kershner was, given that he was playing with Lucas’ money. And with good reason: the shoot fell so far behind schedule that Lucasfilm almost didn’t make payroll one month.
In Lucasfilm legend, this moment is the fall from grace of the auteur director. Lucas was the son of a small-town businessman; unlike his profligate best friend Francis Coppola, he intended to keep within his means and grow a company carefully. Like the Lannisters, Lucas always paid his debts.
From Return of the Jedi onwards, the key factor in the choice of an outside director for Star Wars was whether he would be pliable enough to deliver the creative vision presented in the script on time and under budget. David Lynch was offered the Jedi job, but was wise enough to trust the migraine he developed during his interview at Lucasfilm.
Instead, a little-known British director called Richard Marquand got the gig, mostly based on his TV work. Marquand was soon to discover the limitations of Lucas, who decided to spend almost every day on set, directing over his head. When Marquand presented what he said was the final cut of Revenge of the Jedi, Lucas said thank you, and took the movie away for months of edits and reshoots, even changing the title.
Fellow up-and-coming British director Gareth Edwards, according to many accounts, had a similar experience on Rogue One. He had his vision, his final cut. It did not pass Lucasfilm’s smell test. The company paid writer-director Tony Gilroy a reported $5 million to helm the rewriting, reshooting and hefty re-edit of Edwards’ material.
Edwards, unlike Lord and Miller, chose to accept his sudden demotion to Hand of the King. He was rewarded with his name remaining on the film, and with one unforgettable moment: he still got to direct the Darth Vader lightsaber scene inserted in the film, at the suggestion of editors, at the last minute.
Less is known about the behind-the-scenes battles over The Force Awakens, though three things are clear about director J.J. Abrams. One, he was very much a team player, almost always on the same page as Kathy Kennedy. Two, he was being directly and repeatedly reminded by Disney CEO Bob Iger that the Star Wars revival was Iger’s $4 billion investment; no pressure there, boss.
And thirdly, Abrams leaned heavily on Lawrence Kasdan for the crucial process of writing and envisioning the film. The two old-school fans threw out everything by first-pass screenwriter Michael Arndt, who was rather less of a team player, and wrote in a free-form manner, taking walks and recording their conversations.
The pair simply asked each other: what Star Wars-y things would we most want to see on the screen? What would delight us? Then they stitched that together into a script, Abrams shot it with multiple safe-as-houses nods to the original film. Not much that was likely to ruffle feathers there, and the newly formed Lucasfilm Story Group was there for the collaboration-friendly Abrams to make sure he didn’t deviate from Star Wars lore.
So far as we know, The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson is a team player who enjoys the full confidence of Kennedy and Lucasfilm; he made it all the way through the shoot with his head intact, at least, but stay tuned for the summer, which usually brings reshoots.
Johnson may be the rare auteur director who slips through Lucasfilm’s ancient temple of traps to steal the golden idol (Yeah, we’re switching to Indiana Jones metaphors, sue us.) His visual sensibility, on the basis of the trailer, matches or even exceeds what Lucasfilm expects from the darker middle third of a trilogy.
And Johnson seems amenable and ego-less; he has recently said he changed a plot point at the request of Colin Trevorrow, his successor at the helm of Star Wars Episode IX.
Trevorrow, meanwhile, would be wise to notice the shadow of the noose that passed over his tenure when his film The Book of Henry opened this week to uniformly poor reviews and accusations of sexism. He may yet survive if he plays the humble supplicant a la Richard Marquand.
His only unpardonable sin will be the same one that got his predecessors into trouble: behaving as if he has final say on what is inherently, like every other Star Wars movie, a Lucasfilm-wide joint.