Star Wars: Han Solo & the Question of Directorial Control

Making a Hollywood film is a huge opportunity. But for some filmmakers, it can also represent years of compromise and disappointment...

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

The course of Hollywood filmmaking never did run smooth, but the news from the production of next year’s A Star Wars Story spin-off is dramatic stuff even by blockbuster movie standards.

Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who were first hired to direct the film about a young Han Solo in the summer of 2015, have abruptly departed the project, with the movie-making duo and Lucasfilm both citing “creative differences” in their respective statements.

Now, directors, writers, and other crew may come and go on movies of all sizes, but seldom this far into production. The core cast of Alden Ehrenreich (as Solo) and Donald Glover (as a young Lando) had already been put in place, while filming began in late January of this year under the production title Star Wars: Red Cup. This means that Lord and Miller – whose previous films include Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, 21 Jump St, and The Lego Movie – had been shooting for approximately five months before their involvement abruptly ended. 

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A number of reports have emerged about what went on behind the scenes. The Hollywood Reporter, for example, suggests that longtime Star Wars writer Lawrence Kasdan (who wrote the Solo script with his son, Jon) disapproved of Lord and Miller’s loose, improv-heavy style of filmmaking, and wanted them to stick to the letter of his text. Variety, on the other hand, says it was producer and Lucasfilm boss Kathleen Kennedy who butted heads with the directors, with one of the outlet’s sources quoted as saying that the “culture clash” between the two parties was such that Kennedy “Didn’t even like the way they folded their socks.”

Whatever the truth is, the Solo movie is now in a highly unusual position of being in the midst of full-scale production without a director to guide it. Now, you might think that, in such an scenario, an experienced producer like Kathleen Kennedy or even Kasdan, who’s called the shots on movies in the past, could simply fill the empty seats left by Lord and Miller. 

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There is, however, a problem: the Directors Guild of America’s rules plainly state that someone already involved with a movie production can’t replace an outgoing director. “Except in an emergency,” the DGA’s website states, “no person already assigned to the production may replace you.”

From a director’s standpoint, it’s easy to see why this rule’s in place: it protects them from those nightmare scenarios where a power-hungry producer wants to push the director out and take over the picture. (According to James Cameron, this is pretty much what happened to him on his ill-fated debut, Piranha II: The Spawning.)

As the DGA says in that quote above, a producer like Kathleen Kennedy can take over the directing duties on a Hollywood movie in the event of an emergency, but even here, there’s a catch: if the producer created that emergency in the first place – in other words, if Lord and Miller were fired, as Variety claims they were – then Kennedy can’t take over. In any event, an emergency director can only assume the role for a maximum of five days, and by that point, the producers are back to where they started: the person who permanently takes over as director has to be hired from outside the production. 

This is why, within hours of the Lord and Miller news breaking, further stories have emerged that a replacement was already being sought. Joe Johnston was reportedly being considered, as was Lawrence Kasdan – though as we’ve already seen, hiring Kasdan could land Disney-Lucasfilm in some legally murky waters. Ultimately, the job’s gone to Ron Howard.

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In the meantime, production on the Solo movie has been shut down for the past few days due to the shuffling of directors. While the new crop of Star Wars movies have had their production difficulties before, this is undoubtedly the most serious so far – and getting the production back on course will almost certainly prove costly.

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There’s the question, too, of just what other directors down the line will make of the whole affair, given the stories that have emerged from behind the scenes of last year’s Star Wars spin-off, Rogue One. Director Gareth Edwards’ vision of a harsh war film was retooled late in the film’s making, with Tony Gilroy brought in to conduct reshoots and change the film’s tone to something more approaching a typical Star Wars movie.

These production stories provide a useful illustration of where major films from the likes of Marvel, Warner Bros, and Lucasfilm are today. The producers behind them may want directors who have their own style and ideas, but only if those things fit within the closely-guarded framework dictated by either a space opera or a superhero movie. Indeed, with Kennedy stating that the directors and studio had “different creative visions” for Han Solo, it leaves us wondering why Lord and Miller were hired in the first place. One look at their body of work, whether it’s animated or live-action, will give you an indication of their very successful style: shoot-from-the-hip, fast and loose. 

From an outside standpoint, it appears as though directors are being hired for their enthusiasm and the personality of their filmmaking, albeit with the hope that their edges can be sanded down to fit what the producers think will please the ticket-buying audiences. In many instances, a happy medium is found, of a sort: Suicide Squad, which was heavily re-edited before release, was critically panned, but the box office receipts were huge. Rogue Ones production was difficult, but the resulting film was well-received and a similarly big success.

When those uneasy partnerships break down, though, the results are plain to see: Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four, which went so sour that the director effectively disowned the movie via social media. Ant-Man, which lost co-writer and director Edgar Wright after years of development. And, of course, the whole Lord and Miller situation.

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Behind-the-scenes dramas are as old as Hollywood itself, but the ever-increasing cost of mainstream filmmaking and the bizarre paradox created by the movie universe paradigm – where audience expectations have to be catered to and upended at the same time – appear to be making the life of a director increasingly difficult.

Taking on the biggest movies in modern pop culture – Star Wars, Marvel, DC – gives filmmakers the chance to tell huge stories on an epic canvas. They have the opportunity to reach global audiences of millions, and potentially, make a lot of money in the process. But as the Han Solo story proves, there’s also the possibility that directors can sink years of their lives into these projects, only for it all to fall apart. What is on one hand a huge opportunity could also be regarded as a poisoned chalice.