The news that Colin Trevorrow is no longer directing Star Wars: Episode IX has led to two related bits of speculation: the first is the idea that directing a modern Star Wars movie is a poisoned chalice. The second is speculation on who will take over in the director’s chair now…
It’s an interesting topic because, apart from J.J. Abrams and The Last Jedi’s Rian Johnson, no current Star Wars director has survived contact with the studio unscathed. In the case of Gareth Edwards and Rogue One, the eventual compromise involving a late round of reshoots and a reconfiguring of the film actually worked out. Edwards, and Tony Gilroy who was parachuted in to assist on the production at some level, turned in a movie that’s tonally entirely different to what preceded it but is still clearly Star Wars. In fact, I’d go further and say it’s one of the best movies in the franchise to date. So in that particular case, at least, the new way of working and the old expectations combined to create something special.
Phil Lord and Chris Miller, fired several months ago from the still-untitled Han Solo movie, are a different story. What seems clear is there were wild tonal differences between what the studio wanted and what they were working on. If Lord and Miller were producing a movie with the wit and light step of their previous films like The Lego Movie or 21 Jump Street, that’s a loss. If they were producing 22 Jump Street in space, that’s a mercy. Regardless, Ron Howard is the definition of a safe pair of hands and the chances of the Han Solo movie being anything less than fun are pretty low. It’s also probably not going to be much more than that, but hey, those are the breaks.
That brings us to Josh Trank and Colin Trevorrow who, weirdly, embody the same approach to the problem at two different ends. Trank, so the story goes, was all set to be announced as the director of a Boba Fett solo movie before being removed at the last minute. The details of precisely why he was yanked from the project, or how far down the line that process went is again something we don’t know. We do know that Trevorrow was deep in development on Episode IX and that multiple script drafts weren’t hitting the marks required.
So, plot those on a line. Including Trank, we’ve got two directors removed before their project started rolling, two directors removed before their project finished filming, and one director getting his hand held through the process, with some major changes made to his film prior to release. It’s not a great look for the franchise—but it’s also not quite the horror show people are describing. Rather, this state of affairs is the direct consequence of modern, younger directors being brought into a massively successful, venerated franchise which has always been run a certain way. Some of them adapt, some don’t.
What interests me more is how similar most of these directors are. Most of them have been brought aboard with only one or two big ticket, high profile projects to their name. In some cases, in fact, that hiring strategy has worked brilliantly, with Rian Johnson meshing with the system so well he’s now being talked about as a candidate to take over Episode IX. In most other cases, though….not so much. Relative inexperience really does seem to be a unifying factor for the new movies’ directorial lineup—the other being that they’re all men, and all white. That fact, combined with their relatively thin resumes and the franchise’s newfound enthusiasm for embracing of people of colour in front of the camera, is not a great look. When you remember that J.J. Abrams’ answer when asked who he thought should direct a Star Wars movie next was “Ava DuVernay,” it gets even worse.
There’s currently a flotilla of astoundingly good female directors whose work perennially orbits the mainstream. DuVernay has broken through with Selma and The 13th, and will do so again next year with A Wrinkle In Time, but even with her impressive resume, she deserves greater mainstream recognition and the chance for higher profile projects than she’s currently afforded. Likewise Patty Jenkins, who despite her award-winning work on Monster had to wait 14 years for her next feature project with Wonder Woman. The massive success of their recent projects shows both DuVernay and Jenkins are directors who have proven their immense talent and worth, and they’re far from alone.
Jenkins, along with female directors such as Lexi Alexander, Floria Sigismondi, Kari Skogland, and countless others, has been working in TV for years. Alexander’s fighter’s eye and instinctive skill with character and emotional beats have massively elevated episodes of Supergirl, Arrow, Limitless, and others. Sigismondi’s unflinching focus and frantic visual invention gave the season finale of American Gods and two pivotal episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale much of their impact, while Skogland has shaped the look of American TV drama for the last twenty years. These are directors with vast amounts of experience and skill whose work deserves a long overdue place in the critical and popular spotlight, and they are far from alone. The Handmaid’s Tale and American Horror Story in particular have showcased some incredible female directors recently.
And that brings us to the current moment of opportunity, and to a problem. The opportunity, with Trevorrow’s departure, is to finally hire an experienced female director to helm a Star Wars movie. The problem, of course, is that this almost certainly will not happen. Rian Johnson is the immediate odds-on favourite to take over Episode IX, and given the early word on The Last Jedi, that’s good news in terms of consistency of vision. Johnson’s got a great eye and a willingness to let characters breathe, and both of those strengths bode well for his work on the franchise.
But if Johnson takes over, that’s making the safe choice, yet again. And, for a franchise whose central themes are rooted in the importance of trusting your gut and having faith in what isn’t there, that just seems a little sad. Of course, the opposite argument is that taking a chance and putting a completely new-to-the-franchise director into a situation like this would be handing them a near-thankless task. Episode IX is still in pre-production, however, and while the pressure to deliver the big finish is clear, it’s also pressure that could be mitigated by hiring an experienced director with a proven track record, such as the women I’ve talked about here.
Where Star Wars goes, a lot of popular culture follows. Not just thematically, either, but in terms of narrative and cast and crew. The decision to feature both females and people of color in lead roles in both The Force Awakens and Rogue One represents a clarion call, a bell that can never be unrung. The instant outpouring of fan love for new characters Rose and Paige in The Last Jedi speaks not only to the success of more diverse representation but to a very definite escalation of choices like that in front of the camera. Behind the camera, however, the franchise still has much further to go. Sadly, given the sudden firing of Trevorrow and the likelihood that the studio will be unwilling to take a chance on a fresh face in the director’s chair, I doubt that Episode IX will be the start of that badly-needed progress.
But this is really the last time Disney can go back to the same tired old well without looking like they’re intentionally sticking their head underwater. Even Marvel has begun hiring female and POC directors, and if Star Wars doesn’t follow suit soon, then it risks being left behind by the conversation it has, in the past, defined. After all, “A long time ago” is the start of the story, not where it should end.
Alasdair Stuart is a freelancer writer, RPG writer and podcaster. He owns Escape Artists, who publish the short fiction podcasts Escape Pod, Pseudopod, Podcastle, Cast of Wonders, and the magazine Mothership Zeta. He blogs enthusiastically about pop culture, cooking and exercise at Alasdairstuart.com, and tweets @AlasdairStuart.