The news that director Colin Trevorrow would be leaving the director’s chair on “Star Wars: Episode IX” was just the latest sign of behind-the-scenes challenges facing filmmakers unable to yield to the studio’s plans for the franchise. However, there’s a new hope on the horizon with the impending release of Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: Episode VII — The Last Jedi,” which hits theaters in December and has reportedly made the studio very happy. Johnson, who has indie roots and a strong genre sensibility, may in fact be the most logical choice to take Trevorrow’s place.
So far, however, no filmmaker has been hired to direct multiple “Star Wars” movies since the franchise was resurrected by JJ Abrams. So if the studio decided to bring more talent into this galaxy far, far away, it may want to consider some of these first-rate directors, who all could bring their own unique visions to the films while hewing to Lucasfilms’ expectations of the material.
Guillermo Del Toro
The trick with a “Star Wars” director is to know going in that you have to balance art and commerce, the demands of a major franchise and your own vision. You don’t bend over, but you are realistic. You stick to your guns and cave when you have to — as long as it doesn’t ruin the movie. Guillermo del Toro went through this with Peter Jackson on “The Hobbit” — and who knows what scars he still carries from that aborted experience — and he says he has walked away from big-budget movies by committee, except for “Pacific Rim,” over which he has considerable authorship.
Del Toro may not want to go back into the belly of the beast, and I don’t know how he feels about “Star Wars” — being committed and having a deep understanding of the franchise is imperative here. But he does know how to create immersive believable worlds via sophisticated production and creature design and cinematography and VFX. Look at every single one of his movies as proof, but his latest “The Shape of Water” is a particularly strong example. Nobody does it better. Del Toro is also a gifted writer who understands the limitations of specific genres.
If Lucasfilm chief Kathleen Kennedy wants to bring a wider world view to the “Star Wars” universe — and deserves credit for championing a cast that reflects our world — del Toro should be, if he’s at all interested, at the top of their list. —Anne Thompson
When it comes to satisfying, original blockbuster filmmaking, Patty Jenkins isn’t just the first female director to break through — care of her summer smash hit, “Wonder Woman” — she’s still one of the few directors who has pushed through to the next level with genuine success and distinction. Jenkins isn’t just unafraid of making a massive tentpole film, she’s also compelled by the possibility of breaking real barriers. The first woman to direct a “Star Wars” film? Now that’s a barrier.
While it’s hard to fully gauge the precisely perfect person for the gig (it’s not just that we don’t even really know what “Episode IX” is about yet, we don’t even really know what “The Last Jedi” is about yet, and that comes out this year), there are common themes we can expect to see, including big action, a premium on emotional connectivity, and a female lead in the pilot’s seat. Jenkins has already proved that she can master all of that and put her own spin on it. The “Star Wars” series hasn’t balked at putting rising stars in charge of their films — though, between Trevorrow, Josh Trank, and Lord and Miller, not every pick is working out — so why not go with a proven winner who is still in the early years of her career? —Kate Erbland
Few young filmmakers have shown so much potential to balance their artistry and commercial potential than David Lowery. The filmmaker made his name on the festival circuit with fantastical shorts before finding Sundance acclaim with the expressionistic crime saga “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” which generated a lot of impressive notices for stars Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara. It was the first indication of Lowery’s ability to craft poetry out of familiar genre elements, and he pulled it off on a whole different scale with Disney’s “Pete’s Dragon” remake — a CGI spectacle just as visually intoxicating as Lowery’s microbudgeted early works.
Then came this year’s “A Ghost Story,” a beautifully inventive narrative that unfolded with the economy of a fairy tale; he’s next making the festival rounds with “The Old Man and the Gun,” a fresh take on the bank robber story that may wind up as Robert Redford’s career-capping performance. In short, Lowery has an original vision but is also no stranger to the challenges of working with name talent on bigger film sets — all of which suggests he’d find a terrific solution to keeping the “Star Wars” universe engaging and artful while managing to get along with the top brass. —Eric Kohn
Sam Mendes is admittedly not the most exciting choice to direct “Episode IX”: He’s not a woman, he’s not an auteur, he’s not even coming off a particularly good movie (“Spectre” was a textbook example of how not to tie a franchise together). But Mendes is one of the few free agents with genuine blockbuster experience, and while “Spectre” may not have been his proudest moment, “Skyfall” remains one of the most beautifully shot popcorn movies in recent memory. There’s an elegance and composure to Mendes’ work, and it would be thrilling to see how the chicness he brought to the Bond movies might translate to a galaxy far, far away. He’s one of the few likely candidates who’s able to thread the needle between artisanship and studio control, and his direction on “Road to Perdition” is enduring proof that the guy knows how to shoot action scenes that are both deep with pathos and gorgeous to watch. Just keep him away from Blofeld and he’d be fine. — DE
If the hype surrounding early footage of “A Wrinkle in Time” is to be trusted, Ava Duvernay knows exactly how to stay true to her vision while managing big budgets and keeping studio execs happy. Duvernay’s unconventional approach to “Selma,” altering the script to focus on Dr. Martin Luther King as a character rather than depicting historical events, proved she is more interested in telling the right story than telling the whole story. That ability to cut the fat could serve “Episode IX” well; the best “Star Wars” films succeed because of spirited characters and grounded stories, and don’t get bogged down by the Lucasfilm universe. Though it’s too soon to know if the hype can be trusted, “A Wrinkle in Time” shows Duvernay has an affinity for fantasy, and fresh ideas about how to bring other worlds to life on film.
As we’ve seen this year, a “Star Wars” directing credit is difficult to hold onto, even after you’ve scored the gig. Duvernay’s years as a film publicist acquainted her with the nitty gritty of Hollywood, and she harbors no romantic illusions about the business. She might be the only person who could safely balance Kathleen Kennedy and Lucasfilm’s vision without compromising her own — and keep her job in the meantime. —JD
People tend to think of “True Detective” when they hear Cary Fukunaga’s name, but the work that inspires most confidence in his ability to handle a franchise far, far away is “Jane Eyre.” Like “Episode IX,” that literary adaptation was preceded by several other movies and came with high expectations from fans of the source material — Charlotte Brontë readers may not be as diehard as “Star Wars” obsessives, but there was still pressure on Fukunaga to get it right. He did that and more, and his multi-hyphenate credentials — he’s also an accomplished screenwriter, producer, cinematographer, and, with his upcoming Netflix show “Maniac,” series creator — show that he can handle a production with lots of moving parts. That makes him a rare quantity: a director with auteur sensibilities and studio-approved efficiency.
But who are we kidding? They’ll probably just get Ron Howard to do this one, too. —MN