The hackneyed industry catchphrase “creative differences” has been enlisted countless times over the decades to describe Hollywood productions gone amok, prompting a change in the director’s chair. The modern “Star Wars” series has not been immune: More than half of Lucasfilm’s recent efforts have suffered through episodes of filmmaker upheaval.
But the latest installment, “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” due out May 25, upstaged them all when the production veered off the rails so spectacularly that it forced filming to grind to a halt after four months. With mere weeks left on the shooting schedule, producer Kathleen Kennedy fired directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller and hired veteran Ron Howard to right the ship.
Suddenly, the Oscar-winning director of 2001’s “A Beautiful Mind,” who along with his Imagine Entertainment partner Brian Grazer has overseen dozens of features, was tasked with the daunting job of overhauling the embattled franchise spinoff. Howard shot about 70% of “Solo,” thus earning him sole director credit on the movie, with Lord and Miller receiving executive producer acknowledgments. With the reshoots, the movie wound up costing more than $250 million.
“I didn’t witness any of the difficulties or where that disconnect was,” says Howard, who is 64. “But the one thing that I could bring to it was objectivity. I saw it as an opportunity.”
“Solo” is the fourth film in Disney’s revamped franchise machine to creatively malfunction: Director Josh Trank exited a still-unmade Boba Fett spinoff in 2015; Oscar-nominated filmmaker Tony Gilroy was brought in to save 2016’s “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” when director Gareth Edwards’ efforts missed the mark; and “Jurassic World” helmer Colin Trevorrow — who was originally hired to direct the next “Star Wars” movie, “Episode IX,” in 2019 — was shown the door following clashes over the script.
That’s a lot of behind-the-scenes pandemonium for a brand meant to transport viewers to a galaxy far, far away.
For many in the cast, it was a shocking twist to find themselves not only set for a four-month extension but under new leadership to boot. However, they say the episode provided an invaluable learning experience.
“I’ve tried to use this as an opportunity to navigate pressure and what other people think,” says the film’s 28-year-old star, Alden Ehrenreich, who plays a young Han Solo. “That pressure is always there on every movie. This is just a very intensified version of that. For me it’s about ‘What do I have control over?’ And it’s very little.”
Donald Glover, who assumes Billy Dee Williams’ cape as a young Lando Calrissian, agrees. “I was just like, ‘I know this is not ideal, but now there’s a control in this experiment,’” he says. “It was weirdly beneficial, not to belittle the seriousness of the situation, and [Lord and Miller] were really good. But I think there was honestly a miscommunication in the artistic vision.”
So what wasn’t working? For screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, the elder creative statesman of the enterprise whose work on the “Star Wars” series goes back to “The Empire Strikes Back” in 1980, it was an issue of tone on the screen and exactitude on the set.
“Tone is everything to me. That’s what movies are made of,” Kasdan says. “But this was a very complicated situation. When you go to work in the morning on a ‘Star Wars’ movie, there are thousands of people waiting for you, and you have to be very decisive and very quick about it. When you are making those split-second decisions — and there are a million a day — then you are committing to a certain tone. If the [producers] think that isn’t the tone of the movie, you’re going to have trouble. It may not always end this way, but no one was happy about it. It was agony.”
Reports suggested Lord and Miller had gone overboard with improvisation, moving farther and farther away from what was on the page. But Kasdan’s son and co-writer Jonathan has a different take.
“The issues we were having were much more in the bones and practical,” he says. “Chris and Phil did everything they could to make it work, as did we. The questions only became about how to make the movie most efficiently in the time we had to do it.”
WATCH: Variety’s Cover Shoot with Ron Howard, Alden Ehrenreich and Emilia Clarke:
Production was originally slated from February to July 2017. By June, with the film behind schedule, crew members were told they would not be wrapping until August. When Howard came aboard, it was mandated that 85% of Lord and Miller’s “Solo” be reshot, including second unit material. Howard’s work ultimately comprises 70% of the finished film. The shoot would extend four more months, finally wrapping on Oct. 17.
A crew member who worked on the film under both Lord-Miller and Howard, but declined to be identified because he was not authorized to disclose the information, says Lord and Miller drew Kennedy’s ire for stretching days out with experimentation.
“I got a lot of overtime [under Lord and Miller], which ultimately was their downfall,” the crew member says. “The first assistant director brokers that with production. He ultimately went to the well one too many times, and Kathleen Kennedy blew up.”
The crew member also says Howard had a firmer grip on what he wanted and how he wanted to shoot it. Under Howard, one second unit sequence took up half the stage space at Pinewood Studios that it did under Lord and Miller and a fraction of the time, the crew member says.
|Robert Maxwell for Variety|
“Howard was inseparable from [director of photography] Bradford Young,” says the crew member. “You can totally see the love affair because Howard seemed super invested in how the film looked. Lord and Miller didn’t seem too fussed with that aspect, really.”
