Tuesday, December 12, 2017

"Star Wars" Shifting Course

It's going to be a while before I get to see "Star Wars: The Last Jedi," so I thought that I'd catch up a bit on the production drama that's been going on behind the scenes with the various "Star Wars" films.  The big one, of course, is that Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were ejected from the Han Solo movie a few months ago and replaced by Ron Howard.  Directors are replaced all the time, but this situation was unusual in that a good chunk of the film had already been shot.  Since then, Colin Trevorrow was ousted from "Episode IX" and replaced by J.J. Abrams, and Stephen Daldry is rumored to be in talks to direct an Obi-Wan Kenobi movie.  Daldry, if you're unfamiliar, is a well-seasoned director best known for prestige dramas like "Billy Elliot," "The Reader," and "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close."

Now these developments, coupled with the prior removal of Josh Trank and the rumors about Gareth Edwards being sidelined on "Rogue One," while Tony Gilroy stepped in for reshoots, point to Lucasfilm's early strategy of recruiting younger, less experienced directors to the franchise having mostly fallen apart.  With the exception of Rian Johnson, none of the younger directors have worked out.  This strikes me as odd, because several of the Marvel Universe films have been helmed by similarly inexperienced directors like Scott Derrickson and  Jon Watts, and the results have turned out just fine.  On the other hand, we're only three films into this latest batch of "Star Wars" movies, and expectations haven't been entirely ironed out yet.  Marvel didn't make it's first real risky move until it put Joss Whedon in the director's chair for ""The Avengers," the sixth Marvel film.  And, of course, Marvel has had its own behind-the-scenes drama with directors - see Edgar Wright and "Ant-man."

I think it's also important to keep in mind that with big franchises like this, the directors don't have as much creative control as they would on their own personal projects.  This has been true of "Star Wars" since the very beginning, as it was always George Lucas running the show, and few people remember that Irvin Kershner was the credited director of "The Empire Strikes Back," and Richard Marquand did
"Return of the Jedi."  The creative hierarchy is closer to television, with the "brain trust" writers and producers having a much larger voice, and many crucial elements like release dates and production timelines already predetermined.  Marvel has successfully employed several television vets like Whedon, Alan Taylor, Jon Watts, and the Russo brothers, despite their short lists of feature credits.   

So when everyone brings up "creative differences" and "culture clash" being the big culprits that sent all these "Star Wars" directors on their way, I suspect that the issue was that the directors didn't have the degree of creative freedom that they thought they did.  Now, Trank and Trevorrow's departures don't surprise me so much, because they're Hollywood newcomers who may have had issues adjusting to the environment.  Lord and Miller, however, have successfully launched at least three franchises and got their start in television ages ago.  Exactly how wide was the gulf between their sensibilities and those of producers Kathleen Kennedy and Lawrence Kasdan?  Clearly at this point it's not an issue of the directors being untalented or unable to play ball, but the expectations of the producers not being met.  

But what are those expectations?  That's the big question right now.  With the shift toward more established, but relatively low profile directors, my guess is that the Lucasfilm bigwigs want more conventional, more traditional pictures for now, and are steering clear of anything flashy or daring or new.  And, of course, that's already been evident with the "Star Wars" spinoffs all revolving around known characters or direct links to the original films.  This is a little disappointing for those of us who wanted to see the "Star Wars" be bolder and more adventurous, and to feature more individual directorial voices.  

However, if the franchise continues to do well and the number of "Star Wars" installments increases, I expect that this will change.  Once the novelty of the movies wears off, creativity and innovation will become more important to avoid stagnation.  It may take a little longer, but the new generation of directors will get to make their "Star Wars" films eventually.     


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