There is some precedent for high-profile, critically beloved filmmakers leaving a major tentpole. There’s much less precedent for filmmakers doing so months into production — and after they’d capably shouldered multiple reboots and franchise launchpads, no less. Phil Lord and Christopher Miller are no longer directing Star Wars’ upcoming Han Solo prequel, we learned Tuesday, thanks to joint statements from both Lucasfilm and the duo themselves explaining the split with bland “creative differences” clichés. (Lord and Miller, at least, had the grace to acknowledge how pat they sounded even as they toed the party line.) That a replacement has yet to be announced suggests the decision was rather sudden, adding to the shock and intrigue.
The shake-up is both the latest example of recent mega-blockbusters scaring off talent and a dramatic escalation of the trend. It’s one thing when the director of an Oscar-nominated MLK biopic taps out of a superhero movie before production; it’s quite another when the guys who pulled off The Lego Movie exit a project that seems to land very much in their wheelhouse — and that’s been filming since February.
To be fair, the modern incarnation of Star Wars hasn’t been entirely smooth sailing. Extensive reshoots led by Tony Gilroy sullied the buzz around Rogue One; Colin Trevorrow is under increased scrutiny heading into Episode IX thanks to The Book of Henry’s critical and box-office implosion; and, most tragically, a lead actor passed away before filming on the next installment began. Of course, Rogue One became a massive success anyway, and the machine must go on. (Episode IX will begin production in January 2018.) Still, it’s hard to overstate what a wrench Lord and Miller’s departure throws into one of the franchise’s most highly anticipated installments. Star Wars, a property with no major misses under its new, Disney-stewarded regime, had hired Lord and Miller, two savvy comedians with no major misses, to mythologize a beloved character with a beloved cast: Alden Ehrenreich, straight off a Coen brothers starmaker; Donald Glover and Phoebe Waller-Bridge, straight off custom-made TV vehicles; and Emilia Clarke, making the logical and lateral move from the biggest show on television to the biggest series in movies. And Woody Harrelson, too!
At least Lucasfilm is in good company. Wonder Woman is now a bona fide phenomenon, despite parting ways with Michelle MacLaren in spring 2015. Ant-Man managed just fine after Peyton Reed took over for Edgar Wright. The trailer for Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther was met with as much rapturous acclaim as Ava DuVernay’s Black Panther would have been. And Rick Famuyiwa’s The Flash was far enough in the distance that the move didn’t ruffle too many fan feathers.
Unlike the still-untitled Han Solo movie, however, none of these films had been in production for months when their directors and studios parted ways, and none of those divorces were quite so unpredictable. Lord and Miller are extremely experienced in the ways of studio blockbusters, and anyway, a Han Solo movie was supposed to be a standalone prequel, not a link in a chain or a trial balloon for an expanded universe. At least compared to the Roman-numeraled mainstays, Star Wars’ side projects seem like much friendlier environments for experimentation and getting weird. (With little information about the separation, our best theory is that “weirdness,” in one form or another, is what led to the creative differences in the first place.) These guys know how to play ball, and their irreconcilable differences with Lucasfilm leave Marvel’s Russo brothers as the last directors standing when it comes to steering the Titanic as storytelling.
In short: It’s baffling. It’ll likely be months or even years before the real story trickles out, though an early Variety report suggests that the split is not as amicable as the joint statements suggest. But for now, the announcement comes as an unexpected hurdle for a movie that seemed poised to be an easy win. In the meantime, all that’s left to do is fantasy draft a new helmer. My money’s on Shane Black, though at this point, truly anything is possible.