As Darth Vader would presumably agree, there is not much point being the most powerful figure in the Star Wars universe if you do not use that power to get your own way once in a while. When the evil Sith Lord first demonstrated his Force Choke technique to put the insolent admiral Motti in his place in 1977’s Star Wars, it came across as a ruthless but effective method of keeping his inferiors in line. But by the time Vader had murdered two of his top men, admiral Kendal Ozzel and captain Lorth Needa, for making a mess of things during the events of Empire Strikes Back, it began to look a lot more like a careless waste of resources.
Something similar has been happening over at Lucasfilm, where president Kathleen Kennedy has now fired directors from three different prospective Star Wars movies since being hired by Disney to oversee the long-running space saga in the wake of George Lucas’s October 2012 sale to the mouse house for $4bn. The latest to fall foul is Colin Trevorrow, the director of 2019’s Star Wars: Episode IX. Before him, The Lego Movie’s Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were dismissed from Han Solo: A Star Wars Story, while Josh Trank was cut from a separate project believed to have centred on iconic bounty hunter Boba Fett. And don’t forget that Kennedy also ordered Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’s Gareth Edwards to work with Tony Gilroy on reshoots and a new edit two years ago.
Why is it, then, that Star Wars keeps losing its directors? Vulture reported over the weekend that Trevorrow was pushed because the director of Safety Not Guaranteed, Jurassic World and The Book of Henry wouldn’t play ball with Kennedy; because he was, to quote the report, “difficult”. This follows on from reports that Lord and Miller got on the producer’s dark side because they wanted to bring too much of their trademark improvisational zaniness to Han Solo. Trank, to be fair, was fired because of his allegedly offbeat behaviour during the shoot for Fantastic Four – even though the ill-fated superhero flick was a 20th Century Fox venture, word got back to Disney that the Chronicle director did not have the chops to pull off a major blockbuster.
Intriguingly, the only film-maker who appears to have survived a creative struggle with Kennedy, albeit with his control over final cut hugely diminished, is Edwards, the British director who made his name on low budget sci-fi venture Monsters and has since directed the Godzilla remake and Rogue One. From an external perspective, there’s a sense that Edwards is the last person to get into a row with anyone – he is as personable as they come. Ditto Ron Howard, the Oscar-winning industry vet who has stepped in to take charge of Han Solo.
Perhaps this is the key to directing Star Wars in the era of producer-controlled cinematic universes. If you are willing to submit to the will of a higher power without the need for a choke hold or two from on high, then the keys to the kingdom are yours. But if you question the will of Lucasfilm’s supreme leader, you may well find yourself staring into glassy-eyed oblivion.
And yet there have to be questions over the roles of Kennedy and Lucasfilm in all this too, even if the changes ordered by the former on Rogue One ultimately rescued the picture. One sacked director can perhaps be written off as poor luck, but three starts to appear an awful lot like abysmal planning.
The Lucasfilm model for appointing Star Wars directors seems to have been ripped straight from the Marvel playbook: get a young director with one indie and one moderate mainstream success under their belt, and let them have a crack. But Star Wars has been around a lot longer than, say, Iron Man, and there are expectations surrounding the saga that cannot simply be dispensed with because the next director in line fancies shaking up the series’ foundations. This is a cultural touchstone with roots going back to the very dawn of the blockbuster era.
Moreover, Star Wars hasn’t yet been established as an episodic, multiple-film “cinematic universe” in the same way as Marvel’s, so individual directors don’t have a tried-and-tested template to work from. It’s a tougher job, and one that requires serious industry nous and a willingness to compromise to navigate.
Who, then, should Kennedy be looking towards to replace Trevorrow? It needs to be a director capable of adding zing to the final part of the latest Star Wars trilogy without trying to reinvent the wheel. It needs to be a film-maker with vision and verve who understands how to work within set guidelines, a film-maker with courage but little in the way of ego. Would it be fair to say that it needs to be a director who looks an awful lot like JJ Abrams? And if the American film-maker doesn’t fancy winging his way back across the Atlantic after his famous reluctance to do so for The Force Awakens, there’s nothing like a little dark side telekinesis to remind your minion that it would be advisable to buck up and get in line.