When the news broke the other day that Lucasfilm had fired the directing team of Phil Lord and Chris Miller off its Han Solo spinoff flick, a few things came to mind. First and foremost, there was the shock of a major project like this making such an enormous move, especially, ahem, five months into shooting.
After that, I took a moment to see what people were saying, and it came out that Lucasfilm chief Kathleen Kennedy wasn’t happy with the style and tone of the film that Lord and Miller were making, which led me to the second reaction, which was, “Well, jeez, who did she think she was hiring?” I mean, these are the guys behind Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, 21 Jump Street and its sequel, 22 Jump Street, and The LEGO Movie.
In other words, while the pair is immensely talented, these guys are not exactly Merchant and Ivory.
But after pondering that for a short spell, something else popped into my head, as I considered the history of Lucasfilm projects and one or two external incidents that directly relate to this particular cinematic universe. It was a dark thought, a sinister one, that I turned around a bit before I finally allowed myself to verbalize it, at which point I realized that, in even asking the question, I already had my answer.
Does Lucasfilm have itself a Director Problem?
After having given Warner Bros. so much guff for its issues with directors on the DC Comics movies, it would be unfair not to come to a similar conclusion here, simply because this is what the evidence suggests.
Most of the people reading this will be aware of the stürm und drang that surrounded last year’s Lucasfilm production of Rogue One, which essentially replaced director Gareth Edwards with Old Pro Tony Gilroy, as the experienced Gilroy came in with massive rewrites and directed large reshoots which, apparently (depending on who is talking) reshaped a good portion of the movie. That, in and of itself, should have been something of a red flag, but now this happens, and the central issue is inescapable.
And we haven’t even gotten into the catastrophe that is The Book of Henry, which is basically one of the worst reviewed films of the year, is going to be a major flop, and is a pretty large setback to its director, Colin Trevorrow. This is only important, mind you, because he is the man charged with writing and directing Episode IX of the Star Wars saga, due in theaters Memorial Day Weekend, 2019.
Apparently, the big difference between Lord and Miller and Edwards is that, when confronted with the idea of bringing in outside help to reshape things and oversee reshoots, Edwards said, “Sure, okay,” while Lord and Miller were not as eager to play along. This did not sit well with Kennedy, who has a very tight hold on all things Star Wars-related, and so she pulled the trigger on them, to the great and utter shock of Lord and Miller, who figured, naturally, that things would work themselves out.
There are a bunch of interesting factors here, not least of which is Kennedy’s desire to bring in hot, young, up-and-coming filmmakers, then refusing to allow them to do the things that drew her attention in the first place. For instance, with Lord and Miller, their style is much more loose and improvisational than what Kennedy is used to, as well as writer — and long time stalwart of the Lucasfilm Universe — Lawrence Kasdan, whose attitude is “You shoot the words that are on the page and don’t make them up as you go.” It seems he was at odds with Lord and Miller right from the start, so when they rejected out of hand the notion of dealing with someone else to come in and “help” them, it was time to let them go.
No matter, by the way, that some folks in the know were admirers of what the pair was doing, even while those same folks admitted it wasn’t a conventional Star Wars film, which was Kennedy’s whole point. Of course, others have said they were overmatched, out of their depth, and should never have been hired in the first place, so I think the only thing on which we can agree here is that no one is agreeing on anything.
Either way, the two just weren’t a good fit, whereas Rian Johnson, currently in post-production on December’s The Last Jedi, understands the Universe perfectly and, word has it, has Kennedy and her team very happy with his cut of the film. Which means that, if you liked The Force Awakens and Rogue One, you’re going to love Jedi.
Trevorrow is another issue, in that, while the Book of Henry fiasco might make him more pliable for Kennedy, the legitimate question has to be asked about whether or not he is up to the task. While I quite like his first film, Safety Not Guaranteed, I can’t say the same about his second, Jurassic World, which might have made a ton of money (and got a lot of good reviews I never quite understood), but just isn’t a good movie. Don’t get me wrong, I’m rooting for him, but this has to be of some concern to those in charge.
There’s also an important fact here that can’t be ignored: none of this is new. Lucasfilm has always had a director problem. George Lucas directed four of the first six, and while the first one is great, it’s also, in hindsight, badly flawed, and the three prequels are awful. When he brought in his film school professor, and old pro helmer, Irvin Kershner to direct The Empire Strikes Back, he let Kershner run the show without any real supervision, then was furious when the film didn’t really turn out the way he envisioned, even though it is by far the best film of the series.
It’s for that reason, in fact, that journeyman Richard Marquand was hired to helm Return of the Jedi, so that Lucas could control every aspect of the production and thus not have to deal with his personal vision being corrupted, as it had been with Kershner. There are tons of stories out there of how ineffectual Marquand was on set, as if he was nothing more than a proxy for the boss. Which, essentially, he was.
Which is sort of where we are now. It has become exceedingly clear that anyone signing up for one of these gigs in the future will have to be well aware what they’re in for, and then make the decision about whether or not being a sort of puppet for his or her Lucasfilm Overlords is how they want to spend a couple years of their career. Yes, it’s an insane opportunity to make a Star Wars film, but there are going to be a fair number of auteurs who will pass on the offer, simply because, while they might want to play with someone else’s toys, they won’t want to be instructed by said toy owner exactly how they’re allowed to play with them.
Yesterday, Ron Howard stepped into the director’s chair, a seasoned pro whose best films are in the rearview mirror, but who will almost certainly come in and do a professional job of fulfilling Kennedy’s vision, in a way that first Edwards, and then Lord and Miller, weren’t.
Because let’s face it — at this point, what has become obvious is that the vision to be fulfilled, from here on out, is Kennedy’s, and woe be to any director who thinks differently.