The alleged story of Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s firing from the untitled Star Wars Han Solo project shares a common theme with other directors’ stories working with big studios on tentpole movies: ownership.
The issue, according to various reports, was that Miller and Lord’s visionary style for the movie wasn’t what Lucasfilm wanted. Miller and Lord were planning on making their own brand of movie within the Star Wars universe, not just a Star Wars movie with a bit of Miller and Lord’s personality thrown in. They wanted ownership and authorship over the movie they were making and, as reports have suggested, Disney wasn’t on board.
This isn’t a new problem per se, but it’s been getting a bit of traction once again recently. Edgar Wright, director of Shaun of the Dead and Baby Driver, was a recent guest on Vanity Fair’s Playback podcast, and spoke about his own experience dealing with Marvel Studios. After being chosen to direct Ant-Man for Marvel in 2006, it came as a shock when Wright left the project in 2014 “due to differences in their vision of the film,” according to the studio.
Since then, Wright has spoken about the incident several times, but in light of Miller and Lord’s departure, added a few new details about how everything went down.
I think the most diplomatic answer is I wanted to make a Marvel movie but I don’t think they really wanted to make an Edgar Wright movie. It was a really heartbreaking decision to have to walk away after having worked on it for so long, because me and Joe Cornish in some form—it’s funny some people say, ‘Oh they’ve been working on it for eight years’ and that was somewhat true, but in that time I had made three movies so it wasn’t like I was working on it full time. But after The World’s End I did work on it for like a year. I was gonna make the movie. But then I was the writer-director on it and then they wanted to do a draft without me, and having written all my other movies, that’s a tough thing to move forward thinking if I do one of these movies I would like to be the writer-director. Suddenly becoming a director for hire on it, you’re sort of less emotionally invested and you start to wonder why you’re there, really.
The most interesting part of Wright’s answer is the first line because it’s become a universal tale for studios overseeing big blockbuster films and the directors attached.
In an interview with Digital Spy, Wright was asked about whether or not he’d want to work on a blockbuster again considering all the grief he got while attached to Ant-Man. While Wright is open to the possibility, he said, it all came down to ownership over the material he was being given.
“Those movies at their best is when there’s some authorship, whether it’s Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 or Nolan’s Batman movies,” Wright said.
He’s not the only director to address this. Ava DuVernay, the director best known for Selma, was one of the directors in talks for Black Panther. After exiting negotiations, DuVernay cited similar issues that Wright had.
“I'm not signing on to direct Black Panther,” DuVernay told Essence. “I think I’ll just say we had different ideas about what the story would be. Marvel has a certain way of doing things and I think they’re fantastic and a lot of people love what they do. I loved that they reached out to me.
“In the end, it comes down to story and perspective. And we just didn't see eye to eye. Better for me to realize that now than cite creative differences later.”
To an extent, it’s understandable that studios would want to have creative control over the films they’re making — especially those that belong to a universe. There needs to be a cohesive vision to the films that makes them feel like they could all belong together. Deborah Snyder, executive producer on the DC Extended Universe movies, told The Hollywood Reporter last year that while there’s a frame directors need to work within, they want to let directors have the freedom to make the movies they want.
Zack and [DC chief creative officer] Geoff Johns have outlined a timeline of where everybody is based off of, where our characters go in Justice League. So there's a framework. But it's filmmaker-driven, in that we want to hire directors who still have a point of view and that have latitude because we don't want all the movies to feel the same. David Ayer has a certain tone and feel to what he brought to Suicide Squad, as does Patty [Jenkins] to Wonder Woman. They have freedom to tell their story in the way that it needs to be told.
Zack Snyder, who helmed Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Man of Steel, added that it was important for the audience to be able to tell this was all part of the same universe.
“Batman v. Superman was always a stepping stone for Justice League, and it was a way to bring the worlds together without being too jarring,” Snyder told The Hollywood Reporter. “Once you say Batman and Superman exist in the same universe, you're also saying that Wonder Woman can exist in that world and Flash and Cyborg and Aquaman.”
In that way, cinematic universes become like TV series. Different directors are brought in to give their own take on a particular chapter, but it’s not about each individual episode as much as it is about how the entire series plays out. While each episode should be good, it needs to work within the confines of the season. For example, directors like Quentin Tarantino, David Fincher and Steven Spielberg have directed episodes of CSI, House of Cards and Columbo respectively. While they each brought their own sense of directorial vision to the series — Tarantino’s two-part episode of CSI is particularly good — they had to ensure it didn’t stray too far from the series’ overall tone.
In fact, Tarantino spoke about how difficult it could be for a director working in television after an experience on ER.
“Then I realized, this is their show, this isn’t my show,” Tarantino said, as reported by Mental Floss. “In TV, the producer is the man, the auteur.”
Marvel, for what it’s worth, seems to be getting better with it. The studio has brought on talent like Taika Waititi to direct Thor: Ragnarok and Ryan Coogler to direct Black Panther. Both directors are known for their individual filmmaking styles — especially Waititi — but they aren’t scolding Marvel for the creative restrictions being placed on them.
In an interview with Polygon, Waititi specifically said it was because of the creative freedom that Marvel allowed him that he chose to sign on for Ragnarok.
“I feel like a guest in Marvel's universe but with the creative freedom to do what I want,” Waititi said.
On the DC front, Wonder Women director Patty Jenkins said Warner Bros. was open to her take on Wonder Woman, which has a very different tone from Batman v Superman, Suicide Squad or Man of Steel.
“In our case we were incredibly fortunate,” Jenkins told Business Insider. “DC didn’t ever give me a mandate of tone and I pitched to Warner Bros. and DC 10 years ago, ‘I want to make the origin movie a la the first Superman with Christopher Reeve. I want to go back and try to do a grand piece of cinema for her.’ So I had been very strong about, you know, being excited about that idea and they really supported it from the start. So, we were already just different.”
Directors are being given the opportunity to make big movies with millions of dollars in backing. They’re being given the chance to work with characters they’ve known since they were young. They’re being given the chance to craft the next story in a popular and beloved franchise, but studios have to realize they’re giving these directors that chance for a reason.
The fight for ownership over movies is going to continue until studios understand how important it is to directors. As we saw with Wonder Woman, sometimes going against the grain is the best option.