Flying Solo: The Creative Differential

Hollywood lurched to the announcement this week that hot-property directing duo Chris Miller and Phil Lord – responsible for huge crowd favourite films like 21 Jump Street and The Lego Movie – had parted ways with Lucasfilm and the stand-alone Han Solo film, with only weeks left in principal photography. Typically, the press release cited the less-than-sexy “Creative differences” as the reason for the surprise split. Less than 48 hours later, Lucasfilm announced that Ron Howard, the man behind Rush, The DaVinci Code and In The Heart Of The Sea, would assume the role as solo director on the project; the speed at which this all transpired not only raises questions in and of itself, but fails to answer some burning questions leftover from the removal of Lord/Miller.

The obvious question is simply this: Lucasfilm, headed by industry icon Kathleen Kennedy, obviously knew what they wanted from the directors of this film project, and felt Lord and Miller’s pitch to them held enough promise to hand them the keys to the kingdom. Due diligence would have transpired, as you’d expect for a franchise with capital investiture and box-office returns numbering in the billions, so why would a studio part ways with its leading men in such a manner with principal photography already mostly completed? Knowing Lucasfilm, there’s every chance we’ll never hear the truth, since the major players are all pretty much legends within the Star Wars universe and the industry in general, and know how to keep their mouths shut whilst playing the game.

Scuttlebutt (including reports from Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, and shit I read on Twitter other sources indicates that tensions between Lord/Miller and Kennedy, as well as with franchise scribe Lawrence Kasdan (The Empire Strikes Back, Return of The Jedi, and The Force Awakens) and his co-writing son Jon, caused the decision to be made; these tensions form the crux of the argument that Miller and Lord were making the Solo film too funny, whereas the studio wanted it to remain fairly subtle. Miller and Lord’s film-making style on-set was allegedly driven by cast ad-libbing their material (straying too far from a Kasdan script would have been a huge klaxxon to Kennedy and the money-men) and making the movie more a comedy than a straight-up drama. Star Wars has moments of fun and levity (and several jokes), but you’d never claim the saga as comedic.

One would imagine that with all the money involved, Lucasfilm would have tried to right the ship internally with the directors, rather than simply pushing them out immediately. Course correction could always be achieved in the scheduled reshoots for later this year (most of today’s major blockbuster films have reshoots integrated into their production schedules to allow for editorial tinkering after principal photography has wrapped, so this is not a surprise) but reading between the very clinical lines of Lucasfilm’s press release, one might think that whatever conversations were had between the pair and their corporate overlords (who would be justifiably reticent to stray too far from established formula, given the stakes) it must have been hugely stressful and apparently fruitless.

Cut to more recent news, that Ron Howard would oversee the film’s final weeks of shooting, and it’s lengthy post-production, in order to see the film’s release date is met. With the train already at speed and the film’s release a little under a year away (at the time of writing this article), it made sense for Kennedy to tap an established, balanced director who could calm the waters of the Han Solo film and its cast and crew, who would undoubtedly have lingering loyalty to the men now gone. To be fair, this might have been an untenable situation for many directors, not because of coming into a project so late but rather the manner and speed in which it all occurred. Howard’s lengthy industry resume would have immediately calmed studio bean-counters and Disney’s shareholders, and the man’s already worked with Lucasfilm and Kennedy (remember Willow?) so it’s not like he’s on unfamiliar ground. It also makes sense that Kennedy would approach a director capable of delivering big-budget productions to the screen. Hiring another young up-and-comer might have proven too much for a film still so embryonic, considering the pressure a Star Wars film brings with it.

It’s not even as if this situation sets a precedent. Hollywood’s long history has seen numerous directors shunted out at studio decree and replaced by another, while only recently Zack Snyder stepped aside from completing the massive blockbuster Justice League following the March suicide of his daughter (Joss Whedon was approached to caretaker-direct, and accepted). Variety offered a fascinating look at who might get the director’s credit for Han Solo, since the majority of the film was shot by Lord and Miller, and DGA rules stipulate a “one director” rule for any film (although teams have been granted duo credits in the past, it’s unlikely the guild will green-light a three-way split of the credit here) and there’s possibly a legal minefield to negotiate before this whole affair is done.

This, of course, is before you consider the effect this might have on the finished film we see come May 2018. A change in director at such a crucial point may result in a film that feels too much like Fox’s recent Fantastic Four debacle: Josh Trank, the helmer of that film was infamously dumped by the studio who then re-cut his film and released a movie of such disastrous style and tone it sank the franchise like a stone. Too much studio meddling is a common complaint for films that ought to work but don’t, especially high profile event films such as Star Wars, and I guess Kennedy and Co will have the last laugh if Han Solo’s… er, solo film is actually a blazing success. If we’re looking for silver linings, it’s pertinent to note that the film was barely half-completed, so resurrecting the script’s original tone might very well be possible even now, with some soft manipulating of the footage and canny reshoot material to come.

While we’ll never get to see Lord and Miller’s true vision for the film (on a personal note, I was looking forward to seeing what they did enormously) I’m glad the film won’t be a total dumpster fire with Ron Howard at the helm. In some ways, I’m annoyed by this if only because that’s a year or two Lord/Miller have been on this project when they could have been working on something else, and they have to start again. As for Han Solo? He’ll continue to fly the Millennium Falcon into cinemas again on May 25th, 2018. Regardless of who makes the first final credit card, I’ll be there to see it.


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