LUCASFILM KNOWS that what fans and accountants most remember at the end of the day is not the creative turbulence that goes into a Star Wars film, but simply how each movie lands.
As long as record-breaking audiences are seated and sated, then most people don’t care that Kathleen Kennedy, president of Lucasfilm, is plowing through directorial talent like a Rebel through rows of Stormtroopers, save one.
Rian Johnson has so far emerged publicly unscathed from “The Last Jedi,” which opens in December. Perhaps he should become the go-to director that Kennedy is looking for.
Lucasfilm announced this week that it was canning its second directing force of the summer, as Colin Trevorrow was relieved of his chair aboard “Star Wars: Episode IX” over script issues. That news came just more than two months after the studio fired Phil Lord and Chris Miller in the late stages of the Han Solo spinoff film, to be replaced by Ron Howard.
Who’s to say that the Lucasfilm approach is wrong? In this high-stakes race that’s built on collaboration, a studio is free to swap out drivers whenever it feels that performance has dipped or the mission has diverged. Although it’s hardly ideal, it’s just part of the Sturm und Drang of steering these billion-dollar blockbusters across the finish line in the most commercially friendly form under deadline (or, as Han Solo would say, in under 12 parsecs).
And so Lucasfilm, as sister studio Marvel used to do more often, will continue to endure personnel swaps at the top of its now-annual releases. Yet there’s a lesson to be learned from Marvel, too: Once the Kevin Feige-led Marvel Studios discovered talented directors who worked well within the system’s many strictures and who accepted those demands and creative constraints, Marvel hung on to them. The result is that director James Gunn continues to steer the “Guardians of the Galaxy” franchise; Peyton Reed has returned for the 2018 Ant-Man sequel; and the Russo brothers have ridden their “Captain America” success straight into being entrusted with Marvel’s big “Avengers: Infinity War” next year, as well as the Avengers follow-up after that.
For Lucasfilm, J.J. Abrams was content to reboot the franchise with 2015’s “The Force Awakens,” then let someone else inherit the directing chair for the subsequent Star Wars films. And each one since has endured creative turnover and concession at the top except Johnson’s “Last Jedi,” opening in December.
Which raises a tantalizing question: Why not let Johnson take over “Episode IX,” which is due out in 2019? Especially with a new screenwriter now in the fold to shape story, Johnson would seem to offer two major upsides: He works well in Kennedy’s world, and his re-hire could lend a continuity in directorial tone between the next two main films.
Sure, Lucasfilm could seek another safe veteran hire (someone akin to “Captain America: The First Avenger’s” Joe Johnston, who worked on the effects side of the first three Star Wars films beginning four decades ago). Or they could hold out for a hot talent like Ryan Coogler, whose highly anticipated “Black Panther” is due out early next year.
Yet Lucasfilm might do best by taking Marvel’s cue and letting an in-house director get more than one crack at Star Wars’s cinematic galaxy.