When you see a film by a director like Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, or David Lynch, you have a sense of what to expect—no matter the genre. These directors are auteurs, or filmmakers who are considered the authors of their movies because their influence and artistic control is intrinsic to the execution of it.
It’s a theory of filmmaking that arose out of France’s New Wave movement in the 1940s and spread into American films in the Seventies.
But in today’s tentpole-driven Hollywood studio system, where no one makes just one film when they can make two or three sequels and possibly build an entire universe around it, the producer more so than the filmmaker is king. At Lucasfilm, president and producer Kathleen Kennedy seems to call the shots on the new Star Wars films, which she hands off to directors like Rian Johnson, who’s helming the upcoming The Last Jedi, and fires those she doesn’t like, such as the ones behind the untitled Han Solo movie.
At another Disney-owned entity, studio head Kevin Feige, oversees the master plan for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This has all led to the notion that directors are becoming interchangeable on franchise-film sets. But Christopher Nolan argues that filmmakers aren’t just hired hands on mega-movies.
He would know. Nolan is one of the few folks in the business who can do pretty much whatever he wants without a studio interfering. His Dark Knight trilogy is the most successful Batman franchise of all time. Despite creating original blockbusters like Inception and Interstellar, he’s also expressed an interest in directing a Bond film.
While promoting his upcoming movie Dunkirk, Nolan told Business Insider that franchise directors have more power than we give them credit for, such as JJ Abrams, who directed the first new Star Wars film in a decade with The Force Awakens.
I think those conditions are being overstated. Like, everyone talking about Star Wars as an example are willfully ignoring what JJ Abrams did in the process. Which isn’t appropriate, JJ is a very powerful creator. Not to mention, George Lucas, by the way. [Laughs] I mean, there is a bigger reality here in terms of where these things actually come from.
Abrams worked closely on The Force Awakens script with screenwriter and Lucasfilm veteran Lawrence Kasdan, who wrote The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. So his vision was tuned in to Lucasfilm’s from the get go. Nolan also pointed to another director, Jon Favreau, who also commands his sets, even while working on mega-films like Iron Man and upcoming live-action version of The Lion King:
I don’t think anybody thought that Jon Favreau was doing a sensible thing by casting Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man, but what an incredible decision he made. There’s an entire industry based on that now.
Favreau fought to convince Marvel that Downey Jr. was the right man to play Iron Man—the comic-book character that set up the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Downey Jr. was still getting his career back on track in 2007 when Iron Man was being cast. (It had been derailed by substance-abuse issues and a series of arrests from the late 1990s to early 2000s.) The studio didn’t think he was serious enough about the role, on which all its film ambitions hinged. But Favreau thought Downey Jr.’s experiences made him perfect for the part of Tony Stark, who is a recovering alcoholic who changes his life.
“It was my job as a director to show that it was the best choice creatively,” Favreau said in a 2014 radio interview. “And now the Marvel Universe is the biggest franchise in film history.”
The situation at Lucasfilm is ironic as Star Wars creator George Lucas was a 70s auteur who started Lucasfilm because he wanted to preserve his autonomy. For the record, Lucas says his ideas for the new Star Wars trilogy were dismissed by Lucasfilm after Disney bought the studio in 2012. In a brief moment from a 2015 interview with Charlie Rose, he said, “I sold them to the white slavers that take these things and, and…” He stopped himself there and later apologized to Disney.
And actors, who once walked when their directors were fired, are cool with the way these things currently work. Actor Woody Harrelson, who plays Han Solo’s mentor in the film, says audiences need not worry about the director swap. “I think I read some stuff where people were worried about the fate of this movie,” Harrelson told the Hollywood Reporter. “I wouldn’t worry. The Force is still very much with it.”