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Does Disney want its directors to have creative freedom?

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The recent fiasco on the Han Solo movie suggests the studio wants obedient showrunners, not directors

Image: Lucasfilm

Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller have been booted from the upcoming Han Solo movie — right in the middle of shooting — over creative differences with Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy and screenwriter and Star Wars creative legend Lawrence Kasdan. Ron Howard has reportedly stepped in to fill the void, but he’ll need to pick up where Lord and Miller left off, without much runway to do it.

The Han Solo movie is one of the most high-profile projects in Hollywood, the first standalone Star Wars film to dig into a beloved character’s backstory. It’s a potential cash-cow for Disney, Lucasfilm’s parent company, and if done well, a blueprint for future origin-story films. Getting it right is clearly of paramount importance to the studio. That’s the rub. With so much on the line, the Lucasfilm team’s vision is precise. And it may have conflicted with the early work produced by Lord and Miller.

There seems to be a trend of director / producers struggling to match their creative vision to Disney’s. Director Gareth Edwards was forced to do heavy reshoots for last year’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins and Selma director Ava DuVernay turned down the director’s chair for Thor: The Dark World and Black Panther, respectively, for similar reasons.

Creating major studio tentpoles is hard work, as directors have to balance the expectations of studio executives and creative shareholders with their own directorial visions. But Disney’s cinematic universes seem uniquely high-pressure. Just ask Edgar Wright, who spent more than a decade trying to get 2015’s Ant-Man made, pitching Marvel and engaging with fans, only to abandon the project in 2014 over creative differences. That experience, Disney’s incompatibility with the likes of Jenkins, DuVernay, and Edwards, and now the sudden ouster of Lord and Miller, paints a picture of a company that makes heavy demands and is averse to risk, no matter how much it values talent.

The question, then, is: does Disney want its directors to have creative freedom?

The answer, it seems, is that it depends on the director, and the perceived stability of the series. Marvel and Lucasfilm both seem to be committed to working with talented directors: J.J. Abrams, Jon Favreau, Rian Johnson, and Taika Waititi have all been brought on for the studio’s projects. It’s become increasingly clear, however, that the studios don’t necessarily turn to directors for their resumes, so much as for their ability to execute specific visions under specific guidelines. So long as those directors can see their work through the studio’s eyes, they can make movies that incorporate some of their personal style.

Joss Whedon seems like a particularly telling case. When Disney hired Whedon to direct The Avengers, he was already beloved in geek circles, thanks to his TV shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly, and his independent short Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. All those projects brim with his trademark wit and quippy dialogue. But apart from 2005’s Serenity, Whedon wasn’t known for directing massive summer blockbusters, let alone an unprecedented crossover epic starring six superheroes. As Grantland noted in 2013, however, Marvel didn’t hire a blockbuster director when they brought Whedon in. They hired a showrunner, someone who could pull the threads from three other blockbusters together, and tie them into one superhero blowout. Marvel was probably more motivated by his writing, which lent itself to that higher purpose, than by his directorial sensibilities.

This same strategy applies to other cases where major studios have hired directors with minimal experience on big-budget effects spectaculars. Colin Trevorrow cut his feature-filmmaking teeth on the well-received small-scale indie Safety Not Guaranteed before moving swiftly up to blockbuster territory with Jurassic World. Critics knocked that film, but it went on to become the second-highest grossing movie of 2015. Trevorrow’s more recent effort, The Book of Henry, looks like an unmitigated flop, but his ability to shepherd a franchise film and make money doing it makes him appealing to a studio’s bottom line.

Meanwhile, Lord and Miller are in heavy demand. Their past films include The Lego Movie and the Jump Street franchise. They’ve produced such shows as Clone High, The Last Man on Earth, and the upcoming Unikitty! They’re even working on an animated Spider-Man movie, and were reportedly in talks to direct The Flash for Warner Bros. Their funny, irreverent voice pervades their work, and their background is likely what caught Lucasfilm’s eye. But the ability to be directed will always be at the top of Disney’s list, and the pair were apparently ill-suited for that aspect of the job. According to Variety, the directors were at loggerheads with Kennedy from the start. “It was a culture clash from day one,” a source told the paper. “She didn’t even like the way they folded their socks.”

All this said, heavy-handed control seems to work for Disney. Since acquiring Lucasfilm in 2012, the entertainment giant has only improved Star Wars’ standing with fans, thanks to acclaimed shows like Star Wars Rebels and comics like Darth Vader. The Marvel Cinematic Universe continues to be the gold standard for franchise world-building in Hollywood, as no other studio has pulled off any project that matches its scale — either in number of titles or critical, financial, and fan success. Ron Howard is also a capable director, with a long list of strong credits that include Cinderella Man and A Beautiful Mind. But he’s also a director with a longtime relationship with Lucasfilm and a workmanlike approach that suggests he can take orders. If history is any guide, it’s easy to imagine he was brought on as a manager more than a distinct voice. And that seems to be right up Disney’s alley.