Dear Kathleen Kennedy: If No One Gambled On Newbie Blockbuster Directors, We Wouldn’t Have Star Wars
Last week, we reported on an interview Lucasfilm’s Kathleen Kennedy did with Variety about Rogue One and the upcoming Han Solo anthology film. We talked about what she had to say about those projects, but we didn’t touch on another important part of the interview: the part where Kennedy talks about why there hasn’t yet been a female director attached to a Star Wars film.
Despite the fact that finding a female director is a “priority” at Lucasfilm, Kennedy says 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.”
She then talks about the fact that, since women aren’t usually given the opportunity to do blockbusters, “We want to really start to focus in on people we would love to work with and see what kinds of things they’re doing to progress up that ladder now, and then pull them in when the time is right.”
So…they want women who “essentially” have experience (what does that even mean? What’s the criteria? What makes someone “experienced enough?” Is it one feature film? Is it a certain number of shorts? These are not rhetorical questions), and they understand that this experience is hard to come by because studios don’t often take chances on female directors to do blockbusters, so they want to find women they’d “love to work with” earlier in their careers to see what they’re up to and pull them in “when the time is right” (again, what the hell is the criteria? What are you talking about? When will the time ever be right?), but while they expect women to “essentially” find experience elsewhere, they won’t risk their own precious franchise in making this priority.
In other words, other studios and companies should be taking chances on women first, and then Lucasfilm will. Because Star Wars is a very special, and very fragile franchise which the slightest erroneous gamble can topple in an instant. Right?
If that were true, the franchise would’ve collapsed after The Phantom Menace.
Here are some of the many reasons why these constant excuses are complete BS:
STAR WARS IS NOT A FRAGILE FLOWER OF A FRANCHISE, SO STOP TREATING EVERY FILM LIKE IT’S “MAKE OR BREAK”
Obviously there’s a huge other layer of this where saying something like “They’re gigantic films, and you can’t come into them with essentially no experience” assumes that all female directors are inexperienced, as opposed to Lucasfilm just not having found the experienced ones yet or looked in the right places.
But let’s just say that’s true. Let’s say that the ONLY female directors available are directors with absolutely ZERO experience. Women who just show up, knock on the door of Lucasfilm, and say Hey, I used to deliver pizzas, but I woke up today with a hankering to direct a movie. LEMME DIRECT STAR WARS!
If hiring a woman is really a priority, and the only ones available have NO experience, well then you’re going to HAVE to hire one of those. They’re the only ones who exist. Now, lets say you do that, and DESPITE a super-experienced producer like Kathleen Kennedy steering the ship, and DESPITE George Lucas’ guidance and involvement, and DESPITE all the resources for help that this director would have access to, not to mention the best talent in the business to choose from for cast and crew, who would be very experienced at their jobs and be able to help bring her vision to fruition — let’s just say in spite of ALL OF THAT, she STILL makes the worst piece of hot garbage since The Phantom Menace.
So. The fuck. What?
You know what happened to The Phantom Menace, despite the fact that fan opinion ranged from absolute hatred to a rousing “meh” (I have yet to meet a person who LOVED The Phantom Menace)? It still made money. Nerds went to see it over and over to find things to complain about. That’s how we do. Star Wars is never gonna not make money.
And if it bombs, you know what? Lucasfilm will be FINE. Star Wars will be FINE. You’ll make a new movie with a different director, and people will go see that film, too! It’s such an iconic franchise that you can risk taking a gamble on someone untested! No one’s going to starve and die if you choose the wrong director one time! (And I would argue that the Star Wars franchise has already hired the wrong director twice. I’ll let you work out which times.) Stop being so damned precious about it.
The thing is, this “Worst Case Scenario” is IMPOSSIBLE, because despite the fact that they are rarely given opportunities within the Hollywood studio system, there are plenty of talented female filmmakers out there at all levels of experience. So this fear that seems to exist about a female director fucking it all up is completely irrational and unfounded. It’s an accepted truth that’s not an actual truth.
TAKING CHANCES ON UNTESTED, INEXPERIENCED TALENT IS INGRAINED IN STAR WARS‘ DNA
Star Wars was George Lucas’ third feature film ever. The first was THX 1138, which was a really cool sci-fi/dystopia film, but still super indie. After that was American Graffiti, which again was a brilliant film, but had nothing to do with spaceships or blockbuster-level effects or budgets. I would argue that George Lucas was at his best as a director when his films were small. American Graffiti had a budget of around $700,000 (a little over $3M in 2016 money) and made a little over $150M ($550M in 2016). And that’s when movies didn’t have streaming services and the “Golden Age of TV” to compete with.
