Han Solo may have shot first, but when it comes to his troubled Star Wars spinoff, who will laugh last? The mid-movie firing of directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller sent a shockwave through Hollywood over the last week and a half, and in the stories of set strife that have emerged since, no one walks away clean. But can the murky truth be found by parsing all the different agendas at play here, or do too few of the puzzle pieces add up? Here are some of the questions we’ve still got as Ron Howard prepares to take the reins on the project, though not all of these queries have easy answers.
Who’s at fault?
The first notable reported piece on the Han Solo imbroglio, from Variety’s Brent Lang, was sympathetic to filmmakers Lord and Miller, who ascended to the Hollywood A-list after irreverent, well-received work on The Lego Movie and the 21 Jump Street franchise. The duo was “stunned to find that they were not being granted freedom to run the production in the manner that they were accustomed to,” wrote Lang, who repeatedly painted Lucasfilm head Kathleen Kennedy as intractable when it comes to her control over the shoot. “She didn’t even like the way they folded their socks,” said one source, while Lang wrote, “Some insiders believe that while Kennedy wants to make a splash by hiring young indie directors such as Gareth Edwards (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) and Rian Johnson (Star Wars: The Last Jedi), she’s ultimately unwilling to empower them to make their own creative decisions.”
That same day, The Hollywood Reporter’s Borys Kit appeared to trace the firing to Lawrence Kasdan, the veteran Star Wars scribe who co-wrote the Han Solo screenplay with his son. Lord and Miller “have a comedic sensibility and improvisational style,” wrote Kit, “while Kasdan favors a strict adherence to the written word — what is on the page is what must be shot.” When Kasdan protested the directorial duo’s casual treatment of his script, Kit claims that Kennedy backed him and dumped Lord and Miller.
This past week, though, Kim Masters published a Hollywood Reporter exposé so juicy that it could have grown on a tree. The Masters take was far less sympathetic to Lord and Miller than the other articles had been, implying that they were slow shooters who managed too few camera setups and spent most of their takes shouting out alternate lines from behind the camera. “You have to make decisions much earlier than what they’re used to,” one source told Masters, claiming that the scope of the shoot was beyond Lord and Miller. “I don’t know if it’s because there were two of them but they were not decisive.” Originally, Masters wrote that the crew broke out into applause after Howard was hired, though she’s since clarified that passage to indicate the applause was “in support of the movie,” rather than a pointed rebuke of the deposed directorial duo. Still, the picture painted by her sources was clear: Lord and Miller were not blameless in this shock firing.
So which of these articles is right when it comes to who was in the wrong?
The likely truth is that all parties were culpable. Kennedy, for example, has decades of film success under her belt and recently launched two new Star Wars films that are among the biggest hits of all time, but her tenure at Lucasfilm has had its share of speed bumps: In addition to the Han Solo firing, Gareth Edwards was sidelined during massive Rogue One reshoots (where Tony Gilroy was brought on to script and shoot all-new material) and director Josh Trank was fired before he even shot a frame of the Star Wars spinoff he’d been picked for. Then there’s Kasdan, a Hollywood legend who co-wrote The Empire Strikes Back and can thusly position himself as a creative stand-in for the deposed George Lucas – but on this set, did he overreach and undermine his directors?
As for Lord and Miller, they’ve made movie magic time and time again from concepts that simply shouldn’t work; eventually, the thing that shouldn’t work just doesn’t. On Han Solo, they could not pull out that save, and it appears that they did not modulate their “we’ll find it on the day” directorial approach to suit an enterprise far bigger than their previous films, one where effects and exposition have to be determined well in advance. Irreverence is their strong suit, but making Star Wars movies is a serious business.
What’s going on with Alden Ehrenreich?
Filling Harrison Ford’s space boots was never going to be an easy task. When I interviewed Kasdan two years ago as he was scripting Han Solo, he admitted, “It’s not easy to find someone with those kinds of qualities,” and mused that maybe they’d be lucky enough to discover an actor who “was 23 and had just gotten to town.”
In the end, they went with a 27-year-old who’d actually grown up in Hollywood: Alden Ehrenreich, who was discovered by no less than Steven Spielberg and has co-starred in films like Hail, Caesar! and Rules Don’t Apply but is hardly a household name. I’ve met Ehrenreich a few times over the years and always found him to be surprisingly affable and grounded given his provenance; it helped, I think, that he so often came oh-so-close to star-making roles, only to be the runner-up to an actor like Dane DeHaan or some imported Australian. Like Ford himself, who didn’t become successful until his 30s, Ehrenreich’s ambition is leavened by a hard-knocks pragmatism.
