The Ultimate Star Wars Episode 7 Director Wish List
By Jason Haggstrom, October 31, 2012
I admit it. Like so many millions, I am a Star Wars geek. Having been born right smack dab in the middle of the 1970s, it was pretty hard to not fall in love with the franchise in my formative years. My very earliest memories are populated by Luke Skywalker action figures, and toy versions of the most beautiful spaceships ever designed.
To say that the series had an impact on my life, and my love for cinema, would be a massive understatement. When my two young kids asked me to detail just how Chicken Run was made, I involved them in the creation of a short stop motion film starring R2-D2 so they could (hopefully) learn by doing. In anticipation of Revenge of the Sith, I composed a tongue-in-cheek limerick about Obi-Wan Kenobi where each of the six stanzas referred to one of the films. Just this past weekend, I attended a Halloween event at a military aircraft museum because I really wanted to get my picture taken with an amazing, fan-made replica of R2-D2 that was onsite (well, I also really wanted to see the planes...). And I didn't just go way out of my way to make it to each of the last three Star Wars films on opening night, my best friend actually flew across the country so that we could share in the experience together (both the excitement, and the disappointments). Yes, I am a Star Wars geek.
As both a Star Wars geek and a cinephile, my mind has been consumed by a single question since yesterday's announcement that Disney had bought Lucasfilm and would be producing a new trilogy of Star Wars films beginning in 2015. That question? With George Lucas (thankfully) out of the picture, who will be hired to direct? Here is my wish list:
Come on. Could there ever really be anyone else atop this list other than the great Steven Spielberg? Spielberg isn't just the most financially successful filmmaker in history, he's a brand name unto himself. The topics of his films run the gamut. He's a master of sci-fi, of melodrama, of epics, of war movies, of suburban fantasy, and the pulps. He's adept at writing and shaping scripts. He's a technological innovator, an actor-friendly director who knows how to coax great performances out of children, and is as excellent a director of action as we have ever seen. He also has a knack for creating films that utilize a classical style—and Star Wars films are nothing if not classical in their filmmaking—that is informed by his idols (John Ford, Howard Hawks, David Lean, John Huston, Akira Kurosawa) while never letting their influence override his own, forward-thinking vision of how to craft a film.
It's well-documented that Spielberg—Lucas's long-time friend and collaborator—was the first choice to direct Return of the Jedi. Ultimately, Spielberg's decision to pass on the project was a political one: he didn't want to abandon his Director's Guild union membership (a move that would have forever ostracized him from awards consideration) to work on Lucas's non-union production. But with George Lucas's retirement and the sale of Lucasfilm to Disney, the company's non-union stance is likely to be retired along with bearded-one. The door will be open for Spielberg.
If Disney wants to not only reassure fans that the future of the series is in good hands, but also wants to make sure that the first picture in the new trilogy has the best chance of artistic success, then Spielberg is clearly the man for the project.
10-9-2012 Update: Spielberg has ruled himself out
Guillermo del Toro
The knock on del Toro is that he's dropped out of more films than he's actually directed (the most recent being The Hobbit, which he abandoned after waiting months for the studios to work out their legal issues). But, oh, what a run of beautiful films he's made. Del Toro's love of horror, sci-fi, the mode of gothic fiction, and his readily-apparent fascination with the storytelling style of Spielberg has led to some of the most splendid cinematic experiences of the new century. His The Devil's Backbone blends ghost story horrors with historical metaphor in one of the decade's most haunting films. Most people are more aware of its sister film, the exquisite Pan's Labyrinth—my favorite film of the 2000s. But del Toro has also shown the acumen for working with an established franchise. His pair of Hellboy films were absolutely respectful to their comic book source, but never held back by it. Both Hellboy films blended sci-fi and superhero conventions with the dynamics of families and friendships (something woefully missing from the last batch of Star Wars films).
If you've ever read or heard an interview with Del Toro, listened to one of his DVD commentary tracks, or read Daniel Zalewski's extensive profile on the man, then you know that he brings an unparalleled amount of passion to the projects he takes on. And, of course, del Toro is an enormous Star Wars fan.
The new trilogy of Star Wars films needs a visionary on the level of del Toro. Star Wars films need a director who can not only blend genres, but who understands the pleasures of pulpy, genre fiction. They need a director who can not just direct action, but scenes that haunt and inspire through the beauty of their production design. They need a director who tells his stories through innovations in camerawork, music, and editing. Guillermo del Toro will bring all of that to the franchise, and many, many things we never even saw coming.
1-7-2013 Update: Lucasfilm inquired about del Toro's interest, but he turned them down due to already being "busy enough"
Ang Lee (added 10-8-2012)
In the course of a discussion I had last night with a friend about potential directors for the new Star Wars films, Ang Lee's name came up. And then it came up again. And the more we talked about Lee's virtues as a filmmaker, the more I began to realize just how big of an oversight it was to have not included him on this list in the first place.
Lee is a master storyteller. His films continually fall into that perfect zone between the high production values of a Hollywood film, and the character-centric focus of those indie films that showcase writing and performance because it's all that the budget will allow. Both the Hollywood and the indie approach can work, but we all know from countless experiences that most films end up carrying the feel of whichever route they took. But that's not true of Lee's films.
