Star Wars, Han Solo, Its Directors, and Kathleen Kennedy. What's the deal here?
It was recently announced that Lucasfilm and the directing duo of Phil Lord and Chris Miller have parted ways on the upcoming, untitled Star Wars film centered on a younger Han Solo. This news came via Variety and then was announced on StarWars.com which subsequently hit the echo chamber that is the internet. The reaction has been pretty solid towards posing the question, "Is this worrisome?". Sadly, when you look at the recent history of Lucasfilm and its directors, the answer leans yes.
Now, let me preface this. What you are about to read is not going to be an article claiming that Earth has burned to a cinder. The film will still come out and the franchise will move on regardless. Still though, what's the deal with the majority of directorial choices made by Kathleen Kennedy and Lucasfilm? Kathleen Kennedy's resume speaks for itself and when she was announced as the new head of Lucasfilm, personally, I could not have been more excited. This is the woman who produced 17 Steven Spielberg films, the Back to the Future Trilogy, Scorsese's Cape Fear, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Sixth Sense, and many many more that fill the lexicon. She understands everything a person in the film business can and she has handled large franchises before. Perfect, right?
Towards Star Wars, things started great. A smart, if safe, choice for the re-entry into the Star Wars universe was chosen in the form of J.J. Abrams who has two very distinct talents. Working with younger casts, and making a film comfortable to ease into. He is a populist director with a massive amount of charisma and a strong eye. To restate, his ability to get performances out of younger actors is comparable to that of Spielberg. He is THAT good. On the other hand, beside the dead horse joke of lens flare, he does not exactly have a style of his own.
When you see a Tarantino film, you know where you are. You don't need to be told it was directed by Tarantino. Same goes for select modern day directors such as David Fincher, Wes Anderson, Christopher Nolan, and even Guy Ritchie. When you walk into a film directed by these folks, you are told it visually and audibly. Abrams, not so much. He is a fantastic chameleon. He has an innate ability to mimic film styles. There is no better example of this then in Super 8, a film I really enjoy, which is a giant hug to Steven Spielberg. His Star Wars entry was likewise in that it had his staple of young actors firing off fantastic chemistry but it still felt and looked exactly like a Star Wars film. That is not a complaint either. As I said, it was the smart, safe choice and paid off in spades. The Force Awakens was a hit and besides some folk begrudging how similar it was to A New Hope (the mimic point arises again), it was embraced by the fans and movie goers at large.
Following this we learned that Rian Johnson would direct Episode 8 and hot off the financial success of Jurassic World, Colin Trevorrow would helm the finale of the new saga trilogy. In addition, Josh Trank was attached to an unnamed Star Wars project with Gareth Edwards earning the opportunity to show us exactly how the plans for the Death Star got into Princess Leia's hand with Rogue One. This did not happen all in one afternoon mind you, but there it was. A lot of wheels were in motion and excitement was high.
Then Fantastic Four happened.
John Trank had a fresh take in his low-budget, found footage, superhero film, Chronicle, but his followup film with 20th Century Fox, Fantastic Four, was an utter disaster. Not only was the film a critical and financial failure, reports surfaced of over $100,000 worth of damages to a rented home, issues with the producers, and Trank being "erratic". All of this lead to re-shoots that occurred only months before the targeted release date and many unhappy executives at Fox. Let's be honest too, if the film wound up being a success, all the other issues would have gone by the way side. Keep that in mind.
With all of the bad vibes spreading over Trank and his behavior, he was bumped off his Star Wars film. Lucasfilm was gracious in allowing Trank to state that he departed the project, but everyone knew the deal. He had lost the gig. The question then arose as to why a largely new, stranger to big budget film, director was even given the reigns at a Star Wars film with everything that was riding on it? Sure, Chronicle is great but it seemed a large jump and may have hurt Trank's career in the long run.
Then came Gareth Edwards and Rogue One. Edwards got much deserved attention with his film Monsters which was a low budget indie hit. It showed a filmmaker who can do a lot with sci-fi without having to show a special effects cluttered mess. He followed that up with 2014's Godzilla which is neither great nor terrible. It suffers pacing issues and dispatches the most interesting character way too early. It also barely features Godzilla on screen, which I liked, but it did feel a bit empty as a result too. After that, onto Star Wars. The shoot of Rogue One had some issues at hand though and ultimately Tony Gilroy was brought in for re-shoots and was paid to the tune of 5 million dollars to do so. Now, re-shoots are not uncommon, on the contrary, but bringing in another person on the paycheck of 5 million is not exactly common practice either. We don't know the specifics of why Gilroy was brought in, but obviously the product at hand was not stitching together very well in the eyes of the producers. In particular, the ending was retooled quite a bit, or all together depending on what source you read. Upon release, Rogue One was a box office smash but definitely had its share of criticism towards pacing and lack of character development. It also used CG to recreate some lost folks and the reaction was mixed. Truthfully though, towards Tarkin, many people who were not aware of who Peter Cushing was and that he had died over 20 years ago, had no clue the character was CG. Make of that what you will. With all of those concerns though, Edwards brought a new look to the Star Wars cinematic universe. It had a grit without being dour, felt more tactile, and improved upon the "lived in" feel that the best Star Wars film have. Full marks to him on that. Yet, despite the film being a box office monster and successfully introducing a new tone, the question remained towards the motivation on the heavy retooling and bringing in Tony Gilroy. Was this another un-experienced director who bit off more than he could chew? And if so, how did this get by the powers that be. Maybe hiring the director who made heads turn by showing less and accomplishing more, was not the guy to then tell, "Show everything". It seems an odd match.