Lord and Miller would not agree to an interview, but a source close to the production says that their ideas were constantly overruled.
“In their minds, Phil and Chris were hired to make a movie that was unexpected and would take a risk, not something that would just service the fans,” says the source. “They wanted it to be fresh, new, emotional, surprising and unique. These guys looked at Han as a maverick, so they wanted to make a movie about a maverick. But at every turn, when they went to take a risk, it was met with a no.”
Neither Kennedy, who as president of Lucasfilm produces all the “Star Wars” movies, nor Disney Studios chief Alan Horn was made available for comment.
The cast was largely unaware of the tensions. Glover jokes that he felt like the youngest child in a divorce when the switch came about, blindsided by the turn of events. Woody Harrelson, who plays criminal Tobias Beckett (a sort of mentor to Solo), says he was devastated.
“I love their style of working, but they wanted to do it different than the way the powers that be were used to ‘Star Wars’ being done,” Harrelson says.
Emilia Clarke, the 31-year-old Emmy-nominated star of television’s “Game of Thrones” who in the film plays Qi’ra, a childhood friend of Solo’s who becomes tangled in the criminal underworld, says Lord and Miller were in an exploratory place with the material when they were removed.
“I think they were figuring it out,” she says. “We were all still very much in a collaborative place of ‘Where does this want to go?’ This is a movie that has an enormous amount of pressure on its shoulders, therefore everybody making it feels some of that pressure. So when Ron came on, for me it felt amazing to be able to have a second set of eyes come in at this point in making the movie. How often do you get that chance to go back and try different things?”
|Robert Maxwell for Variety|
In the summer of 2017, Howard had a breakfast meeting with Kennedy on the books that had been scheduled for at least a month. He had planned to catch up with her while in London on Imagine business, and to grab dinner with one of the other “Solo” producers, the late Allison Shearmur, with whom he was developing another project. He wasn’t aware of the film’s troubles and had even visited Lord and Miller’s set early in the production, where he met many of the people he would soon be leading. Kennedy brought the Kasdans to the breakfast, and nothing was said of the situation until Howard asked the question that hung in the air.
“How’s it going?”
Kennedy and the Kasdans confided that there were ongoing difficulties and that, unfortunately, they were going to be making a change. She was in the process of putting together a list of candidates and asked Howard if he would consider taking the job.
“I said, ‘It’s flattering, but those guys are great, and I just can’t imagine coming in and doing that,’” Howard recalls. “I wasn’t trying to be talked into it. I just really felt that way.”
They plied him with a look at the script, which he read on the train from London to Paris. He found it captivating and took counsel with Grazer, his agent, Risa Gertner, and his wife, Cheryl, who convinced him to take a crack at the film if for no other reason than she knew he would regret it if he didn’t.
That meant sliding into a massive studio production with just eight days to prepare, working with the biggest budget he had ever lorded over as a filmmaker, taking on department heads and actors he had not chosen and embarking on a journey of discovering the movie for himself. By all accounts, he hit the ground sprinting.
“He just kind of spoke ‘Star Wars’ and that tone,” Ehrenreich says.
“I texted Jon Kasdan about six times going, ‘What? Really? You’re joking. We’re not that lucky, surely, to get Ron Howard to come and take the movie on,’” Clarke says. “Any fears were wiped away pretty quickly.”
Part of Howard’s thinking coming in was that he couldn’t allow others to have to deal with a steep learning curve. “I didn’t want anybody else playing catch-up,” he says. “Instead I wanted people who really understood this story.”
|Robert Maxwell for Variety|
Howard wasn’t sure what the job would entail at the outset. He was stepping in for a popular pair that had turned many dubious fans into believers in the project, so he wondered if Kennedy was simply looking for him to serve as the facilitator of a plan they already had in place. “I immediately realized that’s not the way Lucasfilm works,” he says. “Kathy is really a director’s producer and filmmaker-friendly in that way, and they were looking to me to make choices and creative decisions.”
He inherited one of the darker aesthetics of any “Star Wars” film to date; it was one he embraced all the same. Lord and Miller had conjured a gritty, grimy palette reflective of the seedy underbelly of conniving crooks, battle-weary war deserters and ruthless criminal syndicates on display.
Actor Michael K. Williams could not return for a full overhaul of his villainous character due to another commitment. So the role was recast with Paul Bettany, who had collaborated with Howard on “A Beautiful Mind” and “The Da Vinci Code.” But the rest of the cast held firm.
For Glover the choice to stay was easy. “I wanted to play Lando. That was it,” the actor says. “Everything else was secondary in that moment.”
