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The Gift and the Curse of Directing a ‘Star Wars’ Movie

‘Rogue One’ director Gareth Edwards was chosen to takes the reins because of his auteurist talent. But with stakes this high, is there enough room for his individual vision?

(Marz Jr.)
(Marz Jr.)

Welcome to Rogue One Week! With the release of Rogue One, set in the years before A New Hope, we finally get our first stand-alone Star Wars movie. This week we’ll be analyzing the greater Star Wars universe from every conceivable angle — the storytelling, the merchandising, the mythology, and the fandom. May the Force be with you (while you read).

Midway through Godzilla, a young girl sees the ocean water creep slowly away from shore, and her family and other tourists begin to flee, recognizing the early signs of a tsunami. Further out to sea, the stegosaurus blades of a humongous nuclear-age lizard glide silently toward an aircraft carrier and then disappear. A wave of water crashes through and practically flattens a city. And then we see it: Godzilla. Dark, massive, and glistening, lit up by the long arcs of flares shot from atop a nearby building.

The monster’s unveiling plays out like a cinematic striptease, bit by destructive bit — a strategy straight from the Spielberg playlist. But what resonates most from Gareth Edwards’s 2014 sophomore feature is a sense of scale. Godzilla is the kind of monster that allows a filmmaker to remind us of how small we are. That’s about all Edwards’s Godzilla, with its otherwise rote human characters and only a half-engaging plot, gave us. But it was enough to make the prospect of an Edwards-helmed Star Wars movie exciting — no, refreshing. If a director can somehow bring mythic impossibility back to the blockbuster monster movie, giving all its colossal destruction a sense of heft and its monster a sense of prehistoric magnitude, just imagine all the things he might do with a Death Star, a mechanical mass so large it has its own gravitational pull. It’s wonderful to think about.

It’s also wonderful to think about the prospect of a highly individuated franchise film. Disney (speaking of imperial forces!) bought the Star Wars property for $4 billion in 2012 after acquiring Marvel Studios in 2009 — two of the most lucrative pillars outside of Pixar and Disney themselves. In 2016, Disney has claimed five of the 10 highest-grossing movies in the world, including two from Marvel (Doctor Strange, Captain America: Civil War) and one from Pixar (Finding Dory), with the more recent Moana on the rise. Edwards’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is already tracking a record-high debut.

The Disney affiliation alone does not necessarily invite confidence in the artistic merits of the film — not in the way the choice of director did. So it was a little disappointing to learn earlier this year, the studio would be taking over: paying Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton), the movie’s uncredited writer, $200,000 a week to supervise rewrites and reshoots in order “to protect the integrity of the Star Wars brand,” according to several sources in the Hollywood Reporter. “Anything less than extraordinary won’t do,” a studio insider said, suggesting that Edwards’s original was something less than extraordinary.

This shouldn’t have been a huge deal — reshoots are common, especially to Star Wars movies — but it was, and is, because it’s part of a larger pattern. Edwards is the third franchise director in recent memory who’s been pushed aside by his studio — the previous two being Josh Trank, director of the recent flop Fantastic Four, and David Ayer, whose Suicide Squad shifted course after the dark tone of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was received coldly. The early word on Rogue One is similar to what it was for those films; critics have complained that the movie feels like an overly slick amalgam of too many people’s ideas. A.O. Scott writes that Disney has “no will to persuade the audience of anything other than the continued strength of the brand.” As if an audience stuck with a Hollywood marketplace as singularly dominated by Disney as ours needs any persuading.

The strength of the Disney brand has, of late, been the young, just-proven filmmaker — most likely a dude on his second or third movie who has the energy and vision to pull off a franchise feature but perhaps not enough of a signature or following to overrule a studio’s demands. The early-career directors, invariably men, poached to helm recent franchise films include Ryan Coogler (the upcoming Black Panther), Colin Trevorrow (from Jurassic World to Star Wars Episode IX), and David Lowery (the very good Pete’s Dragon). Franchise directors seem to be chosen for their ability to acquiesce — and when they don’t, it still tends to work out: Stories about reshoots or drastic reorientations of the material (as was the case for Suicide Squad) energize the press. Edwards is a perfect match for the archetype: a young, skilled director on his third movie, the first of which (Monsters) proved he could tell a good sci-fi story on a $500,000 budget; the second, Godzilla, showed he had a knack for revitalizing an old story with just enough flair to become the biggest debut of 2014.

