Let’s be frank. Star Wars has been dominating popular culture for over forty years now, but in that time, its movies have never been directed by women. To date, every single Star Wars film has been helmed by a white man – and in 2018, we need to call that what it is: a discriminatory pattern.
Now, to some, that will sound like a stern position to take, and there are inevitably those that snap to the defence of the directorial hiring policies of Lucasfilm – throwing around terms like, ‘meritocracy,’ and statements like, ‘you can’t hire women just because they’re women.’ The fact that the majority of people issuing those responses are white men speaks volumes in itself – because nobody wants their dominant position to be challenged. But, unfortunately, both of these go-to arguments are demonstrably inaccurate.
To argue that the directing jobs so far assigned in the Star Wars franchise are the result of a meritocracy is absurd, because it suggests that there are no women directors currently working who have experience, ability and pitching skills that are comparable to Rian Johnson or Gareth Edwards, for example. And the statement that ‘you can’t hire women just because they’re women,’ is not applicable, because that’s not what we’re asking for. We’re simply asking for women to be hired on exactly the same terms and criteria as men. That’s equality.
But, we can see that we’ve reached forty years with no women directors for Star Wars, because the required standard for female filmmakers is apparently constantly shifting, as far as Lucasfilm is concerned. For example, in 2015, The Guardian asked President and CEO Kathleen Kennedy about the lack of women directors for announced, future Star Wars films while she was promoting The Force Awakens, and here’s what she said:
“There’s nothing I’d like more than to find a female director for Star Wars… We need to not go to a filmmaker who’s done one movie and expect them to come in and do something the size of Star Wars without having an opportunity to find other movies they can do along the way.”
For context, when Kathleen Kennedy gave this response, Lucasfilm had already hired Gareth Edwards to direct Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, after he made 2010’s Monsters (budget, $500,000) and 2014’s Godzilla (budget, $160 million). In other words, he was hired for Star Wars after making only one big budget studio film – in direct contradiction to the criteria Kennedy cited for the hiring of women directors.
Since then, for directing, Lucasfilm has hired Rian Johnson (after three feature films), Colin Trevorrow (after one big budget studio pic), and Phil Lord and Chris Miller (after four features – two of which were animated). As we know, Colin Trevorrow has since been replaced by J.J. Abrams for Episode IX, while Phil Lord and Chris Miller were replaced by Ron Howard on Solo: A Star Wars Story – but the point is that Lucasfilm still willingly rolled the dice on those white male directors in the first place. Meanwhile, the will to roll the dice on women directors – or indeed the countless qualified directors who are men of colour – is apparently beyond the scope of this science fiction fantasy film series.
There are the predictable cries of “Lucasfilm can’t be sexist – it’s run by a woman!” but, these exclamations simply demonstrate a lack of understanding about the way sexism manifests in a patriarchal society, by way of internalized misogyny and structural bias.
“Maybe women directors don’t want to work on Star Wars movies!” And maybe Star Wars apologists will say anything – without the evidence to back it up – to justify the exclusion of women from the helm.
The point here is that it’s the nature of the industry that we rarely hear about who pitched for a directing job before it was assigned to a particular filmmaker and announced to the press. For that reason, it’s not possible to argue which women should have been given a job – just as it’s not possible to argue that women aren’t pitching in the first place. What we can do, however, is continue the public discourse about which women directors are clearly qualified for a Star Wars job based on the same experience criteria as the men who’ve been hired, since experience is at the core of Kathleen Kennedy’s comments.
Perhaps these women would love to direct a Star Wars movie, or perhaps they have no interest in it at all. They’ve all earned their place in the conversation, though, and the conversation serves to illustrate two points. Firstly, if these women are interested in directing, why have we had forty years of male directors? Secondly, if they’re not interested in directing, shouldn’t Lucasfilm be examining the reasons why it’s unable to attract these incredible talents?
Whichever is the reality, here are five women directors who meet the criteria set out by Lucasfilm’s own Kathleen Kennedy in her past comments to the press.
Yes, Ava DuVernay is the woman director whose name is on everyone’s lips at the moment – but there’s very good reason for that. Having worked her way up the directorial ladder with a combination of documentary films and self-scripted drama, Ava DuVernay hit widespread critical acclaim with 2014’s Selma – her first multi-million dollar budget movie. Indeed, that pic turned a $20 million investment into $66.7 million in box office receipts, while earning two Oscar nominations – and one win. It also brought her the title of being the first black woman to be nominated for a Best Director Golden Globe.
Following this huge success, DuVernay returned to documentary, with the Oscar nominated 13th, and then created the award winning television show, Queen Sugar. Now, all eyes are on the multiplexes, as she delivers her cinematic adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s popular fantasy adventure novel, A Wrinkle In Time. DuVernay was hired by Disney to take the helm of the film – the adapted screenplay of which is written by Jennifer Lee, of Frozen fame – making it her first movie budget over $100 million.
