Sunday, June 25, 2017

Phil Lord and Christopher Miller exit Lucasfilm's Han Solo project

Hollywood has always seen a culture clash between producers and directors. But in recent years, with the development of cinematic universes and the increasing importance of brands, the divide between the two groups has grown more pronounced. Until now, the primary instance of this conflict could be seen at Marvel Studios, where filmmakers like Joss Whedon, Edgar Wright, and Patty Jenkins fought with Kevin Feige, with the latter two ultimately leaving their respective projects. But even with the fights at Marvel over creative control of projects, we've never seen anything quite like what happened this week. Unless you've been living under a rock, you've undoubtedly heard the news by now- Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the two acclaimed filmmakers best known for their incredible work on The LEGO Movie and the Jump Street series, have left the untitled Young Han Solo movie, a film that was already reportedly 2/3rds complete.

This was revealed late on Tuesday, and it didn't take long for the fallout to kick in. Reactions ranged from utter shock to deep disappointment, and I must admit that I was freaking out just as much as everyone else was. Immediately, all of the trade magazines and websites jumped on the story, each coming up with their own unique version of the events and what exactly went down. The Hollywood Reporter claimed that the focal point of the conflict was between Lord and Miller and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, the screenwriter of Empire Strikes Back who's pretty much an expert when it comes to Star Wars. Kasdan believed that Lord and Miller were taking the character in the wrong direction, pushing Han Solo to be more of a "comedic personality" and improvising from Kasdan's script.

On the other hand, Variety reported that Kathleen Kennedy was at the center of the drama between Lucasfilm and the directors, with Lord and Miller expressing surprise at Kennedy's control over the set. Kennedy wasn't a fan of the pair's directing style, and like THR revealed, Kasdan was part of the culture clash as well. Finally, Anthony Breznican at EW (the expert on all things Star Wars) reported his findings in the aftermath of the exit, stating that Lord and Miller's emphasis on comedy ended up leading to disaster. Their improv on set was significantly altering the story, abandoning the grounded tone that Lucasfilm desperately wanted for the film. The divide became more and more pronounced, eventually leading to their firing from the project. Beyond these three main reports, others noted that Lord and Miller refused to collaborate with another director on reshoots, something that Rogue One director Gareth Edwards did with Tony Gilroy. This may have been the deal-breaker for both parties, ultimately leading to their firing.

Shortly after their termination, Ron Howard signed on as the director. He'll finish the rest of production as well as post-production, with Kennedy noting that filming will resume on July 10th. The film is still on track for a May 25, 2018 release date, but this battle is far from over- just wait until the DGA has to figure out who gets credit for directing this movie. As a fan of Howard's Rush, I'm somewhat optimistic that he'll deliver a satisfying project. But the firing of Lord and Miller is troubling for Lucasfilm and for the Star Wars universe as a whole.

Some have said that due to her incredible track record as a producer of blockbuster films, Kathleen Kennedy should not be criticized or blamed for the firing of Lord and Miller. She's the mastermind at Lucasfilm, and she knows what's best for the studio. This is a valid point, but it's also one that ignores some crucial information. Since taking over for George Lucas and establishing herself essentially as the Kevin Feige of the Star Wars Cinematic Universe, Kennedy has displayed a strange sense of confusion when it comes to the overall vision of these films, especially the individual Star Wars Stories. Sure, the trilogy stuff has been fine so far- J.J. Abrams did great work on The Force Awakens, Rian Johnson has apparently gotten along quite well with Kennedy and the Lucasfilm team, and Colin Trevorrow seems set for a smooth ride on Episode IX (more on him soon).

But there's a crucial disconnect when it comes to the Star Wars Stories, and it goes back to one basic question- what are these movies supposed to be? When the standalone idea was announced, the concept was that Kennedy would bring on innovative directors and allow them to make their own personal vision of a Star Wars movie. So if Gareth Edwards wanted to make a war movie and Lord and Miller wanted to make a comedic caper, that was okay because the films were ultimately their personal projects. This has quickly come into conflict with Kennedy's main idea, as she seems to be set on making all of the individual stories fit into the fundamental concept of a Star Wars movie. What that means, I have no idea. But unless I'm wrong and Kennedy is dealing with some real monsters on the set, the goal is the total homogenization of the Star Wars franchise. All of these movies must look and sound the same, they must feel familiar to the audience, and they must be part of a more cohesive universe.

Which is fine! I have no problem with this. Marvel took a while to get to this point (after all, the infamous conflict with Edgar Wright still stings), but their rules are clear now- there's room for auteur projects at Marvel, but you're gonna have to play by the rules. Ava DuVernay walked away, but James Gunn, Taika Waititi, and Ryan Coogler have been able to work within the confines of the system and still deliver films that felt distinct. Marvel has found a sweet spot between studio control and directorial vision, a balance that I think has become really effective. Lucasfilm is nowhere close to this balance, and until Kennedy finds out what she wants, the studio will continue to struggle. In my opinion, it's simple. If Kennedy wants to hire directors with vision, she should step back and let them do their thing. If she wants more control, she should either direct the movies or hire people like Trevorrow. In recent weeks, many in the film world have been calling for Trevorrow's firing from Episode IX after the disastrous reviews for The Book of Henry, which many have lambasted as one of the worst films of all time.

Even as the rare Jurassic World apologist, I'll concede that Trevorrow doesn't have much of a directorial stamp. And in the eyes of Lucasfilm, that's perfect. He's malleable, a yes man who will do whatever Kennedy says. You won't have another Lord and Miller situation here. And if that's what Kennedy wants, she should hire the Trevorrows of the world and expect a cookie cutter product that consistently makes money and entertains the masses. But how long is that sustainable? How long can you keep shelling out the same product and expecting audiences to show up? After all, look at the performance of Transformers: The Last Knight this weekend. Believe it or not, people are growing tired of the same old thing, which is why movies like Logan and Wonder Woman, standalone features that feel remarkably different from the current crop of blockbusters, are doing great at the box office. Kennedy is in some dangerous territory here, and if she's not careful, the future of Star Wars as a major cinematic universe could be in jeopardy.

The Untitled Han Solo Anthology film is still set for a May 25, 2018 release. Star Wars: The Last Jedi will debut on December 15.

Image: Lucasfilm

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