Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller were dumped from the Han Solo spinoff film this week after more than four months of production, an unusually late date to make a shift behind the camera. That leaves the “Star Wars” production scrambling to find a replacement with weeks left of shooting and a scheduled five weeks of reshoots coming later this summer, an unenviable position for one of the biggest franchises in the entertainment industry and all involved.
The film, which is still untitled, isn’t the first to change its director in midstream. Classics such as “Gone With the Wind” and “Wizard of Oz” cycled through filmmakers, while duds like “The 13th Warrior” and “The Island of Dr. Moreau” also brought in fresh blood in the middle of shooting. But despite plenty of precedents, Lord and Miller’s firing is setting tongues wagging.
“It has certainly happened on a number of occasions, but not under such scrutiny and not usually this far into production,” said Leonard Maltin, a film critic and historian.
Frequently, a director is dropped after he finds himself on the losing end of a power struggle. During “Gone With the Wind,” Clark Gable pushed to have George Cukor replaced with Victor Fleming because Gable felt that the filmmaker was paying too much attention to his co-star, Vivien Leigh. While shooting “Spartacus,” Kirk Douglas used his clout to have Anthony Mann replaced with Stanley Kubrick because he believe that his hand-picked substitute could better handle the film’s epic scope. And in “Waterworld” it was Kevin Costner, and not credited director Kevin Reynolds, who handled the film’s final cut after the two clashed on the notoriously troubled and costly production.
More recently, Steven Soderbergh left “Moneyball” due to his desire to shoot documentary-style, while Pixar parted ways with the the directors of several of its films, from “Ratatouille” to the “Brave” to “The Good Dinosaur,” over differing creative ideas about the animated offerings. In most cases, these movies survived their filmmaking shuffles to succeed financially and artistically, proving that a rocky path to the big screen does not necessarily foretell doom.
That’s to say nothing of the pictures whose financial backers probably wished in retrospect that they’d pulled the plug on a director. Costly overruns on “Heaven’s Gate,” Michael Cimino’s brooding Western epic, essentially bankrupted United Artists, and Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s “Cleopatra” went so egregiously over budget that it brought Fox to the brink of financial ruin. Perhaps another filmmaker would have been able to rein in some of the spending?
But there are reasons why studios have historically been loathe to make a change after cameras start rolling.
“Once a film begins production it’s a runaway train and the backers of the film are reluctant to remove the conductor from the train for fear of it being even more of a disaster,” said Howard Suber, a professor of film history at UCLA. “It becomes a decision between cutting your losses and possibly starting all over again or hoping that things somehow are able to get better.”
It’s harder to overhaul a project without drawing a lot of scrutiny. In the days of “The Wizard of Oz” or “Gone With the Wind,” the public wasn’t as versed in film production — studios might expect a report of a production shakeup in a trade paper such as Variety, but it rarely filtered out across the mass media. That’s no longer the case. From Entertainment Tonight to the New York Times to Twitter, news of Lord and Miller’s ouster was ubiquitous this week.
“The public is now reading about controversies on films and who gets hired here and who gets fired there,” said Dana Polan, professor of cinema studies at NYU. “That was not a thing before.”
In the case of the Han Solo spinoff shakeup, insiders say that Lord and Miller clashed with Lucasfilm chief Kathleen Kennedy and writer and executive producer Lawrence Kasdan over their vision for the film and its execution. Lord and Miller wanted to inject more cheekiness into the “Star Wars” universe and encouraged improvisation on set. Kasdan and Kennedy believed in adhering more tightly to the script and were concerned that the directors were deviating too far from the franchise’s “house style.” They preferred something that was more reverent, which they might get if Ron Howard or Joe Johnston, both rumored to be in the running for the gig, take over as director.
The Lord and Miller firing is also a reminder of a new cinematic reality. Auteur theory, a popular school of thought in film criticism, once held that the director is the true author of a film because he or she makes the key audio and visual decisions. That view was given so much credence that 1980’s “The Stunt Man” offered up Peter O’Toole as a God-like film director, an artistic zealot willing to trample over anyone and everyone in order to get the perfect shot.
Miller and Lord’s ouster, however, demonstrates the limitations of a director’s power in a rapidly changing movie landscape. It’s a caste structure in which brands, be they costumed heroes or robots, are the true stars in Hollywood. As Lord and Miller discovered, no filmmaker is more important than the Jedi mythology that lies at the heart of the “Star Wars” universe. With billions of dollars in box office and merchandising at stake, studios aren’t as receptive to a director who wants to take an iconoclastic approach to the material.
As studios have grown more corporate and more dependent on a few major franchises, productions have become more bureaucratic. It’s Kennedy and her team at Lucasfilm who are making most of the major decisions about where to take the “Star Wars” universe, just as executive teams at DC (Geoff Johns and Jon Berg) and Marvel (Kevin Feige) are exerting enormous control over the gestations of the various sequels and spinoffs that they churn out annually. In the old days, the first move would be to hire a director. Now, a filmmaker is often brought onto a project after a script has been written and even storyboarded.
Whether it’s Lord and Miller on the Han Solo film or Rian Johnson on “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” the directors aren’t generals marshaling their film crews and casts into battle. They’re hired guns.
There’s a lot less job stability when you’re a mercenary.