The advance word on A Wrinkle In Time – releasing on March 9th – is highly favourable, and many are anticipating that it will showcase DuVernay’s ability to weave a character focused tale through a landscape of visually stunning shots, with a tight approach to the bigger narrative picture. All of those elements combine to make her the perfect candidate for a Star Wars movie.
Much like Ava Duvernay, Patty Jenkins moved from a low budget drama to a multi-million dollar film production, by way of awards nominations and a high profile Oscar win associated with her movie. In Jenkins’ case, she went from directing Charlize Theron to an Best Actress Oscar in 2003’s Monster, to delivering one of the highest-grossing films of 2017, with Wonder Woman.
Monster saw Patty Jenkins use a budget of less than $10 million to tell the biographical tale of serial killer Aileen Wuornos, ultimately earning $60.4 million in box office, and taking the festival and awards circuit by storm. Over the next 12 years, Jenkins honed her skills further, with a mixture of television series directing and the helming of two television movies. Warner Bros, then provided her with a budget of $149 million to deliver the first ever live-action feature film to star Wonder Woman – and it earned $821.9 million in its theatrical run.
Jenkins’ talent for telling female-centric stories makes her an ideal pick for a Star Wars Anthology movie, which tend to be more focused on the exploits of a single person, rather than an entire Rebel fleet.
Granted, award winning filmmaker Mira Nair has never handled a budget over $40 million, nor have her films ever spun spectacular box office gold in the way that the work of Ava DuVernay and Patty Jenkins has since 2001’s Monsoon Wedding made $34.5 million against a budget of $1.2 million – but Mira Nair has been directing movies for 39 years, and she brings with her a global perspective, with an eye for detail, character and political intrigue. Her box office record simply makes her the wild card.
The films of Mira Nair have encompassed a wide range of themes – including the issues associated with the Indian tradition of arranged marriage (Monsoon Wedding), the social issues associated with the colonial era of the British Empire (Vanity Fair), immigration (The Namesake), feminism in early aviation (Amelia), the cultural politics of the post-9/11 world (The Reluctant Fundamentalist), and the social and economic barriers that exist in sport (Queen Of Katwe).
With the launch of Star Wars Anthology films and the planning of various spinoff series, there’s scope for something different from that which audiences have come to expect from the franchise – and Mira Nair is a great candidate to create that. She could undoubtedly deliver a tale that has a smaller, more political scope – such as a thriller set in the galactic senate, for example.
With only three exceptions in a fifteen year directing career, the work of Catherine Hardwicke has returned healthy profits on investment. Her debut, Thirteen, earned $10.1 million against a $2 million budget, while her adaptation of Red Riding Hood took $89.2 million against a budget of $42 million. But it’s her highest-grossing film that qualifies her for the Star Wars franchise, because it’s an example of what she can achieve when working with material that has an audience baked right in.
2008’s Twilight cost $37 million for Hardwicke to make, but earned $393.6 million in box office receipts – and propelled that property into a billion-dollar film franchise that technically gave birth to another. Though Catherine Hardwicke did not return to direct the instalments of Twilight that followed her initial blockbuster, the series (and more specifically, its source material) were the inspiration for E.L. James’ Fifty Shades book trilogy – which has now been turned into its own billion-dollar movie franchise. Arguably, none of that would have been possible without Catherine Hardwicke doing such a great job with Twilight.
Her ability to take an existing work of fiction and turn it into something far more compelling and satisfying is therefore proven – along with her ability to turn a smaller budget into greater profit. Indeed, with Twilight, Catherine Hardwicke built an augmented reality of sorts – bringing the fastastical into a more grounded situation. This skill-set would lend itself very well to a Star Wars Anthology movie – perhaps focusing on the exploits of characters attending flight academy, hoping for a meaningful career with the Rebellion.
Though her work has, in recent years, been more focused on the small screen, Mimi Leder has recently returned to the world of feature film – with On The Basis Of Sex currently in production. Before she made those moves, however, she had successfully transitioned from television to theatrically released movies – to the combined tune of $515.7 million in box office.
Her feature length theatrical debut was 1997’s The Peacemaker, which turned a budget of $50 million into a box office haul of $110.5 million. This was followed by 1998’s Deep Impact, generating $349.5 million in ticket sales with an $80 million budget – despite the fact that the thematically similar Armageddon was released in the same year. Even Leder’s least successful theatrically released movie – 2000’s Pay It Forward – earned more at the box office ($55.7 million) than was spent on its budget ($40 million).
The point, in the case of Mimi Leder, is that she’s especially skilled in the directing of action-based sequences – something that’s evident in both her cinematic and television work. Her episodes – particularly in the television series ER – are gold-standard small screen creations, with perfect pacing and dynamic camera work. The Peacemaker is the ideal showcase for these elements on a bigger scale, with lean and efficient storytelling using striking and emotive images and framing.
With her body of work proving her capabilities and strengths, Mimi Leder would be an ideal candidate for a core saga Star Wars movie – were Lucasfilm to plan any further such instalments beyond Episode IX.