Howard, meanwhile, worked with the Kasdans to further refine the script. He wanted the action scenes to be “cool, fast, fun, surprising,” the director says, but he also wanted to connect them to the idea of young Han Solo being tested, challenged and shaped by a gauntlet that would put him on the road to becoming the iconic cinematic figure audiences know and love.
Kasdan says there was never a moment when he and Jonathan weren’t open to changing things. “But what we were very defensive of and wanted to have succeed was this tone, because this is not like any other ‘Star Wars’ movie. Its connection to ‘Star Wars’ is only in its spirit. It’s Han’s tone. It has very little to do with ‘A New Hope.’ That’s a different thing we’ve seen play out in six or seven movies. This tone is reckless and unpredictable and feckless, as Han is. There is no Force. There’s no real Empire. This is about people scrabbling along. They’re not trying to save the galaxy.”
Ehrenreich had long before met with the role’s originator, Harrison Ford, to try to gauge the character. His approach was to absorb as much as he could early on so he could then just forget the specifics and draw on instinct, rather than lean on impersonation.
“Just like in a biopic, the main thing is that pretty soon into the movie you’re really just involved with this story and these characters, and that’s the most important thing,” Ehrenreich says. “Your job is the same as in any other movie: to make the scene work and make it feel like a real person.”
He could also draw on the familiarity a ubiquitous property like “Star Wars” instills in someone of his generation. “When I screen-tested for the movie and I was on the Millennium Falcon, it was kind of like, ‘Oh, I know this,’” he says. “You know the feeling of it. You know the hallway. You know the holochess table. So that made it nice and put me at ease.”
Howard and Ehrenreich note that Ford, who has seen the new film twice, adores it. He called Howard, glowing, after he saw it the first time.
“I had never heard Harrison effusive about anything, and he was raving about it,” Howard says. “He said, ‘Alden nailed it. He made it his own.’”
The hand of George Lucas, too, happens to be present in the film, in a romantically charged scene between Ehrenreich and Clarke staged in Lando’s cape closet. There was a beat when Han takes Qi’ra’s cloak, hangs it up and moves on to his next bit of business. But Lucas had a note, if he could be so bold.
“He said, ‘You know, Han wouldn’t bother to hang it up,’” Howard says. “And then he sort of did it. George became Han Solo for a second. The body language was there and the attitude. Not only was it a nice accent on the scene, but it was also a reminder that George created this character and really understood him. He was so reluctant [to offer his opinion], and yet the choice was so right that it was fun to use it.” (Neither Lucas nor Ford was made available for comment.)
|Robert Maxwell for Variety|
For Clarke, Qi’ra is a vital part of the wave of representation inherent in the new “Star Wars” films. From Daisy Ridley’s Rey in “The Force Awakens” to Felicity Jones’ Jyn Erso in “Rogue One” to Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose Tico in “The Last Jedi,” young girls are able to see themselves in these films now more than ever.
Clarke was excited by the complexity of Qi’ra’s character. “The mystery with regards to ‘Where does she stand? Is she good or not good?’ — that classically doesn’t always go to the female role,” Clarke says. “The Kasdans were looking back to the film noir world and kind of bringing that to the forefront, and it’s just kind of funny to see that these strong women have been around for a really long time. The fact that they’re getting a huge amount of airplay now is really wonderful, but the hope is that we don’t describe women on-screen as being ‘strong women’ anymore. They’re just women. That’s something I was really happy to inhabit.”
Howard, of course, has a long history with the visionary who gave birth to this enduring legacy. He worked under Lucas, the director, in the 1973 canonical classic “American Graffiti” before there even was a galaxy far, far away. He later directed the 1988 fantasy picture “Willow” for Lucas in the wake of the original “Star Wars” trilogy’s success.
In conceiving his “Solo,” Howard thought back to his own films, like “Grand Theft Auto” and its muscle-car cool, and “Rush” and its story of racing driver James Hunt’s connection to the car that would make him a champion. Ultimately, he says, he made “Solo” on pure instinct, shooting from the hip with the lessons of his legacy to guide him.
“It was more inviting for me, in a way, because it’s not a sequel,” Howard says. “It uses a familiar character and is true to the spirit of ‘Star Wars’ movies and the galaxy, but it’s a single adventure story about this guy and the relationships that are going to shape his destiny, and the challenges that are going to test him along the way.”
For Ehrenreich and the rest of the cast, it was a trying but unique opportunity, and to a person, they each claim to have come out of it a little wiser.
“You can’t have a bad experience if you work with a great director, no matter what happens with the movie,” Ehrenreich says. “Because you learn and it’s creative and you’re stimulated in the scenes and you enjoy the time doing it. We certainly got that opportunity here.”
Or, as Glover puts it: “We got three directors for the price of one.”