Just under a week after Colin Trevorrow departed Star Wars Episode 9 in the wake of the all-out failure of The Book of Henry and reports of clashes with Lucasfilm, a replacement has been found in the very familiar form of the Mystery Boxes purveyor. Abrams already rebooted Star Wars with the strength of over 1,000 ships with more firepower than we'd ever seen, and now he's doing double duty not only finishing off the trilogy he started, but aiming to steady the image of Lucasfilm in the wake of repeated director issues.
It's an indicative move for Lucasfilm. Abrams is now the only person besides George Lucas to direct more than one Star Wars movie, and as someone whose big screen career is defined by Spielberg may prove the closest to the proper answer of what Star Wars (the core of Lucasfilms' recurring problems). Although, at least as how some people tell it, there was almost another.
So yeah, what about Rian Johnson? The man behind the sequel trilogy's middle entry is, without a hint of hyperbole, the most in love with Star Wars. The Last Jedi sounds to have been the smoothest journey to the screen in the franchise possibly ever and the director has been gushing in his excitement of working with Lucasfilm - and they by all accounts love working with him. He'd be the perfect choice to return to a future project, so unsurprisingly not only topped many fans' lists of potential Trevorrow replacements but was rumored to be in talks with the studio. So why isn't he doing Episode IX?
Did Rian Johnson Actually Turn Episode IX Down?
Deadline reported in their story on Abrams being close to closing a deal - one that broke mere minutes before Lucasfilm's official announcement - that Johnson had already turned down the opportunity to direct Star Wars 9. This would seem to be a cut-and-dry case, but we don't know what info the publication is working with.
A day or so before, Johnson appeared at a promotional event in Japan and discussed the possibility of a return. The translations originally suggested he was ruling himself out, but further investigation led to the discovery the most he'd said was he was "entirely focused" on The Last Jedi; in short, he wasn't commiting to anything. It's highly possible that Deadline's report is using this as shorthand, taking a misreported previous story as context; this wouldn't be the first time in recent weeks that a trade has made such a slip-up - see THR declaring The Batman as non-DCEU - and the presentation definitely doesn't suggest they were treating the Johnson refusal as new info. As it stands there's actually no clear confirmation he was offered the position.
Could Rian Johnson Even Have Made Star Wars 9?
That Japan quote could still be revealing, just not in the way Deadline took it. There's been a strange trait of the discussion around who could replace Trevorrow, namely that many of the big names cited are totally unsuitable. Not that they'd be bad choices per se (although given how Messrs Lord and Miller failed they may not fully fit the brand) but that they practically can't direct the film.
Star Wars 9 is set to start filming in early 2018, in keeping with all four of the previous Disney-era productions, which means you have to have a director available from, at latest, January next year. However, to avoid a Hobbit-level lack of pre-production you kind of want to lock someone now. This rules out so many of the big names who at a glance could get a film out by 2019 but would miss the start date: Ava DuVernay (A Wrinkle in Time, March 2018); Steven Spielberg (Ready Player One, March 2018), Ryan Coogler (Black Panther, February 2018); Ron Howard (Han Solo, May 2018). Allowing for a month overlay for promotion and a little rest, and they're far too hectic to step on. Even people like Taika Waitti (who has ruled himself out) and Joss Whedon, who wrap their next movies later this year, could be too late to get involved.
And Rian Johnson is right there in the middle of this. He's "entirely focused" on The Last Jedi, which arrives in December 2017, meaning he'd be straight into directing Episode IX once the press tour was done. Obviously he is in the family and involved in plotting out the future of the franchise - and presumably has Episode VIII pretty much in the can now - so there wouldn't be quite the same rush to get up to speed, but that's still cutting out a key portion of pre-production development that would be hard to get past. There would obviously have been the potential to push back the start date - especially now the film has made the semi-expected shift to December 2019 - but that's still a reach.
Simply put, it may not have been feasible for Rian Johnson to ever direct Star Wars 9, regardless of what Kathleen Kennedy wanted after his current form. Nor may he have wanted to; after all, J.J. shared reservations after The Force Awakens due to the sheer magnitude of production. That's not to say he won't have been asked, but if he was it would likely with an expectation of rejection.
What we can ascertain by the various steps in production is that it wasn't an expected turn. Yes, Jack Thorne coming in could have been a last-ditch effort to fix up the story, but the fact that, in June, Johnson revealed he shot a brief snippet of the film for Trevorrow indicates up until a few months ago things were going in the direction expected. This may have been thrown on a Johnson expecting a breather in early 2019 as much as it was the fans.
Ultimately, until Johnson comes out and discusses the film, we can't know if he turned it down or not, but it's definitely not certain that J.J. was the second choice. Regardless, the point of the narrative here was to get Star Wars Episode IX in safe hands as quickly as possible, and Lucasfilm did just that.
- Star Wars 8/Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) release date: Dec 15, 2017
- Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018) release date: May 25, 2018
- Star Wars 9 / Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019) release date: Dec 20, 2019