What Ron Howard means for Star Wars

Howard just took over Han Solo

After sacking Phil Lord and Chris Miller from the Untitled Han Solo Movie (please let that become the official title), Lucasfilm announced an interesting replacement: Ron Howard. He’s done space films before (Apollo 13) and big budget adventure fare (The Da Vinci Code), so in many ways he’s a safe pick. Still, he stands out from the kind of hip names you’d normally hear about in contention to direct a new Star Wars movie. To put it bluntly, he’s ‘old school.’

Unlike the new films’ prior directors (JJ Abrams, Gareth Edwards) or current hires (Rian Johnson, Colin Trevorrow), Howard is in the same filmmaking generation as George Lucas. In fact, Howard starred in George Lucas’ teen classic American Grafitti. That film did very well at the box office, earned many Academy Award nominations, and put Lucas on the map. No American Grafitti, no Star Wars (and no American Pie, but that’s a story for another day.)

Although Lucas himself is ten years older than Howard, they are essentially part of the same New Hollywood crowd from the 70’s and 80’s. Typically we talk about Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, or Brian DePalma in that crowd, but it’s not a mistake to include Howard. He does not have the same artistic bona fides as those directors, but that’s mainly because he started directing later in his career and took on more commercial films. Similar to Robert Zemeckis, he’s built a career around family friendly, big budget films that are often associated with other high-profile filmmakers like Spielberg and Lucas. In addition to acting in American Grafitti, Howard and Lucas joined forces for the fantasy film Willow. Ultimately, the names in his Rolodex are of a different sort than Lord and Miller.

If nothing else, the choice to give Han Solo to Howard rather than a younger director reinforces the rumors we’ve heard surrounding the culture conflict on set. Apparently producer Kathleen Kennedy and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan chafed at the amount of improvisation enacted during filming. Kasdan wanted Lord and Miller to conform to his script. Howard isn’t known for his improv and it’s likely that he’s already friends with Kasdan and Kennedy. He may have been involved in the project for some time. Unfortunately, for folks who are afraid of creative stagnation in the Star Wars Universe, Howard is more connected to old Star Wars than the possibility of a bold new future.

There’s an anecdote from Star Wars Episode VII that comes to mind. Apparently, Ava DuVernay helped JJ Abrams smooth out his final cut. Although their filmographies are pretty different, Abrams and DuVernay are friends and contemporaries. It’s a great example of how an entire cohort of filmmakers can influence culture. One director helps another out, much as DePalma would screen for Spielberg, etc. Will Ron Howard ask for advice from a (relatively) fresh-faced filmmaker? Or will he call up George Lucas to watch the film?

I’m not damning Lucasfilm for picking Howard, nor do I think that he’s doomed to make a piece of trash. Just because a filmmaker is old does not mean that they make bad films. But for Lucasfilm to hire young directors, they need to feel comfortable with filmmaking styles outside of their wheelhouse. Hiring Howard suggests that they aren’t quite prepared to do that. As always, we’ll see.