Ang Lee's films are beautiful and elegant, but never overwrought with fussy camerawork that draws attention to itself without purpose or meaning. He is a master of creating worlds that are richly expressed through production design, costuming, lighting, and his exquisite sense of composition. His locales don't feel designed; they feel lived in. He is a skilled a craftsman of subtle textures and tones expressed through the language of cinema, but his voice never overpowers. But, really, there is only one thing that even needs to be mentioned when forming an argument for having Lee take on Star Wars: he is the man who directed Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon isn't just one of the few great examples of action filmmaking in the modern era, it is the one that most closely feels like a Star Wars film. It is the perfect blend of heart-pounding action and adventure, and those heart-breaking sensations born out of melodrama. Stylistically, it is classical and contemporary. It is both mystical and romantic, introspective and grand. It is everything that a great Star Wars film should be (just add a dash of humor). If you've seen it then you know as well as I do that Ang Lee would be perfect for Star Wars.
In my mind, when considering who to give the reins of the new Star Wars trilogy to, there is a steep drop-off after Steven Spielberg and Guillermo del Toro [10-8-2012 update: and Ang Lee]. But in putting together this list, I can't deny the appeal of handing the reins of the franchise to Brad Bird.
Through his work on the soaring The Iron Giant and the delicious Ratatouille, Bird has proven himself to be a filmmaker who can craft the most of bizarre of concepts into films that are pleasing to both the masses and critics alike. The Iron Giant and Ratatouille both take on the subject of outsiders, of loners, and work their charms through well-written characters and Bird's handling of talky scripts that would die on screen under the hand of a lesser director. And Bird's earlier film at Pixar, the awe-inspiring The Incredibles wasn't just one of the most entertaining action films of the last ten years, it was a better vision of a Fantastic Four type superhero team (a mix of action, comedy, and family dynamics) than either of the stale Fantastic Four movies that were officially constructed from Marvel Comics' source material. And in 2011, Bird proved that his skills would adapt to live-action with his work on Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, easily the best movie in the franchise since Brian De Palma's series reboot in 1996.
Bird has also shown a superior level of integrity in regards to turning The Incredibles into a franchise of films. In the eight years since The Incredibles hit theatres, Bird has repeatedly rejected calls to tack on sequels. He's not interested in returning to the well just because the fans demand it, or because it would mean a huge payout. He won't consider a sequel unless he comes up with an idea that is so good that he feels compelled to do it. With Star Wars being the most capitalistic of all movie franchises, it'd be nice to know that there was a director on the job who wouldn't just bring filmmaking skill, but would back up their work with such a high level of integrity as well.
10-19-2012 Update: Bird repeatedly stated via Twitter this past weekend that he will not be directing Star Wars
The Extended List
We know he can handle major franchises (Spider-Man, and the upcoming Wizard of Oz reboot). He also brings charm to everything from action to exposition. As a director of tentpoles, and low-budget shockers, Raimi is a lock for success.
He seems to have wandered back into auteur territory with an emphasis on staging elaborate, highly-technical shots (and I love him for it) over the classical mode of filmmaking that has been so engrained in the Star Wars franchise. But let's not forget about his work on Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. That film wasn't just a masterpiece of popular, mainstream cinema, it revitalized a franchise that had rotted away artistically under the stale direction of Christopher Columbus. There's virtually no chance that Cuarón will get involved with another large franchise such as Star Wars, but there's no way I could leave him off of this list.
Yes, David Fincher. The man who directed the third film in the Alien franchise only to have the studio fire him from the project so they could re-edit the film to their liking. Sure, Fincher was a cameraman on Return of the Jedi way back when. But let's not confuse past work on the franchise early in his career with a desire to return to a project that is studio-driven rather than auteur-driven. It'll never happen. Let's move on.
Johnson has directed just three films, but each one has been a joy to behold (the neo-noir Brick; the Coenesque con flick, The Brothers Bloom; and this year's entry into the time traveller genre, Looper). Johnson has that rare knack for using all aspects of the cinematic artform to create meaning, to inform and surprise, and to elicit emotion. Each of his films has held a different tone than the last, and each has stirred my love of cinema like so few movies do. But Johnson has been both writer and director of each of his films. Would he even be interested in working on somebody else's baby? And would it be worth losing the next "Rian Johnson film" in order to have him apply his talents to one of the most popular franchises in the history of movies?
Mendes has a background in directing for the stage, a fact that is ever-present in the way he approaches filmmaking. I don't consider this a bad thing, and tend to appreciate what he's doing even when it comes off as a bit overwrought. But Star Wars films are built on a foundation of melodrama, and Mendes's theatrical approach to production might just be a perfect fit.
So, Who Will be the Chosen One?
Disney has already stated that they intend to have Star Wars Episode 7 in theatres by 2015. To hit that target, they will have to hire a director in the very near future. As much as I'd love to see Spielberg or del Toro get the job, I can't help but see the stars aligning themselves for Brad Bird to take over the franchise. He's not just a great and successful director, but he already has strong ties to Disney because of the two films he directed at Pixar.
The failings of Star Wars episodes 1-3 were born out of Lucas's tight-fisted control over the franchise, and his inability to truly collaborate with the incredible artists that he hired. But Pixar's methods, and their enormous track record for success, comes from their collaborative process. Their films are authored by an individual director, but are constantly reviewed by the other directors in the company. And Pixar has no qualms with scrapping entire sections of their movies when, through their rigorous collaborative process, they find that things just aren't working. A Star Wars film under the guidance of Brad Bird and the filmmakers at Pixar is not only likely, but possibly the best outcome for the franchise. Because of his ties to Disney, his successes at Pixar, and what appears to be an open schedule, I'd put my money on Brad Bird. But if Disney were able to land any director on the list you see here, this Star Wars geek would be ecstatic. For the moment, I have a very good feeling about this...