Disney loves working with indie filmmakers—as long as they do what it says

The woman in charge.
The woman in charge.
Image: AP Photo/Richard Shotwell/Invision
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Disney has put indie filmmakers like Rian Johnson and James Gunn in the driver’s seat on some of its biggest movies, including Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Guardians of the Galaxy, respectively. But it’s always kept one hand on the wheel.

At Lucasfilm, it’s studio president Kathleen Kennedy who steers each and every new Star Wars project. That’s been made abundantly clear by the latest hiccup in the production of the forthcoming Han Solo movie.

Directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were fired from the untitled project (a standalone in the Star Wars universe), which still has several weeks of shooting and additional weeks of reshoots to complete (not to mention the editing) because of “creative differences,” Lucasfilm announced in a statement published on StarWars.com yesterday. There’s no word yet who will replace them, but a new director is expected to be announced soon. (Ron Howard is said to be in the running.) The movie is still set for a May 2018 release.

The writing-directing team, best known for titles like 21 Jump Street and The LEGO Movie, were reportedly brought on to inject the prequel film, which chronicles the early life of Star Wars’s intergalactic smuggler, with their cheeky, comical vision.

But from day one, Lord and Miller reportedly didn’t see eye to eye with Kennedy, who commands the production and whose story group decides what makes it into the Star Wars canon of films, TV shows, and even theme-park rides. They also clashed with Lawrence Kasdan, who penned the screenplays for The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, and The Force Awakens, and helped build the Star Wars universe into what it is today. Variety reported:

Miller and Lord were stunned to find that they were not being granted freedom to run the production in the manner that they were accustomed to. They balked at Kennedy’s tight control on the set….

Some insiders believe that while Kennedy wants to make a splash by hiring young indie directors such as Gareth Edwards (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) and Rian Johnson (Star Wars: The Last Jedi), she’s ultimately unwilling to empower them to make their own creative decisions.

This kind of thing has happened at another Disney division, Marvel Studios, before. Joss Whedon, of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Avengers fame, walked away from Marvel after being “beaten down” by making The Avengers: Age of Ultron and never looked back. (He later turned to DC Comics films.) Edgar Wright, writer and director of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz among others, dropped out of Marvel’s Ant-Man film in 2014, before production began, because the studio reportedly rewrote his script without his input. And Patty Jenkins was fired from Thor: Dark World in 2011 because of “creative differences.” (She, too, landed on her feet and went on to helm the most successful live-action film directed by a woman—DC’s Wonder Woman.)

It seems that the directors Disney plucks from indie obscurity and bestows blockbuster fame upon must first prove themselves before being able to execute their true vision. That’s what Gunn did with the first Guardians movie, in which he showed he could make his unique vision a huge commercial success—and he signed on for three sequels. That’s not unreasonable given that these films have been the first time that some of these directors, like Gunn, Johnson, and the Russo brothers of Captain America: Civil War, were tasked with managing a budget over $100 million.

But Lord and Miller reportedly felt they’d already proven themselves with their other major studio projects—although those were made with less than $100 million.

Star Wars films have suffered minor production setbacks before and still came out on top. Gareth Edwards’s Rogue One went through extensive reshoots, beyond what’s typical for a Hollywood movie, and Oscar-nominated writer-director Tony Gilroy was brought in to aid the film. It earned an “A” on the audience-scoring site CinemaScore, and grossed $1 billion worldwide.