clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Why a woman needs to direct Star Wars, and the three women who’d be up for the job

New, 34 comments

If you buy something from a Verge link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Image: Walt Disney

A woman with a lightsaber. It’s still sinking in, two years after The Force Awakens put Luke Skywalker’s famous weapon in the hands of a new kind of hero: a young woman sheathed in the destiny usually afforded to men. Rey is plucky, headstrong, and quick to tears. And yet somehow, in spite of her orphaned, unmoored existence, and her daily struggle to even obtain food, she’s full of joy, light, and youthful optimism. She’s Luke Skywalker deconstructed, not merely gender-swapped. Her preternatural talent has made her the subject of scorn in certain fan communities, which were quick to dub her a “Mary Sue,” and call out her rushed narrative as problematic. And it is rushed. But that’s less a problem inherent to Rey, and more a symptom of director J.J. Abrams’ whiz-bang storytelling, and the space opera genre he’s channeling here. If Rey feels more equipped for her next steps at the end of The Force Awakens than Luke did by the end of A New Hope, it’s because the foundation of survival is ingrained in her the way it never was in him, a farm kid who grew up protected and loved.

Rey is also a woman who, to date, has been written and directed exclusively by men — first by Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan, and next by Rian Johnson in the upcoming The Last Jedi. Such an insular character could benefit from the creative direction of a woman whose unique experience in the filmmaking industry might parallel Rey’s own lonely sojourn from unseen striver to galactic savior.

Rey is a solid metaphor for women in Hollywood, who are traditionally less sought-after and nurtured than their male counterparts. That’s partly symptomatic of a “good old boys’ club” mentality that sees filmmakers cherry-picking eager male protégés who look and think like they did as fledgling visionaries. J.J. Abrams, for example, got his start in the business transferring Steven Spielberg’s home movies to tape as a teenager. They’ve been close associates ever since, and it’s not hard to see why: both are short-statured, bespectacled Jewish men with similar mannerisms, whose films are of the awestruck and awe-inspiring variety, with a heavy bend toward nostalgia and curation of film history.

Then there’s Colin Trevorrow. “There’s this guy who reminds me of me,” filmmaker Brad Bird said of Trevorrow to Frank Marshall, the major-league producer who was looking for someone to helm Jurassic World. Spielberg offered similar sentiments about Trevorrow, who — with just one previous film credit to his name, 2012’s low-budget Safety Not Guaranteed — was handed the billion-dollar Jurassic franchise, and later selected by Marshall’s wife, Kathleen Kennedy, to direct Star Wars: Episode IX.

Women rarely have these mentored, meteoric opportunities in the business. Patty Jenkins, who directed Wonder Woman — the highest-grossing movie of summer 2017 — began her career as an unpaid film assistant. Fourteen years passed between the release of her Oscar-winning feature debut Monster and Wonder Woman, and her only credits in the interim were for television. This isn’t a rarity. In general, female directors struggle to find big-budget work, even after the kinds of critically acclaimed indies that regularly get male directors bigger deals directing bigger films. According to The Hollywood Reporter, women made up just 7 percent of all directors who worked on the top 250 domestic-grossing films of 2016. (And that was down from 9 percent in 2015.) So far, Jenkins is the first and only woman to direct a major superhero movie. Given the current studio slate, she’ll likely keep that honor until 2019, when Anna Boden co-directs Captain Marvel, 11 years after the inception of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

So why hasn’t Kathleen Kennedy — the president of Lucasfilm, whose executive team includes more women than men, and who’s been very outspoken about the importance of heroines — given the Trevorrow treatment to a woman, someone who “looks like her”? Kennedy also came up in boys’ club Hollywood, rising over initial disparity to become one of the most successful producers of all time, regardless of gender. She made headlines last year for saying the time was “not right” for a female Star Wars director, but immediately doubled back: “If somebody actually moves through the process of making movies and wants to make a Star Wars movie, and shows that they have actually stepped into the role on that level, of course we’re going to consider a woman. That goes without saying.”

