A 'Star Wars' Firing and the Death of the Director
The Phil Lord and Chris Miller Han Solo exits are the tip of an artistic iceberg as studios reassert an historic choke hold over filmmakers.
On January 14, 1933, Hollywood astrologer Paul Branchard predicted an annus mirabilis for his gifted if mercurial client, Erich von Stroheim.
“The Sun is slowly (by progression) pulling in to parallel to the birth position of Neptune, and will become manifest in about two years,” he wrote, as quoted by Richard Koszarski in his biography The Man You Loved to Hate: Erich von Stroheim and Hollywood. “In my thirty years of study and practice with this science, I do not recall having ever seen so many fortunate influences, all operating at one time in a horoscope.”
Branchard may have had 30 years of study, but he was wrong. Two decades after von Stroheim first arrived in Hollywood — the son of a Jewish hatmaker who had reinvented himself as an Austrian aristocrat (adding “von” to his name for good measure) and created a backstory as fictitious as those of his extraordinary films (1919’s Blind Husbands, 1922’s Foolish Wives) — the director’s career was at an end.
Just a few years after he had seen his masterwork, 1924’s Greed, shredded by studio editors, who'd slashed it from its original 10 hours to a mere two and a half — and not so long after he had been fired from 1929’s Queen Kelly by his star, Gloria Swanson, and her lover-financier, Joseph Kennedy — he was once more at odds with the powers that be, this time at Universal, over his recently completed Walking Down Broadway.
“When the executives saw the picture everything began to unravel,” reports Koszarski. “[Studio exec Winfield] Sheenan was now beginning to lose influence to Sol Wurtzel, who was appalled at what he saw in the film…. Forced into a position where he had to justify his actions, Sheenan began to behave differently. According to [Leonard] Spigelgass, ‘When Sheehan saw the workprint he threw von Stroheim off the lot.’”
At the very point when von Stroheim, then 46, was dreaming of a gilded future, he “found himself back on the street again, his film maligned and cut to ribbons.”
Most directors can identify.
The Hollywood studios have always had a conflicted relationship with their filmmakers, wanting them to toe the line even while recognizing that the most gifted ones rarely do so. Occasionally the pendulum swings in the directors’ favor, but mainly it tilts the other way.
Orson Welles, whose brilliance cowed even the more sophisticated studio moguls, was persona non grata almost everywhere in Hollywood’s inner sanctums, except Ma Maison, the Los Angeles restaurant where I used to see him dining, positioned at the front where he could eyeball his enemies as they took their seats just a few feet from his. He was fired from 1942’s Magnificent Ambersons, which was then left in the hands of its editor, Robert Wise, a man of much gentility and charm but none of Welles’ genius.
Francis Ford Coppola worried constantly that he would be thrown off The Godfather and replaced by an assistant or a more manageable hack. Michael Cimino spiraled into such excesses on Heaven’s Gate that he forced United Artists to the edge of bankruptcy, even as UA searched for ways to remove him. And James Cameron fought so bitterly with 20th Century Fox during the making of Titanic that he and Fox studio execs stopped talking and almost came to blows.
What makes great directors great, of course, is precisely that they don’t see things the same way as everyone else. This presents a conundrum for their overseers, whose thinking toggles between two extremes: we want to hire a Ridley Scott or a David Lynch or a Martin Scorsese because they’ll elevate our project, but do we really want them to elevate it so much that it’s no longer our project at all?
I remember years ago hearing that Paramount Pictures had parted ways with Milos Forman (the two-time Oscar-winning director of 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and 1984’s Amadeus) in part because he wanted to give Ghost an unhappy ending. Instead, it opted for Jerry Zucker, a talented filmmaker who crafted an enormously well-made film, winning Whoopi Goldberg an Oscar in 1991. But what might the movie have been if Forman had made it instead?
Similarly, it’s impossible not to fantasize about other pictures whose directors were cut loose — from the George Cukor version of Gone with the Wind to the Richard Donner rendition of Superman II (1980).
Film buffs like myself — and even more, film critics — tend to favor the director over the studio, shaped as we are by the idea of the director as auteur, a sort of semi-propaganda ignited by the Cahiers du Cinema critics as they paved the way for their own careers as filmmakers, Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard among them. In promulgating that idea, they raised the currency of directors and devalued the worth of French writers, sending them fluttering downward like the post-war franc.
Studio execs, by contrast, lean heavily into their own kind. Even those who cherish film and know it inside out (alas, they’re fewer and farther between) tend to prefer their own judgment to that of their filmmakers. They may claim to revere talent, but they want it packaged and sealed. Genies are best kept in a bottle, after all; let loose, they tend to wreak havoc.
Right now, Hollywood’s in no mood for havoc, any more than the rest of the country. Rebels are just as much anathema to the movie establishment as they are to Washington’s. The creeping conservatism that has taken over the country has seeped into the Dream Factory, its most visible antagonist.
That was apparent last week when Lucasfilm and Disney unceremoniously bade farewell to the latest Star Wars directors, Phil Lord and Chris Miller. As my colleagues Kim Masters and Borys Kit meticulously broke down the reasons for their departure, I scratched my head to think of other occasions when directors have been so visibly relieved of their commands.
There’ve been times when pictures have fallen through at various stages of production (Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote), and others when directors have had their features re-edited (Tony Kaye is still seething over Edward Norton’s cut of American History X), but it’s rare for a filmmaker to be removed in the middle of a shoot, and never in the recent past has it been done as nakedly as here, with another director (Ron Howard) instantly in place, without fear of any fallout.
Far be it from me to judge the rights and wrongs. Kathleen Kennedy, the head of Lucasfilm, has a long and distinguished record as a producer and has worked with directors as demanding as M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense), Julian Schnabel (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) and David Fincher (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), not to mention her longtime colleague Steven Spielberg. It’s hard to believe she would have been pushed to this point without cause.
But it's not the first time the Star Wars franchise has nudged aside a director. Gareth Edwards was eased from Rogue One, while Josh Trank vanished from the second Star Wars standalone. The studios prefer directors who slide peg-and-groove into the system, ones who, while eminently capable, are more craftsmen than auteurs.
There’ve been times when directors have been able to escape the choke hold of the studios’ half nelson, most notably the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the studios seemed unable to stem the great tide of originality that was sweeping over their walls.
But those times are receding further and further into the past. With meager exceptions (pretty much the directors whose films get nominated for a best picture Oscar), the age of the auteur is over.
Stroheim was luckier than most: he at least was able to keep working, his fame growing through roles in Jean Renoir’s The Grand Illusion (the 1937 film Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese have named among the best ever) and the 1950 satire Sunset Boulevard (where Billy Wilder added insult to injury by casting von Stroheim as a butler). But the man who lived to direct was never allowed to direct again.