Now for the uplifting piece. Rian Johnson. The director of The Last Jedi, aka Episode 8, seems to have it all rolling. His enthusiasm for the project is addictive, his knowledge of the series makes him seem trustworthy in his love of the lore and quite frankly he is the best damned director of all the people chosen for this new run of Star Wars films. None of the other filmmakers made a better film than Looper, Brick, or even his three episodes of Breaking Bad. He also is the only director that I can sit down and get a sense that he directed it. Johnson has his own style and it seems he was given the leeway to inject it into his entry of the series. Granted, I am basing this off a teaser for The Last Jedi, but it feels different from the other "saga" films in a good way. If anything, it feels very "Empire", which is exactly what most fans want to see and hear. This choice seems the most inspired and fitting. J.J. Abrams fit extremely well due to what needed to be accomplished, but this choice seems to fit in the effort and need to expand the films into a larger. more original, story.
For Episode 9 we have Colin Trevorrow. This may be the most head scratching one for me. I get it, Jurassic World made a ton of money but I think the nostalgia machine was turned so far up, the film would have had to arrive on fire to not make money. Nothing in that movie stands out beside the assistant woman being tortured slowly by dinosaurs who drag her over the ground and sky to eventually eat her. It's a total rehash of the original with no new interesting characters or events. More recently, The Book of Henry was released and the reaction to this offering by Trevorrow has been pretty harsh. It's sporting a Rotten Tomatoes score of 24% and to quote one review (trust me, many echo this sentiment) it's "grotesquely phony and manipulative". So, that's something. I find myself in total agreement with an article recently written by Owen Gleiberman in Variety where he states, "To my mind, Trevorrow has never made a movie in which he has told a powerfully and convincingly emotional story. His aesthetic seems to lack the human factor." Did Kathleen Kennedy and Co only look at box office receipts? I understand the business of the business but making a quality flick also is good for business isn't it? At this moment, I have zero enthusiasm for Episode 9 and many folks are starting to rightfully question WHY Trevorrow gets this honor. That being said, PLEASE, prove me wrong and make the best Star Wars finale film yet.
Finally, we find ourselves five months into filming the unnamed Han Solo film and the directors were, apparently, fired after months of clashing with Kathleen Kennedy and others at Lucasfilm. Did it really take this long to realize a "creative difference" existed? Miller and Lord have been making quality and bank off of comedies for the most part. 21 Jump Street, 22 Jump Street and The Lego Movie all have a great off-center feel to them. It would be a good assumption that they would bring a similar approach to Han. That would be my guess anyway. Behind Rian Johnson, I felt the most excitement towards this match up. Han needs to be a silly, fun romp. Not slap stick, but high energy. Miller and Lord would seem a strong fit. Again though, are the folks at Lucasfilm only looking at box office receipts and not the actual product produced by the talent at hand? Were they unaware of their previous works and tone created in such? What was discussed in the pre-production meetings that caused an oversight in opinion this harshly? What was the disconnect here and why so late in the game has it fallen apart?
In conclusion, out of the 6 directorial choices made, he have one that never made it to production, one that required a second hand to come in for extensive re-shoots, another that left while approaching the finish line, and a director who has yet to make a compelling film but people like dinosaurs.
Does this fall on the shoulders of Kathleen Kennedy? She is ultimately the one calling the shots. Her resume is beyond compare but she has also had the blessing of seeing Steven Spielberg in the directors chair for 17 feature films. Is finding the right fit for this franchise proving to be a larger problem than anticipated? I can't imagine so but based on the current results, that seems a question to be raised.
In the end though, Star Wars will be fine. Kathleen Kennedy will be fine. Hell, the Han Solo film will probably be fine despite this development. Too much money is at risk and mountains will be moved to ensure the investment is paid in full with interest pouring over everyone's head. In closing, don't panic but definitely shoot first.
EDIT - Just to update some info from above, Colin Trevorrow was bumped out of directing Episode 9 and replaced with JJ Abrams. That makes 4 directors that were either booted before production or in mid-production. This is not a good trend.