Creative Differences 101: Lessons from the Firing of Phil Lord and Chris Miller

By Staff · July 20, 2017

By: Christopher Osterndorf

It’s common knowledge by now Phil Lord and Chris Miller were fired from the directing duties on the upcoming Stars Wars spinoff film focusing on the origins of young Han Solo. The reason? The vague, all-too-familiar banner of “creative differences”. It’s a phrase we’ve all heard countless times before, but for aspiring writers and directors what does it actually mean in practice?

The answer, of course, is it depends. But in the case of Han Solo, there’s just enough information out there to get a general idea of what might have happened. Although plenty of blame has been thrown back and forth, including lots from a studio who appear to have left Lord and Miller out to dry, one particular name stands out among the reasons for their departure: Lawrence Kasdan.

Lord and Miller are talented filmmakers (I recently championed their work on this site) who will no doubt recover from this career setback and go on to other great projects. In addition to working on the screenplays for the upcoming Lego Movie sequel  and next year’s animated Spider-Man film, there are rumors that they may be heading back to DC to helm The Flash too. However, something was clearly amiss on the Han Solo set.

As creative people, we often like to think that all talented artists can get along and work together. But in Hollywood, this is not always the case. Kasdan, who worked on the script for the Han Solo anthology film with his son, Josh Kasdan, probably has had the biggest impact on the Star Wars franchise of any writer, save for George Lucas (although even that’s debatable.) So it’s understandable why he would feel justified in laying some claim to the movie’s direction. Here are a few possible reasons why Kasdan might’ve decided that Lucasfilm needed to part ways with Lord and Miller.

A matter of tone

If there’s one thing you can say about Phil Lord and Chris Miller, it’s that their movies are really funny. The Jump Street franchise, The Lego Movie, and even Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs all mix humor and heart with fast-paced, stylized action to create unique worlds which viewers readily get sucked into.

But Star Wars is not a comedy. It’s got funny moments, but those moments are not usually the main thing people love about the franchise. And while Star Wars has plenty of heart, Miller and Lord’s specific, hyperactive approach to action might not have gelled with Kasdan’s more measured style of storytelling. Words like “zany” and “screwball comedy” have been tossed around to describe the tone they were going for with Han Solo. There was also reportedly a lot of improv happening on set, a choice which worked out great for the Jump Street films but might be hard to translate to Star Wars, with its vast galaxy and well-known terminology (“the force,” “lightsabers,” “jedis”– these phrases instantly conjure up images that have become an unforgettable part of pop culture.)  

To put yourself in Kasdan’s shoes, you have to imagine someone changing the tone of your script to fit their own sensibilities, ignoring your words in favor of making up dialog on the spot. Looking at it that way, Kasdan would be entirely justified in being upset. Especially considering his…

Relationship to the original characters

As mentioned above, few people have given as much to Star Wars as Lawrence Kasdan has. When it was announced that he would be a part of the continuing story, fans rejoiced, and for those that enjoyed The Force Awakens, you can thank Kasdan for and J.J. Abrams for rewriting the original script from Michael Arndt.

Screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan with Star Wars producer Kathleen Kennedy

But it’s important to remember that Kasdan’s relationship to Star Wars goes much deeper than the events of the past few years. The Empire Strikes Back was his first screenwriting credit, all the way back in 1980. Empire is not only the installment of the franchise most consider to be the best, it’s also the one where we really dive into the character of Han Solo. The first film is really Luke’s story, and although it propelled Harrison Ford to stardom, Han’s main role in it is to be the charming smart-ass. It’s in Empire that Han transcends this cool-guy character to become something more, to become the complicated hero we all wanted to root for.

Kasdan went on to write Return of the Jedi with George Lucas, but was not involved in the prequels (another sign for many fans of how integral he is to the franchise.) Still, between Empire, Jedi, and The Force Awakens, Kasdan helped to shape the Star Wars universe in unparalleled fashion, especially in his characterization of beloved characters like Han Solo. If Kasdan felt even for a second that Lord and Miller weren’t paying proper respect to that character, it may well have felt not only like a slap in the face to Han Solo, but a slap in the face to Kasdan’s legacy.

The differences between writer-directors and gun-for-hire directors

If the hiring of Ron Howard to finish up production on Han Solo says anything, it’s that Lucasfilm wants journeyman directors working on their movies, not auteurs. And while Miller and Lord seemingly have had no problem collaborating in the past, it looks to be apparent now that their vision was simply too original to fit into the larger Star Wars universe.

The same approach is taken at fellow franchised-based Disney studio, Marvel. To work in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you can’t stand out too much; at a certain point, you need to blend in. It’s the reason Edgar Wright exited Ant-Man. It’s probably the same reason Michael Arndt was rewritten on Force Awakens.

This is not always a bad thing. DC has pitched themselves as a director’s studio, and up until Wonder Woman, their results were mixed to say the least. And Fox’s Fantastic Four demonstrated how bad things can get when the relationship between a director and a studio becomes toxic.

In the age of Marvel and Lucasfilm, it’s safe to say that directors have a limited amount of creative control. The issue with Han Solo, evidently, is that Lord and Miller are not just directors. And their natural inclination towards writing makes it an intrinsic component of their creative process. Sometimes, as in the case with the Jump Street films, which Lord and Miller didn’t write, a healthy amount of flexibility between what’s on the page and what gets shot works. That flexibility is essential to Lord and Miller’s work, given their penchant for improvisation and the way they seem to find their movies in editing.

Lord and Miller are best known for their work on the Lego Movie and 21 Jump Street

But with these huge franchises, most directors are hired just to direct a script, not shape it in their own image. Not only for the studios, but for the fans who invest their time and money into the Star Wars and Marvel universes, these movies have to be consistent. If that means they feel a little watered down sometimes, then that’s the price we pay as consumers.

Lawrence Kasdan has an established relationship with Lucasfilm. They know he can deliver the kind of scripts they want. He had already fulfilled his part of this bargain when production on Han Solo began. But when Lord And Miller came in, it appears they turned the film into more of a Lord and Miller movie, rather than a Star Wars movie. This was not only going to be problematic for Lucasfilm, but also for Kasdan, who helped define what a Star Wars movie should be.

Like many, I would’ve loved to see what a Han Solo origin story from Phil Lord and Chris Miller looks like. And I still can’t wait to see what they do next instead. But in looking at Kasdan’s position as a writer, specifically the writer of The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, and The Force Awakens, I can understand why he might’ve felt uncomfortable with the direction they were going in.