Girl Talk is a weekly look at women in film — past, present, and future.
When the “Star Wars” universe imploded earlier this week with the surprising news that Han Solo standalone filmmakers Phil Lord and Chris Miller were leaving the project after completing nearly 75% of principal photography, initial reports immediately fixated on the most likely culprit for the split: disagreements with Lucasfilm head and “Star Wars” super-producer Kathleen Kennedy. While it seems unlikely that the “real” story of what went down behind the scenes — a true “three sides to every story” situation, as producer Robert Evans was fond of saying — will ever come out, Kennedy is at the center of reports about wild demands and on-set clashes.
One thing is clear, however — whatever Lord and Miller were envisioning for their “Star Wars” debut is not what Kennedy had in mind, and while we’re still mourning the “Star Wars” film that will never be, the veteran producer deserves all of the respect that goes with her decision. She’s the one in charge of maintaining the “Star Wars” legacy, and with good reason.
As the head of a massive studio and a high-powered producer with a slew of huge credits under her belt (“Indiana Jones” to “Star Wars,” “Lincoln” to “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” and that’s only scraping the top of a stuffed resume), Kennedy is in a rarefied position. That she’s a woman is even more unique, a gate-crasher who has earned her stripes over decades in the business, only to emerge as the principal brain behind the world’s biggest franchise.
Kennedy first entered the entertainment world in a roundabout way, infamously serving as director John Milius’ assistant after she graduated college and putting in some serious time producing a small local TV talk show in her native Northern California. At the time, Milius was producing Steven Spielberg’s “1941,” and Spielberg soon poached her to be his own secretary, a job she was apparently not great at (as it turns out, she couldn’t really type).
But from the start, Kennedy had a lot of compelling ideas, and Spielberg eventually brought her on as a producer. Just two years after their initial introduction, Kennedy co-founded Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment alongside her future husband Frank Marshall. Kennedy’s intelligence was remarkable, and so were her leadership skills, and she was soon named president of Amblin.
Plenty more big gigs followed, including the launching of The Kennedy/Marshall Company with her husband, big-time producing credits on a number of films (a number of which were directed by Spielberg), and her eventual role as co-chair of Lucasfilm alongside George Lucas. Kennedy’s track record is awe-inspiring, including over 92 film and television credits (an intriguing mix of blockbusters and prestige pictures) and eight Oscar nominations for Best Picture. In terms of pure money-making power alone, she’s behind only Spielberg and Marvel mastermind Stan Lee for domestic box office take (nearly $7 billion as of this writing).
After Disney purchased Lucasfilm in 2012, she became both president and brand manager. If it’s “Star Wars,” it goes through her. The homogenization of franchise films is certainly an issue in an industry increasingly interested in churning out tentpoles, but a dedication to cohesion and a larger sense of story are essential elements for such wide-ranging series. That’s what Kennedy is tasked with overseeing, and it’s not always easy.
Ben A. Pruchnie/Getty Images for Walt Disney Studios
The Han Solo situation remains a weird outlier in an industry that has seen plenty of strange stuff go down; Kennedy and her cohorts are in mostly uncharted waters, though a similar situation did unspool over at Marvel in 2015. When Edgar Wright left his long-gestating “Ant-Man” after nearly a decade of work on the project, Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige was believed to have balked at Wright’s burgeoning vision, one that didn’t align with the larger aims of the MCU. As with Lord and Miller, Wright left the project due to “creative differences.”
Feige later explained to The Guardian why he made that tough choice: “We sat round a table and we realized it was not working. A part of me wishes we could have figured that out in the eight years we were working on it. But better for us and for Edgar that we figure it out then, and not move it through production.” Feige’s choice was hard enough; Kennedy is almost unfathomable.
As IndieWire’s Anne Thompson noted earlier this week, “Kennedy’s purpose is to stay on course — as Kevin Feige does with Marvel — and keep the ‘Star Wars’ universe humming and intact as it spins into many orbits. She can take responsibility for miscasting in this case, because Lord and Miller are who they are and, once hired, should be able to do what they do.”
She has excelled at that, and while the Lord and Miller exit seems indicative of major behind-the-scenes drama, it may actually point in the opposite direction: that Kennedy is so compelled to do right by the brand that she’ll make a huge change in order to reach the necessary end goal.
Kennedy does still have plenty to learn about navigating the ever-changing waters of franchise filmmaking, in ways that extend beyond whatever led to the Han Solo fallout.
In November of last year, she drew ire over comments about the lack of women directors on “Star Wars” projects. Kennedy explained that, while finding a female director for a “Star Wars” film was a priority, they just hadn’t found someone with the right level of experience just yet — seemingly forgetting how many male directors they’ve employed who also haven’t come to the table with built-in blockbuster credits. At the time, Kennedy said, “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.”
Later, she attempted to clarify her comments, responding to a question at the “Rogue One” press conference. “That quote was taken out of context,” she said. “As you can imagine, I have every intention of giving somebody an opportunity. So, if somebody actually moves through the process of making movies and wants to make a ‘Star Wars’ movie, and shows that they have actually stepped into the role on that level, of course we’re going to consider a woman. That goes without saying.” Kennedy’s criteria for a “Star Wars” filmmaker still seemed dead-set on only pursuing filmmakers who meet a criteria that sounds reliant on resume credits over passion and skill.
But Kennedy has both — an enviable track record and an obvious affection for the massive series she’s in charge of shepherding through impossible decisions. She’s already installed Ron Howard as the film’s finishing director, and every press release has insisted that the film will come out on time. Will it be worth it? We’ll have to see, but it’s clear that Kennedy will be front and center for whatever the final product looks like. After all, it’s her franchise.