Disney Shatters Auteur Marketing Illusion With Han Solo Star Wars Story Firing

  • Science Fiction
young han solo star wars
Rather than Harrison Ford, Han Solo will be played by Alden Ehrenreich in the next Star Wars Story. Lucasfilm

On Tuesday, Lucasfilm fired the directors of its Han Solo Star Wars Story, Phil Lord and Chris Miller. The directing duo is best known for injecting wit and heart into studio projects that would otherwise be easy to be cynical about, like The Lego Movie and their 21 Jump Street reboot. In this they were perfect for the Han Solo movie — an origin story no one ever desired, that in every way sounds like an annual brand extension keeping the market warm for Star Wars: Episode IX. But now they’re to be replaced by Ron Howard, a director adept at rising to the exact blandness of a concept (The Da Vinci Code) or, at best, the stateliness of a solid episode of network TV drama (Frost/Nixon).

The reasons given for Lord and Miller’s dismissal are numerous. They were too unstructured. They had bad chemistry with Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy. They made Han Solo funny, instead of sarcastic and selfish. Or they didn’t agree with screenwriting legend Lawrence Kasdan — who, despite writing Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark, has only the warmed-over, Star Wars mixtape plot of The Force Awakens to recommend him to this century.

But let’s set aside whether dropping Lord and Miller for Howard is a good idea. Who knows, perhaps the hotshot directing duo who specialize in breezy mass appeal and have never had a misstep somehow have worse narrative instincts than the guy who wrote and directed Dreamcatcher. Who knows? We haven’t even seen a trailer. A final verdict can’t be delivered until May 25, 2018.

Here and now, though, this decision should shatter utterly a marketing tool beloved by Disney and Lucasfilm: the illusion of authorial control.

Disney wants Star Wars movies that appeal to all people and simultaneously the hardcore fans. They want Star Wars movies that can make money in China and capture the hearts of little girls and boys in Florida, making them lifelong Disney customers. They want the generality of commerce and the specificity of art.

They can’t have everything, for a number of reasons. Fussed-over scripts and boardroom planning can lead to overcooked corporate hash. Universal appeal requires tonal control and formula storytelling. Franchises that are appropriate for children are inherently limited in scope. They can’t have everything.

So how do they combat the perception of stagnation and uniformity that creeps into even the dedicated corners of the fanbase? One of the major ways is to insist upon the primacy of a singular vision. This has been a prime Star Wars marketing strategy since the beginning of Disney’s relaunch, with a huge focus on the director as central to a movie’s vision, just like the original Star Wars sprung from George Lucas.

This was most dramatically demonstrated with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Gareth Edwards, who (alongside Kathleen Kennedy) played an almost Steve Jobs-ian role in 2016’s Star Wars Celebration, introducing a video that emphasized Edwards’ singular vision.

“We’re making a film that’s right, touching, my favorite movie of all time. But then, if you’re too respectful of it you daren’t do anything new or different or take a risk, then what are you bringing to the table?” Edwards says in the Celebration Reel. “That kid — when you were four years old — grew up with Star Wars figures, it was a bit like being that kid again.”

The message couldn’t be clearer: Rogue One is Gareth Edwards at play, a visionary director (we’re talking in extremely relative studio terms here, his previous movie was Godzilla ) doing his own thing in the Star Wars universe. He was handed the keys to the kingdom and simply told to bring us back a good story. Despite being a high-stakes studio franchise worth billions of dollars to the world’s largest media company, Disney would prefer we believe that Star Wars remains an auteur-driven enterprise, forever endowed with the limitless possibilities offered by new talent and vision.

This, of course, was belied by Rogue One ’s massive reshoots, which brought in Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) to overhaul the whole movie. Nevertheless, Disney persisted in portraying Rogue One as Edwards’ vision and Edwards played along, describing the expansive reshoots as fixing “little things” and describing the well-sourced and multiple reports of significant overhauls (further cemented when the final movie didn’t include lots of footage from the trailers) as “blown out of proportion.”

The fugazi endures no more. Disney hired in-demand directors who craft overwhelmingly populist movies and found their vision too onerous or irreverent to continue. Again, it’s possible Disney made the right decision (though Ron Howard is so rarely the right decision, unless he’s doing VO), that’s beside the point. Nor does it prove that singular visions can’t squeeze their way through Disney’s various corporate filters. Star Wars: The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson, for example, said he had as much creative control as he’s “ever had on any of my own movies.”

Instead, the Han Solo Star Wars Story’s director changeover should mark an end to Disney and Lucasfilm marketing themselves as uniquely empowering filmmakers of vision to do what they want with Star Wars. Or, at the very least, since it’s unlikely they’ll abandon this useful marketing rhetoric, we should stop believing them.

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