So how did he take to the part that will surely make him an A-lister? Here’s where all the different accounts of set strife present their most intriguing, incomplete picture. Sources who spoke to Star Wars News Net said that Ehrenreich was worried about Lord and Miller’s screwball approach to his role, which would seem to jibe with what one insider told The Hollywood Reporter’s Borys Kit: “People need to understand that Han Solo is not a comedic personality,” said that source. “He’s sarcastic and selfish.” (Never mind that the traits that make Han a great supporting character may need to be rounded out if he’s meant to lead his own franchise.)
That same Star Wars News Net article said that Ehrenreich was directed to play up Han as a comic figure to the point where it was “oddly comparable to Jim Carrey’s performance in Ace Ventura” … and boy, if you just felt a great disturbance in the force, it’s as if millions of fanboys pictured their tough childhood hero screaming, “Alrighty then!” But it was the Kim Masters article that dropped the biggest bombshell: The Lucasfilm crew was “not entirely satisfied with the performance that the directors were eliciting” from Ehrenreich and brought on an acting coach to help him in the middle of production.
Now, even Oscar-winning movie stars have been known to rely on an acting coach from time to time, but they’re usually granted the opportunity to bring in their own trusted counselor. For one to be sprung upon Ehrenreich in this way is an unnerving move, and for that information to leak before we see even the first frame of his performance adds even more regretful pressure to what will be one of the most scrutinized acting gigs of all time. Masters phrases this black eye in a way that at least shifts some of the blame to Lord and Miller — it’s not necessarily Ehrenreich that Lucasfilm was unhappy with, it’s the duo’s ability to direct him well — but you can imagine Ehrenreich’s frustration that it would have come to this on his big break.
Will hot directors cool on Lucasfilm?
After directing two Star Trek movies, J.J. Abrams at first resisted the offer to make The Force Awakens. Ultimately, though, he couldn’t say no to Star Wars. I talked to Rian Johnson not long after he made Looper and he confirmed that studios regularly made overtures to him to direct their big-budget comic-book movies and sequels, but that he planned to keep directing original films until he couldn’t get them made anymore. Years later, when given the chance to make The Last Jedi, Johnson pressed pause on that mission statement.
Simply put, Star Wars is the reason why many top-tier directors went into the business in the first place, and Kathleen Kennedy knows that. That has allowed her to position Lucasfilm as the next destination for hot directors coming off a big hit, as Edwards did with Godzilla, Colin Trevorrow did with Jurassic World, and Trank once did with Chronicle. A few weeks ago, when Wonder Woman started its phenomenal run, I wondered if the only thing that might stop director Patty Jenkins from returning for the sequel would be the likely inevitable offer from Lucasfilm to jump ship and helm a Star Wars movie.
Now, though, will hot directors still be as eager to play ball with Lucasfilm? With Rogue One and Han Solo, Kennedy has indicated that she won’t fuck around: Deliver sub-par dailies, and she’ll hire a new director to replace you. That’s not the vote of confidence most helmers would want when embarking on such a massive project. Already, a Star Wars film requires directors to sublimate their personal stamp in the service of a series with an established history and tone, and while that’s not unusual in today’s franchise-driven environment, the risk-to-reward ratio is getting pretty steep when you can be replaced at any stage of production. Warner Bros has lost or pushed out several directors while readying its troubled big-screen take on The Flash, but at least that movie hasn’t started shooting yet!
It’s telling, I think, that Ron Howard and Joe Johnston were the names thrown around to replace Lord and Miller. They’re both veteran journeymen, and if Kennedy wanted someone who could work well with a studio, she could hardly ask for a better pick than Howard, who co-founded the production company Imagine Entertainment. Simply to put a stop to all the drama, he’s a good pick who will navigate these choppy waters with minimal ego.
The real question is what happens next, and what the next series of director hires will reveal about the future of Lucasfilm. Will Kennedy still pursue Hollywood’s hottest young filmmakers, or will she begin gravitating toward experienced helmers like Howard and Robert Zemeckis, who have profiles comparable to George Lucas? Can Lucasfilm ride out these initial growing pains to become a well-oiled machine like Marvel Studios, or has the Han Solo experiment already made talent too wary? The massive box office of these movies seems assured, but everything else about them is now up for grabs.