For those of us old enough to remember, the current wave of ‘Star Wars’ frenzy feels reminiscent of the time leading up to the 1999 release of ‘The Phantom Menace’ the first new movie in the franchise in well over a decade, which was a lifelong dream come true for diehards. Sadly, a lot of those fans were seriously let down by the campy CGI onslaught, plagued with wooden performances, corny slapstick and stilted dialogue they witnessed. ‘Star Wars’ is honestly an unstoppable force, so not even the lackluster prequels could derail them, but the audience reaction to the prequels was so toxic that mastermind George Lucas vowed never to again direct a major motion picture.
What many may not even realize is that Lucas really isn’t an established director. He directed the first ‘Star Wars’, ‘A New Hope’ but that was it. Irvin Kershner directed ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ and Richard Marquand helmed ‘Return of the Jedi’. And while Lucas is the name most heavily associated with ‘Star Wars’– he DID create it after all– he even brought in outside writers on subsequent films, perhaps most notably Lawrence Kasdan. Lucas did not direct a single project after ‘A New Hope’ which was in 1977.
When it came time to revive the brand, he sought out the best of the best, offering the directing job on ‘The Phantom Menace’ to at least three Hollywood legends: Ron Howard (‘Apollo 13’, ‘Cocoon’), Robert Zemeckis (all three ‘Back To The Future’ films) and Steven Spielberg (‘E.T.’, ‘Jaws’, the ‘Indiana Jones’ movies)! In each case, these heavyweights declined and from the sound of it, for the same reason– They had faith in Lucas and felt that this was his baby and that he should handle the chores.
Howard recently appeared on the Happy Sad Confused podcast and revealed:
“[George Lucas] didn’t necessarily want to direct them. He told me he had talked to Robert Zemeckis, Steven Spielberg, and me. I was the third one he spoke to. They all said the same thing: ‘George, you should do it!’ I don’t think anybody wanted to follow-up that act at the time. It was an honor, but it would’ve been too daunting.”
Let’s be honest. ‘Star Wars’ is NOT just a movie (or series of movies). It’s a pop culture force (no pun intended) that few properties can hold a candle to. It would be difficult for a director, whether a novice or a legend like these three, to take on a project of this magnitude and not only serve the source material AND its legion of passionate fans but also try to put their own stamp on it.
Lucas has admitted the difficulty he had in directing the actors, many of whom like Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor and Natalie Portman, have turned out amazing performances in different circumstances. It’s actually to his credit that he sought to entrust his baby to other, more experienced hands. But they had faith in him and… well, maybe that was misplaced.
Lucas recently spoke about the upcoming films and revealed that while he had submitted his ideas for the new films, those ideas were tossed out with new director J.J. Abrams collaborating with Kasdan to craft something that paid tribute to the existing films, but at the same time built something new.
Fans don’t seem to care. It would be hard to top this level of excitement regardless of who had directed ‘The Force Awakens’.
Can you imagine a ‘Phantom Menace’ or the other prequels under the guidance of Howard, Zemeckis or Spielberg? How different might things have turned out?