Rogue One has long been understood to be a side story, a movie that’s not beholden to the fan service of the ongoing franchise reboot, which began last year with J.J. Abrams’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The excitement of a stand-alone project is the idea that it would be free to flourish on its own terms — that, by virtue of being a side story, it might be given the benefit of independence. In retrospect, silly idea. Just last year, Trank, director of the maligned Fantastic Four, was reportedly removed from a stand-alone Star Wars project thanks to rumors about his conduct in the making of that Marvel disappointment. (Trank maintains that he left of his own accord.)

It’s a complicated story. Trank was discovered on the merits of an earlier, lower-budget film. His Chronicle was a fun, if not wholly original, found-footage movie about an outcast teenager’s abuse of a newfound superpower. Insiders told Hollywood Reporter Trank was “indecisive and uncommunicative” in the making of Fantastic Four, and the producers, Simon Kinberg and Hutch Parker, were asked to take over. The movie was riddled with rumors — of reshoots, of $100,000 in damages to a New Orleans home by Trank’s dogs, of outright producer takeover. In time for the movie’s release, facing the already terrible reviews, Trank tweeted that critics were seeing a film much worse than the one he’d intended. Then he got stuck with clean-up duty.

It was a mess — a different kind of story than that of Ayer or Edwards, whose conflicts with studios increasingly seem par for the course. In Edwards’s case, Star Wars movies were already known for having lukewarm advance screenings and production conflicts — including a $20,000 reshoot of the 1977 original’s cantina scene. It seems the Star Wars universe has long been defined by miscalculations like these. And yet news of Edwards’s reshoots seemed to hit a particular nerve. We keep seeing this fight play out between studios and their franchise auteurs, in which the talents and interests of the latter get subsumed by the demands of the former. It makes you wonder about a movie like Coogler’s Black Panther, whose director proved himself worthy with 2015’s Creed and who, given that experience, may have the most in common with Edwards. Coogler is the stronger talent by a mile, but the greater point is that even in the hands of proven directors, Disney’s studio priorities reign supreme.

It’s difficult to imagine Disney franchise movies, be they Marvel or Star Wars, with as much range as even the Harry Potter movies: compare the first Harry Potter, by Christopher Columbus, to the sleeker, darker Prisoner of Azkaban, directed by Alfonso Cuarón, who would go on to direct Children of Men and Gravity. Cuarón’s entry was a remarkable variation on the series’ given aesthetic; his film was as whimsical and child-friendly as the previous films, but richer in look and feel — sexier, even. Perhaps what I’ve wanted out of Star Wars was a Prisoner of Azkaban. Or even a film to rival the best moments in George Lucas’s own Revenge of the Sith, which, for its many flaws, has a wonderfully complex and imaginative political melodrama buried underneath too many layers of CGI, too many fight scenes, and way too much Hayden Christensen. Rewatching that movie recently, I realized that what was missing from The Force Awakens was the sense that its director had to tell that story. You watch Lucas’s flawed trilogy and feel, at the very least, that they were made by a director who had long wanted to get them out: You sense he wasn’t kidding when he said, from the start, that he’d just been waiting for technology to catch up with his dreams.

That’s the mark of a unique vision. It doesn’t seem to be the kind of thing a studio would prioritize nowadays — but shouldn’t it? The centrality of Lucas’s vision was a key to the franchise’s popularity in the first place. It’s the reason we’re all here. Thus my sole curiosity about Rogue One since the start hasn’t been whether or not the movie is good, but whether or not it would feel like Edwards directed it. With the throat clearing of A Force Awakens out of the way, would Rogue One be allowed to do its own thing? I’d prefer a mediocre Gareth Edwards movie, bogged down by all his bad habits — lame character sketches, excessive exposition, a few too many borrowed set pieces — to a perfectly fine, but bleached and boring Disney movie like The Force Awakens. The latter may offer the more immediately satisfying experience. But the flaws of the former would feel individual, not systemic, and they’d be set off by the unique eye Edwards has for scale and grandeur. They’d be problems related to Edwards’s own vision, rather than to Hollywood’s slow, painful artistic decline.

The supreme irony is that these directors all grow up dreaming of creating a Star Wars movie — or Star Trek or whatever else — and then wind up making movies completely airbrushed of all the fantastical tangents and wonders that came of all that dreaming. The movie made from those dreams might look something like Lucas’s Revenge of the Sith: a messy, flawed, but incredibly imaginative leap off the deep end. Whether that version will ever take off in Hollywood again remains to be seen.