Star Wars Has Always Had Director Problems - Why?

Star Wars Directors George Lucas Richard Marquand Gareth Edwards Phil Lord and Chris Miller

The firing of Phil Lord and Chris Miller from the Han Solo standalone movie has suggested that Star Wars has a director problem, although that's hardly a new thing for the space fantasy franchise. In fact, it's always had pretty major creative issues from back when the hero was called Luke Starkiller. Today we want to look at why.

Lord and Miller's departure - the result of a fundamental disagreement with producer Kathleen Kennedy and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan - is definitely bad news for what has always been a questionable entry to the canon - from conception people have been resistant to a young Han Solo, even in the face of subsequent success, and the hiring of The Lego Movie directors served as a major endorsement - but it says a lot more about the wider Star Wars narrative and the franchise future. In the wake of similar issues on Rogue One, it raises major questions about the Lucasfilm creative ethos - is the studio really as freeing for strong-willed filmmakers as perceived - and the outlook of future films, although the obsession with post-Disney acquisition misses that this sort of strife has been running through the series all along.

This latest departure is certainly the worst case - the oft-cited comparison point of Edgar Wright from Ant-Man three months before cameras started rolling seems pithy compared to the pair going with three weeks to go before completion of principal photography - but that's not to say we've not had serious issues before, right back to the start.

Star Wars' Troubling Director History

George Lucas Peter Cushing Grand Moff Tarkin Carrie Fisher Leia Star Wars

Although it's now held up as the narrative and tonal blueprint for the franchise, the original Star Wars was a disaster production cobbled together in the edit. George Lucas and his surrounding creatives had vision, but by all accounts, the original first cut (which was already a galaxy away from the script's initial draft) was a mess. It was more American Graffiti in Space than Kurosawa meets Flash Gordon and despised by most of Lucas' Movie Brat peers. Paul Hirsch, Richard Chew and Marcia Lucas (the latter of whom has been all but wiped from Star Wars history after she divorced George in 1983) came in and completely recut the film, going on to earn an Oscar for their efforts.

Empire was hit with different issues. Lucas didn't want to direct the film and instead gave the keys to USC Professor Irvin Kershner, who due to the respect from his former student had pretty much free reign with the film, leading to a subsequently harmonious production and what many regard as the best of the series. The problem here, however, was the Director's Guild of America; they objected to Star Wars' crawl, which broke the rule on opening credits in terms of recognizing directors, writers, and producers, leading to Lucas being fined heavily and leaving the Guild. This was a major ruction in Hollywood and meant for the next film a non-DGA filmmaker needed hiring.

And so we come to Return of the Jedi, which was was the first real clash of the sort we're getting accustomed to. Initially Lucas couldn't get someone to make the film - everyone from Steven Spielberg to David Lynch passed for reasons ranging from the DGA to dislike of blockbusters - and when he eventually got Richard Marquand, it felt very much like a puppet; the Welsh filmmaker had ideas but was perpetually at risk of being overpowered by his producer-writer - everything, from not killing Han to the Ewoks to it being the trilogy capper, was pushed by George. The pre-production was so fraught that Lucas' long-term producer, Gary Kurtz, quit and the whole thing by all accounts led to a heavily Lucas-led film. In fact, that meddling is likely why many still believe Lucas directed Episodes V and VI.

In this light, the prequels are the most harmonious production. After further attempts to get an outside voice (all turned down due to Star Wars now being established as his baby), Lucas chose to direct all three, removing any real chance for conflict. Of course, that was itself a problem; the readily-reviled trilogy is very much an unrestrained Lucas work, like the producer-led Jedi dominated by his greater franchise vision and prompting the question of whether he was the right person for the job. That producer side returned for The Clone Wars when an arc from the first season was turned into a feature film by a green director (the otherwise very competent Dave Filoni) and pushed into cinemas. The show (and Filoni) would go on to be a major hit with many fans, but the movie that started it all still has an awkward spot in Star Wars media.

Rogue One - Gareth Edwards on set

Jumping forward to Disney, now we again see problems. Little is known about the true development of The Force Awakens, especially in the early days - although as J.W. Rinzler (who left Lucasfilm in late 2015) has turned into a potential whistleblower, detailing "The Rise and Fall of Star Wars," we may get more details. For now, we know there were some clashes between director and original screenwriter Michael Arndt over the direction of the film and later trepidation over the repeating plot structure (something totally played down due to the initial secrecy and now it's worked out OK).

Rogue One was already shooting before Episode VII was released, and as we know more serious issues arose; the film underwent substantial reshoots six months before release and had Tony Gilroy come in to finish off the edit. Again, Disney has been very tight-lipped about all this, but it appears several major changes were made to the finale,  as well as Darth Vader's role and cameo. Just how seismic these changes are varies from reading to reading of the film (the ending changes definitely seem beneficial) but the fact that a second director came in indicates some major meddling.

And, of course, there's Lord and Miller, who it now emerges were steering Solo more comedic than Kasdan or Kennedy expected. The concerns were reportedly raised by star Alden Ehrenreich before the producer stepped in to suggest an oversight on reshoots, possibly with replacement director Ron Howard, which culminated in studio and talent parting ways. This, along with Boba Fett/Bounty Hunter film which was canned in light of John Trank's handling of Fant4stic, paints a very specific picture, but as we've seen is all part of Star Wars.

As things currently stand, the only film in the entire Star Wars saga that hasn't been subject to studio-creative debate and undergone sudden changes is The Last Jedi, which all things point towards being an harmonious Lucasfilm-approved Rian Johnson picture (and who knows the truth). One out of ten (counting The Clone Wars) are some shocking odds.

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Key Release Dates
  • 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
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