Let’s look beyond the obvious names to take over directing duties on Star Wars: Episode IX.
Both the industry and fans have already reached the conclusion that the most likely choices to step into the void left by Colin Trevorrow are Rian Johnson, continuing the saga after wrapping The Last Jedi, or J.J. Abrams, returning to close out the trilogy he launched with The Force Awakens.
But heroes in the Star Wars universe come from unlikely sources, so if it’s not going to be Johnson or Abrams, I’d like to suggest a name: Keith Gordon.
He’s a favorite of mine, the director of a series of darkly offbeat films who now oversees some of the finest hours on television. You might also know him from his earlier life as an actor, starring in Christine, Dressed to Kill, and Back to School.
There are many names being suggested, everyone from Black Panther’s Ryan Coogler, to Wonder Woman’s Patty Jenkins and The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones director Michelle MacLaren. Moon filmmaker Duncan Jones, Thor: Ragnarok’s Taika Waititi, and Kong: Skull Island filmmaker Jordan Vogt-Roberts have also been nominated by fans, but they took themselves out of the running in Twitter responses that amounted to: “Noooooo! That’s not possible!”
Many fans say it’s overdue for Lucasfilm to hire a woman or a person of color (or, hey, someone who’s both) to take the helm of a Star Wars film, and that’s an important priority. Gordon doesn’t solve that issue, but as I ruminated on possibilities to take over Episode IX, my mind kept turning back to him.
Bringing up his name has selfish motivation. I’ve never met or even spoken to him, but I love his films, each and every one of them, including his rough-hewn debut The Chocolate War, a 1988 story of resistance and cruelty that only (unfortunately) gets more relevant with each passing day.
Does he have a deep and abiding affection for Star Wars? I have no idea, but adoration shouldn’t be a requirement. The Empire Strikes Back director Irvin Kershner was hardly a fanboy, and Lawrence Kasdan, who wrote The Force Awakens, Empire, and Return of the Jedi, as well as the upcoming Han Solo film, isn’t precious about the mythology either.
Sometimes that bit of distance allows a storyteller to not get too wrapped up in the byzantine mythology, pushing beyond fan-service to something fresher or less reverential.
I’d love to see more movies from this guy, but his idiosyncratic films never quite made the kind of money that allows a director the freedom to keep doing things his way. Over the past decade or more, Gordon has been a journeyman working mainly in television, where he has done breathtaking work on Fargo, The Leftovers, and Better Call Saul.
I think of the visual of those night cranes in Fargo, tearing apart the stacks at a junkyard, and … man, that mechanical beauty would be right at home in our far, far away galaxy.
Gordon actually has a lot in common with Johnson, who came to Star Wars after stepping in to direct some of the most memorable episodes of Breaking Bad. The ability to bring unique style and vision to a team project, like a TV show, is critical to excelling in something like the Star Wars universe, which is a similar kind of team sport, where personality goes a long way, but there are lots of personalities involved.
Johnson also started his career with smaller scale, intimate films. His 2005 high-school noir Brick would make a great double feature with Gordon’s teen defiance story The Chocolate War. (I should know, I booked such a pairing for the American Cinematheque a few years ago.)
Gordon is not just a haunting visualist, but he has an incisive sense of human nature. Tragic and comic. One of my all-time favorite films is 1996’s Mother Night, an adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s novel, starring Nick Nolte as an undercover American spy in Nazi Germany who finds himself the focus of cultists and revenge-seekers after the war.
It’s haunting, heartbreaking, hilarious, and unsettling, with all of these emotions swirling around a central idea: “We must be careful what we pretend to be, because in the end, we are what we pretend to be.”
There is nothing else like it. To borrow a quote from Hunter S. Thompson, this movie is “too weird to live, and too rare to die.” It peers into the darker side of human nature and laughs at the absurdity while shedding tears at the reality.
Star Wars has these things, too. Look at the emotion that has been devoted to this story about a desert farmboy, a starship-flying pirate and his space-ape co-pilot, and a sarcastic princess-turned-general.
There is a lot about this galaxy that is ridiculous, and yet the humanity radiates through. I’ve always felt the same about Gordon’s work.
His 1992 World War II film A Midnight Clear is a perfect example of the blurring line between the sides of right and wrong, which is another omnipresent theme in Star Wars.
The good and the bad can drift across that line, finding redemption or condemnation. Think of Finn, renouncing and escaping the life of a stormtrooper, or Galen Erso in Rogue One, the vilified scientist who helped create the Death Star – but also secretly worked to build in a destruct mechanism.
In Gordon’s A Midnight Clear, an American recon squad sets up camp in a decimated mansion on the edge of enemy territory. It’s Christmastime, and the war is drawing to a close. One night, they hear singing: O Tannenbaum. A battle ensues – but this one is fought with snowballs.
The German soldiers at the edge of the property would like to surrender. They don’t want to fight – or die – for Hitler. But if they give up, their families back home may pay the price. A plan is set to stage a battle. Those who fought on the side of darkness, trying to return to the light …
I think of Vader, reaching out to his son Luke. “You were right about me … Tell your sister, you were right.”
I know this is a longshot, but from his elegiac visuals and incisive perspective of good and evil, I think I’m right about Gordon, too.