What I’m getting at is that there was no track record for a studio to give Lucas a large budget to film in Tunisia and make a movie in a genre they were skeptical about to begin with. In fact, he was turned down several times before 20th Century Fox decided to take a chance on him. They took a chance on him and his vision/talent/story even though he wasn’t the most experienced with big-budget films. The rest is history.
But when I say that taking chances on newbies is in Star Wars‘ DNA, I don’t just mean Lucas’ hiring. Luke was inexperienced. Rey was inexperienced. Jyn Erso is inexperienced. Yet they are all chosen and entrusted with huge tasks, because those doing the choosing see the potential (the Force?) inside them, and know that they will rise to the occasion. These would be very different stories if their protagonists were proven heroes. They become heroes.
So it seems bananas to me that the company that earns its bread and butter telling stories about newbies who rise to the challenge and achieve greatness can’t bring itself to make that real when it comes to its own crews.
SEVERAL STAR WARS DIRECTORS HAD ZERO OR LITTLE BLOCKBUSTER EXPERIENCE, AS HAVE MANY MALE DIRECTORS OUTSIDE OF THE STAR WARS FAMILY
This is the part where we talk about the fact that Colin Trevorrow had only ever done shorts and one low-budget film before being given the opportunity to write and direct Jurassic World. He’s now directing Star Wars Episode IX after having only made two features, one of which was a blockbuster he was handed with zero track record with blockbusters.
This is the part where we talk about the fact that Gareth Edwards had only ever done one low-budget film before being given the opportunity to direct Godzilla. He’s now directing Rogue One: A Star Wars Story after having only made two features, one of which was a blockbuster he was handed with zero track record with blockbusters.
This is the part where we talk about the fact that J.J. Abrams, who is now basically known as the King of the Franchises and who was given the opportunity to make Star Wars: The Force Awakens, was handed the opportunity to direct Mission Impossible III after Tom Cruise had seen and loved Alias. Abrams had only ever directed television before directing a blockbuster franchise film as his first film ever.
This is the part where we talk about the fact that Brad Bird made a name for himself directing animation, and his animated films are brilliant, but animation is a completely different animal from live-action. And yet, having zero experience with live-action, let alone blockbuster live action, he was given the opportunity to do Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol and Tomorrowland (which flopped).
So…is “enough experience” one blockbuster for someone else before Lucasfilm will let them touch Star Wars? Should the formula to calculate “experience” for blockbusters be that they direct in television first? And does any of this apply to women? Because…
WOMEN WHO MEET THESE QUALIFICATIONS TOTALLY EXIST
Kathryn Bigelow, Mimi Leder, Patty Jenkins, and Catherine Hardwicke all have experience directing big-budget films in genre. Lexi Alexander, Jill Soloway, Rosemary Rodriguez are all experienced directors, and while Jill Soloway has tended to work much smaller, both Alexander and Rodriguez are experienced directors of both features and TV that have dealt with genre/comic-book material before and could reliably make the leap to a film in the Star Wars universe just as well as any man with similar experience (Alexander has Punisher: War Zone, Arrow and Supergirl under her belt, Rodriguez has Jessica Jones).
There are women currently working in independent film that have several feature films under their belts — certainly more than the number of features many men have made before being handed the keys to the blockbuster kingdom.
Check out The Director List for a database full of them! Don’t like any of them? Check out the Hire a Ms. database. Don’t like any of them? Consult with organizations like Women in Film, or the Geena Davis Institute. You don’t have to look for completely new, budding talent and nurture it from the womb. You don’t have to start from scratch to find a capable female director for a Star Wars film. There are plenty of mid-career female directors who are ready to make the leap. Who’ve been ready. Who love sci-fi and adventure and fantasy and want to play in that sandbox.
There are also women in animation who are, like Brad Bird, capable of making the jump to live-action. Jennifer Yuh Nelson, who’s directed Kung-Fu Panda 2 and 3 has already made the jump to live-action with The Darkest Minds. So, is does one live-action genre feature and two animated features count as “essentially” having experience?
They can’t ALL be “busy.” And if they are? Freaking WAIT for one. And if you can’t wait, pair that female director with a Star Wars film coming down the pike. It’s not as if Lucasfilm doesn’t have these movies planned out WAY in advance.
I’m just tired of the excuses, and it’s doubly disheartening when those excuses are coming from a female producer. Triply disheartening when I know that Lucasfilm has women well-represented in its leadership (in addition to Kennedy being President and COO, the VP of Animation and the President of ILM are both women). The “experience” argument is as old as time, and you know what? You can’t earn experience if no one gives you opportunities.
Lucasfilm should be leading the way in taking chances on untested talent, not waiting for others to step first.
(via IndieWire, images via Lucasfilm)
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