Perhaps the day has finally come. Earlier this week, Disney and Lucasfilm announced that Colin Trevorrow will no longer direct Star Wars: Episode IX, which leaves the door open for a capable woman, like the kind Kennedy mentioned, to step in. That isn’t about affirmative action. It’s about extending the opportunity to someone who is not only fully professionally capable, but also has a feminine vitality that could bring insightful interiority to Rey.

Here are three women directors who are more than equipped to bring Rey’s story home, and whose careers mirror or exceed those of the men who’ve already been invited to make their mark on Star Wars.

Image: Walt Disney

Ava DuVernay

DuVernay’s name comes up a lot with regards to Star Wars. She turned up on several lists of should-be directors in the wake of Trevorrow’s departure, and she’s an on-the-record Star Wars fanatic. She also, as it happens, already contributed to the universe, having helped Abrams (her good friend) come up with a key moment for Rey in The Force Awakens: “I showed an early cut to my friend Ava DuVernay, and she had a bunch of great suggestions,” Abrams explained in the movie’s Blu-ray commentary. “One of them was, she really wanted to see Daisy [Ridley], in her attack on Ren, have one really cool moment.”

The resulting scene was the moment Rey, her lightsaber locked with Kylo Ren’s in the middle of a passionate battle, briefly closes her eyes and finally accepts the Force. It’s the film’s most openly spiritual sequence, and an instrumental part of Rey’s journey. Without it, the duel is a heated spar. With it, it’s a triumphant personal development. It’s a softly interior touch, and it took a woman to point out that it was necessary to make Rey’s journey in the film complete.

Abrams himself has suggested that DuVernay should tackle a Star Wars movie, and she has more than enough professional clout to earn the duty. Her major breakthrough, Selma, was a Best Picture nominee, her documentary 13th was a Best Documentary Feature nominee, and she recently wrapped on A Wrinkle in Time, a Disney adaptation of the best-selling science fiction novel.

Michelle MacLaren

It’s frankly insane that MacLaren has never directed a major motion picture. As a veteran television director, she’s helmed episodes of popular and prestigious shows such as The X-Files, The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, The Leftovers, Better Call Saul, and Westworld. She also directed and produced episodes of Breaking Bad, winning two Emmys in the process. The Last Jedi’s Rian Johnson was similarly a Breaking Bad director before he made his own galactic swerve.

The prowess and technicality involved in most of those shows made MacLaren the first contender for the Wonder Woman directing role. Warner Bros. hired her for Wonder Woman in 2014, but she left the project several months later due to that old standby, “creative differences.” She’s currently working on David Simon’s The Deuce for HBO, and developing a limited series about Jonestown with Vince Gilligan. She’s also slated to finally make her feature-film directorial debut with The Nightingale in 2019. That might not leave time for a galaxy far, far away, but if Disney is smart, they’ll keep her in mind for a future female-driven spinoff.

Image: Walt Disney

Mimi Leder

If I had to pick a favorite to direct Episode IX, it would be Mimi Leder, who, more than anyone else on this list, has paid her Hollywood dues and deserves another shot. Her directorial debut, The Peacemaker, was a slick action thriller starring George Clooney and Nicole Kidman. She followed that up with the blockbuster disaster film Deep Impact, which made $350 million at the global box office in 1998. Sadly, Leder’s next film, Pay It Forward, was a critical and financial flop that temporarily derailed her career.

Pay It Forward was not a box-office success and I went to movie jail for quite a long time,” Leder told The New York Times in 2015. “Saying this sounds like sour grapes but it isn’t: It’s very different for women filmmakers than it is for male filmmakers.”

Leder found renewed success in television, particularly with HBO’s The Leftovers, for which she directed 10 episodes, including the critically beloved finale. Her work on the grief-fueled series makes her an especially inspired choice for Episode IX, which will have the distinct challenge of handling the death of Carrie Fisher and the sudden absence of General Leia Organa. The Leftovers dealt expressly with death, grief, and the unmovable space between, and Leder directed the finale with a grace note that proves her deftness for the subject and for endings in general.

That grief is also tantamount to Rey’s story, as a woman left behind by her family, and forced to fend for herself. Much like Rey, Leder’s a survivor, who escaped that “movie jail” and was recently dubbed “the best director on television” by The Ringer. Episode IX deserves a leader who knows her heroine, inside and out. Together, Leder and Rey could do incredible things.