'Star Wars,' Inclusion and a Future Beyond 'Game of Thrones' Duo
Monday night, the news broke that Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are leaving the galaxy far, far away before their new film series even began production. Their exit is only the latest in what’s becoming a pattern at Lucasfilm in which there are now more directors who have left the current iteration of Star Wars films than directors who have actually made them. While the duo cited scheduling conflicts between the Star Wars films and their new five-year, $250 million Netflix deal as the source of their exit, their recent controversies have raised more than a few eyebrows among the Star Wars fandom wondering what’s next for the theatrical side of the beloved property.
While Weiss and Benioff are a hot commodity in Hollywood at the moment, their reputation among fandom is somewhat damaged, for whatever that’s worth. The final season of HBO’s Game of Thrones, which had proven to be television’s biggest event of the decade, was a critical disappointment and many fans of the show blamed the rushed nature of the final season on the duo wanting to move on Star Wars. And the announcement of the show Confederate at HBO, which has since been shelved indefinitely in lieu of their Netflix deal, did nothing to help their image amid the call for progressive voices in entertainment. In July, they canceled their San Diego Comic-Con appearance last minute. It would have been their first public appearance since the controversial final episode of Game of Thrones.
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At the Austin Film Festival this past weekend, hours before they exited Star Wars, the duo drew more controversy when their comments at the festival were made public on Twitter. The two showrunners discussed their unpreparedness for the series, the lack of understanding of the characters initially, their desire to downplay the fantasy elements, and how Game of Thrones essentially served as their film school. It was a weird flex, and given the discussions currently happening in Hollywood about white men with little to no experience given precedence over women and people of color, many of whom have been working and pitching in the industry for years, their admissions did them no favors.
Star Wars has famously struggled with inclusivity in the writers and directors chairs, with Lucasfilm head Kathleen Kennedy infamously remarking in 2016 that “We want to make sure that when we bring a female director in to do Star Wars, they’re set up for success. They’re gigantic films, and you can’t come into them with essentially no experience.” Benioff and Weiss’ comments on their lack of experience over the weekend was sure to put more scrutiny on Kennedy. Although Weiss and Benioff’s departure isn’t a “firing” and they’re sure to have no problem securing future projects, their exit mirrors that of Josh Trank who was fired even before the release of The Force Awakens (2015) following the critical and financial disaster that was Fantastic Four (2015). While scheduling conflicts is the official word for Weiss and Benioff’s departure, it wouldn’t be surprising if there was some mutual desire to avoid further backlash on their part and Kennedy’s. Like Trank’s departure, and Colin Trevorrow, who was previously set to direct Episode IX, Benioff and Weiss’s departure isn’t causing Star Wars fans to lose sleep. In fact, in terms of social media responses, their exit seems to be a welcomed one. That reaction may speak to a larger issue with Lucasfilm’s hiring practices.
When it was announced J.J. Abrams would direct The Force Awakens in 2013, the pick couldn’t have been more popular. Abrams was the fan-favorite choice following his reboot of Star Trek (2009). And production on Episode VII went smoothly, giving the Disney-owned Lucasfilm the appearance of a well-oiled machine. But not even a year after the success of The Force Awakens, the studio ran into its first speed bump with their first spinoff Rogue One (2016), which saw director Gareth Edwards’ film undergo massive reshoots from Tony Gilroy. The result was a film that was largely unblemished, and major critical and financial success. But the cracks really began to show when Solo (2018) directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller were fired over creative differences after much of the film had been shot. Ron Howard was hired to replace them and reshoot the film, which sent the budget ballooning. Solo, which is better than it’s given credit for, didn’t stand a chance at the box office, not because of the quality of the film, but because of its budget, its release only five months after The Last Jedi (2017), its public behind the scenes drama, and its May release date, weeks after Avengers: Infinity War toppled the box office. The box office disappointment of Solo curtailed Lucasfilm’s future plans for their “A Star Wars Story” brand of films, and put an end James Mangold’s untitled bounty hunter feature said to be focused on Boba Fett.
With few exceptions, Lucasfilm has sought out buzzy names and flavor-of-the-year directors before they’ve had a chance to cement themselves as visionaries or collaborators. But Star Wars was never about big-name directors or even expected choices. Abrams happened to be a big name who was a perfect fit, an heir apparent to the legacy of Lucas, Spielberg and Zemeckis. But the history of Star Wars directors — George Lucas, Irvin Kershner and Richard Marquand — is the history of guys you wouldn’t necessarily peg to direct space epics.
Last Jedi filmmaker Rian Johnson fit that unexpected bill, and regardless of the divisive reaction over The Last Jedi, he’s the kind of outside-the-box choice that Star Wars thrived on in the '80s. Lucasfilm has largely looked at record-breaking creators with a blockbuster films or series on their resume, but there’s something to be said in not looking for the next Abrams, but the next Johnson, or even Kershner or Marquand. Better still, there’s even more to be said in looking at women and people of color to write and direct the next Star Wars feature. Lucasfilm is taking this approach with the upcoming Disney+ series, The Mandalorian, which hosts Deborah Chow, Rick Famuyiwa, Taika Waititi and Bryce Dallas Howard as directors. All of these filmmakers have that Rian Johnson quality of being outside the sci-fi spectacle box, and the series could be a kind of proving ground for the next generation of Star Wars filmmakers whose voices might define the property rather than allow the property to define their voices. But how long do we have to wait?
There are a number of Star Wars features in the works, including a trilogy from Johnson, and the recently revealed film that will see Marvel Studios’ chief creative officer Kevin Feige produce. Benioff and Weiss’ film was the next step for the franchise’s theatrical releases, with the release date of Dec. 16, 2022 already carved out on the schedule. With their departure, there are currently no Star Wars movies scheduled following the release of The Rise of Skywalker in December. While Kathleen Kennedy has discussed her excitement for the next decade of Star Wars media, the immediate future of Star Wars films is now in question. There’s hope that Johnson’s trilogy will be moved to the forefront, but there’s also reason to put a hold on Star Wars films for a little while.
With Disney+ series such as The Mandalorian, an Obi-Wan show, and an untitled project centered on Rogue One’s Rebel spy Cassian Andor, scratching that Star Wars itch, we could survive a break from theatrical Star Wars releases for five years or so. And we won’t be hurting for epic genre films in that December spot either with James Cameron’s Avatar sequels arriving in 2021, 2023, 2025 and 2027. And James Wan’s Aquaman sequel already holding the spot that Benioff and Weiss’s Star Wars film was on. Maybe the departure of Benioff and Weiss, is a gift, the will of the force that will allow Lucasfilm to re-strategize, look into interesting and diverse filmmakers, and ensure that Star Wars remains an event, rather than an annual franchise. Lucasfilm finds itself on the precipice of a great choice, staring at a binary sunset, with the whole future ahead of them.
by Richard Newby
by Sheraz Farooqi