By now, you’ve heard the news: Phil Lord and Chris Miller have left the Han Solo prequel, citing dreaded “creative differences” as their catch all reasoning. Problem is: they were almost six full months into shooting the damn movie. This wasn’t Edgar Wright on Ant-Man – toiling away for years on pre-production, yet never having filmed a frame of his and Joe Cornish’s screenplay. There were three weeks left before production wrapped. The closest analogue to their firing is probably Ricard Donner getting canned from Superman II (’81), despite having helmed enough of the movie to warrant his own cut (which was finally released in ’06).
There are two schools of thought regarding exits on productions this large. The first is that directors are hired to execute a producer’s wishes. They’re workmen; applying individual imaginative flourishes, but ultimately coloring within the lines of a design already sketched by those who are coordinating from the top. Though it’s certainly a dead horse that’s been bludgeoned beyond belief, this approach is what’s led to the wildly successful “house style” that fans of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe have come to enjoy (and detractors reference each time they become bored with the latest installment’s visual schematic). To be honest, this writer isn’t a fan, but from a business standpoint it makes total sense – Kevin Feige & Co. are hiring filmmakers who will contribute installments that fit the company’s grand enterprise, and if they veer too far off book (like Wright’s aforementioned fracas, or Patty Jenkins’ Dark World departure) they’re replaced with a bench player who’s more of a “team player.”
The second standpoint regarding these clashes is that filmmakers are hired to make their movies, and that producers should get the hell out of their way. This is where the waters get slightly murky. Film is a collaborative art form, and great producers have just as much creative input as the person behind the lens (the recent Planet of the Apes revival is a fantastic example of harmony being achieved between the two roles). They’re shepherds, keeping the multi-million-dollar flock on course. However, this new crop of Star Wars films have recruited directors with distinct visual stamps – both JJ Abrams and Gareth Edwards made The Force Awakens and Rogue One into works that felt like they fit perfectly with the output they’d already produced (and one would venture to guess Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi will do the same).
Keeping this in mind, Lord & Miller’s employment in this endeavor got a lot of fans excited for their take on Han Solo’s early years. Like the 21 Jump Street and LEGO movies, the duo seemed to be again taking an idea that was absolute dogshit on paper and using it as a jumping off point to produce another one of their hilariously poignant comedic adventures. In other words, they were a perfect match for the material, so let them make their movie.
While this assumption may be way off base, with Lord & Miller royally screwing the pooch behind the scenes, one quote in the Hollywood Reporter’s news story regarding their firing is rather telling. An inside source told the publication: “people need to understand that Han Solo is not a comedic personality. He’s sarcastic and selfish.” It’s a rather damning anonymous quote, showcasing the conflicting points of view that were occurring on set for the last five and a half months. What’s weird is that it took this long for Kathleen Kennedy, co-writer/executive producer Lawrence Kasdan, and their team of Star Wars engineers to realize that they’d hired two uniquely creative individuals onto a project the company obviously had a set-in-stone vision for. To Lord & Miller, this was another opportunity to apply their raucous tongue-in-cheek wit, and they weren’t novices when it came to working with major studios. Corporate control from LucasFilm was to be expected to some degree, but did the producers overstep their creative bounds?
What’s most troubling about this news is (of course) the reactions its elicited across the spectrum of social media. Those who believe the duo’s firing is a disaster from an artistic standpoint are ready to string LucasFilm up and declare the movie a misfire without seeing a single frame. On the other side of the fence, those looking to defend Kennedy and the Star Wars brand are already crying “misogyny” at even the most basic criticism of the chief producer’s perceived meddling. While there’s no doubt going to be some awful words slung by fanboys who possess the basic social graces of a Rancor, the fact remains that this is a bad look for LucasFilm. A trend is beginning to emerge in their galaxy building workshop, as even though Edwards has spoken about Kennedy’s support for his bleak Rogue One ending, the massive retooling on that film’s third act (not to mention extensive reshoots by Tony Gilroy) now takes on a different air in hindsight.
This could again all be baseless guesswork (as you need three instances to officially declare a trend in anything), but our current cinema culture of shared universes and serialized superheroes is breeding a new kind of fan: those who are more protective of properties than they are of artists. No doubt, there will be many in various comments sections who imply that Lord & Miller deserved to be fired if they didn’t deliver exactly what Kennedy & Co. desired. Perhaps they’re right, but it’s this valuation of product over vision that also results in cookie cutter sequels like Jurassic World.
Not to get too bleak, but maybe these movies deserve the Colin Trevorrows of the world – empty vessels who take orders well and churn out mediocre product tailor fit to their higher ups’ specifications. While we rejoice every time a filmmaker we champion is hired on to one of these mega blockbusters, the fact remains that the artists we once knew are not going to be up there (at least, in their entirety) on the screen. There’s always going to be a dilution of their form, as “yes sir/ma’am” is instantly added to your vocabulary once you take the helm of a franchise installment.
Perhaps Lord & Miller will be better off going their own way and making another stellar comedy for a studio who fully supports their humorous sensibilities, and Star Wars will be just fine without them. There’s obviously those filmmakers who possess the perfect balance between individuality and loyal worker bee, but the shared universe process seems to be revealing that they’re few and far between. The act of creating collaborative art is always a long, difficult, head-butting process, and calamities like this Han Solo incident are bound to occur. We just hope that they don’t become the norm as opposed to the exception, and that studios don’t develop into mandating dictatorships, instead of welcoming communes of creative cooperation.