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Colin Trevorrow, Star Wars, and the Problem of "Experience"

Now that he's no longer directing the final film in the new Star Wars trilogy, it's important to reflect on the problems with Lucasfilm and Hollywood-at-large's model for hiring franchise directors, and how to fix it (cough HIRE MORE WOMEN cough.)
Colin Trevorrow

Colin Trevorrow

In 2015, Colin Trevorrow was on top of the world. Three years prior, he had launched his career with the indie sci-fi comedy Safety Not Guaranteed, which won a screenwriting award at Sundance. Soon after, he found himself personally selected by Steven Spielberg to director Jurassic World, which made half a billion dollars worldwide in its opening weekend and became the fourth highest-grossing movie of all time. By the end of that summer, he had been given an assignment many people would have killed for: the chance to write and direct the final film in the new Star Wars trilogy, Episode IX (title TBA.) It was a rise to fame most people only dream of. 

Meanwhile, Josh Trank was having the worst summer of his young career. Like Trevorrow, Trank had made a splash with a low-budget film, the found-footage superhero flick Chronicle. Soon, he was brought on by 20th Century Fox to relaunch the Fantastic Four franchise, which had been dormant for eight years after two films in the 2000s that made little impact. With a cast that included House of Cards' Kate Mara, Fruitvale Station star Michael B. Jordan, and Whiplash breakout Miles Teller, the film should have been the proper set-up for his next assignment - directing a Star Wars film. But three months prior to Fantastic Four's release, when the studios knew it was going to tank at the box office, Trank stepped down from the project. Its failure, and a series of tweets attacking his critics and disowning the movie's theatrical cut, were enough for Steven Spielberg himself to throw major shade at him in a June 2016 interview:

Interviewer: So when you look at young directors, how do you know you're not hiring another Josh Trank? 

Spielberg: Who is that?

Over the last few years, Lucasfilm has become a notorious revolving door when it comes to hiring directors. Of the directors they've hired for their movies so far, only The Force Awakens' JJ Abrams and the upcoming The Last Jedi's Rian Johnson have been allowed to complete their films without interference. Rogue One's director, Gareth Edwards, who had previously jumped from indie (Monsters) to franchise (Godzilla), wound up sharing credit with Michael Clayton's Tony Gilroy, who did several crucial reshoots prior to the film's release. Recently, The Lego Movie directors Phil Miller and Chris Lord were fired outright from the Han Solo film, and replaced by Ron Howard. The problems of bringing low-budget indie directors (or, in the case of Miller and Lord, midrange-budget directors known more for comedy than sci-fi/action) immediately on to multi-million dollar franchise films, without any intermediary steps, was always bound to create problems. In the wake of the Trank firing and the Trevorrow hiring, film essayist Mark Harris wrote the following:

“Trevorrow certainly does not seem to have lacked for confidence. But experience counts, too…from how you elicit performances from actors to how you manage storytelling to how shrewd you are about picking your battles. Midrange movies give directors who have studio aspirations a chance to discover who they are…if Hollywood insists that we no longer need any intermediate steps between Sundance and blockbuster, there are going to be casualties.” 

We're now seeing Harris's prediction that this system could not hold come true, especially given that Trevorrow himself has become a casualty to it. But if we're being honest, he never should have been hired for Episode IX in the first place. While Safety Not Guaranteed was a good film, Jurassic World was surprisingly unmemorable (except for the idiotic part where Bryce Dallas Howard runs from the velociraptors while wearing heels), and his last release, this summer's little-seen The Book of Henry, was a car wreck that will someday be mocked by audiences at midnight screenings a'la The Room. Perhaps he parted ways with Lucasfilm because of Henry's failure; perhaps he just wanted to take his career in a different direction. Whatever the reason, Lucasfilm needs to rethink their hiring practice to avoid another situation like this, and the solution to that problem involves a reconsideration of what prior experience should be accounted for when hiring directors, particularly women directors.

In a 2016 piece in Variety, Lucasfilm chief Kathleen Kennedy said that hiring a woman for a Star Wars film was a priority for her, but at the same time, the company was struggling to identify female candidates, saying, "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.” Kennedy was criticized for these remarks and later clarified them, saying that the studio had "every intention" of hiring a woman at some point. But she couldn't help but dig herself into a hole again, saying that they needed experience directing bigger-budget movies before she could sign them.

This creates a catch-22 for women who want to direct Star Wars: you need to have experience, but from somewhere else first. And it's unbelievably hard for women to get hired anywhere else: only seven percent of last year's top 250 domestic releases were directed by women. Kennedy's remarks may not mean to sound condescending, but they imply that she's making women have to pass a higher bar than men. And that low bar that men have to pass is not working out too well for them - just ask Phil Miller, Chris Lord, Josh Trank or Colin Trevorrow.

Another problem with Kennedy's remarks is the idea of what constitutes "experience" in this business now. While good movies are still being made - and in my opinion, 2017 has been one of the strongest years in recent memory - they are usually made by independent entities for low budgets, because the studios are determined only to make films that cost less than $10 million or more than $150 million. As a result, movies like the $46-million-budgeted Insomnia, Chris Nolan's 2002 follow up to Memento and precursor to Batman Begins, aren't being made anymore, at least not by Warner Brothers. To find experience like Nolan had, directors, both male and female, have to go elsewhere. 

The movies' loss over the last ten years, however, has been television's gain, as some of the best directing is happening there, giving directors the experience they previously would have gotten from midrange-budgeted films in television. And while TV is not as diverse as it could be, it is still a remarkable showcase for the talents of women and POC. If Kennedy wants to find women with the proper experience to direct Star Wars, here's a couple women who've made a mark in that medium to consider for the job, particularly when it comes to handling action/suspense:

Lexi Alexander - Who, in addition to being the first woman to direct a superhero film (Punisher: War Zone), has done episodes of Arrow and Supergirl.

Lesli Linka Glatter - The head director of Homeland (17 episodes), and numerous episodes of Ray Donovan, The Walking Dead, and The Leftovers

Patty Jenkins - In the fourteen years between Monster and this summer's Wonder Woman, she did one of the best episodes of Arrested Development ("The One Where They Build a House"), and the pilot of AMC's The Killing, for which she received an Emmy nomination. She's currently prepping a miniseries, One Day She'll Darken

Michelle MacLaren - Arguably the greatest living director of action right now, she is responsible for some of the most suspenseful episodes of Breaking Bad, including "One Minute" (climaxing in the shootout between Hank and the scary Mexican twins), and "Salud" (Gus getting his revenge on the cartel.) Also, the original director of Wonder Woman before the studio fired her.

Kimberly Peirce - Most famously the director of Boys Don't Cry, she has also done numerous episodes of Turn, Halt and Catch Fire, and Jill Sollway's I Love Dick. 

There's no reason any of these women (and the others I haven't listed) couldn't direct a Star Wars film, or for that matter, any franchise film: they've been honing their talents in plain sight. Kathleen Kennedy shouldn't be scared to be the person who gives them these opportunities - after all, her's (and Hollywood's) original method of hiring young, untested Sundance/Indie dudes a chance has led to huge problems. Lucasfilm must change their formula to keep their franchise running, and I hope a woman is hired to direct Episode IX. If not, it is up to us Star Wars fans to make sure that Kennedy and Lucasfilm do right by the myriad of young women who both love the franchise and want to be directors themselves.